Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Rethinking Thin, by Gina Kolata

Why are some people fat? Why do they stay fat or regain weight after losing it?

In Rethinking Thin, Kolata doesn't have the absolute answer to those questions but she takes us a lot farther than most. We've all heard various "facts" about obesity and dieting over the years, so often that many of us don't question their truth. Kolata asks different questions and gets surprising answers from controlled studies, which she summarizes here. Her investigation is hung on a frame: the story of real people who are subjects in a two-year study that compares two different types of diets: Atkins and a standard low-fat alternative.

Do you want to know which diet comes out ahead? That's the wrong question and Kolata knows it. The fact that huge research centers spend all their time on this type study is one indication of how the so-called science of weight loss has failed us.

When I was working in various offices my co-workers invariably included many who wanted to lose weight. These people kept looking for the right diet, and those who were succeeding in losing weight would dispense advice about how they did it. During part of that time I had been "successful" and was managing to maintain a healthy weight, so people would ask me for advice too. One thing I knew: it is possible to lose weight many different ways. The real problem is keeping it off. And on that front I had no magic answers. I only said that for now I was managing, I was keeping on top of it, my mind was in the right place, but I had no idea why or whether that would remain so. I have since "slid". I have regained much of that weight, and it happened much as a balloon once filled with air more easily takes air the second time.

A few interesting facts:

* when naturally thin people force themselves to gain weight (or gain weight because of some unusual situation) and fat people lose weight and both groups weigh the same (lower for the fat, higher for the thin) it takes fewer calories for the fat people to maintain the same weight as the thin.

* normal people who are forced to lose weight (like in a concentration camp or in a controlled study in the military) they become obsessed with food. They dream of recipes, they buy kitchen equipment. When they get freed to eat as they like again they eat enormous amounts, much more than they would have if they had never dieted.

* hunger is a drive that is far harder to resist for a fat person than a thin one. It is totally distracting and almost impossible to resist.

* there does appear to be a "set point" for most of us. Usually we waver somewhere within 30 pounds of that set point, regardless of how we eat. Thin people who say they maintain their weight with constant vigilance, that if they gave in to their urges they would become huge, are actually not correct; they would gain maybe ten pounds, maybe a bit more, and then stop, and it would not be difficult to go back to where they were. I have long noticed that the diet companies are clever to focus on those who are naturally thin who might have gained five pounds over a holiday - these folks won't have a problem losing the weight or keeping it off.

* some people are born without a hormone - I think it's a hormone - that regulates food intake. They are always hungry and gain weight rapidly and will eat anything. There are examples in the book of some who have been helped by regular injections of this chemical, and the help has been amazing. There was an episode on House recently that featured a young woman who had always been fat. House actually found a medical condition that explained it, and when corrected she lost that weight. There are, in other words, some medical conditions that do cause people to gain weight.

* fat people really do have more fat cells than thin people. When we fatties lose weight we do not lose fat cells. Instead, they become starved, wanting to be filled again.

* when sodas were removed and healthier foods added to cafeterias and increased exercise required in some studied schools, these changes made no statistical difference in body mass of the students.

* here's a kicker: people who are very thin or very fat have a mortality rate higher than the normal. Those who are overweight but not in the "morbidly obese" category actually have the edge on living longer. Fat people do experience medical conditions, like diabetes or arthritis, that are more debilitating than thin people, but statistically these diseases do not affect longevity. In other words, obesity is not as dangerous as you thought.

Kolata suggests that perhaps we are all born with a certain possible top weight. Because of the food available to us, many of us have reached higher weights than ever before. She concludes that it takes an enormous amount of so-called willpower to stay on a rigorous diet and exercise program for a long period, and that it takes a great deal more will for a fattie than a thinny, given that it takes fewer calories to maintain the same level in the fattie and that hunger is a more powerful drive in the fattie.

I read somewhere else that it is possible to change the set point, through regular exercise. I managed to keep weight off and to exercise regularly for a long time but that did not save me ultimately. When I was forced to rest because of an injury I seemed to have a brief "grace period", when I could maintain my weight, but then the pounds started creeping back on again. And now that I am fat again and faced with debilitating arthritis I am finding it much more difficult to get in enough exercise to cause a reduction in pounds.

This book is important for sorting out what's true and what isn't, what we know and what we don't. It is a quick read, interesting and informative, and perhaps most importantly it skewers the weight-loss industry. The folks who are getting rich off our heavy backs, who find it in their best interest not to tell us the truth.

I am hoping that further research into the areas that matter will take place and that someone like Kolata will let us know about it.

book rating: 4.5 out of 5

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Water's Lovely, by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell creates main characters who are not always on the right side of "right", who for their own peculiar reasons (some easier to understand than others) sometimes behave rather badly. I have read other books of hers and for that reason I don't expect everything to turn out all right nor do I expect the protagonist (it's usually a woman) to make her way honorably at all times. Another characteristic of Rendell's novels is the mystery. We might guess but do not know crucial information. Thus some reviewers call her a master of "psychological thrillers" - but don't take that as a comparison to writers of mass market "thrillers" or even fine mysteries. These stories stand on their own plane.

Thus The Water's Lovely spins on a mystery that maybe isn't one, really. The main character, Ismay, a young woman living with her sister Heather, holds onto a secret that only her sister shares, the secret of how their stepfather drowned in the bathtub. The two, however, have never actually talked about this secret, so Ismay is not entirely sure she's got it right. She wonders: did Heather murder him? If so, she thinks she knows why. And she worries about what Heather might be driven to do in the future.

A rather large cast of characters enters into the story, each one somehow connected to Ismay or Heather, each one somehow affected, unknowingly, by this secret. Ismay and Heather's mother Bea has gone "mad" and given to pronouncements from the bible when she is not tucked close to her radio. Their aunt Pamela, who lives with Bea, pursues the opposite sex through online and newspaper ads, even venturing into "speed dating" and something called "romance walking". Ismay falls for Andrew, a self-centered lawyer whose privileged background seems to keep him from taking an interest in anything not he. Heather falls for Edmund, a kind and thoughtful nurse at the hospice where she works, a young man whose mother, Ingrid, is a first-class hypochondriac who also majors in guilt trips. Flitting about through all of these lives is Marion, a tiny 40-something single who jumps and skips and dances from place to place, while thinking about the many ways she can cheat others of their money and belongings.

For me, the novel is like a feast where all of the courses are perfect, unexpected, delicious. The flawed characters, and all of them are somehow flawed, are so finely drawn that at times I thought Rendell must have known people I know, or taken parts of my own character and used them in her characters' thoughts and deeds. So tasty, so nutritious, so excellent. It all finishes with some answers, but we are still left wondering.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson

One Good Turn is wonderful! From the very first sentence I was entranced by Atkinson's use of words and her terrific low-key sense of humor. I was surprised to find that the book is actually a mystery, but there is nothing genre-like about it, no standard investigation or even single investigator. I was further surprised to find that it makes use of characters first developed in another of Atkinson's books, again a genre technique. It doesn't matter as we learn what we need to know from this book alone.

The story begins with a "road rage" incident in Edinburgh involving a suspicious name-changing character and a beefy guy who wields a baseball bat. The incident draws together an interesting group of characters, but the story reads rather like strings spreading further and further apart, or perhaps more like a web built by a spider. Each chapter develops the story for one or two of the characters, and only near the end do the paths intersect, in a crazy, hilarious episode, rather like the punchline in a shaggy dog story.

The writing is superb. The insights into character are well-informed. The humor is delicious.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Digging to America, by Anne Tyler

Two families wait at the gate in the Baltimore airport for the same flight, which is carrying their newly-adopted Korean babies. One family, fully American, has made an event of it. Everyone is wearing labels ("Mom", "Grandpa") and the family is filling the waiting area, almost forcing out others, making a party of it. The other family is transplanted Iranian and has made no fanfare of the arrival of their new baby.

Bitsy, the American mom, eventually invites Ziba, Iranian mom, to join an invented "arrival" celebration of the two infants, and the two families are thus joined. The differences in the families pricks at the edges of each encounter, with members of both families trying - or not trying - to understand the other. Throughout the book the individuals seem unable to keep from generalizing, the Iranians finding the Americans laughable, crude, at times overbearing, the Americans finding the Iranians stiff, sometimes unresponsive, perhaps "too good" for them.

Ziba's mother-in-law, Maryam, is perhaps the most reluctant Iranian. She was at peace with her widowed existence, her proper life, and she has no need for the sometimes overwhelming assault of well-meaning friends. She is proper and polite, often seeming cold because of her reserve, so she does join the parties because it would be rude to refuse.

