jmc_bks: (GK - layers)
Very quick post of my thoughts about this very good explanation of the melt down of mortgage backed securities in 2008 that lead to the on-going recession.  Over at WordPress.
jmc_bks: (title2)
Today's SBD is a non-romance book.  Lots of brothers-in-arms affection, but no romance.  [Unless you are wearing slash goggles, like apparently many people are.  Go google "Brad Colbert/Nate Fick", I'll wait.  Personally I don't really see it, despite the constant sexual references in the book and miniseries, but the casting of the HBO miniseries probably has a lot to do with the GK slash that's out there.]

Generation Kill is the story of the Marines' First Reconnaissance Battalion and their participation in the beginning of the second Gulf War.  Evan Wright, a journalist with Rolling Stone, was embedded with the Second Platoon as they careened around Iraq, from Kuwait to Nasiriyah to Baghdad to Baqubah, basically riding head first into ambushes set up by the Iraqi Republican Guard and jihadists.  The narrative traces the path of the platoon, while trying to capture the ethos of the Marines and the tension of their situation.  

Recon Marines are, readers are told, the creme de la creme of Marines: trained to the nth degree with Jump School, Mountain School, Dive School, SERE, etc., they generally work in small groups away from their officers, doing reconnaissance and other less obvious, flashy things.  But in the invasion of Iraq, they were clumped together with their commanders (many of whom had never been in the field) and used to test a new doctrine of maneuver warfare in a new type of war -- the preemptive war.  And instead of doing recon, they were sent in a 70 vehicle caravan with only light armor (some vehicles with none) to run into ambushes and draw out the enemy.  Under-equipped and in the dark about their mission, the Marines managed to follow their commanders' orders, winding from hamlets in the desert to the urban landscapes between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Wright introduced each Marine by age, rank, and origin, which struck me as a very journalistic thing to do, although a little odd in a book.  *shrug*  Since he spent the majority of his time in a Humvee with several troops, those guys got most of his attention and page space, but he seems to have become acquainted with most of the platoon.  And he shared the good and the bad about them:  Person's Ripped Fueled diatribes about the "retards" making this invasion necessary; Trombley's indifference to consequences of violence that made him good at his job; Doc Bryan's paradoxical concern about human life and the ease with which he's able to take away human life when he shoulders his rifle; Fick's balancing of his concern for his men with the orders from above to send them into sometimes unnecessary and unwarranted danger; and Colbert's isolation in the middle of the men he lead and tended.

In some ways, it feels like Wright romanticized the entire FRM ethos to me (YMMV).  The glorification of the uber-macho, ultra-testoteroned world view seems problematic, especially when writing about the Marine Corp as an institution that channeled and legitimated behavior that would otherwise get men jailed or killed in the civilian world.  On the other hand, their joint experiences have made some of the men friends for life and created a feeling of brotherhood that some of them had never experienced in their civilian lives.

Of course, he was also honest about the complete clusterfuck that the invasion was for this group of men.  Strategically, logistically, politically and socially.  For example, lacking the batteries to use the night gear for driving, they were often driving nearly blind in the dark.  Instead of setting up personnel in the south, they hit and rolled on, leaving power vacuums that would be filled by extremists and foreign jihadis.  The utter disassociation of practicality from their reality (grooming standards being emphasized in the middle of an invasion?) was kind of mind-boggling.  

Wright finished the book convinced that this preemptive war was necessary, and expressed his anger and frustration with the American public for no longer supporting the war and the men and women fighting in Iraq, for essentially wasting a generation of American youth.  TBH, that kind of pissed me off even as I understood his perspective.  Frankly, I have a hard time believing that the American public would have had a 60% approval rating of the war at the time of the invasion if they had known that the WMD reports were fabricated, and that Iraq would become a quagmire that will absorb trillions of their tax dollars in coming decades.  If he wants to be pissed off, perhaps his anger should be directed at Bush, Cheney, et al., who began the waste in the first place.  

The larger issues alluded to in the book were not new information for me, but it was fascinating (if enraging and blood pressure-raising) to read this account.  I probably wouldn't go out looking for more written by Wright, but I'm going to borrow The Biochemist's copy of One Bullet Away, the memoir written by one of the Marines appearing in GK.  And I'll re-read Baghdad Burning.

