About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, June 29, 2009

#56 - Storm World

OK, I've fallen dreadfully behind in my blogging so here's a quick wrap-up of my last few books. I'll flesh 'em out if and when I have a chance.

Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming
, by Chris Mooney (Harcourt, 2007). This book is about the debate over whether global warming is happening, and whether it is contributing/ will contribute to stronger hurricanes (more, stronger, faster winds, lower pressure). Interesting read, but not quite as accessible to the layperson (like me) as I'd hoped.

Monday, June 22, 2009

#55 - Falling Man

In my last review, I wrote about authors who explode out of nowhere into tremendous popularity. Well, then there are those authors you've heard about for years, but never actually read. Don DeLillo was one of those, until I read Falling Man (Scribner, 2007), and wow -- was this different, and much weightier, than I expected. For some reason, I thought he'd be an entertaining but not terribly serious author of adventure-thrillers, somewhat akin to Nelson DeMille. Well, I was wrong. I don't know firsthand how it compares to DeLillo's earlier books, like Libra and Underworld; I do know most reviewers considered Cosmopolis (his first post-9/11 novel) a disappointment -- but I found Falling Man both powerful and well-written, even literary.

Falling Man is a book about September 11 and its aftermath, as experienced by one otherwise-unremarkable New York City couple. The opening sequence, in which leading man Keith walks away from the rubble of the Twin Towers with an injured wrist and a stranger's briefcase, sets the stage for the gritty and often-disorienting vignettes in which the story unfolds:

"It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

"The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall."

Bleeding and probably in shock, Keith appears on the doorstep of his estranged wife, Lianne, and their son, Justin. While Lianne doesn't know how to react to Keith's resurfacing in such a manner, the two tentatively begin to go through the motions of being a family again, and she wonders whether the mundane arguments that drove them apart have been eclipsed by the looming shadow of the towers. "'Is it possible you and I are done with conflict? You know what I mean. The everyday friction. The every-word every-breath schedule we were on before we split. Is it possible this is over? We don't need this anymore? We can live without it? Am I right?'" At the same time, Justin and his friends process the attacks in their own way, compulsively scanning the sky for planes, and insisting that mysterious bogeyman Bill Lawton (a seven-year-old's take on "Bin Laden") will be back to terrorize them again soon.

Over the weeks and months that follow, Keith and Lianne cope with the upheaval and strangeness around them in their own ways. Lianne, a writer and editor, continues to facilitate a writing group for Alzheimer's patients, and the reader can't help but notice the similarities between their disorientation and that of her otherwise-healthy neighbors after 9/11:
"[Rosellen] could not remember where she lived. She stood alone on a corner near the elevated tracks, becoming desperate, separated from everything. She looked for a storefront a street sign that might give her a clue. The world was receding, the simplest recognitions. She began to lose her sense of clarity, of distinctness. She was not lost so much as falling, growing fainter. Nothing lay around her but silence and distance."
Likewise, Lianne's struggle with the decision to embrace or renounce her faith mirrors the confusion of many New Yorkers after the attacks confounded lifelong habits of skepticism and rationality.
"There was religion, then there was God. Lianne wanted to disbelieve. Disbelief was the line of travel that led to clarity of thought and purpose. Or was this simply another form of superstition? She wanted to trust in the forces and processes of the natural world, this only, perceptible reality and scientific endeavor, men and women alone on earth. She knew there was no conflict between science and God. Take one with the other. But she didn't want to. There were the scholars and philosophers she'd studied in school, books she'd read as thrilling dispatches, personal, making her shake at times, and there was the sacred art she'd always loved. Doubters created this work, and ardent believers, and those who'd doubted and then believed, and she was free to think and doubt and believe simultaneously. But she didn't want to. God would crowd her, make her weaker. God would be a presence that remained unimaginable. She wanted this only, to snuff out the pulse of the shaky faith she'd held for much of her life."
At the same time, Keith, haunted by memories of 9/11, is all but paralyzed by grief, fatalism, and hopelessness. He finds a fellow survivor in Florence, owner of the briefcase he carried out of the rubble, and their shared experience of unspeakable horror leads to a cathartic but joyless affair. After losing a poker buddy in the towers, he is drawn to high-stakes card games in the casinos of Las Vegas, enjoying yet another streak of luck in the midst of the random and surreal.