Although we get into the minds of almost all of the many characters, ultimately it is Maryam who takes center stage. Through her thoughts and actions we begin to understand how difficult it must be to live in such a foreign culture, unable to join it. She admits to herself, though, that she had differences in Iran as well, and we begin to grasp that it may not be so much the differences in cultures that affects these clans so much as the differences in individuals.

The book is so easy to read that it is easy to miss its complexity, its quiet effects on our thinking. I felt at times that there was too much generalizing but those who read carefully will see that the generalizing came from individuals rather than from Tyler herself.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green is a funny, insightful book about a 13-year-old boy, told in the language of a 13-year-old in England in 1982. The book spans one year of Jason's life, through the Falklands war and within the Reagan-Thatcher years, into a dip into the pond of "girls" and the unintended viewing of a coupling in the countryside, in the village of Black Swan Green (a village where there are no swans, black or otherwise).

Jason is addicted to contractions the like of which, the extent of which, I have not seen before. We go way beyond "could've" into "...our marines'll..." and "...with any luck, my strategy'd clear some spaces..." and "..the talk'd shifted..." and so much more. The contractions alone had me laughing right from the first page.

Jason, like so many adolescent boys (and girls), struggles most of all to fit in. He hides his propensity for writing poetry, turning in poems to a local magazine under a pseudonym, which later leads to his making strange and secret visits to an elderly woman living in the vicar's quarters, who offers advice about life - and poetry - that ultimately Jason takes to heart. Jason gets sorted this way and that from his mates, from bullies, from teachers and his parents, as he tries to find his place, and somehow emerges a little wiser and ready to be fourteen.

At first I found the book simply funny, and that was enough. Over time, though, I was won over by the compassion and sense of realness Mitchell gives to his hero. It's a lovely slice of England. And of adolescence.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

After This, by Alice McDermott

After This is a beautifully written book. It begins and ends in a church, and takes us from the marriage of Mary, a 30-year-old woman, through the birth and growth to adulthood of the four children she has with her husband John. The working-class family lives on Long Island during the middle-to-late decades of the twentieth century, riding out the storms of change in the culture, their lives, and in their church.

Although religion is a big part of their lives, I wouldn't call this a "religious" book. Rather, McDermott shows how the church and the family's beliefs affect - or do not affect - how they live. Mary in particular takes her church's teachings to heart, lighting candles during the two wars she experiences, attending mass regularly, insisting that the children attend Catholic school. We watch, too, as John lies in bed with a slipped disk, thinking of how his life might end, how it might not be as he had imagined, in bed, tended by a priest, but may be as unexpected as falling down dead in the street.

We see segments of each family member's life in vivid color, with light sketches in between phases. Thus we are treated to details of a dinner conversation or a night with a lover and then we may not hear much of that person until he or she is much older. Yet it works. I didn't feel cheated. Many of the moments are deeply moving by themselves, the more so because the moment is not over-labored.

I couldn't help comparing this book to a couple I read recently by Anne Tyler, both of which covered much of the same era in our history. Tyler's books seem, to me, more mocking, more like throwing a veil between the writer and the subjects, while After This is more intimate and touching.

And what is "after this"? From early on I suspected it was "after life". What then? After all that Mary and her family has done and gone through, what then?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Collected Stories, by Amy Hempel

This book is Amy Hempel’s life work. Of course there is the odd story here and there that did not get in here but essentially this is it. In 404 pages she tells her own story in the form of short fiction, 49 stories in all. Most are shorter than most short fiction, one consisting of just one sentence and another just one page.

In this way, and in the language itself, these stories are much like poetry. All of them distill moments and thoughts economically, making much out of few words. Character is sketched in a phrase, and that’s all that is needed. Because of this depth it may take longer to read these seemingly simple stories than you might expect.

The elements also repeat themselves in a way similar to the film “32 short films about Glenn Gould”. We read about the lover of an artist, an artist who perhaps has many lovers. We hear about time in an institution. We read about dogs and cemeteries. Not once but many times, slid in between lines or used as the whole, layers or whole pies. I am sure that these elements come from Hempel’s real life, although the incidents probably did not happen to her exactly as written. In their way, skewed or direct, they tell us about this writer and the way she sees. It’s a beautifully-written book, full of images and feelings.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Bastard on the Couch, edited by Daniel Jones

I bought this book because of the subtitle: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom. I used to read Details magazine for just this thing: men explaining themselves. I don’t think I’ve gotten as much from reading this book as I did from those Details articles, though, and I am not sure why.

The writers in The Bastard on the Couch and those who pen articles for Details have a similar profile: they are generally upwardly mobile, intelligent and intellectual (else why writers?), tend to be thirty-something or forty-something (with a few exceptions), and they are concerned with women. It’s probably the profile of the generation that’s running this world.

There are 27 essays, divided into four sections (parentheses are mine): Hunting and gathering (could be called “the early years”), Can’t be trusted with simple tasks (could be called “housework?”), Bicycles for fish (could be called “making a home”), and All I need (“being without”). As I look over the titles now I can see why they were divided this way, but as I read the book I felt that many can be boiled down to one thing: whining about fairness.

Most of the whining goes this way: I’m a modern man, I want everything to be fair, and so we split everything equally, and this is the thanks I get.

Worst of the whiners lot: The Dog in Me, by Kevin Canty. Kevin goes on endlessly about what the dog in him wants or thinks or does. He holds forth on the subject of how to split the work and the roles in his household and he can’t seem to get past a yearning for “simpler times”, when men were men and…well, you know how that goes.

He says “…we find ourselves scrambling to adapt to new ideas of equality and democracy, to find new roles that seem to make sense….In reason and equality we will proceed together into a new, bright future.” And then: “…But the dog in my can’t help noticing that I’m still paying for everything. The dog in me wonders if this isn’t just a way to make me take care of half of your business while I’m still taking care of all mine”.

In other words, he is using that “dog in me” shtick as a cutesy excuse for justifying his unrelenting and unchanging view of the world. I’ll be damned if I’ll make a real effort to grasp this “equality” thing.

Many of the essays are about that subject: equality. And most portray it the same way: as if men are getting the short end. As if in this new world everything should be split exactly down the middle, no matter how little sense it may make in a particular situation (like pregnancy). Their take on feminism: they tried really hard (look at the subtitle) and tried some more but there’s something wrong with it. It didn’t work the way I wanted so I’m going to do what I want. Or at least think what I want and be resentful about what I’m not getting.

Let’s look at another dog one: The Dog’s Life, by Thomas Lynch. Thomas wails about how he is constantly told that he “just doesn’t get it”. He shrugs and tries for the good-humored aw shucks approach but it fails because of the bitterness. He’s right, they’re wrong, says the subtext, and they just don’t get it.

I don’t doubt that many men have experienced unfairness in their dealings with the “modern women” in their lives. I have boatloads of understanding reserved for men who have been victimized (I really do). Here’s what gets me about the whiners: they generalize. They assume they represent all men and that the women they’ve known are like all women.

In I Am Man, Hear Me Bleat, Fred Leebron distills the basic conflict:

For better or worse, we’re expected to embrace our feminine side and domesticity, to express our feelings, to take care of our children when our wives are working, to do the housework, to cook, to be endlessly patient while our kids scribble on our upholstery and puke over our shoulders. And so we try to do these things, but what husband hasn’t stood in the doorway of the typical scene of domestic tranquility (kids and wife sitting shoulder to shoulder on the carpet, playing “tea” or building with Legos) and wondered – just how the hell do I fit into all this?

When our first child was born, a nurse took me aside. “Don’t try to copy your wife when you handle your child,” she advised. “It will only confuse the baby. Be yourself.”

But I thought this was the era of gender neutrality. I thought we were supposed to pain the girl’s room avocado and the boy’s room mango and give girls trucks and boys dolls. Now, after all that, I’m supposed to figure out how to appropriately manifest my masculinity yet again?

Fred generalized and simplified and therefore did not grasp that so-called “gender neutrality” does not mean we don’t celebrate our honest differences. We are all individuals. More than anything, this is what the women’s movement (which, contrary to most of the opinions in this book, is not over) is really about. Not putting people in boxes and making assumptions about their qualities and abilities based on sex.

In the generalization category, one essay stands out: Why Men Lie (and Always Will), by Vince Passaro. I do not doubt that in Vince’s circle the reasons the men give for lying may seem appropriate responses to female questioning. I’m suspecting, though, based on many men I know and on my own nature, that there are a great many men who would find these reasons just plain ridiculous. It’s a cute essay but don’t look here for insight into most of mankind.

Lest it appear that I am taking too harsh a turn here, I’ll point out that there are some good and even excellent essays in the bunch.

