Further Musings

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French Kids Eat Everything

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French-Food-Rules1This week I blazed through French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon.   She and her husband move their two young kids to rural Brittany and enroll them in the local elementary school and preschool.

The book is about the culture shock they encounter while their kids eat at French schools and with their French relatives when it comes to food.

Three course preschool lunches might sound ideal to me but to their young daughter not having a choice about what to eat and having no snacks was a shock.  As their year passes Le Billion gradually sees the wisdom of the French way and everyone adjusts.  In the process she encapsulates French food culture into 10 rules.

Overall I liked the wisdom of the book quite a bit.  These rules seem practical and healthful and are dosed out with a lot of charm and honesty about how this was not an easy process for a family with one girl who only ate white pasta with parmesan and a mother whose parenting shaped this eating.

I like that our kids would eat what I eat.  I love the idea that they only eat four times a day with no snacking (which is our current schedule).  I like the idea that I can gift my kids with the ability to enjoy amazing variety of food we’ve been gifted with.  I love the idea that my kids could be table company rather than table nuisances.

However I’m still smarting and discouraged from the last chapter where the family moves back to Vancouver.  There they encounter a culture of peers that are served junk food constantly.  When Le Billon serves up a homemade apple tart her daughters friends ask for Oreos.  When her daughter goes back to preschool she’s forced to wolf down her lunch in 10 minutes (literally), undermining their efforts to have the girls enjoy their food.  Rather than lunch and no snacks, the kids snack 3 times a day in addition to lunch.

Le Billon’s attempts to change the food and service at her daughters’ schools are unsuccessful as the teachers think they shouldn’t be teaching about food.  Nor can the family change the broader culture of the girl’s friends.

This reality struck a cord with me.  How much we are shaped by our culture and how hard it is to reshape culture?  For now I’m in charge of what the kids eat but when they are in school?  When they visit other houses?

Overall the French system of eating seems almost ideal.  But can you only live like this if you live in France?


Written by furthermusings

July 15, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Posted in Reviews

The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead

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coverI haven’t finished a book since February but I’ve finally finished The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray.  Murray is a conservative writer whose keen eye for the social realities of elite institutions and life reminds me a lot of David Brooks.  Even when I don’t agree with him I like the way he makes me think about the world I live in.

The Curmudgeon’s Guide is essentially a series of extended proverbs written by an unashamedly grumpy old white guy.  Over the years his missives went out to his workplace via an internal listserv and now they are collected into a brief book with four sections: workplace presentation; thinking and writing; how to live in your 20s; and what it means to be happy.

The workplace section is probably the most practical of the bunch and reenforces much of what I’ve seen and learned since I graduated from college.  His sage advice about the realities of cursing, dressing sloppily, sending poorly written office emails, sucking up, etc mirror my thoughts when I see these behaviors from students and (occasionally) colleagues.  I don’t say anything but it definitely shapes my opinion about whether or not they are professionals.  Murray is astute and honest enough to name these behaviors and say that these are real barriers to your success.

The writing and thinking section was brilliant, especially being unashamedly judgmental about sloppy writing.  As I’ve worked on a team preparing a report and a presentation over the last two weeks I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve implemented the rules so that the Committee will take us seriously.  I preach to my students constantly that they will be dismissed if they misuse fewer and less or use literally to mean figuratively.   Murray agrees and has lots of specific suggestions.

His last two sections on life advice also seem very wise to me.  Your 20s are a time to explore, form opinions and think about your career.  He tells it like it is with bracing advice like “get real jobs” and “confront your inner hothouse flower” (chortle).   Finally, his reflections on what makes the good life include advice about vocation, marriage and religion that isn’t heard very often in my circles.  Consider marrying in your 20s?  Take religion seriously?  This is good advice and it makes me thankful again for one of my favorite college professors whose mix of life advice and political science shaped who I am today.

The book is a perfect gift for an upperclassman or recent graduate who is either wandering or is dead set on a specific version of success.  I’m considering recommending it to my incoming graduate students as guide to the intangibles that our program won’t teach them as they focus on hard skills and policy thinking in their formal coursework.