While Keith and Lianne's ordinary stories, and the language DeLillo uses to describe them, resonated with me, I can't quite say the same for some of the book's other characters. There's a subplot involving Lianne's ailing mother, Nina, and her long-time lover, Martin, whose history as a 1960's radical gives Lianne pause. Maybe I Just Didn't Get It, but this story line didn't seem particularly well-developed to me, and it wasn't clear why it was included or what it was supposed to add to the narrative. Even more baffling, perhaps, is the story of Hammad, one of the terrorists, and the experience that led him from an underground extremist school in Germany to a flight from Boston that never made it to California.
"The world changes first in the mind of the man who wants to change it. The time is coming, our truth, our shame, and each man becomes the other, and the other still another, and then there is no separation. ... There was the feeling of lost history. They were too long in isolation. This is what they talked about, being crowded out by other cultures, other futures, the all-enfolding will of capital markets and foreign policies."

To me, this thread felt almost tacked-on, as if the author felt no 9/11 story would be complete without some look at the terrorists, and thus decided to throw it in there. Hammad's scenes do contribute to an excruciating closing sequence, but otherwise seemed distracting rather than compelling -- possibly because the language DeLillo uses here seems rather clinical, especially compared to the subtle but raw insights he offers into Keith's and Lianne's experiences and emotions. Nonetheless, New York Times reviewer Frank Rich sums up the novel's impact succintly: "In the ruins of 9/11, relationships are a non sequitur. Disconnectedness is the new currency. Language is fragmented. Vision is distorted." If you're prepared to be more than a little unsettled, Falling Man is well worth reading.

#54 - The Lucky One

Dingdangity, I will be back on track to read 10 books a month by the end of June, even if it is quantity at the expense of quality. So there!

Every now and then, there's an author who seems to emerge from obscurity overnight, and is suddenly everyplace. Nicholas Sparks is one of them. A year ago, I don't think I'd heard of him; now, he seems to be all over the bookstores and best-seller lists, Nights in Rodanthe was made into a movie, and it seems there's no escaping the juggernaut. Rather than resist the inevitable, I succumbed on my last trip to the library, and this morning over breakfast, I finished The Lucky One (Grand Central, 2008). With a dust jacket blurb that proclaims the author "one of America's most beloved storytellers" or some such rot, I didn't expect high literature; I frankly don't know exactly what I was expecting. If nothing else, I figure there's some value in reading the occasional mass-market best-seller, just to see what the silent majority is reading. Living in Tiny Town, the mecca for everything alternative, where having a mere master's degree makes you undereducated, it's easy to forget that, um, many recreational readers do so Just For Fun.

All right, enough with the rationalizing. The Lucky One wasn't great literature and was pretty darned predictable, but it was still an amusing summer read. It begins by introducing a Bad Guy and Good Guy who are so obvious they may as well have black and white hats on: Keith Clayton, a deputy sheriff whose family owns the better part of Hampton County and who secretly uses the police department's camera to take pictures of pretty young things skinny-dipping; and Logan Thibault ("Thigh-bolt" to Clayton), a long-haired ex-Marine who's walked from Colorado to North Carolina with his dog, Zeus, to track down a mysterious young woman whose photo he found in the Kuwaiti desert. We learn that in the 5 years Thibault's carried the photo, he's had an inexplicable run of good luck, winning big bucks in poker games, and surviving one attack or explosion after another even when most of his buddies were killed. Victor, his one surviving Marine pal, is convinced that the photo is what saved Thibault, and urges him to find the woman. After Victor himself is killed, Thibault takes his advice, and begins his trek across the country.

Not surprisingly, the mysterious E. in the picture is none other than Beth, Clayton's ex-wife. You can guess within about 50 pages where this will go: Thibault is drawn to Beth, and gets on smashingly with her son Ben; Clayton is most displeased; and everything builds toward a dramatic, Hollywood-style climax as we wait to find out if and when Thibault will 'fess up about the photo, and what Clayton will do to keep Beth and Thibault apart.

