Privilege Blog

Big Chicken, Or, Saturday Morning at 10:41am

I cannot write long non-fiction to save my life. Like gluing beads on fabric, too many small but important things to track. My fingers get in the way.

Fortunately for the world, others pick up that slack. For example, Maryn McKenna has published a new book. Big Chicken. The title!

Maryn has commented here, she and I have met a couple of times. She’s elegant and smart and direct. Also the kind of writer who provokes an involuntary response, “Woman knows what she is doing.”

In any case, Big Chicken tells the story of how modern agriculture came to rely on antibiotics to supply us with animal protein. I am only on the second chapter and I’ve already been completely surprised. Did you think antibiotics were used to prevent animal disease? Me too. Were we right? Well, I’m going to do that annoying tease thing and not tell you. Because as you will have guessed, I want you to buy the book. It’s a engaging read. Now, or for upcoming gifts, either way.

I hope you buy it in part because Maryn is my friend and she writes so well. But also because I think the book matters, especially now. Maryn sheds light on how corporations and regulations work; she illuminates the role that science and scientists can and must play in our well-being; she reminds us about cruelty, health, and our diet.

Embarrassing personal confession to follow. We’re among friends. As one who not only can’t write long fiction, but also, I admit with some shame, rarely reads it, I’m surprised by how much of an impact a book like this can have on our worldview. A good non-fiction narrative isn’t just a way to consume a bunch of facts. You can inherit fully fledged insight from someone with expertise. Can you recommend a non-fiction book you’ve loved lately?

Finally, you intelligent and logical people might have wondered why I’m writing this post from the second chapter of the book. Good question! Maryn’s on a tour, and this Monday, October 30th, at 6pm, she will be at Book Passage in the Ferry Building. I am thinking someone out there might be able to attend.

I’ve got a bad cold, which sadly means I can go only if I’m better because a) I don’t feel well b) I’m coughing so much I would annoy the bejeezus out of anyone also attending. But Monday morning, if you’re thinking of going, email me at skyepeale at yahoo dot com, or say hi on Twitter, and if I’m suitable for the world let’s meet up. Or, go, and remain anonymous. I would never enforce friendship.

Have a good weekend everyone. Perhaps I mean, a good weekend narrative?

58 Responses

  1. This is right up my alley. Read Upton Sinclair in high school and that was a life changer. Now I must read her book. It is on my Amazon list To be ordered shortly. Husband was a poultry industry major (yes, really) at Cal Poly (SLO) so I know he will want to read it as well.

    Interesting non fiction read recently was Deluxe, how luxury lost its Luster by Dana Thomas. An interesting look at what’s happened to brands like Hermès, Vuitton etc.

    1. @MaryAnne, A poultry industry major! Perfect! I bet he will love this and have a lot of opinions about it. And I read Deluxe too – funny though, I felt as though I’d already gone through a lot of its thought process. Humility isn’t my strong point, but also, writing a style blog forced me to look at that so maybe I’m not totally awful.

  2. Lisa, what a great friend you are. This is so, so very kind. Thank you so much for the kind words, and for donating your blog space to the cause of my book! And I hope you feel better and I get to see you. xoxo, m.

  3. I’m probably the only person on the face of the earth who hadn’t read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, until now. I highly recommend it. It’s given me a lot of food for thought (that was an accidental Big Chicken reference!) about end of life issues, especially with aging parents.

  4. I’m really looking forward to reading this. I’m sure there is a lot I don’t know, but the timing is excellent for my current level of thought. When I was in Scotland part of the discussion within our group and with our guide was how the US wants to export chicken to Great Britain and the Brits don’t want our chicken because it doesn’t meet their standards of safety. At the same time I learned that my favorite local purveyor of clean, free-range chickens and eggs is closing up shop so I have to start looking for a new source.

    1. @Mardel, Ah that is perfect timing. I am so sad that the Brits feel like we fail their food standards. i always want America to live up to its promises.

  5. I loved “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson. I had no idea of the significant events that happened in such a short time.

    And anything by Sally Bedell Smith.

  6. I agree with you about the power of longer nonfiction to change us. Related to your recommendation, several years ago I read “The Dorito Effect” by Schatzker about how our food supply has changed us. And I’m haunted by a Hillary Clinton biography. Both “Mortal Beings” (about end of life and related to decisions) and “Emperor of All Maladies” (a “history” of cancer) were worthy reads, albeit difficult subjects.

  7. I echo anything by Bill Bryson (some more non-fiction, some more “memoir”., and 1927 one of my favorites as well) I also adore Simon Winchester – the first of his I read was A Crack in the Edge of the World, which you would appreciate living outside SF. David McCullough – known for biographies but Path Between the Seas has been my favorite so far (Panama Canal). I was a history major long ago and still love stories about how things came to be. I tend to alternate non-fiction in with the 2-4 fiction books I’m always reading. Thanks for the Big Chicken recommendation – it’s going on my list!

    1. @Hoyaheel, Thank you for the recommendations! And I find I can read 2-3 non-fiction books at once (now that I’ve started), but only one work of fiction at a time.

  8. Thank you for introducing me to this author. I’ll see if she will be out near me anytime. Question? How does her work on this issue differ from Mark Bittman’s ‘Food Matters’?

    1. @Denise, Good question. I’m not familiar with Bittman other than superficially, but I do know that Bittman calls McKenna’s book a “must read.”

  9. Good suggestion – Big Chicken was on my list and has now moved up.

    I also respect the difficulty in writing long-form non-fiction. Years ago, inspired by John McPhee, Tracy Kidder etc, I took a stab at it. I had a good subject, access, a little relevant technical knowledge, other experience with writing — and I could not do it! Your “gluing beads on fabric” simile is apt. Too many details just swamped me. So hats off to those writers who weave compelling stories out of piles of facts, clarify a topic, raise new issues, and make connections. I love reading these books!

