Becoming by Michelle Obama


Becoming by Michelle Obama
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What surprised me was the clarity with which Obama depicted a life on the South Side of Chicago and how it influenced her both while coming up and once she had means to be on her own. The first two sections of the book are by far the strongest. That’s partly because as First Lady events in the third part had plenty of previous play in the media creating a background noise that interfered somewhat with her meticulous and thoughtful narrative.

She crafted a story almost anyone could relate to. Highly recommend you check this book out from the library and give it a read. Better yet, have your children read it, or read it with a group of friends.


An Uncivil War by Greg Sargent

An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome PoliticsAn Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics by Greg Sargent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written before the 2018 Midterms and Bret Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, Greg Sargent provides an outline of key issues to help Democrats as we prepare for the 2020 general election. He covers voter suppression, gerrymandering, the role of disinformation in our current politics, and refreshes our memory of the hardball constitutional politics played by Republican leadership in recent years. He frames up what Democrats can do about our politics that favors democracy and fair play in governance.

In a couple hundred pages Sargent brings together national issues that resonate on a local level. If a person were to read a single book about national politics, An Uncivil War should be the one.

~ Review first appeared on Goodreads

Kitchen Garden Reviews

Summer Begins

First Marketmore Cucumber

A letter from our rural medical clinic reached me early this morning. I read every word it had to say.

I said, the letter reached me early this morning, I read every word it had to say.

Rural life ain’t nothing but the blues, how much longer can we live this way?

The physician I saw in April is moving his practice to Williamsburg — too far to drive for routine appointments. His replacement is an ARNP, which stands for advanced registered nurse practitioner. I read the definition but don’t understand what it means except we’re changing from two physicians to one… another nail in the coffin of rural health care.

We’re lucky to live close to the clinic’s hospital, and a large teaching hospital operates in the county seat. We won’t be deprived of care. I don’t look forward to changing physicians for the fourth time since leaving my transportation career.

I’ll try the new arrangement. What else is there to do?

This is the last weekend for soil blocking at the two CSA farms. After that, the farmers will make their own for the remaining fall share starts. I’m taking a break before returning to the orchard in August.

I finished reading The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks before heading to the garden.

The shepherd went to Oxford, so it’s natural he would do something outside the normal range for a sheep herder. He’s been traveling and speaking to groups of farmers about his life in the Lake District of England. Last January in Ames, he spoke to members of Practical Farmers of Iowa at their annual convention. They made a YouTube of his speech. I haven’t viewed it yet.

What struck me about the book is the comparison with Iowa. Not necessarily what one might think.

On the one hand a well-settled place of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Beatrix Potter and the Lake Poets. In front of us a landscape barely settled since the Black Hawk War of 1832. Any sense of ancient Iowa prairie is long gone and replaced with a grid of roads outlining row cropped fields and concentrated animal feeding operations. The long history of sheep herding in the Lake District served as a reminder most Iowa farmers are recent trespassers as agriculture and land use continue to evolve. There won’t always be soy and corn in what was once an ancient lake bed.

Rebanks informed my view of the annual cycle of sheep farmers. Now I know why some of my friends are so stressed during spring lambing. I’m sorry I missed the speech, and when spring farm work is done, I plan to spend the hour to watch it.

For the time being back to working on the garden to chase away these summertime blues.

Home Life Reviews

Waning Lilacs

Fallen Lilac Flowers

Flowers began to fall from lilac bushes. Air is fragrant with sweet smell.

It won’t last long. It is spring, which continues as it has for millennia, reminding us we are but a speck of dust in time by comparison.

It’s the last day before the end of my hiatus from the home, farm and auto supply store.

Two days a week isn’t much to work. When quitting time on the second day rolls around I feel I accomplished something but am not committed. That’s what I want.

I’m reading Natchez Burning by Greg Iles. Part of me likes it and part doesn’t. What I like is it was checked out from our digital library during recent rainfall and I’m reading it on my mobile device. It’s an easy read, a thriller. The story moves along and while I’m reading it’s easy to finish a chapter. What I don’t like is the obvious handles which are part of the narrative. Characters, settings, the former music store, iconography of popular culture — it all seems too easy a construct and such awareness while reading is a distraction. There are thousands of on line reviews of the book, so it’s easy to find people who agree with me. Many others liked the book. Because of the convenience and quick pace I’ll read on for now. If I don’t finish before the lending period is over, I’m not sure I will renew. Life’s long enough to try it, but too short to follow the novel to its conclusion through sheer determination.