To make a long story short, this was a slightly glorified romance novel. It grated on my feminist nerves in a few points: Beth's declining to help Thibault and Ben build a kite because it's "guy stuff" and she'd rather bring the lemonade; her asking Thibault out on a date, but insisting he drive and pick up the check; the denigration of Thibault's college girlfriend, who took Women's Studies classes, wore peasant skirts with sandals, and protested for socialist causes on campus. Given the time, I could probably do some extended, cynical musing about the target audience for this book, and about exactly what the author's trying to sell and what strings he's trying to pull ... but I won't. It's an entertaining afternoon, but forgettable overall.

#53 - College Girl

Some time Sunday, in between wrapping up Littlehazel's birthday party and getting ready for our family Fathers Day celebration, I read Patricia Weitz's College Girl (Riverhead, 2008). Stop me if I've said this before, but I'm a sucker for college coming-of-age stories, and this one didn't disappoint, though it was painful in places. It struck me as a cross between Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep and I Am Charlotte Simmons (which I reviewed here): the story of a working-class girl who goes off to pursue her dream of attending an elite college, and finds the academic challenges pale in comparison to the social ones.

There are differences, of course. Natalie Bloom, College Girl's attractive but shy protagonist, attends not the fictionalized Ault or DuPont, but the University of Connecticut, transferring in midway through her junior year after 2 years at a far less prestigious commuter school. She quickly convinces herself that her fellow students have already formed their cliques, and the few occasions when her roommate manages to drag her out do little to dispel this impression. Therefore, she spends most of her free time in the safety of the library, drawing some comfort from the fact that she's succeeding academically, if not socially.

This all changes when she meets Patrick, a tall, pot-smoking slacker from a well-to-do background who seems oddly reminiscent of Prep's Cross Sugarman. Unlike Cross, Patrick seems sympathetic at first, and genuinely interested in drawing Natalie out of her shell and getting to know who she really is. Over time, though, the relationship devolves into a purely physical one, even while Natalie keeps hoping it will turn into more. As with Prep, you can't help wondering exactly why this is; was Patrick just using her for sex all along, or did her reluctance to be herself with him prevent them from developing a real relationship? At any rate, between making herself available to Patrick on demand and just plain mooning over him, she's left with little time for studying, and her grades show it.

While I really enjoyed reading College Girl, and found Weitz's portrayal of Natalie's insecurities and depression to be spot-on (so much so that it was hard to read at times -- can you tell I still have some baggage from my own college years?), I have to admit that objectively, both Prep and Charlotte Simmons were stronger books. In part, this is because Weitz focuses almost exclusively on the personal; in contrast, Sittenfeld and Wolfe make the boarding school and college environments characters in themselves. Wolfe's DuPoint in particular does an exceptional job of pinpointing many of the excesses and contradictions of a selective college, and then ratcheting them up a notch or two, successfully walking the line between documentary and parody. Likewise, with the exception of Natalie herself, none of the characters in College Girl are particularly well-developed. The hints Weitz drops suggest that some of them -- Faith, the older roommate whose fashion sense is firmly mired in the '80s; skanky next-door neighbor Sasha; running buddy and potential friend Gwen; and recurrent hottie Jack -- might be worth knowing better, but we never quite get there.

I also have to quibble with the too-tidy way in which College Girl wraps everything up at the end. I was glad to see Natalie break free of the increasingly-unappealing Patrick's spell and begin to turn things around, but her transformation seemed a bit much for one semester -- particularly the new boyfriend, whose refusal to take "no" for an answer leads to a Rhett-and-Scarlett style sexual awakening on Natalie's part. (70 years ago, Margaret Mitchell could be forgiven for this; today, Weitz should have known better.)

This sound a bit harsher than perhaps it should. I did enjoy the book, and would certainly recommend it to others as a good summer read. Unfortunately, though, it just didn't have the blow-you-away-and-stay-with-you impact its predecessors did.

