Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2007 and 2008 Book Reviews

A year ago, at my 20th college reunion, we visited with a beloved English professor (now retired), who told us that while he loved teaching for 40 years, he loves reading even more, and is thus enjoying his retirement very much, thank you. He started an email book review group, consisting mostly of his family, into which I promptly insinuated myself, and I have been writing reviews of everything I read ever since. Below are all of my reviews from 2007 and 2008.

Persuasion (Reviewed December 2008)

Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818)[*****]. The list of things I will miss about 2008 is short, but near the top is having all of Jane Austen before me, unread. I'm sure there will be years of enjoyment in re-reading these books, but never again will I read with such bated breath. Of course, by this, my last JA, the formula was pretty clear (Of course Wentworth is not in love with Louisa, otherwise how could he finally overcome all of the obstacles and misunderstandings to dramatically profess his love to Anne in a letter in the final pages? Of course Cousin Elliot is not the gentleman he at first appears, but is actually a calculating fortune-seeker! Of course he and the equally calculating Mrs. Clay will make off together in the end! Of course Sir and Miss Elliot will never overcome their cold shallowness! Etc. etc.) Even so, JA kept me as glued to the page with Persuasion as she did a year ago with Sense and Sensibility, and everything in between.

In this assessment of Mr. Elliot, Anne is a woman after my own heart: "Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, -- but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection.... She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped."

The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom and the Future of the Right (Reviewed December 2008)

The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom and the Future of the Right, Andrew Sullivan (2006)[****]. Obama's election has renewed my long-held (perhaps somewhat pollyanna) dream that conservatives and liberals could really talk to one another (rather than just shouting in each others' direction), a dream which stems from a Quakerly sense that both conservatives and liberals probably speak some kernel of truth. The problem is that when I speak to conservatives, it often feels like we are speaking different languages. So I was pretty excited when I stumbled across Andrew Sullivan's blog The Daily Dish , because he strikes me as very much a conservative I could actually sit down and talk to. He's super smart, kind of sweet and earnest, and despises George W. He's also gay, Catholic, British and kind of cute. So I gave his book a try, and mostly was not disappointed. It is well-written, thoughtful, and only a few times made me laugh out loud at the absurdity of its assumptions. I loved Sullivan's description of conservatism as being rooted in loss and regret, in our resistance to the interruptions in the narrative of our lives. (I was less convinced that such a temperament, which I and many liberals I know share, necessarily leads to political conservatism.) His dissection of fundamentalist religion and how it is destroying democracy and freedom (from within and without) is spot-on, and his description of his own religious experience echoed my own very much: "Trying to get an abstract meaning of the Mass misses the point. The point is the activity, not the idea ... Eventually, even the words are acts." His explanation of why government should be limited, and his skepticism of grand governmental schemes to remake the world, all made sense. His insistence that government's first and most fundamental role is to secure the safety of its citizens, and that to do so we must grant the government a monopoly on force, especially made sense, because it strikes me that this failure on the part of government in the ghetto is profound and a major reason for the entrenchment of a poverty of opportunity for kids living there -- a failure that cannot be blamed on anything but the government's own failed policies (i.e. the "war on drugs," the militarization of the police, etc.). I was much less convinced that among the roles of a limited government should be protecting private property, and that government should not be in the business of redistributing wealth. Short a "natural" or God-given right to property ownership (which Sullivan denies -- he denies that any rights or laws are "natural" or God-given), why should government to use its monopoly on force to protect an individual's ownership rather than to redistribute it? The biggest failure of the book -- and of conservatism in general -- is Sullivan's failure to account for the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism. As Sullivan depicts conservatism -- limited government concerned primarily with liberty and freedom -- slavery and institutionalized racism are our government's greatest failure, yet there's not a word about its legacy or what role government should have in the face of that legacy. All in all, though, this was a great introduction to a reasonable and thoughtful conservative philosophy that has really helped me better understand my own political philosophy.

Middlemarch (Conversations from September/October 2008)

Middlemarch, George Eliot (18??)[*****] No formal review, but my end of an on-line conversation as I read this with some friends:

I am still woefully behind you in my reading of Middlemarch, and today I should be making great progress, as Trixie is home with a cold which means I am not volunteering at Obama HQ as scheduled. Unfortunately, I find myself obsessively checking the Huff Post and Americablog to learn the latest details in the drama unfolding in DC and Mississippi ... in much the same way, it occurs to me, that I used to check People.com daily to read up on the Brittany Spears trainwreck. The McCain drama feels about that dignified.

I really do plan to share some thoughts in the next few days. In the meantime, "ardent" may be Victorian code for sexually passionate, but "her blooming, full-pulsed youth" seems less oblique, and the following description of Dorothea caught my eye as needing little decoding at all:

"She was glowing from her morning toilette as only healthful youth can glow; there was gem-like brightness on her coiled hair and in her hazel eyes; there was warm red life in her lips; her throat had a breathing whiteness above the differing white of the fur which itself seemed to wind about her neck and cling down her blue-grey pelisse with the tenderness gathered from her own, a sentient commingled innocence which kept its loveliness against the cyrstalline purity of the out-door snow." (beginning of Chapter 28)

*****

I am a little more than half way through now. This is an awesomely long book! Especially for an inveterate page-counter like me.

I just love love love the Garths. That is the sort of family I aspire to be -- simple, honest, loving, content. Caleb Garth reminds me very much of my own father in some ways, although my dad is much more learned and intellectual than Caleb is. Still, he's never as happy as when he's working on the land. Just like Caleb he has no head for finance, but it doesn't matter because his needs are so simple (I like to say that my dad the born-again atheist lives the most Christ-like life of any Christian I know).

I have to admit that so far, I just don't really like Lydgate so much. I think he's kind of stupid about relationships, and what Gordon has called his idealism looks more like ambition to me. Give me an idealist like Dorothea any day, who has a kind heart. Of course it's wrong that Dorothea can't do the sorts of "great things" men can do simply because she's a woman, but at the end of the day, I'm not so sure that men's "great things" are what make the world a better place -- or at least they are no more important than the small things all of us can do, with great love. Dorothea is certainly not limited in that regard, and as I consider "doing small things with great love" (I think Mother Theresa said that, and probably others as well) every bit as important as "assuming a position of responsibility in society" (as Gordon put it), I can't really pity Dorothea. Of course she should have a wide range of choice (and I suppose it's easy for me to say this, given that I have had such choices), but in the end, if she chose the "limited" path of smaller kindnesses that is in fact open to her, I for one would not criticize that choice (having made it myself!) I think she -- and the Garths too for that matter -- have every bit the opportunity to be part of transforming society for the better as Lydgate does.

I agree that Lygate may infantalize Rosamond, but I find her so unlikable that it's hard to care. I will admit to being impatient with both of them right now.

What I have always remembered and loved most about Eliot is how she is unblinking yet kind, unrelenting yet sympathetic, in pulling apart her characters' self-delusions. (I am sure she is kinder and more patient with them than I am!) I see this especially with Fred, whom I actually really like -- much more than Lydgate. As Gordon points out, he at least has the good sense to love a good woman for the right reasons. The chapters in which Fred attempts -- with increasing anxiety, desperation and self-delusion -- to figure out a way to make good his debt that Caleb Garth has vouched for were *painful* to read. Being the most risk-averse person you've ever met, gambling and bad debt is not something I can relate to (and I just wanted to leap into the pages and shake Fred hard: "Give Caleb the hundred pounds NOW; it will be better than nothing!"). But I can very much relate to that tendency nearly all of Eliot's characters have to convince themselves that their hoped-for version of their world is reality, and to keep convincing themselves of that even against ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, until reality finally pushes through and refuses to be denied.

It seems that for Eliot, being kind is of supreme importance, but in order to be happy, one must first be clear-sighted -- about one's self and others -- and then somehow manage to still be kind. Eliot illustrates this not only through her characters, but also in her own treatment of them. If I am to be judged for my many foibles and self-delusions, I hope it will be by someone as kind and sympathetic as Eliot.

GT says that Mary Garth is perhaps a self-portrait, but I also see in Mrs. Garth an Eliotesque treatment of characters such as Fred, and even her own husband -- supremely kind, but unsentimental, not lacking a certain critical edge and sense of irony. If I had to pick a character to emulate in Middlemarch, I think it would be Mrs. Garth.

*****

I've just finished The Dead Hand and started The Widow and The Wife. Three hundred pages to go. Whew! but this is a long book! A few more thoughts:

1. Is this the very best book that has ever been written, or what? I love it so much.

2. If I am being honest with myself (and if Eliot asks anything of us, it is that), I have to confess that I am impatient with Lydgate because he reminds me of myself too much. Like him, my mind easily goes to big, idealistic schemes; like him, I can quite easily see the way to achieving those goals and am willing to work hard to do it; and like him, I am often quite tone-deaf to and therefore stymied by the inter-personal and community politics required to get there. Julie charitably says that I don't suffer fools gladly, but really what that means is I'm just frustrated a lot. Fortunately, unlike Lydgate, I am not also tone-deaf when it comes to my family. Also unlike Lygate (I suspect, I'm not done), focusing on the narrower world of my family and immediate community, rather than the big schemes my mind likes to run to, feels like a gift, not a failure.

3. The enduring nature of pettiness and corruption in politics seems to be timely theme, yes?

4. One of my very favorite professors in law school, Jane Baron, taught classes that are traditionally deadly dry and boring: Property, Trusts and Estates, Land Use Planning. She was so good I took them all, often quite literally on the edge of my seat. In Trusts and Estates one of the major themes was the corrosive effects of a testator's dead hand reaching back into the world of the living and continuing to manipulate things. Case after case saw families torn apart because of mean-spirited testators and/or family members who thought they were somehow owed something fighting over what the testator actually intended. I plan to write Jane and recommend she read Middlemarch, if she hasn't already!

