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Living in Society

Reading 2022

Sorting books for library downsizing.

The garlic rack converts to a table by using a remnant of a 4 x 8 sheet of 3/4-inch plywood used to build our child a loft bed for college. I laid it down on top of the two by fours used to hold garlic as it dries. The rack is tall enough so garlic leaves don’t touch the floor. As a table I can work without bending over. It is a useful space to sort things out.

I read 50 books thus far this year. They are listed on the Read Recently page which is updated after I finish each one. Here are the highlights of this daily activity.

By far, the most interesting book was Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life by Alice Wong. She was born with spinal muscular dystrophy and her book stands out as a tale of living an active life with a disease that confines her to a wheelchair. In her discussion of Twitter, she describes how the social media platform is used by disabled persons who may have no other public voice. As Elon Musk acquired and is changing the platform, I hope he improves the disability community’s ability to participate in this aspect of society.

Memoirs and biography were too small a portion of the books I read. As someone writing their own autobiography, I should be reading more in this category. Each of the four I read was important. I enjoyed Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter more than Ted Kennedy: A Life by John A. Farrell and Like a Rolling Stone by Jann S. Wenner. Lynn’s book was relatable in a way Kennedy and Wenner are not. A person can take only so much of the life story of rich people. I associated Joan Liffrig-Zug Bourret, who died in the care center in town this year, with the many cookbooks she published at her Penfield Press. Her memoir, Pictures and People: A Search for Visual Truth and Social Justice tells a story that goes well beyond her chronicling of the Amana Colonies in Iowa.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut seemed unique and necessary. The Chilean author presents, as The Guardian put it, “an extraordinary ‘nonfiction novel’ that weaves a web of associations between the founders of quantum mechanics and the evils of two world wars.” It was unlike anything else I recently read.

I read fiction for diversion and to see how other writers do their work. Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway was the best of the lot this year.

In poetry, how did I miss Mary Oliver in my life? I don’t know but Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver was well-written and engaging. I’ll be returning to this excellent volume.

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America by John M. Barry tells a story essential to anyone who is from or is writing about life in the Mississippi basin.

Related to my autobiography was The Trader at Rock Island: George Davenport and the Founding of the Quad-Cities by Regena Trant Schantz. This is an essential book about the settling of the Midwest. What was most surprising is it was just published in 2020. I would like to have read this when I was a teenager in Davenport.

There were no real clinkers in this year’s books. What made a difference in reading more was setting a daily goal of reading 25 pages in a book. I hope readers find my review of 2022 reading to be useful. I’d love to hear what you are reading in the comments.

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Living in Society

Ron’s Book Sale

Books acquired at Ron’s Memorial Book Sale at the Solon Public Library.

What does a person do with 1,800 books after the owner dies? If one supports our local library, they have a book sale and donate the proceeds to Friends of the Solon Public Library. That’s what my friend Pat did after her husband Ron died just before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in 2020.

While visiting Pat after COVID-19 had been normalized in Iowa, she offered me what books I wanted. I took one, and said I would just wait until the sale to buy more. Sometimes a person has to show up.

Besides sating my immediate reading wants and perceived needs, the sale was a chance to catch up with people in the community. The people I knew had retired or were scaling back to part time work. Our community has a small yet devoted group of readers and will show up for a book sale.

A younger me would have brought home a lot of books. Instead, I made a free will donation for these seven. I hope to read them all, likely beginning with Pat Conroy’s memoir. It will not be the same as having a conversation with Ron, who was not only well-read but could talk intelligently about almost any topic. Reading Ron’s books is no substitute for those conversations, yet that is where we are.

Iowa is among the least educated states in the country. Those of us outside academia who pursue intellectual interests get to know each other and support our public library. In our community of several thousand people there are not many of us. When someone dies, or experiences a stroke, dementia, or Alzheimer’s Disease it is a substantial loss. We are of an age when that possibility is tangible.

The first snow fell in small flakes as I left for the sale. It continued while I was browsing books, and until I arrived home. Winter has not arrived, just a reminder of it. For me that means hunkering down in the warmth of our home to read and write until spring. Those of us who remain must go on living. That’s what I plan to do.

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Home Life

Reading Today

State Park Trail.

