I’d noticed that over the last few months, John McPhee’s articles in the New Yorker have been somewhat thematically linked, and it occurred to me that his next book would probably be about that theme, transportation. Based on the contributor’s notes from last weeks issue, it appears as though this is indeed the case: “This piece” – about coal trains – “is part of a series about freight transportation that will be published as a book, Uncommon Carriers, in May.” None of those articles are available online, but off-hand I recall ones about river barges, UPS’s gargantuan shipping operation and riding along in a tanker truck. In an interview at the New Yorker site, McPhee talks a little bit more about the book, which he says grew out of his work on Looking for a Ship – which Emre and I both read recently. He also discusses the enormity of his twenty year undertaking, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about American geology, Annals of the Former World.
Now that Thanksgiving weekend has finally come to a close, I have a bit of time to let you know about one or two odd and interesting books I've noticed lately. I happen to think that Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of the more enjoyable books I've ever read, and I also loved reading about Kesey in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (which, by the way is fantastic if read back to back with Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels since the books tell essentially the same story but with different points of view and writing styles). So, I was rather intrigued when I came across Kesey's Jail Journal. It's a colorful amalgamation of collages, drawings, and text that he created during various stints behind bars over the course of thirty years.Another interesting looking book is Six Feet Under: Better Living Through Death which is a companion book to the HBO series. I'm not a big fan of TV show companion books. They are nearly always hastily produced assemblages of screen captures and mind-numbingly idiotic text, but this one appears to break the mold a bit. The book isn't an episode guide; instead it meanders through various backstories in an appropriately eerie sort of way, with lots of odd photos and ephmera related to the show. In that sense it's interesting for what it is, but it's also a triumph in book design. The book slides into this odd, plastic, vertical slip cover that is faintly reminiscent of a coffin, and the book itself lacks a traditional spine, and instead appears to be a series of booklets artfully woven together.Finally, I'm sure all the Mcsweeney's watchers have seen this item, which for me falls into the annoying "weird for the sake of being weird" category. Projects like William T. Vollman's Rising Up and Rising Down keep me interested, but it bugs me to see McSweeney's squandering the advantages they have over other independent publishers with so much forced silliness and ironic posturing.
Next I read Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser. Summers are great for reading all the random and must-read books that have been sitting on your shelf for too long. I remember moving to New York a year after the publication of Schlosser's study on fast food companies and how they affect the food industry. Everyone on the subway was reading it. When asked to comment, people usually said: "I'll never eat McDonald's again." I wanted to keep eating McDonald's (even Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me did not stop me), so I made a mental note to read Fast Food Nation when I decided to stop eating McDonald's on my own volition. Well, that happened a while ago and my friend Annastacia conveniently finished reading Fast Food Nation as I finished Marabou Stork Nightmares during a boat trip. So, we swapped. Schlosser's study and diligence are both highly commendable. Despite the great amount of detailed facts contained in Fast Food Nation, which - at times - make it a little textbook like, the book is still an interesting and entertaining read. My favorite parts were: "The Founding Fathers," where Schlosser provides historical information about the spread of drive-in joints and burgers in the US (as well as the suburban lifestyle that was adopted in California and spread - in my opinion like a plague - throughout the country); "Why the Fries Taste Good," where Schlosser explains the intricacies of food engineering through his travels around the New Jersey Turnpike, smelling and tasting final products in chemical form; and "The Most Dangerous Job," in which Schlosser describes the working conditions in meat processing plants. Fast Food Nation does have disgusting parts, especially while describing the meatpacking industry. It also has heart breaking moments such as the demise of mid-level, all-American ranchers, and the aforementioned working conditions in meatpacking.I finished the book on the plane back to New York. I had been in Turkey for two and a half months and longed for a good burger. As soon as I dropped of my luggage at my friends' house, I went straight to the Corner Bistro and ate a medium-rare burger. It was delicious. I did, however, think twice about my order for the first time in my life. Schlosser's dramatic presentation does leave one wondering about the quality of food we put in our bodies. I heard that Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence is worse. I am intrigued. One final note, despite enjoying Schlosser's work I think it would be more appropriate to title it "Low Cost Meat: Straight from the Shit Trough and onto your Buns." I think the connection between the fast food companies and the food industry is good, but not strong and substantive