*****

I finished Middlemarch yesterday and it's left me feeling a little wistful and melancholy. A lot of nice things happen, but there's an awful lot of sadness too. Life, huh? Despite all my page-counting, I'm also a little sad it's done, although I'm committed to re-reading it before another 20+ years go by.

The last paragraph ... is what I was fairly inartfully trying to say in my first post about the possibilities for Dorothea to make her mark on the world.

What did you think of the scene where Will and Dorothea finally express their love for one another, and figure out that they can in fact be married? With the storm outside and the lightning and thunder?

Two themes that had not stood out for me so much when I read this at Earlham (not for a class, but just because I fell in love with GE when we read Adam Bede in Intro to Lit) were 1) the role of Christianity in these people's lives and 2) the role of money. And in Bulstrode and Farebrother, the intersection of the two. Bulstrode is a cautionary tale of how Christianity can be twisted to serve our self-delusion and greed; Farebrother's story is the flip-side: how escaping poverty can free us to live the best of our faith even more fully. I was just so struck by what a destructive force money is in this book -- having too much of it, having not enough of it, loving it too much. Everyone who is happy in Middlemarch has enough money to take care of their basic needs and some comforts as well, but not too much more than that, and they are clear that material comforts must serve relationships, not the other way around. So, as I see it, to be happy according to GE, one must:

1. Be clear-eyed about one's self and others;
2. Be as kind as one possibly can be in that clarity;
3. Be free enough from "money-craving" to "escape from sordidness";
4. But care less for money and things than for human relationships; and
5. Practice a faith that is not abstract, but rooted in relationship ("There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.") and that is open-hearted and inclusive ("I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest -- I mean that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it. It is surely better to pardon too much, than to condemn too much.")

Now that's a philosophy I can subscribe to!

On the political front, a couple of points:

1. Substitute John McCain for Mr Brooke and Rick Davis for Will Ladislaw:
"This prospect of converting votes was a dangerous distraction to Mr Brooke: his impression that waverers were likely to be allured by wavering statements, and also the liability of his mind to stick afresh at opposing arguments as they turned up in his memory, gave Will Ladislaw much trouble."

Tee hee hee!

2. I don't know if you check the polls as obsessively as I do, but I was cheered by this one.

The most noteworthy result for Obama is in Indiana, where PPP has him two points ahead. One noteworthy feature of Indiana is that it has had rather low turnout in recent elections, perhaps because neither party has really bothered to campaign there. As such, likely voter models which are rooted in past voting history may be unreliable. And according to Tom Jensen, Obama has a 68-24 lead among voters who did not cast a ballot in 2004. These are the sorts of statistics that the Obama campaign is looking at, and they're why they remain very engaged in the Hoosier State.

A Tale of Love and Darkness (Reviewed August 2008)

A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz (2003)[*****]. After I read Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh, Gordon suggested I read this memoir by the Israeli writer Amos Oz, and I'm glad he did. Oz and Nusseibeh are contemporaries, and grew up very near one another on either side of the concrete wall that divided Jerusalem after the war of independence. Oz's memoir is nothing like Nusseibeh's however; if Once Upon A Country reads like a spy novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness reads more like an epic poem. A beautiful, exquisitely crafted, and really long epic poem. I LOVE this book, but it took me all summer -- it was sort of like triple chocolate cheesecake -- I could only take a few bites at a time. Among the things I love are the long, detailed, concrete descriptions; the illuminating and often humorous portraits of Oz's family going back several generations; and the non-linear narrative, which keeps looping and looping around what turns out to be a central, devastating event in Oz's childhood, his mother's suicide. My criticism of Nusseibeh was that his political memoir was not personal enough; my criticism of Oz is that his limited political commentary lacked nuance and passion, and the writing in these sections was flat. There were a few wonderful scenes in which the young Oz interacted with Arabs -- in one such scene, a kind Arab gentleman rescues him from a department store cupboard where Oz had taken refuge after a dwarf woman whom he thought was a fellow child scared the living day-lights out of him -- but when Oz speaks about Arabs generally, especially in recounting the political events before, during and after the war of independence, his prose begins to read a bit like a standard-issue Israeli text book. I believe that Oz is actually a pretty dovish, Peace Now kind of guy, but you wouldn't know it from this memoir, which mostly ends when he is in his early 20's.

The Seduction of Water (Reviewed August 2008)

The Seduction of Water, Carol Goodman (2003)[****][or maybe ***1/2][but probably ****]. At some point during our three+ weeks on the road, I just needed to read something Good But Not Serious. This was in the bag of books Julie had packed, and the blurb on the back promised a suspenseful page-turner from beginning to end. That it was not, and I almost took Suzann's sound advice to her second graders and ditched it. But it kept being just good enough to read a few more pages, and about a quarter of the way through when the mystery finally kicked in, it turned out to be just what I wanted to read on the beach. The narrator Iris is 36 years old, lives in a rent-controlled studio in NYC, teaches basic composition as an adjunct to prisoners, immigrants and art students. She sees her lover of ten years twice a week, never more, in order that they can both devote themselves to their art. Iris aspires to be a writer, but is mostly distracted by teaching and other stresses. When Iris assigns her students to retell a fairy tale from their childhoods, she is inspired to begin a memoir about her mother, the author of two popular fantasy novels in a trilogy that was never completed, in which her mother spins a a fantasy world out of the Celtic fairy tales of Iris's childhood. Iris is also, quite naturally, haunted by her mother's mysterious death 26 years before in a Conney Island hotel fire while she was checked in as another man's wife. When Iris has an opportunity to return for the summer to the Hotel Equinox in the Catskills, where her parents were the managers and where she grew up, she hopes to unravel some of the mysteries of her mother's life and death. The summer reveals more mysteries than Iris ever suspected, as the fairy world of her mother's novels begins to reveal itself less fantasy than first meets the eye. There are lots of plot twists and turns, appealing characters (including a sexy Irish ex-con, a humorless feminist literary editor, an earnest feminist art student, an avuncular gardener/holocaust survivor, among others) and good stories within the story, ranging from Celtic and Japanese fairy tales to art history intrigue to Catholic legend. There are also quite a number of whopping and unconvincing coincidences one must be willing to look past, which sometimes really spoil a mystery for me, but which for some reason I was willing to overlook. The role myth and fairy tale play in one's memory of and relationship with a long-dead loved one also resonated for me.

The Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island (Reviewed August 2008)

The Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island, Enid Blyton (1942)[*****]. Along with the Chronicles of Narnia, the Famous Five books were my all-time childhood favorites. I credit them with sparking my love of British mysteries, and the Britishisms I continue to find so charming somehow: they are full of children who go on holidays rather than vacation, and who wear jumpers and carry torches and eat ginger biscuits and treacle tarts at a meal called tea. I eagerly sought out this series when Trixie was ready for chapter books, only to discover that they are not in print in the US. Undaunted, I spent an ungodly amount on shipping to have them sent from the UK. Trixie and I loved them, and now I'm indulging myself once again with Micah. In this opening book of the series, we are introduced to Julian (12), Dick (11) and Anne (10), whose parents are off on a grown-up holiday. The siblings are sent to stay with their sweet Aunt Fanny, their surly scientist-scholar Uncle Quentin, and their temperamental, loner cousin Georgina (11), who hates everything about being a girl, and will only answer to George. George's dog, the lovable and brave mutt Timothy, rounds out the Five. George lives on Kirrin Bay at the mouth of which sits Kirrin Island, which belongs to her family and which George already claims as her own. Kirrin Island is the perfect setting for a summer adventure, what with the ruined castle and the long-submerged shipwreck. The adventure begins when a storm throws up the wreck onto the rocky island coast. Legend has it that the ship -- piloted by George's great, great, great grandfather -- was carrying gold ingots when it sank, but upon exploring the wreck, the children are disappointed to find only one small, sealed metal box. Uncle Quentin, who has no patience for silly legends (or for anything else for that matter), sells the box, but not before the children manage to sneak it out of his study and copy the map they find inside. The map seems to confirm the legend, showing that the ingots are stored in the dungeons below the ruined castle. Unfortunately, Uncle Quentin has decided sell Kirrin Island to a "hotel developer" -- the very same one who bought the map!. Can the children find the ingots before the sale is complete? And to what lengths with the purchaser go to stop them? A marvelous adventure ensues that had even my kinetic, fidgety five-year-old begging for "one more chapter!"

