Category: Non-fiction


Food

Apparently I read a lot of books about food. Seems to be a theme around here. Probably unsurprising with my recent celiac diagnosis, but my last two books that I need to catch up in terms of blogging focus on food.

The first is A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage

This is the sort of book that ground-up armchair  historians love. In this book Standage surveys the histories of beer, wine, coffee spirits, tea and Coca-Cola in order to explain momentous moments in human history. Ever thought about how rum aided the colonization of the Americas? Or how tea helped to spur the Industrial Revolution? Or coffee, European cafe society? Well, it is all here in a wonderful little book. Standage is funny, informative, and does a wonderful job addressing major moments in history through the lens of what we drink. This is a great little book, an easy read (a great airplane read without you feeling like you are reading junk) and super fun.

The other book I read on food is far more serious– it is Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food

Some years ago I was on a teaching fellowship at a prestigious Midwestern college that was well-known for its sort of hippie/liberal character. That fall, Michael Pollan came to speak (he was greeted like a rock star by an auditorium of screaming college kids and local specialty farmers), and I was one of the lucky faculty that got to go to a dinner with him (I was too terrified to speak to him, and he spent the evening surrounded by luminaries far more important than I.) Anyway, I have read is other books and I will admit I am a fan. This book is small, but it packs a powerful punch.

A few days ago I was at the supermarket with my cart full of vegetables and meat, when an older gentleman in line behind me stepped up and said “You must actually cook!” Startled I looked down at my food and laughed and said “Why yes, don’t most people?” And with  a slight twinkle in his eye he gestured over to the people around us with their carts full of prepackaged foods and soda and said “they don’t really cook.”  And I looked back at him and together we chuckled. (he had a cart full of veggies and meats too.) But it was a prescient observation.

I don’t think I am superior to those who eat junk food and fast food– I don’t eat packaged food because I just plain can’t. Before my diagnosis, I ate plenty of junk, believe me– but now I can’t. I can’t eat processed food because gluten is in just about everything. Anyway, Pollan’s book focuses on how everyone should step away from the foods with the long labels full of stuff that you have no idea what it is– away from the “no-fat” labels– away from the stuff that screams “Its heart healthy!!” because it probably isn’t.

The book explains how the USDA came to endorse its current recommendations for eating, how food science has underminded food itself, how Americans being fat and unhealthy has a whole lot more to it than the number of calories and fats that we eat. It has to do with our culture– the way we see food (Supposed to be fast, cheap and filling)  and approach the culture of eating. The book is about how we should value our food more– and eat only real food.

This book (if you haven’t read it already) will radically change how you think of food. Not hard for me– I was already forced to radically change how I think about food, but if you haven’t read this book, please do. Its a game-changer.

That’s all for now. Will I make it to 52 books by the end of the year? I have eight more to go… Jeepers…

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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The Deadliest Hurricane

If I had managed to stomach all the math, I would have been a meteorologist. As it is I am an avid weather-watcher, I love watching meteorologists get all hyped up about weather systems, but there are some storms that as you watch them form and become more powerful that you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.  I remember watching the run-up to Hurricane Ike in Texas and  seeing people on the news saying “Oh it won’t be that bad. It’s not like it is as big as Katrina.” and then listening to the forecasters warn get out of the way!  And yes the hurricane wasn’t as bad as Katrina in terms of strength but it had a monster storm surge and swallowed up whole peninsulas on the Texas Gulf coast and washed away houses that people swore couldn’t be washed away… and took people with it, who were never found again.

Hurricane Ike turned out to be the third most costly hurricane in US history (after Katrina and Andrew) and it was “only” a Category two storm. What it showed was how much trust people put in modern technology, and how much denial that they piled on, thinking that sometime horrible couldn’t happen to them. Sad but true. And this is a story that is repeated over and over again– and is the focus of Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.

Larson’s book focuses on the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which killed somewhere between 8,000-12,000 people, and on the local meteorologist Isaac Cline, who was responsible for warning the island’s residents, but who failed to see the signs that the hurricane was coming their way. This is also a story of America’s Gilded Age belief in Progress and Modernity, and that mankind was above nature, and could in some way control it. It also outlines the politics and ethnocentrism of the period, as the Cubans accurately predicted the hurricane and tried to warn the US, but the US (who viewed Cuba as lazy and their forecasting techniques as based on “superstition”) refused to head Cuba’s warning. The result was utter carnage.