Ironically, the book ends with a scene in which some of the Marines are marveling about the length of World War II, relieved by the brevity of their mission in Iraq, since "Mission Accomplished!" had already been declared.  As The Biochemist emailed to me last month when I wrote that I was reading GK, "Unhappy 7th Anniversary, First Recon Marines and Iraq."  Bet you didn't think you'd be doing another tour there again, did you?

As one Marine is quoted, "[I]t doesn't matter if you oppose or support war.  The machine goes on."

Other random thoughts:
  • tension between being good officer/soldier and being good human being (wonder if Fick's book addresses)
  • perhaps could use some proofing/editing -- one grunt's name changes in the afterword (oops!); also, there is no Louden County, Virginia, just Loudoun County
  • who adapted the screenplay for the miniseries?  did an awesome job
  • cracked up by insistence that one grunt couldn't be gay because he was married...because no gay man has ever had a beard...and of course, no badass recon Marine could possibly be gay
jmc_bks: (title2)
So, for today's SBD, I'm going to talk about four really smart bitches, the (theoretical) main characters of Four Queens.

From the backcover:

The story of the four beautiful daughters of the count of Provence whose brilliant marriages made them the queens of Franch, England, Germany, and Sicily -- and a sumptuous buffet of glamour, intrigue, and feminine power.

There are also a bunch of very nice review quotes from sources ranging from Booklist to The Economist.

The book was lent to me by a colleague who loves historical fiction.  She told me that this nonfiction book read like fiction and she LOVED it, so I must read it.

In the middle of the thirteenth century, Provence was a center for arts, full of poets and troubadours.  Raymond Berenger V was married to Beatrice of Savoy, and the two of them managed to keep the finances of the county afloat through what appears to be the medieval equivalent of CDOs and questionable lending/borrowing practices, while fending off the neighbors.  England was suffering an extended low with the disaster of King John's reign and the loss of its continental properties.  France was in a fairly good position, geopolitically speaking.  The Holy Roman Empire was still hanging on, despite the fall of Rome centuries before.  Crusading was big business and the Catholic Church was a megalith that seemed more interested in the worldly than the metaphysical. 

Raymond and Beatrice were politically savvy, and managed to get their eldest daughter married to the king of France.  Marguerite, their oldest daughter, was no heiress, but marriage to her gave the king of France (and his politically astute mother, Blanche, who'd ruled in her own right and not as regent until her son reached his majority) a power base in southwestern France, where Raymond of Toulouse and Simon de Montfort the elder were causing problems.  And then there was the second daughter, Eleanor.  The king of England chose her as a bride in part to secure a foothold in the region and maintain parity with the king of France.  Years later, the third daughter Sanchia was married to Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the younger brother of the king of England.  He was older, worldly, sophisticated, and the wealthiest private individual in Europe (perhaps the world) at the time.  The political upside to their marriage wasn't really clear to me in the book; it wasn't a love match either, since Cornwall seemed to have ignored Sanchia for most of their marriage and was reportedly disappointed by her lack of political acumen and drive.   This left Beatrice, the youngest child, who married a younger brother of the French king, and was more or less screwed by her older sisters and her mother as they jockeyed for power, money and position.  Eleanor and Marguerite were queens outright upon their marriages; Sanchia and Beatrice became queens later in their lives as lands were conquered and titles earned or bought outright; the two older sisters seem to have had signficiantly more input on the policies and governance.

The book read quickly and never bogged down in historical minutia.  (Caveat: due to a teenaged fascination with medieval european history, I was familiar with the general outline of what happened, although not so specifically as it related to the Provencal sisters.)   Although the book is ostensibly about the four sisters, they aren't the major players.  It's more that they are the framework or filter for a piece of european history.  Other historical characters (? are they characters if they were real people?) get considerably more page space, like Simon de Montfort, Beatrice of Savoy and her relations, and Blanche the White Queen. 

The book left me wondering if I've spoiled myself for historical nonfiction by all of the historical fiction I've read.  Because as much as I enjoyed the larger picture that was painted, I found myself wishing for a more intimate portrait of the four queens.  There are sources of information available about them; they were politically important after all.  But there is only so much speculation, psychoanalysis and inference that a historian can draw from letters and chronicles of the time.