Rain fell and it’s been good. Green up is here and the clean look of leaves and branches before insects get to work is inspiring. Time to weed the garden and harvest spinach and spring onions.


Heads in the Sand by Matthew Yglesias

Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats by Matthew Yglesias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yglesias’ book was a timely read in the context of the Trump administration’s forays into foreign policy, notably the April 13, 2018 bombing of Syrian chemical weapons capacity. Written before the Obama presidency, the lines of thought and policy started during the George W. Bush administration continue to the present. There is little evidence liberals received the author’s message or have done much to support a sustainable, bold foreign policiy. Rather they often co-opt neocon positions.


No Surrender by Jack Hatch

No Surrender by Jack Hatch

If interested in Iowa Democratic politics, read No Surrender: Building a Progressive Agenda for Iowa with the Five Securities by former state senator Jack Hatch. Read it now.

There are few long, contemporary narratives about the state of the Iowa Democratic Party. Hatch’s 2016 book recounts where we are, where we have been and where we could go.

The importance of the book is twofold.

It serves as a great way for political newcomers to get up to speed on Democratic politics. The results of the 2016 general election activated people around the state to become more involved in politics. No Surrender serves as a briefing book of major policy issues and how Democrats addressed them. Our approach stands in sharp contrast to Republicans, according to Hatch.

The author has standing to address flaws in Democratic approaches to elections and governance. A 22-year state legislator, chair of the White House Task Force of State Legislators for Health Care Reform, and 2014 gubernatorial candidate, Hatch tells the story of the rise of Democrats in 2006 and what we did while occupying the governor’s mansion and holding majorities in both chambers of the legislature. He also recounts how we fell. To be effective going forward, politically active Democrats need the sense of history No Surrender provides.

As with most contemporary political writing, there is a short shelf life to this book. Nonetheless, Hatch asserts Democratic values are more enduring: a progressive tax system, better jobs and livable wages, soil and water protection, life-long education, and health care for all.

Hatch lays out how a focus on policy could contribute to Democratic electoral wins and effective policy-making going forward. No Surrender provides a framework for policy-making much needed in these turbulent political times.

~ First posted on

Living in Society Reviews

I Call Bullshit by David Shorr

david-shorrI was predisposed to like David Shorr’s latest book.

Shorr and I met in 2009 when I persuaded him to write an opinion piece for the Des Moines Register advocating for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He willingly did so with co-author Tom Tully. It ran Dec. 15, 2009, titled, The real peace prize: Ban nuclear testing.

I found his new book valuable to surviving the tumult created by the recent election of a Republican president with Republican majorities in the federal government and the Iowa statehouse. His explanation of why Republicans “have wandered off into substantive incoherence” is cogent. His description of four fallacies regarding job creation, healthcare, foreign policy and voter suppression helped turn social media buzzwords into nuggets of understanding. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of why President Donald Trump makes House Speaker Paul Ryan look like a moderate politician when he isn’t.

While readers may take issue with some of Shorr’s arguments, that’s really his point: we should be able to disagree and make social progress at the same time. Until our national and local politics returns to reasonably working together, this book will help us get by and make the case for reality-based politics again.

~ This review was first posted on

Living in Society Reviews

Book Review: Give Us the Ballot

BermanThe word “progressive” got bandied about more this year than it has in a while.

Who is a progressive? Who is a “real” progressive? Who will continue a progressive legacy after the 2016 election?

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debated what it means to be a progressive at the beginning of the 2016 Democratic presidential nominating process, with both claiming progressive bona fides.

Here’s what I say. You are not a progressive unless you have read Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Iowa’s own Ari Berman.

In this extensively researched, easy to read text, Berman reminds many of us of the reason we became politically active: as a way of engaging in progress toward racial and social justice centered around the Voting Rights Act (VRA) signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965.

There has been a concerted, well-planned effort to suppress provisions of the VRA. The June 25, 2013 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Section 4, which required certain states to get pre-clearance of changes to voting laws from the Department of Justice, was only the most obvious, recent incident. Berman’s account of the Nixon and Reagan administrations provides insight that de-fanging the law was part of Republican intent from the beginning. My reaction was incredulity at everything that was happening before my eyes without me understanding it.

Berman interviewed Rep. John Lewis extensively for the book (along with many others) and it shows. Lewis wrote in the Washington Post,

“(Give Us The Ballot) should become a primer for every American, but especially for congressional lawmakers and staffers, because it so capably describes the intricate interplay between grass-roots activism and the halls of Congress . . . Congress must fix the Voting Rights Act, and Berman’s book explains why, without passion or favoritism. It is the first history of the contemporary voting rights movement in the United States. It is long overdue, but Berman’s extensive reporting makes it well worth the wait.”

