Fast Food Nation – Eric Schlosser

In which we swear off fast food forever.

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Fast Food Nation is a book calculated to make you lose your appetite. On the other hand there is such a lot of talk of hamburgers and fries (and tacos and pizzas) that it’s very difficult not to obsess about food while reading it. A somewhat mixed experience, in that respect.

A somewhat mixed experience in many respects, actually. The book’s adequately well written, not in itself a very compelling read, but once I got into it I found it hard to put it down because I wanted to be done with it and go on to something more pleasant. It seems thoroughly researched, and I can’t really see any reason to doubt the main gist of Schlosser’s argument – that the fast food industry is bad for just about everything: The food’s unhealthy (whenever it isn’t lethal), the workers are unhappy and the effect on the economy as a whole is negative too.

Successful in it’s bid to make you averse to entering a fast food “restaurant” ever again, I still found the book patchy in its arguments. In fact, the whole “feel” was spoiled by just one jarring episode; Schlosser visits a slaughterhouse and gets a guided tour, starting at the “wrong end” in the packaging room and getting progressively closer to where “meat” is still “cattle”. This description could have been very effective if he’d left the focus on the knocker, for example – stunning hundreds of cattle a day (up to 400 an hour), every day, must be a pretty terrible sort of job to do, even for the most determined carnivore. But this is where Schlosser slips into sentimentality, he exits the “plant” the way the cattle come in, and spends some time expounding the way the big brown eyes look at him, the way the ramp is designed so that the cattle do not see what’s coming. Now, I eat meat. I would prefer not to have to slaughter the animal myself prior to eating it, but I would if I had to. I have no illusions about the steak or bacon I buy at the supermarket, I know perfectly well that a short while ago this bit of meat was part of a (hopefully) healthy, (hopefully) happy, (definitely) living, breathing animal. Such is life. If it bothered me I would become a vegetarian.

The fact that the system is condusive to mistreatment of the animals, poor conditions for the workers, all sorts of odds and ends ending up in the food (bone, gristle, excrement, glass, what-have-you) and one small sample infected with e-coli 0157:H7 making millions of hamburgers lethal bothers me in the extreme, and the uncovering of all this makes the book interesting reading. The fact that the hamburger I eat was once part of a cow (or more likely hundreds of cows), bothers me not one iota, and the descent into sentimentalism mars what was otherwise a persuasive read.

But it will be a while before I eat at McDonald’s again.

The Secret World of the Irish Male – Joseph O’Connor

I’m sorry to say that O’Connor went downhill pretty quickly and never quite recovered. There is one hysterically funny episode towards the very end of the book, when he visits Disney World with a group of fellow Irishmen. The guide says “There’s some really good rides here at the Magic Kingdom” and you can probably imagine how it goes from there. Other than that – two pages or so – the rest of the book made me snort occasionally, but didn’t live up to the promise of the first few pages, and so was rather disappointing. I didn’t really learn anything new about Ireland, either, which, in 248 pages is pretty good going. Learning something new about Ireland was obviously not my motivation for reading the book in the first place, but would have been some compensation for the lack of laughs. Oh well.

Man and Boy – Tony Parsons

In which it is necessary to remind the reader of the importance of tissues.

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I’ve just swallowed Tony Parsons’ Man and Boy whole. Not literally, obviously, or I’d be in the hospital right now, but in as few hours as is compatible with thorough reading. I read the first few pages (20? 30?) a week or maybe more back and got distracted, but this afternoon I picked it up again, and I couldn’t put it down. This was absolutely not what I was meant to do this afternoon. I was meant to do some work and maybe fix that bunad (17th of May looming larger on the horizon every day), but alas, alack.

So. Man and Boy is a compelling read. I suppose that’s established. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, the ending, for example, has left me a bit deflated. This is not to say it’s bad, just that it could have been better. Still, I am near enough convinced that I will be reading every other Parsons book I can lay my hands on, so I suppose the publishers will be happy.

Hitchhiker – Simpson

In which hitchhikers are advised to hide in the bushes until the car has passed.