Larson does a fantastic job painting a picture of the local politics of Galveston and meteorology at the time. He also does a wonderful job actually re-creating the events for the reader, in vivid detail. You get a sense of dread as the islanders continue on with daily life despite a monster storm surge and the angry Gulf that washed into their front yards preceding the hurricane. Galveston was, after all, a boomtown during this period, and its citizens were not going to let a little storm slow them down.

The events unfold almost in slow motion. Those who survive were in parts lucky, or among the few that had access to strong, sturdy masonry buildings several stories high and well away from the coast. And in 1900, once the telegraph lines went down, and the train tracks washed out, no one knew. For days no one knew what had happened to Galveston until people walked in and found a virtual hell on earth. So many dead that the authorities were forced to burn the bodies. So much destruction that they simply bulldozed whole acres of the city. The scenes that Larson describe are out of an apocalypse.

Except that these kinds of scenes have happened again,  and again, in modern periods. One memory from watching the hurricane coverage of Katrina that has stuck with me all these years was the interview of a woman who lived in an ocean-side condo in MS. When the surge came up and wiped out her well-built condo she was washed inland, along with her dog, a small black terrier. She was lucky, and managed to climb up into a tree and hung on for the rest of the night, one arm holding onto the tree and one arm holding onto her dog. As she talked to the reporter she seemed amazed that both she and her dog managed to survive a monster storm in a tree and all she had left were the clothes on her back, badly lacerated hands, and her dog.

In the end Mother Nature is greater than us. No amount of technology will ever made us safe from storms and other disasters. That is something that we need to understand and come to terms with, and Larson’s book a fabulous reminder as to why– a hundred years ago, Americans were brash enough to think they could understand and predict deadly storms. A hundred years later, we still think that, yet we continue to suffer. Will we ever learn?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Football as a religion

When I first move to Texas I discovered that my apartment was only about half a mile from the local high school. I figured this out when one Friday night I was out walking my dog and noticed the bright stadium lights off in the distance, coupled by the sound of a marching band and the roar of the crowd.

In Texas there is little else as sacred as high school football, save religion itself.

Today’s book is Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger. The book (which both the movie and TV series are based off of, and oh, if you have never seen the TV series, get yourself a copy of the DVDs and go watch is now. One of the best depictions of working class America on TV ever.) The book, however, is non-fiction, and is based on a football team, the Permian Panthers, a team from Odessa, an oil town in the West Texas scrubland.

The book, (written in the late 1980s) is a classic of fine American sportswriting. For me, it stands right up there with Seabiscuit in taking a sport and using it as a prism to examine a place and moment in time in American history. Bissinger’s book is about the phenomena of high school football in a town that has few dreams left to hold on to, but it is also about much more. It is about race, class, economic and social status in America (and the issue of race is really ugly. While unsurprising is still jarring to read.) It is about dreams realized and broken. It is about young people who have to live up to impossible hopes that an entire town pins on them, and then how they get torn apart when those dreams are dashed.

Bissinger lived in the town for a year, he went with the football team to every game, he had unprecedented access, and that is what helps the book ring so true. He is also a master of colorful, evocative writing that pulls you along, and he takes time to explain the history of West Texas, along with the different dynamics of the place. All of this allows you to feel as if you are there, experiencing the quest for the state championship with the Permian Panthers.

Its a real team, a real town, a real slice of America. And it’s about football,  but it is also about more than that. This is a fantastic, can’t-put-it-down read and a true American sports classic.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Well, what happened? And Foodie Goodness

I fell off the blogging wagon for almost two whole months. It happened rather inadvertently–one minute I was reading and blogging and the next minute I wasn’t. I was besieged by the start of a new semester, and a major academic deadline. So I felt, for a while like I was drowning. I read a bit, here and there, but I did not blog because it seemed like so much effort.

I even thought for a while, about giving up the blog and the challenge that I set for myself.  One of my enduring characteristics, however, is that I finish what I start. (That got me through the dark and lonely days of writing a dissertation, that stubborn, mule-like tendency to finish at all costs.) So I am back, I have a few posts to catch up on (like I said I have been reading and have a backlog of books), and I hope to keep going to meet my goal of 52 books this year (at least.)

