On my Bedside Table

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan

Three meals thoroughly traced through the production chain to their original inputs: a Standard American Diet meal from Mickey D's, a meal cooked at home from organically or sustainably produced foods, and a meal of hunted, foraged or home grown foods.

Lots of requisite horror following the factory farm roots of the Mickey D's meal -- that's been done before and more thoroughly in other books. The thing that got to me from this section was summed up by a farming activist Pollan quotes: "we're still eating the leftovers of World War II." Both chemical fertilizers and pesticides were born of the war's chemical weapons and explosives industries. Fritz Haber, who came up with the process for making nitrogen fertilizer (and won a Nobel Prize in 1920 for his efforts) also used synthetic nitrates to make bombs for Germany during WWII. Another one of his scientific developments was the poison gas they used in concentration camps. All this left me very creeped out.

And from the chemicals used, to the machinery used, to the energy used for transport, the whole enterprise is powered by fossil fuels. We're basically eating petroleum (though it would be more efficient if we could just fill ourselves up at the gas pump along with our cars).

"Big Organic" doesn't come out much better -- it's basically conventional farming minus the fertilizer and pesticides. Still set up as a huge monoculture, the better to allow automation; still with huge energy inputs.

So what's the alternative to factory farming? Pollan takes a closer look at someone who is practicing a potential option when he visits Joel Salatin's farm. I was kind of stunned to realize I'd read a book by Salatin not too long ago -- "You Can Farm." He's a bit of a zealot whose writing style is kooky to say the least, but the work he does is brilliant. He raises pastured cattle, chickens, turkeys, pigs and rabbits, orchestrating a kind of crop rotation to keep the pasture and animals all healthy and doing what they do best. No need for antibiotics, or significant quantities of any animal feed or fuels or fertilizers to be imported and added to what the land already produces.

Pollan's favorite meal is the focus of the last section. For this section he gets bonus points for learning to hunt and doing an admirable and honest job of examining his reaction to the whole process.

also lately finished....
Rational Mysticism
by John Horgan

I was hoping that this book would look at enlightenment from a scientific standpoint. I was dying to see what they'd find for handholds to even begin to get a grip on mysticism. As it turns out, the book was primarily about psychedelic drugs. I finished it anyway.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Spot of Bother

Mark Haddon

My boss was telling me the other day about a book her book club had read recently-- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Only two people had really liked it, "but you probably would like it, you like off-beat stuff..."

That night I was dropping some stuff off at the library and cruised past the new book shelf. This one caught my eye, then I realized it was by the same author. Picked it up and read it in a day.

I really, really liked this one. It's about how we miss truly connecting with each other by a hair's breadth and wind up lonely in the midst of people we love. It follows 3 couples (a mom& dad, their son & daughter with their respective partners) as the emotional and physical distance between partners grows almost to a breaking point. Then they all manage to come back together just in time for a wedding (the daughter's) -- perfect. The message to all -- listen to one another, say what you really feel, stop being stupid and messing up your relationships for the sake of saving face -- pay attention to what is really important. Good advice all round.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Death in Belmont

Sebastian Junger

I read an excerpt of this book in Vanity Fair a couple of months ago and it sounded really good. This is the first true crime I've read -- I don't usually go for that sort of thing -- but I really enjoyed it and have been recommending it to everyone at work.

It's about the Boston Strangler murders in the early 60's. Junger's personal angle on the cases is incredible -- when he was an infant, his family hired a contractor to build an addition on their house. One of the workers on the crew was the man who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler -- and during the period he was working for the Junger's, there was a murder in a nearby neighborhood, for which another man was blamed.

Junger follows all the principals in the case to their deaths, and interviews anyone he can with a relationship to those involved. You finish the book and have no idea whether the Junger's neighbor Bessie Goldberg was murdered by Roy Smith (who was jailed for the murder) or Albert DeSalvo (the confessed strangler, who denied any connection later). You do, though, have a beyond-the-headlines sense of the depth and complexity of the people involved and how the socio-political context of the cases affected their outcom (and continued to affect the convicted men till their deaths). A meditation on the unknowable Truth (kind of a Schrodinger's cat thing going on). Not the cheeriest read you could pick up, but it'll keep you in thrall till you finish it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Playing catch-up

I just brought home a great arm-load of stuff from the library, but I've vowed not to touch anything until I catch up on my entries here. I've been bad. I've been working on about 4 books at once and stopping a chapter short of the end because I have yet to post about one I finished weeks ago.


The Long Emergency
James Howard Kunstler

Heard this guy on a local radio talk show (he lives in-state) and went out to get the book shortly after. It was a great apocalyptic rant -- I really enjoyed it.

I had a history prof in college that told us that we were all Marxist. When that sent the Reagan-worshiping young republicans into apoplectic fits, he explained that for Marx, the forces that moved history were all economic. (Eventually he had all the RWYR's agreeing that, yeah, they felt the same way -- I loved that little turnabout.) Well, for Kunstler, the forces that move history are all related to fossil fuels -- oil makes the world go 'round. And eventually that oil will run out, and what will we all do then?

I like the geopolitical summary of world events (through oil-colored glasses) that he presents. Then, a section where he systematically takes down any potential alternative energy sources made me wish I knew a little more about the science and, yes, economics behind the subject because bits of his argument felt a little shaky. Then, when he envisions what doom will befall our culture of waste, who wouldn't enjoy it? OK, probably plenty of people don't enjoy that sort of thing, but I did. It made me wish I had saved my babysitting money and gotten the lifetime subscription to Mother Earth News when they were still offering it. His imagining of society post-oil was kind of silly -- it veers between a "Mad Max" landscape and one populated by Jeffersonian gentlemen farmers. But still, overall a good read.

and also:
Assassination Vacation
Sarah Vowell

Picked this one up 'cause it was new at the library and it struck my fancy.
Sarah Vowell is such a history wonk! I had no idea just how deep this went. She has three sections in the book; a separate one for each of the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She drags friends and relations with her all over the country to visit sites associated with the presidents, their murderers, cabinet members, descendants, and anyone else remotely connected.

But really, if you know enough, everything is connected. It was dizzying, how she jumped around in time and across the miles, zapping little lightning bolts of connection between people, places, and events. I was beginning to think that she knew everything (especially when she provided details about the women who posed for the illustration on a souvenir coaster for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, where McKinley was shot -- a coaster for God's sake!). But the book remains engaging and un-stuffy throughout. Bonus points for the side trip to Philadelphia's Mütter Museum. Right now I have two books in my house that mention the Mütter (the other is Annie Dillard's). I'll have to go there some day...