Written by furthermusings

June 14, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Posted in On the Job, Reviews

The Casual Vacancy

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the-casual-vacancyI’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be wise.  One method of becoming wise is to listen to those who already are.  In that spirit I read The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling this weekend.  This novel is her first outside of the world of Hogwarts, which I loved for its imagination, wonder, engagement with the wider world, Englishness, and redemptive themes.

In contrast, The Casual Vacancy is a gritty debut.  It grapples with difficult people and gritty themes with none of the glow of Hogwarts.  The story is set in a small English village near a group of council flats (housing projects) which various factions of the village government dislike.  They dislike providing services for people who don’t seem to care and they dislike the grimy, undisciplined, and foul mouthed children going to their schools.

The book opens with the death of Barry, one of the city councilors.  His death causes a “casual vacancy” to occur and from there the story unfolds as residents of the small town debate who will run for his seat and what effect that will have on the town… and the issue of whether or not to keep the council flats in their jurisdiction.

As the plot moves along, a dozen or so central characters, none of which are particularly likable or sympathetic, cycle through the book: teenagers and friendships, adults and marriages.  The marriages and friendships are full of unspoken and unrealized desires, some of which are as innocent as being loved and some of which are as petty as theft, and the characters, more often than not, punish each other for their unfulfilled dreams. The lower class characters punish with fists and vulgar language.  The upper-class does it passive-agressively with snubs and cutting comments.  The story builds, the characters become more complex and interwoven, and then the most desperate desire for the best thing generates the tragic crescendo.

While reading the book I told a friend that I found none of the characters redemptive.  Everyone despises someone else, everyone holds unspoken grudges and politely concealed hates some of which generated by spectacular brokenness and they express these by either the mean, quiet gossip of the educated or the spectacular explosions of the underclass.  By the end several of the characters change and heal a bit, and that helped heal over the gritty raw emotions of the first 400 pages.

But after talking to my friend I realized the book is more redemptive than simply the repentance of the various characters.  There is only one unambiguously likable character in the book, and he dies in the first two pages.  He remains through the rest of the book via the relational holes he leaves.  The council would have been more compassionate.  Gavin would have had a friend to listen to his problems.  Krystal would have known who to run to when the worst things happened.  In that way, the book to quite Christian.  The main character dies at the beginning and for the rest of the time everyone else is learning to live, for good or for ill, in his aftermath.

In the end, Rowling didn’t disappoint with this first novel for adults.  While it’s a vastly different book, and a vastly different read, than any of the Harry Potters I’m thankful I read it.  The characters are richly complex: families, longings, wounds and physical realities.  Her narration of the inner lives of the characters and the relational ecosystem they create is vivid and insightful.  She opens a window up to life in the projects and a mirror to those who can control their tongues, if not their hearts.

Worth reading.  I hope she writes another.

Written by furthermusings

July 8, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Posted in Reviews

Sons of Providence

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Sons of ProvidenceThis afternoon I finished Sons of Providence, the tale of the Brown brothers, Moses and John, for whom the high school I walk by and the university I walk to are named for.  It taught me a lot about Rhode Island’s early history.  I had no idea that the stain of slavery was so deep so far north.

The book is about the history of Rhode Island, the Revolutionary war period, and the slave trade.  The “triangle trade” was a prominent source of Rhode Island’s wealth throughout the 60 years covered in the book.  Rhode Island merchants commissioned voyages in “the Guinea trade” that left the Narragansett Bay with rum bound for Africa, then came to the Caribbean with hulls full of slaves, and finally returned to RI with sugar to make more rum.  This trade started before the war and continued long after slave trading was banned by the Congress.

The Brown brothers serve as a conduit for this story.  Their first slaving venture killed about 100 of the 167 slaves and half of the crew.  It also lost money.  In the wake of this disastrous voyage Moses became a Quaker and eventually authored the first state level laws against slaving and was instrumental in having the Congress outlaw slaving.  John worked just as hard to oppose the laws, and when he failed, to create ways to work around them.

The book also tells the tales of the Brown family’s dominance of Providence politics, deep work in the State legislature, and deep involvement in the Revolution.  John comes out as both a hero who burns a British ship beached in the Bay and a deeply self-interested man who cons the fledgling navy on several occasions, putting purse well above money.

They were complicated men whose complicated relationship was shaped by the tides of the times much as they shaped the times.  All in all it was an interesting book.  Certainly worth the read if you like that period in history.

