Categories
Review

Summer Reading 2019

Lake Macbride

For the next five weeks I’ll be covering weekdays for our editor Trish Nelson who is on summer break. This is my seventh year to provide summer posts, and more than ten years since I began posting at Blog for Iowa.

Regular readers know my topics: politics, foreign affairs, the climate crisis, the Iowa legislature and nuclear abolition. I’ll contribute those types of posts and more as I compete to gain your interest in a busy media landscape.

While Iowa lakes struggle to maintain safe water quality for summer activities like boating, low impact water sports, and swimming, Lake Macbride experienced its first-ever public health warnings about microcystins produced by blue-green algae. Department of Natural Resources staff recommended people not swim in the lake because of high levels of toxins in the water. While the swimming ban was lifted, there is another traditional summer activity for those skeptical about the water’s suitability: reading a book. Following is a list of books readers might consider for summer reading.

I know the 720-page Mueller Report published by The Washington Post sounds like a lot and maybe a straight through reading isn’t for everyone. However, read ten pages per day and it can be finished in 2.4 months.

Willard “Sandy” Boyd, the fifteenth president of the University of Iowa, published a memoir this year, A Life on the Middle West’s Never-ending Frontier. He was university president when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. Boyd remains active as Rawlings/Miller professor of Law at the university and is president emeritus. The memoir offers his views of the role of a public university and how it evolved since he first worked at the University of Iowa in 1954. I picked it for my personal connection to Boyd, but there is a lot more to the memoir, especially if your interest is in higher education.

If folks haven’t read a history of the great migration of black citizens fleeing the south in the 20th Century in search of a better life, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson offers an option. After fifteen years of research and writing, Wilkerson published the book in 2010. It “examines the three geographic routes that were commonly used by African Americans leaving the southern states between 1915 and the 1970s, illustrated through the personal stories of people who took those routes,” according to her Wikipedia page. Knowing the history of the Great migration is essential to maintaining progressive values.

What is a single book to better understand the climate crisis? I found an answer in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Fair warning: there is not much good news within these 310 pages. What the book does do is present a broad array of the effects of the climate crisis and how they impact us now and near term. Wallace-Wells seeks to address denial that climate change poses immediate consequences that are both ever-changing and happening in front of us. Required reading for anyone advocating a sustainable life on Earth. That should include almost everyone.

Democrats expecting a fair fight in the 2020 election aren’t playing by the same rules as Republicans. When we consider how progressive values might again gain dominance in American culture it is important to learn how we arrived at this Trump moment. Two books highlight how we got here and are worth reading: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016) by Jane Mayer, and Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2017) by Nancy MacLean. When people talk about getting money out of politics they are just flapping their gums if they don’t understand how it got in. These two books provide that insight and are essential progressive reading.

It seems like yesterday I was having a cup of coffee with Kurt Michael Friese in Iowa City. It’s hard to believe he’s gone. In A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland Friese offers a guided tour of the slow food movement in the Midwest around 2008. While a little dated, the book is worth reading for the landscape of Midwestern local food it presents and people in the local food movement. It’s also a way to remember his work as a chef.

That’s what’s on my summer reading list. Feel free to share what’s on yours in the comments.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Categories
Garden Local Food Review

Rainy Days and Smarshing it Up

Tray of spinach and lettuce seedlings ready to plant in the ground.

Early planting is done… then it rained.

The ground has been too wet for planting so Friday became a day for weeding and staking the sugar snap peas.

I moved seedlings from the garage to the dining room to protect them from wind and rain while I worked my usual shifts at the home, farm and auto supply store. They are back outside waiting for the ground to dry. There is a lot of gardening to do over the next four weeks.

While the grass dried I drove across Mehaffey Bridge to the BioVentures Center in the University of Iowa Research Park. A friend arranged an impromptu round table discussion of affordable housing centered around Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown’s trip to Iowa to support his wife Connie Schultz. Schultz interviewed author Sarah Smarsh at an Iowa City Public Library fund raiser in the county seat that evening.

The round table consisted of community leaders introducing themselves and discussing issues raised by the recent purchase of a mobile home park by a group of out of state investors. The new owners plan substantial rent increases which current residents can ill afford. My role was to listen and learn.

