Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dog Years a meditation on mortality

Books now read in ’07: 26
Title: An Unfinished Season
Author: Ward Just
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 3-27Pages: 251

An Unfinished Season only serves to secure my respect for Just as a writer. Many writers today would have done damage to this delicate narrative. Just handles it with dazzling tenderness, letting the story unfold quietly into a powerful conclusion. Set in Chicago during the Eisenhower Administration, it is the coming of age story of Wils Ravan. Wils is in the process of having his heart broken and coming to an understanding of the world. “ . . . now there was one less unknown unknown.”

Books now read in ’07: 27
Title: Dog Years
Author: Mark Doty
Genre: Memoir
Date Completed: 3-28
Pages: 216

The best books serve to connect you and the writer. In reading such a book there is that moment or moments when you say, yes, that it is it. That is what I feel. That is what I thought. What I experienced. Dog Years had that emotional resonance for me. Doty, a poet, writes of the lives and deaths of his two beloved Labs, Beau and Arden, in what becomes a profound meditation on mortality.

Last year, I felt my life had become a country song. I lost my mother in January after a five-year battle with cancer. Four months later my Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Regis, had to put down. I had time to prepare for mom’s death and was with her when she died. Regis’ death was unexpected and I was away on business. His loss was devastating. In reading Dog Years I know that Doty and others understand the depth and pain of that loss. A loss that is with me still.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

More on The Omnivore's Dilemma

I received this email yesterday:

First-time poster - my uncle is a friend of yours and told me I might like this blog. And I do.

I have not read Omnivore's Dilemma yet, though I intend to. I have read Polian's NYT Magazine articles, however, as he developed the book. I,too, have toured beef-processing plants and even spent part of my youth making sausage.

The NYT stuff actually curtailed my red meat consumption dramatically -- not for gross-out reasons, but because he also described the vast amount of oil needed to produce a calf that becomes a cow fit for slaughter, then to move the product to your table.

But I confess my eating habits haven't entirely caught up to Polian's arguments.
First, thanks for the response. I appreciate your uncle for directing you to my blog.

Second, Pollan touches on the subject of oil throughout the book. Here's one passage: "I don't have a sufficiently vivid imagination to look at my steer and see a barrel of oil, but petroleum is one of the most important ingredients in the production of modern meat, and the Persian gulf is surely a link in the food chain that passes through this (or any) feedlot. Steer 534 started his life part of a food chain that derived all of its energy from the sun, which nourished the grasses that nourished him and his mother. When 534 moved from ranch to feedlot, from grass to corn, he joined an industrial food chain powered by fossil fuel . . . After I got home frm Kansas, I asked an economist who specializes in agriculture and energy if it might be possible to calculate precisely how much petroluem it will take to grow my steer to slaughter weight. Assuming 534 continues to eat twenty-five pounds of corn a day and reaches a weight of twelve hundred pounds, he will have consumed in his lifetime the equivalent of thirty-five gallons of oil -- nearly a barrel.

"So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is a ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine."

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma delivers a frightening message

Books now read in ’07: 22
Title: The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Author: Michael Pollan
Genre: Non-Fiction
Date Completed: 3-15
Pages: 411

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is really two books. On one level there is author Michael Pollan’s interest in food and in cooking, and his comparison of three very different meals. On another more important level is Pollan’s exploration of the industrial food network in this nation and the refreshing alternatives that have sprung up as an answer to it. It is this book that brings to mind comparisons to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The recent national scare around tainted dog food goes to the heart of Pollan’s fears about the industrial food network – we are only a degree or two removed from a massive and dangerous food crisis in this nation. We may fear men on airliners with box cutters or bombs in their shoes, but we would be better served to look askance at the food entering our homes daily.

The final section of this book, in which Pollan prepares a meal strictly from food he has hunted or foraged, can be quickly dispensed with. It is moderately interesting, but only serves to distract from the bigger picture. That picture is the industrial food network, which in this case ends with a McDonald’s meal eaten, appropriately enough, in the Pollan family car. This meal is contrasted with a dinner Pollan prepares made from food observing more natural, and humane, methods of growing and raising the cows, chickens and pigs that go into it.

