Bonus Post: How America Eats

Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat    Jonathan Kauffman     (2018) 

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Back in the early 1960s, my parents frequented Zerbo’s Health Foods, a store that’s still in operation in Livonia, Michigan. They brought home jars of wheat germ, bags of soy flour, and bottles of supplements, including vitamin E capsules, bone meal tablets, and liquid halibut liver oil. They espoused many of the unsubstantiated claims found in Prevention magazine as it existed in the 1950s, such as that fluoridated water was poison. Adelle Davis (Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit, 1954) was also an influence, with her emphasis on whole grains and raw milk. My mother didn’t give up disgusting mid-20th-century prepared foods such as frozen fish sticks and canned peas, but she had “health foods” in the refrigerator even if they kept getting shoved to the back. In that era, health food stores catered to a very small minority of Americans.

In the 1970s came a torrent of books that had a much larger following among the members of the Baby Boom generation. Even though some of the recipes produced inedible, mushy dishes that my kids called “vegiterribles,” many dishes became favorites in my 1980s kitchen, as I kept gobbling up these food guidebooks: 

  • Ten Talents by Frank and Rosalie Hurd (1968)

  • The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown (1970)

  • Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé (1971)

  • The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas (1972)

  • Recipes for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé and Ellen Buchman Ewald (1973)

  • The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi  (1975)

  • The More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre (1976)

  • The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen (1977) 

In Hippie Foods, Jonathan Kauffman, an award-winning food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, provides the back story for all these books, linking them to their antecedents and tracing the political movements that spawned them. I was delighted to learn the contexts of the foods that have found their way into (and sometimes right back out of) my kitchen over the decades:  organic produce, vegan concoctions from the Seventh Day Adventist tradition, soy and tofu in all their manifestations, and whole grain breads.

Kauffman interviewed dozens of the key players in this food revolution. A few of these earnest aging hippies were able to parlay their involvement in natural and organic foods into corporate successes, including Stonyfield Farm (yogurt), Eden Foods (soy milk), and Lundberg Family Farms (rice). Hippie Food also follows the macrobiotic strand, somewhat associated with  Zen Buddhism, that flourished on both coasts in the 1960s, and recounts the rise of food co-ops, farmers’ markets, and vegetarian restaurants all across the United States.  

Kauffman found several  reasons that hippie foods have now been thoroughly integrated into mainstream American cuisine. Concern about the dangers of chemically treated crops and over-processed foods had a basis in fact, and the public took note. Home cooks found easy recipes for everyday meals in cookbooks developed by other home cooks, not by professional chefs. Most importantly, Kauffman says, “the 1970s counterculture succeeded in selling America on its concept of healthy food.” (282) I agree with this assessment, but I would add that I’ll gladly take the 1970s countercultural food over the dreck peddled by most of the corporate food giants today.  

Hippie Food is an intelligent and well-researched work of social history, capturing those decades in the 20th century when the political was often expressed through the practical, in the kitchen, in the garden, and on the farm. I decided to overlook Kauffman’s occasional snarkiness and awkward comparisons (“like a matchstick Eiffel Tower held together with strawberry jam” [238]) . And I forgave him for omitting my favorite old cookbook, Laurel's Kitchen by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey (1976). After all, Kauffman devotes several pages to the history of food cooperatives in my own Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has long been a hotspot for the natural foods movement. To this day, I shop at Ann Arbor’s People’s Food Co-op, especially for local produce and freshly milled whole wheat bread flour. And, for the record, I support the fluoridation of drinking water.  

For another analysis of food and culture in the United States, see my review of Discriminating Taste by S Margot Finn.

Bonus Post: Washenaw Reads, 2019

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-changing Friendship     Michelle Kuo     (2017) 

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Washtenaw County, Michigan, selected Reading with Patrick as the “Washtenaw Reads” book for 2019, providing extra copies on library shelves so that the community can engage in discussions of the provocative issues that the book raises.  

The author of Reading with Patrick, Michelle Kuo, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, is a Michigan native who graduated from Harvard in 2003 and then volunteered for two years with Teach for America in Helena, Arkansas, an extremely poor rural town on the Mississippi Delta.  

Kuo could have completed this tough teaching assignment and then moved on. She could have kept her distance from the difficult personal lives of her middle-school students. Instead she became a friend and mentor to one particular student, Patrick Browning, and wrote this book about Patrick’s awakening to the joys of reading. Kuo initially read with Patrick during her Teach for America stint, but she returned to Helena after she completed law school, when she learned that Patrick had been arrested, charged with murder. For months, as Patrick awaited trial, Kuo visited him in jail, bringing him books and encouraging him to write.  

Reading with Patrick can be disturbing, especially in its descriptions of Patrick’s imprisonment and trial. I also found the bigotry that Kuo encountered as an Asian American disheartening. But Kuo doesn’t complain about her struggles or pass judgment on the societal systems that neglected and betrayed Patrick and the other young people in Helena. In Reading with Patrick she simply tells the story and allows the obvious conclusions to come to the surface. In an interview with the New York Times, however, Kuo summarized her book:   

“It’s an intimate story about the failure of the education and criminal justice systems and the legacy of slavery; about how literature is for everyone, how books connect people, and the hope that with enough openness and generosity we can do the hard work of knowing each other and ourselves.”  

If you live in Washtenaw County, you can participate in Washtenaw Reads events in early 2019. If you live anywhere in the United States, you can pick up Reading with Patrick at your local library and learn about a remarkable friendship.

Nonfiction & Fiction by Russo

Elsewhere: A Memoir     Richard Russo     (2012)

That Old Cape Magic     Richard Russo     (2009)

The Destiny Thief:  Essays on Writers, Writing and Life     Richard Russo     (2018)

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Richard Russo’s 2001 novel Empire Falls (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and most of his other novels are set in decaying industrial towns peopled by rough-and-tumble strugglers. It’s no secret that in his fiction Russo drew on his experiences growing up in Gloversville, in upstate New York, which by the 1960s was severely polluted, from the byproducts of the manufacture of leather gloves, and poverty stricken, since the glove industry had moved to India and China.

When I ran across this memoir by Russo, I thought he might reveal how his novels are linked to his own biography. Elsewhere does provide some clues for avid Russo readers, but it’s primarily the story of Russo’s relationship with his mother, who raised him on her own after her divorce from his father when Richard was a small child. Jean Russo was smart, hardworking, attractive, sexy, fashionable, controlling, manipulative, selfish, explosive, confused, and unhappy most of the time. Richard loved her fiercely and tried for decades to relieve her sadnesses. Only after her death, in her mid-eighties, did he realize that she likely had a serious mental health condition that was never diagnosed or treated.

The narrative is somewhat uneven, as memoir can be, but Elsewhere is a touching portrait of a tormented woman. I kept looking back at the photos of Russo and his mother on the cover of the book, feeling as if I knew these two people personally.

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For a glimpse into how Russo’s mother may have influenced his fiction, try That Old Cape Magic, a 2009 novel that’s one of his gentlest narratives—a kind of meditation on relationships (successful, failed, failing, blissful, doomed, redeemable). Griffin, the middle-aged protagonist, attends two weddings, a year apart. The first wedding takes place on Cape Cod, and it stirs up in his memory the childhood vacations that he spent there with his parents, who were escaping their academic jobs in the hated Midwest. Griffin is trying to come to terms with his parents’ unhappy marriage, especially since he’s carrying his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car, and since his own marriage is not so solid. Griffin’s mother, long divorced from his late father, phones him constantly in this story, and her voice sounds similar, in tone and level of sarcasm, to the voice that author Russo gives to his own mother in his memoir. 