Sarah Smarsh is author of the memoir Heartland: Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. My brief review after reading it last year is as follows:

I was skeptical at first about the reach of this book about rural poverty, hard work, and economic injustice. Yet, I was drawn in to a world I knew existed but hadn’t been articulated in such words. Smarsh’s story resonates with how I was raised, and with much of what I see in rural Iowa today. It was a marvelous read.

Several of my farm friends attended the event. We gathered under the marquee of the Englert Theatre for a photograph. Those who read Heartland felt as I did, that it articulated something about modern life in the Midwest that had been missing. We also concurred that Smarsh had drawn a clear line between what she presented in the book and her personal life which was not up for public conversation. After discussing the book we told jokes and laughed (a lot) in the marquee light before finding our ways home.

Some political friends attended the fund raiser, including my state senator Zach Wahls and his biggest fan, Chloe Angyal. I complained to Wahls I couldn’t remove his bumper sticker from my aging Outback. “American made, baby,” he responded.

I met Angyal who is a contributing editor to MarieClaire.com. We discussed her arrival in the Hawkeye state where she is writing a series of dispatches (here and here) related to the first in the nation Iowa caucuses and the unprecedented number of women running for president. Originally from Australia, she relocated to Iowa from Manhattan. After surviving the polar vortex and one of our coldest winters in years, she said she likes it in Iowa.

I didn’t get the lawn mowed, which means another morning of waiting for grass to dry, followed by the long process of bagging it up then mulching the kale. The forecast is sunny and clear. Hopefully the rest of the apple blooms will open, followed by pollination. Fingers crossed. I’m ready for a solid day’s work in the garden after Friday night smarshing it up in the county seat.

Categories
Review

Tallgrass Conversations – Book Review

“Prairie is among the most altered and threatened ecosystems in the world,” Thomas Dean of Iowa City wrote in a new book he co-authored with Cindy Crosby of Glen Ellyn, Ill. “Care of the world is always essential, and care arises from conversation.”

Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit was released April 22 by Ice Cube Press. It is a compilation of Crosby and Dean’s recent writing and photographs of tallgrass prairie in the Midwest. Organized in a series of 26 conversations, the book touches on many of the current issues pertaining to preservation and restoration of tallgrass prairie.

Prairie used to cover more than 85 percent of Iowa land, according to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Today less than one tenth of a percent of original tallgrass prairie remains in the state.

“Remnant prairie functions in a way we can’t replicate through planting prairie,” Crosby wrote. “We can educate ourselves about what we are losing. We can care for what remains. We can continue to plant prairie, then research, paint, write about and ensure tallgrass prairie is a part of future conversations about development, agriculture, and conservation.”

If one participates in the experience of tallgrass prairie as Dean and Crosby encourage us to do, it is decidedly cultural. They provide a window into current tallgrass ecosystems and their modern discovery and management. The authors want more writers and artists, poets and photographers to document what’s left of tallgrass prairie and enter into a conversation about what it means and what can be learned. They want to be partners in that conversation and the book serves as an example of how to begin.

“We hope you’ll enjoy seeing the various ways we invite you to think about some of these words and images that showcase the prairie spirit,” Crosby wrote.

To learn more about Cindy Crosby’s work, visit her website, Tuesdays in the Tallgrass: Exploring exterior and interior landscapes through the tallgrass prairie at https://tuesdaysinthetallgrass.wordpress.com.
Thomas Dean is senior presidential writer/editor at the University of Iowa, where he also teaches interdisciplinary courses.

~ First published in Issue 262 of Little Village

Categories
Review

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming

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.

Categories
Home Life

Reading Books Again

Morning Reading for $1.25
Morning Reading for $1.25

Most of my reading has been on line since September, but no more.

Instead of picking up my mobile device when I wake, I read at least 25 pages in a book.

It is a positive development, born of new habits, in the land of apparent madness Iowa has become since the general election.

I’m reading articles on paper as well. A tall stack of newsletters and magazines rests on the cocktail table next to the couch. I know many of the authors who write for Via Pacis, The Prairie Progressive, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Veterans for Peace, The Sower, Humanities Iowa, The Iowa Policy Project, and others.

Brian Terrell reported on his recent trip to Russia. Kathy Kelly about her work in Afghanistan. Frank Cordaro reported on activities at the Des Moines Catholic Worker. Jessica Reznicek wrote an article from the Sarpy County Jail in Papillion, Neb. explaining why she vandalized the Northrup Grumman property in Bellevue, Neb., home of the STRATCOM. Veterans for Peace chapter reports from around the country laid out a broad veterans agenda exposing the true costs of war and militarism. Mike Owen, Trish Nelson, Jeff Cox, Nate Willems, and many others offered insights enhanced by our history together. Newsletter writing provides a perspective unavailable in corporate news outlets. I welcome it and want more.