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I enjoyed Simpson’s biography of Douglas Adams, entitled Hitchhiker, however, unless you’re a die-hard fan who needs to read everything by and about DNA my advice to you would be to pass it by. Though well-researched and reasonably (though definitely not brilliantly) written, the book focuses rather more on the “negative” aspects of Adams’ career than on the positive. No-one who waited 10 years for the promised next novel (known for most of that decade as Salmon of Doubt, not to be confused with the collection of odd bits and pieces published under that name) can be unaware of Adams’ inability to meet deadlines. Simpson, rightly, you could argue, spends quite a bit of energy on this subject – so much so that it becomes rather tiresome, and he completely fails to see the funny side of this trait (or if he sees the funny side, he fails to convey it). He also spends rather a lot of time retelling some of the good stories Adams told, and then saying “However, that’s not stricktly true.” This also gets quite repetitive, and though the thorough examination of the embelishments and results of faulty memory is no doubt excellent scholarship, I’m not sure I really care (at least not quite so many pages’ worth).

However, I mostly enjoyed it. I did not, however, enjoy the last chapter. Simpson seems intent on convincing his readers that Adams’ heart attack happened because he was fundamentally unhappy – all because the H2G2 film again seemed to have sunk into the Hollywood quagmire. Not only does this seem somewhat unreasonable to me – here’s a man with a wife and daughter and a happy family life, with millions of fans worldwide, with major successes behind him and the safe knowledge that if someone locks him in a hotel room for an adequate number of weeks he will quite definitely produce another blockbuster (he could write, he just had to be forced to sit down and do it) and I could go on and on – and even if Simpson is right, I would just much rather not know, thank you very much. I am still upset about Adams’ untimely death, I do not need to be further upset by the thought that he was miserable when he died.

All in all, you’d be much better off reading Neil Gaiman’s biography.

ROFL

I am finishing Simpson’s biography of Douglas Adams at the moment (more of that when I have finished), but it’s a pretty cumbersome volume, and so I brought The Secret World of the Irish Male to read on the bus this morning. By page 5 or so I had already startled my fellow passengers by chortling uncontrollably and I was well and truly hooked. With sentiments such as these:

You never know what’s going to happen in real life either, but some things you can be relatively confident about. The truth will always hurt, half your socks will always disappear in the washing machine and John Bruton in full flight will always be strangely reminiscent of Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Show.

(…)

After a while the police arrived [to remove students from an office they were occupying]. They were quite angry. They said thay would “do whatever was necessary” to get us out. They repeated the phrase a few times. We scoffed, heroically. We’d be here, we said, until all of our demands had been met. They asked us what these demands were. There seemed to be a bit of confusion at this point. Personally, in addition to having Ireland immediately declared a 32 county socialist republic, I wanted to have a regular girlfriend and “Brideshead Revisited” repeated on a Monday night.

How could I be otherwise?

I’ve just glanced at the amazon reviews, by the way, and it’s a long time since I’ve seen a book that people either love or hate, not one “ok, but not very exciting” comment to be seen. It came highly recommended to me, Linda put it into my hands saying “Here. Borrow this. I almost died laughing.” so I will persist in looking forward to the rest of it…

Autobiography – Sylvia Beach

In which we are intellectual, possibly.

I found Sylvia Beach’s autobiography (in the Faber&Faber 1st ed.) at a second-hand bookshop last Saturday, so that’s been my main read this week. In case you don’t know who SB is, I’ll enlighten you. She was an American who came over to Paris after WW1 and sort of never left. She started a bookshop called Shakespeare & Company, to provide the French with a place to get hold of contemporary writing in English and to provide a similar service to the English-speaking writers in more or less voluntary exile in Paris at the time – the so-called “Lost Generation”, Joyce, Pund, Hemingway and so on. In the process she also managed to publish Joyce’s “unpublishable” Ulysses (it was banned in the States and the UK already, due to some excerpts that had been published in literary magazines), and as such should get a posthumous medal for outstanding services to humanity.

