EATER BEWARE If subject matter determined sales, Marion Nestle's Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism (University of California Press, $27.50) would be a chart topper

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Quick Reads

Marion Nestle, David Liss, Earl Emerson, and Kim Barnes.

EATER BEWARE If subject matter determined sales, Marion Nestle's Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism (University of California Press, $27.50) would be a chart topper to rival Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Nestle covers more ground, wields greater authority, and has concrete, tough-minded recommendations for change. But Schlosser is a journalist, with a journalist's sense of the vivid image, telling phrase, and gruesome example. Nestle is an academic, and her academic heritage sticks out all over her new book in great ungainly bumps. It's not that she writes badly; it's only that almost every paragraph reminds you disagreeably of all the turgid waffling prose you had to plow through on the long road to liberation from school. Nevertheless, you must buy and even read Nestle's book, because it is destined to be the BibleThe Art of War, the Guerrilla Warfare, the Steal This Book of the coming battle for control over the American food supply. And you will be rewarded, because Nestle, despite her pedestrian prose, is nothing less than a revolutionary. In Safe Food, she calls the citizenry to arms against corporate agribusiness, industrial food processors, and their scientific and bureaucratic accomplices. We've heard many of the horror stories in this book before: How genetically engineered StarLink corn crept into our food and how its producers tried to cover the fact up; how ConAgra shipped 20 million pounds of beef potentially infected with E. coli (and tried to cover it up), etc., etc. What's new is Nestle's demonstration that there is an efficient, economical, proven system to prevent such incidents (it goes by the catchy acronym HACCP: Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point). She also demonstrates how the food industry has spent 20 years and 10 times as many millions to keep you from finding out about it. Find out about it now, before it is too late. Roger Downey Marion Nestle reads at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 5 p.m. Wed., March 26. She will appear at the U.W.'s Kane Hall, Room 130 (tickets required: 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Thurs., March 27. MEDIUM BLEND "Coffee is the drink of commerce," says a get-rich-quick schemer in David Liss' The Coffee Trader (Random House, $24.95). She's just one of several in 1659 Amsterdam seeking to make their fortune with this mysterious new commodityby any means possible. Speculative trading, market manipulation, monopolies, rumor mongering, usury, lies, intimidation, and outright violence are all part of this rather compulsively readable tale by Liss, whose last book, A Conspiracy of Paper, was also a financial thriller (albeit set in 1719 London). It would be unfair to say Trader follows the exact same formula of Paper, but the market forces at work are awfully familiar. Make yourself one medium-sized carafe of French roast, and you can crank through its 384 pages in one quick, fidgety sitting. The book's hero is Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew forced to live as a Christian in his native country to escape the Inquisition; he's now ironically hiding his affairs from a Jewish civic council (the Ma'amad), which prohibits Jews from doing business with gentiles in anything-goes Amsterdam. Miguel's broke at the beginning of the story, ruined in sugar trading, and there's only one way for himand Traderto go. You never have much doubt about the outcome, no matter how many obstacles and shady supporting charactersincluding his own brotherare thrown in Miguel's way. The effect is like John Grisham in period dressplot twists come by messenger instead of cell phone call, but they serve the same purpose. Liss is better-read than Grisham and a better writer, but his influences are fairly naked (especially Dickens). Liss alternates Miguel's tale with the diary extracts of a notorious moneylender (excommunicated by the Ma'amad), until their two stories inevitably converge. Yet Trader would be more interesting if principled, imperfect Miguel were more of a Gordon Gekko or Michael Milken figuresomeone who would willingly sell his soul for a corner on coffee. Still, it's nice to encounter the old cliche "when my ship comes in" when it