25 May 2008

Two Book Notes

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

David Liss’ novel A Conspiracy of Paper is a delightful mystery set in early 18th century London, in the period preceding the bubble-and-crash of South Sea Company stock. Liss weaves together four thematic elements quite effectively: the rollicking nature of London; the tenuousness of Jewish life in London at the time; the development of the modern stock market and its corresponding manipulation; and the evolution of philosophy and deductive reasoning. All four themes play important roles here, as the Jewish boxer Benjamin Weaver (né Lienzo) and his Scottish friend Elias Gordon unravel the secrets behind several murders, including that of Weaver’s father.

In the back of my edition of the book (published by Ballantine Books, 2001), Liss talks about some aspects of the story, and notes that at the time he wrote the book, our society (and much of the world) was experiencing the technology stocks bubble – not dissimilar to the fantasies about the South Sea Company. Reading the story now, in mid-2008, it is also hard not to think about the current mortgage crisis, and the “conspiracy of paper” of banks and investors buying willy-nilly anything related to American homes. Willing to suspend disbelief while trading paper for paper, and even more paper, they have created a series of unsustainable financial promises for which we are now paying a heavy price.

Liss won a well-deserved Edgar Award for best first novel for A Conspiracy of Paper. Anyone needing an engaging read this summer – an intellectual beach book – would do well with this one.


Currently, I am deep into Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which is challenging my assumptions about the nature of agriculture and food production more than anything else I have ever read. The book is simultaneously making me reconsider my own role in the completely cockamamie ecology of the planet, and making me feel that there is virtually nothing that a single individual can do to challenge or alter the problems we face. Pollan has induced in me a kind of hopeful hopelessness.

I will save a full review for a more appropriate time (like, when I have finished reading the book), but two passages caught my attention and are worth noting now. Towards the end of part I, titled “Industrial Corn,” Pollan writes “It worked: The price of food is no longer a political issue. Since the Nixon administration, farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day (up from 3,300, already substantially more than we need)...” (Page 103) Several pages later, he notes “While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.” (Page 108)

If those quotes feel out of context, consider the current political environment: in which President Bush vetoed a farm bill – and food prices are reaching new highs, causing rampant speculation on price fluctuations and, in some countries, panic over the availability of staples like rice. Of course, Bush’s veto is politics at its most base, considering that he has passed similar legislation before with no pangs of conscience (and he has rarely wielded his veto pen anyway). And the food crisis is more complicated than any single factor, whether that’s the over-production of corn or the under-production of other core foods. Still, thinking about my sense of hopeful hopelessness, I cannot help but wonder if a continued escalation of food prices might eventually prompt the necessary change in our agricultural policy, not so much to lower the cost as to shift the underlying mechanics of food production, the impact of which is much broader than we typically think – as Pollan so effectively reveals.


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