Books and Book Reviews: October 2007 Archives

My Next Book

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After having carefully assessed my opportunities and market needs, I've decided on my next book. It will be nonfiction and have a title and subtitle something like:

Aerophobics: The Easy Six* Step program to end your exercise addiction

*'cause let's face it, twelve steps is WAAAAAAY too many.

First chapter--Put Don't Those Weights and Pick Up That Remote--how to get over your fear of sitting still.

I'm still working on the rest of the program, but I expect it to crystalize shortly, I'll just sit here a while and keyboard about it--the extent of the aerobics for the day.

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On a Very Pleasant Note

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It is very satisfying to see someone as talented, capable, and interesting as Doris Lessing has actually attracted the Swedish Academy's attention. I guess I should note as well--how highly unusual.

I've always admired the contours of Ms. Lessing's fiction even when I haven't particularly cared for the story or the idea. A fine and interesting writer at all times.

Brava, Ms. Lessing, and well done academy (for a change).

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from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver

In summer a young rooster's fancy turns to . . . how can I say this delicately? The most ham-fisted attempts at courtship I've ever had to watch. ( And yes, I'm including high school.) As predicted, half of Lily's chick crop was growing up to be male. This was dawning on everyone as the boys began to venture into mating experiments, climbing aboard the ladies sometimes backwards or perfectly sideways. The young hens shrugged them off and went on looking for bugs in the grass. But the three older hens, mature birds we'd had around awhile, did not suffer fools gladly. Emmy, an elderly Jersey Giant, behaved as any sensible grandmother would if a teenager approached her looking for action: she bit him on the head and chased him into a boxwood bush.

Ah, the ever-sensitive, ever-refined, ever-genteel male of the species.

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The New Woman


Okay. To start: Get it, read it, enjoy it!

Now the reasons:

Jon Hassler creates very real places. Take Jan Karon. Yank out a lot of the over-sentimental nonsense. Put in some hard-headed characters in need of some real redemption and work. Move it from the South to Minnesota. Make the main characters Catholic and show faith in real action and you have Jon Hassler's town of Staggerford.

Enter Agatha--main character for a good many of the Staggerford novels--now 87 and moving into an assisted living facility because of a mid-winter pipe-breaking trauma in her own house. Moving in and moving out. Living and loving and accessory to kidnapping, and you name it.

The novel reintroduces the reader (or introduces the reader) to the town of Staggerford and its many inhabitants--most of them not terribly eccentric or odd or notable for their tics and traits. Agatha, ex-principal of St. Isidore's Catholic School, unmarried and mentor to most, if not all of the town. John Beezer, the man who become attracted to the first person who says a kind word to him in new and unplesant circumstances. Lillian, Big Edna, Little Edna, and the entire panoply of those who gather in the support group started for her great-nephew who doesn't attend.

Warm and real and filled with gentle satire, real faith, real people, real incident, real sin, real repentance, real redemption, and real lack of redemption. Not everything works out to the good. Not everything works out for perfect happiness all around. Not everything is laced about with charm and beauty. Disinterments, disappointments, disillusionments, and unfortunately no disbarments.

Read it, and enjoy the simple prose and the real feeling of a small and simple town--complicated in its simple network of relationships and understandings. Jon Hassler has created a real place. Less visited perhaps than some better known, but equally worthy of our attention.

Get it! Read it! I'm certain you'll enjoy it.

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Too amusing to let pass, too lovely to leave alone.

from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver

Like our friend David who meditates on Creation while cultivating, I fell luck to do work that lets me listen to distant thunder and watch a next of baby chickadees fledge from their hole in the fencepost into the cucumber patch. Even the smallest backyard garden offers emotional rewards in the domain of the little miracle. As a hobby, this one could be considered bird-watching with benefits.

Every gardener I know is a junkie for the experience of being out there in the mud and fresh green growth? Why? An astute therapist might diagnose us as codependent and sign us up to Tomato-Anon meetings. We love our gardens so much it hurts. . . ."