enough to warrant the title Fast Food Nation. In the overall context, however, the title does remain relevant as Schlosser also examines the fast food companies' successful efforts to prevent unionization, the decline in industry wages, the creation of an easily dispensable and readily replaceable workforce, and the fast food companies' stronger influence on the food industry than Congress'.Continuing my obsession with food I am now reading Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling. My friend Serdar, who is a big time food lover as well as a graduate of the French Culinary institute in New York, gave the book to me and told me to become a journalist like Liebling. At this point I can only try. Liebling's prose is entertaining and smooth. He talks about food with great expertise, and it is easy to see his vast understanding of fine dining and good wines. Hopefully I can, one day, be as decadent as Liebling too. From all I can gauge so far, Henry Miller would have penned Between Meals if he had been obsessed with food instead of sex. I am unsure if the opposite would apply to Liebling, but he is a connoisseur in his own field and shows, at every turn, how he acquired his knowledge over the years, beginning as a student. Between Meals is a light, entertaining and mouth watering read. I imagine that it would be perfect if you were on a plane to Paris and wanted nothing but to eat, drink, and be merry. Bon appetite!See Also: Part 1
Whether it was the richly funded schools or the iron ore in the water or some other strange vortex (Hibbing is also, weirdly, at the epicenter of climate change), the town boasts an unusual number of writers, some of them culture-changers like Dylan.
Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don't make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many "best of" lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson's first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain's nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They're both nearly perfect, and I don't find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I'll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don't think I'll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis' very fine Old Devils as I've been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
Amazon has introduced a new feature that promises to be more useful than the Statistically Improbable Phrases feature that launched a few months ago. The "SIP" feature finds distinctive phrases inside books and then linked users to other books that contained those same distinctive phrases. For example, Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World contains five instances of the distinctive phrase "deer poaching," which Amazon tells us also appears in several other books, including Deer and Deer Hunting Book 2: Strategies and Tactics for the Advanced Hunter. Amusing, but not terribly useful. Amazon's new feature, Capitalized Phrases" or "CAPs," links books by proper names and places, so by clicking on "King Lear" from among the CAPs for Will in the World, you get a list of books that mention "King Lear." This seems like a potentially very useful research tool - especially if Amazon decides not to limit the results to twenty or so books as they are currently doing. These "phrases" features by Amazon also represent a foray into the relatively new Internet phenomenon of tagging, which sites like del.icio.us use to categorize Web sites. Since the process is external - in the case of del.icio.us, the tags are applied by users - and has a human element to it, sites that employ tagging have the potential to be "smarter" than those that rely on old-fashioned search engines. It will be interesting to see if Amazon begins to allow user submitted tags in addition to its Search Inside a Book data to create a deep and highly intuitive way of organizing its massive inventory.
Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours was one of the biggest hits of the last ten years, so it's fair to say that his follow-up Specimen Days is being anticipated by many readers. Like The Hours, Specimen Days is composed of three interrelated stories. The title of the novel is borrowed from Walt Whitman's autobiography, and much as Virginia Woolf was the inspiration for The Hours, Whitman provides raw material for Specimen Days. The book gets a gushing review in the New York Observer: Specimen Days is "an extraordinary book, as ambitious as it is generous; and the depth of its kindness, or grace, is to convey that it is we ourselves, the multitude, who are extraordinary, or might be."Another anticipated follow up is Dai Sijie's Mr. Muo's Traveling Couch, which comes on the heels of Sijie's popular novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Traveling Couch (no relation to the Traveling Pants as far as I know) is about a French-trained psychoanalyst who returns to his native China where his sweetheart is a political prisoner. You can read an excerpt of the book here.Terry Gamble has new book out, Good Family, her second novel after her 2003 debut, Water Dancers. Good Family starts like this: "In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train."Kaui Hart Hemmings is the author of a debut collection of stories, House of Thieves, that sounds very interesting. Hemmings is Hawaiian, and PW says "a dusty, dreamy Hawaii rife with sexual frustration, loneliness and adolescent heartbreak is the setting for the nine stories of Hemmings's bold debut collection." Her story "The Minor Wars" appeared in the 2004 Best Nonrequired Reading, and here you can read an excerpt of the title story which appeared in Zoetrope: All Story.