Gentle rain suppressed my desire to attend the Amana free-will donation fire fighters breakfast this morning. It is part of my project to get to know Iowa County, which became part of my state house district and will remain so for the next ten years. It was a solitary endeavor and therefore easy to delay until next year. Now that the garden is in, we can use the rain.

I have indoor projects requiring attention, more than I care to admit. A main one is to develop a reading plan for the rest of summer. I closed May re-reading The Great Gatsby, a Memorial Day weekend favorite. Today I hit something of a wall.The books on my to-read shelves seem a tedious chore. Where did my reading mojo go?

Maybe I need a break. My program to read at least 25 pages of a book each day has been good and I look forward to resuming progress. During a break, I need to take stock of what I’m reading and figure out what I need to read. This post is toward that end.

Some dynamics are at work in my reading life. I have been a book buyer since I had an income as a grader. I have been a keeper as well. As a result, I have a large home library which contains as many unread books as those I read. My buying slowed in recent years, yet there is plenty to read a step or two away from my desk. I also bought books with a vague notion of building collections around a topic. For example, I have eight books about Iowa authors and the University of Iowa Writers ‘ Workshop. It is a collection waiting to be read when the spirit moves me.

Research for my autobiography set me on a path to read books to understand the background against which I was born, educated, worked and lived. This year, The Trader at Rock Island: George Davenport and the Founding of the Quad Cities by Regena Trant Schantz is an example. I bought it soon after publication and read it during the time I wrote about the 1950s in Davenport. It was a useful reference about a story that had not been adequately told until Schantz wrote her book. There will be others on my list like this.

I don’t write much poetry yet I read it each year to gain exposure to how other express themselves. I read Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver this year and am looking for my next book of verse. Over the years, I built a large collection of unread poetry, bought mostly at thrift stores and used bookstores. There is plenty from which to choose without leaving the house.

Books about writing are a mixed bag. I have a shelf of them and once or twice a year I read someone different. I have yet to read one this year, so I’ll pick one.

A lot of my time is spent talking to people in person or online. I get book recommendations frequently. Sometimes they work out and sometimes not. It tends to stretch my understanding of what is worth reading. If left to my own devices, I would read and re-read the works of William Carlos Williams, Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, John Irving, Vance Bourjaily and David Rhodes over and over and over again in an unending loop. Recommendations are important to maintaining an active mind.

I have an appetite for good fiction and read a couple books per year in this category. The most recent is The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. With Gatsby, they are the only two fiction books read this year. Perhaps another is in order for the summer. Whatever summer fiction I read, I don’t want it to be too much work.

Finally, there are cooking books. These serve the endless quest to determine new dishes for our kitchen garden. I’m at the point as a home cook where I don’t consult with recipes very much. I know the range of ingredients and techniques and fit them into meeting the needs of ovolacto-vegetarian me and my vegan spouse. One of my projects is to build a cookbook shelving unit for the kitchen-dining room and reduce the number of cookbooks to what will fit on it. That’s a project for winter, though, so I’m still exploring.

With that in mind, here is my draft of a summer reading list:

  • Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking by Anthony Bourdain.
  • The Groveland Four: The Sad Saga of a Legal Lynching by Gary Corsair.
  • Seven Sinners of Shiloh and other Poems by Franklin Walker.
  • The Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America and How to Restore Its Greatness by Thom Hartmann.
  • Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy by Matt Stoller.
  • The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978 – 1987 by Seamus Heaney.
  • Sarajevo: An Anthology for Bosnian Relief edited by John Babbitt, Carolyn Feucht and Andie Stabler.
  • From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction by Forrest A. Nabors.
  • Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming edited by Paul Hawken.
  • Siberian Dream by Irina Pantaeva.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Wish me luck and/or comment with your recommendations.

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Reviews

Book Review: Bet the Farm

The craftsmanship of Bet the Farm: The Dollars and Sense of Growing Food in America by Beth Hoffman is good, better than many books I read. For people unfamiliar with the challenges of Midwestern, sustainable agriculture, it is a good introduction, covering most issues.

Hoffman is a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa and so am I, so there are some connections. Even though we never met, I know people she mentions in the book and we would likely have friends and acquaintances in common. The PFI community is not that big.