Almost Catholic: An Appreciation of the History, Practice & Mystery of Ancient Faith (Reviewed August 2008)

Almost Catholic: An Appreciation of the History, Practice & Mystery of Ancient Faith, Jon M. Sweeney (2008)[***1/2]. I picked this up in a bookstore in Woodstock, VT, near where my father recently moved; it caught my eye because "Almost Catholic" describes me to a T. (As it turns out, Sweeney is from Woodstock, which is why this somewhat obscure book was in a little independent bookstore with a tiny religion section.) I loved the premise of this book -- that the practice and mystery of Catholic faith can be shared by all, regardless of whether one has been born into Roman Catholicism or converted to it. I also loved Sweeney's emphasis on practice and faith, in contrast to belief and Truth: "Becoming a person of faith takes a lifetime, and it begins far more often in participation than it does in some sort of judging. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal criticized the approach to faith that says it begins with belief. You start with belonging, he said. Belief comes later, and even then, belief comes and goes. Consistent belief is not essential to faith." Amen. The rest of the book explores various aspects of Catholicism, including devotional practices Sweeney finds meaningful, such as praying the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross, as well as highlighting some of his "Cloud of Witnesses," including my own patron saint, Thomas Merton. I found most of the book interesting, but somewhat disappointing. It had such promise, but Sweeney was not very generous nor eloquent in sharing his own experience. He doesn't say much that Kathleen Norris hasn't said much more beautifully, personally and movingly in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, The Cloister Walk, and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

Jesus for President (Reviewed August 2008)

Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw (2008)[****1/2]. Shane Claiborne is part of a group of new evangelical Christians with whom I am quite taken and fascinated, even while I have some substantial theological differences with them. Although Shane and others such as Tony Compolo, Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners) are sometimes viewed as the "Christian Left" in response to the "Christian Right," they do not actually come out of the liberal Christian tradition, and secular political labels don't really work for them. Theologically, they are much more literal and conservative than I am, but I admire the integrity with which they take Jesus seriously (as opposed to so many other Christians, myself included, who like to pick and choose). Shane is one of the founders of The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community in Kensington, a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Philadelphia where I have done a lot of work (and the setting of Steve Lopez's Third and Indiana). In Jesus for President, Claiborne argues that the church today "has fallen in love with the state and that this love affair is killing the church's imagination. ... Having power at its fingertips, the church often finds 'guiding the course of history' a more alluring goal than following the crucified Christ. Too often the patriotic values of pride and strength triumph over the spiritual virtues of humility, gentleness, and sacrificial love." Claiborne argues that Christians, like Jews, are meant to be a set-apart people, a peculiar people. We are meant to build God's kingdom rather than swearing allegiance to the kingdoms of the world; we are meant to embody Jesus's good news for the poor and oppressed, rather than letting Caesar colonize our imaginations. Claiborne marks the "Fall" of the church from Constantine's conversion in 312 CE, and things have just gotten worse since then. "Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal and powerful." This is a pretty scathing critique of most of the church today -- very much of the religious right, the tradition out of which Claiborne comes -- but us liberal Christians aren't exactly let off the hook. Shane is very much in the tradition of Dorothy Day, one of my heroes, except that he comes out of a Bible-Belt, fundamentalist tradition, rather than a Catholic one. His is a critique -- and a call to a different way of being Christian -- that I find extremely compelling in theory and extremely challenging in practice. I'm not sure that I agree with Shane that all Christians are meant to be so extremely and peculiarly set-apart -- but if we all were, it would sure be a far sight better than the hypocrisy, materialism and militarism so much of the church embodies today. Visually, this is a stunning book, full of illustrations, doodles, photos, hand-written comments and a bibliography that is merely a photograph of the spines of books. While I initially found the book attractive and intriguing, eventually the busy-ness was distracting, and I began longing for good old-fashioned black text on a white page.

Northanger Abbey (Reviewed August 2008)

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1818)[*****]. This is the penultimate novel in my romp through Jane Austen’s works, which I’m reading in order of publication, although I think this may be one of the first novels she wrote. It is, relatively speaking, fairly simple and straightforward (and short, at only 250 pages). It reads a bit like a pencil sketch for her later books. The characters are types we meet later, but simpler; what you see really is what you get. The brother and sister duo of John and Isabella Thorpe are blatantly (and delightfully) course, rude, grubbing and fickle; brother and sister Henry and Eleanor Tilney are thoughtful and sensitive and kind; and our heroine Catherine is earnest, lively and open-hearted. Likewise, the plot has very few twists and turns (at least for the reader; the lovely but na├»ve Catherine is constantly being surprised). At first blush, Northanger Abbey has a bit of the feel of a practice run, which it may be, but it’s also clear that Austen is doing something different in this book. Northanger Abbey is also a novel about novels, and is self-consciously writerly, full of ironic authorial asides, including a little dissertation in defense of the novel. It is a parody of the Gothic novels popular in Austen’s day, and a light-hearted cautionary tale for young people with lively imaginations who spend too much time with their noses in books (I think it will be the first Jane Austen I read to my daughter – right after we finish Jane Eyre!) As a side note, the names in Northanger Abbey prove that what goes around comes around, as they could easily be the roster of any middle class pre-school or elementary school today: Isabella, Sophia, Catherine, John, James, Eleanor, Henry (the last two being my kids’ middle names).

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (Reviewed July 2008)

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, Hayden Herrera (1983)[*****] We went to the Art Museum's Frida Kahlo exhibit on one of the last days -- it was very crowded, and Kahlo is hard to look at carefully with a 5 year old in tow. Before I went, I knew exactly nothing about her, and I left feeling dissatisfied but tantalized, so I checked this biography out of the library. At the exhibition, I was especially intrigued by Kahlo's unfulfilled desire to have a child and her unconventional marriage/divorce/remarriage to Diego Rivera. This biography disappointed on the first front -- while childlessness/miscarriage/fertility are central to many of her paintings, there was no thorough explanation of that struggle in Frida's life. Frida: A Biography was structured in a very straightforward, chronological way, and I think I would have preferred a thematic organization. Still, this book, and Frida herself, grew on me tremendously (even working her way into my dreams). She lived with an enormous amount of physical pain, caused by a terrible bus accident when she was 18, as well as psychic/spiritual pain, caused in large part by her complex and sometimes heartbreaking relationship with Rivera, to whom she was devoted despite his unrepentant philandering (she had her fair share of affairs as well). She was a Communist (Trotsky was one of her lovers), and passionate about Mexico. Despite her very unconventional lifestyle, she was not a high-brow bohemian; she mostly had disdain for artsy-fartsy intellectuals, and was devoted to el pueblo and traditional Mexican art forms. Her own life -- her pain, her losses, her hopes and dreams, her family, her heartbreak -- were the main subject of her painting, making her much more of a realist, and much less of a surrealist, than one would think at first glance. Despite glossing over Frida's struggle with fertility, I learned a tremendous amount about her life and her art from this biography, and while hardly a page-turner, it became much more compelling after the first 50 pages or so.

Careless in Red (Reviewed June 2008)

Careless in Red, Elizabeth George (2008)[****1/2] Julie and I wait with bated breath for each new Elizabeth George mystery to come out -- if you are not familiar with her series, you may know the BBC version on TV-- I think it's called the Inspector Lynley Mysteries (the few I've seen are not nearly as good as the books). We envy folks who love British detective fiction and don't know this series yet, because there are around 15 of them so far, and imagine getting to read those one after another, without having to wait a couple of years for the next installment! These books are great for several reasons. The writing is exceptionally good for its genre (where, I will admit, the bar is not particularly high). The characters are complex and nuanced, and George generally gets psychology and motivation right. The mysteries themselves generally leave me feeling very satisfied in way most mysteries don't. But the real reason to read Elizabeth George is the on-going story line of her central characters: Inspector Tommy Lynley, an aristocrat who has defied family expectations to join New Scotland Yard; his partner, the dumpy, disheveled Detective Barbara Havers, who comes from a working class background; and Helen, Deborah and Simon, who play various roles at various times in the series. The on-going, intertwining story of these characters is what keeps me coming back for more (a little like a soap opera, I admit), and it is the reason one MUST read this series from the beginning, with A Great Deliverance. It is also the reason that it makes little sense for me to tell you much about Careless in Red -- almost anything I could say would be a spoiler if you haven't read the previous books. I don't think this her very best book, but it was very satisfying nonetheless, and definitely worth the read if you're an EG fan.

Third and Indiana (Reviewed May 2008)

Third and Indiana, Steve Lopez (1994)[*****]. This novel by a former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist is set at and around Third and Indiana Streets, one of the most notorious drug corners in Philadelphia, located in a neighborhood called Kensington, aka The Badlands. Gabriel is a fourteen year old Hispanic boy who dreams of being an artist, but in the meantime gets caught up in the drug trade that along with prostitution is the main industry in Kensington, now that all the factories and mills are closed. Gabriel has run away from home, and his mother, Ofelia, rides the streets each night searching for him on the bike he bought her with his drug money. In her search for Gabriel, she befriends a priest who has recently been relocated to Holy Ghost church in Kensington, slated to be closed by the archdiocese because of declining attendance and revenues. After leaving home to make his fortune as a crew chief at Third and Indiana, Gabriel befriends Eddie, a South Philly jazz musician who has recently left his wife and kids, only to be dumped by the girlfriend he left them for. Eddie has moved into a row house in Kensington owned by his slumlord mother until he gets back on his feet, and Gabriel moves in with him. Eddie and Gabriel are both in trouble, respectively, with an Italian South Philly wise-guy, and with a psychotic North Philadelphia drug lord, who are after them for largely imagined offenses. The novel's plot centers largely on Ofelia's search for Gabriel, and a caper involving the theft of a huge diamond ring from the finger of the recently dead and wildly corrupt mayor DeMarco. (This story-line might strain credulity if it weren't for the fact that stuff like this actually happens in Philadelphia.) But the plot is not the reason to read this book, and not why I loved it so incredibly much. This book captures Philadelphia in general, and Kensington in particular, so perfectly, it took my breath away. I run programs for kids at C and Indiana, about five blocks away from where this novel is set, and I drive by Third and Indiana all the time. There were passages that made me laugh out loud in a "it's funny 'cause it's true" kinda way ("You take everybody in Kensington, you can't make one set of fuckin' teeth" says one of Eddie's downtown buddies). Much of it was too hard to read quickly (one of my boys, Joey, also an artist, lives right around the corner from Third and Indiana ... the chances of him being dead or in jail in five years are about 1000 times greater than the chance he'll be headed off to art school in five years.... ). The characters are, for the most part, thoughtful portraits. Non-Philly readers might think a few of them are unfair caricatures, but I'm not kidding, this stuff really happens in Philly. The prose only occasionally lapses into sentimentality, and once in awhile Lopez uses a character to tell us Something We Need To Know (he used to get a little soap-boxy in his columns too). But most of the time this novel is just really really good.

Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Reviewed May 2008)

Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, Joshua Wolf Shenk (2005)[***1/2] Last month I accompanied my daughter's fifth grade class on an over-night to Washington D.C., and Trixie and I both felt especially moved by the Lincoln Memorial. I resisted the temptation to buy a bunch of books in the little bookshop there, but promised myself I would read a Lincoln biography, realizing that I know very little about the man or his presidency. I remembered hearing Shenk interviewed on Fresh Air when this book first came out, and the topic was calling me, but as it turns out, it was probably not the best place to start in studying Lincoln (in fairness to Shenk, I should probably have just read a straightforward biography first -- and if anyone has suggestions, I'd be grateful). Shenk persuasively details the evidence of Lincoln's life-long depression, including two significant nervous breakdowns as a young man during which he became suicidal. Shenk argues (also fairly persuasively, but somehow not as thoroughly or as elegantly as I had hoped), that Lincoln's greatness did not stem from a "triumph over personal suffering," but rather that it was "an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is not a story of transformation but one of integration. Lincoln didn't do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy. The problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his greatness." This thesis is developed in the first 200 pages of the book. Next follows a very short epilogue in which Shenk notes (explicitly, for the first time) that his book is structured according to the three "stages" he has identified in Lincoln's life, which he now names as "fear, engagement, and transcendence." In the epilogue, Shenk also shares some of his personal experiences writing the book, and alludes to, but never makes explicit, his own history of depression and his personal identification with Lincoln's suffering. Finally a 20-page afterward provides "A Historiography of Lincoln's Depression," looking at Lincoln scholarship over the years and the ways both popular and academic historians have and haven't dealt with the topic of Lincoln's melancholy. The book's structure felt disjointed. I wish all three sections had been integrated and the personal stuff in the epilogue had been significantly more developed -- or left out altogether. I think the historiography would have illuminated the main thesis and would not have been difficult to weave in (as it is, it feels weirdly tacked on). Perhaps the personal story is not appropriate in such a work, but I always like to hear the voice and story of an author. What I hate is to be teased by allusions that are not fleshed out. I have no qualifications whatsoever to critique this as history, and it may well be worthy of more stars, but I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped. Still, at the very least, it has whet my appetite to learn more about Lincoln.

Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (Reviewed May 2008)

Sari Nusseibeh with Anthony David, Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (2007) [*****] I put Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian on my short-list as soon as I read Gordon's review (and if he felt the need to apologize for the length of his review, I clearly do too!) In 1986 I participated in Earlham's Jerusalem Program, and lived and studied in the Old City, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza for about four months. So much has happened since then, and I am ashamed to admit that I have not kept up. Upon reading Gordon's review, I thought this would be a good re-introduction, and it was. Of course, I trusted Gordon's recommendation, and was interested to read a Palestinian he admires, but I didn't expect this to be such a page-turner; I had trouble putting it down. So much of it took me back to my own time in Jerusalem, which I haven't thought about so intensely in a long time. (Nusseibeh's efforts to make a human Palestinian-Israeli chain on the Green Line brought to mind some of our sillier moments, when my pals and I would sing "Take a walk on the Green Line" a la Lou Reed: "And all the Palestinians go: doo do doo do doo do doo..." Also of note is that we studied with the Israeli peace activist Janet Aviad, with whom Nusseibeh worked during the first Gulf War.)

This story is framed as a fairy tale, but it reads much like a spy novel -- a genre that Nusseibeh loves, and aspires to write, especially when he is feeling tired and wants to escape (i.e. much of the time). Nusseibeh has a rare ability to think both strategically and tactically, a combination of skills which are bound leave one profoundly frustrated, especially in the bureaucratic and corrupt world of the Palestinian Authority. Nusseibeh's relentless optimism and energy are sort of mind-boggling. I admire this book for all of the reasons Gordon did, and agree with his review almost entirely. I, too, found Nusseibeh's affection for Arafat curious, especially given his otherwise withering assessment of Arafat's leadership -- he certainly doesn't spare Arafat for his incompetence, paranoia and ultimate lack of vision. (As for Chompsky, no matter what else you can say about him -- and I don't dispute that he may be a charlatan -- his criticism of the Olso accord for its failure to halt settlements, noted by Nusseibeh, seems pretty uncontroversial). I would have liked to hear more of his wife Lucy's story -- there are hints that their work is often a partnership, but her role in the partnership is almost entirely untold.

I'm sure the analogy falls apart on many, many levels, but reading Nusseibeh's analysis of the violence, despair, nihilism, and corruption that runs rampant in Palestine, I couldn't help think of the parallels to my own experience of living with and working with Black and Hispanic folks living in poverty in this country -- not to mention the corrupt and incompetent local government (mostly Black and Hispanic) that utterly fails to serve them. Nusseibeh insists that Palestinians and Israelis are natural allies, and that the only way to move forward is for both peoples to enter into a true negotiation -- that is, a dialogue that allows both sides to go "off-script," to really be able to talk and get to know one another, and to be willing to put even sacred cows on the table for the sake of peace. Nusseibeh also insists that any interpretation of religion that is used to dehumanize others does violence to faith itself. I think there is much in Nusseibeh's analysis that is pertinent to us here in America today. Any of you who are moved by Obama's calls to unity and hope really should read this book. You won't be Sari (yuck yuck!)

Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism (Reviewed April 2008)

Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, Kevin Phillips (2008)[****] I recently caught the last minute or two of an NPR interview with this guy, and was fascinated enough to check out his new book. According to Wikipedia (source of all things true and good, right?), Phillips is a former Nixon strategist, one of the masterminds of the GOP "southern strategy," and now a disaffected critic of the both parties. He is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio, and is a political analyst on PBS' NOW with Bill Moyers. Bad Money documents the financialization of the US economy in the last half century, in which manufacturing went from almost 30% of GDP in 1950 to 12% in 2005, and conversely financial services went from 11% of GDP in 1950 to 20% in 2005. This rise of the financial services sector has been accompanied by a staggering increase in debt and risky and poorly-understood debt-related securities (such as the $900bn of subprime mortgage loans that Wall Street has securitized and sold globally). This debt, in turn, has been accompanied by what Phillips calls "the socialization of credit risk" -- banking and the financial services sector is a risk-loving and largely unregulated industry so routinely bailed out by the government that there is no longer any "creative destruction" in US capitalism. Phillips takes on the manipulations in the consumer price index statistics used to suppress the actual rate of inflation (calculated under the pre-Clinton era CPI, inflation is about 2 to 3% higher than currently calculated). Phillips devotes a chapter to the likelihood that oil production will peak relatively soon (if it hasn't already); to the relationship between oil and the declining dollar (shortly after closing the "gold window," Nixon brokered a deal in which OPEC agreed it would price its oil sales in dollars); Washington's head-in-the-sand posture toward any real energy policy; and the role Iraq has played in our diminishing global influence. Phillips also takes a historical view, comparing the decline of the US as a world superpower to the prior declines of Spain, the Netherlands, and England. There's much more, and I found each individual section of this book startling, riveting, and concerning; still, I can't help but sense that I ought to be able to extract a more concise statement of Phillips's thesis for you. Alas, here's the downside of this book (and the reason I didn't give it 5 stars): either I'm too stupid to understand this stuff (which is entirely possible) or this stuff is really difficult to understand, and Phillips should have tried harder to help readers like me get it. This book is just full of financial and economic terms and concepts that I doubt your average Joe is familiar with, and I often felt awash, barely keeping my head above water. At the very least, I would have appreciated a glossary; even better would have been a whole "for dummies" sort of supplement, because I really am interested in understanding this stuff.

If you're interested in a far better nutshell than I have given, Phillips writes occasionally for Huffington Post, and here are a couple of links:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-phillips/the-destructive-rise-of-b_b_94351.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-phillips/why-wall-street-socialism_b_96772.html

Mansfield Park (Reviewed April 2008)