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There is a sort of raw bitterness gripping the country these days. People in the red states and the blue states are feeling fear and rancor, and it is directed at each other, not terrorists. From every radio, television, and newspaper, we are hearing that we live in a nation divided. It is true, the citizens of this country occupy a wide and diverse range of viewpoints on many subjects. And we each huddle around one party or the other, one candidate or the other, and the distance between the two camps can seem vast. A sampling of the headlines: "Bush vows to unite a divided nation" says the Chicago Tribune. "Very close vote shows U.S. still deeply divided" says the San Francisco Chronicle. "A deepening divide between red and blue" says the CS Monitor. There are hundreds more. So this might be a good time to look back at some other times when our nation has been divided, just for the sake of perspective. And, of course, there are some great books that can help us do this.The Civil War: A nation doesn't get much more divided than this. Forget red map, blue map; this was grey map, blue map, brother against brother. For four years the nation was torn asunder. 560,000 dead. It becomes hard to declare that our nation is divided when you remember the Civil War. You can read about the period of time when the country was at its most divided in The Civil War, 3-Volume Box Set, an iconic history by Shelby Foote. Or if you prefer a one volume treatment, you can try James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, another fantastic book. These are, of course, just two selections among hundreds on the topic. Civil rights: These days we've got battling bumper stickers and arguments about torn up lawn signs. People are declaring that they will move to Canada, while others say good riddance, but it wasn't long ago that this nation was divided over Civil Rights and desegregation. Brave souls fought against voter intimidation and school segregation and faced the seething anger of those who used firehoses, police dogs, and even murder to maintain the status quo. The pundits will tell you now that we are a nation deeply, perhaps irreparably, divided, but how divided can we be compared to our struggles against segregation and Jim Crow? There is much to read on the topic, but the articles contained in the Library of America's collection Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941-1963 provide a glimpse of the Civil Rights movement as it was happening (don't forget the second volume, 1963 to 1973, when you finish the first). Another (again, out of many) worth reading is Diane McWhorter's Pulitzer winner from 2002, Carry Me Home : Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (excerpt).McCarthyism and the Red Scare: Do you regret anything you did in college? Did you used to be a member of another political party? In the 1950s you could have been dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and made to explain yourself. Those labeled "Reds" faced blacklists and public derision. The nation for a time was divided between McCarthy's supporters and those they sought to label as communists. People may accuse the recent campaigns of similar fearmongering, but our country is not so divided that House Committees are wrongfully accusing private citizens of treasonous acts. There are many books that cover the historical details, but I've always found Arthur Miller's parable of McCarthyism, The Crucible to be much more powerful. One of my favorite films is also a parable of these troubled times. Elia Kazan's On the WaterfrontSo there are just three examples of exactly how divided this country can get. I don't think the red-staters and blue-staters will be getting together for a picnic any time soon, but things aren't going to get as bad as these examples from American history. We live in times that are difficult and uncertain, but after witnessing the self-pity and rending of garments that have resulted from this campaign and the election that followed, I thought it best to try to put things in perspective. It made me feel better, how about you?Update: Some of my fellow bloggers are also turning to books to get them past their post-election malaise. Have a look at this excellent post at Conversational Reading. Bookninja, meanwhile, gives us a more foreboding reading list.