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.

 

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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

Power Reveals

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Over the last week I’ve been hungerly reading The Passage of Power, the fourth installment of the five volume bio of Lyndon Johnson by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro.  It’s a marvelous read for its sweep of an era in American history that encompassed civil rights, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and JFK’s assassination.  It’s also a striking portrait of LBJ, a study in contrasts with great in his triumphs set against years of mockery by his peers.  In obtaining the presidency he showed he could rise above his own great flaws… at least for this chapter of his life.

But I also read these books for the general wisdom they contain.  This pearl was particularly vivid:

Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary: to hide traits that might make others reluctant to give him power, to hide also what he wants to do with that power: if men recognized the traits or realized the aims they might refuse to give him what he wants. But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins.

For Johnson, the revealing was his civil rights convictions, convictions he had long hidden from southern Congressional leaders so that they would support his rise to power.  He turned on them, passed the civil rights bill that JFK had failed, and brought a greater measure justice and rights to blacks and Latinos in America than they had had before.

I’m amazed sometimes that just wisdom lurks just behind the cover of a book.  Quite the treasure if one finds it.

Written by furthermusings

July 14, 2012 at 9:29 am

Posted in Reviews

That Distant Land

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My evenings with Wendell are slowly drawing to a close as I work my way through his fiction.  He’s been a lovely voice and mentor to listen to… an apostle of rootedness and community in a time of great personal transition.

Most recently I finished That Distant Land, Berry’s collected short-stories about the Port William community.  These were by far the funniest writings I’ve read by him, and also some of the most poignant. The stories are set across a century, from the 1880s to the 1980s.  Telling stories about one community over such an arc of time means you get to see the characters grow up, love the land and the neighbors, and die off in a rhythmic wave that reminds me of both how little and how much our lives really are.

The giant Tol Proudfoot with hair that stands out like an old straw broom and his minute wife, Miss Minny, frame the largest section of the book.  Their late marriage, deep love, and infertility moved me as much as their antics made me laugh.  Wild man Uncle Burley Coulter chases coons with the hounds, grieves, regrets and grows as a character, and dies a death that is a premonition of the best New Yorker article I’ve ever read.

This was a treasure of a book.  I’m deeply grateful to have spend so many evenings with Wendell this year.

Written by furthermusings

April 9, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Posted in Reflections, Reviews

A World Lost

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I just finished A World Lost, a brief novel set in Port William and written by Wendell Berry.  This one tells the story of Andy Catlett’s journey to understand the murder of his favorite uncle and namesake, Uncle Andy.  I continue to read these stories because the move me.  In a town where I am still unconnected I miss the deep emotional connections to others.  Berry reminds me of that connection and for that I’m grateful.

A World Lost is a brief, thoughtful tale that ruminates on its main characters.  The grown Andy recounts his boyhood encounters with Uncle Andy and he studies his memories from his childhood and what he learned in the years since.  The tale isn’t a murder mystery but rather a character sketch by a man who looked up to his uncle with the worship and adoration that only a small boy can give.  His uncle is as different a man from his father as a man can be.  Uncle Andy is as brash, impulsive, and often full of liquor as his father is steady, intense, and sober.

For reasons that no one in the book knows, Uncle Andy was married to a frail needy woman named Judith of whom nothing was every asked.  In return, she asks everything of everyone.  Berry’s words about who she became after her husband’s death haunt me and are his most powerful descriptions:

As her afflictions grew she seemed to become increasingly self-concerned.  Her sufferings finally were not at all conditioned by the understanding that others also suffered; she suffered in an almost pristine innocence, as if she were the world’s unique sufferer and the world waited curiously to hear of her pains.  She was so prompt and extravagant in pitying herself that she drove all competitors.

One afternoon when I was fifteen I called out to one of my friends, and in the same instant looked across the street and saw Aunt Judith (now blind from glaucoma).  She had recognized my voice, and she turned to stare sightlessly towards me … I went on as I intended to go, pretending under her following blind gaze that it was not my voice that she had heard and that I was not myself.