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen (1814)[****] My rating of this book is relative; it is, of course, a very fine book, and much better than many other books that I might rate with four stars, but relative to the rest of Jane Austen that I have now read, it was not so perfect. Fanny Price is a different sort of heroine than Elinor, Marianne, Elizabeth and Emma, both in background and disposition. Though related to gentry, her large family is poor and coarse, and at 10 years old, she becomes essentially the foster child of her aunts Norris and Lady Bertram, and her uncle, Sir Tom. Their benevolence stems mostly from their own sentimental and largely theoretical desire to feel themselves benevolent and to "save" their niece from her life of deprivation. They are hardly equal to the actual, day-to-day task of nurturing a young girl traumatized at being torn from her family, to whom, despite chaos and neglect, she is deeply attached. The Bertrams, with whom she lives at Mansfield Park, are kind enough but generally cool or self-absorbed; her ever-present aunt Norris is the namesake of Filch's cat in Harry Potter ('nuff said, at least for the HP fans). I don't know if it is fair to analyze this work through a modern psycho-social lens, but this not-unlikely foster-adoption story, and the effect it might have on Fanny as she grew, was intriguing to me. Through the first two of three volumes, I thought Jane Austen was doing something really interesting. She seemed to be making of her heroine a sort of un-heroine, her own foil; Fanny is meek, submissive, principled, and humble, but also self-righteous, ungrateful, judgmental and jealous. It is primarily in her relationship with the Crawford siblings that Austen seemed to be developing this complicated portrait of Fanny. Mary and Henry Crawford (who, interestingly, have their own formative adoption stories) become a regular part of the social circle of Mansfield Park, and their behavior at first does not speak very well of their principles or character. During the production of a somewhat ribald and, in Fanny's mind, entirely inappropriate play called "Lovers' Vows," Mr. Crawford flirts madly with Fanny's cousin Maria, who is already engaged to the stupid but wealthy Mr. Rushworth. Mary Crawford likewise flirts with Fanny's cousin Edmund, all the while being vocally disgusted with Edmund's intended profession as a clergyman. Edmund has been the one kind and gentle presence in Fanny's life at Mansfield Park, and she has fallen in love with him. Fanny can be accused of being jealous during this time, but she is quite right to be critical of the Crawfords; under the influence of Edmund's philandering older brother Tom, who is the theatrical mastermind, they are quite unprincipled and unattractive characters. But in the next section of the book, Tom is gone and the Crawfords, Fanny and Edmund settle into a quieter and more respectable intimacy during which Edmund falls in love with Mary, Mary shows genuine kindness and friendship to Fanny, and Henry -- under the self-imposed challenge of making Fanny love him -- begins instead to fall genuinely in love with her and show her real kindness. It was in this section that I thought things got really interesting. While certainly still deeply flawed, it seemed to me that Mary and Henry showed themselves to be capable of good character and worthy of Fanny's friendship and even love. I was rooting for both of them. But Fanny is unrelenting in her judgement of their flaws (while excusing Edmond all of his), and unwilling to show them the sort of generosity of spirit that might actually have influenced them to become more of their better selves. In addition to having many good and noble qualities, I found Fanny hard-hearted under her gentle exterior, petty in her jealousy of Edmond's attention to Mary, and generally ungenerous to the Crawfords. I liked this complicated heroine -- her combination of self-absorbed humility on the one hand, and righteous judgment on the other, calls to mind the narcissism that can stem from a formative childhood wound. I apologize for imposing a perhaps too-modern analysis on Jane Austen, but I thought this was all exactly right. Alas, in the third volume, things fell apart -- or, at least to my mind, got way less interesting. Without going into excessive detail, it turns out that Fanny is not meant to be petty, or self-absorbed, or judgmental, or stingy or any other negative (i.e. interesting) thing. Rather, she is just right; her judgment has been perfect, and she has been much wronged by those who did not share her clear-sighted assessment of Mary and Henry's complete wretchedness and unworthiness. I found the many turn-abouts in the third volume a tiny bit incredible and very disappointing. I guess I'm just a shades-of-grey kind of gal. I also found the third volume somewhat tedious in that the last 100 or more pages contain almost no conversations at all; dialogue being one of Austen's fortes, this was disappointing. The (I suppose inevitable) match between Fanny and Edmund (revealed only at the very end in a summing-up that felt like the disappointing last episode of a generally really good TV series) I found creepily incestuous -- they are first cousins raised essentially as siblings. I may again be imposing my modern sensibilities on their match, but I found it a pretty unsatisfying and disappointing conclusion.

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Reviewed March 2008)

Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007)[****] Years ago, my dad gave me a book called The Conserver Society by Ted Trainer, and ever since I've been looking for someone a bit more in the mainstream to make the argument that economic growth (the sort that is the opposite of the recession we are headed into, for example, and the kind most of us probably depend on for our retirement savings) is, for all the many wonderful things it affords those of us in the First World, simply unsustainable, given a finite planet. A couple of years ago I started reading Jeffrey Sachs's The End of Poverty (I think I left it in the seat-back pocket on an airplane, and never finished it), and was disturbed that his solution seemed to be "what we have, for them too!" (i.e. agri-business to feed our bodies with toxins, consumer culture to likewise feed our souls. This may be entirely unfair -- as I said, I didn't finish it). But as McKibben points out, "if the Chinese ate meat the way we do, they'd use two-thirds of the world's grain harvest; if they drove as many cars as we do, they'd use all the oil the world currently produces plus 15 million extra barrels a day." And this was a startling statistic to a beer-lover's ears: 'To raise beer consumption for each Chinese adult by just 1 bottle per year takes an additional 370,000 tons of grain ... three additional bottles per person would take the equivalent of Norway's annual grain harvest." Not only that, McKibben argues, but American economic efficiency and growth isn't even making us happy or content any more; if you're dirt poor, more stuff definitely makes you happier, but there's apparently a threshold after which more stuff has a sharply diminishing return, and most of us in the US are way past that point. Rather, what we lack -- what, in fact, our relentless, hyper-individualistic pursuit of efficiency, growth and stuff has destroyed -- is connection and community. McKibben's manifesto is full of hopeful examples of local, smaller scale economies -- he looks in depth at agriculture, energy and entertainment, as well as a few discrete commodities such as wood and coffee -- that are good for both the planet and the people engaged in them. I appreciated that McKibben highlights not only hippies in Vermont, but also rice farmers in Indonesia, rabbit farmers in China, and public transportation systems in South America; this isn't just about groovy white folks living in their Eco-Villages. Still ... while this book is in many ways the argument I've been looking for, and it is certainly accessible to a mainstream audience ... I guess what I wanted was something a bit less soft-focus, less preaching-to-the-choir. I'm completely convinced -- McKibben validates my sense for years that economic growth is not sustainable on a finite planet -- but I'm not sure this is the book that is going to change the mind of a traditional economist. If any of you booksters are not members of McKibben's particular choir, I'd love to hear your critique.

Pride and Prejudice, Emma (Reviewed January/February 2008)

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)[*****] See review for Emma.

Emma, Jane Austen (1816)[*****]. I'm reading my way through Jane Austen, and thoroughly enjoying myself, but I will admit to feeling a bit daunted at the thought of reviewing her among this crowd of Austen-lovers-and-generally-really-smart-folks. I recently also finished Pride and Prejudice -- inhaled it, really (I had read it before, but nearly 20 years ago, so it was all new) -- but I won't hazard a review except to say that I adored it. Emma, actually, took me a bit to get into -- I suspect that it's in part because my head was still full of P&P. Also, I did not find Emma an instantaneously likable character. She's such a class snob, above and beyond anything required of her by her times. She herself seems to embody more than any of the other heroines that familiar theme in Austen that my daughter would sum up as "You can't judge a book by its cover." In Emma, it is Emma herself who turns out to be more complicated than first meets the eye. By the end, I liked the fact that I didn't always like her, even while I came to feel great affection for her. I was also fascinated by the two adoption stories, and saw pretty quickly that Jane and Frank needed to marry, just for the pure symmetry of it all. But most of all, I'm really intrigued by the issues of class, and how much the need/desire for wealth and class status motivates so many of the characters -- both the heroines (Emma differently than the others, because she has wealth and therefore independence, allowing her to be a snob, perhaps), as well as the ones who are otherwise fairly (or completely) unsympathetic (Wickham in P&P comes to mind, as do the Eltons in Emma). Perhaps for this reason, among my favorite characters in Emma were Miss and Mrs. Bates, who are so content and well-respected in their (relative) poverty. I couldn't help but think of Elinor and Marianne, who couldn't possibly set up housekeeping with less than 500 a year, despite their vastly greater interior resources. On to Mansfield Park!

Living at Nature's Pace: Farming and the American Dream (reviewed January 2008)

Living at Nature's Pace: Farming and the American Dream, Gene Logsdon (1993, revised edition 2000)[*****] Gene Logsdon is the "Contrary Farmer," the title of the first of his books I read. I just love him, probably because he reminds me so much of my dad. Logsdon is probably more socially adept, my dad more hermetically inclined, but basically they are the same guy: super smart and bookish, super skilled and practical, with gentle, tender souls under their crusty, pissed-off contrariness. They both have the good sense to see the world in a grain of sand -- or at least in a pasture of white clover -- and to know that it is not only enough, but everything they need (well, that and a wife!) Logsdon is both a farmer and a journalist, and he does both on 32 acres in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. In this collection of essays, he rails against industrial cash-grain operations and huge animal factories, supported by the agri-business economists at the large land-grant universities (Ohio State in particular takes a hit) that are ruining ecologically sane farms and rural culture. He writes plainly and nicely about his own farm, family and community. He draws hopeful portraits of sustainable farms both small and large that "are to today's headlong rush toward global destruction what the monasteries were to the Dark Ages: places to preserve human skills and crafts until some semblance of common sense and common purpose returns to the public mind." He finds this sort of common sense and common purpose most often among the Amish, about whom he writes without the usual sentimentality. He notes that it is simple human frailty -- "not a cheap food policy, protective tariffs, free trade, government subsidies or overproduction" -- that have led rural communities, along with the rest of human society, "toward a wasteful, spendthrift, exploitative economy." He goes on to note that "Amish culture resists financial chaos and the decline that follows by fortifying individuals against their own frailty. The culture sanctifies the rural virtues that make good farming, or good work of any kind, possible: a prudent practice of ecology, moderation in financial and material ambition, frugality, attention to detail, good work habits, interdependence (neighborliness), and common sense." These are the values Julie and I strive for (not altogether successfully, but we try), but in the heart of the city. It seems to me that these are not rural virtues at all, but what used to be working/middle class virtues, before being middle class was seen merely as a stepping stone to becoming rich. I certainly see these very values among my elderly urban Black neighbors, and the lack of them today (as the result of many forces) seems to be at the heart of the crisis in the urban Black community. The one thing that makes me a little crazy about Logsdon, at least in his earlier essays from the 80's and 90's, is that he has such a chip on his shoulder about the city, and the "urban elite," "urban values," "urban sprawl," etc. It seems to me that most of us living in the city have more in common with the plight of poor rural folks being displaced from their land and their ways by unsustainable economic forces than we do with the ultra-rich folk who control the economy, whether it be from the top of a skyscraper, a suburban industrial park, or a McMansion on a former farmer's field. In his most recent essays, Logsdon seems to agree, and sees the irrepressible agrarian impulse pushing up through the city's pavement. I too see that impulse all around me in the city, and along with Logsdon's final essays, it gives me a glimmer of hope.

Briar Rose (reviewed January 2008)

Briar Rose, Jane Yolen (1992)[****] I was looking for a young adult book about King Arthur for my 10-year-old; the promising title I found on-line was not on the bookstore shelves, but there were several other books by the same author that looked interesting, though I had never heard of her. Unlike most of Trixie's books, I decided to read this one first, and I'm glad I did, because I think it will be a couple years before she's ready for it -- it's both scary and a little more adult themed than I expected (or maybe I'm just becoming a prude). The novel is a haunting retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale (Briar Rose being the German version of that centuries-old story). The story opens in the present with 23-year-old Becca and her family sitting shiva for Gemma, Becca's beloved maternal grandmother. Gemma claimed to actually be Briar Rose, the heroine of the fairy tale she compulsively recited to Becca and her sisters throughout their childhood. On her deathbed, Gemma made Becca promise to find the castle, the prince and the caster of spells in the story. When the family finds a box of cryptic documents and WWII era photos that Gemma had hidden away, Becca becomes intrigued with Gemma's past, about which they know nothing, and decides to make good on her promise. Her investigation ultimately takes her to Poland and to the Nazi extermination camp in Chelmno, where she finally learns Gemma's story. Several interesting characters help her on her way: Stan, her editor at the alternative newspaper where she works, who as an adoptee understands Becca's desire to know more about her family's past; Magda, a young Polish woman Becca connects with through the Polish Jewish Student League, who serves as tour guide and interpreter for Becca in Poland; Father Stashu, a Polish priest in Chelmno who had hoped he could help the people of Chelmno atone, but has mostly lost hope; and Josef Potocki, an aging, gay, Polish aristocrat who had escaped from the Sachenhausen work camp and spent the remainder of the war with a band of partisans in the forests of Poland. He tells Becca his story, which in the end intersects with Gemma's and illuminates Gemma's identity as Briar Rose. This was a very good book, but I think it could have been brilliant, and fell short. Becca's good luck in her search strains credulity (sort of like on those Law and Order shows, where they only have 44 minutes, so every lead has to be a home run). I would have liked a more complicated plot and characters with more complex motivations. Still, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it to Julie for her fairy tale unit with her sophomores, and I'll definitely give it to Trixie in a year or two.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Ayelet Waldman (read December 2007)

I read this on the recommendation of another member of my book review group. I did not write a proper review, but below is my end of an email exchange about the book, which I loved:

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Ayelet Waldman (2006)[*****]

A number of years ago, Ayelet Waldman wrote an essay -- I thhink it
was called "Mother Love" -- in which she asserted a successful
marriage must be based on a clear hierarchy of love, in which the
spouses are the center of each other's universe, with their love for
their children clearly secondary. She claimed that if she had to make
a choice between her husband and her four children, she would without
question choose her husband, because she could not imagine life
without him, but could imagine life without her children, as long as
she still had her husband. This essay, as you can imagine, caused
quite a stir among the "mommy blogging" community I used to frequent.
Her formulation of familial love is not one I can really wrap my head
around; I guess my own family feels much more like an organic whole,
and it's not so easy for me to pick apart and quantify my love for any
of its individual members. I will put this book on my list and see if
it illuminates her position on love, marriage and family in a way her
essay certainly did not!

******
I picked this up last night when I took the kids to the bookstore, and I just finished it. I will admit I got little else done today... It is very like Sense and Sensibility, isn't it? Sense and Sensibility on speed. I loved it and feel a little breathless. I
connected with the story and with Emilia in so many layered ways – I could write a whole essay, much less a review, but I'll spare you. Just thanks for the recommendation.

Ans, you should read this book. I think you will love it too. I would love to talk to you about it. I think it's an amazing portrait of grief, and the redemptive power of love to carry us through. It's also a beautiful portrait of that crazy city you love and won't leave to come life with us in our beloved (and cheap!) Philadelphia.

*****

I almost think this book was penance for that stupid essay. (Moms still talk about it in the blogosphere!) Anyway, I really loved it, even if her portait of Emilia's crunchy sister Allison seemed a bit of a cheap shot (but maybe I protest too much?). And who puts a tall five year old in a five point harness? I don't think that's even safe. But other than that, I thought it was fab. I would love to read the same story from Carolyn's perspective. I thought they were sort of the WASP/Jew version of basically the same sensibility.

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade (reviewed December 2007)

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, Ann Fessler (2006) [*****]. A wise friend and mentor recently noted that we read books with other people even when they don't know we're doing it. This is a book I was very much reading with my son Micah's mother Crystal, even though I have never met her (she and Micah's father have chosen to keep our adoption closed). This book does not tell Crystal's story, that of a young Black woman in a large northeastern city who is working hard to overcome a childhood of poverty and neglect, who finds herself pregnant with her third child, and who decides to place him for adoption. Instead, this book tells the story of mostly middle class or solidly working class white girls, from "good," all-American families, who found themselves pregnant in the decades after WWII, and who, in pretty dramatic numbers, were forced to surrender their babies for adoption. I was initially disturbed that this book seemed only to tell the story of white, middle class women, but as Fessler points out, poor women and women of color in the same decades had a very different story. Their rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy were not so different, but their rates of placement were dramatically lower. Fessler argues that the social pressure to conform and to hold on to the class gains so many white families made during the decades just after WWII led to their high rates of placement, whereas the families of poor women had much less to lose, socially speaking, and African American communities had (and continue to have) an informal and much more open system of intra-family adoption. Even so, while reading this book, I couldn't help wondering even more intensely than I normally do how Crystal is doing, and whether she shares some part of the anguish at having placed a child for adoption told so consistently by the mothers interviewed by Fessler. The stories told in this book are heart-wrenching. Fessler is an adoptee herself, and the book is framed by her own search for and reunion with her mother. In the years between her initial search and their ultimate meeting, Fessler interviewed hundreds of mothers for this project, and the book is largely told in their voices. Fessler fills in with well-researched and documented analysis of the historical, social and psychological context. Fessler acknowledges that the women who chose to be interviewed were a self-selecting group who were willing to tell their stories, but it was nonetheless remarkable how similar they are. I cried through the first part of the book, and just felt numb by the end. Typically the girls were woefully undereducated about sex and the risks of pregnancy, and they had no access to birth control. When they found themselves pregnant, they were overcome with shame, as were their families, who often treated them harshly. Without the option of abortion (which many rich families had access to, so this book doesn't tell their story either), the next best option in the eyes of the families was to hide the pregnancy, place the baby for adoption, and pretend the whole thing had never happened. Most of the girls were sent to homes for unwed mothers, where the girls were counseled that they were neither able, nor did they deserve, to keep their babies. Most of the girls had no idea what to expect when they went into labor, and often were dropped off by themselves at the front doors of the hospital. They were, to their horror and with no explanation, often given an enema and shaved, and then left alone to labor. Sometimes they were allowed to hold their babies, but often not. A few days later, their parents would take them home, and literally not a word was ever spoken about their experiences or their babies ever again. The only counseling they received was the advice to "forget, put this behind you, get on with your life." But of course, most of them were irrevocably changed, and the shame, loss, grief and secrecy followed them throughout their lives, only mitigated by reunion with their adult children. This book is an important part of giving these women a voice and of exposing the lie that they were unfit mothers who didn't love their babies enough to keep them, or that they considered them a burden and willingly "gave them up." In a time when women's choices regarding their reproductive lives are still tenuous at best (including the choices of mothers who place their babies for adoption today, as coercion and ugly stereotypes of birth mothers still run rampant in the adoption industry), it is important to understand that these women really had no choices at all. For telling those stories and telling them well, I give this book five stars. I do wonder how the stories were edited, because not only the details but also the voice of most of the stories were remarkably similar; I would have liked to hear them in a more raw, less edited version. I also wondered at times if the book couldn't have been a bit tighter (recalling Gordon and Mary-Anne's critique in a recent review that an author oughtn't keep telling a story over and over just because she has the data). But I would far rather have these stories over-told than not told at all, so I highly recommend the book to anyone touched

Brother Juniper's Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor (reviewed December 2007)

