Sunday, 8 August 2010

THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS by James Fenimore Cooper

Well, this one is a doozy. I am sorry I could not find you an electronic image of the cover of my edition. It shows the Native American fighting the British guy, and for some reason the wind is blowing up the former's loin cloth so you can see his butt. Full on, dead centre, a big butt, in the middle of the cover. It is very strange. Very strange. What is that supposed to mean? Borderline gayness combined with borderline racism? Actually, possibly this is also a good strapline for this whole book.

Basically, there are these two British girls and this British guy who is protecting them. They are betrayed by their evil Indian guide(!), Magua. They are then saved by the good Indians(!), a young one (Uncas), his dad, and this other white guy (whose always going on about how he is a man 'without a cross') who has been totally absorbed into the Native American lifestyle (thus he has to tell us all the time about his lack of cross). I can see why they made this book into an action movie, because it is just action sequence after action sequence after action sequence, enlivened by a bit of romance and some stupid disguises.

I don't know which is more racist in its portrayal, the evil Indians or the good Indians. At first I was thinking, wow, way to write to the stereotype; but then I read on the internet that I guess Cooper's book was actually a huge part of what created the stereotype. Interesting. There's lots of 'savage' this, and 'uncivilized' that. But on the other hand, when Uncas dies, his father is mostly comforted by the white guy (WITHOUT a cross, let's emphasize) who says how they serve the same god and will run on the same paths on the happy hunting grounds, which is sweet. And I guess at the time Cooper wrote it, a lot of people thought he was too kind to the Native Americans, because he often writes in admiration of their fortitude, courage etc etc. So, obviously, let's not judge him by our standards.

Let's not even get into the women, because its a close run thing as to whether it's more sexist than it is racist. And we are not judging him by our standards.

We're fairly lucky I can even tell you this much about it, as I almost gave up on page 17. This guy is some WORDY. And we know I like wordy, but this was almost too wordy even for me. Check it out: "Receiving no reply to this extraordinary appeal, which, in truth, as it was delivered with the vigour of full and sonorous tones, merited some sort of notice, he who had thus sung forth the language of the holy book, turned to the silent figure to whom he had unwittingly addressed himself, and found a new and more powerful subject of admiration in the object that encountered his gaze." Ye gods. I kept going, but I almost gave up again when instead of cooking he referred to "undergoing the culinary process."

Onwards and upwards. (In which series of childrens books is this an important phrase, at least in the last book? Extra points if you know)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

FAST FOOD NATION by Eric Schlosser

After all that 19th century morality I thought it was time for 20th century immorality. FAST FOOD NATION provides that in spades. Spades of offal, eyeballs, fat, salt, animal cruelty and poor working conditions for illegal immigrants.

This book is about the way in which fast food has shaped global culture. He begins by discussing the genesis of fast food as we know it. Apparently, it arose in Southern California, a place built very much around the motor car. There were lots of places selling burgers and so on, but it was all cooked from scratch by experienced cooks, with waitresses on hand. Then the McDonald's brothers - who were sick of their teenage clientele, apparently, who came mostly for the young pretty waitresses - came up with a new system, based on the production line concept. They cut their menu to only those things that could be eaten without a plate or cultery, and simplifed the food preparation process so that no experience was necessary - each worker just did one simple part of preparation, so experienced short order cooks were no longer necessary. They were thus able to massively cut prices, and business boomed. Apparently this was the first time working class people could afford to eat in a 'restaurant.' Other people copied, and the idea spread. The McDonalds - now this is heartening - after they got really really rich, weren't interested in getting any richer. So they weren't looking to expand. But this other guy, Ray Kroc, convinced them to let him franchise for them. And that's the real birth of the chain. He always said he wasn't in the food business, but in show business - interesting, no? Anyway, he always resented doing what he perceived as all the work, and was eventually delighted to buy them out, and in the end force the closure of their last restaurant (now called M) by opening a McDonald's up the road.

Interestingly, practically every big fast food chain was started by a high school drop out.

The book also talked about how fast food restaurants market primarily to children, especially toddlers. 25% of Americans eat fast food in any one day, and 90% of American children under 9 visit a McDonalds in any one month. Oh yes. It's not good news. I in 8 Americans has actually worked for McDonalds at some point.

Also, something I never knew is that fast food in itself is made to be bland, as the flavour actually comes for added chemicals - just a few drops, that are carefully controlled. Most of the flavour in all fast food is made in New Jersey, apparently.

Obviously, the treatment of the animals is not great. But it's actually getting better. However, the treatment of the people who work in meat packing is APPALING. That was really depressing. Lots of exploiting illegal immigrants etc. The treatment of the kids (the majority of workers are under 19) who work in the restaurants is not brilliant either. McDonalds works hard to fight unions, and sends in crack teams to stop any incipient unionizing. Not a single US restaurant is unionised. WOW.

One interesting thing was how much these big corporations, that drivel on about the free market, and competition, etc etc, are happy to take government handouts. Lots of franchises are begun with money from the fund meant to help small businesses. In fact, big corporations use it when they're not sure an area can stand another Burger King or whatever, as they know the government will just take the loss. Also, they've worked hard to make sure franchisees have none of the normal consumer protections -eg, they corporations can cancel the contract at any time; they can limit who you can sell it too; they can make you use their suppliers, no matter what the cost, etc etc.

And yet, I have to tell you that all this talk about french fries made me want to eat french fires. What does this mean?