And what is more delightful is that she goes on to this point to say exactly how it hurts, and it isn't emotional--it is physical. And here we take a lesson in love--love isn't a feeling, it is an act of will. In the garden, it is the act of will that causes us to pull weeds when we'd rather just sit down somewhere. In the world, it is the act of will that sends us to the soup kitchens, or merely to the CCD classroom, when for all the world we'd rather be reading our newspaper or doing . . . anything.

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Other Reading

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In addition to the two that you hear much about here I have the following three on my stack and alternating:

Envious Casca Georgette Heyer--one of her mysteries, and while I'm not sure of its substance as a mystery, it is utterly delightful as a character study of some really unlikable people who Georgette teaches you to like--at a distance.

Come Be My Light Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. More from this later--tomorrow perhaps. Humility, patience, obedience--we don't begin to know the meanings of the words. And reading this book only scratches the surface of a real Saint. Obviously, I await the solemn declaration of the Church, not leaping ahead to conclusions, but one cannot help what one thinks in the matter--I am so blessed just to read about her. All of you should be as well--get this book and read it, enjoy it, learn to live by it. There is much here to instruct anyone who is serious about following God.

The New Woman Jon Hassler--a Staggerford Novel. Think Jan Karon, take away some of the saccharine, make it Catholic and cold, and you've got Jon Hassler's Minnesota--a land vaguely similar to the Lake Woebegone of Garrison Keillor, but with a distinctively Catholic bent. This is the book our small book group decided would be next on the list. (Even though all of us were also reading or rereading Ralph Nader's magnificent The Seventeen Traditions--another highly recommended read.

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No Rash Promises


Shall I make today about how much Kingsolver I may post.

As I have said continually--there is unquestionably a strong agenda behind this book, but Kingsolver writes with such aplomb, humor, grace, and to some extent, even humility that one is invited in, not scolded (although some passages particularly in the sidebars can take on that tone.) For all who would approach it, I simply give the warning. I am not a partisan of much of the agenda, but I find it very easy to overlook amidst the glories of some of the story.

from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver

The steer that had contributed itself to the meatballs on our plates had missed the sign-up.* Everything else on the table was also a local product: the peas we'd just shelled, the salad picked ten minutes earlier, the strawberries from their daughter. I asked Elsie how much food the needed from outside the community. "Flour and sugar," she said, and then thought a bit. "Sometimes we'll buy pretzels, for a splurge."

It crossed my mind that the world's most efficient psychological evaluation would have just the one question: Define splurge. I wondered how many more years I'd have to stay off Belgian chocolate before I could attain Elsie's self-possession. I still wanted the moon, really--and I wanted it growing in my backyard.

When a narrative is peppered with such delightful personal asides, it is easier to take the main stream of the argument seriously--because one can see that the author does not take herself over-seriously. No dour, frowning, scolding, finger-shaking here--just story--how I did it, how you could do it, and why.

*The sign-up referred to is something that initially I had difficulty believing until my sister-in-law told my wife. It appears that the USDA for reasons known only to the bureaucracy has ordained in its wisdom that every chicken, cow, pig, duck, whatever found any any farm anywhere in the United States shall be fitted with an ID number and a GPS tag to be entered into the federal database of livestock. We've lived for centuries without knowing the whereabouts of every animal in the world, I wonder what emergency has ordained that we must know now. Refer back to Mark Twain--Ms. Kingsolver's farmer certainly does.

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The pre-Blessed Spirits


One of the truly wonderful things about Purgatorio is that Dante over and over again affirms that these souls who arrive on the shore of the island of Purgatory are already blessed. They arrive and proceed through at their own pace, a pace determined by their lives on Earth.

Among those moving very slowly on the shores of the island we meet Manfred:

from Purgatorio
Dante, tr. John Ciardi

My flesh had been twice hacked, and each wound mortal
when, tearfully, I yielded up my soul
to HIm whose pardon gladly waits for all.

Horrible were my sins, but infinite
is the abiding Goodness which hold out
its open arms to all who tun to It. . . .

No man may be so cursed by priest or pope
but what the Eternal Love may still return
while any thread of green lives on in hope.