One example will serve. Pollan visits a feedlot in western Kansas. I’ve been to one of these. I used to work in one. He isn’t allowed to tour a nearby processing plant, but I have. Tours aren’t given to the public because they will seriously put you off beef. Cows in the feedlot are fed massive amounts of corn. But cows are herbivores. They do not naturally eat grain. The corn is deadly to cattle. If they weren’t slaughtered, they would die from liver failure. To counteract the corn, the cattle are also fed massive amounts of antibiotics.

Why should we care? “For one thing, the health of these animals is inextricably linked to our own by that web of relationships,” Pollan writes. “The unnaturally rich diet of corn that undermines a steer’s health fattens his flesh in a way that undermines the health of the humans who eat it. The antibiotics these animals consume with their corn at this very moment are selecting, in their gut and wherever else in the environment they end up, for new strains of resistant bacteria that will someday infect us and withstand the drugs we depend on to treat that infection. We inhabit the same microbial ecosystem as the animals we eat, and whatever happens in it also happens to us.”

And that’s not to mention the impact of the industrial food network on the environment or our waistlines.

Ultimately, Pollan concludes that each of us is indeed what we eat. And that’s a scary thought.

Books now read in ’07: 23
Title: All Aunt Hagar’s Children
Author: Edward P. Jones
Genre: Short Stories
Date Completed: 3-19
Pages: 399

I didn’t like Edward P. Jones’ award-winning novel, The Known World. I found it flat, lacking in emotional resonance. I am now onboard the bandwagon. This a fine collection of uniformly superb short stories that take us into the lives of the black men and women who inhabit Washington, D.C. Jones knows this community intimately and his knowledge is reflected in the tender affection and stark clarity of these tales.

Here’s a wonderful line: “The white woman had her ideas about what black people did with their lives, especially on weekends, and just about everything they did in her mind could lead to blindness.” Or this: “The Devil himself was the color of an everyday brown paper bag.”

Jones’ skill in executing these stories is comparable to Alice Munro. His work here is that fine.

Books now read in ’07: 24
Title: Paper Trails
Author: Pete Dexter
Genre: Non-Fiction
Date Completed: 3-21
Pages: 289

Newspaper columns don’t tend to hold up; not from one day to the next, let alone from year to another. But somehow, perhaps because of the writing, perhaps because of his compassion, this collection of Pete Dexter’s columns – largely from the Philadelphia Daily News and Sacramento Bee – not only hold up, they warrant reading, again and again.

Dexter is the author of Deadwood, Paris Trout and Train. He has a knack for writing with poetic intensity about the lives of violent men in his novels. Here, in his newspaper columns, we see another side of Dexter – his humor, his compassion, his anger at injustice.

This collection isn’t for everyone. It was – it is – for me.

Books now read in ’07: 25
Title: Saul and Patsy
Author: Charles Baxter
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 3-23
Pages: 317

This 2003 novel by Charles Baxter is disappointing. There are too many compelling books on the shelves of the bookstores to bother with this one.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A former sidekick stars in Crais' taut thriller The Watchman

Books now read in ’07: 21
Title: The Watchman
Author: Robert Crais
Genre: Thriller
Date Completed: 3-10
Pages: 292

Joe Pike, the perennial sidekick of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole novels, takes on a starring role in The Watchman. It is a performance that will have fictional sidekicks from Dr. Watson to Robin wondering why they never got their shot at the big time.

Crais has been waiting for the exactly the right opportunity to showcase Joe Pike in his own novel. He found it with The Watchman. A taut thriller in which, somehow, Crais manages character development in the midst of a breakneck pace, but then Crais, as the author of such novels as L.A. Requiem, Demolition Angel, The Last Detective and The Two Minute Rule, has consistently demonstrated his mastery of the modern thriller.

As Cole’s sidekick, Pike is the tight-lipped enforcer who, behind his ever present sun glasses, never betrays his emotions. Pike doesn’t smile, let alone laugh. A subtle movement of the mouth, a lifted eyebrow, is about all the emoting he allows himself. Pike is a former cop turned mercenary turned avenging angel. His moral code allows him to kill bad guys without hesitation or compunction. Pikes make it abundantly clear – he doesn’t like bullies

That’s apparent in the opening pages of The Watchman. Once Crais dispenses with the prologue – an eloquent piece of writing -- the body count immediately begins to rise. Yet despite the pace and the body count, Crais manages to paint a thorough portrait and sympathetic portrait of Pike. The vehicle Crais uses to develop this taciturn man is rich girl, Larkin Conner Barkley. An innocuous auto accident, in which Larkin sees a man she shouldn’t see, leaves her fleeing for her life. Pike becomes her protector. He’s the watchman.