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For more details on Russo’s writing process, pick up his 2018 book, The Destiny Thief, a collection of nine essays, some of which have been previously published. I’d recommend skipping the essay on The Pickwick Papers unless you’re a serious fan of Charles Dickens. But the essay “Getting Good” has valuable advice for aspiring writers, particularly on the controversial issue of digital versus print publication. The piece titled “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omniscience” is a brilliant analysis of the function of narrative voice in fiction, with examples from Russo’s work and from the writing of others, based on his years of teaching in writing programs across the country and around the world.

In another vein, “Imagining Jenny” is an emotional account of how a writer friend of Russo’s underwent gender reassignment surgery. All in all, this collection is pure Russo—sardonic, funny, and smart.

Guest Review: Cloaks and Daggers

Hunting Eichmann:  How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi     Neal Bascomb     (2009)

Today, as a bonus Tuesday post, another guest review by ethicist and philosopher Paul R. Schwankl!

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Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) managed the Third Reich’s plans to exterminate Jews. For fifteen years after World War II, he was the most notorious alleged war criminal still at large. In 1960, a team from the Israeli security services smuggled him from Argentina to Israel to be tried for crimes against humanity. These are the bare facts of the case.

As someone who was trained in moral philosophy, I’m interested in analyses of the evil in this man. But I also love cloak-and-dagger stories, so I’m grateful to Neal Bascomb for his magisterial book Hunting Eichmann, based on an immense number of interviews and memoirs, detailing the lucky breaks and good choices that allowed Eichmann to hide—and allowed the Israelis to capture him.

At the end of World War II, the victorious Allies didn’t at first realize how important Eichmann was to the Holocaust. He didn’t run individual death camps; he was the distant overseer who made sure that Jews got to them. Significantly, he hated being photographed. After the war, he got swept up along with millions of other German soldiers and put into a crowded and understaffed prison camp, where he passed as a low-level officer. He easily escaped and worked as a rural laborer in northern Germany. But by 1950 his adversaries had figured out his role in Hitler’s Final Solution, so he made his way to the seaport of Genoa, staying with pro-fascists along his route, including Catholic priests and monks who felt that as long as Eichmann was against communism it didn’t matter how many Jews he had killed. Eichmann sailed to South America and had no trouble entering fascist-friendly Argentina, getting a job, and, in 1952, bringing his wife and three sons over to join him. It seemed that Adolph Eichmann, now named Ricardo Klement, had won.

But a remarkable happenstance, combined with one of Eichmann’s few mistakes, started to unravel his cover. Eichmann allowed his sons to use the surname of their birth; they claimed that their father was dead and that Ricardo Klement was their uncle. In 1956, the eldest son, Klaus, starting dating a German Argentinian, Sylvia Hermann. When Klaus visited her German-speaking home, he assumed that it was safe to brag to Sylvia’s blind father, Lothar Hermann, that his dad had been big in the Wehrmacht. Klaus did not know that Lothar was half Jewish and had gone blind from beatings by the Gestapo. Eventually, Lothar and Sylvia got in touch with Israelis who were still pursuing war criminals. Lothar and Sylvia also, with much difficulty, found out where the Eichmann family lived. In a highlight of the book, Sylvia risked her life by calling on the family and coming face to face with Adolf Eichmann (Ricardo Klement) himself.

From there Israeli operatives largely took over the hunt, first undertaking a positive identification, which was hampered by a lack of photographs. The capture of Eichmann and his transportation to Israel took three years of work. It was an amazing accomplishment by the Israelis, though the details were long kept secret. Argentina complained that the Israeli captors had violated Argentine sovereignty, which Israel admitted they had done. Israel asserted that it was standing for a righteous world in which criminals like Eichmann must not go free. The Jewish state ultimately patched things up with the post-Peronist Argentine government.

In reading Bascomb’s account, I was impressed with the expertise of the career spies and agents who captured Eichmann, but the amateurs and part-timers also did some truly amazing things. For example, one Israeli started wooing a former mistress of Eichmann in Vienna. After several excruciating dates, the Israeli persuaded her to open her photo album, which contained one of the rare pictures of Eichmann. He got the Vienna police to seize the album on the pretext that the woman was hiding stolen ration tickets in it.

 Many war criminals have come and gone since Eichmann’s day, and it is still possible to bring them to trial; an ex-Nazi in his nineties was sentenced just recently. I would like to think that the Israelis’ success with Eichmann helped, by laying an effective foundation separate from the Allies’ work at Nuremberg. Eichmann was hanged and cremated and his ashes scattered at sea; he remains the only person to whom Israeli courts have applied the death penalty. In the United States today, we can all use a reminder that law can indeed rule.

Two Multi-Biographies

The Kelloggs:  The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek     Howard Markel     (2017)

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In the small southwestern Michigan city of Battle Creek, two brothers distinguished themselves in separate but related arenas. John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943), a physician and author, established the Battle Creek Sanitarium (“the San”) in 1878, treating thousands of patients and promoting some surprisingly prescient wellness regimens on both dietary and exercise fronts. Will Keith Kellogg (1860-1951) founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company (now the Kellogg Company) in 1906, revolutionizing breakfast foods through manipulation of ingredients and industrial mass production.

Both brothers were raised as Seventh-Day Adventists and sought, at least early in their careers, to advance the tenets of this faith, which encourages regular physical exercise and prohibits meat, tobacco, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. John and Will experimented extensively to find food products that would be acceptable to Adventists and that would also encourage “biologic living” in the general population. Two strong-willed characters, they frequently clashed, and Will finally left his position as business manager of the San to go national with corn flakes, the cereal that seems to have been a joint invention. In the 1920s, John became involved with the eugenics movement and set up the Race Betterment Foundation; medical historian Howard Markel treats frankly the brutal racism inherent in eugenics theory, now scientifically discredited. Although John’s Sanitarium buildings were sold off in 1942, Will’s food empire continues to this day, as does the humanitarian WK Kellogg Foundation that he created with his massive profits.

In researching this book, Markel did not have access to the many private documents that Will Kellogg placed in a highly restricted archive at the WK Kellogg Foundation, yet this dual biography is exhaustive, drawing on numerous other archival sources. I was especially taken with Markel’s background information on nineteenth-century dietary, public health, and medical practices and with his explanations of the grain-processing machinery that the Kelloggs invented by trial and error. I decided to overlook occasional outlandish analogies. (One painful example: Will was “slower to pardon than most glaciers used to melt.” 336) The Kelloggs is not only a lively and fair-minded story about two dynamic, flawed men but also an absorbing chronicle of their era.

Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas    Donna M. Lucey     (2017)

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If you like Gilded Age gossip, this is a multi-biography that you may want to read. I thought it would be focused primarily John Singer Sargent’s relationship with four of his female subjects, whose portraits are widely known and reproduced:  Elsie Palmer, Sally Fairchild, Elizabeth Chanler, and Isabella Stewart Gardner. (That’s Elizabeth Chanler on the cover of the book.) Sargent painted portraits of these wealthy American women between 1888 and 1922, but in fact his contact with them outside his professional role was fairly limited.

So . . . what this book does offer is a view into the excesses that the upper classes indulged in during a period of American industrial expansion and political corruption. Oddly, the chapter that is supposed to be about Sally Fairchild is devoted almost entirely to the biography of her sister, Lucia, whose portrait Sargent did not paint. My favorite section was the one on Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose private art collection became the famed art museum in Boston that bears her name. Do watch out for typos and small errors in this book as well as in the Kellogg book reviewed above.  

