Book Reviews: July 2008

Taras Grescoe
Bloomsbury Press, 2008, 326 pages
TARAS GRESCOE IS A WEST COAST transplant to Montreal. While growing up in the Vancouver B.C. area, Grescoe became an avid seafood consumer; the Pacific Northwest’s abundant fish and shellfish nurtured his lifelong habit. Interestingly Garscoe begins the book by making an ethical case for not eating seafood. He goes on to counter the opposition to fish by explaining the choices that make eating seafood ethically acceptable and sustainable.

The title, Bottomfeeder, has a double meaning. First, Garscoe encourages us to eat seafood low on the food chain. Second, as we become “bottomfeeders,” we will begin to consume more bottomfeeding fish, herbivores like catfish.

We need a new way of making seafood choices. That six-ounce fillet of cod, tuna, swordfish or salmon that graced the center of your plate the other day was likely a poor choice. In addition to most species of predatory “game fish” being threatened species, often they are not good for us. Some of these top carnivores live to be quite old; many live for decades consuming smaller fish. In doing so they concentrate any toxics found in the smaller fish, mercury is a problem in seafood, to levels that may be harmful to humans.

Garscoe even cautions us about farmed seafood. The problems are outlined carefully. There are good fish farms and bad; with fish farming the lack of information as to how and where the fish are farmed is a problem. Interestingly, aquiculture often turns carnivores into herbivores and herbivores are turned into carnivores. Salmon raised in costal pens and fed soybean meal are not good. Salmon raised in inland ponds and fed fishmeal are better. While most catfish are raised “ethically,” many tilapia are not.

In search of the perfect seafood meal, Garscoe learned that, unless you are at a three-star seaside restaurant, the question is not, “Is your fish fresh?” but “How long ago was your fish thawed?” I’ll let you read the book to find out why.

Stan Miller


Gary Krist
A Holt Paperback, 2008, 251 pages

THIS IS A SAGA OF TITANIC PROPORTIONS, only it happens high in the Cascade Mountains on a routine train journey from Spokane to Seattle over Stevens Pass in late February, 1910, relentlessly building to its tragic conclusion. The heroic actions by crew and passengers are inspirational, as the story is told in meticulously researched detail. Krist brings to life an assorted group of people, from wealthy businessmen to widows, mothers with small children and dedicated railroad workers. It reads like fiction with page turning intensity and escalating feelings of dread and hopelessness.

The history of the railroads, specifically Great Northern Railway founder James J. Hill and his monopoly of the rail lines before the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, is highly informative and illuminates the all important function of railways of that time, as it is vividly brought to life.

The reader is caught up in the lives and struggles of both crew and passengers through their terrifying ordeal. Assaulted by record-breaking snows in late February, the normally routine trip turns into the worst and most ill-fated in the long career of Superintendent James O’Neil. With super-human endurance his efforts to save his train were truly heroic.

Krist writes with crisp and compelling prose in a book as gripping as any fictional tale, giving an hour-by-hour account of the growing horror, with the tension building ominously. His description of the avalanche itself is one of the most harrowing I have ever read.
Compassionate and dramatic, this book carries the reader along as swiftly as a tidal wave as the tragedy unfolds.

The aftermath is equally compelling when beleaguered Supt. O’Neil and survivors are made to endure a heart wrenching trial.

A wonderfully human and poignant accounting, this book is impossible to put down, and ultimately life-affirming. This is a worthy recounting of a long overlooked and mostly forgotten history-making event.

Joan Egan


John Darnielle
Continuum Books, 2008, 101 pages

What’s the best way to explain Black Sabbath? You could interview the band members, talk with music critics, or study album chart data. Or you could do what John Darnielle does with his new book 33 1/3: Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. Darnielle has created a fictional journal written by a 16-year-old boy committed against his will to mental institution in 1985. It’s an extremely creative take on the central question of Continuum Books 33 1/3 series: what makes an album important? Most writers in the series have answered this by filling a hundred pages with an essay of nonfiction or music criticism. And if anyone but Darnielle had tried to elucidate the virtues of Sabbath’s third album, mostly remembered for the track “Sweat Leaf,” in fiction form I wouldn’t have given it a second look. But Darnielle, the singer songwriter who records under the name The Mountain Goats, and blogs on the site, is one of the best music writers of his generation.

For Darnielle Black Sabbath’s proto-heavy metal riffage is best explained as an island of sanity in a turbulent sea of working class adolescent rebellion. If you grew up in a town such as Spokane in the eighties, or Central Florida, or Southern California where this book is set, you might not need Master of Reality explained to you. It’s just in your bones. Even so this book is still a fascinating read, with interesting facts about the band and the record snuck into the story. Ozzy wrote lots of pro-Christian subtext into his lyrics. Who knew?

Even if you are a close follower of Darnielle he can surprise you. For last year’s anthology book on desert-island discs called Marooned he chose a Dionne Warwick greatest hits collection. For his only entry into the 33 1/3 series he not only chose narrative over nonfiction he also chose a Sabbath record that isn’t the band’s most popular (that would be 1970’s Paranoid) or the most critically acclaimed (that might be 1976’s Sabotage). But when you’re done reading this book it won’t likely matter. You’ll look at Ozzy and company a whole different way, or you’ll rush out to buy this record if you don’t already have it.

Jon Snyder

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