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Summer book reviews

My recent return to full time work has made it more difficult for me to continue to update this blog regularly. (For the past several months, I’ve been dedicating all of my writing time to working on material intended for publication elsewhere.) But, I’ve missed posting here terribly, and I intend to get back to it soon. In the meantime, here’s a list of the book reviews I’ve published since the last time I made a post. Check back soon for links to my reviews forthcoming in Identity Theory, ForeWord, PopMatters and other publications.

  • Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.
  • Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.
  • Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Reprinted by Powell’s Books, July 20, 2009.
  • Review of Ghosts by César Aira. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54).
  • Review of The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Özdamar. ForeWord, May/June 2009.
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The Informant: high crimes in my hometown

booksthumbiconI grew up in Decatur, Illinois, the one-time “Soybean Capital of the World,” home to almost eighty thousand people and also to ADM, one of the world’s most powerful (and least-known) multinational corporations. In central Illinois, ADM transforms the bountiful harvest of some of the world’s best farmland into artificial sweeteners, ethanol and biofeuls, food additives, industrial chemicals, and animal feed (among many other products). During the long reign of chairman and CEO Dwayne Andreas, ADM grew from a small grain company into an international agribusiness behemoth, and also came to wield tremendous political influence. Andreas was close friends with former vice president Hubert Humphrey, and in 1972 Andreas donated $100,000 to the liberal Democrat’s political campaign—the same year in which he gave President Richard Nixon $25,000 that would be used to finance the Watergate break-in. I can also remember seeing local news coverage of Mikhail Gorbachev stepping out onto the tarmac at the tiny Decatur airport—he’d come to my hometown to do business with Andreas.

For many years, ADM has reaped great profits by means of its tremendous political influence. Two of the company’s biggest businesses—ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup—would not be nearly so profitable (and perhaps not profitable at all) if it weren’t for massive government subsidies that have poured billions of dollars directly into ADM’s coffers. (For an outline of the basics of this story, see this Cato Institute report from 1995. You’ll also find insightful discussion of the politics of high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol, and of big agribusiness in general, in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)

But for all its power, ADM could not prevent itself from getting hit with a $100 million fine for its participation in a price fixing conspiracy in the markets for citric acid and lysine (a biological product that promotes growth in livestock). In the early nineties, ADM executives met regularly with their Japanese, Korean, and European counterparts in order to reach agreements on prices and production volumes in lysine, and held similar meetings with producers of citric acid. Such agreements are blatantly illegal under antitrust law, because they permit companies to charge artificially high prices for their products. By fixing prices, ADM and its co-conspirators were effectively stealing many millions of dollars from their own customers.

Corporate price-fixing is normally extremely difficult to prove, but in this case, FBI agents were able to present prosecutors with hundreds of hours of price-fixing meetings secretly taped by an ADM executive named Mark Whitacre. In his absorbing and thorough 2000 book The Informant, the New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald tells the complex, bizarre, and utterly fascinating story of how Whitacre worked with the FBI for years, while also lying outrageously in order to cover up his own embezzlement of several million dollars. Part thriller, part character portrait, The Informant makes for thoroughly absorbing reading, and Eichenwald does a masterful job of drawing on interviews, tape transcripts, and other sources in order to place readers right in the thick of the FBI’s investigation into ADM.

It’s not the only book about the price fixing scandal; James B. Lieber’s Rats in the Grain also provides a well-written and incisive account. But Eichenwald’s book tells the story more thoroughly and in much greater detail, while at the same time often reading like a suspense novel—which is no doubt part of why Steven Soderbergh has recently made a film based on the book, starring Matt Damon, which will be released in theaters this fall. I’m eager to see it, and not only because I think The Informant will translate very well to cinematic adaptation. Soderbergh shot the movie in Decatur, and apparently took great care to ensure that the film’s production design is true to Central Illinois in the early 1990s. I’m looking forward to the experience of seeing the world of my own adolescence on the big screen.

But in the meantime: I’d highly recommend Eichenwald’s book.

My new review on PopMatters: Potato by John Reader

PopMatters has published my review of the journalist John Reader’s history of the potato, titled (surprisingly enough) Potato. If you’re going to read just one history of the potato, this probably shouldn’t be it.

“The beard makes the bard”: Poets ranked by beard weight

Via The Second Pass: at A Journey Round My Skull, Gilbert Alter-Gilbert offers “commentary” on The Language of the Beard, which he alleges to be a forgotten tome penned by “one Upton Uxbridge Underwood (1881 – 1937)…a deipnosophist, clubman, and literary miscellanist with a special interest in tonsorial subjects.” I suspect this book does not actually exist—but this post is wonderful all the same. It’s had me smiling wide all evening.

Excerpted from the post:

There is a direct correlation between personal appearance and artistic proficiency and integrity, or what, in the case of the bewhiskered brethren of the literary fraternity, he elsewhere calls “poetic gravity” or beard weight. It might be said, in short, that Underwood’s motto is the beard makes the bard.

The post includes evaluations of a number of poets by the weight of their beards, as well as classifications of their beards by type (“Italian False Goatee,” “Queen’s Brigade,” “Garibaldi Elongated,” “Claus-esque”). On Underwood’s scale, Walt Whitman scores a relatively paltry 22—well behind William Cullen Bryant (43), whose “Van Winkle” style beard is impressively full, but whose poetry doesn’t quite measure up to Whitman’s in my book. Perhaps Underwood’s scale needs a little tweaking. But then again, what do I know? My own beard most likely wouldn’t even outweigh that of Sir Walter Raleigh.

My review of Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée in Rain Taxi

Rain Taxi has published my review of Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée as a part of its Spring 2009 Online Edition.

My review of Amina Cain’s I Go To Some Hollow on PopMatters

PopMatters is now running my review of Amina Cain’s I Go To Some Hollow, a collection of unconventional and fleetingly lyrical short stories.

I Go To Some Hollow

I Go To Some Hollow

My review of Roche’s Wetlands on PopMatters

My review of Charlotte Roche’s controversial novel Wetlands has been posted on PopMatters.

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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