For want of compassion – aware that I would inevitably fail to be compassionate enough, but also for want of enough compassion – I denied that I was who I was, and so made myself less than I was.  This was my first conscious experience of a shame that was irremediable and hopeless – a shame, as I now suppose, that Uncle Andrew may have met in himself, in her presence, many a time.

This surely was the punishment that she dealt out, wittingly or not, willingly or not, to Uncle Andrew and to the rest of us.  And if at times in the past I could abandon her to the self-martyrdom of the self-absorbed, and though I see now better than then how impossible she was, still I am sorry.  For I can no longer forget that loss and illness and trouble, however a person may exploit them, cannot be exploited without being suffered.  Aunt Judith exploited them and suffered them, and suffered her exploitation of them.  She suffered and she was alone.

And so she is inescapable.  In my mind I will always see her standing there in the street, her head tilted stiffly up, hopelessly hoping for some earthly pity greater than her pity for herself.” Selections from Chapter VIII.

Written by furthermusings

February 12, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Posted in Reviews

More Berry

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Another bit of prose from Wendell Berry that I’ve come back to more than once.  It reminds me of all I wish I had asked my grandparents.  Had I only been wise enough to ask.  But as Berry says “a boy’s mind is different from a man’s by precisely a lifetime.”  And so it is that I read this wistfully.

Uncle Jack forsook his present worries, and the conversation, belong then to him and Grandpa, took up the burden of times only they had known.  They spoke of horses and mules and men and days.

Now I can wish that I had stayed and listened and tried to remember.   Now I can wish I had foreseen then what I would want to know now, and had asked the questions I now wish I had asked.

What did their elders remember of the Civil War, and of the time before that?  What did they tell about slavery?  After the war, how were things rearranged between the races?  Was the Klan active here?  What did it do?  Who was in it?  What was it like here before the railroad came, or all-weather roads, when the only dependable transportation to and from Port William was by the river?  What did they remember of the still-standing ancient forests?  How did they make it through the depression of the 1890s?  The drouth of 1908?

But a boy’s mind is different from an old man’s by precisely a lifetime.  And so the talk of that day went out into that day’s air and light and the silence beyond, and the silence has kept it.”

Andy Catlett: Early Travels.  Pgs 70& 71.

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October 25, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Posted in Reflections, Reviews

Andy Catlett

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Recently I’ve been reading another Wendell Berry novel, Andy Catlett: Early Travels.

I am loving Berry’s books because the feel so quiet and I long for that so much.  Reading them is like sitting beside a lazy river on a sunny day.  It’s beautiful just to glance at, but the longer you sit with it and the quieter you get, the more you like it.  The more its beauty seeps into the soul a bit.

I’ve come back to a couple of  passages more than once.  I like the one below because it makes me wonder about my ability to become like the Mom in her gracious, faithful love . . . and I wonder what about being a Christian demands that we do have vision for change in ourselves and the people around us . . .

“My mother I believe I knew fairly well from a fairly early age.  Looking back, I love her simply as I knew her to be.  And I wonder, too, at what she came to be as she grew older and the trials of motherhood and other early difficulties fell away from her.  In her old age she seemed to me to become almost purely generous and wise.  Unlike my father, for whom love was always involved with fear and exasperation and who felt personally affronted by any unremedied flaw, she accepted what she could not help and came finally to a quietness within herself that signified great faith, and no fear at all.

But I had to grow and age into knowledge of my father, and I am afraid to say yet that I know him fairly well.  Insofar as he was a critic of the people and places he loved, he was as much a visionary all his life as I was to be at any age – though at the age of nine I could not have envisioned that.  He bore the burden of his certainty that some things could be improved, and of his vision of how to improve them.  And over and over again he suffered enormous frustration at his or anybody’s inability to make the needed correction.

Both he and my mother were motivated by great love, bu hers abounded quietly, and his was instant and ungraduated, always at full flow.

One morning as I was watching him shave, I asked experimentally, “Daddy, what would you do if I died?”

