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Just finished News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her parents were killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of a old west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Essays, on December 31st, 2009.

It’s not often – in fact, very rare – that I use this forum/blog for talking about something . . . perhaps . . . controversial. But having just watched this movie, I’m wanting to join my voice with those of many, many others who abhor what’s happening with the quality of the food we buy. There are perhaps lots of different segments of the food biz that could use some overhaul, but in this case, I’m just devoting these words to the subject of this movie.

This isn’t just about Monsanto Corp., the public behemoth of an agribusiness. It’s also about very normal, hard-working farmers from around the globe who got themselves into the crosshairs of that big-bad-business with loads of bucks. Monsanto has tried, and is still trying to destroy them. Their farms. Their livelihoods. And in the process they [Monsanto, IMHO] decided to go down a road that is, in my opinion, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” They became the bully. But it’s a lot more powerful than that, actually. There are other companies who have also patented seed too, but Monsanto may have been the first. And the bully with the biggest fist.  And the movie is about more than just this one farmer. But the specific case is interesting enough to focus on . . .

Now I’m the first one to proclaim I’m all for business. For capitalism. For competition. Having invested money over the course of the last 30 years in a variety of public companies (stocks) I’m happy as heck when said companies make money. But I want no part of companies that use their strongarm tactics to control. To dictate. To destroy. Or ones who lie, cheat, steal, or otherwise misconstrue the facts. Or hide the real reasons.

So, here’s what happened. Back a long time ago Monsanto began doing research with canola seed. Undoubtedly Monsanto invested millions of dollars into this endeavor. They decided to push the envelope – they created a genetically modified version that would resist treatment with “Round-Up,” that ubiquitous herbicide that kills anything that grows. And makes the ground it’s been treated with unusable for a very long time – except for canola seed. So when Monsanto developed this Round-Up resistant canola seed, it meant that farmers could spray Round-Up all over their fields and it would not kill the canola plants, but it would kill everything else. Farmers thought this was the most wonderful thing since tractors. But, before Monsanto put this product out for sale, they decided, in their infinite big-business mentality, to get a patent on the genetically-modified canola seed. They were refused at the Patent Office because as we all know, it’s declared in our U.S. Constitution that you can’t patent food. Food is for everybody. But Monsanto didn’t take “no” for an answer. They took it to court. The court ruled in Monsanto’s favor. That yes, indeed, GM (genetically modified) or GE (genetically-engineered) canola seeds were, in fact, patentable. Which of and by itself allows the patent holder (Monsanto) to sue anybody who uses the patented product (the GM canola seed) without paying for it. On the surface that doesn’t sound so bad. . . Keep reading.

Cut to a few years later. The GM canola seed is being bought up in millions of tons. Farmers love it. Well, most farmers love it and pay the price to buy it. You see, you can’t hold over seed from this Monsanto-engineered canola. Not permitted. Buyers have to sign a contract to that effect. So, farmers do have to buy new seed each year. That seemed not to bother most of the farmers.

But some farmers didn’t buy Monsanto’s seed – they used their own seed – harvested from their own plants. The way it’s been done since man figured out how to save seed and plant it the next season. One such couple, the Schmeisers, of Saskatchewan, Canada, used their own seed, which they’d carefully bred and fine-tuned over their 40 years running their farm. They were extremely proud of their canola seed breeding, actually. Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase here. The couple was sued by Monsanto for growing some of Monsanto’s GM seed in their fields. (According to Schmeiser’s website: Canola fields were contaminated with Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Canola. Monsanto’s position was that it didn’t matter whether Schmeiser knew or not that his canola field was contaminated with the Roundup Ready gene, or whether or not he took advantage of the technology [he didn’t]; that he must pay Monsanto their Technology Fee of $15./acre.) Schmeiser didn’t buy any of Monsanto’s seed, yet there were some plants found on his property. They guess that the wind, and perhaps the truck that delivered Monsanto seed to the neighboring farm, blew some seed into the Schmeiser’s property.

But Monsanto lied about their testing techniques. And did everything in their power to destroy this couple and their farm. But the Schmeisers decided to fight it. Unfortunately, in the courts, then, Schmeiser lost. Schmeiser has no idea, really, how the Monsanto seed got onto his property. He didn’t/doesn’t WANT it on his property. But Monsanto decided to make a point about Schmeiser’s plants (perhaps because he was very vocal in his dislike of Monsanto’s tactics). Monsanto wanted nothing better than to shut Schmeiser down. Well, the case went to appeal and the court determined that Monsanto’s patent is valid, but Schmeiser was not forced to pay Monsanto anything as he did not profit from the presence of Roundup Ready canola in his fields. After that, Schmeiser sued Monsanto (wanting Monsanto to clean up his fields, remove the Round-Up ready seed/plants). The court upheld the part about Monsanto’s patent on the canola seed, but told Schmeiser he was not responsible for paying any of the fees or fines to Monsanto. (From Schmeiser’s website: Monsanto has agreed to pay all the clean-up costs of the Roundup Ready canola that contaminated Schmeiser’s fields. Also part of the agreement was that there was no gag-order on the settlement and that Monsanto could be sued again if further contamination occurred. Schmeiser believes this precedent setting agreement ensures that farmers will be entitled to reimbursement when their fields become contaminated with unwanted Roundup Ready canola or any other unwanted GMO plants.)

Just to be fair, I did look around the internet for any differing opinions regarding this case and the film/documentary. I found almost none. It appears that no one can refute the facts of the case. Bottom line: it’s scary. What a behemoth company like Monsanto will do to control the selling of its seed in the world. The problem is that right now we’re only talking about canola seed and corn. It has far-reaching tentacles into the future. The EU decided that they would not permit Monsanto to sell GM seed within the EU. (Good for them, I say.) Undoubtedly Monsanto is working diligently on developing other GM seed types. The movie also dealt with a group of farmers in Central America who are growing Monsanto GM corn. Monsanto sells the seed at a very reduced price there – an inducement to get them to start the GM seed machine. Because once it’s started, it’s very hard to turn back the clock or shut the door – the movie questioned whether Monsanto would also strongarm nearby poor farmers, forcing them to pay fees when GM corn happens to pop up on their lands. Who knows. And you also need to know that other companies are working on GM seed too, it’s not just Monsanto. They just chose the lawsuit scenario and became the spokescompany for the bullying techniques that could be utilized.

The other really frightening thing is that here in the U.S. the government has not whispered a word to food distributors about labeling. I’d like to avoid eating GM corn. Or GM canola. But I can’t, because nobody makes the producers/farmers/packagers label products as GM. And it’s not likely to happen anytime soon, either. The documentary also detailed the extremely high number of high U.S. government officials who used to work for Monsanto. We’re not talking USDA underlings, here, but very top officials in many areas of the government sector (including John Ashcroft, among others). I don’t know whether buying organic will assure me of eating non-GM foods. I’ll need to look into that.

The documentary is available in a variety of places. Online you can watch it for free. I got mine through my Netflix membership. The movie production company’s site also contains good info. Schmeiser’s website contains a ton of data, including a “what if” essay about the possible implications of the use of any GM seed. It’s worth reading. But whatever you do, do see the movie/documentary.

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A year ago: My cousin Gary’s Turkey Chili

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