The book is very interesting in its first half, which is properly autobiographical. Unfortunately, by about half-way through it turns into something so much like pure name-dropping that it gets excessively repetitive. The bookshop was the meeting point for so many intellectuals in Paris at the time, and in order to not leave anyone out, SB gives 1-3 pages to each person, which leaves room for little more than a variation on “X is a very good writer/painter/composer and I very much enjoyed his/her work NN. He/she first came to the shop in 19?? and we went to lunch at such’n’such with Y, Z and Joyce.”

To counter all this intellectualism, I spent a couple of very childish hours rereading the five Ole Alexander books by Norwegian children’s book writer Anne-Cath. Vestly. I haven’t read them since I was a kid, in fact, I don’t suppose I’ve ever actually read them, I probably had them read to me. I also remember occasionally listening in when my parents read them to my brother, who would have been 4-ish, so I’d have been 11-ish. Anyway, they made an excellent movie from the first two books about two years ago, and I’ve been eying the books on the shelf occasinally and thinking I’d reread them. So I did. They’re still brilliant, though a mite too much directed at four- to five-year-olds even for me.

Breakfast in Brighton – Nigel Richardson

In which we go rambling.

I finished The Road to McCarthy last week. A somewhat more rambling account than the author’s previous book (McCarthy’s Bar), but none the worse for that. Not the sort of book I would advise for reading on the bus if you are at all shy about people staring, it is frequently laugh out loud funny.

I then picked up a book I found in a charity shop in Glasgow, Breakfast in Brighton, by Nigel Richardson (or Nicholas, whichever amazon entry you believe – very strange that). In rambling terms it gave Pete McCarthy a run for his money. I’m still not entirely sure what the book was all about. However, it was a very pleasant read. A little knowledge of Brighton and Sussex may be an advantage, but I suspect the book is quite as enjoyable if you’ve never been anywhere near the place.

I’m obviously into writing long and profound analyses of books at the moment…

“Pleasant read”. Hmph.

The Prisoner of Zenda – Anthony Hope

In which we buckle our swash.

I’ve been listening to The Prisoner of Zenda getting to and from work this week. Very entertaining, and a good sort of book for listening to in a place where you may get distracted. Partly because there is nothing terribly complicated going on, but mostly because it’s so engaging that you’re less prone to distractions than you migh be with a slower-moving book. The latter is a bit of a nuisance when going to work, I have been hovering outside the door a couple of mornings, unwilling to step through and back to reality and wait hours and hours to see what happens next. But you can’t have everything.

(The Penguin edition available at amazon seems to have a sequel in the same book. Stupidly, I scrolled down to the reviews where someone, even more stupidly, gives the sequel’s plot away. Oh, well. Consider yourself warned. For my part, I still want to see if I the library might have it.)

Notes and natives

brysonIn which we look for travelling companions.

Following Faintheart, I succumbed and reread Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, despite the fact that very little of it concerns Scotland (Scotland being the topic I’m supposed to be covering). It really is an excellent book. I think one of the reasons I like Bryson som much is that he’s as batty about Britain as I am. And in precisely the same way, too. We may complain about the plumbing (or ask “What plumbing? You mean they have plumbing?”) and we may be bewildered by bus queues and picnics on the beach in a gale, but we love even the plumbing and the queues and the picnics, simply because Britain wouldn’t be Britain without them. (Cue the librarian walking into a B&B and exclaiming with delight: “Look! Separate taps for hot and cold water!” though if someone suggested she install such a system at home she’d be horrified, naturally, just think of the impracticality!) Which doesn’t mean that Bryson likes every place he visits, and it certainly doesn’t mean he doesn’t say some pretty cutting (though mainly quite funny) things about people and places, but at least you get the feeling that, on the whole, he actually likes travelling. What a nice change from Mr. Jennings.