So today’s book is Gluten Free Girl: How I Found the Food that Loves Me Back… and How you Can Too  by Shauna James Ahern.

Okay, a bit of back story. Last March/April, when I fell off the blogging wagon (the first time) it was because I had become seriously sick. I won’t go into the details, but I had a strange constellation of symptoms that puzzled my very good doctor, both neurological and gastrointestinal and I had all these weird vitamin deficiencies. Anyway, after enduring a battery of tests (which proved nothing), after being in pain for months and dealing with crippling fatigue, (not like when you are just tired, think so exhausted that the thought of moving off the couch for a glass of water is a problem) I sat with my doctor’s nurse practitioner, shuddering in pain and wailing that this was not “all in my head.” She replied to me, “you know, it might be a food allergy. Wheat and dairy are the biggest offenders, so try cutting them out first.” Well, I already don’t eat dairy, so I went home miserable and cut out wheat, specifically, gluten. In two weeks I felt better than I ever felt in almost a decade.

Long story short, I was diagnosed as a gluten-intolerant, probable celiac (I refused the colonoscopy, which is the gold standard test because my insurance would not cover it, and it seemed like a waste of money  that I don’t have to just confirm that I should not eat gluten. Screw it. I just wasn’t going to eat gluten anymore. My doctor agreed– she said I presented as “classic celiac” and that the diet had proved enough without anymore testing. The celiac blood panel came back inconclusive– be warned on that– the blood testing has a failure rate 1/3 of the time. Yup. So it can totally be wrong. Changing diet or the colonoscopy are the only ways you really know for sure.)

So I delved into a world of no more bread, pies, cookie, fast food, packaged foods, soy sauce, oh hell, wheat gluten is in everything. To most people, it seems incredibly restrictive. But for me the transition wasn’t hard, because I already ate mostly home-cooked meals made from fresh ingredients. But I had loved bread. Adored bread. I was known as an amazing baker of bread and sweets, and oh shit, no more bread for me.

I cried the day I gave my huge bags of bread flours to a neighbor. I sobbed when I hauled my bags of pasta and crackers (unopened) to a local food bank. I tried to be positive, but damn it seemed hard. I was now defined by what I could not eat. Nevermind that I was feeling so much better, had lost weight and had finally made peace with my angry, angry stomach. I was now different. That gluten-free person.

I first read Shauna’s writing in her blog, http://www.glutenfreegirl.com  Then I discovered that she had written a food memoir of sorts, and after scouring the local library for gluten-free cookbooks, and modifying my diet, and working on that for months, I finally picked it up.

I wish I had read it sooner.

There are many books on going gluten-free out there. Many are great, they detail how to change your diet, what you can and cannot eat, etc.  But almost all approach the gluten-free issue from the aspect of how going gluten-free is hard, and then they offer advice and tips.

Fine. It is hard. I won’t lie. But Shauna’s book was one of the few that I read that took having to go gluten-free and made it something that was freeing. It freed you to eat really good, homemade, artisanal food. It frees you from the American approach to  junky foods, fast foods, it frees you to experiment with food in new ways. That is not to say that she sugarcoats it and says that going gluten-free isn’t hard, and that the food that you will eat, while good, will not taste exactly like the food that you used to eat (it won’t)  but instead she is an incessant and friendly cheerleader. Use going gluten-free to try the new flours. To eat local, fresh food– to treat yourself well by cooking for yourself with care and respect. Use going gluten-free to not restrict you, but open your horizons.

This book is not a cookbook (there are a few recipes)- it isn’t a “how to go gluten-free” book, and it isn’t a technical book.  Don’t read it thinking that it is. It also might be hard for people to read who have multiple food allergies (people who are gluten and casein free for example, or people with allergies to nuts, etc- Shauna has no restrictions beyond gluten.) Instead it is a food memoir, a reminder that having celiac is not the end of the world, that rather, it is the beginning– one can be healthy again and enjoy food. It is one woman’s journey, and man the way she write about food. It just makes you hungry reading it. Shauna loves food, and I love that about this book– because my mom, who is an excellent cook who always cooked locally and fresh (I escaped the packaged food hell that Shauna describes her childhood as because my mom loved cooking fresh home-cooked meals) talks about food in the exact same way. Food is something to be enjoyed, savored, and to love. Having a food allergy, intolerance or celiac disease should not stop you from loving food. This is what I took from this book.