Brother Juniper's Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor, Peter Reinhart (1991, revised edition 2005)[****+]. Julie and I have been bread bakers pretty much since we have been adults with a kitchen of our own, and my dad and her mom were bread bakers before us. I grew up thinking it was normal to come home from school to the smell of Swedish Limpa filling the house. My kids have terrible eating habits in many regards, but one thing I can say for all those know-it-all-new-parent food ideals I once held ("MY kids will love veggies and eschew sugar" Ha!) is that they know from good bread. And this book has been at the heart of Julie's and my bread baking life for years. At the time he first wrote it, Peter Reinhart was a brother in a semi-monastic community of Eastern Orthodox Christians in California who in the sixties opened Brother Juniper's Restaurant, serving inexpensive sandwiches and coffee to street people and hippies. A number of years later, Reinhart and his wife, Susan, opened Brother Juniper's Bakery, and this book is basically their bread list, with some essays on bread and bread baking, and in particular the multiple slow rise method, as life metaphor/"sacramental magic." The essays say things that resonate a lot for me and my experience of bread making, but for the essays alone, I would give this book at most three stars; they are not particularly well-written, and everything he says has been said better by others, in particular by Kathleen Norris (my all-time favorite Christian writer) in her essay "The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and 'Women's Work.'" But such insights are nonetheless very welcome in combination with two other things I just love about this book: 1) if you know very little about bread baking, you will learn all the fundamentals here, without feeling like an idiot; and 2) the recipes! oh the recipes! Over the years, Julie and I have baked our way through this book; the recipes are pretty simple, and we almost never miss. Lately I've been baking whole-wheat French bread, and though my crust doesn't yet crackle the way Reinhart says it should, it's getting there. And sometimes, as Reinhart says, "Only White Bread Will Do." There *is* some magic in mixing white flour, water, salt and yeast and getting a piece of toast with butter at the end that is so perfectly satisfying. Cajun Three-Pepper Bread (with cayenne, black pepper, parsley, garlic, sweet red pepper, and Louisiana hot sauce!) has become the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving for years. A turkey, in our mind, is really just a vehicle for Cajun Poultry Stuffing (recipe provided), and there is now a whole ritual in our family, involving a trip to the Mexican butcher on the Italian Market, who says, when we ask for chorizo, "Tell me you're putting it in the stuffing!" Yes indeed. Be warned that the cornbread, with sugar and whole corn kernels, will spoil all other corn breads for you. Each spring, the night before the AP exam, Julie bakes up batches of muffins -- blueberry, cranberry, poppy-seed, carrot cake -- for her students taking the test; I don't particularly like muffins, but these really are unrivaled. I recently tried the four-seed snack crackers, which were a surprising hit, given how healthy they are! And then there is Straun, a multi-grain harvest bread from western Scotland that was traditionally baked for Michaelmas; this traditional bread had basically died until Reinhart revived it, and this is his signature bread. It has polenta, oats, wheat bran, and brown rice, brown sugar, honey and buttermilk, and is topped with poppy seeds. It is beautiful, and delicious, and healthy: basically, all things good in a loaf of bread/the staff of life (I guess this review could be subtitled: Why I'll Never Be an Atkins Devotee.)

Sense and Sensibility (reviewed December 2007)

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (the Oxford Illustrated edition)[*****]. I haven’t read Jane Austen in years – probably more than a decade – and I had forgotten that she is not just Great British Literature Worthy of Being Studied and Enjoyed. I had forgotten that in addition, she is page-turning, neglect-your-family, who-cares-about-insomnia? I’m-reading-Jane-Austen good! I just loved her voice, probably in part anyway, because two centuries later, I found so many of her constructions charming in the same way that idiom in another language is charming. Her sentences sometimes made me laugh out loud, when I finally got to the end and realized what she had accomplished. Sometimes I would read a sentence over and over, not because I didn’t understand it (although there were a few of those) but mostly just for the pure pleasure of it. I saw in all of her characters bits of people I know; some of her characters are more virtuous, some more villainous, but few are purely either. I loved that. I loved how she made me hate Willoughby, so simply and purely, and then made it all complicated again in ways I couldn’t deny. I loved that our heroines had warts – Marianne could certainly be exasperating in her self-absorption, and even the near-saintly Elinor was saved by snide thoughts and unkind judgments under her calm good manners. I loved the romantic happily-ever-after ending that seemed true and unsentimental because of the grief along the way. I identified with the theme that love and family can carry us through and past grief, and that our contentment in love and family is all the more rich and deep for having come through it. And I loved that everything good resulted from the marriage of sense and sensibility, of reason and passion. My friend Pat Imms says it’s no good when the holes in the Swiss cheese line up, and I think that’s right. As Jane Austen shows us, the marriage of sense and sensibility both completes and changes everyone for the better. I would love to meet Marianne and Elinor again in twenty years, to see how they have changed. Julie (my partner) says she is all sense, and I am all sensibility, and that is certainly how our temperaments tend, but I think we’ve worn off on each other in nice ways.

Encounters with Merton (reviewed November 2007)

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Encounters with Merton (1972)[*****]. About seven years ago, I gobbled up a lot of Thomas Merton’s memoirs and diaries during a particularly difficult time in my life. Merton was a convert to Catholicism; a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky; a contemplative mystic; a prolific writer; an insightful social critic, especially of war and racism; and was, at the end of his life, fascinated with Zen Buddhism. I think of him a little as my patron saint, my intercessor, someone I feel weirdly close to (weirdly, given that I have really only scratched the surface of his writing, and I was three years old when he died). I have not read Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, but have thought I would like to (I am Dutch; and while I am a member of a Protestant church, that’s a little bit by accident, and more and more I think of myself as a Protestant who practices Catholicism, something which no doubt is heresy to both traditions, but there you have it). So when I saw this little book about Merton by Nouwen, I thought it was just the thing, and it was. I’m inspired to re-read Merton, and to read more of Nouwen. If you love Merton as I do, and want a little refresher, this is a great book. If you don’t know Merton, but would like an introduction, this is a great place to start.

The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue (reviewed November 2007)

Robert B. Stewart, Ed., The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue, 2006 [****]. This collection is the outcome of the inaugural Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Two prominent Christian historians came together to discuss their convergent views of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, and then a number of other scholars presented papers on related topics. This work collects that discussion and those papers. N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham (Church of England) and the author of many works, most notably for the purposes of this discussion The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003)(which I have not read). His thesis is that in the context of first century Jewish and Greco-Roman thinking about resurrection, nothing can explain the birth of the church, nor the belief of the early Christians in Jesus’ resurrection, other than the empty tomb and the post-mortem sightings of Jesus reported in the Gospels. He considers and rejects other explanations, and therefore concludes that there is a high probability that the tomb really was empty, the post-mortem sightings really did happen, and that therefore Jesus really was literally and bodily raised from the dead. John Dominic Crossan is a former Catholic priest and a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of historians seeking to discern who the historical Jesus really was. Crossan does not believe that dead people can be brought back to life, period. He argues that the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb and the post-mortem sightings of Jesus are the creation of the evangelists several generations later, and are not as reliable as Paul’s much earlier description of the resurrection, which Crossan argues is metaphorical-spiritual, and not literal-bodily. Unlike Wright, Crossan does not believe that a literal, bodily resurrection is necessary for Christian faith, but that resurrection faith is nonetheless about embodiment: “Justice is always about bodies and lives, not just about words and ideas. Resurrection does not mean, simply, that the companions or followers of Jesus live on in the world. It must be the embodied life that remains powerfully efficacious in this world. I recognize those claims as an historian, and I believe them as a Christian.” As one contributor points out, what is really at the heart of Crossan and Wright’s disagreement is not their historical analysis, but rather the sort of God they believe in: if one believes in a God who can and does enter human history and alter the laws of nature, than Wright has a pretty compelling argument (although I would LOVE to hear the response of a Jew who believes in that sort of God). On the other hand, Wright’s analysis, no matter how compelling, is just beside the point if you don’t believe in that sort of God. Most of the scholars contributing to the book seem to be of the former sort of believer, and are pretty critical of Crossan, both of his historical analysis and his theology. Some of those essays include “The Hermeneutics of Resurrection,” “The Epistemology of Resurrection Belief,” “Wright and Crossan on the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus,” and “The Future of the Resurrection.” Most of the essays are actually way more readable than their titles would suggest. This dialogue gets at a lot of the Big Questions at the heart of my own faith, but I don’t, unfortunately, have much to say about any of it except that it certainly has me thinking.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (reviewed November 2007)

A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2007) [***+]. This is a gimmick book by an author who writes gimmick books – I haven’t read his other one, The Know-It-All, about his year spent reading the encyclopedia from A to Z. The Year of Living Biblically’s gimmick seemed interesting enough to give it a try: in an effort to show the folly of literal interpretations of the Bible, Jacobs, a secular New York Jew with little religious up-bringing, spends a year trying, as closely as he can, to take the Bible literally. He gathers a group of “spiritual advisers” to help him understand what he’s reading, and decides to spend the first eight months of the year on the Hebrew Scriptures, and the rest of the year on the Christian Scriptures. Going into his experiment, he describes himself as agnostic, and coming out he’s become a “reverent” agnostic. His beliefs (or lack thereof) don’t change much, but he does come to have a greater appreciation for the ways that religion and religious practice can nurture humility, gratitude, and a sense of awe and connection. In particular, he finds that the practice of praying multiple times a day makes him more mindful and full of gratitude, even though he doesn’t believe in the God to whom he is praying. But mostly, this book is just funny – laugh-out-loud funny at times – and accomplishes its primary goal of poking gentle fun at literalism and fundamentalism in religion. I liked that the fun he pokes is not mean-spirited or snarky, and that he really does try to show respect whenever possible. And he is willing to poke fun equally at himself. One of my favorite scenes is when he comes home from work one day, and his wife warns him not to sit down on the sofa, because she is menstruating and has recently sat on the sofa herself. She is not entirely on board with the year of living Biblically, and is especially exasperated that her husband won’t touch her, or sleep in the same bed with her, or sit on any of the furniture she has sat on, during her period. (Her women friends, too, are offended that he won’t touch them -- or any woman other than his wife -- at all, since you never can tell where a woman is in her cycle; they take to giving him huge hugs in public and loudly reassuring him that they had their periods two weeks ago.) So anyway, the couch being sullied, he moves to the chair, but she says she sat in that too. He moves around the house and she keeps shaking her head; she has deliberately sat in almost every chair in the house, and he is reduced to his son’s little play chair. He ends up buying himself a little portable stool that folds up into a cane, and this actually suits his OCD, germ-phobic self quite well.

