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Archive for September, 2008

As I explained in my earlier post, it’s not back to school time in the bookconscious household, but we are learning all the time. In fact, witnessing and supporting my children’s autonomous educations has reawakened the life learner in me, and helped both Steve and I recall that magical feeling of discovery we all felt in childhood when we learned something we really wanted to know, something interesting, maybe even mind boggling.

My own mind has been boggled as I have studied the issues surrounding a book I’ve blogged about before, because after months of planning, we kicked off Concord Reads 2008 with a book talk Monday night at the library, where we discussed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I am leading the brown bag book discussion of the same title at the library on Thursday, and I plan to play the devil’s advocate and challenge readers to discuss whether Kingsolver’s activist viewpoint causes her to oversimplify the “locavore” argument about food’s carbon footprint. And, whether the surging local food movement is really making a positive environmental impact. As a scientist (Kingsolver studied biology) shouldn’t she have made the scientific data on food miles clearer?

I have no doubt about her other arguments: that supporting local farmers and food producers builds community, helps consumers to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced, improves food security, increases nutrition (less travel and storage time means less deterioration), is healthier for farm workers (big agriculture isn’t known for its good working conditions), and even tastes better — anyone who has had just picked tomatoes from a garden or farm stand knows that. I think being informed is always better than the alternative, and knowing more about how food is raised might protect consumers from food borne illness, exposure to pesticides, or even just loss of knowledge about food traditions and regional growing seasons.

After all, when modern systems break down, as in World Made By Hand, having friends with dairy cows and chickens or knowing when to plant beans and whether your local climate is more favorable for corn or wheat may be essential to our survival! But I think in her sincere concern for the environment, Kingsolver does readers a disservice by glossing over the complexity of weighing the environmental cost of food choices. As I reread parts of the book to prepare for the discussion, I found the tone less nurturing and more didactic than I remembered.

Sure, Kingsolver says it’s ok to make exceptions and choose a few foods you can’t live without. But it had better not be bananas, which she writes about quite firmly as a bad food choice, environmentally speaking. Readers get the impression it is somehow virtuous to give up bananas. But as local writer Hillary Nelson, a panelist at an upcoming Concord Reads event, points out, not all bananas are bad for the earth, and there are even more complex ethical concerns involved. Like nearly everything else in our complicated world, measuring the environmental impact of food isn’t simple and may not be a matter of clear choices, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle occasionally strays a little too much into a black and white tone on a technicolor issue.

It’s an intriguing problem, because although Kingsolver by no means started the local food movement, she has given it enormous publicity, and like any movement, some people are jumping on the bandwagon without considering all the angles. The Greatest Story Ever Sold focuses on political journalism, but the behemoth media system that provides Americans with information manages to consume all kinds of stories, including environmental news, and spit them back out at us as dumbed down soundbites. Most of what I’ve read about local eating in the past few months has been that kind of simplified summary, cheering for a wholesome trend. But not all.

As bookconscious fans may remember, not long after I finished the book last summer, I read a New York Times op-ed challenging some of Kingsolver’s assertions about the environmental impact of local eating. Some recent scientific studies have confirmed what Frances Moore Lappe wrote almost 40 years ago in Diet for a Small Planet: meat consumption has a far worse impact on the environment, health, and world hunger than any other food choice. Articles in Salon, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Environmental Science and Technology and its accompanying website are delving into the issue of food miles. I’m heartened that the broader picture is available and that some retailers are actually responding to consumer demand and trying to make information available so buyers can make more informed choices.

Nelson, in her column on bananas, also brings up social and ethical questions, and some readers raised similar concerns last night at the book discussion. Is this a movement that leaves out the poor? Is the environmental impact of locavores traipsing around the countryside in their cars individually tracking down fresh produce worse than that of produce trucked to a central distribution point? Do we have an ethical responsibility to support developing world farmers who feed our year-round fruit cravings? Is fair trade food shipped from far away less harmful to the planet than greenhouse grown equivalents grown nearby or food harvested across the country by migrant farmworkers who aren’t paid a living wage?

Will the energy behind the local food movement make a difference as it is channeled towards lobbying industrial agriculture to take steps to be more environmentally and socially caring? Can we even do that, or is a profit based food system beyond caring? Do we really have accurate ways to figure out the carbon footprints of our choices? Should we even be wasting our time on all of these small things when no less a source than Al Gore tells us it’s way past time for individual action, we need massive, government level changes if we want to reverse the impact of greenhouse gas emissions?

Despite my quibbles, I still felt upon rereading it that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a good read and an important book. Kingsolver is a great storyteller, and her writing is excellent. She has certainly caused more people to think about food and where it comes from. I appreciate the way she exposes government involvement in the industrialization of agriculture and food production and the subsidizing of high fructose corn syrup — which, despite the claims of an appallingly duplicitous advertising campaign coming to a tv near you is not only almost impossible to avoid (it’s in everything from yogurt to bread to cereal as well as the more obvious things like sweets and sodas) but also nutritionally bankrupt. And she encourages further inquiry, listing resources and suggesting ways to become more immersed in the issues and to make changes or take action.

However, all of this confusion makes me want to seek relief in another novel. The one I’ve started isn’t promising to be much comfort: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. I’m reading it for the Gibson’s book discussion group; I’ve passed on it up to now. It was certainly widely acclaimed, touted as a best book of 2006 by the New York Times, etc. But reading about self-absorbed not very successful thirty somethings in the context of 9/11 may not be what I’m up for at the moment, even though at least one of the characters has me very curious about what he’ll do next. I’m only a few chapters in though, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Besides, it’s bound to be better than campaign sound bites.

However, I’m also keeping two nonfiction books close at hand to peruse when both the fictional world and the real one overwhelm. Perhaps I was moved by the stories of strong women in history my daughter and I listened to in the car last week, because both are about women who are “firsts” in their field. Annie Griffiths Belt, (who it turns out is a friend of Barbara Kingsolver and also uses her photography to promote the work of Habitat for Humanity, where Steve worked for five years, providing this month’s moment of bookconscious interconnectedness) one of the first female photographers at National Geographic, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (or any other church in the Anglican Communion), have both written inspiring books.

A Camera, Two Kids, and A Camel is Belt’s photo memoir, describing her life and work and in particular her travel with her kids, who she brought along on assignment all over the world when they were growing up. Besides the gorgeous photos that, like National Geographic, illuminate cultures and places in ways mere words cannot, Belt’s story is interesting and entertaining. She showed her children the good in the world, and shares that with us in her book.

A Wing and a Prayer: Messages of Faith and Hope is the Presiding Bishop’s collection of homilies, released in part to introduce her to the world after her election. It’s not really about her, though you get some glimpses of her life (she is a pilot and was an oceanographer before she became a priest). Instead this collection is just what the subtitle says — encouragement and reassurance that love, understanding, justice, and faith do have a place in the world if we let them into our lives. Schori is coming to the Diocese of NH in a few weeks, and I hope to hear her in person.

These last two books remind me that come what may, people will generally work to be their best selves when given the chance. All of the books I’ve read lately touch on that idea of our basic humanity seeking the humanity in others, however messy that process may be. People go on caring about each other, seeking relationships, expressing themselves, trying to make the world better for their kids, and always, always, finding ways to tell their stories. For that, I am grateful.

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Sweatshirt weather, soccer season, maples beginning to blush, and my daughter’s lone pumpkin turning orange in the garden. It’s September, and this year marks the 11th anniversary of our decision not to send our first child to kindergarten, but instead to begin our life learning adventures.