His reply was shocking, for it came while the sound of my voice seemed still in the air, and with a force of passion that I had not until then imagined: “I would cry my eyes out!”

Written by furthermusings

October 24, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Posted in Reflections, Reviews

Hannah Coulter

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I recently finished a beautiful novel by Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter.  It’s the fictional autobiography of twice widowed woman born in 1923 and dying in the 2002.  Her life story takes place within 20 miles of her place of birth on the banks of the Kentucky river.

The book is Hannah’s story, but it’s also the story her town, Port William, and its people: her parents, her husbands, their parents, and her children.

I loved this book for its profound thankfulness.  She writes: “This is my story, my giving of thanks.”  And it is.  It’s a long prayer/reflection about her life, about the good parts and the hard parts.

I connected with her grief and with her thankfulness.  I feel profoundly uprooted from Chapel Hill.  I’m profoundly grateful for the many people I know and have known there.  And yet there is a separation that grieves.  My most emotional connections in the past and not the present.  The phone helps a lot.  But nine weeks into Greenville and the separation is still real . . . and I know the gap is growing . . .

And Hannah’s grief helped give shape to mine.

She mourns for the separation wrought on her by losing her children to the wider world.  To her surprise and grief, as she sends her children off to college . . . and they slip away.  Off to investment banking in California, to teaching in Lexington, to college professorship a few hours away.  It takes them from her stable community, built on knowing the land and helping each other.  Her children wandered up to their grandparents on afternoons for helpful chores or visits, now their children see Grandma Hannah once a month or once a year on visits.  Their problems are beyond Hannah’s reach or knowledge.

She grieves for the transformation of her community.  More children move away than return.  Farms become subdivisions.  More neighbors become commuters.  And several centuries of a small town life have almost eroded away.

She mourns for death.  She is thankful in her bones for the people that she knows.  Even as the cataclysm of WWII reaches into Port William and takes her first husband, she grieves, and matures, and grows.  As old age takes her second she grieves and grows again.

And yet even as she’s grieved she’s thankful, profoundly thankful for her marriages (as different as they were), for her children, for the land she knows and loves, and for the people she was blessed to know all the years they overlapped with her in Port William.

Her thankfulness is the reason I loved this novel.  Every night, as I read before going to sleep, I felt like I do in worship, when the singing and the prayers wash over me.  I’m grateful to the point of silence.

I don’t agree with everything Berry writes about.  Small towns had their particular evils which he omits.  Commuters can have fulfilling and meaningful work.   Loans aren’t always oppressive.

But despite all that, he loves what he loves so dearly that it’s beautiful to read.  His vision of community, of being known and loved, and of the rootedness that comes from knowing and loving the land you live resonate with me.

It was a lovely, nourishing, moving book.  I’m thankful to have picked it up.

Written by furthermusings

October 8, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Reviews

The Dirty Life

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This week I finished The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball.  Her memoir chronicles the journey from vegetarian NYC writer to rural farmer.  The majority of the book focues on her & her husband’s adventures during their first year starting up a “whole diet” farm, which is a farm program where subscribers get every part of their diet from the farm (dairy, meat, maple syrup, veggies, and grains).

Kimball is an easy writer to read and her outsider descriptions of the dirty reality of farm life are engaging.  There are two storylines: she and her husband begin to shape their new farm together and she makes a journey from head-over-heels lover to committed spouse.  The remainder of the book focus on the foodie rewards of farming and spares no expense when raving about how tasty the various products turn out to be (be they fresh potatoes or newly prepared internal organs).

Overall it was a fun and easy read if you’re looking for something light to pick up, even more so if you’re a foodie or a gardener.  Because they farm on such a large scale I wasn’t as inspired as I have been by similar books.  Still, it was fun to hear about the adventures of farming with horses even if I’ll never do it.

Written by furthermusings

August 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Posted in Reviews

The Right Stuff

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Last week, after my department declined to offer me a job, Charity and I debated hanging up my academic spurs and resuming my career as a policy analyst.  As we discussed the pros and cons, one of the biggest draws of working as a policy analyst was a chance to work in Washington DC with the best and the brightest of the policy world on policies that really make a difference in people’s lives.