Ward and June R Us, by Rob Spillman, offers a simple, ingenious solution to the fair splitting of household tasks for those who have the flexibility that Rob and his wife have. Father of the Year, by Trey Ellis, is a genuinely affecting story of a man dealing with the loss of the love he thought he had forever. Quarantined Behind Concrete and Steel, by Benjamin LaGuer, speaks eloquently from behind prison walls. She Didn’t Want a S.N.A.G.; She Wanted Me, by Elwood Reid, lets us into the mind of a bouncer with aspirations and the ability to match is “more sensitive” male friends.

Read the book. Sometimes the insights are not on the page; they are what’s left out.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

An extraordinary book about the dust storms on the High Plains in the 1930s. This book takes us into the lives of several people who made up the "nesters" - farmers, along with cowboys, ranchers, doctors, teachers, and newspapermen. We follow the history of the plains from the early twenties, when land was free or cheap and hopes were high, when government policy fed the ambitions of the settlers, on into the 1930s and the worst of the storms.

It is clear from our present perspective that the horrors of the "dust bowl" were man-made. It took a few years and some gutsy thinking people to get that message out during the worst of it and to start the process that would lead to some recovery. Not that these plains have ever fully recovered.

Of particular interest are the extraordinary details. What the storms did to people, animals, buildings, and what happened on the rare occasions when it actually rained. While in the air (which was most of the time) the dust created such static electricity that people were afraid to touch each other. The touch could knock them across a room. The electricity shorted out engines and started fires. The dust destroyed just about everything it touched, killing the natural animal and plant population while bringing in insects that thrived on what was left. Millions of acres of land were left sterile, while the swarms of dust moved into the cities, over other parts of the country, and into the ocean. The storms even reached New York City and Washington, D.C. on occasion.

How the government responded is another fascinating tale, featuring a president who couldn't think of anything to do - Hoover - followed by one who did everything possible - Roosevelt. It's possible that the biggest hero of the time was the person who took on a new governmental position under Roosevelt, Hugh Bennett, and came up with ways to hold the soil down. He didn't stop there, of course. He took his mission to the loners who made up the plains settlers and convinced them that they had to work together to fight this thing.

The story is devastating and often heart-breaking. And so very readable.

What Came Before He Shot Her, by Elizabeth George

I categorized this book as a "mystery" but Elizabeth George is heading into new territory here. Another reviewer calls it a "whydunit", a good description.

George has written several books (all of which I have read) about Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers of New Scotland Yard and Lynley's close friends and oft-used consultants. The books are written sequentially, and significant events take place in the primary characters' lives. In other words, they do not stand still.

In the book previous to this one, With No One As Witness, Lynley's pregnant wife is shot. She lingers on life support while Lynley decides what to do about the baby inside her. The shooting is apparently random and was done by two young black men, one very young.

What Came Before He Shot Her is the tale of the 12-year-old who found himself facing Helen Lynley with a gun. The story starts, as the title suggests, well before the act and explains what circumstances led him there.

The story follows his family, a struggling group that consists of Joel, the 12-year-old, Toby, his eight-year-old brother, who is "not right", Vanessa, Joel's older sister, and their Aunt Kendra. The children have survived horrific experiences on the streets of London and in their homes. They have learned the ways of the street and the wisdom of keeping their own counsel. It isn't safe to "grass" on another, no matter how much trouble that other causes.

And so it is that Joel, in a desperate effort to protect his little brother from another boy who has threatened him, heads down a path that gets darker and darker. And so it is that he cannot tell anyone what he is doing.

The bones of the story are clear enough. What really places George in a different category is that she rounds everything out, adds the details and experiences that make the characters truly lifelike and sympathetic.

She devotes much of all of her novels to details that have no bearing on the final outcome, the discovery of the criminal. But over time, over several books, the details add up. So it is with this story. All of the family members have a life and a story to live. We follow each one as he or she tries to make a way in the world. We also follow the efforts of some governmental and private individuals who can see past the obvious and find real people, worth helping, in this family unit. In the end we see what looks like failure, but I'm sure it doesn't end there.

I can't wait to get my hands on the next chapter.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin

The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a rare, beautifully-written book that explores a fundamental theme: where the choices we make in our lives take us.

Sukhanov, a 56-year-old art critic in Moscow in the mid-1980s, who long ago "sold out" to have a peaceful, comfortable life in a country that does not respect true art, begins to find that his walled-off past is starting to invade the present. Little by little, triggered by incidents in the present day, he faces the choices he has made over the years. The wall does not come tumbling down neatly, brick by brick, but rather like it has sprung occasional leaks. Sukhanov races to repair the damage again and again, reasserting his stuffy, arrogant self each time.

The attacks from his past come in the form of dreams, both while he sleeps and when he is awake, and without warning. The drifting into dreams become more frequent, and we begin to enter Sukhanov's mind ourselves, as the third-person narrative increasingly slides into the first.

While the dreams threaten to take over, the present does not stop trotting along, plunging Sukhanov into a world he had for so long tried to avoid. Assailed from the present as well as the past, Sukhanov eventually finds escape.

In addition to exploring Sukhanov's personal demons, Grushin brings us into the world of art, particularly surrealist and impressionist art. As other reviewers have noted, the writing itself is often impressionistic and nearly surreal. Just as the great impressionist painters were able to bring their visions to a diverse audience, so is Grushin able to paint so that we understand, and at the same time we sometimes gasp with wonder.

The Mouse That Roared, by Henry Giroux

I would have been able to read this little book in one or two days if it had been written in English. It is written in a sociological jargon, heavy with repetition. It's possible to open any page and find writing like this:

...Disney's view of innocence had to be constructed within particular maps of meaning in which children and adults could define themselves through a cultural language that offers them both modest pleasure and a coherent sense of identity. This suggested that Disney define innocence as part of the logic of home entertainment and also, pedagogically, as a set of values and practices that associate the safeguarding of childhood with a strong investment in the status quo and in the market as a sphere of consumption.

Or how about this:

Pedagogically, this suggests the need for educators, parents and others to analyze critically how the privileged dominant readings of Disney's animated films generate and affirm particular pleasures, desires, and subject positions that define for children specific notions of agency and its possibilities in society.

Frankly, this book is not well-written, which is a shame because it takes on an important topic. The dramatic title suggests that we are to be treated to a definitive analysis in plain language, but instead we get what reads more like a college term paper (I notice that the title is very similar to one of the magazine articles cited in the book; it's therefore not even particularly original).

The overuse of these words tip us off that the writer has bought the idea that jargon somehow adds meaning: “text” and “narrative”, as in “The Disney text” or the “Disney narrative”, “maps of meaning”, “discourse”, "pedagogical" (two particular favorites) and “public memory”. Throughout the book Giroux refers to "culture workers" without once defining the term, and takes time to define "pedagogy" in a late chapter, after having used it in almost every paragraph up to then. The author also makes frequent use of source material that is no more than the opinions of others, a trick typically used in term paper writing.

The oft-repeated theme of the book, that the Disney corporation's products educate our children to become consumers who are malleable, unpolitical and who accept an idealized view of the past, is an important one. Yet repetition in the muddied sociological language Giroux uses does not provide the emphasis or clarity needed. Nor does Giroux back up his charges with real examples most of the time. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the dissection of two Disney-funded films: Pretty Woman and Good Morning Vietnam. In these analyses we can actually see how the films represent specific viewpoints and ignore reality.

The last chapter outlines general suggestions for countering the effects on our culture of Disney and other large corporations. These suggestions are on the order of staging protests or writing letters to congress. There isn't a single suggestion that goes beyond a fuzzy feeling. I am not one who insists that everyone who points out a problem should be required to offer stunning solutions. But if you go there, take it seriously. I don't think Giroux does that.

Because the book was so wrapped in the fur of jargon, I found it very difficult to take away specific concerns in such a way that I could repeat them myself. An important topic, poorly presented.

2-1/2 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 20, 2007

Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

A treasure. So much so that I am not releasing it (through bookcrossing) but instead keeping it in my permanent collection.

In Imperial Life in the Emerald City I expected to read about the excesses in the "green zone" in Iraq, and those are certainly discussed here. But more than that this book takes us from the end of the original attack on Iraq to the end of Bremer's reign, introducing the characters heading up different parts of the occupation and describing what they tried to do and what they actually accomplished.

This book could have been called "How it all went so horribly wrong". There were times, when I was reading it, when I didn't want to turn another page, I didn't want to know where the lack of planning and direction took each leader in turn. The results were, without exception, awful.