This book gets a solid B from me.  Enjoyable, but not a keeper.

jmc_bks: (flaming june)

~ As I was wandering down memory lane last night, I was reminded of my first big crush in middle school.  He had spiky black hair, a scattering of freckles across his nose, and an amazing grin.  Joking and talking during Science Class used to get us both The Look from Mrs. Smith.  His name was Fabio.  Seriously.  This was before the romance model Fabio became famous.  So now the name carries a certain cheese factor that it didn't originally have for me.  Right now I wonder what ever happened to him in a detached and nostalgic way, but not enough to try to google him to find out.  Some childhood things are best left as vague, pleasant memories.

~ Just checked airfare for Thanksgiving.  Holy price gouging, Batman!  $500-$650?!?  That's INSANE.  And that fare isn't even for flights on peak days (Wednesday and Sunday).  The usual price is $250 - $325, so I expect a bit of a mark up for the holiday, but not a 100% markup.

~  I'm about half way through Four Queens.  While I am enjoying the book, it really isn't about the four women themselves; a great deal more time is spent on their parents, their uncles, and their least so far.  The vast majority of the attention devoted to the four sisters is speculative.  While I wouldn't mind this if the book were fiction, it purports to be nonfiction.  And the lack of footnotes and/or end notes in the text is really distracting, because I want source information.

~ My self-imposed book-buying moratorium hurts.  I want new ebooks, and am addicted to the immediate gratification of ebooks.  It doesn't matter how many books I have TBR in paper if they aren't at hand when I need a new book to read.  Have made it almost one week, which doesn't sound like much until you consider that I probably buy/bought 2 or 3 books per week.  Three more to go.  I can do it!

jmc_bks: (Default)

Am reading Nancy Goldstone's Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe. This description of Simon de Montfort strikes me, I think because of the irony, enthusiasm and criticism all rolled up in it:

Simon de Montfort was one of the most renowned figures of his day, and a pivotal actor in the drama that would result in French hegemony in the region. Simon was austere, honest, pious, faithful to his wife, abstemious, uncomplaining, and relentless. His only flaw of character seems to have been the unbridled, exuberant brutality with which he slaughtered those whose religious beliefs did not conform to his own. Here was a man who loved his work.

Er, this text refers to the elder Simon de Montfort, not his son Simon de Montfort who called the first parliament and who was married to Eleanor Marshal nee Plantagenet.  It's also a bit of an understatement, since the other bits of information I've read about Simon Sr. indicate that he was notoriously cruel and brutal.
jmc_bks: (title2)

Monday again.  Ho hum.  Beth has rung the bell on SBD.  She's reading more of the Twilight series.  After her post last week, I went hunting for my copy of Twilight and pulled it out for this month's TBR Challenge.  Sadly, I haven't cracked the book open yet.  Instead, I've read other stuff.  Such as...

I read Erin McCarthy’s Hard and Fast last week. It wasn’t bad. The pacing was a little uneven if you compare the first half and second halves, but still, not bad at all. The hero and heroine had great chemistry, and their dialogue sparkled. (It’s such a cliché, but it really did.  They clearly enjoyed talking to each other and listening to each other, and playing some word games.) The Big Conflict was not a huge surprise, but I though the heroine really stuck her foot in her mouth. In fact, I thought she needed to grovel, and that never really happened. SPOILER: see, the hero is dyslexic and she’s Smart and Educated, and when he reveals his disability, she immediately announces how she’s going to help him. What the hell? He’s been successful at helping himself; frankly, the way she wanted to “help” him (fix him, really) struck me as a little patronizing and judgmental, and outright ignorant in terms of the treatment, if that’s the right word, of dyslexia. Still, they apologized to each other and went off to live happily ever after.  

As I read, I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering what the heroine was doing as an academic, and what she did, if anything, before becoming at teaching assistant in North Carolina. She works for another character, who was an instructor of some sort at the local university. I say instructor because the other character has “only” a Master’s Degree, and I believe “professor” is reserved for those with Ph.D.’s, no? There’s such a variety of labels in academia: lecturer, instructor, adjunct, assistant, professor. I know there’s a hierarchy applied to them, but I’m not entirely sure how both education, longevity, employer/employee relationship with the university, etc., apply.  Anyhow, the heroine is an assistant to this instructor. She talks about her thesis project, but her work is also referred to as a dissertation project and/or doctoral research.  I thought thesis = Masters, dissertation = Ph.D. Yes? No? Despite the confusion in terminology, it becomes clear that the heroine is working on her M.A. in Sociology.  Which leads back to my original question:  she’s twenty eight years old and has been presented as a career academic, studying in New York; what has she been doing for 6 years that she is only working on her thesis now? That seems like an awfully long time for a dedicated student to still be M.A.-less. Was she working, and this is a return to academia? Was she working on a degree in some other field of study? Inquiring minds want to know.

