Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Best Opening Sentence of a Novel

If you have to pick one desert island, all time favorite first sentence of a novel, what would you choose?

Though deceptively simple, I always think of the opening of Melville's Moby Dick when I consider memorable first sentences. It's the utility and purposely vague phrasing -- just three words, but a sentence that absolutely sets the stage for the rest of the novel:

"Call me Ishmael."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin (Book Review)

I first learned about Joel Salatin from the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. Salatin was one of the farmers featured in the film extolling the virtues of local food.

Fortunately, I had an opportunity to hear him speak earlier this year, and learn more about his Virginia farm and strident beliefs about community-based agriculture.

After his talk, I picked up a copy of his book, Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, and I'm pleased to report it's one of the best things I've read so far this year. Call it the book Michael Pollan would have written if he had been a farmer.

Much more than a rallying cry for local food, Salatin illustrates in painstaking detail the everyday bureaucracy and issues with the entrenched industrial food system. He writes about how the system is setup to favor big agribusiness and not the small farmer or the consumer, and the many obstacles small, local farmers face from burdensome regulations. Zoning, wildlife, farm labor and housing, insurance, taxes, and animal diseases (such as avian influenza and mad cow) and the extent to which they are subject to increasing government regulations are all covered in the book.

For example, in a chapter about salmonella, Salatin explains how USDA regulations don't require inspectors to check the inside of eggs, or for things that hurt anyone. Instead, they focus only on "visually observable qualities: exterior shell and interior air space, thickness and blood spots." Sadly, you'll learn about many more farming "regulations" like this if you read this book. That said, you'll also feel hope and empowered to read about the huge strides the local food movement has made through "environmentally responsible, ecologically beneficial, sustainable agriculture."

Bottom line: read this!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Waiting for Superman (Review)

I really wanted to see Waiting for Superman when it came out in theaters, and I finally had a chance to see it a few weeks ago. That I ended up watching it the day before the Oscar's was coincidence, although I was shocked that the film wasn't even nominated for Best Documentary.

A lot has already been written about the movie, so I'll stick to my immediate impressions, which I logged right after seeing the film:
  • The American public school education system is broken.
  • We now lag the other major powers in student performance.
  • Good teachers are vitally important, but unfortunately there aren't enough of them and there are too many mediocre and bad teachers. Even worse, bad teachers are almost never fired.
  • We don't measure teacher performance well enough.
  • We need some way of rewarding excellent teachers.
  • Some public schools are essentially "dropout factories".
  • Charter schools have arisen as a viable alternative to public schools.
If you're an American and you haven't seen Waiting for Superman, I highly recommend you do so. Whether you have kids or not, and whether you can afford to send your children to private schools or not, this film should resonate with you.

Because the kids featured in the film -- whose last best hope for a decent education is a fucking lottery -- are after all your kids and my kids. They might be the future innovators of our country who create the next Google that revitalizes our economy in 2020, but they are much, much more likely to be unskilled, minimum wage workers, or inmates filling up our prisons, or, simply, dead.

There's a brilliant exchange in the 1985 film The Breakfast Club, between the principal Richard Vernon and the janitor Carl. The principal, frustrated managing difficult students, vents to Carl. "Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me."

Carl's response might have come right from Waiting for Superman. "I wouldn't count on it."