Friday, June 19, 2009

#52 - Detached from Attachment

Second in the list of books I knocked off this weekend, in between hanging streamers and baking cakes for Littlehazel's tenth birthday, was Attachment, by Isabel Fonseca (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). In a word -- eh. Frankly, I expected it to be entertaining fluff; well, it was pretty light, but only average in terms of being amusing. In short, it bumps the books-per-month count up, but isn't one that will stay with me much past the time I return it to the library drop box. If that long.

As the story opens, fortysomething American expat Jean Hubbard and her British husband, Mark, are in the midst of a year-long sabbatical on St. Jacques. Thanks to modern technology, Mark can continue his advertising career and Jean her women's health column from a sunny Indian Ocean idyll. The perils of the internet age become apparent, however, when Jean inadvertently opens a naughty letter addressed to Mark. When an e-mail to a new, secret account ("naughtyboy1"), complete with X-rated attachments, follows, Jean elects not to confront Mark, but to begin her own correspondence with the salacious, 26 year old Giovana (masquerading as Mark, of course). This continues throughout most of the novel, even as the other constants in Jean's life are thrown into turmoil. An ambiguous mammogram sends her home to England and her own trusted doctor, where she witnesses the changes in her daughter Victoria, 19 and newly in love, and grapples with Mark's Young Turk of a business partner; a series of strokes weakens her beloved father, William, and calls her back to New York, where she's surprised to find herself leaning on an old flame for support.

It was an interesting-enough story, and saved from mediocrity by a few surprising twists at the end ... but not a terribly memorable one. Neither Jean nor any of the other characters are particularly sympathetic, nor are they distasteful -- they're just not all that deep or interesting. Likewise, there are moments and opportunities where the book could be very funny, but never quite gets there. Again, eh -- not bad, worth a read ... but not terribly remarkable, either.

#51 - Johnny One-Eye

OK, the good news is, I may just keep up with my 10 book a month pace, despite how long it took me to slog through Nixonland. The more frustrating news is, that's left me a bit behind in terms of reviewing what I've read, so I have some catching up to do, and the next few reviews are likely to be on the short and cursory side. All righty, then.

My 51st book of the year was Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution by Jerome Charyn (W.W. Norton, 2008). This was yet another New York Times-reviewed book that I checked out remembering little more than the title, and I guess I'm glad I did; it was an interesting change from what I usually read, though I don't know that it will make my top ten list for the year. The novel is set in and around a nearly unrecognizable York Island (a/k/a Manhattan) during the Revolutionary War. Our title character is a thoroughly unprincipled double agent, whose true loyalties never do become quite clear (at least to me). He lost his eye serving with a not-yet-traitorous Benedict Arnold in Quebec, and is inexplicably fascinated with "farmer-in-chief" General George Washington, yet admits a lingering allegiance to King George and the Loyalists who sponsored his education at Kings College. A "man-child of uncertain birth," Johnny was raised in York Island's most famous brothel (incongruously dubbed Holy Ground; in the same vein, the prostitutes who work there are referred to throughout the book as "nuns"), and has understood for years that its madam, Gertrude Jennings, is his mother. His paternity is uncertain, but he becomes convinced early on that his father is none other than Gertrude's star patron, George Washington ... which Gertrude will neither confirm nor deny.

The bulk of the novel consists of Johnny getting into one scrape after another, rotting in a British prison ship, trying desparately to foil a plot to assassinate Washington, and above all, trying to win the affections of Clara, a blonde, green-eyed, freckled octoroon who happens to be Gertrude's star nun. Frankly, this last plot line (or at least the way it was handled) seemed a bit contrived to me; Johnny's actions would have been far more interesting on their own had Charyn not felt the need to tell us on every other page that he was doing it all for Clara.