It sounds like I didn’t enjoy this book; really I did.   I’m just distracted by a detail.

Unrelated sidenote: my copy of Joseph McAleer’s Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon has arrived at last – only took a month and a half! The cover is gorgeous, composed of the cover art of old M&B books. I’m going to have to look for copies to read, based entirely on the art and titles.  There's even another book cover on the back cover, Roberta Leigh's Too Young To Love.

And the back cover copy: 

The fascinating story behind Mills & Boon, the household name for romantic fiction, and twentieth century cultural phenomenon.

An animated account of the establishment and development of the company, exposing the personalities who played a part in Mills & Boon's often dramatic past.

Draws upon a long-lost archive of over 50,000 remarkable letters to reveal the intimate relationship between editorial policy, sales and morality.

An entertaining look at the famous Mills & Boon 'formula', and a lively investigation into the ingredients which make the novels so addictive.

Right now I'm reading L. Jon Wertheim's Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, but Passion's Fortune is next on the TBR, along with Dru Pagliassotti's Clockwork Heart.

Round up

Dec. 15th, 2008 07:02 am
jmc_bks: (Forward momentum)
~~My post on Bujold's A Civil Campaign is up over at Readers Gab. It took forever to write. You may not have noticed, but I'm having a hard time writing about my reading lately. Which matches up to the epic reading slump I'm in.

~~Milk is the best movie I've seen in a while. Sean Penn sometimes is too much for me, but he just nailed this role and he deserves an Emmy, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, an All Time Best Ever Forever and Ever award. My only knock on the film was the bit with Jack (played by Diego Luna); what was the point? He could've been edited out of the film entirely without harming the storyline, which says to me that he should've been.

~~Yay for flannel sheets.

~~The Daily Coyote was interesting, but not really what I expected. What did I expect? More photos, less narrative. The stuff about Charlie was interesting, but some of the pop psychology and personal philosophy of the author was a little too much. And the judgmental advice given at some points struck me as patronizing and vaguely offensive.

And now I'm off to the post office and to do the last of my holiday shopping. Maybe I'll even bake some cookies to take to work.
jmc_bks: (seagull)
From the cover flap:

The World Without Us reveals how, just days after humans disappear, floods in New York's subways would start eroding the city's foundations, and how, as the world's citiies crumble, asphalt jungles would give way to real ones. It describes the disntinct ways that organiic and chemically treated farms would revert to wild, how billions more birds would flourish, and how cockroaches in unheated cities would perish without us. Drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, religious leaders from rabbis to the Dailai lama, and paleontologists -- who describe a prehuman world inhabited by megafauna like giant sloths that stood taller than mammoths -- Weisman illustrates what the planet might be like today, if not for us.

From places already devoid of humans (a last fragment of primeval European forest; the Korean DMZ; Chernobyl), Weisman reveals Earth's tremendous capacity for self-healing.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I picked this book up after watching a National Geographic special on what would happen to the earth if humans were to simply disappear. It was far, far better than I expected, and more fascinating than the NG documentary (which is saying something, because I was riveted by the documentary).

Weisman dispenses with the apocalyptic descriptions of decaying NYC early. This chapter is fascinating, because it touches on geology, structural engineering, fluid dynamics, and basic ecology, connecting them to the metropolis and making them real. As an urban dweller, it is easy to forget or to not notice the monumental effort that goes into keeping the city running -- road repairs, sewer maintenance, harbor dredging, etc. -- without contemplating what would happen if it just stopped.

He goes on to write about the evolution of homo sapiens and their spread outward from Africa, and their effect (affect?) on the megafauna that once inhabited the Americas. He talks about how the natural world as we see it today is a function of human intervention, even in places that we think of as pristine and untouched, like remote parts of the Amazon. The collapse of the Mayan city-state of Dos Pilas; Chernobyl; an abandoned Cypriot beach resort; the Korean DMZ; the last bit of primeval European forest (found in Poland and Belarus); the farms of upper New England; petrochemical industry and the rise of plastic in the post-WWII years; the ravages of AIDs on non-Maasai people on the Serengeti; the funeral industry; telecommunications industry and broadcast; all of these unrelated places and/or events have a role in the changing biology and geology of the world, leaving the footprints of humanity, changing whatever may have occured naturally.

"Change is the hallmark of nature. Nothing remains the same." (p. 128) Dr. Anthony Andrady, a researcher specializing in plastics and the environment. He's talking about biodegredation of plastic specifically.

"The only real prediction you can make is that life will go on. And that it will be interesting." (p. 232) Doug Erwin, paleobiology curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

These speak to the heart of the Weisman's thesis, I think. That our mere existence causes change; that even without humanity, the earth would have changed, and that whatever our environment is right now is just one more moment in history. And that life (not necessarily human) will go on in some form or another, the way it has through other terrestrial disasters or shifts.

Weisman drew together a variety of disparate topics and tied them together in an artful and engaging way. This book would be a good one for an intro to ecology class, I think, for high school or even freshmen in college. It manages to touch on some very controversial things without being inflammatory, IMO.

A. Keeper.
jmc_bks: (Imperfect 2 by LJ Ase)
Belated happy Turkey Day to all who stop by.

Am slowly recovering from the massive amounts of food and wine consumed yesterday. The gravy? Excellent. The strawberry-rhubarb-cherry pie? Outstanding.

What can one do while lying on the couch, feeling stuffed to the gills, afraid to move for fear of bursting? Well, watch football. (Check.) And read. (Check.)

First on the reading list was Bill of Wrongs by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. I was familiar with most of the examples they shared in their mapping of how the executive branch under the shrub has been stomping all over our civil rights since January 2001. But their writing style and voice are so matter of fact and so accessible that I think everyone who believes that the NSA surveillance, waterboarding, and rendition are acceptable in the "War on Terror" should read this book. It clearly illustrates the individual and broader scope of what we are losing.

Next on the reading list was Jeaniene Frost's Halfway to the Grave. Meh. I should've read Jane's review first. I agree with pretty much everything she said, but for one thing. Spoilers. Be warned. )
jmc_bks: (Stupid)
I've been put on another project at work (in addition to my regular work, because clearly I need more than a regular work load). I've spent hours listening to a bunch of IBM consultants talk about internal controls. The result? A new drinking game: every time we hear the word "leverage" or "process" or "documentation", we must take a drink. I'm pretty sure we'd all have been passed out cold by the end of this morning's meeting.

On the reading front, I finished Caridad Ferrer's YA from MTV Books (via Pocket), Adios to My Old Life. A- from me, and sooner or later, depending on when my laptop is repaired or replaced, I'll post a full review. Also currently reading Daughters of Juarez, a nonfiction chronicle of the investigation into the disappearance of 400+ young women from Ciudad Juarez, the city sitting opposite El Paso across the Rio Grande. Interesting book, but a little scattered: does it want to be a true crime book? an indictment of sloppy Mexican police work? an indictment of the sexism and patronism existing in Mexican and American institutions when it comes to poor, politically-unimportant, young Mexican women? I'm not sure.
jmc_bks: (seagull)
It seemed to take forever for me to finish In the Name of Identity, in part because I kept going back and rereading sections. Maalouf's book is fairly short (~150 pages) but has some huge ideas. His style is very accessible and the tone of the book was philosophical without being dense or reliant on a lot of jargon. Maalouf wonders about the human tendency to narrow identity to a single factor (religion, primarily) and its cause; then moves on to the tendencies to demonized the "Other" which for many people today is modernization; and on to the tension between standardization and uniformity. I thought his observations about the relationship between religion and democracy were interesting, especially since religion is so change-averse. Maalouf also touches briefly on language as identity, which is something I find very interesting.

I've got Maalouf's The Crusades Through the Eyes of the Arabs TBR, but I'm not going to start it until I finish The Assault on Reason and Blackwater, which have been languishing half-read on my coffee table.