Chandraskekaran, a NY Times editor now, was a middle east correspondent at the time he was working on this book. He was on the ground, talking to the players, and outside the green zone, observing Iraqi activity as well. I don't think you could say he provides a completely neutral view. It's impossible to be faced with obvious failure and not draw a few conclusions. But he does maintain an understated approach that is remarkably evenhanded. In addition to the overall impression that this occupation was poorly planned and insensibly carried out, the book gave me the sense that many of those working in the green zone honestly were trying to do right. Even Bremer, as micromanaging and despotic as he could be, wanted to "save" Iraq. Unfortunately, he failed to take the time to find out what really needed to be done, not just what would make a good media bite. He didn't listen well and he was as tunnel-visioned as Bush in his pursuit of his own version of victory.

Others were not so arrogant, but many were as uninformed and uninterested in learning anything about the Iraqi people. It was inevitable that no good could come of this effort under those circumstances.

There were a few leaders who actually got things done, but they tended to do so in spite of the provisional government and Bremer rather than because of them. I cannot sufficiently summarize how the administration of the occupation blocked one plan after another that would actually have gotten the electricity flowing again, people working again, roads functioning again. How the wrong decision was made again and again. I can't spell it out here but Chandraskekaran does an amazing job of it, detail by detail.

Immensely readable, well-researched, an incredible and important book.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

After reading The Great Influenza I became newly interested in the way diseases are spread. That book details not only the lives of the many persons involved in research and public health responses to the influenza of 1918, but also details the lives of the virus itself. I was interested in another outbreak, this time of cholera, in London in 1854. Specifically, I was interested in The Ghost Map.

The cholera outbreak lasted just about a week, the worst of it anyway, but it was horrifying in its proportions. It also was hardly the first or last time the disease devastated a city. This time, according to Steven Johnson's uncomplicated telling, science ultimately got the better of it.

The two principals responsible for discovering and alerting the health boards and the population to how the disease is transmitted were John Snow, physician, and Henry Whitehead, cleric. Both were young at the time and both observant and given to a questioning state of mind. They ultimately clashed with the popular theory at the time that diseases such as cholera are spread by "miasma" - smells in the air. The worse the smell, the more saturated is the air with disease. Snow suspected, instead, that water carried the disease, even though at the time there was no germ theory and he had no idea what form it took. Whitehead used his social skills and observant mind to bring together the closest to absolute proof that Snow was right.

The story doesn't end with this discovery. All do not live happily ever after.

The public health response was less than ideal, and it was several years before Snow's theory was accepted and acted upon. The response was remarkable, though. A major sanitary sewer project was undertaken that is still in use today. When it was complete the citizens were no longer drinking each other's bodily waste. And cholera could no longer get a foothold.

The real thesis of The Ghost Map is not the telling of this story. It is the implications for urban life today and in the future. Before Snow burst on the scene cities were reaching such proportions that residents lived in daily fear for their lives. It was commonly assumed that large cities would reach some critical mass when the numbers could no longer sustain themselves, spelling the death of the metropolis. Dealing with the daily waste of large numbers of persons appeared an impossible task that would ultimately limit the viability of the city itself. Snow's discovery and the construction of a workable sewer system changed all that. Which is why Johnson's position is that science can conquer almost everything.

It is only in the epilogue that Johnson's short, readable book that this thesis comes to life, rather like an indomitable puppy dog, expecting only the best. He expounds briefly on how viruses and bacteria mutate rapidly (within a day a virus can go through thousands of variations) and then blithely states that our masses of scientists, with our modern technology, can surely keep ahead of this curve.

Even if it were true that scientists are even now creating every possible variation on a virus and finding a vaccine for each, he ignores another significant element: the public health response. We have seen in this book that public health officials held the old-line views on miasma and hindered rather than helped the response in 1854. Similarly during the Katrina hurricane response we found that although the science was there it was not in use.

I can't buy Johnson's cheery prognosis. He ignores the far more complicated science of these disease elements that is described in great detail in that other book, The Great Influenza. He largely ignores the ignorance of the public at large and its alarming attachment to the supernatural. Most importantly, he ignores the political animal.

This book is an engaging story of one outbreak. It is well-written and informative and it includes genuine heroes. Read it for that story. For any theory of the future it would be better to read a more thorough discourse on public health issues, including The Great Influenza.

book rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Summons, by John Grisham

Surprisingly lean for Grisham, The Summons is a fairly straightforward tale that asks us what's ethical in a situation where you know the legal answer but may not know the right answer.

Frankly, I knew the right answer from the start, but I suspect many others will not be so certain (not that that's a bad thing!).Our hero, who, like many Grisham characters, has his share of flaws, is faced with different choices when he travels to meet with his father for a discussion of his father's wishes for his estate. At first, everything seems direct and simple, but then Ray discovers something that sends him on a hunt for an answer. But it does more than that, and that is the core of the question.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Most Famous Man in America, by Debbie Applegate

The Most Famous Man in America: the biography of Henry Ward Beecher, is a comprehensive, exhaustive story of Beecher's life, written almost like a novel. The book introduces us to a vaguely familiar figure in American history and brings him to sparkling life, complete with a look at his famous family and the scandal that later almost destroyed him.

Henry Ward Beecher was one of Lyman Beecher's children, and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Lyman became well-known as a preacher in his time, as a strict Calvinist, a believer in the old testament way of seeing God: vengeful, punishing. He was known for following his own strict code of ethics, but at home he was a loving, forgiving father.

Unlike many evangelical Christians today, he also believed strongly in education and questioning, encouraging all of his children to learn all they could. He wanted all of his sons to follow him into the ministry. Eventually, hesitantly, Henry did just that.

From childhood, though, Henry did not resemble his father. He was easy-going, optimistic, playful. He made others laugh. He developed a vague sense that Lyman's view of God didn't mesh with Lyman's own actions, and he puzzled over the twisted logic needed to follow Calvinist tenets.

Over time, as much for self-acceptance as for any other reason, he strayed from the Calvinist and developed a view focused more on Jesus and on love. At first he took little steps away from his childhood teachings but eventually just threw the whole thing away, embracing not only love and forgiveness but even finding a way to meld the Bible's teachings with the early concepts of evolution.

Henry was a terrific orator. He discovered this talent early in school and eventually this is what made him most famous. What really drew them in, though, was his warmth. Over the years, as crisis followed scandal, he tended to emerge with his head above water mostly because of this capacity. People liked him.

Henry's unique brand of religion was more palatable than the old-style version. People liked to hear that there was hope for them, that when they sinned they were just human. Above all, Henry believed and taught that it is "more important to do good than to be good."

It's clear from his life in this book that much of what he preached is what he wanted to hear himself. He was far from a saint. He overspent, went into debt constantly, enjoyed riches and good clothes, loved being with women. Later in life he even took up drinking (he did continue the church's teachings against drink, gambling,and prostitution throughout his life). Eventually his relationships with a few women led to a major scandal, bringing all of the pundits of the day well out in the open, destroying friendships, and sobering his effervescent personality.

Overshadowed by his large presence was sharp, questioning intellect. Beecher became friends with several of the so-called transcendentalists, and in fact brought much of that high-minded philosophy down to earth, where he himself practiced it. He was passionately interested in science and in the origin of man as a biological being.

It was his radical approach to religion that earns him his place in history, however. Most modern churches follow his practice, so much so that we forget Christianity has not always preached love and forgiveness.

The biography is a sympathetic yet not sycophantic telling of the story. It's clear that Applegate likes what she knows of Beecher (and she knows a lot: she started this book as a thesis at Amherst,where Beecher went to college, and the librarians there led her to thousands of treasures about and by Beecher) but she does not let it cloud her vision. She tells it as it is, careful to specify what is known absolutely and what is not.

As a bonus,the story encompasses a wade swath of early American history. A significant portion of the book tells the tale of slavery and abolition. It is easy, sometimes, from the distance of time, to imagine that it was a simple situation: slavery is bad and therefore must go. But of course it was not simple. Lincoln himself famously said that he was for the union and if that meant slavery had to stay then it would; if that meant slavery had to go it would. In other words, political expediency outflanked moral obligations then as well as now.

What made Harriet's book (Uncle Tom's Cabin) so famous is that she made slaves human. This had not been done before. Critics now can easily rail against her sentimental writing and characters but those critics weren't there then. She wasn't a great writer but she said what others did not.

Henry, too, leaned toward abolition. But he wavered again and again, primarily for his own political reasons. He was no sturdy oak of principle. He would sacrifice principles and people to protect himself. Yet still people loved him.

There was more to this extreme man than can possibly meet the eye today. This book helps us realize that and gives us an excellent picture of the times.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler

The Amateur Marriage is the story of two people with very different personalities who are flung together during World War II and decide to make a life together.

Pauline is an energetic, attractive, talkative young woman, who likes to enjoy herself. Michael is quiet and reserved and likes to stay home.

Michael rather impetuously proposes to Pauline, remembering how she looked, how she ran toward him to say goodby when he was leaving for the war, her red coat flying behind her. At various times in his later life he remembers that moment and reaffirms his love for her.