As such, it was fortuitous that at night I was reading The Right Stuff, an insightful account of the Mercury Space program by Tom Wolfe.  Ostensibly, the book is about the Mercury Seven, as the astronauts were known, who were selected from amongst the military’s hottest test pilots and their journey into space.

But in reality Wolfe’s keen descriptions of the pilots’ inner worlds are the real topic of the book.  They saw themselves as people at the top of the ziggurat of their profession, one of the most dangerous, demanding, and (because of the Cold War) necessary jobs in the world.  Being at the top of their professional pyramid was evidence that they had the right stuff.  When they started flying as new recruits their colleagues were sent off to fly prop planes and they were off to fly jets.  At each separation point they moved on and up the career ladder and accrued more evidence of their own inevitable climb to the top.

What has been striking to me is that these men are one version of an archetype: fundamentally they are the same as Wall Street bankers, White House bureaucrats, successful politicians, musicians, or even R-1 academics.  To reach the top of these professions one has to have a rock solid belief in your own worthiness.  This belief in your own success enables you to put the effort in where others might not.  Each victory further confirms your belief that you are sharp enough, good looking enough, talented enough, and have enough moxie.  You know your hard work will be rewarded.  You belong at the top, in the inner circle.

Over the last eight years I’ve found that I have this desire to work at the highest levels (though not in academia).  I can have a virtually unshakable belief in my own abilities and my own ability to produce good outcomes in certain arenas.  When I look away from academia towards working in policy, one reason is that I truly believe that I have what it takes to be a top-flight policy analyst, to sort the wheat from the chaff, to enter the ring, take the bruises, and play the game with success.  At it’s most generous I have the desire to be truly excellent, to make a difference, and to serve in the job.  And in truth, I’m not tempted to be Machiavellian, to shove down another to get to the top.

It isn’t the work, the responsibility, or influence that is terrifying.  It is the tremendous personal output necessary when you are that important, to be able to succeed at the top of anyone of these careers.  Stories of the powerful often laced with the tremendous personal destruction that the powerful and ambitious are willing to incur to climb.  Divorces, alienated children and spouses, despised coworkers, the cultivation of an amazing arrogance abound.

It is sobering for me to think that, even knowing that, I’m still drawn to work in these places.  I’m tempted to make the trade-off.  Our pastor often says, no one says on their deathbed “I wish I had worked more.”  Working among with the best and brightest is so appealing that I don’t believe him.  I wonder, will I regret that I didn’t work hard enough to be a policy analyst?

Wolfe’s test pilots are an extreme case in that their work regularly destroyed them, literally.  Wolfe doesn’t dwell on it much, except for the first chapter, but the mortality rate of non-combat Navy pilots was 23% over a twenty year career.  For the test pilots this must have been worse.  Their wives and children at home lived within earshot of the base fire trucks that attended every emergency.  They lived in waking terror of the sight of two grave, black-clad men coming knocking on their front door in the hour after the sirens.  It is quite the vision of what an unbounded commitment to work can get you.  And its a reality that the men willingly chose.

It’s even more tragic in those who choose to try but don’t make it.  Maybe it’s lack of talent, maybe it’s lack of effort, maybe it’s just bad luck.  Whatever it is, it has been pretty horrific to watch over the last couple of years amongst my friends and coworkers.  They let their personal and spiritual lives burn away to pursue the dream . . . and reap none of the rewards.  Some pull away in time, but for many who I’m watching, they don’t.  It’s horrifying, as horrifying as the descriptions of the corpses littered across the first chapter of The Right Stuff.

As you can tell, I really liked this book and am profoundly grateful for the wisdom it has given me about my own desires and those of others.  Many of my friends harbor no such desires.  Some of them have suffered enough from those that have the Right Stuff enough to be nauseated by this kind of kind of culture.  For me, it articulated a vision of this archetype.  And that was it was certainly worth the read.

Written by furthermusings

May 14, 2011 at 7:28 am

Posted in Reflections, Reviews