Bonus Post: Big Data

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are     Seth Stephens-Davidowitz     (2017)

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Forget all those social science surveys that ask 200 people about their sexual preferences or their attitudes towards those outside their own racial group. Everybody lies, or at least enough people lie to make the results of such surveys highly suspect. We also lie to our families, to our friends, and to our doctors. This is the message from economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who mines vast troves of anonymous data from Google searches, social media sites, and similar sources to try to get closer to the truth.

Stephens-Davidowitz has an engaging way of presenting the complex statistical analyses that he performs. He proceeds by topic, telling stories that uncover fallacies in our assumptions about subjects such as prejudice, child abuse, abortion, economic mobility, and basketball stardom. For example, there’s an assumption that African American boys from impoverished neighborhoods have a good chance of making it in the National Basketball Association. Stephens-Davidowitz crunches the Big Data and finds that it’s actually mostly middle-class African American boys who succeed in basketball, though there are notable exceptions, like LeBron James.

The analyses of Americans’ views on race—particularly in relation to the presidential elections of 2008, 2012, and 2016—are enlightening. Stephens-Davidowitz studied millions of Google searches for such topics as racist jokes, as well as the rise of the website Stormfront, which he describes as “America’s most popular online hate site” (137). He concludes, “Trump rode a wave of white nationalism. There is no evidence here that he created a wave of white nationalism. Obama’s election led to a surge in the white nationalist movement. Trump’s election seems to be a response to that.  . . .States disproportionately affected by the Great Recession saw no comparative increase in Google searches for Stormfront.” (139) In other words, racism has probably played a larger role than economic hardship in recent elections.

To his credit, Stephens-Davidowitz does not view everything through the lens of the internet. “The Big Data revolution is less about collecting more and more data. It is about collecting the right data. But the internet isn’t the only place where you can collect new data and where getting the right data can have profoundly disruptive results.” (62) He recounts the story of how one horse enthusiast’s meticulous data collection about the physical characteristics of race horses led to a highly accurate method for predicting winners.

Stephens-Davidowitz does touch on the issue of the ethics of tapping Big Data for understanding human nature, particularly with respect to financial transactions. “Do we want to live in a world in which companies use the words we write to predict whether we will pay back a loan? It is, at a minimum, creepy—and quite possibly, scary.” (260) He also has plenty of cautions against confusing correlation with causality. But I would have liked to see more discussion in this book about the ethical implications of using Big Data in the first place. Do we give up all our rights to privacy when we initiate a search on Google, even if big data is supposedly anonymous? Where are the protections for human subjects that are required in more conventional social science surveys? How can we be sure of the motives of the data seekers typing in those Google queries?

And what about corporate abuse of Big Data?  Stephens-Davidowitz says, “Data on the internet . . . can tell businesses which customers to avoid and which they can exploit. It can also tell customers the businesses they should avoid and who is trying to exploit them. Big Data to date has helped both sides in the struggle between consumers and corporations. We have to make sure it remains a fair fight.” (265) I’m skeptical that consumers can be protected against corporations in the current political climate. And the conclusions that Stephens-Davidowitz presents about Americans’ racial prejudices must be pretty disheartening to anyone interested in societal equity and social justice. All the more reason why you should read this important book, which explains an effective means of probing the truth beneath the lies that everybody tells.

This post was a mid-week bonus. Come back to the Cedar Park Book Blog on Friday for the regular post!

Guest Review: Trump's America

The review below was written by Paul R. Schwankl, who comments, "I am delighted to step in for a guest appearance on the Cedar Park Book Blog!"

One Nation after Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not Yet Deported      E. J. Dionne Jr, Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann     (2017)

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New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s Republican brother Kevin included this gloat in his annual guest column for 2017: “[Concerning] Trump’s daily activity: I do not follow every move he makes. I counsel my Democratic friends to do the same, but they cannot help themselves.”

If you did not support Trump in the 2016 election, perhaps you’ve noticed that you’re taking in much more news and commentary than you did when Barack Obama was president. You may ask whether you’re doing so because you’re a morbidly curious person, like drivers gawking at a highway accident, or because you’re a patriot, keeping up that eternal vigilance that is the price of liberty. For both patriots and gawkers, I recommend One Nation after Trump, which deals in its two parts with (1) what is wrong about Trumpism and (2) what we can do about it.

Even if you know about all the outrages that come up in the first part of this book (I found no great surprises), it helps to hear them summarized and succinctly discussed by this trio of gracious writers who are famously and fervently fair to those who disagree with them. They have chapters for how Trump treats truth, his beyond-bad manners, his dictatorial tendencies, and his betrayal of the white working-class voters who some say are his true base.

Then the authors move on to “The Way Forward,” believing that, as their title says, there can be one nation after Trump. I don’t think that such a single nation is at all a sure thing, but some combination of what Dionne, Ornstein, and Mann advocate has something of a chance. They first call for a revived partnership between government and the private economy, pointing out that this approach led to our greatest prosperity in the past. Such a move could get past the Koch brothers’ rewriting of history, but it’s an uphill struggle.

Next they propose:

  • A new patriotism without today’s xenophobia and racism, under the slogan “Make America empathetic again.” Are there enough Americans who would rather be empathetic than “great”? I can only hope.
  • A revivified civil society, reversing some of the trends noted in Robert Putnam’s 2001 Bowling Alone. Civil society is a vast checkerboard of institutions that call for some allegiance that’s neither to family nor to government. The remedies involve everything from the Sierra Club to community colleges to national community service programs for youth. It occurs to me that it will be hard to boost civil society without attention to American workers’ lack of free time and free money. Again, better jobs are needed.
  • A new democracy. The enemies here include infringements on the right to vote, gerrymandering (being addressed very promisingly here in Michigan), the current Electoral College system, and counterproductive rules in Congress. I’m always amazed at how much lawyers can get done here—and how little can get down without lawyers!

The final chapter of One Nation after Trump urges readers to “show up, dive in, [and] stay in it.” Some great popular forces are moving as people get active (or more active), and there could be big party realignments. But after seeing Trumpism arise, I have no confidence in my ability to predict realignments. I hope that it will turn out mostly well, but I’m sure it will be quite a ride.

 

 

 

Three Books about the Little House Series

Caroline:  Little House, Revisited     Sarah Miller     (2017)

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Sarah Miller, an established American author of historical fiction and nonfiction, received authorization from the Little House Heritage Trust to produce this novel about the pioneer life of Caroline Quiner Ingalls, the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura was the author of the famed series of Little House books, which fictionalized events from her family’s years as pioneers in the Upper Midwest and on the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century.

In this spin-off novel, Caroline, we see most of the same events that Wilder portrayed, but through the eyes of Laura’s mother.

In recounting the early adventures of the Ingalls family, novelist Miller treads a path somewhere between the historical record and the fictionalized version that appeared in the Little House books, specifically the title Little House on the Prairie (published in 1935), which tells of the family’s trip by covered wagon from Wisconsin to Kansas to stake a new land claim in 1869-1870.

I first read Wilder’s Little House series as an adult and was captivated by the details of daily life that she lovingly described. Miller’s novel Caroline paints a less bucolic picture, meticulously chronicling the grueling toil that pioneer families endured. In this version, Caroline Ingalls worked hard, even when she was heavily pregnant, and survived with an irrepressible good humor and positive attitude. Her husband, Charles, was certainly no slacker, either, but his search for the perfect land claim in the expansionist days of the United States must have worn thin on his wife and children.

Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books will not want to miss Miller’s take on incidents that they know well. (Be sure to read her Author’s Note at the end of Caroline, about the prejudices against Native Americans that contributed to Wilder’s account of the Osage Indians.) Miller writes skillfully and with a clear affection for her topic, presenting the beauty of an unspoiled American landscape but not stinting in her depictions of the diseases and dangers that pioneer women faced.

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books    Marta McDowell     (2017)

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Devoted readers of children’s novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder often seize on any book that provides background about her Little House series. This nonfiction book focuses on the flora and fauna mentioned in Wilder's novels. Marta McDowell structures the text chronologically around what she calls Wilder’s “Life on the Land,” going book-by-book through the sites where Wilder lived, in places that are now in the states of Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri. (The landscape of upstate New York, where Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, grew up, also gets a chapter.) The style is chatty, with many quotations from the Little House books. The illustrations that McDowell has selected are sometimes excellent complements to the text, especially when they’re maps or period photos. At other times the illustrations are rather pointless; I didn’t need a half-page color photo of wintergreen berries, as just one example.

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If you’re a diehard Laura Ingalls Wilder buff, you might want to page through McDowell's book, but I can recommend a much better read: editor Pamela Smith Hill’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography (2014), a meticulous and comprehensive analysis of how the Little House books differed from the actual life of the author, as presented in Laura’s previously unpublished memoir and as unearthed by historical research. This is an exceptionally fine book.

A Confused Hillbilly

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis     JD Vance     (2016)

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JD Vance’s social analysis of “hillbilly culture,” using the lens of his own life story, has been widely credited with explaining why white working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump in November 2016. Vance’s book also topped several bestseller lists in 2016, and it’s been praised by political commentators on both the right and the left. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, so I checked Hillbilly Elegy out from my local library.

Hillbilly Elegy is meant to be both a memoir and a cultural commentary. The memoir component  is an “up by the bootstraps” tale of a boy overcoming incredible odds to escape from the dying Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, in the early years of the current century. Vance is raised primarily by his maternal grandparents—“Mamaw” and “Papaw” in hillbilly parlance—since his mother is a substance abuser who cycles through five husbands and innumerable short-term boyfriends. The foul-mouthed but loving Mamaw is a strong influence on the young JD; she emphasizes the importance of education and shields him from many of his mother’s violent episodes. Vance graduates from high school, joins the Marines, serves in the Iraq war, gets through college at Ohio State in record time, goes on to Yale Law School, meets a brilliant and kindly woman who becomes his wife, and ends up working for a Silicon Valley investment firm.

Despite the jerky narrative style and the many clichés in the memoir portions of this book, I was drawn to some parts of the story. Vance’s experience in the Marines, for example, is a turning point in his life: “It was in the Marine Corps where I first ordered grown men to do a job and watched them listen; where I learned that leadership depended far more on earning the respect of your subordinates than on bossing them around; where I discovered how to earn that respect; and where I saw that men and women of different social classes and races could work as a team and bond like family.” (175) He cites specific incidents that taught him how to control his temper and interact peaceably with others.

Periodically Vance inserts into his memoir paragraphs of polemic against hillbillies, in the form of disconnected soapbox orations about working-class white people in Appalachia, the South, and the Rust Belt, whose culture “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (7) Throughout the book, Vance presents the tendency to explosive interpersonal reactions as one reason for the low economic status of people of his background. He asks plaintively, “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?” (231)

Vance freely admits that he doesn’t have the answers to these questions, yet he presents contradictory arguments. He rails against lazy hillbillies who are “living off of government largesse” (139), not mentioning the fact that able-bodied adults haven’t been eligible for cash welfare for more than two decades. Vance doesn’t count himself as a recipient of “government largesse” even though he’s benefited from public schools, a public university, the GI Bill, and Pell grants. He assumes that hillbillies are the only people who’ve suffered from the loss of jobs that provide a middle-class lifestyle, when the millennial children of white professionals have endured similar downward mobility.

There is no discussion of the tremendous rise in income inequality in our country, and Vance ignores the plight of non-white working-class Americans. Significantly, he fails to address racism as a factor in the bitterness of the white working-class. (For a first-hand account of this racism, I can refer you to an African American friend of mine who was raised  in the same Middletown, Ohio, as JD Vance.) There’s a constant underlying assumption in Hillbilly Elegy that white working-class hillbillies are the only Americans who grow up in poverty-stricken or violent families. And that these hillbillies are the only ones who might be nonplussed by the elitism of the Ivy League and Wall Street. It ain’t so, JD.

Vance treasures his hillbilly background and yet despises it. He hasn’t quite figured out where he stands, though he aligns himself politically with conservative Republicans. Hillbilly Elegy is an imperfect book, with far too many contradictions and generalizations and cherry-picked citations. But you may want to read it because it’s become a highly influential book in our present-day political climate of angry polarization.

American Evangelicals

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America     Frances FitzGerald     (2017)

The cover of this social history gives readers an idea of the content. An American flag is hanging upside down, the universal signal for national distress, and twenty of the stars are replaced with Christian crosses. Translation: Christian evangelicals in the United States have long sought to remake what they see as a distressed nation in accordance with their religious beliefs. And they have indeed shaped American culture and political life.

This heavily annotated 740-page book is not for the faint hearted. Frances FitzGerald, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, creates distinct portraits of dozens of Christian evangelical leaders and provides details of numerous associations and dissociations of the movement over the centuries. If you’re drawn to discussions of religious doctrinal differences and of the personalities that championed them, you’ll want to read the entire volume. Or you could read the introduction and then sample a few of the seventeen chapters that grab you, whether it’s “Liberals and Conservatives in the Post-Civil War North” or “Evangelicals in the 1960s” or “The Christian Right and George W. Bush.” 

In any case, turn first to the handy Glossary on pages 637-639, where you’ll learn that “evangelicalism” is a belief system that relies on the authority of the Bible, centers on redemption by Jesus Christ, emphasizes individual conversion, and seeks to spread this faith to others. It is not the same as “fundamentalism,” a more militant segment of evangelicalism that, according to FitzGerald, is “bent on combating Protestant liberalism and secularism.” Several other variants within evangelicalism are described in the Glossary and throughout the book, including dispensationalism, pentacostalism, and pre/postmillennialism. Note that FitzGerald consciously limits her study to white evangelicals in the United States; African American churches have very different history and trajectory.  

FitzGerald takes the story all the way back to 1734, tracing the rise of evangelicalism in the United States to the revival meetings of the First Great Awakening, a populist uprising against established Protestant churches. Later, during the Civil War era, northern evangelicals were abolitionists and southern evangelicals were pro-slavery; the split in the evangelical movement caused by this issue has never healed. New sects also arose among those who thought that the church should pursue social justice (the “social gospel”) and those who expected the imminent return of Jesus to judge a hopelessly fallen world. In the early twentieth century, fundamentalists and modernists came into conflict over scientific discoveries and textual criticism of the Bible.

After World War II, Billy Graham reignited evangelicalism with his powerful preaching at revival meetings all around the country, attended by millions of people and broadcast on television. Clashes between evangelicals and more liberal Christians led to culture wars in the late twentieth century. This period also saw the rise of evangelicals as a political force, particularly in the South, which—thanks to leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson—became a stronghold of the Republican Party. FitzGerald ends her study with an Epilogue analyzing evangelical support for Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency.