And there is something to be said for eating locally. When I lived in rural Ohio for a year I discovered the wonders of buying from actual farmers. Every Saturday morning I would point my old sputtering Mazda towards the local farms and go from place to place, picking out the freshest produce (there is nothing like sweet corn coming off the field in the back of a tractor, lemme tell you.) There was a Mennonite gentleman that I would buy potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and peppers from. He would even give me watermelons that were too ripe and bruised to sell after I told him that my dog loved watermelon (this is true.) Every Saturday morning when I would come to pick up my produce, he would have a few watermelons “for the dog” he would say in his gruff way. I would inquire after his pigs and dairy cows. We talked about the weather (in all seriousness) and his grandchildren would tumble by in their bonnets and long skirts. There is something about knowing the people who actually grow your food.  He tipped me off to an Amish farm that sold “the best chicken you could ever imagine.” The next week, after butchering day, I head over for chicken. The flesh was pink, some still had feathers in it.  I took it home and roasted a simple Amish-raised chicken with Mennonite-raised leeks and onions. That night I sat, just savoring the taste of the chicken “This is what chicken is supposed to taste like?” It was a revelation. That night I sat with my windows open, enjoying the Ohio summer, the breeze off of lake Erie, and devouring the best chicken I had ever eaten (it was most definitely not factory farmed.)

In the last six months, since I got my diagnosis I had slogged along in my gluten-free diet. Food was not joyful, it was hard. Well, Shauna’s book has reminded me to go recapture those carefree Ohio summer days. Time to hit the Farmer’s markets again, time to try some grass-raised Texas beef cattle, fresh sausages, and produce. Time to be inspired again and not let my diagnosis cage me in. This book was much-needed inspiration. Thanks Shauna, and I couldn’t think of a better way to start my blogging up again.  I am going to be adventurous again with food. I’m not going to let celiac hem me in. And I will keep reading and blogging, my fellow readers.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

 

 

Eyewitness to the Rise of Evil

It was 1933, and the head of the University of Chicago’s history department, William Dodd, was dispatched as the American Ambassador to Germany. He took his wife and grown children with him to a country that was witnessing the rise of Hitler. Nobody wanted to believe that things were as perilous as they seemed. Including Dodd. This is the premise of Erik Larson’s latest work of nonfiction In the Garden of Beasts, which details the life of one American family in Berlin, and the horror that they watched unfold.

Ambassador Dodd was not your typical American ambassador. A self-made man, an academic, and hailing from a modest background, he was unlike the wealthy men of privilege that usually filled out the diplomat corps. He took the job believing it would give him time away from the stresses of academia and allow him to finish his magnus opus on Southern history. He had no idea of what he stepped into. No one did. At the time the world was inclined to ignore the rumblings from German, the stories of the oppression of Jews and the nationalist fervor that was building up. Including Dodd and his family, even during the first year that they lived there.

Larson’s work focuses on Dodd and his adult daughter Martha– a free spirit, who was a bit of a bohemian who took a multitude of lovers while in Germany, including members of the Nazi party and Soviet agents. Let’s just say that Martha loved living on the edge, and living on the edge she did– initially, she refused to believe the reports of the horrors that were beginning to come to the surface in Germany, instead preferring to believe it to be a country that was trying to get back on its feet after a devastating war. Dodd was also inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, to the consternation of a select few diplomats that also served with him– he preferred to not worry about the “Jewish Problem,” believing that Hitler could not possibly last while in power.

The book is wonderfully written and moves along at a crisp pace– it weaves a web of  with intrigue surrounding the main characters. It builds and builds up to the “Night of the Long Knives” which is when Hitler launched a massive and terrifying attack against his enemies and took total power over Germany. From that moment on Dodd (and his daughter) began to speak out against Hitler and Germany, but no one would listen. No one wanted to hear them, even after they returned to the US four years later and Hitler’s aggression was apparent. The government instead followed a model of appeasement.

