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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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Home Life Sustainability

Winter and Reading

Fallen maple tree leaves, November 2021.

Retirees will soon migrate to winter homes. Pontoon boats were pulled out of the lake, scrubbed down, and covered with tarps. The last volunteer work is finished, and even though local weather is quite pleasant, rents have been paid for winter homes, or second homes are owned in Florida, Arizona, or other points south and west. Warmer climates beckon.

The two of us remain in Iowa year-round. When it is cold, we leave home less often, read more, and with higher natural gas prices forecast this winter, will keep the thermostat down and stay warm with additional layers of clothing. I put an extra blanket on the bed when I made it this morning. We’re from here.

My reading consists mainly of three types: I read between 40 and 50 books each year; subscribe to four newspapers and several daily newsletters; and read linked articles in my Twitter feed. I stay well informed without watching television, listening to radio, or using streaming news sources. Reading is a mainstay of staying engaged in society.

In November I might read five 250-page books. It is getting harder to answer the question, what’s next? There is a backlog of books to read, both recently acquired and those that have been in the stacks for a while. Figure I’ll keep reading until at least age 80, so there’s room to read about 500 more books. The days of seemingly endless available reading time are over. Each book choice matters.

I spend a lot of time gardening and cooking yet read few complete books on the subjects. I have enough experience to do this work and improve it by tweaking current practices. I consult with books and online articles, yet more with farmers I know both locally and in other parts of the country. I seldom read a cook book or gardening book all the way through.

What am I seeking in a book? Some poetry, some fiction, and a lot related to my life. For example, I recently read Elizabeth Warren’s book Persist because of my connection to her presidential campaign and my interest in politics. I just finished The Age of Wood: Our Most Useful Material and the Construction of Civilization by Roland Ennos. I enjoy books that have broad historical sweep because I need escape in them from time to time. Lately I’ve been reviewing books from Thom Hartmann’s publisher and that work kept me busy in late summer. I recently read Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings by Gabriela Marie Milton who I found through WordPress. There is a stack of books about or by people I have known. My process for reading selection exists and needs a bit more self-awareness and adjustment.

A person can effectively read only one book at a time, so I work to choose the next one well. With winter coming I’ll read four or five books each month. I want to make sure it is the ones from the stacks, shelves and boxes in my indoors writing area that will serve my interest in remaining engaged in society.

It goes without saying, I want to protect my eyesight so I can go on reading as long as I have the mental capacity to do so.

Categories
Living in Society Writing

Postcards From Iowa #3

Text on the postcard: “Student, c. 1960. Photographer Unidentified.”

When young our capacity seems limitless. When I got my first library card in 1959 I believed I could read every book on the Bookmobile that stopped each week in our neighborhood. I looked forward to returning books I read and getting new ones. Outside of school, it was a highlight of the week.

Mother got me a subscription to My Weekly Ready, the arrival of which was another highlight. I bought a few children’s books at the local drug store. Keeping up with reading was easy with the energy of youth.

When I lived in Iowa City in my twenties, I started a project to read every book in the public library. It tested my limits. I started at the beginning of the Dewey Decimal system and didn’t make it out of the philosophy section.

I didn’t hear about the Horatio Alger story until I was in college, but that could have been my story, lifting myself up with diligence, honesty and altruism as I read and read and read, waiting for some happy circumstance to present itself and bring me the good things of life. We now know what I was feeling was the privilege of being white and middle class.

I look back to those days, with their libraries full of reading material, and consider my devotion to the act of reading. It was a solitary life and I was mostly okay with that.

What I didn’t realize, that would have helped me if I did, was to get anything significant done in society it takes a context that includes others. I was ready for a life of rugged individualism, in which through my own hard work I could pull myself up by my bootstraps and experience success. I didn’t understand how divisive that could be, pitting my own efforts against others to ensure personal success above all else. Live and learn.

Today I have piles of books I want to read just like the schoolboy on this postcard. However, my intent is different than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. I seek insight to take collective action on things like the climate crisis and more. I provide for my basic existence — food, shelter, clothing, transportation and healthcare — yet that serves only as a platform to do other things with a network of people.

