Utne Reader Book Reviews: January-February 2009

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Cover of the book Green Inc.

Greedy Environmentalists
Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad
by Christine MacDonald (Lyons)

The highly paid leaders of big environmental organizations are compromising themselves and the planet by cutting deals–as well as wining, dining, and scuba diving–with corporate executives whose firms pollute and plunder resources. That’s the rather damning case laid out in Green, Inc. by environmental journalist Christine MacDonald, who challenges green groups to wean themselves from these tainted corporate donations and relationships, which range from apparent conflicts of interest to out-and-out scandal.

As an environmentalist, MacDonald is acutely aware of the interconnectedness of all things, and she touches on a constellation of related issues: greenwashing, green certification, dicey political alliances, indigenous rights, out-of-control logging and mining, even human rights and slavery. Green, Inc. doesn’t contain enough fresh enterprise reporting to be deemed a full-blown exposé, but the book ties together enough data, anecdotes, and previously reported material to be taken seriously as a critique of the business of environmentalism.

MacDonald singles out three organizations for her harshest criticism: the Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and Conservation International, where she briefly worked and thus attained “insider” status. She also notes improprieties and ethical lapses at other groups, and to be fair widens the circle of accountability to include all consumers: “Demanding to know where the products we purchase came from and how they were made is maybe the most important thing we can do to press corporations to clean up their operations and supply chains.” –Keith Goetzman

Queering the Memoir
Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word)
by Thea Hillman (Manic D)

Thea Hillman’s charismatic, indefatigable Intersex is a rarity among memoirs: It doesn’t elicit a single eye-roll. That’s due in large part to Hillman’s crackling, spirited prose–worthy of a onetime slam poetry champ–which endears as she comes to accept and eventually embrace her intersex identity. All 150 pages, from the discovery of a “hormone imbalance” during childhood to a sequence she writes for the Vagina Monologues, are about being intersex. But the book is also, by turns, a romp through queer, artsy San Francisco; a flip through Hillman’s motley Rolodex of friends, lovers, and coconspirators; and an intimate portrait of how a self-possessed, passionate writer and activist came to be so. –Danielle Maestretti

Handle with Care
Pathologies: A Life in Essays
by Susan Olding (Freehand)

Canadian writer Susan Olding sets forth a series of vignettes laced with intricate dictionary definitions that sweep her along as she grapples with her father, infertility, and motherhood in Pathologies. Olding is at her best when she’s writing about her daughter, Maia, whose infancy in a Chinese orphanage left her psychologically damaged and prone to physical and verbal outbursts. Despite “so many signs of progress,” she confides, “on our worst days, I still fear that I am raising a sociopath. At minimum, a ‘borderline.’ ” Pathologies is a frank anatomization of emotions and “the way things go wrong,” though it feels like much is left unsaid. Perhaps, like healing Maia, that too will come with time. –Elizabeth Ryan

Mental Mistakes in the Workplace
Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
by John Medina (Pear)

Our lives are antithetical to the way the human brain works, writes John Medina in Brain Rules. People don’t live and learn well in sedentary, sleep-deprived, and stress-filled environments, yet that’s exactly how most schools and businesses are designed. Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, offers 12 intuitive “rules” to live by that he believes will bring our brains and our lives into greater harmony. He also employs some of his own neurological tricks and observations regarding memory and attention to make the book more readable and engaging. “People don’t pay attention to boring things,” Medina writes–so he fills the book with quick-hit paragraphs and amusing anecdotes to keep his readers’ minds from wandering. –Bennett Gordon

Utne Reader Approved

Tales for Little Rebels (NYU) anthologizes 75 years of radical children’s literature. It’s a rousing, relevant chronicle of teaching kids about social and environmental justice, civil rights, and their power to challenge the status quo. –Julie Hanus

Author Karsten Heuer literally migrated with an arctic caribou herd for five months in a gutsy feat of immersive journalism. Being Caribou (Milkweed) chronicles his journey as he sheds “my false sense of security, my hubris, my mental clutter.” –K.G.

Dave Roche recounts entertaining, occasionally touching vignettes from his career as a substitute special-ed assistant in On Subbing (Microcosm). His hundreds of diary-style entries are refreshingly deadpan and never precious. –D.M.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.