The Extra Mile: One Woman’s Personal Journey to Untrarunning Greatness (reviwed November 2008)

Pam Reed, The Extra Mile: One Woman’s Personal Journey to Untrarunning Greatness (2006) [**1/2]. Having spent most of my life an avowed non-athlete, I took up running about six years ago, and now actually think of myself as a runner. (Well, a jogger. A very slow jogger.) Being a convert to athleticism, I’m fascinated by athletes, especially ones who push their limits; in the past few years, I’ve very much enjoyed books such as The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb (about the quest for the four minute mile) and Swimming to Antarctica, by Lynne Cox. Recently, my running discipline has lapsed, and I picked up The Extra Mile in the hopes that it would a) be as enjoyable as some of the other books about athletes I’ve read recently, and b) inspire me to hit the road. Unfortunately, this memoir of an ultrarunner is just pretty awful. The writing isn’t great (even for someone who isn’t a writer), the book is weirdly organized, and there’s just way too much that isn’t about running, but isn’t particularly interesting either. Reed doesn’t strike me as a particularly thoughtful, or even bright, person, so the book is short on the sorts of insights one might expect from a woman who runs 135 miles through Death Valley in July to win the Badwater Ultramarathon in something like 25 hours. But there’s the thing – even a poorly written, poorly organized, annoyingly meandering, uninsightful book can hold my attention when it’s about a world of athletes who run races like Badwater. This race begins in Death Valley at 10:00 a.m. in July, goes uphill for 40 miles through the desert in 120 to 130 degree heat, and then over the course of the next 95 (!!) miles, it climes something like 13,000 feet up a mountain. Typical winning times are something around 25 hours. Reed won Badwater twice in a row. She has run more than one hundred 100-mile races, more than one hundred marathons, and has challenged herself to several crazy stunts. She and a friend ran the London marathon, flew immediately to Boston for the Boston marathon, which they first ran backwards, and then, with the rest of the field, ran forwards – all in 48 hours. She also is the first and only woman to run 300 miles continuously, with no sleep, over the course of 3 days. The last of those miles she ran in 8 minutes (the rest of them she ran a lot slower than that). She profiles another runner who stands out for me, perhaps because, being among the slowest runners on the planet, I’m fascinated with speed: this woman ran a 100 K (that’s 62 miles) in around 7 hours, which averages 6:44 minute miles. Can you imagine?? I’m intrigued by what motivates people to such extremes; even the zealous convert in me finds it hard to fathom. Alas, Reed does not really illuminate her own motivation very convincingly. Nonetheless, the books seems to have accomplished one thing I had hoped for, in that I’m finding myself motivated to run again. Reed is the director of the Tucson Marathon, which sounds like a beautiful spot to run 26 miles, and a friend of mine and I are thinking of setting our sights on Arizona in 2008.

Case Histories (2005) and One Good Turn (2007) (reviewed November 2007)

In retrospect, I would only give these three stars.

Kate Atkinson, Case Histories (2005) and One Good Turn (2007) [****]. These British mysteries are the first two in a series featuring Jackson Brodie, a private detective whose wife has recently left him and who misses his ten year old daughter a whole lot. Brodie has an impressively tough-guy resume (military, cop, private eye, chain smoker who’s a little obsessed with his car); yet he is also endearingly tender and even prudish: he listens to Linda Ronstadt, is overprotective of his daughter, and has romantic notions about retiring to the French countryside. I read these mysteries in reverse order, by accident, so the earlier one is most fresh in my mind. It involves three distinct cold cases that fall into Brodie’s lap and which, through a series of coincidences, become all wrapped up with each other. (The device of multiple perspectives that all come together in the life and work of Brodie is also employed in One Good Turn.) In the first story line, a three year old youngest and most beloved daughter in a terribly dysfunctional family goes missing, never to be found. Years later, two of her grown sisters come home to bury their cold fish of a father, and find evidence that he might have been involved in the sister’s disappearance. They hire Brodie to look into it. In the second case, a young woman who had great ambitions but now feels trapped as a wife and mother snaps and kills her husband when he accidentally wakes the baby. Years later, her younger sister hires Brodie to find the baby, now a young woman, who disappeared as a troubled teen run-away. In the final case, a profoundly grief-stricken father hires Brodie to look into the seemingly random, brutal murder ten years prior of his beloved eighteen-year-old daughter, with which he has been obsessed ever since. These stories converge with each other and with Brodie’s own sad history in a series of coincidences that were strained and incredible, and which annoyed me. But I’m always annoyed by the inevitable logical imperfections of mystery and detective fiction, yet I’m an insatiable reader of the genre, and Kate Atkins will now be on my list of British writers, right between P.D. James (who, alas, is fading in her ninth decade) and Elizabeth George (whose health and long life I pray for on a regular basis), whose next work I wait for with bated breath. Because there is so much to love: the unusually well-drawn and sympathetic characters; the thoughtful treatment of difficult themes such as grief, dysfunctional families, and their aftermath; the spot-on, often very humorous voice; and of course, a page-turner of a plot, which is pretty satisfying despite its problems.

Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (reviewed October 2007)

Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (2007). [*****] A friend and member of my congregation read this memoir recently, and loved it so much she ordered a bunch of copies to hand out to all of us involved in "outreach" ministries (at my church, this includes a homeless shelter, a food and clothing cupboard, and a day camp and after school program for inner-city kids). Sarah Miles is the daughter of lapsed Christians who, along with my dad, I would describe as "born-again, fundamentalist atheists." She grew up (as I did) in a completely secular, leftist world, and as a young adult became very involved as a journalist and activist in the revolutionary wars in Central America in the 80's. She also at various times supported herself as a restaurant cook. Sometime after the birth of her daughter, having settled with her partner in San Francisco, she stumbles for no apparent reason into an Episcopal church, receives communion, and falls into a radical conversion to Christianity that freaks her out, along with everyone else in her life. The Eucharist being the central metaphor of her new faith, she comes to feel deeply called to feed people (a not altogether new experience, having spent a lot of her life cooking for others), and she goes on to start a food pantry at her church, and then several more pantries all over San Francisco. I loved this book for many reasons. While my own conversion to Christianity is different in many ways from Miles's, her story echoes many of the themes in my own experience, especially in the centrality of the Eucharist and of Jesus's call to "feed my sheep," and this summation of her faith: Christianity "wasn't an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn't a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow." I love any story that counters the hegemony of the Christian right in our cultural understanding of what it means to be a Christian. I love how unsentimental she is about the poor, how honest she is about church politics, how willing she is to show her own warts. Miles is not only someone who has something important to say, but who says it well, with lovely, concrete descriptions full of details and the "stuff" of life – especially food and its fixing. Her writing very much reflects her incarnational faith and her deep need to feed and be fed.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (reviewed October 2007)

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007). [****] I'm a pretty unsophisticated reader of novels; the husband of one of my best friends is a writer and says that "serious writers" hate Barbara Kingsolver, but I actually love her stories. So I was really excited to hear about her latest book, a memoir of her family's year of eating locally. Kingsolver, her husband, and two daughters, ages 17 and 10, spend a year eating only food in season and grown within 100 miles (or is it one hour's drive?) of their home in rural Kentucky. They make just a few exceptions. Each member of the family chooses one food they can't live without – he chooses coffee
(fair trade, naturally), the youngest daughter chooses chocolate (again, fair trade), the older daughter chooses dried fruit, and Barbara chooses spices. They also have to compromise a bit on their flour, as there is not a local, whole wheat mill; I think they also "cheat" on wine and olive oil. The freezer is pretty skimpy by March, but they make it through with imagination and without going hungry. I found this book familiar and compelling in many ways – my dad is an organic vegetable farmer, and my partner and I are urban gardeners who put up much of our food for the winter. I know about kitchen counters full of tomatoes in August and September, and the stickiness of the kitchen floor during canning season, and late nights blanching and freezing big boxes of corn and green beans from New Jersey or the local Amish farm stand. Kingsolver is neither sentimental nor righteous about her family's "locavore" year, and I expect that for many of her fans, this will be an important introduction to the politics, economics and ecology of food production and consumption in this country. Having been steeped in all of that for most of my life, though, I was hoping more for a really good story about her family's experience, with well-developed characters and lots of local color. While there are a few nice portraits and scenes, I really didn't feel like I got to know her family or their community well at all. The side-bar "essays" by her husband and older daughter didn't help, and I found them distracting and even annoying, although my partner Julie, the real cook in our family, loved all the recipes.

Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver

Arthur Allen, Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver, (2007). [***] This was an impulse buy at our wonderful local bookstore in Philadelphia, Big Blue Marble. After I bought it, I wondered why, and once I started reading it, I wondered why even more, but having paid a lot for a hardcover book, I soldiered through. My motivation, I suppose, was to clarify and solidify my own thinking about vaccination, and this book did help me do that (I'm a big proponent, and therefore quite an anomaly to other extended-breastfeeding, co-sleeping, sling-wearing, cloth-diapering, "stay-at-home" moms). I was hoping this would be a well-researched, balanced, and historical account of vaccination with a narrative arc that would make it a compelling and relatively easy-to-follow read; it was all of the former, but regretfully none of the latter. I had confirmed mostly what I already believed about vaccination: that notwithstanding all sorts of political idiocy, corporate greed, medical hubris, and gross miscalculations that cost lives, vaccination is a modern public health miracle; and that mostly the folks who are opposed to vaccination could be dismissed as just silly if their misinformation campaigns, born (with a few poignant exceptions) of privilege and too much time on their hands weren't gaining so much traction as to be putting the public health (and especially the health of those already most vulnerable) at risk. I just wish the book held together better. The story of vaccination is a compelling drama, and deserved a better handling.