Elvis is here, of course, and John Chen, but it’s Pike’s novel and he makes the most of his starring role. One suspects – one hopes -- there will be future starring roles. Pike isn’t a sidekick any more.

* * *

I picked up my copy of The Watchman Friday – Crais was in town for a reading and book signing. I started reading it about noon Saturday and finished it later that day. It took some planning. After finishing The Flanders Panel, I deliberately chose All Aunt Hagar’s Children, a collection of short stories, knowing I could put it aside at any time, which I did.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Books now read in ’07: 19
Title: Gerald R. Ford
Author: Douglas Brinkley
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 3-5
Pages: 160

Douglas Brinkley’s brief biography of Gerald R. Ford is a timely work, released only months after the former President’s death. The book is part of Times Books’ American Presidents Series. Brinkley charts Ford’s life and political career in tidy fashion – he’s elected to Congress by the end of the first chapter. Also the biographer of Rosa Parks (Penguin Lives), John Kerry and Jimmy Carter, Brinkley is even-handed in his treatment of the nation’s only unelected president.

Ford was a good man who helped restore the public’s faith in the government and who helped to heal the many wounds of the previous decade. Still, this book evokes painful memories – Watergate, Nixon’s resignation and subsequent pardon, Vietnam in its waning days, great distrust by the American public in our national leaders, a loss of confidence at home and a loss of face abroad, rampant inflation and high unemployment. For me, and for many Boomers, it was a difficult and uncertain time in which to come of age.

Brinkley summarizes Ford’s political legacy nicely in the following passage:

“From the moment Ford left the White House, that valediction that he had “healed” American would remain the most enduring legacy of his term in office, though hardly the only one. For it was Gerald R. Ford who dissipated the pall of Richard Nixon, however controversially, and who shepherded the nation safely through to the end of its most divisive war while living up to the United States’s ensuing responsibilities to South Vietnam’s refugees. It was Ford whose help in forging the Helsinki Accords opened the way for the collapse of Soviet communism. It was Ford who acknowledged the seriousness of the global energy crisis and who conveyed the urgent need for cooperation to do something about it to the rest of the industrialized world, and whose careful fiscal policies cut inflation in half and boosted the U.S. economy out of its direst fix since the Great Depression. And it was Ford who, purely by dint of coming across as a really nice, normal guy, restored Americans’ faith in the validity of their government.”

Perhaps of greatest interest is Brinkley’s treatment of Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon. That decision was universally scorned at the time and is generally credited with contributing greatly to Ford’s narrow loss to Jimmy Carter in the 1976 general election. From the perspective of three decades, Brinkley contends, Ford’s pardon was the right thing to do. Despite the waves of recrimination, national resentment and anger, the pardon ultimately allowed Ford and the nation to put Watergate behind them. Brinkley believes that in pardoning Nixon Ford acted, as he so often did throughout his political career, not in his own best interests, but in the interests of the nation.

Books now read in ’07: 20
Title: The Flanders Panel
Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 3-6
Pages: 295

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte is a delicious mystery within a mystery. It’s Perez-Reverte’s second novel and, as such, displays something of the fledging writer’s struggle to control the pace of the narrative. A few overly long sections given to introspection bring the narrative to a halt and dispel the atmosphere of menace Perez-Reverte so ably constructs. Such struggles are entirely missing from his later works.

The first mystery lies within a 500-year old painting portraying two men, a knight and a lord, playing chess, while a woman reads nearby. Hidden beneath the paint are the words, Who killed the knight? Julia, a young woman who is restoring the painting before it is to be auctioned, uncovers the mysterious passage. Out of professional curiosity and recognizing that a mystery will add great value to the painting, she sets out to solve this enticing riddle.

Julia quickly learns that the three people in the painting truly lived and that the knight was foully murdered two years before the painting was completed. The words beneath the paint, it seems, cry out for the knight’s murder to be solved.

Julia does solve this mystery midway through the book, even as the shadows of a second mystery draw around her. While investigating the mystery of the knight’s death, Julia’s former lover, an art historian, is found dead. Was he murdered? Or was his death accidental? Neither the police nor Julia are certain. That is until a second death occurs.