Sigh. This was one of those books I struggled with. It was OK, and I did finish it. The descriptions of what New York looked and sounded and smelled like at the time, absent from much historical fiction, were excellent. I also appreciated Charyn's depiction of some of the ways in which African-Americans contributed to the war effort, from Rhode Island's regiment of black soldiers to the mesmerizing Prince Paul, de facto mayor of York Island's Little Africa. But aside from that ... I thought I should like this book, and I tried, but it just didn't do all that much for me. Perhaps the main reason is that Johnny and the other strictly-fictional characters (Gertrude and Clara among them) are far less developed than the historical figures Charyn plunks down into their world. The book doesn't purport to be anything other than fiction, but nonetheless, it was interesting to imagine the likes of Washington and Benedict Arnold, so long lionized and demonized by history, as complex, flawed human beings. Unfortunately, neither Johnny nor Clara is rendered nearly as well; Gertrude fares somewhat better, but not by much. This made it a bit difficult to follow what was going on and why (though the dramatis personae at the start of the book did at least help me keep track of who was involved).

Bottom line: Worth reading if you're a fan of the picaresque and/or of Revolution-era historical fiction, but if you're not, this probably won't be the book to convert you.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Halfway there

Being halfway to my 100-book goal seems like a good time for a midterm review. So far, my favorite books of the year (in no particular order) have been:

Year of Wonders? Wonderful!

Wow, not quite halfway through June, and I've finished my 50th book of the year -- Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks (Viking Penguin, 2001). At just over 300 pages, it's one of the shorter books I've read lately, and I knocked it off in a night (blame the Friday night Star Trek marathon again). Nonetheless, I expect it will stay with me far longer than this. I liked March; I loved People of the Book; so I fully expected to enjoy Brooks' debut novel as well -- but Year of Wonders still exceeded my expectations.

Simply put, this book is luminous. The surprises begin with the title; how on earth can a story that tells you on the front cover that it's about the bubonic plague carry a title of "Wonders"? It turns out the title refers to the transformations within Anna Frith, the young widow and pastor's housemaid who narrates the story. The tale opens in Fall of 1666, with a numb and exhausted Anna musing on the brokenness of her employer, Mr. Mompellion:
"His eyes are the same, but his face has altered so, drawn and haggard, each line etched deep. When he came here, just three years since, the whole village made a jest of his youthful looks and laughed at the idea of being preached at by such a pup. If they saw him now, they would not laugh, even if they could remember how to do so. ... He won't let me lay a fire. He won't let me give him even that little bit of comfort. Finally, when I'd run out of things to pretend to do, I left him."
It's soon evident that not only Mompellion, but Anna and the other surviving villagers, are equally dispirited:
"At day's end, when I leave the rectory for home, I prefer to walk through the orchard on the hill rather than go by the road and risk meeting people. After all we've been through together, it's just not possible to pass with a polite, 'Good night t'ye.' And yet I haven't the strength for more. Sometimes, not often, the orchard can bring back better times to me. These memories of happiness are fleeting things, reflections in a stream, glimpsed all broken for a second and then swept away in the current of grief that is our life now. I can't say I ever feel what it felt like then, when I was happy. But sometimes something will touch the place where that feeling was, a touch as slight and swift as the brush of a moth's wing in the dark."
Into this diminished village sweeps the unexpected and very much unwelcome Elizabeth Bradford, desparately seeking Mompellion's aid for her gravely ill mother. Still mourning the loss of his beloved wife Elinor, and recalling how the wealthy Bradfords fled Eyem at the start of the plague epidemic, turning loyal servants into the street and never once aiding the devastated villagers, Mompellion sends her away. "'If your mother seeks me out to give her absolution like a Papist, then she has made a long and uncomfortable journey to no end. Let her speak directly to God to ask forgiveness for her conduct. But I fear she may find Him a poor listener, as many of us here have done.'"

Anna then looks back a year and a half, before the plague outbreak, to the arrival of journeyman tailor George Viccars on her doorstep, seeking to rent a room at the advice of the Mompellions. With the recent death of her husband, and the loss of income from his mine, Anna at first is merely grateful for the money, but soon comes to appreciate George's kindness toward her young sons, and a friendship blossoms. As she contemplates letting it deepen, George is suddenly stricken by a strange, terrifying illness, and dies within the day: the village's first plague victim, sickened by an infected bolt of cloth from a pestilential London.

