Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Over Tumbled Graves

Jess Walter's first novel is a literary police procedural based apparently on a true story in his hometown of Spokane. The powerful prose, the delicious irony that characterizes his later work are present in this debut.

When detective Caroline Mabry, the protagonist, talks about her unsuccessful attempts at dating: "On their first date, they talked about leaving Spokane; she was waiting to hear from law school, he from an Alaskan fishing boat. That conversation had taken place on almost every date Caroline had in Spokane. Everyone was either in the process of leaving or apologizing for not leaving yet. Caroline found herself hoping it was the same in other mid-sized cities, that there were some places that could only be left, cities just barely boldfaced on road maps -- Dayton, Des Moines, and Decatur; Springfield, Stockton, and any city with 'Fort' in its name -- places that spark none of that romantic quality that young people believe will keep them from growing old."

When another detective, Alan Dupree, Caroline's mentor and would-be lover goes to a neighborhood on a call: "Dupree got off at the second exit and wound his way into a familiar neighborhood; they were all familiar if you'd been on the job anytime at all. He'd imagined starting a guided tour with retired cops, with starred maps of murder, theft, and perversion. His own map was no different from any other cop's: a rape in that house, a two-car fatal accident in front of that convenience store, a house where a biker had fenced stolen auto parts."

Mabry and Dupree are tracking a serial killer and the case, the conflict it brings, shatters both their careers. There are plot twists and surprises, but much more texture, more depth than you usually get in a procedural. Rich, literary characterization that makes you sympathize with the character's flaws more than their virtues.

Plus, Walter has his fun mocking FBI profiling and profilers, with the killer himself joining in the fun. But Walter also asks some serious and probing questions about murderers and tracking them down.

I like mysteries and and I really like Jess Walter, so this was a good book for me.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Omnivore's Dilemma

This is a transformative book. I long ago stopped buying meat at Safeway or Giant and now I know why. So much of what Michael Pollan has chronicled in this book has filtered down into the general consciousness. This book and his subsequent works have been bestsellers and his ideas were a big part of the documentary Food Inc.

It's not just that Pollan does some great reporting -- visiting the cattle feed lots and corn fields of modern industrial agriculture, reading a massive amount of literature on food production, and doing a George Plimpton by going to Joel Salatin's Polyface farm and hunting wild pig with a Sicilian emigre -- but he relentlessly analyzes, reasons, reflects. And he does so in a lucid, intelligent prose that is laced with rich humor.

In the key chapter that explains the title of the book, Pollan describes how eating many kinds of food as do omnivores like rats and human increases brain capacity because of the choices that must be made. He contrasts that with animals like the koala bear who eat only one thing, such as eucalyptus leaves. "Eating might be simpler as a thimble-brained monophage, but it's also a lot more precarious, which partly explains why there are so many more rats and humans in the world than koalas. Should a disease or drought strike the eucalyptus trees in your neck of the woods, that's it for you. But the rat and human can live just about anywhere on earth, and when their familiar foods are in short supply, there's always another they can try."

Fungi are apparently neither animal nor vegetable and this whole chapter is hilarious. Pollan describes why people find mushrooms mysterious and somewhat off-putting. "That the fungi are so steeped in death might account for much of their mystery and our mycophobia. They stand on the threshold between the living and the dead, breaking the dead down into food for the living, a process on which no one likes to dwell."

But of course the real meat of the book, so to speak, is Pollan's vivid and damning description of where the meat at McDonald's or Safeway comes from. His patient tracing of industrial food from subsidized corn through the CAFO to the terrible process that produces ground beef. E. coli, obesity, and a host of ills are traced back to bad food.

What struck me is how relatively recent the really bad stuff is. The misguided agricultural subsidies started under Earl Butz, Nixon's Agriculture secretary. I grew up in a different world and much of this pernicious development took place while I was in Europe. European agriculture has been industrialized as well, of course, but never to the same extent and the backlash started much earlier than here. England is a good 10 years ahead of us in food awareness, I know from my friend Sheila Dillon at the BBC Food Programme.

But the awareness is growing here. The Joel Salatin chapters are such an eye opener, as Pollan meticulously describes the genuinely organic loop at Polyface Farm, where it all starts with grass. Polyface is only a couple hours' drive from here, so it's easy to relate to. Not sure to what extent I'll jump on the locavore bandwagon, though I'm already on it to a much greater extent than I was a year ago. We'll see.