The 500-year-old mystery of the knight’s death is solved by playing the chess game pictured in the painting backwards. The mystery that envelopes Julia entails playing the same game forward to its conclusion. A solution exists at the end of the chess game, but in risking the white queen, Julia may be risking her own life.

The Flanders Panel is vintage Perez-Reverte.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Granta unveils Best Young American Novelists

Richard Lea
Monday March 5, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Granta magazine has unveiled its second list of the best young American novelists - a mixture of authors already familiar on this side of the Atlantic, such as Guardian first book award winners Jonathan Safran Foer and Yiyun Li, and those tipped to become so.

The 2007 list, published 11 years after Granta's original American selection, lowers the age for qualification as a "young novelist" from 40 to 35. "People seem to be writing (and publishing) fiction sooner," explains the editor of Granta, Ian Jack "... they have, at least in theory, a head start on their predecessors and should be getting better, quicker."

In his introduction to a collection of their stories to be published by Granta on April 24 in the US and May 10 in the UK, Jack points to a change in tone since the 1996 list.

Writers' interest in social class has "ebbed", he says, and in its place is a concern with death, uncertainty and the outside world.

Nearly all of the writers on the list have attended creative writing courses, lending support to Jack's observation that writing fiction is "increasingly seen as a career choice by Americans in their early twenties, who attend universities to learn it".

Christopher Coake, one of seven on this year's list who have yet to publish a novel, described himself on his weblog as being "honoured ... humbled ... and still more or less in disbelief".

It remains to be seen how the class of 2007 will compare to illustrious forebears such as Jonathan Franzen, David Guterson and Jeffrey Eugenides.

The full list of novelists recognised on the list is:

Daniel Alarcón
Kevin Brockmeier
Judy Budnitz
Christopher Coake
Anthony Doerr
Jonathan Safran Foer
Nell Freudenberger
Olga Grushin
Dara Horn
Gabe Hudson
Uzodinma Iweala
Nicole Krauss
Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Yiyun Li
Maile Meloy
ZZ Packer
Jess Row
Karen Russell
Akhil Sharma
Gary Shteyngart
John Wray

Friday, March 02, 2007

Sides delivers a compelling history of the Southwest; Auster stumbles

Books now read in ’07: 17
Title: Blood and Thunder
Author: Hamilton Sides
Genre: History
Date Completed: 2-27
Pages: 402

It is fitting that Kit Carson, who achieved mythic status in his own lifetime, emerges today as the focal point and foundation of Hamilton Sides’ extraordinary history of the taming of the Southwest, Blood and Thunder. Sides weaves a compelling narrative with the skill of a novelist and with an artist’s eye for detail.

Sides opens his history with Carson, who as a teen fled Missouri and an apprenticeship as a saddlemaker for New Mexico, and concludes more than 400-pages later with his death. In between, of course, Carson was a mountain man, scout, Indian fighter, rancher and Union soldier. He was also a tool of the U.S. Army as it starved the proud Navajo into submission and herded them into an ill-considered experiment in reservation life at Bosque Redondo.

This was not a proud moment in U.S. history and no one, on either side of this grand struggle, completely escaped the taint of this shameful episode. Still, if there were no heroes, there were heroic moments and Carson inhabited more than his share of those.

Carson isn’t the only colorful figure to inhabit this book. There is also the Pathfinder, John Charles Fremont and his wife, Jessie; General Stephen Watts Kearny; the Navajo elder Narbona and the great Navajo warrior Manuelito; as well as mad John Chivington, who was responsible for the Sand Creek massacre.

Sides has given us the definitive history of the taming of the Southwest in this sweeping, compelling history.

Books now read in ’07: 18
Title: Travels in the Scriptorium
Author: Paul Auster
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 3-1
Pages: 145

Is Paul Auster bored? That’s what I wondered after reading this ironic exercise in authorial onanism. There is an old man in a room. Who is he? Why is he there? Is he a prisoner? The old man, soon dubbed Mr. Blank, does not know any more than the reader about his predicament. Ultimately, we do learn that there is a purpose behind his habitation of this room, but I am not all certain it is worth 145 pages to uncover that secret. A disappointing effort from a gifted novelist.