The Evangelicals disentangles the many strands of a movement that now includes about 25% of the population of the United States. I was occasionally distracted by typos, but these do not diminish the authority of the text. FitzGerald ranges wide and also nails the details, writing with clarity and avoiding bias. She pulls data from the histories of religion, culture, and politics with ease, showing how evangelicals developed their stances on issues such as slavery, segregation, labor unions, the Vietnam War, communism, abortion, immigration, and gay rights. If you are bemused by the phenomenon of evangelicalism in America, or if you just want some background on a powerful segment of our society, this is the book to read.

Aspirational Eating

Discriminating Taste:                                                                                                                    How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution       S. Margot Finn   (2017)

In this thought-provoking social analysis, Margot Finn shatters multiple assumptions about food in American culture. Her main premise is that, over the past forty years, middle-class Americans have embraced eating habits that allow them to feel superior to other Americans. She argues that these eating habits are related to the increasing income inequality in the United States: although members of the middle class have been stifled in upward mobility, they’ve retained a sense of social superiority, expressed through their food choices and through vocal rationalizations of those choices. The media are complicit in promoting the food revolution, even when scientific evidence fails to show that the products are better.

What Finn calls “aspirational eating” is, in her words, “a process in which people use their literal tastes—the kinds of food they eat and the way they use and talk about food—to perform and embody a desirable class identity and distinguish themselves from the masses.” (11) Finn describes four categories in the food revolution—gourmet, diet, natural, and ethnic—and examines each in detail.

What? Are we actually classist if we love our Pinot Noir, low-fat salad dressing, organic broccoli, and sushi? Well, maybe. Finn does absolve aspirational eaters to some extent: “Most of the time, people don’t choose high-status foods because of their association with the elite. Instead, they believe those foods are actually better—better tasting, healthier, better for the environment, more authentic, and so forth.” (44) In other words, we’ve been indoctrinated in our beliefs, convinced that paying more for upscale foods is worth it. We can’t do very much as individuals to change societal structures, but by golly we can eat some of the same foods that the 1% eat.

In Discriminating Taste, Finn ranges widely both to establish the historical framework for her argument and to illustrate the current food revolution. In an absorbing chapter on eating in the Gilded Age, she documents the food fads of middle-class Americans living in the period from 1880 to 1930: “In the new social order that emerged in the 1880s, members of the professional middle class grasped at anything that would enable them to distance themselves from the lower classes, establish their capacity for conspicuous consumption, and assert a moral superiority over the robber barons who usurped them.” (78) The food trends of the Gilded Age, an era marked by extreme income inequality, faded with the arrival of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, only to rise again around 1980.

In discussing America’s obsession with dieting, Finn presents clear evidence from medical research that diets of all varieties virtually never work to help overweight people keep weight off. Her close examination of the television show The Biggest Loser left me appalled at the extreme humiliations that the contestants were subjected to in the cause of becoming thinner. I’ve never watched this program, but Finn’s descriptions gave me a grim picture of the media exploitation of this component of aspirational eating.

Many other aspects of Discriminating Taste are simply delightful to read. Don’t miss her account of the making of the famous commercial for Grey Poupon mustard and her deconstruction of Ratatouille, the 2007 animated movie about a restaurant rat who is a secret chef. When academic prose creeps into the text, it doesn’t last long. I started to get bogged down in a summary of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume’s essay on taste, but sections like this one are more than offset by, for instance, lively discussion of the authenticity claims of Lay’s Classic potato chips as compared with Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha.

The overall thesis of Discriminating Taste has serious political implications for the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, and particularly the gap between the middle class and the poor. Finn doesn’t mince words: “The food revolution has helped stigmatize the foods and bodies associated with the poor and has convinced middle- and upper-class people that their dietary choices prove that they are smarter and more self-controlled and thus deserve whatever social rewards they get from eating the way they do.” (215) Finn addresses this attitude in a chapter called “Sacrifice, Pleasure, and Virtue.” The foodies who insist on gourmet, diet, natural, and ethnic foods sacrifice the conveniences and lower prices of more conventional food products. They like the feeling of martyrdom that this gives them, and they seek to impose their choices on others.

Discriminating Taste has prodded me to examine my own food choices. I’m not much tempted by gourmet or ethnic foods. (Wait. Yesterday I whipped up zucchini-parsley fritters. Were they gourmet? Probably not.) In the diet category, I’ve made peace with some of my decisions. For example, I’ve become so accustomed to skim-milk dairy products that full-fat dairy tastes cloyingly creamy to me, so I’ll stick with my “slimming” products. In the category of natural foods, however, I need to assess my purchases of local and organic products more carefully. I think it’s worth trips to the farmers’ market in summer and fall for ripe-picked corn, tomatoes, and melons, and I wait all year for that week in June when I can buy intensely flavorful Michigan strawberries. But I’ll admit that the extra drive to the farmers’ market uses gas and that organic produce isn’t always worth the cost.

More importantly, I need to adjust my view of friends and family members who love McDonald’s french fries and Kraft boxed macaroni and cheese, two foods cited by Finn as anathema to food elitists. None of us should judge what other people find delicious.

Margot Finn has taken on a powerful cohort in her indictment of current food trends. Even if you don’t accept all her assertions, Discriminating Taste will get you thinking.

[Side note: A shout out to Derek Thornton, who designed the clever cover for Discriminating Taste.]

A Martin Luther Biography

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet     Lyndal Roper     (2017)

Caution: Heavy lifting required! This academic biography is crammed full of data and has 88 pages of footnotes.

Historians have traditionally set the date for the launch of the Protestant Reformation in Europe as October 31, 1517, when the monk-professor Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Lyndal Roper’s biography of Martin Luther appears in time for the 500th anniversary of this event, in 2017. It’s unclear if Luther actually nailed a piece of paper to that church door, but he certainly sent his document, challenging certain practices of the Catholic Church, to his local bishop and to the powerful archbishop of Mainz. Luther’s “95 Theses” were statements intended to provoke debate in the university town of Wittenberg. Instead, they became early shots in theological and physical wars that went on for centuries.

The “95 Theses” mainly critiqued the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, by which people could purchase time out of Purgatory (punishment after death) for their souls or the souls of loved ones. But the seeds of other complaints about the Catholic Church were present in the arguments of the “95 Theses.” Over subsequent years, especially during the 1520s and 1530s, Luther further developed his positions against the Church’s monopoly in granting forgiveness of sins. He also attacked monasticism, pilgrimages, papal authority, the Catholic sacraments, scholastic philosophy, the celibacy of priests, and the cult of the saints, especially the role of the Virgin Mary as an intercessor with Christ in heaven. Luther departed from the medieval tradition of meditative, mystical faith to pursue a bold approach toward God. He shocked his contemporaries, both Catholic and reformist, with his frank views on sexuality, arguing that the pleasures of the flesh should be enjoyed (within certain limits) because all human actions are inherently sinful anyway.

In the early years of his theological campaign, Luther fully expected to be burned at the stake. He actually welcomed this grisly prospect, but as his support grew and martyrdom became less of a possibility, he became more haughty. He insisted that he alone could point out the true path to reforming the Catholic Church. I find this attitude contradictory, since Luther preached “the priesthood of all believers,” arguing that Christians could and should read the Bible for themselves. In another contradiction, he affixed his own interpretations to the beginning of each book in his monumental German translation of the Bible, although he repeatedly claimed that the Bible was simple to interpret.