Larson is a fantastic writer– this is a historical book that is paced as a novel, and it is as tense and thrilling as any spy thriller–but it is for real. The book is really thought-provoking. Why did the government just look the other way? Why was the world not willing to confront the truth? How could we just let a madman run amok, and deny that he was violating human rights while the US’ s own ambassador was frantically cabling for the government to just listen to him? Of course,  these sorts of things continue to happen, governments continue to look the other way as madmen slaughter their own people–but this book gives yo a fantastic look into how an entire country (Germany) could willfully deceive itself, and the historical and social circumstances that surrounded Hitler that allowed him to rise to power.

This is a great book, one of the best nonfiction works I have read this year. Do yourself a favor, go read it and have your eyes opened, because we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

 

A Great Patriot

John Adams was a great reader himself, no doubt he might have appreciated this blog project. So, in honor of our country’s independence, I picked up John Adams by David McCullough this weekend, and ploughed right through it… finally.

My mom had given me this book years ago, and I read about half of it, but never finished. Life got in the way. Well, that is no longer an excuse, so I started all over again and finished it in about five days, surprising myself, because it is an enormous book. Thick, dense, and chock full of information.

McCullough’s masterwork is a gem for history nerds like myself. It is a popular autobiography that is written much like an academic book, meaning that McCullough combines popular writing with serious history and created a masterwork. No wonder it won the Pulitzer.

The book covers the entire span of Adams’s life, from his early years as a humble lawyer, to his work on independence, to his time as a diplomat in Europe, his vice-presidency, the Presidency, and his old age. It is loaded with detail, most of it gleaned from Adams’s own papers and letters. Adams was a prolific letter-writer– and extraordinarily self-aware and self-critical, and because of that, we know what he thought about almost everything. (Note to important world figures: keep an interesting diary and leave someone else to write your biography.) The book is so huge that there isn’t much that I can cover here, but a few major themes.

The first is the myth of the founding. Lately, all kinds of misinformation has been spread on America’s independence– and much of this is for political ends, which, would have no doubt exasperated Adams (and his friend Jefferson.) The fact is, that as McCullough’s book shows, independence from Great Britain and the founding of a new country was messy, fraught with peril, and that we got through it at all was due to not only great leadership, but also a measure of luck.  The Founders were often making it up as they went along, they did not agree on many things (in fact they agreed on very little) and slavery was a massive problem already for the young country. It was not some mythical moment of a newly formed, shining America rising out of rebellion. More like it was a mess, but a mess that sorted itself out, slowly, sometimes painfully and at times awkwardly. This, I think, is important to remember.

Adams was a man, who was religious, but who also believed in reason. He felt that religion and intellectual curiosity went together– there was no reason for them not to. He also believed in serving his country– he always did what was asked of him, even when he was put in miserable diplomatic situations, even with so many disparaged him, even when it seemed that everyone was against him– he put his country (not politics) first. We could learn a bit from this mentality.

Politics was as ugly then as it is now. A sensationalistic press came after Adams when he was VP and later President. His own friends (Jefferson) turned on him in the name of politics. Political parties began to determine where people stood, and Adams did not like this one bit. The sections on his Vice-Presidency and Presidency are amazing for how utterly modern they feel. Some things never change– party politics remains brutal. Presidents continue to be viciously criticized for their ideas and policies. Some things have not changed one bit.

His marriage to Abigail was extraordinary for its times. In fact, with would be extraordinary now. It was a marriage of equals, and without her, it is doubtful he could have achieved what he did. She was an incredibly smart woman, a brave woman, and his best friend. This is so apparent from their letters– their friendship is what carried them through life through thick and thin forever, and they survived some exceedingly trying times.

Finally, Adams’s emphasis on friendship. Adams remained friends with those closest through him through thick and thin, even when his friends did horrible things to him. His relationship with Jefferson is the best example of that– as young diplomats they were incredibly close, only to have the friendship torn to shreds when Jefferson ran against Adams for President. Yet, later in life Adams forgave his friend and struck up a close, but steady correspondence with him, and they became friends once more as old men in the twilight of their lives. To me, this was the most striking part of the book. Adams clearly valued people, he valued his friends, and he maintained those relationships even when at times it was painful.

This is a wonderful book– there is so much more I could  say, but I would just go on and on forever. Read it. It is not necessarily easy to read, but it is well worth the effort. It is a rich exploration of a great patriot’s life.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

J read Born to Run earlier in the year when we started the blog project, and it has been one of the books on my list to read. Because J already summed up the book in his post, I am going to offer a more personal reflection it.

I used to be a runner– that is, in high school I was a cross-country runner and in track, a miler and two miler, but frankly I preferred cross-country. The mile always seemed too short, the two mile, boring (eight times around the track can get a bit mind-numbing.) Cross-country was the most fun, with the winding, hilly courses, and frankly the long road runs were my favorite– in the summer we would rise early and be running by five am, while the city was still sleepy, the Los Angeles air still cool, and when it was often my teammates and I loping along through the neighborhoods around the high school. Our coach would follow us in his old green car, affectionately nicknamed “the tank” for its square appearance and army green color, as we quietly moved through the streets.

There was a student at our rival high school who was one of the best runners in the state. He had been born in Kenya and was something of a local legend. B was a tall handsome kid with a wide smile and who was so fast, the rest of us could hardly believe it. His running partner  was a tall blond kid, white as could be, who was known as “B’s Ghost” or simply “the Ghost.” At league finals they would come in far before anyone else, bouncing along like two gazelles. B and the Ghost were a joy to watch, and I remember standing with a teammate watching them finish. B made it look so easy, without strain, like as if running three miles on a smoggy 100 degree day was the best thing in the world. My teammate whispered to me “You, know, they say he trains barefoot– it’s how he used to run in Kenya–isn’t that insane?”  Then, after B’s teammates had offered their congratulations, my teammate and I walked up and congratulated B on his race. He smiled and thanked us graciously, and I noticed he wasn’t out of breath- in fact he hardly seemed to have run at all.

After reading McDougall’s book, it all began to fall into place. Because B had run barefoot in Kenya, he was a fore-foot striker, not a heel striker (something I had noticed in watching him run) and because of that, his gait was more suited to keeping his body in good condition and injury free. And B, despite all the races he won, despite the fact that he was later recruited for a major Division I college track team, despite the competitiveness, he clearly loved  running. You could see it in his smile.

As much as I could enjoy running, it was often painful, and I stopped running because of a really painful knee injury. And that was the part about the book that I really identified with– McDougall’s search for the reason as to why so many runners end up injured– it all has to do with modern running shoes, which McDougall asserts are so cushioned, as to ruin your natural gait, and your body’s way of telling what is the right way to run. McDougall asserts that as a species that we evolved to run, to run long distances, and to do it well into our old age if properly conditioned.

This book was deeply personal for another reason– my father’s family is descended from the Tarahumara Indians, the great runners that McDougall profiles. In fact the reason why I ran in high school was because that is just what we did. My father, before me, was something of a cross-country star. He loved to run, could “run all day” in his youth. He gave it up once he had a family to support, but his endurance stood him well when he worked in construction as a young man so my mom could go to college. But the fact of it remained, is that in my family, we always ran. It’s just what we do. I was raised that one ran because it was fun, not necessarily because we were good at it. Interestingly, as a runner I was a rather mediocre cross-country runner. Always came in the top ten and placed well for team points, but never a star– but that on the long road runs that we would take as a team I invariably did better. The longer I ran, the better my endurance held out, and I now wonder if I would have been better suited to much longer races in my youth, like the ones that McDougall profiles in the book.

It is funny that how as I got older and went to college, I encountered the more western mentality that running was “work.” “No pain, no gain.” It was no longer fun, it was so that the women I went to school with could keep their svelte bodies. Again, McDougall points out that among the Tarahumara and African bushmen who still run incredible distances, that this is not the case. You run, because you were born to it. You run, because you are human.

There is so much I could say about this book, but I would end up going on forever. The book was deeply personal to me, as an ex-runner (the problem knee has kept me from running for years, and I now live in a part of the country where a barefoot run could mean cactus thorns in your feet and a nasty bite from a rattlesnake)  and because of my own heritage. The book is, as J describes, well-written, funny, and very well-paced. While I may never go on a long run again like I used to, it has motivated me to start trail walking again (something I did after I stopped running, but I stopped once I got into the grind of grad school and then a job) so that I can re-capture some of that clarity that one gets after humming along for 10 miles.