It was impossible to resist being drawn into the social media drama around the president’s executive orders, proclamations and memoranda during his first week in office. 45 has gotten the attention of almost everyone I know, engaging new people in the political process. To be fluent in society one has to read related documents as well. Some say I was grumpy last week. Maybe I was. Reading and learning is the best defense against excessive grumpiness.

So many people I know feel overwhelmed by the Republican takeover of state and federal government. To deal with the aftermath of the election I read — an hour or two each day — from words printed on paper.

There are few other things so helpful in sustaining a life in a turbulent world.

Categories
Environment Review

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 Amazon.com.

Categories
Home Life

In Between Books

Bag of Used Books
Bag of Used Books

David Rhodes is one of my favorite fiction writers because he writes about my world, literally and figuratively. When he describes Highway 151 near Dubuque in Jewelweed, it resonates because I’ve been there. That kind of literary experience occurred in the three of his five books I’ve read.

It’s hardly a way of making a reading list, but when I seek respite in words, Rhodes is the go-to author. He’s only written five books, so I dole them out slowly, with only two more to go.

Reading any book-length work is a bigger commitment than it was when I vowed to read every book in the Iowa City Public Library. At that time, the library was located in the Carnegie building, and used the Dewey Decimal System. I started with zero and worked my way through a pittance of the collection before abandoning the project. I learned a lot about religion.

Last year I read twelve books and it is not enough. Nonetheless, even if I make it to two dozen books, each one makes a bigger impact. One has to choose carefully and that’s where I am today.

Among the choices are one of a dozen books given to me by friends. I owe it to each of them to read the volume sent, but am stalled.

I recently bought the Robert Gates and Leon Panetta memoirs, but that purchase was more for reference than actual reading. They gather dust and are not even on a shelf yet.

Most likely on my list is 1381: The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt by Juliet Barker. One of our more questionable ancestry links takes my family back to England and this seminal event. As I recall, the rebellion was squashed. If I seek to use the peasants’ revolt as a metaphor, I should know more about it, and reading 1381 is the plan.

Then there is the collection of books about Iowa, books written in Iowa and books written by residents of the area past and present. Too many for this lifetime, but I should begin chipping away at them.

Not sure which book will be next opened, I’ll relish today’s process of selecting one. Let’s hope I choose well.

Categories
Home Life

Book Reading

Book Shelf
Book Shelf

LAKE MACBRIDE— Long form reading was slight in 2014. A daily hour or two of reading articles from screens displaced reading books, and my reaction is mixed.

Part of me wants there to be more long-form reading, and part of me understands the new dynamic of staying in tune with what is going on in the world through reading many articles on multiple topics. It is unsettling.

I keep close track of the books I read. If there are less of them, each one played a role in daily affairs. No real clinkers made it to the following list of the twelve books I read this year:

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Home Place by Carrie La Seur

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Wrong David by Christa WoJo.

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen

The Pruning Book by Gustave L. Wittrock

Gardening with the Experts: Pruning by Moira Ryan

Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wisława Szymborska translated by Joanna Trzeciak.

The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible by Simon Winchester.

My Life by Bill Clinton.

Two of these are the result of being on social media, The Home Place and The Wrong David. They would not likely have been read if I hadn’t been on twitter. I know Carrie La Seur from before she returned to Montana, and reviewed her book on Amazon.com. Christa WoJo is an Internet marketer and writer living in Panama. WoJo describes her book as about “drunken Americans behaving badly in France.” Both were quick and engaging reads primarily for diversion.

In a way, all of the books were read for diversion from a life too full of low paying jobs. The most practical reading was Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state memoir. If she will be running for president, I felt it important to know what she did in that role with more detail than may be found in a single article. Besides, like her husband, she is an interesting person.

Suffice it to say that I want to read more in long form. My new year’s resolution is to work toward that end.

Categories
Home Life

This Summer’s Reading

Book Shelf
Book Shelf

LAKE MACBRIDE— It is one thing to make a list of books to read during summer—quite another to actually read them. As I enjoy The Great Gatsby, the ultimate novel of summer, for the umpteenth time, the lists made previously seem to slip away, and it is surprisingly easy to let go.