After a few uneventful halcyon September weeks, the sickness spreads, claiming Anna's sons among its first casualties. When it becomes evident that plague has come to Eyem, Mompellion urges the villagers to quarantine themselves, rather than fleeing the village and potentially taking plague seeds with them. With the notable exception of the Bradfords, most agree, and a grueling odyssey begins. At first, the villagers turn to crone Mem Gowdie and her niece Anys, who are at once revered and feared for their knowledge of herbal remedies, but when their treatments fail to stave off death, both are accused of witchcraft and murdered. This leaves only Anna and Elinor to sort through the Gowdies' store of herbs and the Mompellions' books and letters in search of whatever meager treatments they can discern. Along the way, they go from servant and mistress to friends and comrades, and Anna discovers in her own grief the strength and courage to minister to the suffering and confront her sadistic father.

Even knowing, based on the first chapter, that Anna and Mompellion survive the quarantine, while Elinor does not, I stayed up way past my bedtime to find out how they got there. This was due in no small part to Brooks' exquisite way with language. She manages to make a tale of bubonic plague tragic, but also hopeful; likewise, she renders Anna's story in a way that's both authentic in its own time, and accessible today. She also throws in a few surprises, just in case you had the mistaken impression that you already knew how everything was going to end. Easily one of my favorite reads of the year so far. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 8, 2009

#49 - Gorky Park

On Friday night, while Mrhazel and Littlehazel were engrossed in original Star Trek reruns, I finished Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park (Ballantine, 1981). This one's been on my list since I read Child 44 a few months ago; eventually, I'll go back to The Gulag Archipelago and complete the Soviet-era political thriller troika.

The verdict? A decent read, engaging enough, but definitely a period piece. Set (mostly) in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, it tells the story of Arkady Renko, a Moscow homicide investigator of average ambition and less-than-average Party loyalty who (we suspect) achieved his position only by dint of his father, a famous Stalinist-era general. The novel opens with the case that will change Arkady's life forever: the discovery of three frozen bodies, fingertips removed and faces mutilated to thwart identification, in Moscow's Gorky Park. He and his old nemesis, Major Pribluda of the KGB, respond at the same time, but after tromping around contaminating the crime scene, the KGB washes its hands of the case. Their lack of interest remains even when Arkady discovers one of the victims is an American. Given his history with Pribluda, something about this doesn't sit well with Arkady, and to distract himself from the collapse of his marriage, he immerses himself in an ill-advised investigation to find out who the Gorky Park victims are and who killed them.

For a suspense novel, I found the book a bit slow-paced. Smith's descriptions of Moscow are rich and vivid, and definitely succeeded in giving the reader a sense of place. Unfortunately, his descriptions of his characters are less so (yeah, I know I complain about this with almost every suspense novel I read ... you think I'd learn), and with so many of them to keep track of, this made the story line a bit confusing in places. Suffice it to say that there are elements of international intrigue and plain old ordinary greed at play here, and Arkady ultimately becomes unable to trust anyone. This would be more compelling if we'd gotten to know him well enough to be moved by his plight, but for me, this didn't happen.

All in all, Gorky Park is worth reading if you stumble across a copy and want something you don't need to think too much about (though maybe if I had, the characters and plot twists would have made a bit more sense) -- but not really something that, in our post-Cold War era, seems to have aged very well.

#48 - The Omnivore's Dilemma

This one's been on my "must read" list for a while, and I wasn't disappointed. The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollen (Penguin, 2007) is a great read, rewarding, engaging, and more than a little unsettling, for anyone interested in food and food policy.