For nine seasons, I worked with beginning and experienced farmers who operate community supported agriculture projects, large vegetable or fruit farms, and raise livestock, so I know some of the work and the challenges. In total, I worked on or did interviews for newspapers on a dozen or so of them.

As she mentions more than once in the narrative, she is from the coast and the land was owned outright by the Iowa family. The former is more typical of beginning farmers, the latter isn’t. It is a good book, yet I hoped there would be a connection to the author and her narrative. There wasn’t.

Bet the Farm was a quick read and if a person is interested in this topic, there are a number of other works by beginning farmers I’d read first.

I wish Beth and John good luck on their farm and would read another book about their progress after they have been farming five or ten more years.

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Reviews

Book Review: The Hidden History of Big Brother in America

In The Hidden History of Big Brother in America: How the Death of Privacy and the Rise of Surveillance Threaten Us and Our Democracy, author Thom Hartmann focuses on Big Data and its consequences for all aspects of our lives. In the framework of surveillance and social control, Hartmann traces the history of surveillance and the threat of violence to control behavior, thought, and belief by our political and social masters.

Referencing George Orwell’s book 1984, Hartmann wrote, “Orwell was only slightly off the mark. Big Brother types of government, and Thought Police types of social control, are now widespread in the world and incompatible with democracy.”

What makes this book timely is the way Trump campaigns used Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to scrape personal data about tens of millions of voters from the internet, and then custom targeted them with tens of thousands of distinct daily ads designed to either persuade people to vote for Trump or not vote at all. On the day of the third presidential debate in October 2020, Hartmann wrote, team Trump ran 175,000 variations of ads micro-targeting voters. These ads were, for the most part, not publicly seen.

Here in Iowa the Republican legislature seeks to control our behavior with legislation intended to address perceived constituent needs. Iowa Republicans approach it with a dull knife. For example, because of feedback and paranoia about transgender girls, Republicans introduced legislation to ban trans females from Title IX activities. This legislation would create discrimination for sure, and potentially a bullying environment for children. They seek to control our behavior and even such crude attempts at social control are anti-democratic. By using bludgeoning methods, Iowa Republicans were not nearly as effective as Trump’s use of Big Data to spy on voters and use what they found to influence their decisions.

Thom Hartmann

Whether one is liberal, conservative, libertarian or whatever, we have concerns about how Big Data firms like Google, Facebook, Oracle, Microsoft, Amazon, and others surveil and use data we consider to be private. In the beginning we considered such data collection and use to be for advertising like generating sales for a brand of energy drink. Whether it is conservatives who have paranoid feelings that “Big Data” is collecting personal information, censoring and manipulating people, liberals who see companies like Cambridge Analytica violating their privacy, or Amazon Ring customers concerned about law enforcement gaining warrantless access to video from the camera at their doorstep, Big Brother is watching us, eroding our privacy, and threatening our democracy.

In The Hidden History of Big Brother in America, Hartmann uses extensive examples to highlight the consequences of Big Data on our lives. He traces the history of surveillance and social control, looking back to how Big Brother invented whiteness to keep order, and how surveillance began to be employed as a way to modify behavior. “The goal of those who violate privacy and use surveillance is almost always social control and behavior modification,” Hartmann wrote.

Big Data threatens privacy and enables surveillance, Hartmann wrote. The lack of alternatives to lifestyles that involve feeding into Big Data leads to almost forced participation in surveillance by Big Brother. Surveillance and lack of privacy are a threat to freedom, he wrote, because the information gathered can be abused, people have a right not to be observed, and being observed is an intervention that can affect those who are observed.

Are we doomed to live under Big Brother’s watchful eye? How much social and political control should corporations have in society? How much Big Brother will modern people tolerate? For discussion of answers to these timely questions and more, I recommend the Hidden History of Big Brother in America.

Thom Hartmann is a four-time winner of the Project Censored Award, a New York Times bestselling author of thirty-two books, and America’s #1 progressive talk radio show host. His show is syndicated on local for-profit and nonprofit stations and broadcasts nationwide and worldwide. It is also simulcast on television in nearly 60 million US and Canadian homes.

To buy a copy of the Hidden History of Big Brother in America: How the Death of Privacy and the Rise of Surveillance Threaten Us and Our Democracy, click here. The book is available March 8, 2022.

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Reviews

Fiction

Books from the Library Used Book Sale

Fiction usually serves a specific purpose in my reading life: it functions the way a palate cleanser prepares us for flavors ahead, or in the case of reading, the next serious book. It is not that fiction writers are trivial in their efforts, it takes the same hard work to produce decent fiction as it does any other type of writing. Fiction is not the main event for me, so there are different expectations.

A novel must be paced quickly to hold interest. While fans of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky exist, their books have been difficult reads. I’m willing to suspend disbelief, yet only for so long.

I don’t like it when the mechanics of assembling a story are visible in the narrative. Yes, the author has to end a novel, although arbitrary resolutions of plot, ones in which the author’s hand is clearly visible, are particularly annoying. I’m thinking of Richard Powers novel The Overstory, an otherwise engaging tale.

Reading the first chosen novel of an author is almost always better than the next. I’m comparing Amor Towles books A Gentleman in Moscow and The Lincoln Highway. I was enraptured by the former and the latter seems forced and vapid. Towles seems full of himself and we don’t read fiction because of that. The same applies to Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars and The Thirty Names of Night. The former is memorable, and the latter, not so much. All of them helped pass the time, so what am I complaining about?

Time was I wanted a novel to teach me something. Michael Crichton’s State of Fear cured me of that. One needs no further thinly veiled and polemicized presentations of a political argument. That Crichton was required reading to work in a logistics company rubbed salt into the wound. I seek to engage in a good story, follow it through to the end, and move on. Spare me the polemics, please.

When I consider past reading, there are only a few novels I would read again. Among them are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tolkien’s books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, and On The Road by Jack Kerouac. I enjoy reading John Irving, who is an exception to the rule about next books. Before I’d re-read one of his, I’d finish reading what I haven’t. My favorite was A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Give me a good novel, one that reads quickly, encourages me to suspend disbelief, and is a narrative for the sole purpose of telling the story. Do it well and you’ve got me hooked… at least until I move on to the next main reading event.

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Living in Society

Don’t Tell Us What to Read

Morning Reading for $1.25

I got my first library card in 1959 and have been reading ever since. When I was young, teachers kept an eye on my reading and made their opinions known. If they didn’t like a particular book, I read it at home where my parents supervised me.

My first conflict was in eighth grade over a book written by Ian Fleming, one of the 007 series. The priest saw I had it and confiscated it because of Bond’s interaction with women. I discussed it with my parents and eventually bought another copy from my allowance.

In high school I heard about J.D. Salinger’s book Catcher in the Rye and wanted to read it. It was prohibited and unavailable in the school library. I read that one too. I managed the conflicts between teachers and my reading.

What I can’t abide is the state legislature regulating which books should be allowed in schools. This decision should be between teachers, librarians, and parents. The claim parents don’t know what books are in schools seems bogus. If the legislature wants to do something, fund on-line access to card catalogues throughout the state. We don’t need lawmakers telling us what to read.

~ First published on Jan. 22, 2022 in the Cedar Rapids Gazette

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Reviews

Book Review: Peril

Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Photo Credit – The Guardian

The effort to disrupt the Electoral College vote counting at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was appalling. It was made worse by the fact a sitting U.S. president, in order to overturn a legitimate election and cling desperately to power, organized, led and encouraged a mob. When events turned deadly, the president failed to call off the demonstrators in a timely manner. By any definition, what happened that day was insurrection.

Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa is the first draft of historical narrative of events leading to that day and its aftermath during the first months of the Biden-Harris administration. The authors interviewed more than 200 people for the book and it reads like history. It’s not that. It is more like an extended newspaper article. Discovery of new aspects of the events leading to Jan. 6 have been released almost daily. The pace of new information is expected to accelerate in 2022. This book is what we have now to provide an overview of what happened.

To the extent Peril recounts what happened, it is useful the way a newspaper article is useful. It left me wanting to know more. It is neither the best written political book, nor does it provide meaningful insights. Its narrative is believable yet incomplete.

The good news about Peril is that it took less than 48 hours to read. Combined with our first winter storm and in between snow removal, cooking, and indoor work, it made an engaging companion. There will be better books written about Jan. 6 once the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack finishes its work. For the time being, Peril can accompany us on the journey to determine what happened and what a voter can do to remedy the causes of this doleful day.

