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