The marriage has a rocky beginning. Pauline is expected to move into a tiny apartment above Michael's mother's store, and to live with Michael's mother. She manages to adjust to it but has her eye on a more suburban type life, which she ultimately obtains.

The two don't understand each other and it appears that neither knows quite what to do about it. The rocky beginning starts to spread into the middle and further out into Pauline and Michael's time as grandparents. For this novel takes us through the entire marriage, including significant portions related to their children.

I felt that the descriptions of Pauline in particular are almost mocking, almost parody. Little episodes from their lives as it spans decades are drawn lightly and similarly with almost a smirk, mocking the age and the sensibilities of the time, and the nature of this woman. She isn't particularly likeable.

Michael is drawn with a little more affection, yet his stiffness is always apparent and often irritating.

Tyler seems to like looking back at the fifties and sixties in particular, and she has an ear for how it sounded, how people talked and thought then. Even though I felt the sets were accurate, I would have preferred more inside work, more of Pauline and Michael inside than out. In general, I like Anne Tyler's work but feel that it touches me lightly rather than deeply. It makes me think a little but does not linger.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is my new hero. In The Blind Watchmaker he has outlined, in detail, the many aspects of evolution, and in particular "natural selection", so that it is no longer a foggy theory but instead the only answer to our existence that covers the bases and makes sense.

Dawkins is not confrontational or strident, but nevertheless committed to his position. He is careful, as all scientists should be, not to claim anything that has not been substantiated, and when that substantiation is incomplete he says so. Thus, one can believe that if he were presented with evidence of an entirely different version of the beginnings of life on earth, and if that evidence were compelling, he would be open to looking at it and even moving to that position.

However, he has, in this book, exhausted all current theories and concluded that what is now called "neo-Darwinism" is the answer, and the only one that fits all known facts.

I always thought I understood Darwin, but Dawkins provides the details I didn't even know I was missing, and which many people have misunderstood from the first day The Origin of Species was published. Those misunderstandings have led to many attacks on natural selection that turn out to be simply grounded in ignorance.

Not only does this book explain, to my satisfaction (it is not written for fellow scientists, although many would benefit from reading it), the workings of natural selection, but it also calls into question, peripherally, the reliance many of us have on some kind of mystical existence in the universe. For example, I long held a sense that "fate" governed my life. I was "meant" to meet this person or to get lost in this location.

I no longer feel that way. Facing life as a truly free event, in which nothing is guaranteed other than that the laws of physics and biology will be followed, has opened my eyes, taken me to a different place. It isn't a dark and lonely place but rather the opposite.

I can't help but wonder about the obsession with some kind of higher being, particularly in this country but really in our entire world. Is it because of the promise of an afterlife? I know that's part of the reason people will want to "believe". But why DO they believe? It isn't Dawkins' job here to answer questions like this but it raised them for me, and I am glad others are seeking the answers (Sam Harris, for example).

Interestingly, from what I've read, Darwin believed in a god. One that began it all - I think he may have had some trouble working up the very first life form in his head - but he did not believe that this "creator" had any part in people's or other animals' lives afterwards. To hold a view like this at a time like that was unthinkable, of course. As it still is today. Whatever your position on the origins of life on earth, you'd do well to read this book.

Bait and Switch, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch follows on the heels of Nickel and Dimed. It's been out for a while now but I only recently got a copy.

Ehrenreich, a journalist, has a way of transforming personal experiences into much bigger themes, while avoiding any obvious attempts at generalizing. Her writing is simple, straightforward, free of jargon and full of humor. In Bait and Switch, as in Nickel and Dimed, she goes undercover, but this time in the world of middle- and upper-management.

She describes her efforts to present herself to the corporate world as an out-of-work PR person, so that she can see first-hand what the laid-off white-collar worker faces. She changes her name legally and gives herself ten months, with the goal of spending the first four to six seeking work and the remaining time actually working. What she finds goes beyond the general confines of her quest.

I could read a thick scholarly book, full of citations (Ehrenreich does sprinkle her text with many footnotes) and reports of major studies, and learn just about exactly what Ehrenreich learns first-hand. True, her own experiences are not statistically meaningful, but she reinforces them with her background reading. So we get a highly-readable, funny, thought-provoking book that we can zip through in one or two days that summarizes the theses of several others in the process. It's compact reading. And if we want to pursue any of these themes in greater detail, the references are there. I have already put a few on my wish list.

In her quest, Ehrenreich comes face-to-face with career counselors, networking sessions, job fairs, career workshops, online connections, and very few actual corporate representatives. She learns how easy it is to waste thousands of dollars and have nothing to show for it except a different "look" and echoes of the constant exhortation that she must be upbeat and positive at all times.

She learns that everyone is selling the same thing: the idea that you, and you alone, are responsible for how well you do. By the end, she begs to differ.

Ehrenreich ends the book with a conclusion that brings it all together and suggests how out-of-work white collar workers might focus on making a bigger change in their world, one that might bring some sanity back to the corporate workplace.

Collected Stories, by Peter Carey

Peter Carey's Collected Stories is an amazing collection of strange short stories by one of the best.

I first found Peter Carey when I happened upon My Life as a Fake, an elaborate tale that interweaved reality, fiction, and fantasy in an absorbing and fascinating way. I am not a fan of fantasy in general, but in the hands of masters like Carey and Garcia Marquez it becomes true literature.

This collection of short stories is at times really ugly, at others redeeming. Carey isn't afraid to spell out what some guts look like, and it just isn't pretty. The stories range all over the place, some of them ironic, horrifying, others flat-out funny. All contain bits of the impossible.

Consider, for example, the tale of the person who discovers that the map makers are drawing land that has simply disappeared into thin air, in an effort to convince the public that nothing is wrong. When the observer starts to see people thinning out...well, you really have to read it.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Company, by Robert Littell

Littell is one of the best spy story writers, in part because he weaves so much real history into his stories and in part because he doesn't get carried away with demonizing one side or another.

The Company is a massive spy story that takes us from the end of WWII through the tearing down of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet states. In other words, it traces the history of the cold war.The cold war is seen through the eyes of several characters, most prominently Jack McAuliffe.

Jack is fresh out of Yale at the start of the story, and is ending his career with the CIA at the end. He joins the CIA with other close friends while a Russian roomie (Yale) takes up spying for the Soviet Union. We follow each of these characters, along with a few significant others, though the bad times and the good. We learn how "The Company" thinks, how convoluted plans and thinking can become. We also gain some insight into the KGB through a few of its operators.

Different readers are going to take away different messages from this book. It can be seen simply as a "good read" and be done. It is well written and carries the reader along literally for days. It can also be seen as a recognition that "good" is often indistinguishable from "bad" if you can get out of the way of the intent of the perpetrators. There are some scenes in which the Soviets are portrayed simplistically, as badasses blindly following a leader. Fortunately, there are many others that feature complex Soviet characters just as capable of good as of evil. In the end, it is the fundamental theory that "the ends justify the means" that gives me greatest pause.

If one were to count bodies chances are as many would lie at the feet of the CIA as the KGB. There is a distinction in this book that United States laws prevent us from torturing and killing those we suspect of being spies, while the KGB has no such compunction. I don't know if this was true then. It certainly isn't true now. Similarly, operations like the Bay of Pigs fiasco suggest that when we plan operations rather than simply gather intelligence we can go badly awry, and the cost of those mistakes is many lives not American. Throughout the book it appears that one of the prime aims of the CIA is to keep itself in business. Yet more than once I wondered how much good it has actually done. On balance.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Between the Bridge and the River, by Craig Ferguson

Ferguson manages, in spare and funny prose, to sketch several characters who are distinctively different from one another, and then take them all on crazy journeys that ultimately, as you might expect, bring them together. What you may not expect is the crazy-quilt approach to time: references in one person's life refer to experiences yet to happen to another. But not always.

And you might not expect so many offhanded comments to be so very funny. At times I broke out laughing out loud, alone in the room. Good thing I wasn't sitting in Starbucks at the time. Even when the writing seems dead serious it still has a little edge, a prickle, of humor. It could be just that Ferguson doesn't waste any time. He can sum up a life in three sentences and it will be enough. This condensed form of writing nicely compacts the humor as well, which means more bang for the buck.

Most of the characters are running from something, although as the author is quick to point out, "running" is not to be taken literally. Some of them have never run in their lives. The chief runner turns out to be Fraser, a Scottish television evangelist who has to take off to escape well-deserved bad press about his sex life. He lands in Florida and the real journey begins. After a lengthy episode inside his own soul (you had to be there) Fraser takes off again, touching other lives in a way that may remind you of someone else.

