Friday, February 29, 2008

What's the beef?

The recent meat recalls in California because of E. coli concerns were not surprising to me. In my book, TIN LIZARD TALES: Reflections from a Train, I took meat packing companies and the federal government to task for not being more careful.

Near Fort Morgan, Colorado is a large meat packing company belonging to Cargill Meat Solutions. When we visited in the spring of 2004 it was known as Excel Corporation. It was from this plant, according to health officials, that feces-contaminated beef was shipped to Milwaukee triggering an E. coli outbreak that killed a three-year-old girl and sickened 60 other people. All the victims had eaten at a Sizzler restaurant prior to their attacks. None had actually eaten any of the contaminated beef but had consumed salad bar fruit that had been cut up on counters where the beef had also been prepared. Because the origin of the E. coli contamination could not be positively identified, a judge dismissed the resultant lawsuits.

In the book, I outline meat processing in great detail, something that has earned me some negative comment about the graphic details. One reviewer called my writing “internecine,” i.e. marked with excessive details about slaughter, violent death, and noxious events. I wasn’t trying to gross anyone out. I was attempting to instill some interest in my readers and the government that would prompt some remedial action.

What I read and hear from the reports about the California meat debacle indicate that neither the meat packing industry nor the United States Department of Agriculture, the agency that is responsible for oversight and regulation, are performing in commendable fashion. The meat packing industry blames the USDA for not having inspectors in place and the USDA blames the lack of funding for being unable to perform its duties. It’s the same old blame game.

It seems to me that if the meat packing companies would handle the processing in a responsible and concerned manner that produced clean and safe meat products, maybe inspectors wouldn’t be needed.

As for USDA inspectors, I can speak from experience about federal overseers. In my younger life I worked for an electronics company that made parts for the United States government. Some of our products were used by the military, and others were used by other governmental agencies. We were assigned inspectors from the Army, Navy, and Air Force along with a couple of governmental civilian representatives. They were to oversee our operations to make sure we were producing products which met specifications, which used the approved components, which were manufactured under strict quality control standards, and which were being tested appropriately to ensure reliability. In other words, the products were going to be used in such a way that spotless performance was a must. Should we expect anything less from our food products?

But let me tell you about our inspectors. They were hardly ever personally around our facility to check on the materials or the processes. When we needed them to sign off on a component prior to shipping, we always knew where to find them―at a little watering hole a couple of blocks from our company. They were almost always together; there was no interdepartmental rivalry over a pitcher of beer. They would either boozily wobble over to the plant to sign off the shipment, or they would hand their official stamp to one of our quality control people to OK the parts for them.

Electronic parts are one thing. But food products cannot be handled in a such a dismissive or—dare I say it?—criminal manner. I’m anxious to hear the final disposition of the California matter because it has affected so many people, many of young age in our schools. It has to serve as a wake-up call about governmental inefficiency and meat packing industry indifference.

Schuyler T. Wallace

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Book reviews and those who do them.

The book is written and hits the market. The author now faces the reality that sales must be made to recover the costs. But what's more important is how the book is received. If it's not liked the old ego takes a header (and make no mistake, ego is a big part of a writer's psyche). If it's not liked, there probably won't be any sales to worry about.

I received a 3 star review to go along with a couple of 5 stars on Okay, the reviewer wasn't too critical but I thought she missed the point of my book. She thought I wrote a travelogue. I think I wrote a series of essays with some traveling in between. I consider there to be a small difference between to two.

She thought I wrote in a passive manner. I think I combined both passive and active but will concede that active is more acceptable and probably easier to read. My English teachers always tried to tell me that. So I'll take that criticism to heart and be more careful, but I suspect that a passive voice will sneak in once in a while.

She likes to observe people and thought I didn't put enough faces on my characters. I thought I did the few times I mentioned them. But I was focusing on places rather than people in this book. I'll be willing to take a closer look at faces when I decide to write about people.

She doesn't list my type of book in her preferential reading list. That may put a bright light more squarely on her review.

All that said, I thank her for the time she spent and appreciate the good things she said - mainly that it deserves to be read, that it is interesting, and worth buying. She also conceded that it is "a bit of an escape." I'd thank her via e-mail but she makes it clear she wants no contact after a review.