As an American the need for action is obvious. Reading Peril is an efficient way to get caught up after the end of year holidays. What comes next is an open question.

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Reviews

Top 2021 Book Picks

I beat my 2021 goal and read 54 books this year. I also developed a process to give prime time, early each day, to reading 25 or more pages. Either book reading is important in our lives or it isn’t, I reasoned. So I read books, almost daily. Book reading is an important part of any writer’s life. Here are those I found most useful and memorable.

Poetry: I re-read A Coney Island of the Mind after Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s passing on Feb. 22, 2021. An important part of my high school reading, it held up well. In addition, I read books of poetry by Amanda Gorman (The Hill We Climb), Gabriela Marie Milton (Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings), Charles Wright (A Short History of the Shadow: Poems), Gary Snyder (Turtle Island), and bell hooks (Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place). I read the memoir of poet laureate of the United States Joy Harjo, Poet Warrior.

Current Affairs: Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert stands out in this category. Her writing is compelling and this book is relevant now. Other current affairs books I’d recommend are Persist by Elizabeth Warren, Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains by Lucas Bessire, The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050 by Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet by Michael E. Mann, and Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall.

Other Favorites:

Wilding: Returning Nature to a Farm by Isabella Tree
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
Turning Pointe by Chloe Angyal
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Poles in Minnesota by John Radzilowski
What I Mean by Joan Didion

Check out my Goodreads profile for the complete 2021 list by clicking here.

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Reviews

Book Review: Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night

I met Maureen McCue, who just published a memoir Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night: Sharing Life Along the Road, when we were both on the Johnson County Board of Health in 2006.

As soon as McCue arrived to become the board’s physician, she drove us to become quite busy both with required tasks like replacing the director, and voluntary initiatives like educating other county boards of health in the effects of coal-fired power plants on human health. Given our shared history, I didn’t know what to expect when the memoir was released earlier this year.

While much in the book is familiar, the author’s interpretation of events is fresh. The road in the title, along which life is shared, was the same one I drove many times to get to their home: all without incident or specific inspiration. I recall when the bridge was out and had to take the long way around. It was a road, a conveyance. Or was it? The central assertion of the book is it was more than that, a metaphor for a path forward from environmental degradation.

It is a book worth reading for a couple of reasons.

McCue creates a sense of place that is hers alone and explains its risks and rewards. We see life along her road with all its wonder and tragedy. There are a number of Grade B roads in the county, yet she made hers special by describing animal and plant life along with changing weather in which she found herself. She attempted to connect it to the broader world she experienced in international travel as a physician. One experiences the sense of place in the writing. That alone is enough to make Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night worth reading.

Life along the road includes their adopted son Michael who has special needs, or as McCue put it, “The diagnosis according to specialists that day was ‘mild to moderate’ mental retardation.” Over the years I spent time with Michael. He is a unique person and a familiar face around the county. While I feel I know Michael well, it is unclear what, if anything he remembers of me when I approach him to engage. McCue’s narrative about caring for Michael is compelling and an engaging read for people with special needs children.

When professors and instructors leave university many have written books. Stow Persons’ The University of Iowa in the Twentieth Century, D.C. Spriesterbach’s The Way it Was: The University of Iowa 1964 – 1989, and others come to mind. I asked McCue about this retirement, book-writing phenomenon. She answered, “I’ve asked myself the same question, but it’s not so much about writing after retirement, it’s more like having the time and will to get it published — this book and it’s parts were weaving there way out of me over a long time.  Writing happens whenever, but following it to the publisher takes a different kind of mind set and time line facilitated by retirement.”

There is an obvious comparison between Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night: Sharing Life Along the Road and Cornelia F. Mutel’s 2016 book A Sugar Creek Chronicle: Observing Climate Change from a Midwestern Woodland. McCue and Mutel are friends and share many elements in their lives, McCue said. I wouldn’t want to pick between them so I advise reading both.

Birds in the Morning, Frogs at Night: Sharing Life Along the Road is published by Ice Cube Press. Find it by clicking here.

~ First posted on Bleeding Heartland on Dec. 11, 2021.