Written by furthermusings

January 27, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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Screen Shot 2012-12-29 at 10.18.47 AM Yesterday I finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.  Boo follows the lives of various residents of a Mumbai slum over the course of four years, chronicling their slim hopes and crushing disappointments.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an intensely  practical book.  To Boo the problem she examines is less one of moral outrage and more one of practical questions: how do the people here survive?  What forces buffet them as they try to improve their meager lives?

The answer is they almost always off the backs of those who are poorer and more vulnerable than themselves.  The corruption shown in the book is immense and functions at all levels from the police on down.  The police use the slum as a place to extort money from residents.  For actual protection the residents have to pay local enforcers to keep them safe.  Schools exist largely in name only so the teachers (who bought their positions) can draw salaries.  Every NGO & government scheme for improvement is siphoned off before it reaches the trash-sorting boys and their families at the bottom.  Rampant political corruption is alluded to but largely functions outside the scope of the book.

This backdrop drives the outcomes.  Entrepreneurial strivers make progress: a three-rupee rise in trash prices brings enough money to put in a brick wall instead of a cardboard one. But tragedy strikes: illness, the police, sabotage by a jealous neighbor.  Perhaps most tragic were the suicides.  So many suicides.  Some out of fear.  Some out of rage.  One because this choice was the one choice a 15-year-old girl had in her life dominated by a raging family planning to marry her off.  They live just long enough to bankrupt the family who mortgages everything to pay for the medical bill.

Because the book is so practical it’s difficult to draw lessons from it.  Within its vivid descriptions there is little prescription.  What well meaning change or intervention wouldn’t be swamped, co-opted, and used by the same greedy forces that dominate every level of the slum?  The corruption, poverty, and lack of resources are all encompassing for these people.

In the end I’m not sure if I’d recommend the book.  It was gritty, realistic, and heartbreaking but I’m not sure what I learned from it.  It wasn’t news to me that the poorest are the most helpless.  Powerful people without accountability are corrupt.  These are lessons I’ve learned before from Gang Leader for a Day and The Wire.  

The prose wasn’t particularly beautiful.  The story largely functioned at the individual level but jumped between characters in a way that made it difficult to find an arc.   Focusing on individuals made it difficult to discern the macro forces behind the poverty and injustice.  This reflects the viewpoint of the slum residents themselves.  If the book misses the forest for the trees, perhaps it does so because for someone about to be crushed, the tree is all that is he can see.

Written by furthermusings

December 29, 2012 at 11:14 am

Posted in Reviews

From Persuasion

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“He shewed himself so intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet, and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely, and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly. ”

Jane Austen, Persuasion, Vol 1, Chapter XI.


Written by furthermusings

December 16, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Posted in Reflections, Reviews

Bringing Up Bébé

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Last night I finished Bringing Up Bébé  by Pamela Druckerman.  It’s the tale of an American woman who raises her daughter and two young sons in Paris and the sharp contrasts she sees between the behavior of her kids and the behavior of the French children she’s surrounded by.  The French kids are calmer, more relaxed and better behaved than her kids which sends her in search of the reasons.

Bringing Up Bébé is one part parting self-reflection, one part anthropology, one part parenting advice, and one part humor.  She’s writes well, knows enough to ask what American science has to say about French parenting culture, and is funny to boot.

Overall the French parenting style she describes seems much more sane than the American one she (stereotypically?) describes.  French parents are less concerned by unlikely risks.  They give their kids more freedom but also more boundaries.  They want to have parts of their lives separate from their children and for their children to have space from them to become their own people.  Parenting is a lot of intentional work to study the child and listening to him or her.  But listening doesn’t mean French parenting isn’t a democracy.  French parent’s decree is absolute… but they are only absolute about a few things.  They only make threats they can back up.

Some of the particular cultural institutions sound awesome: French daycare (at the creche) is free to the parents and paid for by the government.  Each creche has a chef who prepares four course lunches for the kids, helping them to develop their palettes.  Sending your kid away for a week on kindergarten school trips sounds lovely… maybe I’ll move there…

Overall the book is a lot of fun and provides some good food for thought.  I’m curious what I’ll think of her descriptions of American parents and of her prescriptions from French parenting when we actually have kids.

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Written by furthermusings

September 17, 2012 at 7:22 am

Posted in Reviews