Inaugural SANDSWA book club recap: Big Chicken by Maryn McKenna

By Deb Bright and Mike Price

The SANDSWA book club met for the first time last week to discuss Maryn McKenna’s newest book, Big Chicken, an eye-opening, historical account of the interplay between antibiotic resistance, politics, and industrial chicken farming.

On April 24th, SANDSWA members braved rush hour traffic to appear in the eclectic Subterranean Coffee Boutique in Hillcrest, near the neighborhood’s iconic neon “Hillcrest” sign.

Clip-clopping my way in black heels through the door of Subterranean Coffee Boutique, I  immediately noticed the wall to my left—it was completely full of “Game of Thrones” fan art. At the back of the room, an old accordion hung haphazardly from the ceiling. In the corner below it, a phonograph. And in the middle of the shop, a self-described “blue-haired girl” sat at a long wooden table.

She with the blue-hued ‘do was Ariana Remmel, the book club’s organizer. Like many science writers, she’s a grad school dropout, more interested in pursuing a writing career than continuing with a career in academic science. She will be starting the prestigious UC Santa Cruz graduate science writing program in the fall.

By 6:45 p.m., there were five of us at the table, and we’d begun a lively discussion. Here’s what we thought of Big Chicken:

What we liked

Our group agreed the book was pleasantly people-focused.

McKenna opens Big Chicken with the words, “Rick Schiller had never felt so sick.” She goes on to describe the ailing 51-year-old who fell sick in the autumn of 2013 due to the foodborne pathogen salmonella. We meet him again in chapter 8 (“The Cost of Contamination”) when McKenna describes how the Centers for Disease Control used to track down the cause of his illness.

The book was also packed with data—a fact our group thought lent the story gravitas.

An example of the author’s dedication to detail can be found on page 177, where McKenna takes two full paragraphs to rattle off numbers of salmonella cases in 2013 by state.

Also of note: Despite being the book’s title, McKenna doesn’t introduce the phrase “Big Chicken” until one of the closing chapters. We weren’t sure whether McKenna or her publishers chose the title, but we agreed the use of the phrase so late in the book increased its impact. One member even said it gave her a sense of fear.

What we didn’t like

Most of us felt the book would have benefited from some sort of timeline or “roadmap” to orient readers, since the events within weren’t described in chronological order. For example, I mentioned that I’d seen a drawing by science illustrator Victor O. Leshyk, Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, Northern Arizona University, that would have helped readers navigate the narrative. He kindly let me show it here:

sandswa-blog-fig
Source: https://news.nau.edu/antibiotic-resistance/#.XMN8Frh7liM

We also felt that the data-heavy sections might have benefited from sidebars to break up the monotony of plain facts. Ari mentioned that she’d taken a class on writing for children’s books. One piece of advice she gleaned was that these authors often employ tricks like varying the sizes of text to make different parts of the tale appeal to a range of ages. In that same vein, we thought McKenna could have separated out the lists of numbers from the main text.

Two hours into our discussion, our parking meters were set to expire. Ari wrapped up the meeting by saying, “Well I, for one, want to taste one of those antibiotic-free chickens in France!” We all nodded in hungry agreement.

Overall, we loved the book, and we highly encourage you to check it out!

Thanks to Mike Price for suggesting the next SANDSWA book club selection, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs by David Grimm. We will meet at Subterranean Coffee Boutique on June 12th at 6:30 p.m. to discuss it. Please RSVP to Mike at mbprice@gmail.com.

We hope to see you there!

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