It’s hard to disagree.

Be a progressive. Read Give Us the Ballot this summer.

~ Written for Prairie Progressive

Environment Reviews

Book Review – A Sugar Creek Chronicle

A Sugar Creek ChronicleIn A Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland Connie Mutel produced an engaging narrative of her efforts to cope with change while living on a parcel of Oak – Hickory forest in Northern Johnson County, Iowa.

The narrative is about climate change as the title suggests. It is also rich with descriptions of the flora and fauna of the region and how her life as a Midwestern ecologist, wife, mother, and cancer survivor has changed and is changing because of our warming planet.

It was hard to put the book down once I started reading.

The narrative is a combination of autobiography, new journalism, scientific research and advocacy for the political will to take action to mitigate the causes of anthropogenic global warming and its impact on our climate before it’s too late.

What makes the book important is less the scientific discussions about climate change, and more how Mutel copes with a life she believed held stability and predictability as key components. In telling her story Mutel articulates a personal perspective of current scientific research about climate change in a way that should provide easy to grab handles on a complex topic.

The idea that carbon dioxide causes global warming is not new. Around 1850, physicist John Tyndall discovered that carbon dioxide traps heat in our atmosphere, producing the greenhouse effect, which enables all of creation as we know it to live on Earth. That story has been told time and again.

The benefit of reading Mutel’s observations is one finds a lot in common with her life, on many levels. Her inquiry into global warming and climate change provides us a window not only to her world, but to ours.

~ Posted on

Environment Reviews

Reading Naomi Klein

This Changes EverythingUnlike the climate crisis story spoon fed to us in decreasing numbers of corporate media stories, in social media memes, and in fleeting conversations at community gatherings, in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, author Naomi Klein said there is a nascent, global movement preparing to take climate action.

“The climate movement has yet to find its full moral voice on the world stage,” Klein wrote. “But it is most certainly clearing its throat—beginning to put the very real thefts and torments that ineluctably flow from the decision to mock international climate commitments alongside history’s most damned crimes.”

If you haven’t read Klein’s 2014 book, you should. Not because of a desire to take sides in the public discussion of global warming and the need to keep global temperature increase to two degrees or less. But because a). reading a paper book can be good for us, and b). with Klein you can hear her broader story and learn new things. Here’s more on why you should pick up a copy at your library or bookstore if you haven’t already.

In Iowa, as home to the first in the nation caucuses, we are inundated with stories about politics. Elections matter, and we have seen how in the Republican awakening after Barack Obama’s 2008 election. Progressives hardly understood that Republicans, though in the minority in the Congress, would exercise such power that much of Obama’s agenda was sidelined from the beginning. Republican comebacks in 2010 and 2014 have turned the congress from Democratic to Republican, and right-wing hardliners have more input to the legislative process than their numbers warrant. Taking climate action in Congress has, for the most part, been a non-starter.

“It’s not just the people we vote into office and then complain about—it’s us,” Klein wrote. “For most of us living in post-industrial societies, when we see the crackling black-and-white footage of general strikes in the 1930s, victory gardens in the 1940s, and Freedom Rides in the 1960s, we simply cannot imagine being part of any mobilization of that depth and scale.”

“Where would we organize?” Klein asked. “Who would we trust enough to lead us? Who, moreover, is ‘we?'”

Klein’s book frames answers to those questions: People are organizing everywhere, resisting unbridled extraction of natural resources by corporations. “We” includes almost everyone.

This Changes Everything reviews the recent history of the climate movement. It covers extreme extraction of natural resources that leave behind waste heaps, fouled water and polluted air, then are burned and produce atmospheric gases that warm the planet. Everyone from fossil fuel companies to environmental groups have been involved in what Klein calls “extractivism.” There is a growing resistance, including environmental groups divesting from investments in the fossil fuel industry, indigenous people mounting court battles, and community groups violating international trade agreements to move to renewable energy sources. The book is a snapshot of where the climate movement currently stands.

While Klein has her point of view, she depicts the complexity of a global network of fossil fuel companies seeking to extract hydrocarbons scientists tells us must be left in the ground. While the resistance may not have found its full moral voice, Klein’s book makes the case it won’t be long and recounts the significant inroads indigenous people and communities near extraction sites are making.

When we talk about taking climate action, Naomi Klein’s work should be part of our conversation.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa