Wednesday, August 3, 2011

That was the month that was

The last three weeks of July were eventful, and also not, both of which account for my almost total absence from the blogosphere. I was on vacation as scheduled, the first half visiting my best friend in the California desert, having a wonderful time, the second half back home which was not so great. I got back just in time for NYC's annual horrible 100-degree-plus heat wave, which coincided with the only four days Teresa was able to take off to vacate with me. We'd had lots of lovely stuff planned--the High Line, Governor's Island, Bear Mountain, Coney Island--but since it was impossible to be outside and since we couldn't find a decent movie at which to cool off, we ended up imprisoned in our bedroom, the only room in our apartment with air conditioning, for most of our precious few days together. Also in the midst of that there was a death in my family, and while my feelings about this were not standard they did require attending to, so the sticky heat took on an added layer of sad musing memory processing, a sort of strange solitary version of sitting shiva if you like, as well as an added week off which I'm now amid, this first week of August.

I've been reading throughout, of course. Not as many books as I usually race through on my summer vacation, which is partly because of what else I was doing and partly because I've been moving through a very fat book very slowly for almost two weeks now. That one is The Lonely Hunter, Virginia Spencer Carr's 1972 biography of Carson McCullers. I'll probably post some thoughts about it once I've finished. Of the four other books I read, here are quick comments on two.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Published in 2001, this is a novel I'd steered clear of for what proved faulty reasons. I'd been given it as a gift some years back, and read the first five or 10 pages but decided not to read on, as I was turned off by the use of the word "terrorist" to describe the guerrillas who burst in upon and take hostage the attendees at a fancy-shmancy private opera recital at the vice president's mansion in an unnamed country that is clearly supposed to be Peru during the time of the Fujimori presidency and the armed struggles led by theTupac Amaru and Shining Path revolutionary groups. I never thought of picking Patchett's novel up again until a couple years ago when a comrade of mine, a communist revolutionary through and through, asked me if I'd read it and, when I told her I hadn't and why, said that I'd made a mistake and should read it. She said this novel, far from painting a one-dimensional hostile portrait of the hostage-taker characters, provides a deeply compassionate, deeply sympathetic portrayal of the rebels in all their humanity. She was right. I was swept into and very moved by the story, and found Patchett's writing lovely. Delicate and deep. I'm glad I finally got back to this one.

I also read Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg, which I'd had on my to-read list for a while and impulsively bought at an airport bookstore. It was a fast read, and mildly interesting, but that's about the best I can say. Overfishing along with industrial development and environmental despoilage are leading/have led to catastrophic destruction in the world's rivers and seas, driving some key species to the brink of extinction and in the process destroying livelihoods and communities while, most important of all, depriving the world's tables of vitally important, formerly abundant and sometimes cheap foods. OK, well, I knew this already, but I'm glad I read up on the history of how all this happened and the particulars of the current situation. The four fish of the title, by the way, are salmon, tuna, bass and cod. The problem is that Greenberg either hasn't the foggiest notion of or is unwilling to take on the real culprit--capitalism, and in particular late-stage high-tech imperial-age capitalism--and therefore the solutions he offers up amount to mild, silly nostrums. In the course of which he--like Michael Pollan in his writings and all the other well-meaning but fundamentally helpless, unhelpful liberal-bourgeois commentators on current food issues and agribusiness--throws around terms like artisanal and sustainable and argues for small-scale settings and high-priced commodities as the way forward. Neither of which,  a small scale of production or a high price of sale, is any solution at all for the great mass of billions of poor and working people. The only viable solution in the long run, and as it fast approaches the short run too, is an internationally coordinated effort to restore and revive the world's fisheries, manage fishing so as to conserve and protect the fish while also providing healthy non-toxic fish for the masses to eat, etc. etc. -- the very idea of which is inconceivable under capitalism, when the sole driving force is the quest for profit. Any analyst who can't or won't address this has little to offer.

I can't close without also noting an aspect of Greenberg's book that infuriated and disgusted me: his use of the word "man" to mean people or humankind. Really? Aaarggh!#$%! I've complained before about other writers who persist in using this absurd, insulting sexist language--and here we are, well into the 21st century, and they can't stop. Assholes! The word "fisherman" is lame enough--the word is "fisher," and any man who refuses to use it for any reason is a simple sexist as well as a simpleton--but much much worse is the repeated, relentless reference to our species as "man." I make allowances when I encounter this usage in older works--reluctantly, but I do. In a current book of popular science? No excuse. So offensive.