On the fiction reading front, I finished Creepin' a paranormal anthology edited by Monica Jackson and published by Kimani. B- from me. Tara Marie loved it, as did Bam. Me, I loved one story, liked two others, and thought the remaining two were less than impressive. Blurb and opinion about each story follows. )
jmc_bks: (star fort kinsale)
I finished Johnson's Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, the third book of his trilogy on American empire. His basic thesis is that "republican checks and balances are simply incompatible with the maintenance of a large empire and a huge standing army."  (p. 60)   I took several pages of notes but don't think I'll be writing a review, in part because I don't think I can be impartial.  

The book was published in 2006, so it was probably completed prior to the midterm elections. I'm curious how, if at all, the results would influence his conclusions, since one of the things he rails about is the Republican Congress's utter disinterest in making the shrub accountable for anything. Well, check out this article, which seems to have been written post-election. Or this interview, which was done months before it.

Johnson, himself a veteran of the Korean War, self-described Cold Warrior, and one-time consultant to an office of the CIA, has no high opinion of any of the three branches of government as they exist right now, nor has he a good opinion of the military or its companion industry. 

Must go reread the Youngstown Steel case.   And find some of these books:

Winslow Wheeler's Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security
John Dinges' The Condor Years
Michael Scheuer's Imperial Hubris
Tom Holland's Rubicon
Polk & Schuster's  The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad:  The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia
Carol Berkin's A Brilliant Solution
Hannah Arendt's Responsibility & Judgment
Humberto Marquez's Historia Universal de la Destruccion de los Libros

On a lighter note, the hammock, she is swaying in the breeze outback and baseball is playing on the radio.  Feels like summer to me already.
jmc_bks: (title)
Amy Goodman’s radio/TV program Democracy Now! is inflating my TBR and TBB outrageously. I picked up Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback after he was interviewed last month or the month before.

Read more... )
jmc_bks: (TDS)
While I like the idea of behind the scenes cooking stories and the idea behind his odyssey, I'm less enchanted with Bourdain's over-testosteroned voice and style. I suppose the camo shirt he's wearing on the cover should've warned me, shouldn't it? [Talk about the stereotyping and conclusion jumping I just did. Whew! I should be ashamed of myself.] Plus, travelogues are hit or miss for me. I like the idea of them much more than the least for the few I've read, like A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun.

Anyone wondering about that Third Space book in my Currently Reading field on the side bar? Yes, I'm stuck. It's nonfiction about arts-in-education written by a name in the local education and AIE scene. I'm supposed to be reading it in preparation for my next full board meeting. Somehow, I keep finding more fun stuff to read. You know I'll be up all night before the meeting finishing it. Ah, procrastination.
jmc_bks: (star fort kinsale)
The Washington Post's Book World has posted its 10 best books of 2006 here.

Not a single genre fiction book on the list. I've only read one of the books on the list, The Omnivore's Dilemma, which they reviewed here and which I reviewed (sort of) here. I've also bookpimped it to The Biochemist and a colleague and my mom.
jmc_bks: (Default)
I love the occasional scenes in Queer as Folk in which Debbie and Brian get stoned together. Their relationship cracks me up and touches me all at once (yeah, I'm just a sentimental marshmallow). She doesn't like him on several levels and a lot of his behavior bothers her...but she loves him anyway and sees the good in him, too.

A book that I preordered (Moonlight and Mistletoe) arrived today. Except now that I've read the backblurb, I can't remember why I preordered it.

Ted Koppel is on The Daily Show tonight, talking about Iran. Which reminds me: I have Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah TBR. I need to either dig in or return it to the library. It isn't reading as quickly as his Killing Pablo or Blackhawk Down.


Aug. 17th, 2006 10:47 pm
jmc_bks: (title)
I had a long, long post written about The Omnivore's Dilemma, and it disappeared into the ether. Grrr. Semi-reconstructing below.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is a fascinating book. What is the omnivore's dilemma? That as human beings, we are able to eat nearly anything, but because we aren't limited to a single food item (like, say, the koala's diet of eucalyptus), we are paralyzed by the potential choices available to us. And with so much to choose from, we don't know what is healthiest for us. Pollan also posits that this confusion in conjunction with the lack of a cohesive American cuisine, is what leads to our national neurosis when it comes to diet and nutrition. Another issue is the separation of Americans from the source of their food. Chicken comes in styrofoam packages.** Bananas "grow" in bunches at the produce counter. We have no real understanding of how what we consume is produced or grown or processed.

Pollan traces four meals from cultivation to the table, tracking the agriculture, the public policy, the economics, even the sociology of the meal.

