3.29.2010

What's for Dinner?

Last night, after finishing Alexie's Flight, I picked up a book I knew I wouldn't finish in one sitting: Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  I hesitated at first.  See, I've been wanting to read this one since I ordered it back in January.  But it was likely to be a keeper, and you might recall I was trying to read the get-rid-ofs first.  Then, yesterday, I threw caution to the wind and actually took WITHOUT READING some of the get-rid-ofs straight to McKay.  I figured if they had sat there for that long untouched and the desire to get rid of them was still not inducing me to read them, they should just go.  So, go they did.  I got some cash from the ones they took and spent my old yellow trade bucks and washed my hands of McKay.  Since they've moved, the appeal of shopping there has greatly diminished, so I've decided to throw my business to one of the closer used books sellers.  In fact, a new one has just opened on Brainerd Road, just through the tunnels, and though I've yet to go in, it has definite promise. 

Back to Pollan.  My secondary hesitation came because of the proximity to Leonard's The Story of Stuff.  I didn't want to become overwhelmed by the politics of our agri-consumerism.  I'm reading more social scientific books these days than novels or poetry, and I'm not sure what to make of that shift.  I've apparently and unforgivably forgotten about "timshel" from East of Eden - one of my favorite books of all time - perhaps because I'm so full of this information about coal mining and aluminum manufacturing and living wages and corn production.  In fact, I almost chose to re-read East of Eden last night in lieu of the Pollan for just that reason.  I don't want to lose those vital connections to story.  But Pollan's narrative is as compelling as Steinbeck's - maybe moreso because it is so present.

I've just finished the first section where he traces the industrial food chain from the corn field to the McDonald's meal.  Once again, I am convicted and bemused and astonished and confirmed all at once.  I haven't quite brought myself to pour out the Coffee-Mate in my fridge, but I'm close.  I did call my dad and thank him for raising such healthy and happy grass-fed beef cattle.  I am going to try my hardest to not buy mass-market meats ever again.  There is just so much wrong with the CAFO model, and though my consumer choices may not make any difference in the global economy, my purchases will make a difference to me and to my family. 

Some of the most forceful passages so far:

That perhaps is what the industrial food chain does best: obscure the histories of the foods it produces by processing them to such an extent that they appear as pure products of culture rather than nature. (115)

On the idea of McDonald's as comfort food:
...after a few bites I'm more inclined to think they're selling something more schematic than that - something more like a signifier of comfort food.  So you eat more and eat more quickly, hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger or French fry as it retreats over the horizon.  And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably, full. (119)

Next, he moves into what he calls the Pastoral food chain - an alternative to the industrial model growing in response to demand from consumers like myself.  I'll be interested to see what he reveals in this segment.

An interesting side note: for dinner tonight, I made a "salad" from black beans, edamame, wheat berries, tomato, onion, oil, and red wine vinegar, and it was really delicious.  I felt very appropriately meat and corn-product free (I think?).

3.28.2010

Flight by Sherman Alexie

The kids and Joel left for a week in WV on Thursday.  It is now Sunday, and I am just now getting around to sitting down to read an entire book.  What have I been thinking?  This book, Flight by Sherman Alexie, is another one salvaged from the McCallie throwaway bins, so I had deal with the fact that some poor boy had underlined the bejeezus out of it.  I count it as a significant achievement that I not only read the whole thing in a few hours (it's only 181 pages, so not much of an accomplishment, really) but erased the unnecessary markings as well.  Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on what side of the moving van you're standing on, I will keep this one.  In fact, I may even teach it.  It has a lot of good stuff to say about American Values, and the style is infectious.  I think my students will respond better to the language and action that troubled me.  I say it troubled me not because I think the violence or expletives were gratuitous or extraneous.  In fact, they troubled me because they felt so True and necessary to tell this story.  I wish it were not so, but it is.

Alexie's main character, Zits, carries this narrative beautifully, and even though it is intentionally unrealistic, you never feel that it strays from believability.  You want Zits to succeed.  You want him to learn from a past where others have failed to see.  You want him to be saved.  So, where the ending could start to feel a little after-school-special, it somehow doesn't.  You want it to be true, so it is.

3.20.2010

Call to Action

I finished The Story of Stuff this morning (at least one of the 4 books I brought with me on this conference will be completed!), and I am overwhelmed.  Leonard actually does a good job of reassuring her readers against that despairing feeling of being overwhelmed - as though the issue is so big no amount of help can fix it.  I can admit to a tinge of that in the middle of the book.  But I got over it, and I appreciated these words of acknowledgment:

There's too much wrong with the system for even the most obsessive-compulsive among us to get every action and every choice just right.  And because that scenario is so overwhelming, the individual-responsibility model of change risks causing people to freak out, throw their hands up in despair, and sink back into overconsumptive, wasteful lifestyles.  People are busy enough already; rather than offering an overwhelming range of green lifestyle choices, we need meaningful opportunities to make big choices (for example on policy) that make big differences (240).

I also especially like the extended vision of a possible future she provides.  I agree that "the important thing is to keep in clear sight a vision of what we are fighting for, because the things we are fighting against are all around us" (248).

And though the individual-responsibility model can be overwhelming, I still leave this book with 10 major things I have already begun implementing in my life, and I know the ripple effect can and should be possible with many of these changes.  It won't save the world, but it can help.