I then ventured on Native Stranger, my other haul from amazon. This one is written by a Scot (his name, in fact, is Alastair Scott), and is as much an examination of how history has affected the Scottish mind and the Scottish landscape as it is about travelling, as such. I learnt a lot. On the whole, a very interesting account, but again, I found something lacking. I have no reason to think that Scott did not enjoy his trek, he seems interested in the people and places he meets, but the contrast to Bryson is there: he doesn’t convey any enthusiasm to the reader. Bryson can make me want to go places I had never even contemplated before. Having read Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, only a strong dose of self-discipline kept me from packing my bags set off to walk the Appalachian trail just as soon as I could find a travel agency willing to sell me an airplane ticket. In fact, I was this close to just up and walking there, I was in Detroit at the time and it seemed like the experience would be worth a walk across a couple of states…

So I guess maybe that’s what I am missing. I am missing the ability in the author to make me sigh “I wish I were there too!” Not, like Jennings, “I wish I were there instead!” I want the author to give me the impression that I would like him/her as a travelling companion, and I guess a measure of enthusiasm is one of my prerequisites for travelling companions. And with that in mind, statements like these put me off:

“Lunchtime would se me turn Viking, invading a grocer and pillaging milk, pies, cheese, bananas and Mars Bars; and stocking up with Cup a soups, tuna and spaghetti for the evening. My diet seldom varied. Since I began travelling the taste of food has ceased to have much importance and my tolerance for monotony usually lasts a journey.”

Fine, so food isn’t the be-all and end-all (at least, interesting food isn’t) of life in general or travelling in particular, but one of the joys of travelling is to sit down to a good meal at the end of the day, with a good companion (a person or a book, I don’t mind either way). Or to have a picnic consisting of slightly dry bread and flat fizzy water on a cliff in a downpour. The food doesn’t have to be good, but it has to be part of the experience. I don’t know. Somehow, that one comment about food set the mood of the whole book for me. I never got in tune with the author after that.

Still, as a grounding in Scottish history and modern sensibilities it was a good read, not to be sneezed at.

Bill Bryson, if you ever read this (I don’t know why you should, but if you do), please, please, please write a ‘Notes from a Small Island 2’, and spend a little more time in Scotland and a little more in Wales.

Faintheart – Charles Jennings

faintheartIn which we advise the author to stay at home next time.

I finally got hold of a couple of travelogues of Scotland of the sort I was looking for – thanks, yet again, to amazon – and started Charles Jennings’ Faintheart on my way to Stryn last week. It’s pretty entertaining, but still, I am far from satisfied.

It’s very funny in parts, his description of sheep, for example: “a sheep wandering across the road looks somewhere between a big dirty hairy dog and a maggot on stilts”. He also made me want to visit the Glasgow Necropolis, a “non-denominational ‘hygenic’ graveyard” in Glasgow like Pere Lachaise in Paris. So what’s the problem?

Well, the exact problem is a bit hard to nail down, but I get the feeling that it is all slightly pointless, somehow. It’s not so much that he doesn’t have a “purpose”, like, I don’t know, travelling around the coast of Britain counter-clockwise, and that this makes him move around in a rather unstructured way. I have no quarrels with a little well-applied randomness. And it’s not that he doesn’t have a specific purpose for going to Scotland, like, I don’t know, drinking a measure of scotch in every pub called Mac-something, either. You shouldn’t need a purpose to travel anywhere. It’s more that he gives the impression that the only reason he’s in Scotland in the first place is that he’s decided to write A Travel Book, and then picked a piece of paper with “Scotland” on it out of a hat. He doesn’t seem to want to be there. That’s it. Much of the time he really seems like he would much rather be somewhere else. Like back in the office London. What sort of idiot would rather be back in an office in London than travelling around in Scotland, even if it’s raining? And if he would really rather not be there, why doesn’t he just go home? Find another country to write a travelogue from? Write a completely different sort of book? Why can’t I be in Scotland instead of this embittered and whiny journalist? And if he actually does want to be there, and is enjoying himself, why does he keep giving the impression that he is constantly disappointed and/or depressed?

Another thing that left me unsatisfied is that there is virtually no contact with people. If you read the bit about Two Feet, Four Paws, you’ll remember that I chastisised myself for being unreasonable in craving contact with people in Spud’s case. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect just a little human intereaction from Jennings, though. After all, he spends most of his time in pretty populated places. He goes to several pubs, for example (though he finds most of them dismal – why doesn’t he move on? Don’t tell me there are no nice pubs in Scotland, because I won’t believe you), and we are treated to some delighful conversations – but they are conversations he overhears, he never dares involve himself at all.

Still, I like the bit about the sheep.