Other characters include religious snake handlers, gay gangsters, and a choir of ultra-large songstresses, which suggests that the religious theme permeates the book, which it does, in its own bizarre way.

What I didn't expect was that the story would settle into a moral tale. Some reviewers have said such things as "profane on its surface, ethical at its core", which perhaps describes it well enough. I felt it became a little heavy-handed about this time, but the book continued to be full of delightful images right up to the end.

Four out of five stars.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins

It is often the personal stories that tell the bigger truths. As with Barbara Ehrenreich's intensely personal Nickel and Dimed, Perkins' story illuminates a larger picture in a way that more scholarly treatises cannot match.

I value the perspective I get from Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson and many others who have written about our modern empire. None of these works, though, explains it from the ground up. Perkins does that.

In this book, written in spurts since the early 1980s, Perkins really does tell it like it is. This is the book I have been waiting for, the book that fills in the blanks left behind by the writers of global theories, the book that tells us how it really happens. It is one thing to read that the United States engineered ousters of democratically-elected leaders who did not do the bidding of our corporations. It is another to read of the actual steps that led to these actions. As one who likes to be able to visualize all the steps, I found great comfort in reading a well-written personal story that allows me to do this.

In this rightly-named confession, Perkins puts on his hair shirt and chastises himself as he explains how he gave in to temptation again and again over several decades, while he worked to build an American corporation's profits at the expense of third-world countries. He does not describe in detail the benefits he accrued from being Satan's handyman. We do not hear stories of his exploits with women, of his flaunting his power, the meat of a LifeTime movie. These fruits of his labor are glossed over in favor of greater descriptions of the occasional pangs of conscience.

Take it as a given, then, that Perkins was right for the job of economic hit man because he was so easily tempted by material wealth, power, and adulation. There was, in his character, though, a little hint of conscience. He was interested in the world's people, happy to learn other languages and ways of living, open to old as well as new ideas. Thus he was able to make a more honest comparison of the world according to global corporations and the world as seen and lived by indigenous people. And he was able to see that his work only benefitted the few.

There was in him, as well, the radical view that a benefit to the few was not much of a benefit. I can see this story translated successfully to the big screen; either as a documentary or as the story of one man. Two very different films; either would be dramatic and informative. There are scenes in this book that could have come from a Graham Greene novel (and let's not forget that Greene tells the truth through fiction): clandestine meetings, sudden flights to escape uprisings, epiphanies on the beach.

By its nature, a memoir of this type cannot fully be documented. To the extent that it could be, it is, with many pages of notes and references. These private memories, though, may never be proven to be either true or false. It is my greatest wish that Perkins is telling the whole truth all the way through. Even the smallest of fibs could tarnish a work of great importance, given our media's inability to see bigger pictures. The real message, though, is clearly written and inescapable: this is not the story of "they", a "they" that can simply be removed from power. It is the story of us. [originally written in November 2004]

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Screwed, by Thom Hartmann

An excellent, straightforward primer on the major issues facing the American middle class today. Hartmann gives us brief histories of each topic, points to where things started to go wrong, and offers solutions. At the end he lists the simple things we all can do to make a change for the better.

It's a political book, obviously and unashamedly left-leaning, but I suspect people across a broad spectrum of political beliefs can benefit from reading it. Hartmann is at heart a historian, so he's done a lot of the work for us.

An offer: I will be happy to mail this book to someone (free within the U.S.) with a genuine interest in reading it. It is packed in a storage shed right now and I can't get it out until the middle of July but when I do I'll be happy to ship it out! I would be even more thrilled if the person who takes it would make a journal entry about it at bookcrossing, of course.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

It all comes down to a meal.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes four specific meals but they collapse into one: what you are eating tonight.

Pollan asks the question, where does my food come from? In this amazing book that defies an easy cataloging, he does his best to discover the origins of four different meals, progressing from the "industrial" to the foraged (hunted and gathered).

He discovers that "industrial meals", including fast food, come from corn. The many uses to which corn is put is flabbergasting by itself. Following its trip from a farm in Kansas to a McDonald's in Berkeley, though, is disturbing.

He follows the corn to the beef cow that first spends an idyllic six months, more or less, living on grassy hillsides, but then is introduced to the corn mixtures at a factory farm, in an environment that words cannot adequately describe. Cows are not meant to eat corn, so the grain is sliced into wafers to make it more digestible and the cows are bred to tolerate it. The small saving grace here is that the life of this animal isn't long.

Pollan looks at the other parts of the meal as well, but not so intensely. In fact, it is the meat part of the meal that seems to interest him most throughout this book. Which is not to say that we vegetarians need not read this book. It has a great deal to say to all of us.

After eating a McDonald's meal on the road, Pollan moves to Big Organic, and shows us how organically-raised animals differ little in their experience of life from their industrial counterparts. Similarly organic crops are raised in a manner similar to large non-organic produce. The benefits are still there for humans, however. These fields don't contaminate water or air with toxic chemicals and our bodies get more nourishing food (Really. Several studies have now shown that organically-grown food has greater quantities of antioxidants and other nutrients that ward off disease). The down side is that "Big Organic" is not sustainable organic. Small Organic can be. And the animals are not treated as we'd like them to be treated. "Free range eggs?" If you get a chance to see one of these operations you'll laugh at the term.

The third meal comes from a "Beyond Organic" farm where cattle, chickens, turkeys, and other animals are raised in such a sustainable manner that their existence actually enhances the quality of the land. This remarkable farm is run by Joel Salatin, a third-generation beyond-organic farmer. The farm doesn't run itself. The workers spend long days moving animals, cutting hay, processing chickens, doing whatever needs to be done, and something always needs to be done. But the result speaks for itself: a farm run on almost nothing beyond human labor and some power for some equipment. What is especially notable is that the farm's products are so desirable that people drive many miles to get them (Salatin refuses to ship anything because he doesn't want to add the cost of pollution to his bill). Polyface (the name of the farm) also supplies many top restaurants in the area and is sold at farmers' markets.

An ideal farm if it could be replicated all over this country. However, such farms must be run by knowledgable "grass farmers", which is antithetical to the common model for large farms. Factory farms rely on cheap, ignorant labor. Polyface relies on committed, intelligent management. Could be done, though. Salatin feels that when enough people "opt out" of the current mode then factory farms really could become extinct.

The fourth meal is one that Pollan prepares from food he hunted or gathered himself, with a few exceptions. All local, regardless. He spends months learning how to forage and to hunt and finally pulls it all together in a meal he serves to special friends who helped him along the way. This one he dubs "the perfect meal". Not because it tastes better than all the others but because he feels it expresses his gratitude for every item in it. In eating this meal it appears that Pollan reached back into pre-history and felt at home.

I had some quibbles with a segment on vegetarianism and animal rights, because, contrary to how generously he treats others with differing points of view, Pollan actually ridicules animal rights people. Because I am one myself, I was offended not just because of his attitude but because he failed to realize that we are not all the same. Some of the arguments he made against vegetarianism can easily be refuted, but I won't go into that diversion here. Enough to say that he doesn't get much of it right, although he gets more right than many others I know.

This one quibble, which looms rather large in my mind, still did not affect my overall impression of the book. I believe that anyone reading this book will have the tools to make intelligent decisions about how they eat. More, I believe that there are some simple changes that can be made to the law to discourage the production of cheap corn and its trail of toxicity. Knowledge is power.
4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

BTK: Unholy Messenger, by Stephen Singular

The story of "BTK", a serial killer who operated without detection for many years, comes alive in a peculiar way in this book.

Dennis Rader, who named himself BTK - Bind, Torture, Kill - wrote and recorded his thoughts and plans and goals voluminously. Thus it was possible for Singular to get as much into Rader's mind as possible, a rare opportunity when dealing with a serial killer.

What emerges is a rather ordinary, average man, a man with a wife and children, active in his church and respected by many. What he hides is his essential lack of conscience.

Strangely, he wasn't really good at what he did. He was clumsy and often careless. It appears that it was his very ordinariness, his attachment to his community, that shielded him from discovery for so long. In many ways he does not fit the classic serial killer profile. He is driven as much by a compulsion to copy other killers he admires as by his own deep-seated fantasies. In the end, a boring, dull man who unfortunately ends the lives of many.

I felt the story was left unfinished. Singular frequently suggests that many of his crimes were never discovered. The author believes there were many other murders. I am not sure.

A far more interesting character who deserves another look is Rader's pastor, Michael Clark. Clark came to the priesthood by an unusual path and indulged his sense of humor and a delight in donning clown outfits, which may have seemed a little unseemly to some of the congregation. But it is his commitment to Rader that tells the story. His congregation believes in redemption and even though they felt betrayed by Rader they did not desert him. Clark in particular stayed by him, continuing to visit him in his cell to help him in his spiritual journey toward forgiveness. Certainly this is not what we see so often today in religious institutions, although we might wish it were so.