What do I think of all this? I'm ambivalent. I've read many interviews with big time authors who sluff off critical remarks with a quick shake of their bank accounts. I'm not a author who has a bank account big enough to shake off published criticism. I need good reviews to sell my book and I love good reviews because they validate what I'm trying to do.

I tend to think of some reviewers as having a jealous streak. Their publishing record suggests they aren't striking the right chord with readers and take out their frustration on another writer who is enjoying more success. But that's not really fair because those I consider really good reviewers have the ability to couch their remarks in such a way as to still promote the book with positive enthusiasm even though there might be some aspects of the writing or subject matter they don't particularly like. The good reviewer might not have published anything at all.

I review a lot of books. If I write a review, that means I finished the book. If I finished the book, that means I liked it. Some parts might have been difficult for me wade through, understand, or agree with. But overall, I liked what the author presented and I try to reflect that in my review.

I suppose that's what I think a good reviewer should do. As for the 3-star review I received, I think there were enough positive remarks to keep my book afloat. What the review did was to shake me up enough to prompt me into more careful reviews of my own. I resolve to look more closely at my critical remarks to keep bias or lack of information from coloring them. I will also be careful to not bruise an ego or queer a sale. Do unto others I always say. Or at least I will from now on.

Schuyler T. Wallace
Author of Tin Lizard Tales

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Rolling Around

It's been about a week so I'll add a little to my story. We talked last time about the anxious moments I had getting involved with blogging. Basically I suffer from doubts about having anything worthwhile to discuss. My book, TIN LIZARD TALES, is important enough to me to keep fishing for readers so that will be my main thrust at this point.

Why do I want readers? Obviously it's not to make a lot of money. You'd probably explode in wild guffaws if you knew the amount of my royalty payment. I don't think of being famous - I'm notorious enough with my family and friends, and that's not necessarily a good thing. I'm not looking to pick up girls. Hell, I'm over seventy and accompanied by a wonderful partner (Carol wields a mean knife should I decide to stray). I don't have any political agenda, although I admit to being thoroughly disgusted with the idiocy of some politicians and their ideologies and I write about it. No, it's none of these.

I want you to read the book because I think you'll find it fun. What else do we read for if it's not for enjoyment? Some parts of the book might be a little gory (one reviewer, although he loved the book, called parts of it "internecine," marked with goriness or violent death and slaughter). Well, excuse me! I was trying to make a point, not gross anybody out.

However, most comments are favorable and are pointed at enjoying the humor and sarcasm of my reporting. That's good because I was just being true to my nature -- an old fart with a big mouth. I've noticed that many people seem to have my same point of view and I'm more than happy to share it.

I also enjoy the sheer joy of travel. I haven't made a life of moving around, but Carol and I have visited many places both here and abroad. We find a sense of excited anticipation and wide-eyed enchantment when a place is first visited. Some of it might wear off after lingering awhile, but there are always other places to visit.

I find that most people enjoy traveling and would like to do more of it. I hope that I've piqued that interest and prompted the "getting out there and seing something" beast in all of us. Albert Camus called desire "a warm beast . . . that lies curled up in our loins." That might be a little over the top but, nonetheless, it feels good to travel.

So that's probably the reason I devoted three years to putting together about a book about our train trip. We've taken many trips so maybe there are a lot more books there somewhere in the fading wrinkles of my mind.

Sales pitch here. If you want to know more about TIN LIZARD TALES, there are lots of place to go without actually putting much money out. You can visit my website, for a quick synopsis and biographical sketches, info on how to contact me, links to Amazon and Barnes & Noble where there are 5-star reviews, and a $5 e-book offer. Check Google Book Search where you can actually read some of the book. That's a lot of stuff to look over. And, of course, should the mood strike you, the book is available on all on-line book stores and through your local book seller at a mere $15.95 a copy.

More to come. I'll discuss some specific parts of the book, what prompted me to write them, and then, after we're all sick of hearing about the Lizard, I intend to offer up some of my other earthy opinions about everything.