One reason we chose this educational alternative is that we wanted our kids to see learning as a seamless part of their existence, not a thing you do in a certain building, during scheduled hours, on particular calendar days. Even though we learn all the time, I do enjoy the feeling of starting fresh in the fall. Along with apple picking, soup making, and jumping up and down to stay warm on the sidelines, I associate autumn with newly sharpened pencils, clean notebooks ready to fill with ideas, and of course, new books.

We plan our kids’ educational endeavors together with them, and they both take advantage of having a book nut for a mother by asking for my help in selecting titles. My daughter and I stopped by both the library and a used bookstore to restock her reading shelves recently. She selected the Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy, about a girl’s misadventures at witches’ school; Half Magic by Edward Eager, and Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton at the bookstore.

I loved these last two myself, and read Half Magic aloud to the children several years ago — so long ago that my daughter cannot remember. She also visited her brother’s bookshelves and chose Hatching Magic by Ann Downer. We call his room the monk cell because he keeps very little stuff, so those books he has saved must have been good.

While fantasy is her fiction genre of choice right now, my daughter also checked out several books about Alaska at the library, because one of her plans for fall is to learn about as many states as possible. She decided to start a “states notebook” in which she plans to jot down interesting people, animals, foods, etc. from each place she learns about. I am hoping she decides to cook the interesting foods for us. Her choice was entirely non-political, by the way. She picked Alaska as a starting point because of the unique wildlife found there.

I am also reading aloud All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot. I’ve always liked his books myself, and although the kids aren’t too sure they still want a read aloud, I thought I’d give it a try. They both laughed as I read the first two chapters, so I think we’ll keep it up for now. As we drive to my son’s away soccer games and her many living history and art classes, my daughter and I have been listening to books checked out on our library’s website via NH Downloadable Audio Books. We finished a book about women’s history last week and started a book about artists today. Both are from Kathleen Krull’s “Lives of” series.

As we discussed his fall plans, my son told me that he finds Renaissance history interesting, especially the story of scientific discoveries of the time. I went to the bookshelves and pulled down a book that was my grandmother’s, William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire. He started that last week and pronounced it interesting. When he’s finished, he wants to read more about Galileo. He also started the fantasy series Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, because he asked for a book like Lord of the Rings. This is mostly to tide him over until Brisingr comes out on in a couple of weeks.

Steve, who suggested the Brooks trilogy because he enjoyed them when he was in high school, has been reading war stories. Before our August vacation, he read Band of Brothers, a library book sale find. He decided he was unimpressed given all the hype. During our trip, he found another Ambrose book, Citizen Soldiers, in a used book store and says it is much better than Band of Brothers.

Like Band, Citizen is about WWII, but the focus is broader, with anecdotes from those serving in many units all over Europe. He also recently took Generation Kill out of the library, which is a book by journalist Evan Wright, who was embedded with one of the Marine Corps units that led the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As some of you know, Steve was a Marine Corps artillery officer in what our children refer to as “the old guy war with Iraq,” more widely known as the Persian Gulf War. He says Generation Kill is a very accurate portrayal of Marines.

If you want to know more about how our country was led into the current war in Iraq, as well as what exactly was going on in the government and the media after 9/11 and during the Katrina aftermath, Steve also recommends The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by Frank Rich, which a co-worker lent him in audiobook form. We listened to the beginning of it together while driving back from my cousin’s wedding a few weeks ago, and it was depressing. He says it hasn’t gotten any more uplifting but is very well written and eye opening.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, as well as The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, by Stephen Koch. I’ve had this book for awhile, picking it up after my first try at National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) a few Novembers ago, and revisited it after reading a review of a more recent book on the same topic. It’s an enjoyable, illuminating book about good writing and the writing life, and I am finding it helpful, even though I am not currently writing fiction.

In my last post, I mentioned starting to read World Made By Hand by James Howard Kuntsler, which I finished on vacation. This was my favorite summer read — a fun, thought provoking book, creative and fresh. It’s one of those novels that makes you stop and think about a particular scene or two long after you’ve finished. I’ve been dwelling on Kuntsler’s imagined future, and wondering how we’d fare in it, personally and collectively.

