Book 52 of 52: Heirloom: Notes from an Accidential Tomato Farmer

I don’t want Tim Stark’s Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer to get short shift in this post since it’s the last one. But it’s a beautiful book and, really, the perfect cap to this series. It’s sat on my ‘to read’ list since I got the galley, but I kept putting it aside. For all I worried about picking the right book as book 52, it was there all along.

I started this project because I got dumped. Or at least that was the final factor that pushed me into trying something new. Now that I’m looking back over the series, there’s a lot of things that rolled into me making the decision to challening myself to read 52 books in 52 weeks.

I’d only been seeing the guy for a few months, but that break up (which I wrote about in my review of book 7 of 52) was another reminder that I had failed…again. I had tried to pick myself up off the ground after a major, heart wrenching, spirit crushing breakup that happened in March. I tried to start something new with someone else, and I had failed…again. It didn’t help that the guy (well, both of them) dumped me. It was a big, bad blow that came at a bad time.

I started the blog soon after I turned in the manuscript for my book, which was just published last month. I was depressed, almost hung over from working on the book so intently for so long. I was at a loss for what to do next. I wasn’t working that much (which is bad when you’re a freelancer), I was seriously thinking about getting a conventional job. I had a mortgage that I couldn’t afford, and not because of the subprime mortgage mess, but because the work just wasn’t coming in. I hadn’t run (and by that I mean seriously on-a-schedule run) since July, and I was looking it. Things were stalled all over my life, and I needed something to get me going.

This is what I wrote in my first post: “I was just dumped for the second time this year — for the third time in the last 12 months. Even aside from the dumping thing, it’s been a pretty crappy year: my grandfather died, my grandmother moved into an assisted living facility, my income took a dip, and I’m tired. Just…tired. I need something, and I think this might be it. And where did I find inspiration to take on such a project? Through a book, of course.”

That book was book 1 of 52, Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. I’d been meaning to read it since it came out, but could never find the time. Staring the blog gave me the time — and permission — to read that and a lot of books that I normally would have put in the “I can’t read it because I can’t sell anything about it” category.

Of course I ended up writing about it, and book 20 of 52, Ruth Reichl’s Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, another “I can’t sell this” book. Here’s what I wrote then: “I would also like to point out that I picked up my copy of Comfort Me with Apples for $1 at the Haddonfield Library Book Sale, the same book sale where I had a book reviewer crisis. I wanted to read this book since I’d finished Tender at the Bone, but knew that I couldn’t turn it into a sell-able review since it wasn’t a new book. I almost didn’t buy it, but I figured I could spare the $1. The result? I’m writing about it anyway, but instead of for a review, for an assigned essay. And isn’t that a nice way to cap off the year? Well, a fast, good run would be perfect right about now, but I’ll have to be patient at least in that portion of my life.”

By taking me out of that “I can’t read it because I can’t sell it” zone, this blog has lifted my work to another level. I read about stuff I never would have read about before. Books like Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction (book 27 of 52), The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America (book 37 of 52) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals(book 40 of 52) have changed the way I work, the way I eat, the way I think and the way I live.

For example: I got an email today from Liz Claman, anchor at Fox Business Network, about a piece I wrote about her for Park Place Magazine. It was a very flattering letter and one she also sent to my editors. I had done the initial interview over the phone, but after reading Follow the Story, I knew something was missing to make it a really interesting interview. So I asked Liz if she’d like to go running (she had scolosis as a kid and was told she’d never run, but she ran the New York Marathon anyway). What a difference that run made. Here’s the article. Could you imagine that piece without it and just a phone interview?

And that whole experience of being told to read Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction has changed the way I approach everything I write. Plus, writing about reading the book forced me to look at problems I was having with my career, and with my post-book depression. Without the blog, I never would have taken a look at what was wrong with me and then made decisions about how to make it right. That’s the beauty of the blog. It forced me not just to read but to think about what I read, process it, and put it into a form that other people would hopefully enjoy reading. And that’s where the change came: processing what had just happened.

It wasn’t just the ‘big books’ where that was important. It was in silly books took, like Sweet Valley Twins(book 44 of 52), Wired (book 5 of 52) even The Threesome Handbook: A Practical Guide to SLEEPING WITH THREE(book 9 of 52). They brought back memories and stories about my relationship with reading (though not the threesome book — though that one gets me hits on this blog from some very interesting keyword combinations).

So why was Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer the perfect cap to this series? Because it pulls together so much information that I learned in these books, and it also intersects with some stuff going on in my non0-reading life, mainly that I’ve been seeing someone who’s really into food. He’s a former vegan (got turned back by brownies — who can blame him?) who cooks for me whenever he’s here, and teaching me how to cook, too. I’m seeing food in new ways through his eyes, and some of his lessons about cooking and preparing and local foods is illuminated in Omnivore’s Dilemma. When I read what Stark had to say about oils prices and food, I got it because I’ve read Omnivore’s Dilemma. When he wrote about the ridiculousness of midwest farmres and how they’re enslaved by growning corn, I got it — again because of Omnivore’s Dilemma. When he wrote about why farmers are outpriced of their farms because, I got it because I read The Trap. And when he wrote about what a struggle writing can be, I got it, not just because of Follow the Story but because I’d been there, too.