Those who die contumacious, it is true,
though they repent their feud with Holy Church,
must wait outside here on the bank, as we do,

for thirty times as long as they refused
to be obedient, though by good prayers
in their behalf, that time may be reduced.

I quote this passage for several reasons. One is to give a sense of Dante's vision. Ciardi notes that there seems to be no real significance to 30 as opposed to say 50 or 100. In fact, except that it probably doesn't work in Italian 33 might be more apropos.

Another reason is that reading this one gets the sense of a need for real notes. What's this about twice hacked, what actually went on. In a section I didn't quote there is a mention of him being transported with "tapers quenched" after his death. Good notes are essential to any real understanding of these works. Either that or a fairly thorough understanding of the history of all the kingdom that made up Italy at the time of Dante--an expertise almost none of us command.

Finally I quoted it because it contains a line that I have borne in memory since the eighth or ninth grade when we were called upon to read Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. There is either in an epigraph or in a chapter proper, a quotation which, in the book, is a reference to the office set-up of Willie Stark, but which is reflected clearly here

Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde

which is translated in that book As long as hope still has its bit of green. Here is is translated "while any thread of green lives on in hope."

For whatever reason, that line has stuck with me, and I scoured Dante several times looking for it. And this morning, it just popped out at me as I was reading. God's sheer grace and goodness and perhaps a message for meant for this day.

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Another Amusing Anecdote


One more from Kingsolver, and I promise to leave you alone

for the rest of the day at least:

from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver

No modest yellow blocks or wheels were these, but gigantic white tablets of cheese, with the shape and heft of something Moses might have carried down from the mountain. Serious cheesemaking happened here, evidently. A young woman in a white apron stood ready to saw off a bit of goat, cow, or sheep cheese for me. We chatted, and she confirmed that these products were made in a kitchen nearby. I was curious about what kind of rennet and cultures were used for these Middle Eastern cheeses. She answered but seemed puzzled; most customers weren't interested in the technicalities. I confessed I'd tried this at home.

"You make cheese yourself, " she repeated reverently. "You are a real housewife."

It has taken me decades to get here, but I took that as a compliment.

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Yes, there is the dollop of food-ethics, or whatever you want to call it. But honestly, it's a lot better than a similar chapter in Ron Dreyer's Crunchy Conservative book. Ron's chapter made me want to run out and stuff myself with McDonald's simply to protest the smugness and enormous self-satisfaction of his work. But Barbara screams to me to join a world of delight--real pleasure in cuisine:

from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Barbara Kingsolver

I understand that most U.S. citizens don't have room in their lives to grow food or even see it growing. But I have trouble accepting the next step in our journey toward obligate symbiosis with the packaged meal and takeout. Cooking is a dying art in our culture. Why is a good question, and an uneasy one, because I find myself politically and socioeconomically entangled in the answer. I belong to a generation of women who took as our youthful rallying cry: Allow us a good education so we won't have to slave in the kitchen. We recoiled from the proposition that keeping a husband presentable and fed should be our highest intellectual aspiration. We fought for entry as equal partners into every quarter of the labor force. We went to school, sweated those exams, earned our professional stripes, and we beg therefore to be excused from manual labor. Or else our full-time job is manual labor, we are carpenters or steelworkers, or we stand at a cash register all day. At the end of a shift we deserve to go home and put our feet up. Somehow,though, history came around and bit us in the backside: now most women have jobs and still find themselves largely in charge of the housework. Cooking at the end of a long day is a burden we could live without.

It's a reasonable position. But it got twisted into a pathological food culture. When my generation of women walked away from the kitchen we were escorted down that path by a profiteering industry that knew a tired, vulnerable marketing target when they saw it. "Hey, ladies," it said to us, "go ahead, get liberated. We'll take care of dinner." They threw open the door and we walked into a nutritional crisis and genuinely toxic food supply. If you think toxic is an exaggeration, read the package directions for handling raw chicken from a CAFO. We came a long way, baby, into bad eating habits and collaterally impaired family dynamics. No matter what else we do or believe, food remains at the center of every culture. Ours now runs on empty calories.