  10. I read quite a lot of non-fiction – being feminist & with a science background . It’s often easier to read than fiction and less boring . (See I feel guilty already !) Anyway , as it happens continuing the food theme I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Lierre Keith’s “The Vegetarian Myth”for the 2nd time . It is wryly funny , terrifying and controversial .

  11. One of my favorite books of all time, which happens to be non-fiction, is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It was fascinating and I highly recommend it.

    Not only are our chicken standards in question, but so is our beef and pork. Europe tags their livestock with uniquely numbered tags, like we do with dogs and cats. The tags have to be certified by ICAR, which is the global standard for livestock located in Rome.

    All livestock in Europe must be traced so that you know exactly where it came from and who all it belonged to. These practices are now followed in the UK and Australia as well, and are being adopted by many countries in Africa. Our cattle industry doesn’t want that much scrutiny.

    We think of the US as having the highest food standards, but that just isn’t the case any more.

    1. @Teddi, That’s it, exactly, that I think we set the standards and fed our hungry and we need to backtrack away from mass production. And thanks for the recommendation on the book.

  12. Just finished the Bunny Mellon biography. I think it would be particularly interesting to you. Very Amid Privilege. Love your book recommendations.

  13. Two good reads:

    “My Year of Meats’ by Ruth Ozeki, a wonderfully interesting novel (in both subject and form) which touches on the rampant use of growth hormones in meat. I read the whole book aloud several years ago, as a volunteer with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (now called Learning Ally). It was a true joy to read – funny, scary, and moving.

    I am currently recording “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi, another total winner. A non-fictional account of teaching and discussing novels in English (Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, Austen) during the Iranian revolution. Perfect writing, fascinating subject, and a beautiful blend of the personal, the intellectual, and the political. A. model of “long non-fiction”…

    Keep up your own work, Lisa – with your own special voice. We need you!

    1. @Victoire, Thank you very much for the kind words about my voice. I love Ruth Ozeki’s writings, I didn’t know she’d touched on this topic. And sounds like my father might like Reading Lolita.

  14. Love the food expose books because they promote a healthy skepticism and make me wonder what else I don’t know is going on in other arenas. One that really had impact was The End of Overeating by former FDA chief David Kessler because it exposed the degree to which a handful of companies (Big Food) control our every bite through engineered sensations like “bliss points.”

    I am a huge fan of Michael Lewis—his style and the way he unpacks a topic. Most recently, The Undoing Project. An old favorite…The New New Thing.

    1. @Mary, Engineering food. It just sounds wrong. I agree, once you look under the covers it’s amazing the stuff that goes on in our food supply. I love the title, The Undoing Project.

  15. I hope you recover from your cold soon Lisa!

    As far as nonfiction goes, my favorite type is the memoir–preferably the memoir of a woman writer.

  16. I hope that you’re feeling better today!
    Thank you for the recommendation-I like both fiction and non-fiction (memoirs,biographies……lately-beside Being Mortal- Paul Kalanithy’ When Breath Becomes Air,Bryson’s A Short Hystory of Nearly Everything….)
    This book seems very interesting,I watched a similar topic film long ago

  17. I read more nonfiction than fiction, just because it calls to me more often. My most recent favorite was Citizen Science, by Mary Ellen Hannibal. She writes about non-scientists contributing to science. She gives me hope for the future when hope seems to be in short supply In relation to climate change.

  18. Once again, although I very rarely comment, I so appreciate your blog, Lisa, as well as the thoughtful (and heart-full) comments from readers.

  19. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann — extraordinarily compelling, moving and reads like fiction and one can only wish it were.

  20. I cannot recommend highly enough Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. He also gave an outstanding Ted Talk about the same topic. Beautifully written, and incredibly important to read.

  21. The abuse of antibiotics and its consequences for public health really frighten me. A few years ago I started buying organic meat and free range eggs only, still hesitating before taking the last step of giving up meat altogether.
    Non-fiction books I read recently: Roger Crowley, “Empires of the Sea” (The Mediterranean in the 16th century), Carles C. Mann, “1491; New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” and a German book whose title translates roughly as “A Cultural History of Climate Change”.

    1. @Eleonore, Thanks for the recommendations. I have reduced my meat consumption enormously too, and what I buy is organic, compassionately raised, as best as I can manage.

  22. I just read a review of this in our (Canadian) national newspaper:
    Overall, it’s a heartening story, I think. . .
    As for recent non-fiction reading, mine has primarily been memoir, not quite what you mean, perhaps. Currently being blown away by Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. . .

    1. @Frances/Materfamilias, I agree – it is heartening that we may be able to pull back from technological/market decisions that turn out to be bad for us. In all kinds of ways. Sherman Alexie is awesome. I remember loving Smoke Signals.

  23. Lisa , I’m with you about a good yarn but much contemporary fiction doesn’t qualify ! Hence the boredom outside of the despised ‘genres'(or classics of course ).

    1. @Rukshana Afia, True. I do miss stories that are both easy and compelling to read but aren’t genre fiction per se. Murder mysteries most often get close – particularly the Tana French books. Other people love Louse Penny, but the one I tried I didn’t really care for. I think I just got the wrong book to start with.

  24. Thank you Lisa – this post and the responses have just provided me with my summer reading list.

  25. I highly recommend “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon” by Rosa Brooks. I watched her interview on the Rachel Maddow Show and immediately requested it from my library. I gave the book five stars on Goodreads, which is a rare ranking from me.

    1. Excellent, thanks! These comments have become a real resource for non-fiction reading, I’ll refer back to them for Christmas books.

Comments are closed.