My favorite run ever in high school was our annual fun run at the beach. At the end of the summer we would pile into vans and drive down to the Orange Country beaches. There, we shed our shoes and ran for about three miles in the sand, barefoot, galloping through the waves, chasing each other, laughing, and joking. We were not timed or really even pushed in any way. Early in the morning it was just us and the surfers bobbing out on the waves, and there was a special magic to it all. It was incredibly fun and it was how running is supposed to be.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

All the Saints

Okay so I have been a slacker. I have been reading but not blogging, so I figured that I better catch up with the blogging….

So today’s book (really it was last week’s book) is My Life With the Saints by James Martin, S.J. This book was different from the other books that I have read so far. It was part lives of the saints, part spiritual autobiography and part spiritual advice, making it, well, an interesting read. Father Martin is a Jesuit priest who entered the priesthood in an unlikely (or perhaps a likely?) moment in his life. He was a young executive for General Electric, who came home one day, burned out, and wondering if all there was in life was the grind of corporate work. He sat down and turned on the TV an caught the last part of an autobiography of the Trappist monk, and great American Catholic writer, Thomas Merton, and everything changed.

Seriously. Everything changed. Like Merton, Martin was an unlikely priest. And this book tells the story of Martin’s encounters with Catholicism (in an non-linear fashion) and interweaves it with the lives of the saints, both those who are official saints (like Thomas Aquinas), unofficial saints, or those who may eventually become official saints (Merton, Dorothy Day) and those on their way to becoming saints (The Blessed Mother Theresa).

There are many things that are lovely about this book. One is that you don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy it. Father Martin, although a cradle Catholic, was fairly ignorant of the intricacies of his faith. He grew up Catholic, but not deeply entrenched in Catholic culture  (that is to say, he did not go to parochial school, his parents were not active in a parish, etc) so even by the time he decides to become a Jesuit, he is still unsure of  many aspects of Catholicism. In this way, he guides the reader carefully. He presumes little, his voice is non-judgmental, but he is in all ways, gently orthodox.  In that way, he is refreshing writer– it is sort of like having your own personal guide to the saints and Catholicism, one who is funny and insightful.

Each chapter starts off with the story of how Father Martin first encountered each saint. Sometimes it is in surprising ways, such as through a movie, then he outlines the life of the saint, and finally what that saint has to teach humanity. All the saints are different  (obviously) and one of the most moving chapters is Martin’s encounter with Merton (who is, I must confess, one of my favorite saints, despite the fact that he is not an official saint.) But each chapter works through the lesson, the saint’s life, their humanity and Martin’s life.

Now this may sound dry, but it is not. I found it to be a remarkably fast read, and at times very charming and funny. The saints were human, (that is of course, why they are saints) but often people get hung up on this ideas that they are so much greater than regular people. Yet Martin’s emphasis on their humanity and how they interweave with his story of becoming a Jesuit is striking, because it reminds us that we all can become saints. Of course, one would in some sense,  have to want to become one, and becoming a saint is decidedly difficult, but it is always possible.

I really enjoyed Martin’s voice, his light touch and easy style. This is a lovely book that  is full of wisdom from the saints and a particular Jesuit.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The Biography of a Cat

The Aprils have morphed into the Mays, but once the final push of the semester is over, I suspect that J and I will be back at reading the books. Right now it seems that we have both been swallowed by piles of papers and exams to grade. Anyway, with this in mind I deliberately picked up a light book to read the other day- something I saw a while back, and decided that it might be a fun book . So today’s book is Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron (with Bret Witter.)

The (true) story of Dewey Readmore Books starts when a small orange kitten is shoved into a library drop box on a frigid Iowa December day. He is found by the head librarian Vicki Myron, who nurses him back to health with the help of the library staff. Dewey then becomes the “library cat” for the town of Spencer, Iowa.

Okay, so you are probably thinking, “a library cat, really?” But this book is about much more than a library cat. Dewey’s story unfolds in little vignettes, and as that comes out, so do other themes. The town where this all takes place, Spencer, is a small  town center in a rural area, and Myron carefully plots out some of the problems that the town faced– the losses of the small family farms, the rise of big Agra, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and how life in a small farm-town is markedly different from that of big cities.  She also builds on the importance of the public library in the town, how it serves for a center of civic and public life, and how  libraries are instrumental for regular people. For instance- in many local libraries in small Midwestern towns, the libraries keep fancy cake-pans (yes, cake pans) for people to check out so that they can make a special cake for a birthday or celebration. Yup, Midwesterners do not mess around when it comes to food, and even the libraries embrace this fact.

