Archive for the 'books' Category

Review: Tackle Box, With a Side of Overdue Research

The Wednesday before last I had dinner at the Tackle Box with a visiting Uncle.  Technically a first cousin once-removed by marriage, but let’s leave it at uncle.  He emailed a few days in advance requesting good seafood, and I found out about them through WaPo’s restaurant guide- best-reviewed not-gaspingly-expensive seafood restaurant in DC.

Perspective:  I don’t like fish.  Well, live ones that I have to look at or let be anywhere near me.  Fish are ugly and slimy and might bite me.  In theory, I’m ok with living fish far away from me.   I’m usually happy if they’re fried in chunks without visible fish-resembling portions.  And I just finished reading Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder before I left for NZ, which describes plenty of the incredibly destructive and disgusting ways most seafood is raised and harvested around the world.  More on this later.  In conclusion, eating seafood was daunting before, and now I find it possibly revolting.

Still, I happen to like this Uncle, so seafood it was.  Luckily, the Tackle Box (a less ritzy version of it’s big-sister restaurant Hook) has a big old section of their website devoted to their sustainable fishing practices, with earnest promises that they source local and smaller fishing operations and change their menu based on availability, etc.

I don’t know of any way to make sure it’s true.  That’s one intimidating thing about seafood- oversight from the fisherman to the table is more often than not lax, and fish are often labelled incorrectly.  But their website does sound earnest, and a little googling doesn’t reveal any scandals.  So, tentative trust, Tackle Box?

I had the bluefish with the sweet potato fries and asparagus.  I enjoyed the asparagus- crisp enough, well flavored, and the sweet potato fries could have been less oily, but were pretty good anyway.  Bluefish tasted fine, had some pleasing darker portions of meat.  Again I have no real fish experience with anything but fried slabs of the stuff, so don’t rely on my palate.  Uncle seemed to like it.

Afterwards (tonight), I looked up the species to see about overfishing issues.  I started at Wikipedia, but that was silly of me:  if you want to know more about fish that are safe and sustainable for your eating pleasure, go straight to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch site.  They keep close tabs on this stuff, and they say Bluefish are a “Good Alternative” in their rating system- though they are overfished in the Atlantic and they contain lots of toxins, beign at the higher end of the food chain.  Whoops.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium rates fish choices as Best Choice, Good Alternative, or Avoid- and you can print out their pocket guides here or check out their website on your fancy internet phones.  A better choice at the Tackle Box would have been the tilapia- if it was farmed in the US.  Or the trout, if it were US-farmed Rainbow Trout and not so much the wild-caught lake trout.  The staff seemed very nice and informed- go ahead and ask them.

The more you know, hunh?  I’m printing out a guide for the next time Uncle comes into town.

Review: Karen Dionne’s “Freezing Point”

A few months (a lifetime) ago, I received a review copy of Karen Dionne’s Freezing Point.  Ms. Dionne also sent me a swag chapstick, if you recall?  It was excellent chapstick-quite worthy of the book with which it came.

The novel centers around Ben and Zo, two idealists who have moved beyond their most starry-eyed phases.  Ben is an executive in a global corporation, selling water for profit.  Zo and her husband are researchers in an Antarctic base.  A cracking ice shelf, a mysterious disease, and entirely too many rats later, they discover a common cause.

Dionne’s basic premises resonate- the privatization of water resources and the unintended consequences of messing with nature- and give this light thriller a weightier backbone.  Her plotting is plausible and only occasionally overwrought, her language use well-considered, and her details convincing enough for me.  Basically, if you intend to have a beer near a body of water this summer, read this book while doing so.  It’s enjoyable, fast, and illuminates its message without too much preachiness.  Plus it’s very helpful if you’ve ever wondered what life would be like if rats tried to eat everyone you knew.  Teaser!

If you’d like your own copy, you can find Freezing Point at Amazon.  Visit Karen’s website to read about her next book, Boiling Point (of course!).

P.S. Yes, the book’s cover blurb reads only “Gangbusters!”.  In case you are wondering, this refers to a radio show from the 1930s.  The opening sequence had a very intense and exciting series of sound effects, and inspired the phrase.  Some days I don’t think I’d know anything without the internet.

And Thursday Makes A Comeback!

Wow, today was looking rough, but now I’m at home, self medicating a cold with Otter Creek Winter Ale and peach tea (the herbal medicine aisle at Whole Foods confuses and frightens me) and watching that episode of The Office where Jim bikes to work.  That isn’t even the good part!