actually means just that. Brian Miller David Liss will read at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Wed., March 26. PRIME-TIME READING When my editor dropped Earl Emerson's latest on my desk, I was less than thrilled. I took one look at the flame-riddled cover, the sensational titleInto the Inferno: A Novel of Suspense (Ballantine, $23.95)and I hated it. A novel of suspense? It looked like something from an airport bookstore. Still, with a long bus ride home and nothing to read, I slipped Inferno into my bag. The opening pages were just as expected, full of bravado and barely believable circumstance: Our heroa divorced, womanizing North Bend firefighterskillfully cleans up a nasty freeway crash and charms one of the victims, a pretty young truck driver, into giving him her number. Hmmm, I thought, could this be a massive ego stroke for our author (also a good-looking North Bend firefighter)? I could see where this book was going, and I wasn't interested. On the bus the next morning, however, I reopened the book with unexpected eagerness. It read a lot like a TV drama, I realized. Dumb, maybe, but engaging, light, and readable. Like one of those reality shows you want to hateuntil you get sucked in. By the end of my third bus ride, I was hooked. The story sounds implausible and asinine: The entire North Bend fire department has been exposed to a deadly mystery chemical. It's up to Lt. Jim Swopeand his partner in sleuthing, a beautiful doctor whose sister (the pretty young truck driver) is comatose from the exposureto identify the chemical and an antidote before the whole town is destroyed. (Insert snide North Bend comment here.) The weak plot is a handicap for Emerson, but not a deal breaker in this honest-to-god page-turner. Defeated as I felt after all my initial Inferno bashing, I finally stayed up till 2:30 a.m. to finish it. Couldn't put it down. As in a good TV drama (or not-so-good TV drama), Emerson understands character development, dialogue, and subtle humor. Introduced as a self-involved jerk, Swope became a sweetly pitiful, complex character, and I a surprised, sympathetic reader. Katie Millbauer Earl Emerson will read at Elliott Bay Books (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 4 p.m. Sat., March 29, and at Ravenna Third Place (6500 20th Ave. N.E., 206-523-0210), 7 p.m. Thurs., April 3. BORDERLINE When a gifted memoir writer commits fiction, the results can be controversial. Ivan Doig's 1999 novel about a Seattle alterna-paper, Mountain Time, was criticized in The New York Times by a Seattle Weekly writer for being implausible; ironically, Doig had interviewed me for the book about my old SW days to ensure authenticity. Well, Kim Barnes, the Pulitzer-finalist memoirist of In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country and Hungry for the World, is nothing if not authentic. Like Barnes' own family, the brothers Buddy and Lee Hope, the heroes of Finding Caruso (Putnam, $24.95), kick the Okie dust off their feet and put down roots in Lewiston, Idaho (here called Snake Junction). As in her memoirs, Barnes paints a place of booze-fueled anarchy, violence, and romantic rebellion. Buddy and Lee come by theirs honestly: Their alcoholic pa drives himself and their ma to their deaths in a river (somewhat resonant of the train crash in Housekeeping, only told with less disciplined lyricism). What saves the boys is Lee's golden throat, ideally suited to their late-'50s milieu. He sings for his supper at a roadhouse called the Stables, "the checkpoint between the reservation and the town." Buddy, 17 to his brother's 24, has a Summer of '42-style crush on a mysterious older woman, Irene, who comes to town and fills his head with aspirations beyond the ken of Snake Junction: Caruso singing La Traviata, as opposed to Lee singing "Hound Dog" prior to threatening to cut off a one-handed drunk's dick with a knife. When an Indian friend of Irene's gets accused of murder, secrets emerge. Buddy comes, not unforeseeably, of age. Some of the writing is annoyingly arch and arty (when Irene skinny-dips, Barnes describes "the white moment of her bra"), but when Barnes puts words in service of the world she's describingthe way macadam gets oily after days of 100-plus heatshe shows her gift. But I'd rather read the forthcoming third volume of her memoirs. Tim Appelo Kim Barnes will read at Zeitgeist Art & Coffee (171 S. Jackson St., 206-624-6600), 7 p.m. Tues., April 1. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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