Monday, September 01, 2008

BooksFirst - August 2008

Books Bought

Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald (Dell First Edition K116)
Cry Hard, Cry Fast by John D. MacDonald ( Popular Giant G271)
Wine of The Dreamers by John D. MacDonald (Fawcett Gold Medal R1994)
If Morning Ever Comes by Anne Tyler
Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

Books Read

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
by John Perkins
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


You will notice that I put edition numbers on the John D. MacDonald books. I thought they might be first editions but they turned out to be reprints. Still, they are worth having for a completist like me. Vintage paperbacks like these are hard to find, but a stop in Charlottesville, Virginia proved to be a gold mine of old paperbacks. College towns just have the best bookstores.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man has a certain notoriety in the business press. I have heard it touted by John C. Dvorak as a scandalous book full of revelations. John Perkins was an economist employed by a major international consulting firm. Despite having very minor academic credentials, his job was to economically justify large infrastructure projects in developing nations. These reports were optimistic to the point that rosy glasses wouldn’t keep you from being blinded. Perkins claims that this was done to insure that the countries would never be able to afford the massive development loans and would end up beholden to the World Bank and similar groups.

Such accusations are an article of faith among leftist anti-trade groups, so the revelation here is that it is supported by someone on the inside. Perkins claims he was explicitly tutored on why and how to maximize the benefit to banking interests. If it weren’t for the interesting insider revelations, the book would be nearly unreadable. The prose is hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing in the extreme. Perkins has no self-esteem issues and it shows. He over-inflates his role in events and tends to exaggerate incidents that could have far less dramatic interpretations as well.

What is interesting is the way he ties in his personal experiences with other global events, particularly those in the Middle East and South and Central America where the United States has been running roughshod over local leaders for generations. The real value of the book is that it provides a framework for evaluating world events. Like any good conspiracy theory, his assertions are improvable. But they are also tough to refute.

Michael Pollan has become some sort of food guru, having written several books on the topic. The Omnivore’s Dilemma has a very broad scope in that it tries to look at the entire modern industrial food machine as well as its alternatives. The book is subtitled “A Natural History of Four Meals”. The conceit here is a little contrived. He takes four different meals and traces the ingredients that go into them.

He does some stunt journalism as well. Stunt journalism is what I call it when a writer does something solely because it then provides him with something to write about. For example, Pollan buys a feed steer and them traces the steps that go on between its birth and its slaughter. He really didn’t need to buy any cattle to tell that story, but it serves to hang a narrative on. His prose is the exact opposite of Perkins's. Where EHM is direct and blunt, Dilemma is florid to the point of pretentious. No rhetorical trick is beyond the pale. Sometimes it's tough to remember he is just writing about food.

The most famous part of the book is where he details just how dependent the United States food system is on corn and the petrochemical fertilizers they require. His history of the rise of corn is just a bit fervid with snippets of conspiracy theory that John Perkins would be at home with. It is eye-opening and you will question every trip to the grocery store from now on.

Much more interesting to me was the section of the post-organic farm he works on for a week (more stunt journalism) that is on the cutting edge of sustainable (a term so fluid that nobody I know knows what it means) farming. As horrifying as the corn-fed beef chapters are, these are inspiring if just a little utopian. And while I found the wild pig hunting sections overwrought with philosophical noodling, the following chapter on mushroom hunting was pithy and hilarious.

It’s unusual for me to read two non-fiction books like this back-to-back, but both were fascinating in their own ways. They take assumptions that approach conventional wisdom (“The world is run by New York bankers.” and “Processed food is bad for you.”) and run with them by weaving complex histories and theories. Both books have prose that bookend the extremes of the quality spectrum and some of their conclusions need to be taken with a grain of salt. But both provide plenty of food for thought.

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