Luther was a tech-savvy guy, taking full advantage of the new technology of printing to spread his voluminous writings across Germany and beyond. Consciously or not, he also exploited the nascent capitalism in the many German principalities of the sixteenth century by attacking the Catholic Church for its financial dealings and accrual of wealth. At least partially for this reason, he gained the protection of three successive Electors (princes) of his native Saxony, a large area in the east of Germany. Luther sided with the German princes against the farmers who rose up in protest over economic conditions in the Peasants’ War of 1524-25. He directed his followers to submit to the civil authorities who were placed over them by God. As Roper puts it, he created the “theological underpinnings of the accommodation many Lutherans would reach centuries later with the Nazi regime.” (311)

That brings us to Luther’s anti-Semitism, which was venomous. Luther believed that Christians were the “chosen people” of God and that Jews should no longer make that claim for themselves. With vile slanders and calls for destruction of Jewish properties, he went far beyond the standard anti-Semitic attacks of medieval theologians and poets.

Without passing judgement, Roper shows her readers repeatedly that Luther was an arrogant and unpleasant man who used the most foul scatological and sexual expletives and analogies in attacking his theological enemies. We’re not talking about an occasional outburst but rather Luther’s standard mode of operation, documented in thousands of his letters, sermons, pamphlets, and treatises. He did have some stalwart friends, like the mild-mannered Philipp Melanchthon, but he made lots of enemies. That’s how Luther rolled. Because Luther would never budge in his theological views, he refused to compromise or collaborate with most other Reformation theologians. This stance caused splits within the reformist camp and led to the multiplicity of Protestant denominations that still persist.

Still, Roper argues in her conclusion that Luther’s very intransigence and courage were necessary characteristics for someone taking on the enormously powerful Catholic Church. Luther was also extremely hard working and talented as a linguist. Intellectually, Luther was always able to “cut to the heart of an issue.” (411).

In tackling her subject, Roper wisely sets limits: “This book is not a general history of the Reformation, or even of the Reformation in Wittenberg; still less can it provide an overall interpretation of what became Lutheranism.” (xxviii) Instead, she says, “I want to understand Luther himself. . . . I want to explore his inner landscapes so as to better understand his ideas about flesh and spirit, formed in a time before our modern separation of mind and body.” (xxvii) Although I accept that Roper is concentrating on the mind of Luther, I was disappointed that Luther’s hymnody merits only one paragraph (403) and that his wife, the ex-nun Katharina von Bora, and his six children receive only passing mentions. A chronological chart would also have been helpful. In addition, I found Roper’s concluding sections on the influence of Luther particularly weak. These are small complaints about an excellent book.

Roper’s biography of Luther is overwhelming in its detail but fascinating for an ex-Lutheran like me. I kept plowing through it, seeing slices of my own twentieth-century religious training, even in some of the sixteenth-century anti-Catholic cartoons that Roper reproduces. In my Lutheran confirmation class, the seamier side of Luther’s polemical writing was, obviously, never presented. But every year on October 31 we celebrated Reformation Day, singing Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Luther went to war with the Catholic Church, and he saw God as the fortress that protected him in the battle.

 

 

 

 

Happiness in Denmark

The Little Book of Hygge:  Danish Secrets to Happy Living     Meik Wiking     (2017)

Unless you’ve been trekking in the Himalayas for several months, you’ve probably heard about “hygge,” the Danish approach to living that at least partially explains why Danes emerge in almost every international survey as the happiest people on the planet.

According to author Meik Wiking, hygge is pronounced something like “hoo-ga,” though Danish speakers I’ve consulted say it’s more like “HUE-guh.” As for a translation, well, Wiking admits that’s also difficult:  “Hygge has been called everything from ‘the art of creating intimacy,’ ‘coziness of the soul,’ and ‘the absence of annoyance,’ to ‘taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things,’ ‘cozy togetherness,’ and my personal favorite, ‘cocoa by candlelight.’” Wiking credits the development of hygge mainly to the Danish climate. Copenhagen is at about 56 degrees N latitude, which is like being in Hudson Bay in Canada, where there’s minimal sunlight for half of the year. And with Denmark’s location on the North Sea, the inhabitants have to deal with harsh winds and frequent cold rain.

To survive in this climate, Danes have developed ways to make themselves comfortable, especially in winter. Wiking includes chapters on hygge as it relates to light, to food and drink, to clothing, and to friendship. To promote hygge in your home, Wiking recommends that you have candles, a nook to snuggle up in, a fireplace, objects made of wood, sheepskins, vintage objects, books to read, Danish ceramics, and blankets. The candle part is especially important. Surveys have shown that Danes light a lot of candles and are very fond of the dim, flickering glow that candles create.

Physical environment aside, togetherness with friends and family is essential to hygge. You can snuggle up by the fireplace alone for your hygge fix, but sharing your sheepskin is even better. Wiking explains that Danes think workaholics are crazy. They eschew overtime, preferring to leave the office or factory promptly, in order to light candles with their besties.

According to Wiking, you can achieve hygge in the summer, with picnics, barbecues, and biking. But the all-around best time of the year for hygge is the Christmas season, over which the Danes apparently go nuts. They have a special word for Christmastide hygge, “julehygge,” which has distinctive traditions. Wiking includes a recipe for aebleskiver, a treat that’s like a cross between a pancake and a doughnut, and detailed directions for crafting the woven paper hearts with which Danes decorate their Christmas trees.

Since Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, his Little Book ventures beyond an exploration of hygge to a broader analysis of why the people of Denmark are so darn happy. Danes enjoy universal free health care, free education through college, and generous unemployment benefits. Although they pay high taxes, they don’t seem to mind this, since the services they receive greatly reduce the stresses of life. They don’t have to worry about paying off crippling student loans or about going bankrupt because of medical bills. Other Nordic countries—Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland—have similar services and also high levels of happiness, but Wiking argues that the practice of hygge boosts the happiness in Denmark to the top. 

The Little Book of Hygge is profusely illustrated with muted graphics in a rustic Scandinavian style that I liked. (Sadly, the illustrator is not credited.) This is a lightweight, fun book that you can buzz through in an hour or so. You may find some ideas for bringing more happiness into your life. Or at least you can learn how to make woven paper hearts.

Women of the American Century

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth        Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer     (2015)

In 2014, I watched all fourteen episodes of Ken Burns’s PBS series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which focused on the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt. I learned a great deal about the history of the United States, including the background to such significant events as the building of the Panama Canal, the establishment of the National Parks, the passage of New Deal legislation, and the American involvement in World War II. But even more captivating was the insight into the personal lives of these three towering public figures.

More family secrets are revealed in Hissing Cousins, a dual biography of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980). Alice, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt (TR), lived in the White House in her youth (1901-1909) and became the celebrated “Princess Alice.” Eleanor was TR’s niece, who married her distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and herself moved into the White House as First Lady during his presidency (1933-1945).

Although Alice and Eleanor played together as children and saw each other socially throughout their lives, they differed radically in their political beliefs and in their personalities. Alice was a Republican, flamboyant, sharp-tongued, and dedicated to influencing the course of history through back-door methods. Eleanor was a Democrat, introverted and slower to speak, but she was a reliable sounding board for FDR on many issues, and she found a strong public voice in advocating for civil rights nationally and human rights internationally.

Quoting letters, diaries, and other biographies, authors Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer have put together a highly readable story of the two women, who were constantly in the media limelight. I knew quite a bit about Eleanor’s life, but I had not heard of Alice, who was a superstar of the tabloids and newsreels throughout much of her long life. Hissing Cousins cleverly interweaves the stories of two women who helped shape American politics and policies in the first half of the twentieth century, albeit with vastly differing approaches.