Some days I wish to be that boy sitting next to a stack of books while reading. If I were, there would be things to tell him.

Categories
Writing

Better Reading

Book Shelf in the garage.

As I finish my seventieth year on planet Earth I’ve been considering why I read and why I should.

Reading has become such a habit it’s unclear I’m approaching it the right way. As Socrates is said to have asserted, an unexamined life is not worth living. I want my remaining days to be worth living and for reading to be part of them.

I’ve become a lazy book reader. I read in bed, in the middle of the night when sleep fails me, and when I wake too early to get up. I read when I can’t fall asleep when I should. I have four subscriptions to newspapers along with several daily newsletters and countless emails. I read articles linked in social media and of course the posts on my pages.

Most of that reading is good, yet the backlog of books to read is growing. There is also a randomness to how I pick books. Unless I’m on a deadline to write a review of an advance copy from a publisher, my choices are somewhat impulsive, based on what a friend said, who wrote the book, or the context in which I heard of it. A retiree has few deadlines and constraints when it comes to reading. There is a sense my impulses on reading have not always been the best for me.

According to my Goodreads tracker, I’ve read 30 of a 36-book goal for 2021. In July I read one book and I’m working on my first in August. I like the Goodreads reading challenge because it gives me a point of focus. I feel good clicking the link to say I finished a book. Whatever I do, I’ll keep using the social media platform.

There is an existential angst to all this although I don’t intend to dwell there long. I need to move from habit to active engagement in reading–I know that. I also need a better strategy for picking what to read and when to read it.

Taming the internet and it’s 24/7 fire hose of words is important. Scrollers gonna scroll, and I am one. It is one thing to get through the feed to find what’s engaging. There is no reason to follow a rabbit hole in real time, every time. When there is a linked article, I could use the application Pocket to save it to read later. If an article is worth reading, it will still be so at a designated time. I already devote some of my morning routine to reading. It should be easy to add saved Pocket articles to the mix at that time.

When I consider reading done this year, the best part was researching my ancestors settling in Minnesota. It resulted in this piece of writing for my autobiography. More of that would be good. As the gardening season commenced, my interest in autobiography waned and I moved on and outdoors. Once the garlic is planted in October, I expect that kind of reading to resume. It is some of the best I do and I want that.

Like many, I read to learn. I’ve been tracking my reading on this site for years. It’s a simple list of books with the most recently read at the top. If one looks through them, there is not a particular theme or concentration. Someone I know will recommend or write a book, and it falls into the reading queue. I have a long reading queue which want organization.

When we consider the gravest threats to our lives during the coming decades, the effects of climate change may be the most challenging. I expect to continue to read books , studies and articles about the environment as a mainstay of my reading.

This blog is about gardening and cooking, creating a “kitchen garden.” When I read about these topics, I’m looking for something specific: how to combat a pest, for instance. The best of what I read is doing the research in my library of cooking and gardening books–finding answers to questions about process. I don’t read many gardening or cooking books cover to cover.

An example of a cooking book I do read cover to cover is Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. More than anything, she presents a narrative about cooking that goes beyond a single meal or dish to how we connect them together. I also read Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Again for its narrative more than cooking tips.

The thing I’ve been dodging here is my book reading. How does one get from being a lazy reader to more engaged? The answer is obvious. Set aside prime daytime hours to read, and stick to a schedule. Instead of using reading to fill hours I should be sleeping, make it the main event for at least part of the day. Morning is the best time so adding an hour or two to my daily outline might serve.

The harder part is in book selection, working on the reading queue. It is easier when I’m working on a project like researching my Minnesota ancestors. Like a coal miner, you just follow the vein. I also want to be moved by what I read. I’m thinking of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. I want things from reading and haven’t given them adequate consideration. All I can see is the growing book stacks waiting to be read and no way out except to spend the time.

Why do I read? To learn, to enjoy, and to be a better human. Why should I read? To retain relevance in a changing world. Without devotion to ideas found in books relevancy can be difficult. So I end where I began, with questions. There are a couple of things I can do for better reading. I can’t wait to get started.