I can’t even tell you how many times the books and this blog came to mind: The Importance of Music to Girls (book 42 of 52) while dancing at the matt pond PA concert; The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House(book 6 of 52) when I signed up for Twitter; The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World (book 29 of 52) anytime someone made a comment about a donkey and To Cork or Not To Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle (book 16 of 52) every time I opened a bottle of wine including tonight when I gave up trying — yes, gave up — opening a bottle with a plastic cork. I just talked about Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding (book 4 of 52) at my book chat last night. It has given me idea for articles I never would have thought of (like this one for USAirways Magazine) and lead me down paths that have expanded my work horizion. I’ve done my first book reviews for a major women’s magazine, review more books for the St. Pete Times and, yes, have seen some extra money coming in. It has forced me to look at issues I have within my self that has produced the most personal piece of writing I’ve put together so far that came about when I sat down to think about why I run (book 41 of 52), a piece that has changed me even if it never sells. In the process, I put the demon of that horrible breakup, and my own issues surrouding it, to bed. It took me 52 books and over a year (from that first dumping) to realize that he was in the wrong, and that if I’m not pretty enough for him, that the problem isn’t with me but with him.

I’ve always known that I learned from reading, but I never realized how much until I wrote about it on this blog. So if you ever say you’re too tired/busy/stressed to read, I implore you — yes, implore you — to get off the computer, turn off the radio and turn off the TV and give it a go. I’ve gone days without watching TV because I was reading for this series, and you know what? I didn’t miss it. Not one bit.

I started the blog on October 17, 2007. Obviously, it didn’t take me 52 weeks, so I’m not sure what I will do now. I kept thinking that I’d keep going and keep writing about what I’m reading, but I have to admit that I’m tired. Blogging takes a lot of time and effort, and I’m running full steam ahead on my shore blog because it’s promoting my book. So I might take a break, I might keep posting. We’ll see….

On another note, thank you to everyone who has been following along. Your comments and emails have kept me going when I thought I was typing into the great unknown. It wouldn’t have happened with out.

**UPDATE** I got a great suggestion of listing all the books from the series. So here they are, linked to their reviews:

The Beginning
1. Julie & Julia by Julie Powell
2. The Four Man Plan: A Romantic Science by Cindy Lu
3. Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner
4. Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul
5. Wired by Liz Maverick
6. The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House by Garrett M. Graff
7. Smart Girls Like Me by Diane Vadino
8. How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore
9. The Threesome Handbook: A Practical Guide to Sleeping with Three by Vicki Vantoch
10. Salty Dogs by Jean M. Fogle
11. Oh the Humanity! by Jason Roeder
12. Not Tonight, Mr. Right by Kate Taylor
13. Plug Your Book Online: Book Marketing for Authors by Steve Weber
14. Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick
15. Office Mate: The Employee Hadnbook for Finding — and Managing — Romance on the Job by Stephanie Losee and Helaine Olen
16. To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Win Bottle by George M. Taber
17. Sneaker Wars: The Enemy Brothers Who Founded Adidas and Puma by Barbara Smit
18. Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat by Adam Langer
19. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
20. Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl
21. Blood Brothers by Nora Roberts
22. A Selection of Pieces from The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town
23. The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Getting Girls by Lisa Altalida
24. Rules of the Game by Neil Strauss
25. This Book Will Get You Laid by E. Dickens
26. Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger
27. Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction by James B. Stewart
28. A Short History of the American Stomach by Frederick Kaufman
29. The Wisdom of Donkeys by Andy Merrifield
30. Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years by Amy Hill Hearth
31. “Strong Medicine” Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say by Amy Hill Hearth
32. Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me
33. Lee Miller: A Life by Carolyn Burke
34. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
35. He Loves Me, He Loves me Not by Trish Ryan
36. The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank
37. The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook
38. Why Johnny Hates Sports by Fred Engh
38. A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand
39. Dogface by Jeff Garigliano
40. Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
41. First Marathons: Personal Encounters with the 26.2-Mile Monster
42. The Importance of Music to Girls by Lavinia Greenlaw
43. Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian by Scott Douglas
44. Sweet Valley Twins: Teacher’s Pet by Francine Pascal
45. LoveHampton by Sherri Rifkin
46. ?
47. ?
48. ?
49. Up Until Now by William Shatner
50. The Scandal Plan or: How to Win the Presidency by Cheating on Your Wife by Bill Folman
51. The Book Stops Here: A Mobile Library Mystery by Ian Sansom
52. Heirloom: Notes from an Accidential Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.


  1. Dawn on May 7, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Your blog inspired me to read more. I think I’ve read more this year so far than I read in ’06 and ’07 combined. Thank you! And I’m glad the project was so beneficial for you, too.
    PS: Right now, I’m loving the Big Stone Gap series by Adriana Trigiani.

  2. Paige Wolf on May 7, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    Aw, I remember when you started this – amazing how you read all these so fast and still managed to crank out some kick ass articles and now launch your book! A very cool inspiring blog – and I think it could be the guts of a book. I am completely serious.

  3. Geoff DiMasi on May 7, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    I love the idea of the journey you took through reading and posting on these books.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Unknown on May 8, 2008 at 9:48 am

    Thank you for writing such a thoughtful blog. I have a long list of books to read thanks to you. But I’ve gotten much more from your posts than book recommendations. You have a wonderful voice.

    And your story’s come round full circle – you’re cooking with a boy, getting bylines left and right, and having fun!

    Now I have to go back and read the early posts I missed. I didn’t discover the blog until the 20th-or so book and didn’t realize that you started this from a breakup. The first thing I did almost crashing a car new years day, started a blog and promised to return to running.

    I’ll miss the 52-book series. What’s next? May I suggest: 52 meals with Jen; 52 races with Jen; 52 trips to WaWa with Jen

    Off to drown my sorrow in an upcake!

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