Today Obama outlined his proposed budget for the next year or so, and beyond all the other stuff I like (and don’t) about it, he’s proposing to pay for some of the new spending by starting a cap and trade system for carbon emissions.  Cap and trade programs haven’t worked so great in Europe, mostly because they tend to not limit the total amount of carbon allowed to be emitted very well, they just put a price on it.  However, a good program, with a stringent carbon limit that decreases over time, would go a long way towards assigning pollution a real cost in the marketplace, and prompting the profit-driven to care about it.  So this is a step in the right direction.  Give the market what it needs to do the right thing for now, eh?  Plus it just makes me happy when a government plans to have the money it spends.  Should be interesting to see how Congress actually sets up the carbon market.  Here’s a bit more from the NYT Green Inc. column.

Then, some of my plotting this week paid off!  I’d been asked to review a new eco-thriller, Freezing Point by Karen Dionne, and it came in the mail today. According to the blurb, the main characters are a well-intentioned environmental activist, a declared eco-terrorist, and an apocalyptic horror from deep within the ice: promising! I also got a little Freezing Point-themed natural lip gloss thing with it, which was a nice touch.  See, full disclosure, so you can decide for yourself if the lip gloss prejudices me to like the book (it does, but I read a paragraph in the middle and I think I’d like it by itself anyway).

On to Friday…

(P.S. As I was finishing this up, V. came by with more medication from The Dairy Godmother– gingersnaps and strawberry-rhubarb cobbler with custard.  Take that, head cold!)

The Daily Show on Energy Plans

The Daily Show has had an energy double header this week- Thomas Friedman on Tuesday and T. Boone Pickens, talking about their respective books.

Friedman is a reliably green opinionator for the NYT on Sundays and Wednesdays.  His book is “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, and I believe it’s about how global warming sucks for the world, and what we should do about that.

Pickens’ is a very rich old man with a yen for natural gas and wind energy and such.  His “The First Billion Is the Hardest” is apparently about his plan for energy independence.  Also, he’s got a wonderful accent, so listening to him talk about trucks is soothing- it’s like he’s everybody’s adorable energy-planning grandpa.

Anyway, head over the the Show’s website to see Friedman and Pickens. I’m too tired to wrassle the video player over here for you tonight.

Review: Barbara Freese’s “Coal: A Human History”

I’ve been prevaricating on this review, because I wanted to say something profound about it.  I didn’t not enjoy reading it, but I’m not sure I got an informational return on my time.  So, briefly, here’s what stuck.

Coal  tells many of the little stories of people and events that make the history of coal way more interesting than it should be.  At times, it feel shallow, like the author is trying to jump from interesting bit to interesting bit, and spare us the boring parts underneath.  I’m a fan of the boring backbone of history, though, so we may disagree on this.

The first part of the book discusses when coal was first used, how it grew England, how it grew America, how it grew unions and anti-union sentiment, and briefly sketches the state of coal and the coal industry in America today (important, but dwindling, sort of).  The second bit describes her trip to China, and how it’s doing industrialization on its own coal power.  Vivid descriptions of pollution in London during the coal years echo recent reports of pollution in Beijing.

There are three things you should take away from this book:

1) Coal is very dirty, and it kills a lot of people at every stage of it’s production and use.

2) Without coal, the industrial revolution, growing of manufacturing economies, and wonderful increases in the standards of living for billions wouldn’t have happened/be happening. (Now juxtapose 1 and 2, and you see our dilemma).

3) We should try to not use coal for energy any more, since there are safer sources, but it is going to be very difficult to wean ourselves from it, much less convince the rest of the world to lay off.

Know that, and you’re solid.

The book is informative and well-written, but unless you make a concerted effort, or are just really into the industrial revolution, it’s very likely you’ll forget it on a table somewhere and not notice you haven’t read it for weeks.

One Reads Differently When Days are Longer

Grist published a list of 15 “light” environment reads for summer reading.  I imagine if you asked politely, though, you’d be able to read them any time of the year.  I haven’t read anything on the list, but a few look pretty good- “World Made by Hand” and “Trespass”  especially. Has anyone read any of them, or have any other titles to recommend?

I’ve Just finished “Coal: A Human History” by Barbara Freese.  It’s not quite “summer” reading, unless you’re way into dirty, smoggy history on clear, sunny days. I’ll go ahead and promise a review for later, complete with well-researched references to recent brou-hahas over new coal plants in VA and GA.

I’m taking “More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want” by Robert Engelman with me to WI (along with five other books and a stack of magazines to catch up on in the hammock, happy sigh), since the population aspect of environmentalism is one I don’t fully grasp, and I’m very interested to see how he works on it.  He did an interview about his methods and motives with NPR, which is where I heard about it in the first place.  I’m pretty stoked to see “feminist” (as if it doesn’t impact ladies and gentleman and everyone else alike) issues and environmental issues dovetailing.

Not that most would necessarily find this to be “summer” reading, either, but seasonal reading never made much sense to me anyhow.

Review: Marvin Zimmerman’s “The Ovum Factor” and Interview

I was invited to review this novel a few weeks ago by Mr. Zimmerman’s publicist, and since I like reading as much as I like butter, here we go!

The Ovum Factor is Mr. Zimmerman’s first novel, which he introduces as an “eco-thriller”, inspired by his interest in the climate change debate.  The protagonist David Rose is a young, handsome, wealthy investment banker/researcher-type person who finds himself dissatisfied with his life.  He feels he is meant for some great purpose, but he’s only done what his family wanted him to do: studied hard, went to a fancy expensive school, got a high-flying finance job.  All he wants now is to find personal fulfillment.  Fortunately, the Voice Of Destiny begins to scream into his ear in the first chapter.

David is assigned by his bank to review the investment potential of a scientific project that aims to inject fetuses with a serum that will grant them superhuman intelligence.  During his investigation, he meets a girl, is pursued by various unsavories, travels the Western Hemisphere, and develops a spine. 

Zimmerman’s done a good job creating a sprawling plot and bringing it all together, and he does have a flair for the dramatic.  The chapters are short and punchy, and typically end at the right moment to make you want to turn the page.  The writing itself is sodden with cliches, however, and not in the good, campy way.  Of the characters, only David comes across as a fully developed person; everyone else is just a prod or a foil for his actions.  And even David seems to make decisions based solely on a wish for Fate Fulfilled, or “Why not?” reasoning.  His penchant for doing what he is told by mysterious strangers and fortune cookies reveals him to be a certain sort of person, for sure, but a frustrating sort of person to identify with in a novel that purportedly tackles serious scientific challenges and moral issues.

Enough about the literary considerations, though.  What makes Mr. Zimmerman’s work an “eco-thriller”, you ask? 

Spoilers ahead, yo.

David’s boss is a part of a private, powerful organization of intellectuals called the Omega Sentinels, who project that the world will be destroyed in the next 100 years by the ravages of climate change.  David’s boss also thinks that humans are so shortsighted, selfish, and unintelligent that they will never be able to come up with a solution to the climate crisis.  A serum that will turn fetuses into creepy-smart babies and super-humanly intelligent adults is the human race’s only chance for survival.  Ah, but of course.

Zimmerman offers a darkly pessimistic view of the state of the world, and a profoundly unsatisfying view of the way to fix it.  Aside from the glaring ethical problems of injecting fetuses with completely new drugs then saddling them with the hope of the world when they pop out (Zimmerman does mention that these issues exist before he blithely dismisses them), the story gives no credit to concerned citizens, environmental activists, or any of the thousands of small and large solutions that people are working on every day to deal with climate change and to live more sustainably.  Sure, by focusing on a fringe scientific effort and imminent doom, you can come up with a more thrilling book, but Mr. Zimmerman doesn’t give his most sympathetic audience enough credit.  His outlook alienates the readers that are concerned about climate change and dealing with the problem themselves, and reinforces the belief in climate skeptics or deniers that the environmental problem is too huge to be solved by real people anyway, so why bother?  I’ll drive my SUV down the block to get me some of that baby serum, and we’ll be cool.

I know that “inspiration for enlightened and helpful discourse” is not the only goal of a novel, especially a thriller.  I’m sure plenty of people who read The Da Vinci Code weren’t looking for a debate on the “Role of Women in Christianity” or “Historical Narratives of the Catholic Church”.  So I can’t fault Mr. Zimmerman for choosing the particular story particulars he did, any further than he meant this as an op-ed.  And it’s a lot more thriller than op-ed. 

The publicist graciously offered to relay any questions I had to Mr. Zimmerman, so here’s the exchange:

Q: In the book, the point of view of the Omega Sentinels is that humanity is doomed by climate change, and incapable of saving itself without drastic scientific intervention.  Is that [your] point of view as well?  If it’s not, how [do you] think that we can fix this climate problem?
A: My point of view on whether humanity will survive climate change? That’s a hard one. Obviously, I’m pessimistic since I envisaged a scenario where dramatic measures must be taken to avert calamity.

My own hope is that we still have time to correct everything that has contributed to this problem. But the clock is running down and we have to act decisively and immediately. The reason I wrote The Ovum Factor and continue to write novels on this theme is because I feel people have to be sensitized to the scale of the threat. Only then will they adjust their lifestyles and stop contributing further to it

At the same time, I’m a great believer in human resilience and will. Once we find the will to act, I’m hopeful that we’ll find the solutions.

I’m not sure his book will have the galvanizing impact that he intends, simply because the solution he poses is so extreme, but I admire him for trying.  It’s not easy putting your thoughts out there to get kicked around, so more power to him.  I hope he keeps at it.

If you’d like to read any excerpts or more about the book and author, check out his website.  The real deal is for sale at Amazon and a bunch of other retailers.


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