Friday, October 22, 2010

Book Review: Salvation City

Salvation City: A NovelSalvation City: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010. 288 pp)

Living in New York City, Sigrid Nunez has published six novels in her career. She is the winner of the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Whiting Writer's Award, a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a residency from the Lannan Foundation. She has also received the Rome Prize Fellow in Literature in the American Academy in Rome, a Literature Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Previously, Nunez taught at Amherst College, Smith College, Columbia University, as well as being a visiting writer at Washington University, Baruch College, and the University of California, Irvine.

Set in America’s heartland in the near future, Salvation City recounts the story of Cole Vining, a boy orphaned by the recent flu pandemic that killed millions around the world. Adopted by Pastor Wyatt (an evangelical pastor) and Tracy (his wife), Cole must start life anew in an unfamiliar culture. Where previously, Cole’s parents encompassed the liberal ideologies of modern urban residents, his adoptive parents lean to the Christian Right, encouraging him to begin a relationship with Jesus so that Cole might be saved.

Although Cole comes to appreciate the parenting of Pastor Wyatt and Tracy, he struggles with the ramifications of their salvific claims. If eternal life exists only through a relationship with Jesus Christ, Cole reasons that his parents must be condemned to hell. Yet Cole remembers his parents fondly. How could God be so cruel letting his parents die before they move toward to a belief in Jesus?

As the title indicates, this theme of salvation permeates the book. What does it mean to be saved? Is the loving God discussed in Pastor Wyatt’s sermons capable of simultaneously being unloving? Is the salvation formula as simple as saying a prayer or as difficult as living justly in the world?

While the overarching theme intrigued me to read this book, the page-to-page storyline is sorely lacking. For starters, Salvation City contains no chapters. It is, instead, divided into five sections resulting in extremely long blocks of text. Very little time is spent detailing the dystopian post-pandemic world. Aside from mentioning how people contracted the sickness in the first place and characters carrying guns when they go outside, most of the book seems simply ordinary. Lastly, the conclusion of the book is abrupt and hard to follow.

Sigrid Nunez presents some big ideas in Salvation City, but she lacks execution. The book is slightly entertaining yet mostly average; I encourage you to look elsewhere.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Film Review: The Town

The Town directed by Ben Affleck (Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, R, 125 minutes)

Based in Charlestown, a neighborhood of Boston, the Town tells the story of a washed-up hockey player turned bank robber caught in the vicious cycle of crime. After a successful robbery, the main character – Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) – volunteers to intimidate a hostage (Claire played by Rebecca Hall) after discovering that she lives four blocks away from the thieves’ home base. While being observed in a Laundromat, the hostage approaches Doug asking for some change. After some basic dialogue, Doug asks Claire out on a date, setting in motion a story of love, crime, and deceit.

Despite the fact that the Town kept me entertained, the film left me unchallenged and indifferent. The story is straightforward and the acting mostly simplistic. There were positives however. Jeremy Renner played a persuasive character, a convicted felon one strike away from life in prison. In addition, the film depicted the cyclical nature of crime. Countless times throughout the movie, our protagonist struggled with the direction of his life. Whether through force or through natural inhibitions, Doug found himself eventually at square one, prepping for the next bank job. Lastly, I find the current trend of making a morally questionable person the protagonist intriguing. As a viewer, I found myself simultaneously rooting for a character I found repulsive. Obviously, the character contains enough pious nuggets that the moral failings become forgivable.

With an aesthetic similar to Gone, Baby, Gone – Affleck’s first major motion picture credit as director, the Town tells an entertaining story. The movie contains no production qualities or profound motifs running through the movie that would move it beyond entertaining to the category of otherworldly. There are, however, many worse movies upon which one could spend his or her money.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Book Review: The Last Town on Earth

The Last Town on Earth: A NovelThe Last Town on Earth: A Novel by Thomas Mullen (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006. 432 pp)

Born in Rhode Island, Thomas Mullen graduated from Oberlin College. His first novel, The Last Town on Earth received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction, Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune best book of the year. Mullen currently resides in Atlanta with his wife and two sons.

