Early in the year I tried — no kidding — to read everything ever written by and about Sarah Palin. Going Rogue, Sarah from Alaska, America by Heart, you name it. I had it in my head that I was going to write a bitterly funny book about modern politics. Working title: The Palin. A satirical monster story about a blood-hungry, wolverine-like creature that terrorizes a small northern town before being driven back into the woods. The research process, initially undertaken with great enthusiasm, soon turned grim. I lasted about a month before surrendering. It was like the literary equivalent of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. I almost wish I had filmed it.
In search of a palate cleanse, I moved on to late-phase David Markson, the non-novel novels: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel. It’s like reading like the best Twitter feed in history, a rapid-fire but far from accidental collage of factoids and quotes and letter excerpts and gossip drawn from the super fine print of art and literary history. Stuff like: “For some years, Marcel Duchamp was the second ranked chess master in France.” And: “T.S. Eliot was afraid of cows.” This is experimental fiction at its finest — way-out-there books that also manage to be compulsively readable. No plot. No characters. No linear progression. And yet somehow deeply emotional. Markson, who died in 2010, looms large on every page — you can almost hear the gears of his mind turning — and mortality is the unmistakable undercurrent. The cumulative effect sneaks up on you. These are books about books, books about the making of art. And mostly they’re about a man facing down death with courage, by reading and thinking and writing.
Most recent book that I read and liked: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. This one, too, is concerned with the making of art (I guess this stuff has been on my mind). Lerner’s novel is lean but heavy, and beautifully written, with plenty of wince-while-laughing comedic moments. A very clever inversion of postmodern fiction’s basic model. The protagonist, Adam Gordon, is an avant-garde fuck-up, a gifted young poet (much like the author himself), a Fulbright Scholar drifting in Madrid. He smokes too much hash. He takes too many pills. He mangles the Spanish language and bumbles his way through readings. There are trains. There are lies. There are unsatisfying liaisons with two different women. And above all else, there is the search for the real — both internal and external. I’ll probably read this one again.
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Rex Sorgatz (who runs the excellent Fimoculous) has noted a trend in the accessible non-fiction category: the “My Year As…” book. The author spends an entire year reading the OED or gorging on the competitive eating circuit, all to provide a window into a subculture, give the author an opportunity to poke a little fun at him or herself, and ultimately provide fodder for a book. Were I to trace the genesis of its trend, I would speculate that it’s the offspring of Morgan Sperlock’s gluttonous and popular experiment Super Size Me and the proliferation and popularity of reality television, wherein a regular Joe endures a contrived concept and the world watches. Sorgatz has compiled a list of these books, which at 22 strong, inclines this observer to think that the “year” may be nearing its end for this type of book.This trend, of course, replaced an earlier trend, “biographies of things,” which had “changed the world,” according to the assertions of the authors and publishers, perhaps achieving its apotheosis with Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. This trend was succinctly dismissed by Richard Adams in the Gaurdian, writingIn a sense, yes, all these things have changed the world, but only in a general sense that everything that exists changes the world.
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