Surrounded by books in my writer’s camp, one would think I’d pick one up now and again. Book reading has mostly been Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, which was the first book I finished since March. I would like to read Gar Alperovitz’ The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, or Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, but fear the rest of my life would elapse before finishing either of them. Both thick volumes stare down at me from the shelf. Finding time to read has proven difficult at best.

That said, there is a lot left to read.

This morning—another glorious summer day—the children walked to the bus stop near our home for the first day of school. It was a reminder of how fleeting life is—how our days on this blue-green-brown sphere are numbered, and too few. That we must seek our own experiences in a complex world not of our own making.

Still, I am thankful for finding books like The Wrong David to get through a night, reminding me of my experiences in France. And no, Carrie La Seur, I haven’t forgotten The Home Place which is on top of the pile ahead of Hillary Clinton and Jewelweed by David Rhodes. But for now, I will linger a bit longer with F. Scott Fitzgerald and seek experiences in this place we call our home.

Categories
Social Commentary

One Less Used Bookstore

Formerly Murphy-Brookfield Books
Formerly Murphy-Brookfield Books

IOWA CITY— The number of used bookstores in the county is reduced by one. Murphy-Brookfield Books closed after 33 years in business, and its owners sold their historic stone building to the Haunted Bookshop. The deal is done and people and cats were in their new digs when I stopped by earlier this afternoon. Murphy-Brookfield Books went on-line.

I don’t like any of it… except maybe the cats.

I’ll start by saying that if I want to find something to read, there will be no problem. Our home library has enough reading material to last the rest of my life, and then some. Most of what I read is found here. Too, the public library provides on-line access to ebooks I can download to my phone for free if someone else doesn’t have them checked out. From time to time I browse the selection, and it is pretty good. If I can’t find what I want there, I go on-line and buy it from Amazon.com, eBay or one of the bookstores on the Internet. It isn’t for reading material that I frequent bookstores. I can get that at home.

Last year I stopped at the large chain bookseller at the mall. It had changed. It was as if they took everything I liked and removed or placed it out of sight. There was plenty of pulp fiction, and novels that looked like they all had been designed in the same advertising studio— similar titles, same sizes and an array of brilliant covers embossed with foil— lined up like so many treats in an old fashioned candy store. The caché of hanging out at a bookstore, reading and drinking coffee has faded. I’m no longer a fan of coffee bars and besides, who has time any more? I haven’t been back.

Browsing used books is like taking a vacation. I plan the trip for weeks, and upon arrival, one never knows what to expect. By chance, something catches the eye and comes off the table, down from the shelf, or out of a bin. If the price is right, the bound volume comes home.

Through Salvation Army stores, Goodwill and thrift stores, used book stores large and small, rummage and library sales, and estate auctions I have browsed since high school looking for something. In a box of discards I found a 19th Century edition of the collected works of James Fenimore Cooper— the pages turned yellow and brittle, too fragile to turn. At a thrift store in Sweetwater, Texas, for a dollar I bought an autographed copy of Iowan W. Edwards Deming’s “Out of the Crisis” while the rattlesnake roundup was going on. At the library used book sale I found Alexander Kern’s copy of Charles and Mary Beard’s “The Rise of American Civilization,” signed by Kern and dated Sept. 1932 inside the cover. That signature itself was a piece of local history. There is always something to connect to bits and pieces of my history or theirs.

So why don’t I like it? The people seem nice at the Haunted Bookshop. And after all, I was able to survive when the Epstein Brothers closed shop and their portable building was removed from Clinton Street. There is Prairie Lights on Dubuque Street. It was good enough for President Obama, so why not good enough for me?

I didn’t know Mark Brookfield at all… except that he was there most times I stopped by over three decades. I recognized him when I entered, and he was helpful without exception. Whether I was looking for something, or had a box of books to trade for store credit, each transaction went well. I was always happy when I left, and looked forward to the next visit. I doubt he knew me. Now he’s out of sight in the ether.

Maybe I just don’t like change— knowing another landmark off Market Street is gone. One less old haunt in a block where so much has happened in my life. Maybe it’s something else. The new place is packed with books, as if a massive shedding of the printed word was underway— more than just the university community ditching books before moving on. It may be something like that.

So one last time to consider the past, get used to the change, and then go on living with one less used bookstore in which to dig for memories. I won’t get over it. But maybe I will.