Having thoroughly enjoyed The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, I decided to take a stab at Mullen’s debut novel, The Last Town on Earth. Set in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, a small town named Commonwealth quarantines itself in an attempt to avoid the flu epidemic of 1918. With guards posted, the unique and semi-socialist settlement believes that families and jobs will safely continue as the outside world suffers from World War I and the Spanish flu.

Being a Pacific Northwest native, I always have suspicions about using my region as a setting. My knowledge of the area allows me to criticize flawed descriptions of Western Washington. For example, I am thoroughly bothered by the song, “Hello Seattle” by Owl City because the lyrics contain a baffling line about manatees swimming in the Puget Sound. In case you were wondering, manatees live in warm waters near the equator. Mullen, however, finished his homework. His description of Washington State and the small logging towns in the Cascades is remarkably accurate and illustrative.

While the narrative in the Last Town on Earth carefully builds, I particularly gained interest in Mullen’s depiction of early twentieth century labor strife and counter-cultural communities attempting to create flourishing lifestyles for all town members.

Considering the treatment of employees in our modern times, many workers discover small injustices in policy implementation by management. Yet these injustices and oversights pale in comparison to the volatile scenes merely a century before in Everett, Washington. Known as the "Everett Massacre" (massacre is a slight misnomer since only 7 people died officially), a workers union known as the “Wobblies” had a violent confrontation with local authorities. In placing a main character in this discordant event, Mullen brings this historical footnote to life. It is of crucial importance that we remember the lengths workers took in order to ensure the rights that workers now enjoy.

The Last Town on Earth not only details early labor disputes in the Pacific Northwest, it also explores the progressive communities that sprouted up throughout the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s. Home to the protagonists in the story, the settlement of Commonwealth contains a timber mill owned by Charles Worthy, a visionary convinced that a business can be successful when workers are paid a fair wage and treated like human beings. His wife, Rebecca, teaches the town’s children in the lone school and participates both in anti-war rallies and suffragist movements. Given the historical setting of World War I and the Spanish Flu, Commonwealth’s neighbors see the town as enemies on a physical and philosophical level. Nevertheless, Mullen depicts the ideals of Commonwealth in the utmost positive light as they battle the exterior pressures of the world when he writes:

“But as they walked in silence, they came to the same strange realization: the closed-off town of Commonwealth was precisely this place. There was no war, no pestilence. People around the globe were dying, dying from flu and pneumonia and aerial bombings and bayonets, but in Commonwealth, the last town on earth, people were safe. This was the place to run to, and they were already here. All they could do was wait” (p. 42).

While slow in parts, the Last Town on Earth investigates the heart of a particular historical context. Understanding the regional history that Mullen depicts, I am sufficiently impressed at Mullen’s attention to detail. The book is both thought-provoking and entertaining; Mullen’s writing style is erudite and clear. I highly recommend this book.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsThe Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

By Michael Pollan. (New York: Penguin Books, 2006. 450 pp)

Michael Pollan is a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine and the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written seven books and countless articles on current agrarian issues. In 2010 alone, Pollan added the Social Justice Champion Award from the California Center for Public Health to his many recognitions as well as being named to the Time 100, the magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people. He lives with his wife and son in the San Francisco Bay Area.

When I was young, I vividly remember receiving harsher punishments when I lied about my misdeeds.

Something about human nature compels me to hide when I have made a mistake. If I broke my mother's precious vase yet denied it, grounding became inevitable. But if I immediately told my mother about my mistake, she would be disappointed but certainly not angry.

It probably took longer than necessary for me to understand that while transparency might entail consequences, those consequences were better than the ones I would face if I had lied about my actions. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan seeks to expose what the food industry has hidden behind the pre-packaged meat and cereal boxes.


Ubiquitous Corn

Pollan divides The Omnivore's Dilemma into a three-course meal. In the first part, he traces the steps of a McDonald's combo meal from his plate to its source.