The book starts out reminiscent of Fast Food Nation and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, both of which I enjoyed ... but it had me wondering, for about the first half, if Pollan was going to cover any new ground. He begins with a visit to an Iowa corn/ soybean farm whose proprietor resignedly admits that he's growing food for "the military-industrial complex." This leads to a fascinating, funny, and somewhat frightening digression on the evolution, history, and contemporary dominance of corn in American agriculture and foodways. Pollan argues that current (since a Nixon-era shift in how corn price supports were administered) U.S. agricultural policy encourages farmers to grow and sell as much corn as they possibly can, no matter the impact on the environment, farm communities, and the diets and health of the public. This benefits no one except the giant agribusiness conglomerates that buy, process, and resell (at tremendous markup) various corn products. (Yes, here's where I was having flashbacks to Fast Food Nation and thinking I never wanted to eat a Chicken McNugget again.) He offers a similar treatment of CAFO-based beef production, which is marginally less graphic than in FFN but no less disturbing.

Contrast this with the near-idyllic Polyface Farms, growers and purveyors of sustainable meats, eggs, and produce, where Pollan spent a week working and observing. This farm family is depicted with just the right touch; they're human, complete with some quirks, but never rustic or ridiculous. And frankly, I was fascinated (so much so that my family got a little grossed out hearing me read out certain passages) by some of the discussion of how multiple species used the same land sequentially, to the benefit of land, animal, and farmer: cow manure seeded with corn that ferments over the course of a winter, to the delight of the hungry, corn-sniffing pigs who happily aerate the resulting compost; laying hens gorging themselves on the grubs in cow pies, which provides both extra protein for their eggs and extra nitrogen for the pasture. (Yep, here's the part where I fondly recalled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle -- one of my favorite reads in recent memory.)

I especially enjoyed Pollan's take on the common belief that sustainable, local food is too expensive for the common man, and thus only for granola-flavored yuppies (um, like yours truly). He points out that for most of us, this is largely a matter of priorities and social values; after all, haven't people at all socioeconomic levels managed to find room in their budgets for cell phones? Why are we fairly quick to accept paying more for quality when it comes to some things (cars, clothing), but still convinced that when it comes to food, chicken is chicken and eggs are eggs, and price should be our most important criterion?

Where the book really shines, though, is when Pollan looks at many of the deeper questions around our relationship to food. He asks more than he answers, which for a topic this complex and emotional, only makes sense. I found his discussion of the ethics of eating meat particularly nuanced, and loved the chapters about meat and then mushroom-hunting with passionate slow food advocates.

I'm still trying to figure out how to respond to this book in my own life; no brilliant plans yet, sadly. I highly recommend it, though -- there's definitely a lot of food for thought here.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

#47 - The Jane Austen Book Club

Another quickie review here. Within a day or 2 of finishing Nixonland, I read The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler (Putnam, 2004). It was entertaining and lively -- perfect for after a 2-week slog through an interesting but dense history tome -- but I don't know if it quite lived up to expectations. Patricia O'Conner's New York Times review called it "a tidy number, a perfectly cut and polished little gem with just enough facets. But that's not the half of it. This exquisite novel is bigger and more ambitious than it appears. It's that rare book that reminds us what reading is all about." Me? Eh, it was good, but not that good. In brief, it's the story of a California book club -- five women and one man -- devoted exclusively to reading the novels of Jane Austen. Each chapter is set at a different character's home during a different month, and devoted to a different Austen novel. (Does this sound like the intro to a logic puzzle, or is it just me?)

While there is some talk about the books, the novel is primarily about the club's 6 members: dog-mad, hyper-organized, never-married Jocelyn; her long-time best friend Sylvia, who's going through a divorce; Sylvia's thrill-seeking and somewhat selfish daughter Allegra; happily married and somewhat grating young French teacher Prudie; thrice-married madcap old lady Bernadette; and the sensitive, inscrutable Grigg, the club's sole male member. Trouble was, I couldn't really bring myself to care too much about any of the characters ... kind of like watching a TV show that's interesting enough you don't bother to switch channels, but not so gripping you make a note to tune in next week. I enjoyed Fowler's description at the beginning about how each of the club members sees Austen differently -- a comic author, a social commentatory, a romantic -- and finished the book determined to read more Austen myself (I've only read Pride and Prejudice thus far, and that only when a dear friend whose favorite it is berated me for my ignorance last spring). I've even added Wit's End, Fowler's latest, to my On Deck list. I don't, however, think The JABC will stay with me as being particularly memorable.