When we traded homemaking for careers, we were implicitly promised economic independence and worldly influence But a devil of a bargain it has turned out to be in terms of daily life. We gave up the aroma f warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurtutring routines, the creative task of molding our families' tastes and zest for life; we receive in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable. (Or worse, convenience-mart hot dogs and latchkey kids.) I consider it the great hoodwink of my generation. . . .

"Cooking without remuneration" and "slaving over a hot stove" are activities separated mostly by a frame of mind. The distinction is crucial. Career women in many countries still routinely apply passion to their cooking, heading straight from work to the market to search out the freshest ingredients., feeding their loved ones with aplomb. . . ."

What I really admire about Kingsolver's book is that while there is undeniably agenda--very obvious in the passages above--it isn't the agenda that drives the passion of the book. The passion is food, eating right, and what that can do for family structure, community, and ultimately the nation as a whole. Eating locally, preparing your own, eating as a family, all of these have undeniable benefits at large. And Kingsolver doesn't spend her time being intolerably smug about how she can manage to make cheese and figure out what in the world to do with rhubarb--rather, she invites us in. Yes, she lectures us along the way with all of her favorite causes bristling at the edges. And yet, I don't really care, because the centrality of the story rings so true, is so solid, so clearly what many of us need in our lives.

In short, a delightful book--aggravating, but inviting--showing how it just may be possible for those of us with forty acres and a plow to move into a world of better eating and better cooking through a few small but serious changes in how we go about daily life.

Whereas Dreyer thrashed me about the head and shoulders with his moral superiority in shopping, Barbara invites me to go with her to a cheese-making seminar or to the market--a much more effective means of making converts. In short, despite the agendas I'm really enjoying the book.

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Mr. Roth, Again


Well, in the interest of fair play, I've become aware that someone likes Exit, Ghost and makes it sound like much more of novel and much more of an entertainment than I found it to be. Chacun á son goût.

(Please be aware there is an advertising screen before the main event.)

And later, the Hitchens Country heard from. Mr. Hitchens is famously irascible, and so it make for some reading perhaps more delectable than Mr. Roth's opus.

And yet another. I guess I wasn't so far out of the mainstream as I thought.

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Ms. Kingsolver's Amusing Moments


In this book, there are many. As the book is unabashedly about changing the way one chooses to eat, and because it relates so well to The Omnivore's Dilemma I'm finding myself enjoying it more and more as I read.

Like so many big ideas, this one was easier to present to the board of directors than the stockholders. Our family now convened around the oak table in our kitchen; the milk-glass farmhouse light above us cast a dramatic glow. The grandfather clock ticked audibly in the next room. We'd fixed up our old house in the architectural style known as recycling; we'd gleaned old light fixtures, hardware, even sinks and a bathtub from torn-down buildings; our refrigerator is a spruced-up little 1932 Kelvinator. It all gives our kitchen a comfortable lived-in charm, but at the moment it felt to me like a set where I was auditioning for a part in either Little House on the Prairie or Mommie Dearest

Throughout there are moments like these interspersed with observations about growing or raising food, what and how to eat, and simple facts about farming in America and, as I will detail in a future post, one serious danger of genetic engineering that never occurred to me.

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As I anticipated, there is a heckuva a lot of agenda in the book. However, I find most of the agenda congenial. Because I've grown increasingly suspicious of anything that represents itself as "non-fiction" there are some facts I would like to check out--particularly things like whether a patent on a genotype gives you the right to shut down nearby farming operations into which your patented genes have dispersed by air. If so, we all have a lot to be concerned about with the control of the eight basic crops in the hands of only four companies.

But I've also grown used to the fact that a specific wildly idiotic example is held up as the universal practice. I'm also suspicious of unquoted sources and innuendo.

Set that aside, the journey of a family to start to become part of the natural year and to eat as nature's table sets the banquet is utterly fascinating and often very, very amusing. Even if all of the political and agenda-driven stuff does not pan out, I think I will end up enjoying this book enormously.

Interesting to read this opposite Dante's Inferno in which we have a graphic representation of what happens to those who think only about their guts and what goes into them. Really, a very fine pairing, the two bring out the flavors of each other. The entree of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and the fine wine of Inferno.