Behind the billboard advertisements and catch phrases of McDonald's, Pollan uncovers a sea of gas-guzzling corn growing in America's heartland. In between harvest and the dinner table (or the car if you are in a hurry), the kernels of corn enjoy heavy government subsidies and meet the most technologically advanced machines in the food industry.

Corn finds its way into the supersized Coke in the form of high fructose corn syrup, the Big Mac through the highly concentrated corn fed to the cattle in order to fatten them up, and the French fries by means of the corn oil used to fry the spuds.


The Grass Really Is Greener

As a second course, Pollan investigates the sources of organic food — both from a meal made by ingredients purchased at Whole Foods and a dinner crafted by elements found at local organic farms.

On the Whole Foods side of the organic spectrum, Pollan learns that there are minimal differences between Whole Foods and its industrial brethren. While it's true that less processing exists in these organic supermarkets, Whole Foods sells organic TV dinners. And a quick glance at the ingredients label of some items reveals organic high fructose corn syrup.

Additionally, fruits and vegetables ship from all over the world to provide customers with a cornucopia of options. Although Whole Foods provides more transparency in what it sells, the organic label provides little difference from its industrial counterpart when food is produced on such a massive scale.

On the other end of the organic continuum, Pollan profiles Joel Salatin, an organic farmer whose holistic agricultural methods create a desirable alternative — in the eyes of the author — to the industrial organic structures of Whole Foods.

The source of the roasted chicken Pollan shares with close friends in Virginia can easily be traced back to Joel Salatin's PolyFace Farm, where the chicken lived and grazed. Pollan argues that when chicken and cattle eat grass as nature intended them, the animals are not only seemingly happier, but the meat we eat is healthier.

In fact, he asserts,

“Conventional nutritional wisdom holds that salmon is automatically better for us than beef, but that judgment assumes the beef has been grain fed and the salmon krill fed; if the steer is fattened on grass and the salmon on grain, we might actually be better off eating beef” (p. 269).


Foraging in the Forest

As a final serving, Pollan attempts to remove all parties from the food chain, desiring to hunt and gather all of the resources needed to make his own meal.

Taking this task to heart, the author spends extensive time wading through the ethics of hunting, killing, and eating animals. After a suitable justification is found, the hunting and gathering commences.

Pollan describes an underground culture in the Bay Area known as the Slow Movement. Meant as a reaction to the fast-paced lives of seemingly everyone in our culture, people in the Slow Movement desire to stop and smell the proverbial roses.

Under the guidance of some new friends from this movement, Pollan hunts and gathers the ingredients for his final meal: a braised leg and sirloin roast that found its way to the dinner table through the barrel of the author's gun, and mushrooms that found their way because their camouflage failed them in front of Pollan's watchful eye.


The Value of Transparency

Of course, Pollan makes no claims that one of his meals is intrinsically more valuable than another. Even though his writing tends to betray the fact that he leans toward local farmers and hunter/gatherer methods for food sources, the core question remains the same: Where does our food come from?

Food exists commonly in everyday life to the extent that nobody questions what the body intakes. Sadly, upon further inspection, there is no easy answer. (For further information on the debate, check out Ethix conversations with Greg Page and Peter Dill)

Ultimately, Pollan calls for transparency in the food industry. The concrete wall built around the food industry only leads to further issues of public health, whether it is obesity or E. coli. Yes, opening up slaughterhouses might lead to a drop off in meat consumption. But eating less meat might be a better practice.

As with any industry, opacity tends to bring further problems. Although Nike and Wal-Mart currently run highly ethical companies, past mistakes once hidden under the cloak of efficiency give both companies a negative perception in the eyes of the public. Transparency does not always maximize profits; transparency provides an open door for consumers to investigate and purchase with a clean conscience.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is thought-provoking and Pollan's writing is engaging. I highly recommend this book.
Originally published at the Center for Integrity in Business.