Dewey, of course, is the star of this book, and much of the work centers on how he, as a cat, lives an extraordinary life. Those who live with animals and who understand animals, know that our cats and dogs humanize us, and that is, in one sense what Dewey did as the Spencer’s library cat. He gave joy to all who came to the library, including disabled children, homeless people, exhausted young mothers, and the elderly. He became a sort of mascot for the town, more popular than the local politicians, and he became Vicki’s cat.

Some of the more moving parts of the book center around how Dewey’s love and affection grounded Vicki— a single mom who escaped a bad marriage to an alcoholic, who managed to graduate from college as an adult despite numerous obstacles. As the book unfolds, you realize that it is about more than just a cat that came to live in a library– it is about ordinary Americans living ordinary lives (that are often filled with emotional and physical pain) but who manage to persevere– much like Dewey himself.

Interwoven into all of this are funny little stories about the cat himself, small-town politics, and how Dewey eventually became a media sensation (long before this book ever came out.) This is a sweet little book, one that could be shared with older children (not the whole thing, a few chapters are pretty dark) but is an easy read about how one little cat came to change the life of a little town in Iowa, and their head librarian. I enjoyed it– it was light and pleasurable and a good book to help get things rolling again.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The Angelic Doctor

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  As C noted, some of this is due to “the Aprils,” but it’s also just that there have been other things going on and on my mind that have distracted me from reading.  Nevertheless, we press on.  This is probably the longest I’ve kept up with a New Year’s Resolution, and I’m not going to let a little reader’s block stop me now.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, during Lent I thought I would take up one or two more spiritual reads.  For a variety of reasons, I decided to reread a classic by G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.  It is a small book about a large man – and I mean large in every sense of the word: physically, intellectually, spiritually.  Since it’s writing, the book has received mixed reviews.  The great 20th century Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson dubbed it the best introduction to St. Thomas’s life and thought.  Others, however, were not as impressed, labeling it in many ways amateurish (undoubtedly an adjective Chesterton himself would have used of it, again, in every sense of the word).  The book certainly is not a close engagement with the writings of Aquinas, but rather presents an icon, if you will, of the man and what he was fundamentally about.  The story goes that the way Chesterton wrote the book is by first reading everything he could get his hands on about Thomas, then asking his secretary into his office and dictating the entire thing.  As such, it is not a scholarly tome, but a portrait.

For all its faults, the book does give the reader a lively sense of Aquinas the man, the scholar, and the saint.  Chesterton begins by contrasting Aquinas with the other saint about whom he wrote a biography, St. Francis.  Despite the many superficial differences between the two, Chesterton argues that fundamentally they were at one, particularly in their emphasis on the doctrine of the Incarnation.  For both these great saints, matter mattered – creation is good and God-given, and as such it is to be affirmed.  For Chesterton, this devotion to the Incarnation explains much of Thomas’s thought: his adoption and baptism of Aristotle, his obsession with the error of the Manichees, his affirmation of a common sense acceptance of the existence of the world.  In a typically Chestertonian witticism, he writes, “If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, ‘To be or not to be – that is the question,’ then the massive medieval doctor does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, ‘To be – that is the answer.'”

More moving than the man’s intellect, however, is his singular devotion to Christ and to following the call of God.  Thomas’s family had plans for him: he was to be the abbot of a Benedictine monastery, at the time a position of wealth and status.  Thomas, however, would have none of it.  Resolute in his conviction that he was called to the upstart mendicant Order of Preachers, he stood his ground against the protestations of his family, casting aside status for the beggarly life of the Dominicans.  Chesterton’s discussion of the famous vision Thomas had of Christ offering him anything he wanted puts the story into perspective.  Here was a man who would willingly trade an entire city for a copy of a homily by St. John Chrysostom, but when the Lord offered him whatever he wanted, he replied, “Only thyself.”  For all his brilliance and scholarly acumen, his devotion took precedence even over the greatest intellectual gifts.

It is perhaps true that The Dumb Ox is as much about Chesterton as it is about Aquinas – this is often the case with books by the great British journalist.  Even if the book may not be the single best introduction to the great doctor’s thought, it nevertheless does convey the spirit and the fervor of this medieval man of mystery.

Twenty-two down, (at least) thirty to go

Ta,
J