Not a typical true-crime book, which is in its favor.

4 out of 5 stars

A Strange Piece of Paradise by Terry Jentz

This large nonfiction book details a woman’s exploration, many years after the event, of a night when a man wielding an axe attacked her and her friend. The two were seven days into a bicycle trip across the country, and camping in the Cline Falls Park in central Oregon.

The attack took place in June 1977. Jentz started to become obsessed with it in 1992, after many years of almost-flippant references to it, a kind of denial of her feelings that lasted 15 years.

She began her investigation by traveling to the scene of the crime and the surrounding area, gathering police reports and interviewing people. The trip left her unsatisfied and she returned two years later to continue the search, even though at the time she wasn’t at all sure what she was searching for. From then on she returned frequently, making dashes at various lines of inquiry, tracking down leads and involving the different law enforcement agencies in the area.

In the course of this long, involved investigation, Jentz discovers that nobody was ever charged with the crime and there were few suspects. The police seemed unable to pursue what leads they had. It appears that the collection, storage, and use of the evidence was far from thorough as well. Eventually her search narrows into a search for the attacker. The statute of limitations on the crime ran out three years after the attack, so she knows the perp will not have to face the justice system, but she desperately wants to find out who he is and, if possible, find a way to keep him from hurting others. She also has a vague idea that when she knows who he is she can start to heal herself.

The story is, as many reviewers have written, gripping and absorbing, and hard to put down. Other reviewers have complained that there is too much “navel-gazing”, too much time spent on introspection. Overall, I find it a book well worth reading. But not perfect.

Jentz is given to a writing style that seems unnecessarily “literary”, yet also incorporates a type of jargon popular in “victims rights” and “women’s rights” articles. It gives in to the passive voice frequently and awkwardly. There is a kind of unevenness to it, as it veers from one style to another, sometimes using words inappropriately. For example,

How could I access the rage?

The use of “access” as a verb seems to have its roots in the women’s rights and group therapy movements.

…I’d never wrapped my mind around what the experience might have been for her;…

I fight in vain for the removal of the term “wrapped my mind around” from the language.

Meticulous cowboy

This is the term Jentz uses for her attacker. He was carefully dressed, with his shirt fastidiously tucked in so there were no creases. He wore western clothing. I find the adjective “meticulous” not really right for this case. Most often it refers to a way of acting, of doing, not a way of appearing. This young man was fastidious, was dressed immaculately, but it’s hard to call his actions - driving over a curb, knocking over a tent, and slashing out at his victims with an axe – “meticulous”. Each time Jentz referred to him this way it jumped out at me. And she uses it constantly, like a drumbeat. Probably her intention.

Almost as often she refers to her attacker as a “headless torso” or “headless cowboy torso”, bringing to mind just the trunk of a man, with no arms. In fact, that’s what the definition of “torso” says. Given that he used his arms to wield an axe, I suspect – I know from her book – she saw the arms, too.

These are picky points and I can’t explain why they bothered me, except that they were repeated so often.

I fully believed that he was guilty of the attack against Shayna and me. But I couldn’t connect the dots between this man and the fingerprints he had left in my psyche. His presence had not triggered a seismic reaction in me.. . .

Some part of me at the edges of consciousness had lost trust in the order of things.

The facts of the world broke faith with me.

I was no longer deceived that life was following a script in which certain things would never happen.

Passive, passive, passive. “I was no longer deceived”? This type writing suggests that something other than Terri herself was taking control of her life. It’s an interesting perception, given that the book is also saturated with references, both direct and indirect, of fate somehow leading Terri here and there and forcing her to find the meaning in the attack or to make sense of random incidents and comments. She frequently runs into names of places that include “axe” in them and seems to think there is a personal reason for this. The reason is actually simpler than that they were put there for her alone. Oregon in the 1970s and before was a place where axes were far from uncommon.

Well into the book, Terri meets up with a couple who fight for victims’ rights and who do a great deal of investigating for other victims (their daughter was murdered in 1980), to help solve cases or otherwise right wrongs. This couple fills Terri in on their theory of crime and punishment in Oregon: they believe that a misguided “liberal” public favored the view that criminals are not responsible for their actions; “society” is.

I have met a few people who more or less subscribed to this theory, to some extent, in my life. Very few, even though I consort with so-called liberals (and am one). I believe that this couple, and Terri herself, misread the justice system, as do many victims’ rights advocates. They feel that the accused perps are given more attention and more help than are the victims, and that this comes from that perception that it isn’t really their fault.

It’s true that our justice system leans over backwards to protect the rights of the accused. The reason, however, is that it is “better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent man be convicted”. The laws that protect the accused protect all of us. Terri and her friends forget this. Terri makes it clear again and again that she would never want to see anyone wrongly convicted, yet she rails against a system that tries to prevent wrongful convictions.

Jentz also joins her investigating friends in the view that “permissive parents” are more likely to raise criminals than those who abuse their children. One chapter begins with a quotation from the book Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore, brother of Gary (murderer of two who was eventually executed). The quotation is from a legal system that incarcerated Gary at one point, and it says that Gary’s parents would do anything for him, were overly permissive. If Terri actually read that book (which I did) she would realize that his father repeatedly beat Gary while his mother just watched. Is this a type of permissiveness? The quotation clearly did not represent the truth in that particular case.

I do not lack compassion for the victims. I believe that both the accused and the victims deserve special treatment, and to accord such treatment to one doesn’t automatically exclude it from the other.

This is Terri’s book and these are her thoughts and she has every right to them. Nevertheless, I feel a need to offer my own counter-thoughts to some of her conclusions.

One theme that screams loudly in here, and that needs to be heard, is that the law enforcement agencies did not do a good job investigating this crime. There appear to be many reasons for this lack of attention, which Jentz offers and which make sense:

· The term “serial killer” had not even been coined; what were called “stranger murders” were perceived as near-impossible to solve. The investigators apparently felt helpless without a motive or witness. There was plenty of physical evidence (tire tracks, a footprint, probably more if the forensics team had been really diligent) but the investigators seemed to believe they could do nothing with it.

· The attack did not result in murder. Attempted murder takes a huge backseat to actual murder.· There were two women involved. Some people believe there was a sense in the community that women should not be bicycling alone, that they somehow brought this on themselves.

· The law enforcement agencies were overworked. They had to set priorities.

· The head of the state police department that investigated this crime was not expert in criminal investigation and tended to block real investigation, certainly did not aid it.

· Although a great many people in the community immediately “knew” who did it (and many had stories to tell that more than backed up this charge) only one or two actually made an attempt to tell the police what they knew. A part of the reason for this strange neglect seems to be the “individualism” so prevalent in Oregon – a preference for staying out of the way rather than accusing someone who may not be guilty. What struck me was that the law enforcement officials did not follow the leads and find these persons themselves.

Jentz also considers a theory that some of the investigation was simply covered up. Records disappeared. To protect the community from its own? There doesn’t seem to be an answer.

Whatever caused this “miscarriage of justice” certainly needs to be evaluated and if there haven’t been changes to address it (current members of law enforcement say major changes have been made – and ultimately these agencies were more than helpful) there should be. I was constantly reminded of how criminal investigations are most often presented in television fiction, and how that representation is more the ideal than the real. Books like this do us a service by letting us see how horrific crimes can be left unsolved, in spite of adequate forensic and witness evidence. More, it gives us insight into how many lives are affected by a single incident, and for how long.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 28, 2007

The End of Faith by Sam Harris

In his response to criticisms of the hard-cover version of this book, Harris says, "I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable".

This line says it all if suffering of humankind matters. Unfortunately, because of bizarre beliefs, many people believe suffering does not matter, or that it is a price to be paid for an eternity in some kind of afterlife. In this book, Harris sets out the case for concern for others, for the guiding hand of ethics.

I find this book remarkable for its thoroughness and care. I occasionally have a difference with Mr. Harris but overall I find it a good conversation and the book well worth reading. In fact, it is a book that could change the world - if enough people read it and understand it.

Harris is a graduate in philosophy from Stanford, has studied Eastern and Western religions, and has also pursued study of spiritual disciplines, like meditation. His comfort with philosophy and with his knowledge of many religions gives his argument against religions great force, especially as his words are passionate and imbued with empathy.

Harris indicts "moderates" along with extremists. He argues that the moderation comes from outside the various holy books, not from within, from a congregation that takes the good and tosses the bad. Further, he challenges the moderates on their tendency to tolerate the more extreme religious practices. Just as we would not tolerate a society of flat-earth people, so we should not tolerate a group that believes in suicide bombing as a way to personal redemption.

