Food for Thought

On the Nightstand:
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Robert Pollan, (Penguin Press, 2006).

Social History, Food Habits, Nutrition, anthropology

Book Blurb:

"What should we have for dinner?" To one degree or another this simple question assails any creature faced with a wide choice of things to eat. Anthropologists call it the omnivore's dilemma. Choosing from among the countless potential foods nature offers, humans have had to learn what is safe, and what isn't — which mushrooms should be avoided, for example, and which berries we can enjoy. Today, as America confronts what can only be described as a national eating disorder, the omnivore's dilemma has returned with an atavistic vengeance. The cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet has thrown us back on a bewildering landscape where we once again have to worry about which of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. At the same time we're realizing that our food choices also have profound implications for the health of our environment. The Omnivore's Dilemma is bestselling author Michael Pollan's brilliant and eye-opening exploration of these little-known but vitally important dimensions of eating in America.

I have had a lifelong obsession with food, and the 40 extra pounds I'm carrying these days is living proof. I had first read a review of the book in Newsweek describing Pollan as an anthropologist of the American diet. I suspect the book will shed some light on American agribusiness. I've always suspected that Monsanto and Cargill are as bad as R.J. Reynolds and other cigarette manufacturers, in that some processed foods are designed to be addictive. We'll see if this book bears my paranoia out...

My Favourite Sell Out.

There's no way I can quantify or express how much The Who affected my pimple-faced adolescence. The first time I heard them, it was like grabbing onto an electric fence with both hands. I remember pirating a cassette of Live at Leeds from my cousin David. Buried in my sleeping bag, I pressed my Walkman's cheap styrofoam headphones against my ears, my developing brain sponging up "Substitute," "My Generation" and their explosive cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues." I must have played the cassette over and over until 4 a.m., each consecutive play injecting just enough adrenaline to keep my eyelids open.

Up to that point in my life, it was as close to a spiritual experience as I had ever had.

From then on, until my senior year of high school, I would insatiably consume nearly every Who album I could find...except The Who Sell Out. I would actually listen to the abysmal It's Hard, before I would finally give Sell Out a chance. I guess, something about Sell Out scared me. Maybe it was the cover adorned with Pete Towshend (I would call him Town'SH'end for three years before a friend tactfully corrected me) applying an oversize stick of deodorant, and Roger Daltrey curiously relaxing in a tub full of Heinz Baked Beans.

I didn't want a jokey Who, I wanted a Who that would twist and wring out every last drop of teenage alientation that moistened my soul.

Finally in my late 20's I would give it a listen, and in retrospect, I'm glad I waited so long. The brilliance of that record would have been lost on me. Reading John Dougan's mini-commemoration of the record from Continuum's brilliant 33 1/3 series only confirms that the Who's most ambitious and paradoxical record is better heard apart from the rest of the Who's discography.

While some of the 33 1/3 books read like extended liner notes and other's play out like fawning memoirs, this one opts to mine historical context with traces of the author's remembrance of the era. Dougan shines a light on Townshend's infatuation with Pop Art and how Sell Out is as much an artifact of Pop Art as Pop music. Townshend's debts are to Warhol and Peter Blake as much as they are to the Beatles and American R&B.

Dougan also gives nearly a quarter of the book to pirate radio that would flood the U.K. with Rock n' Roll while the stiff-necked BBC transmitted milquetoast crooners and classical music. The book rambles on the subject and loses some focus here, but the subject is necessary, particularly for American readers who don't understand the effect of the pirate radio's attack on the effete BBC and how that was instrumental in preparing the way for the British Invasion.

The book isn't all history though. Dougan tours through each song on the record, as well as its b-sides, jingles and other songs that would be included on Sell Out's 1995 remastered and expanded edition. I was shocked to find out that John "Speedy" Keen, a friend of the band, composed and sang lead one of my favorite tracks on the album, the psychedelic-tinged "Armenia, City in the Sky."

Like most of the 33 1/3 books, Dougan's The Who Sell's Out, appeals to the hardcore fans, liner-note fiends and pop connoisseurs.

Thanks to Bree for the book!


A No Bullshit Memoir.

Nick Flynn's searing memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, is a book swelling with contradictions. It would be easy to see the book simply as a portrait of Flynn's failure of a father. An alcoholic, ex-con schemer and dreamer, Flynn's deadbeat dad is a rich quarry of idiosyncracies, and Flynn chisels away at the events that left his father such pathetic, forlorn figure.

But, what is more interesting is why Flynn would choose to sift through his father's past in the first place. Flynn's motives prove as complicated and paradoxical as his enigmatic father. At times Flynn seems to devilishly (and fruitlessly) hold a mirror up to his father in hopes that the old man will recoil in horror at the grotesque figure he has become, only to find that Flynn has the mirror aimed squarely at himself. Yet Flynn's conscious choice of working in a homeless shelter makes the chance of bumping into his father more than likely, and he works and waits at the homeless shelter with a mix of anicipation and dread.

The thread running between him and his father is clearly one he is not willing to sever.

Like all good writers who avoid moralizing and being overly expository, Flynn shows us himself through the blurry lens of his father.

This book is particularly refreshing in light of James Frey's memoir-as-tall-tale "A Million Little Pieces" and Augusten Burrough's memoir-as-induglent-freakshow, "Running with Scissors." When reading these books, I got the sense that I was reading fiction (a feeling that was ultimately founded with Frey's book), but with Flynn's book I never got that feeling.

With homelessness at it's core, there is no need for Flynn to graft exagerration. The book's grim reality of park benches, obscure corners of parking garages, mountains of castoff clothing and the very real threat of freezing to death provides all the gravitas this book needs.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is a grim, fascinating and above all, honest book.

Highly recommended