Meal #1: McDonald's. At it's heart, McDonald's is about corn as produced by the industrial farm. But how is corn transmogrified from those silky ears into chicken nuggets? Well, twist the food chain: subsidize the growth of corn, promote its use as feed for livestock, figure out how to generate all kinds of other stuff from it. The history of corn as a grain, its evolution, genetic modification, its treatment as an object of worship, and more are all touched on.

Meal #2: Prepared from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods Market. What is "organic" farming? Where did the movement in the U.S. come from? Can there be such a thing as an industrial organic farm? Or are the two mutually exclusive? One of Pollan's points about his dinner is about the Peruvian asparagus: purchased out of season, subverts a local economy's production of foods for its own consumption to the growth of foods that are shipped thousands of miles (using vast amounts of petroleum) for American consumers.

Meal #3: Prepared from ingredients from a sustainable farm. Polyface Farm in Virginia. A small, family owned and run farm on 550 acres, only 100 acres of pasturage and cultivated ground are used to produce poultry, beef, pork, rabbits, produce and other farm goods. It is self-sustaining in the sense that each crop rotates and feeds the growth of the next. Cows trim the grass; chickens spread the manure and eat grubs; etc. It is the sort of old fashioned farm reincarnated -- serving the local community. The industrial farm is a fact of life, though, and the sustainable farm cannot support urban areas on their own. So where does it fit in terms of feeding America and changing the mind-set re: industrial = okay?

Meal #4: Hunted, gathered and grown. Pollan cultivated his own garden; hunted with other foodies for wild boar and a variety of fungi. Gathered wild yeast to bake bread. Found a neighbor to volunteer wild cherries for the after-dinner sweet. Sounded delicious, but required a massive expenditure of energy and effort, plus significant advanced planning.

The fourth meal wasn't all that interesting to me. I grew up in a community that hunted, fished and gardened, so it seemed, well, ordinary. Otherwise, the intersection of the political, the economic, the biological, and the social was fascinating.

I'm not sure I agree with all of Pollan's conclusions about big organic and small organic. He comes across as a bit patronizing when it comes to vegetarianism -- he's a little self-deprecating about it, but sort of implies that vegetarians are more highly evolved or philosophical than carnivores. Aside from that, this is a very interesting book, making me think about what I eat and look more closely at what is in the cupboard and refrigerator.

**True story: When we were small children (maybe 3 or 4), The Biochemist looked up from her dinner plate and said, "Isn't it funny, Mommy? There's a meat named chicken, and a bird with the same name!" Light bulb! The association of the food on the table to the bird was an eye opening experience.
jmc_bks: (seagull)
Finished this book, too. While there were pieces of it that I question, it was fascinating and makes me think about the food industry and government regulation.

Review to come.

Thanks to The Colbert Report for first interviewing Michael Pollan, then to Beth for reminding me about the book.
jmc_bks: (title)
This book came to my attention when Doug blogged about it for SB Day. I checked a copy out of the library, and requested copies of the articles linked in the book review through my local library’s periodicals department. My take on the book is very much in line with Dutton's review for the Washington Post Book World.

Read more... )
jmc_bks: (title)
Pamela Regis is a professor at McDaniel College (formerly known as Western Maryland College); she organized through the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program a series of guest speakers who are all romance writers. Jennifer Crusie, Suzanne Brockmann, and Diana Gabaldon are a few of the speakers. Check out this link for info about Crusie's upcoming appearance.

I read about the earlier appearances but was unable to attend; I may make it to see Crusie. But reading about the program made me seek out Regis's articles and reviews in the Washington Post, then interested me in her book, The Natural History of the Romance Novel. I'm really interested in reading this analysis of the modern romance novel, since most literature academics and critics seem to consider any romance novel written after 1900 to be junk, and mean stuff like Pamela and Evelina when they refer to proper romances. After checking the local public libraries (no copy) and the state university library system (one copy, checked out until April), I broke down and ordered a copy. It is being shipped and should arrive later this week.

I'll have an embarrassment of (book) riches to read this weekend: my copy of Memory in Death is waiting for pick up at the library; a used copy of Gaffney's To Have and To Hold has arrived; I pulled The Givenchy Code from the TBR pile after reading Rosario's review.


jmc_bks: (Default)

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