He suggests - his hope knows no bounds - that our civilization could turn around in one generation. We could sweep the power of religion away and pursue our lives more thoughtfully and rationally. I suspect it will take many generations, if it happens at all.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Cities of the Red Night by W.S. Burroughs

I read Cities of the Red Night because I wanted to know what Burroughs was up to.

Frankly, I had a terrible time with it. A friend of mine worked with W.S. Burroughs for several years and even created a hotel that he called "The Beat Hotel" - a hotel where you can study about the "beats", talk with other interested and interesting persons, see original work, particularly by Burroughs. It's a wonderful small hotel (unfortunately, my friend died unexpectedly and the hotel is not open now and may never reopen).

I broached the subject of Burroughs with my friend several times,but he never really answered my questions.I am not sure if he thought I was too prudish to hear it? It seems laughable, yet that may be the case.Because of his connection to WSB and because he worked in particular on Cities of The Red Night with Burroughs, I wanted to read it so I could understand Burroughs better.

I can't understand him. In addition to reading this entire book, page by halting page, I have read much of a substantial biography and have read many websites about him. My overall impression is not good. I suspect that his work appeals to men and of course particularly gay men. I felt sticky with semen every time I touched that book.I keep looking for what I may have missed. Certainly his writing is unusual, although to me it seems to be unusual in a druggy sort of way, along with that obsession with sparkling, colored semen and the ecstacy of hanging.

I am open to alternative opinions, explanations of what I may have missed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

An amazing book. Barry started out to review just what had started the epidemic of 1918 and how it was handled, and he got caught up in politics and scientific history and ended up developing the most comprehensive story of this epidemic ever written. He reviews the state of medicine at the time, how it got to that place, and what top researchers were doing. He lays out how the governmental agencies responded and why. He follows how the scientists pursue identification of the cause of the epidemic, what mistakes they make, who they are and why they behave as they do.

The Great Influenza: the story of the deadliest pandemic in history is a history of many men and women as well as the history of the study of bacteriology and virology. In the end, it is also a warning to us. We are not any better prepared than we were in 1918, probably even less prepared. We haven't really learned from it.

The book, though long, is highly readable, intelligently written, clear and detailed, a wealth of information. It is fascinating.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is the remarkable story of a young boy (age 12) who struggled to stay alive after rebels attacked his home village in Sierra Leone. His struggles kept him constantly on the run until he finally landed in a village protected by government soldiers, who eventually recruited him and his friends. It wasn't as if he had much choice. If he had refused he had little chance at living.

Ishmael Beah was thoroughly indoctrinated into the soldier's way of life and it wasn't long before killing was commonplace, unremarkable to him. It sounded to me rather like a gang mentality: kill them before they kill you. He didn't hesitate to kill villagers, including other children, with rarely a second thought. He even laughed at the stark terror in the eyes of his captives.

Ishmael was one of the lucky ones. He was rescued by UNICEF and placed in a camp with other boy soldiers, where he slowly learned how to become "human" again. Because of his excellent memory and literacy he was eventually whisked off to the UN in New York to tell his story, and later he found his way there to live.

The UNICEF camp appeared to be experimental; they didn't know what they were dealing with at first. But they seem to have figured it out eventually. After years of seeing nothing but greeting cards from UNICEF and no real stories of what they do, I was gratified to hear that they actually do some good.

It's a sad, horrifying, unreal story that actually has a happy ending. This incredible young man is only 26 years old. His ability to tell his story simply, without melodrama, makes it compelling reading.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Nicole Brown Simpson, by Faye Resnick

Truth: I am writing about this book as comic relief. Not because I think murder is funny and certainly not because I think it's funny to get away with murder. But because this is essentially the story of the rich and brainless.

The one thing Faye Resnick (written with Mike Walker) does in this book is convince us that she was a friend of Nicole Simpson's. She further provides the build-up to Nicole's murder somewhat convincingly, although I have to admit that I wonder if some of her histrionics are really after-the-fact. Did she really plead with Nicole to get away from Los Angeles because O.J. might murder her? Did she take O.J.'s proclamations, that he would kill Nicole, seriously right out of the gate? I will probably never know and I won't lose any sleep over it.

Much of the book details the friendship between Nicole Simpson and Faye Resnick. The two of them had married men who made a lot of money so they generally were not hurting financially, even after divorces. It appears that they spent their time going dancing, shopping, and to Cabo San Lucas. And occasionally hooking up.

When Faye goes to a friend's house she describes it as a nice house, "20,000 square feet". When she talks of Nicole, she amost always mentions how beautiful she was, how fit. Most of the adjectives describing places and events and people emphasize how expensive, how big, how beautiful. Quintessential Beverly Hills women. Which is to say, really, the newly rich, anxious to prove they have friends with money.

Although she frequently mentions what a great mom Nicole is, she usually means that she takes them to dance classes or recitals or holds big parties. We don't get to know the children at all in this book. We only get their names. And an odd, somewhat sensual photo of Nicole's two children which is described as her favorite.

Resnick says she wrote the book to quell the rumors about Nicole. I'm not at all sure she did her any favors. I came away seeing Nicole as a party girl, a woman lacking the ability for deep reflection, a woman lacking any sense of wrong when she has affairs with married men ("I deserve happiness"). She comes across, worse, as a woman who has "had black and can't go back". Such a cliche yet it's spelled out in here.

I have absolutely no idea about what kind of mother she was. Her long relationship with O.J. seems to have existed on a bizarre sense of what's important in a marriage - is it the diamond earrings, Nicole? The sex? Really?

Resnick drags out her dimestore psychology books and makes some attempts to explain Nicole's personality and she gets some of it right but doesn't go nearly far enough. The theories are hackneyed and in some cases just plain wrong. The result is a cardboard cutout suitable for teen boy adoration.

No reason to look for this book unless you are obsessed with Nicole. It's badly written and has nothing to illuminate Nicole's murder.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Body Trace by D.H. Dublin

Body Trace:

Nancy Drew plays forensic scientist is how I see this book. The book's hero is Madison Cross, recently graduated from medical school, who has just taken a job with the Philadelphia Crime Scene Unit, the forensic investigation team. We can understand - somewhat - how Ms. Cross might be a bit green and might make mistakes, but I don't think we can give the same break to the rest of the team. We watch Madison and her more experienced coworkers return to the scene of the crime again and again - three times at least - because they didn't bother to do a thorough job of collecting evidence the first time. Instead of following a routine, they wing it. What kind of scientist does this??

They analyse materials only when they have a theory for them. Madison follows along but nobody tells her what she should be doing.

Twenty years ago a writer might have gotten away with some of this because the reading public wasn't as knowledgable about forensic science and techniques. Now we are. We can pick up that the photographer doesn't know how to do a proper job, for example, when told that "she took photographs from every conceivable angle". Then she backed up and took more. No. Wrong. You start with the wider view and photograph in circles, gradually closing in on the body. There are specific methods for collecting evidence,as well, including the collection of trace evidence. We see none of that here. Instead, this crack team visits the scene many days later and finds a bit of hair here, a bit there.

Yet the writer, D. H. Dublin (a pseudonym for Jonathan McGoran) is writing a series on the C.S.U.! Who does he think he is??

What he does well in this book is describe Philadelphia, the city where he lives. I suspect Phillie readers might enjoy the book because they can recognize the landmarks, the restaurants, the bridges and highways. It's not enough for me.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Murder at the Washington Tribune, by Margaret Truman

Murder at the Washington Tribune: A Capital Crimes Novel (Truman, Margaret, Capital Crimes Series.)

The theme is a good one: a long-time journalist succumbing to a temptation to invent to get a better story. But the details drag it down, make it unbelievable.

First, the protagonist has been a highly-ethical straight-shooter for his entire career. As he engages in his bit of fraud he hardly seems bothered by it. The reasons for his deception are slim and not convincing. I simply didn't buy that this type character would do these things.

Second, the police investigation. At heart of the story is the contention that two closely-spaced murders could be the work of a serial killer. The conclusion is drawn from the fact that both women were strangled, both were young and attractive, both were in journalistic careers. There are, however, many ways to strangle someone, and each creates a kind of "signature". It is unlikely that two different persons would have exactly the same signature. Yet there are no details of the killings given. Only that they were both strangled. It is as if the police were investigating a crime in 1950, not now.

THere are other aspects of the investigation and of the reporting that don't ring true. A lead is a lead, and both the police and a reporter are likely to follow it up, whether or not they think it's useful. Yet we have most of these characters deciding what's important and what isn't without making the extra effort. I simply do not buy it.

Then there is the matter of the missing brother who turns up suspiciously. His story never falls together right.

Read it on an airplane or waiting room. It will give you something to do and it's better than a romance novel.