Alice and Eleanor both endured tremendous sadness in their family lives. Alice’s mother died shortly after giving birth to her. Both of Eleanor’s parents died when she was a child—her father as a result of alcoholism. Alcoholism afflicted many members of both families, and battlefield deaths in both World War I and World War II took the lives of brothers and cousins. Both Alice and Eleanor had philandering husbands.

Peyser and Dwyer tell their story in lively style, though they veer into cattiness occasionally. For example, in describing the difficult life of Alice’s brother Kermit, they write, “By the late 1930s, Kermit’s shipping business, his marriage, and even his morning meals were on the rocks.” When Alice’s step-mother died in 1948, they write that “the loss of the only mother she had ever known was real, even for a woman who believed that mourning was about as useful as voting for a Democrat.” Such comments do perk up the text—and are in keeping with Alice’s often cutting comments in her letters, newspaper columns, and autobiography—but they’re still in bad taste.

That small quibble aside, Hissing Cousins is a good addition to the history of the American Century. The authors try not to take sides or to pit the two women against each other, though I do sense some bias of affection toward Eleanor. Alice and Eleanor are presented as flawed but brilliant women who made their marks in the halls of power.  

 

 

PD James & Mysteries

Talking About Detective Fiction     PD James      (2009)

PD James, the esteemed British author of detective fiction, put together this slender nonfiction book in 2009, a few years before her death in 2014.

In it, she sweeps through the history of the genre, going back as far as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859); taking her time with Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930); explaining the Golden Age of detective fiction in the period between the two world wars; and devoting a long chapter to four women writers of the twentieth century (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh). James then dissects the writing process for detective fiction, examining settings, viewpoints, characters, and plots.

At the outset, she spends some time defining her subject:

“The detective story . . . is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organized structure and recognized conventions . . . There must be a central mystery, and one that by the end of the book is solved satisfactorily and logically, not by good luck or intuition, but by intelligent deduction from clues honestly if deceptively presented.” (9-10)

James does touch on related fiction, including thrillers, but her emphasis is on the classic works of detective fiction. She knows this subject intimately, having produced fourteen books in the Adam Dalgliesh series, two books in the Cordelia Gray series, and several standalone novels.

How does an author write a detective novel that becomes a classic? James thinks it’s primarily by creating a vivid and distinctive world that the reader can enter. Here she  comments on what are called “cozy” mysteries, set in an English village:

“Detective novelists have always been fond of setting their stories in a closed society, and this has a number of obvious advantages . . . An English village is itself a closed society, and one which, whether we live in a village or not, retains a powerful hold on our imagination, an image compounded of nostalgia for a life once experienced or imagined and a vague unfocused longing to escape the city for a simpler, less frenetic and more peaceful life.” (135-136)

I was pleased that, more than once in this book, James mentions what she calls “the fair-play rule.” This is the convention of detective fiction that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows. For example, the author cannot have the detective step aside and speak privately with another character in a dialogue that is not revealed to the reader. Authors break the fair-play rule more often than you’d expect, and I growl whenever I see this transgression in a mystery that I’m reading.

Talking About Detective Fiction reads like you’re having a conversation with PD James, but you have the advantage of being able to flip to a discussion of a favorite author—for me, the section on Dorothy L Sayers. James presents the views of Sayers’s admirers and detractors, but she respects Sayers’s Gaudy Night as “one of the most successful marriages of the puzzle with the novel of social realism and serious purpose.” (112)

I was also eager to read James’s analysis of historical detective fiction. She finds this subgenre especially difficult for the writer, since the setting must be so carefully researched. She mentions among the successful authors of historical fiction Anne Perry and Peter Lovesey (Victorian England), Ellis Peters (medieval England), Lindsey Davis (ancient Rome), and CJ Sansom (Tudor England). Although I call the subgenre “historical mysteries,” I agree with her picks.

I wished for an index to Talking About Detective Fiction, but at least it does have descriptive chapter titles. Lovers of mysteries, especially classic British mysteries, will enjoy it.

Biographies of the Inklings

The Fellowship:  The Literary Lives of the Inklings     Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski     (2015)

Confession:  I find JRR Tolkien’s mythopoeic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings too dark. CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which have enchanted generations of children, hammer the Christian allegory too hard for my taste. Charles Williams’ Arthurian poems in Taliessin Through Logres are impenetrable. As for Owen Barfield, I’d heard of him only vaguely as an odd writer on anthroposophy, of which I’m not a devotee.

So why did I check out from the library a 644-page biography of these four authors?  Because Lewis’s scholarly book The Allegory of Love had enormous influence on me when I was a student of medieval literature. Lewis validated the Middle Ages as producing serious literary works, not just pieces of antiquarian interest—if you were willing to learn its tenets and culture. And my copy of Tolkien’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, my favorite Middle English work, has been thumbed so often that it’s falling apart. His glossary for that text, and for Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, were indispensable when I worked as a lexicographer with the Middle English Dictionary.

I thought that I might skim the Zaleskis’ book The Fellowship for bits on the relation of Lewis and Tolkien and on the context of their era at Oxford. I ended up gobbling the story of the Inklings whole, fascinated by the Zaleskis’ ability to selectively include minute detail and still maintain readability for chapter after chapter, decade after decade of the tumultuous twentieth century. The Fellowship follows the Inklings before, during, and after two world wars and innumerable academic skirmishes. The dates of the four principal Inklings reveal the scope: Lewis (1898-1963), Tolkien (1892-1973), Williams (1886-1945), and Barfield (1898-1997).

The bulk of the biography is dedicated to these four Inklings, whom the Zaleskis have wisely selected for their literary prominence. I was bemused at first about the inclusion of Barfield, since he didn’t seem to write much in the 1930s and 1940s, when the other Inklings were prolific. It turns out that, to make a living, Barfield had to spend decades toiling as a lawyer, finding little time for his own pursuits. Finally, in 1957, he was able to move into semi-retirement and spend the rest of his very long life probing issues of consciousness.

The Zaleskis had to draw a circle around the core of the Inklings, who held weekly discussions for thirty years, but other members and hangers-on enter into the narrative, too. I hadn’t expected that Lewis’s older brother Warren, called “Warnie,” would be a part of the extended group. Warnie, who struggled with alcoholism throughout his life (1895-1973), was a respected historian in his own right and assisted his brother on both practical and intellectual fronts.

Even Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) comes in for several mentions, although as a female she would not have been invited to join the Inklings. Sayers, who’s a favorite of mine, produced both scholarly works on Dante and popular murder mysteries (the Lord Peter Wimsey series).

Neville Coghill (1899-1980) and JAW Bennett (1911-1981) were other distinguished medievalists associated with the Inklings at one time or another. In fact, a fascination with the medieval period was a hallmark of much of the writing of the Inklings. As the Zaleskis tell us, “Their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, to reenchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty.” The fields they plowed were fantasy and epic, allegory and myth, philology and theology—all rooted in the past. In 1954 Lewis gave a controversial lecture at Cambridge called “De Descriptione Temporum” (“On the Description of Eras”), in which he argued that the divisions of history into Antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Middles Ages, and the Renaissance are artificial, ignoring the continuities of Western culture. Lewis saw a much more significant break from this culture, which he revered, in the early nineteenth century, with the beginnings of modernism.