3.19.2010

The Story of Stuff

I did not get to any additional reading before this lovely tome arrived at my door (via Amazon - more on that later), partially because it arrived on Monday instead of Tuesday, but more because I chose to read a bit in The Sewanee Review instead.  I suppose The Sewanee Review does not count as a book, but it does count among those things I am reading, so it gets to be included.  I was surprised by how much I appreciated the book reviews, and the poems and essays so far have been great.  In particular, I thought it indicative of success that Robert Benson was able to make me appreciate hunting through his thoughtful essay, "The Old Lift of the Heart."

But now that The Story of Stuff has arrived, I've been poring over it pretty much non-stop, pencil in hand, and even using a Hampton Inn "Thought Pad" to make a list of "SOS Action Steps" as I have called them.  For sure, Annie Leonard's video was preaching to this proverbial choir, and I love the simple message of it.  The book complicates matters a bit in 2 discrete ways:  first, there is just much more information and therefore, much more complexity of information to deal with; second, the book is not particularly well-written.  It has that "talky" quality that the video does so well, but in a written text, it doesn't work as well for me.  I do suspect students might appreciate that informal tone, but they would most definitely struggle with the depth and breadth of information presented.  So, though I am enjoying the book immensely, I am hesitating on it being a good classroom selection.  The video, yes; the book, maybe?

As for those action steps, number 1 is definitely eliminating canned beverages from my life.  I was one of those naive folks who thought aluminum was better than plastic because of its recyclability.  I do recycle all my cans, but Leonard's compelling discourse on the monumental process of making aluminum (and its rather ridiculous usual use) has convinced me.  Plus, it's a good excuse to do something I've been wanting to do but haven't had the will power to do on my own: stop drinking sodas at home.  It's rare anyway, but this reading might just be the thing to push me over the edge - or pull me back, I suppose you could say.  The other major issue is number 4, and it has to do with my love affair with all things Amazon.  You might have noticed these handy links here that allow you to with one click navigate to Amazon's site where you could buy this book (or any of the others listed here).  How easy!  How interesting!  How disturbingly antithetical to Leonard's assertions.  

Amazon is not quite the evil empire in Leonard's eyes (that title is reserved for either Wal-Mart or Shell/Chevron/insertgiantoilcompanynamehere), but she does devote significant time to the unnecessary scope and scale of Amazon and its damaging effects.  Thus, I am beginning to rethink my relationship with this good-natured behemoth.  I have an idea to develop a relationship between the members of our department and one of the local booksellers to approximate the convenience Amazon offers on a local scale.  We'll see where that takes me.

By the way, do you remember that notion I had to read the books I knew I wanted to resell . . . "in the interest of lightening the load" was my wording, I think.  Well, at the CCCC yesterday, I stumbled across a display that was selling all its titles for $3.  That's cheaper than used, people.  Plus, they had The Paris Review Interviews (all 4!) for that incredible price, and these have been on my wishlist (Amazon, natch) for ages.  So, I bought them.  And 5 others.  How absurd.  How absurdly me.

3.13.2010

A Monk Drowning

I force-fed myself the last 1/3 of A Monk Swimming last night because I was just so ready to be finished with old Malachy and his escapades.  Typical me:  I wasn't enjoying the book or getting any insight from it, but I couldn't just not finish it.  I had to see how it ended.  The answer: poorly.  It just stopped with no resolution, no promise, nothing.  Just stopped.  I suppose McCourt really was/is a funny guy, but I just couldn't get over feeling like he was making it all up just to be funny, and it wasn't all that funny.  I suppose it is kind of like my reaction to Running with Scissors.  I just don't want to make room in my world for this man and his drunken infidelities.  No reason to junk up the corners of my mind when there is always useful or thought-provoking stuff still out there.  I just wish I could convince myself of this truth WITHOUT having to read the whole book.  It's still true midway through.

Speaking of useful and thought-provoking: I got turned on to Annie Leonard and her The Story of Stuffyesterday thanks to Facebook, so I've ordered it; however, it won't be here until Tuesday, so in the meantime . . . what is the next for to be vanquished?  Surely I can get another McKay-bound tome finished before Leonard's book gets here.  Bets?

3.07.2010

Travelling Light?

We have recently made the decision to move (again!) and before anyone gets too excited, let me be clear:  this move is to a larger, nicer apartment on campus - NOT to our fabled "new house" on Lookout Mountain, which may never (EVER!) be worked on again.  The other blog is practically at a standstill, as is the related work on said house.  But the new apartment is going to be great, and we are excited.  As the idea of a move has settled in, my approach to the old TBR shelf has shifted a bit.  I now need to read all (by May - HA!) the books I suspect I will get rid of after reading.  Less to move, you see.  So, in the interest of lightening the load, I am now reading A Monk Swimming by Malachy McCourt.  Joel read it ages ago and kept urging me to read it, so there it has sat.  Untouched.  I don't know why I'm so uninterested (well, I have an inkling, but it reflects such utter snobbery that I can't record it here), but I am finally taking it up in hopes of dispatching it to McKay forthwith.  And it does have funny bits and interesting musings, so I'm not suffering.  In fact, there are even some thoughts on bartending worthy of recording here:

What a position of power has the man behind the bar!  Equal to the C.E.O. behind the big desk, the professor behind the podium, the judge on the bench, the actor on the stage - but perhaps most equivalent to the priest at the alter.  The barman, like the priest, deals with wine and water; he utters incantations: $1.10 plus $1.10 = $2.20 + tax = $2.30; his congregation are supplicants for grace, which he dispenses upon proper and ample contributions.  He hears confessions of wrongdoing and absolves the sinner, and at the end of the night, gives the old cry, Ita Missa Est - Go, Ye are Dismissed - and closes up, going to bed satisfied at having ministered well to his congregation. (46)