How would we provide for ourselves if the infrastructure we all rely on — for distribution of goods and services, utilities, even basic law and order — broke down? What if everyone had to be self reliant, and rebuild community systems for helping each other, without any of the modern communication tools or amenities we are used to? Listening to Frank Rich’s book so soon after finishing this novel certainly influenced how I viewed it. The idea of our society imploding after a natural disaster, epidemic, or terrorist attack isn’t as far fetched as it might sound. A colossal failure of leadership could be the catalyst, and we are experiencing climate change we don’t really know how to handle, and probably won’t respond to quickly.

Growing my own large garden this summer for the first time with decidedly mixed results gave me pause — my family would be pretty hungry and probably malnourished if we had to provide for ourselves. Fortunately, though, we have a lot of books (including one on homesteading, which we picked up when we once considered buying some land) for when the power grid fails and there is no television or computers to entertain anyone. I practiced being partially unplugged on vacation (no computers, anyway), and found lots of time to read.

We were in Maine, so I read some of the short stories of Sara Orne Jewett, which I enjoyed for their quiet atmosphere and rich portraits of people and society. Jewett deserves to be as widely read as other writers of her time; through her fiction, she comments on society, culture, and human nature as well as Henry James or Edith Wharton, and I find her writing strong, evocative, and beautiful.

I also read Monica Wood’s linked story collection, Ernie’s Ark, set in contemporary Maine in a town where the paper mill workers go on strike. I was completely drawn in and read the book in a couple of days. The characters were real and interesting, the emotions felt true, and Wood’s writing neither left things out nor over-worked her stories. Several of the stories were just plain lovely. The cohesion of the collection made it read like a novel.

I enjoyed it so much I came home and found another of Wood’s books at the library, Any Bitter Thing. This novel had a plot I found hard to accept, and yet I still enjoyed the book. I can see why it’s been popular with book clubs, because Wood opens the door to many interesting discussions about the Catholic church, the priest sexual abuse scandal, and the perceptions of truth in a small town, where gossip becomes reality for many people. Wood is a compelling writer and seems very comfortable addressing the uncomfortable ways we humans tread on each other’s emotions. Somehow she manages to leave readers feeling hopeful despite the honest portrayals of human nature.

Two other novels I read recently both had implausible plots — one that just never took off for me, and one that I enjoyed despite the wild ride. Plausibility isn’t necessary to my enjoyment of a book — after all, World Made By Hand seems utterly unreal at first, and is placed in a future time I had never imagined, and I loved it — but a lack of it can add to the disjointedness if it’s not a great read.

The Secret of Lost Things, by Sheridan Hay, I finished but didn’t really like. I gave it two stars on Goodreads, which means “it was ok.” I had a hard time deciding when the story was supposed to be taking place — maybe in the 80’s? The 90’s? It didn’t feel really contemporary, and some of the characters felt very out of place. Perhaps that was the point — the characters are a strange group — but I always felt I was missing something. The story revolves around a used bookshop in New York and a possible lost Melville manuscript, but I had a hard time caring about the main character, and I never felt the sense of urgency a good mystery creates.

Tod Wodicka’s All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well: A Novel had a somewhat improbable plot but was essentially a book about a man who feels as if he doesn’t belong in the modern world, and I could empathize with him and his family and see how the wild events in the book might unfold. Take away the renaissance reenactment and you still have a story about family, about people trying to live with emotional discomfort, and about the breaking point in relationships.

Wodicka’s writing also struck me as absolutely perfect for the novel — his tone and style added cohesion to the story and characters. In fact, I guess fans of tell-all talk shows where dysfunctional families bare their secrets might not even find the plot too crazy. Plus, I learned some things and felt curious about others, and I always admire a book that urges me to look something up or read something else, because whether it’s not back to school time or any other time, I am as much a life learner as my kids. More on that in part II.

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