Lewis was much sought after as a speaker on ethics who was able to convey complex philosophical principles and Christian religious doctrines in simple language. I hadn’t known that he presented many well-received lecture series on the radio for the BBC, especially during World War II. The account of Tolkien’s literary life also held some surprises for me. He didn’t create Middle Earth solely as a parallel universe in which to situate his non-human characters. His larger goal was to construct an entire British mythology, comparable to that found in medieval Scandinavian literatures.

The Inklings were astonishingly hard-working and well-read, fluent in dozens of ancient, medieval, and modern languages. Yet they all had unsuccessful books, difficulties in their family lives, and crises of faith. This biography doesn’t spare the reader their blunders, their arguments, and their occasional pigheadedness. So, while fans of The Hobbit or of Perelandra will find plenty of background on the genesis of the Inklings’ writings, they’ll also find the brilliant—and flawed—Inklings in The Fellowship

Farmstead Economics

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War    

Robert J Gordon     (2016)

Why in the world would I review a data-packed economics textbook on this blog? Hang with me for a paragraph of background.

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My paternal grandparents, born in the 1890s, raised their seven children on a farm in northwestern Ohio. When I visited them as a child in the late 1950s, we usually sat talking in the kitchen, where Grandma cooked, winter and summer, on a huge cast-iron wood-fired stove. In a lean-to shed attached to the kitchen was a heavy-handled pump that provided all the water in the house. The toilet facility was an outdoor privy that terrified me, but at least I didn’t have to traipse down the path at night. Grandma provided a chamber pot under each bed. There was a wall-mounted party-line telephone and electric lighting on the main floor. I was a city-slicker kid who assumed that most rural Americans at that time lacked indoor plumbing, central heat, and modern appliances.

When I first dipped into Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth, I was startled to find that my grandparents were outliers. By the late 1950s, fully 90% of all American households had running water and an indoor flush toilet. About 75% had a washing machine, and about 65% had central heat. Virtually all the houses lacking these conveniences were in the rural South. That Ohio farmhouse was at least twenty years out of sync with the rest of the nation. The only reason it even had electricity was the Rural Electrification Service of the New Deal. Well, now I had to read Gordon’s whole 762-page book.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth is a fascinating sociological and technological history of the United States over the past 145 years. Gordon’s central thesis is that the pace of improvements in the US standard of living between 1870 and 2015 had never before been witnessed in the history of the world and will never be seen again. He constructs his argument meticulously, teasing out the intricate details for what constitutes “the standard of living.” Some obvious components are food, clothing, housing, transportation, health care, and communication. But some didn’t immediately come to my mind: entertainment, workplace safety, and the availability of consumer credit and insurance.

In the first half of the book, Gordon traces the specifics of technological inventions in the US in the period 1870 to 1940. Revolutionary changes in individual lifestyle resulted from such innovations as electric lighting, urban sanitation, the telephone, and the internal combustion engine. Even the humble Mason jar (invented in 1859) was a huge advance, allowing women to preserve vegetables and fruits in the summer for consumption in the winter.

Gordon plays out the results of these developments with masses of statistics, demonstrating exactly how specific inventions changed everyday existence for hundreds of millions of ordinary people. For example, before the arrival of the infrastructure for running water, the typical adult female had to hand carry more than 36 tons of water in and out of her house over the course of a year, walking about 148 miles for this task alone. I didn’t know that before legislation in the early 1900s, almost all food consumed in American cities was adulterated, contaminated, or spoiled. Farmers had it slightly better because they grew their own food, but with backbreaking toil. Life in 1870 was brutal. Most Americans survived on fatty salt pork and cornmeal, and they died at an average age of 45.  

In the second half of the book, Gordon moves ahead to the period 1940 to 2015. He argues that the improvement in the standard of living in this period was partly due to policies of the New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s and partly due to the successful push for high factory productivity to meet the needs of World War II (1941-1945). Gordon has his own complex recalculations of the Gross Domestic Product, by which he shows that productivity growth slowed dramatically after 1970. A brief revival between 1996 and 2005 was probably due to the invention of the web, of search engines, and of e-commerce.

Stepping back for a broader view, Industrial Revolution #1 (1750-1870) is the generally accepted one, which produced such innovations as railroads. Industrial Revolution #2 (1870 to 1970) saw spectacular improvement in the US standard of living and in life expectancy. Industrial Revolution #3, the digital revolution, had its main spurt just in the years 1996-2004 and had much less effect on overall economic productivity growth. Some economists cite Moore’s Law, which states that that the power of computer chips will double every two years, to argue that the digital revolution will continue. But Gordon concludes that Moore’s Law has died out since 2006, since the expense to improve computer chips further isn’t justified.

The major factors that Gordon sees as militating against more growth in the US standard of living in the years ahead include rising income inequality, decreasing educational achievement, rising student college debt, the aging of the population, and growing debt at all levels of government. At the end of the book, he has some brief recommendations for policy directions that could improve productivity growth:

  • More progressive taxes
  • A higher minimum wage
  • Expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Preschool education
  • Better public school funding
  • Income-contingent college loans
  • Selective reform of business regulations
  • Increased openness to skilled immigrants
  • Reform of the tax system

A key assertion of The Rise and Fall of American Growth is that Americans must not expect a continuation of improvement in our standard of living at the rate that occurred between 1870 and 2015, and certainly not at the phenomenal rate that occurred between 1920 and 1970. The inventions that spurred development in the US were one-time deals. Yes, there can be further enhancements to the technology already in place. Inventors can (and have) come up with more efficient light bulbs. But there cannot be another invention of electric lighting. Washing machines have become more energy efficient and have larger capacity and fancy electronic controls. But the basic washing machine concept has already permeated the United States. This is about all we’re going to get, folks, unless you want to place bets on Artificial Intelligence, which Gordon does not.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth is at once uplifting and sobering. Most Americans born in the first half of the twentieth century witnessed unprecedented improvement in their standard of living over the course of their lives. But Gordon is not sanguine about the future. It seems highly unlikely that, as a society, we’ll implement the policy changes needed to sustain growth and avoid stagnation.

There’s a lot of repetition in this book, as Gordon hammers his thesis home. So, unless you’re a data nerd, I suggest that you read it selectively:

  • Read the introduction to the book to get an overview
  • Pick the chapters that interest you—food/clothing, transportation, health care, whatever. Read these chapters in detail and enjoy all the startling nuggets of technological information.
  • Skip all the chapter introductions but skim the chapter conclusions.
  • Read Chapter 18, “Inequality and the Other Headwinds: Long-Run American Economic Growth Slows to a Crawl.”
  • Read the Postscript, “America’s Growth Achievement and the Path Ahead.”

As I plowed through The Rise and Fall of American Growth, I kept trying to figure out why my grandparents’ farmhouse was still so primitive in 1960. Was the soil on their farm inferior? No, it was rich flatland. Were they buffeted by extreme weather? No, Ohio has a more temperate climate than that on the Great Plains. Were these ancestors of mine lazy or stupid? No, they were a hardworking, successful farming family that valued education.

I think that my grandparents, having survived the Great Depression and two world wars, were frugal people. Instead of upgrading their home, they chose to put their resources into farm machinery with internal combustion engines. One result was that the six sons in the family all became mechanical wizards, and three of them made their adult careers in engineering. The lack of household amenities certainly loaded more domestic burdens onto my grandmother and her one daughter. But there were other investments. That farmhouse with no indoor toilet boasted a magnificent piano, a foot-pump organ, and several smaller musical instruments, including my Dad’s trumpet. Grandma’s piano sits in my own living room today. And as a child visiting their farmstead, I got a glimpse into a much earlier era of American history.