I do suspect that Erik, amongst others would have strong sympathies with some of the ideas expressed in the book. (Eating tomatoes out of season, for example.)

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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

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We have in this book by Barbara Kingsolver, along with the usual heavy dollops of a vaguely hard-left agenda (vaguely referring mostly to the rigor with which most things are considered) a wonderful story of people learning to live off of the land.

The book makes a nice accompaniment to The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I had wanted to read first, but alas, the library in its wisdom saw fit to deliver this one to me. Both focus at least momentarily on the predominant monocultures of the current farming world--corn and soy beans from which we derive all manner of starches and fats and additives. Some experts have suggested that the overreliance on HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is one of the underlying reasons for the increase in American obesity and childhood obesity.

I know that parts of this book are going to be (pardon the pun) hard to swallow. I've read The Poisonwood Bible, which I found palatable through the first two thirds and wretchedly political for the last third. Within the first chapter, we have already offered to us two tiresome scientific "certainties." The first is that global warming has reinforced a drought in the American Southwest. While not denying the possibility, I await more structured scientific evidence rather than nightly news-reporter sensationalism. The second of these is the tirade against "genetically modified foods." Well, Barbara, and the host of you reading who gaze in horror upon the possibility, in point of fact nearly every food crop we raise has been genetically modified. Yeppers. That's what the domestication of plants about 10,000 years ago did. Human beings deliberately set about changing the genetic makeup of plants. The first chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is available on-line, makes this point with particular regard to maize. Once we stop gasping in horror, we can continue. There may be something wrong with the deliberate modification of plants through genetic splicing, etc. There is evidence that the pollen of some modified crops is damaging to Monarch Butterflies. And personally, I have the feeling that building plants with "systemic insecticides" isn't likely to improve their edibility for humans. You can tell me that they're safe all you like, but any plant that's built to poison what eats it--well, let's just say it doesn't seem like a wholesome idea. But in a book of agenda, and in a book in which the agenda "against" is, in fact, a subsidiary part of the whole, you can't really expect the author to take time out to rationally resolve all of the issues before continuing to tell you about how she and her family built up a farm and started to try to live off the land in the rhythm of the land.

But what you do get is by turns beautiful and marvelous:

from Animal, Miracle, Vegetable
Barbara Kingsolver

An asparagus spear only looks like its picture for one day of its life, usually in April, give or take a month as you travel from the Mason-Dixon line. The shoot emerges from the ground like a snub-nosed green snake headed for sunshine, rising so rapidly you can just about see it grow. If it doesn't get its neck cut off at ground level as it emerges, it will keep growing. Each triangular scale on the spear rolls out into a branch, until the snake becomes a four-foot tree with delicate needles. . . .

Older, healthier asparagus plants produce chunkier, more multiple shoots. Underneath lies an octopus-shaped affair of chubby roots (called a crown) that stores enough starch through the winter to arrange the phallic send-up when winter starts to break. The effect is rather sexy, if you're the type to see things that way. Europeans of the Renaissance swore by it as an aphrodisiac, and the church banned it from nunneries.

The earliest recipes for this vegetable are about 2,500 years old., written in ancient Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics, suggesting the Mediterranean as the plant's homeland The Caesars took their asparagus passion to extravagant lengths, chartering ships to scour the empire for the best spears and bring them to Rome. Asparagus even inspired the earliest frozen food industry, in the first century, when Roman charioteers would hustle fresh asparagus from the Tiber River Valley up into the Alps and keep it buried there in snow for six months, all so it could be served with a big ta-daa at the autumnal Feast of Epicurus. So we are not the first to go to ridiculous lengths to eat foods out of season.

(So, I guess Rome had its own equivalent of the TVA--Tiber Valley Asparagus.)

These kinds of observations and insights, along with the gustatory inclusions, are likely to provide enough fodder to make the agenda, if not palatable, at least endurable. I'll let you know.

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Current Reading


Come Be My Light Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Envious Casca Georgette Heyer (Almost as delightful as her romances)
The Inferno Dante
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Barbara Kingsolver

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from October 2007.

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