Monthly Archives: January 2015

“The Good Food Revolution – Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” by Will Allen with Charles Wilson

Will Allen is 65 years old, just like me. He was born into very different circumstances. When I read this book, I had to keep reminding myself that his childhood and youth did not take place “far away and long ago”. We were separated by maybe 500 miles in distance, and no time at all. But I didn’t “meet” him until I read this book.

Will Allen was born in Maryland, into a poor African American family from South Carolina. His parents were hard working and incredibly self-reliant. Allen credits his highly athletic physique to a childhood of hard work and healthy food. He discovered basketball early in his teens and used it as his path away from poverty. I’m familiar with the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to northern cities, and even with some of the reverse migration that followed. (There’s a demographer in the family. Hi, JBC!) But it never occurred to me to analyze it from the viewpoint of food and nutrition! Will Allen writes about this with great clarity.

Allen’s depiction of pre-Migration families eating healthy homegrown food is somewhat at odds with tales told by my father-in-law, a North Carolina university physician whose father practiced rural medicine before him. His descriptions of country life among the poor included appallingly bad health and severe malnutrition. Maybe life in the coastal plain of North Carolina was harder than in South Carolina or Virginia.

But there’s no arguing with Allen’s assertion that, once at their urban destinations, African Americans and other poor people faced (and continue to face) many barriers to healthy eating. For three decades, I’ve watched Atlantic City struggle to retain a single supermarket. If you don’t have a car, buying a week’s worth of food at a time isn’t going to happen, and if you are working two jobs, how much can you cook? Cheap, starchy food isn’t very satisfying, so obesity sometimes catches up with you.

Will Allen is one very creative farmer! I’ve farmed a little, with an oddball list of shaky successes – blackberries to die for, okra, basil, yard-long Chinese beans. But I’ve also been frequently defeated (by deer, weather, etc.), and have decided to leave agriculture to my more talented and hardworking neighbors. Allen preaches patience and plainly has learned, over time, how to make barren, desolate areas productive. Allen branched out beyond vegetables to raising chickens and even fish.

Along the way, he has involved schools and neighborhood centers and cooperatives. He has figured out how to go vertical, crowding multiple crops into small areas. Presently, he works both on crops/projects that are economically viable and ones that require subsidies. He identifies ENERGY as a major barrier to urban agriculture in his city of Milwaukee.

I love Allen’s vision of bringing food closer to people and people closer to food. I know people who are working along the same lines in Atlantic City and even Camden, the saddest city I know. I wish them all the greatest possible success.


Why I read “so much”!

I’ve been asked how I find time to read so much. That leads me to think about what I would be doing if I didn’t “read so much”. I know one thing I should be doing… housework! I’m sort of minimalist in the housework department. I tolerate dust. I imagine other people have schedules – wash the floor once a week or once a month or whatever. I’m more of an “at need” housecleaner. My cooking involves as many shortcuts as I can figure out.

I read because I can’t help it.

I’m reading a bit more than I was two years ago, because I had to (mostly) give up knitting and crochet. I severely damaged my by hands binge gardening. Yes, a gardening overuse injury. Every joint in both hands was involved, leaving me temporarily in very bad shape, unable to do anything requiring hand strength – open a can of Coke, lift a gallon of milk… Gradually, the pain receded and some strength returned. Except for my wrists. There the pain still lingers… I consulted a specialist, who took x-rays and said that my scaphoid bones (one in each hand) are ruined. So I have arthritis, and its probably here to stay. Maybe also tendonitis, which might get better.

So I gave up knitting and crochet, and gardening. Two major hobbies, lost in a single stroke! I could argue that I should give up housework, but I don’t like to play that card. I haven’t even tried to play piano.

An odd consequence of this is that I’m now reluctant to shake hands, and if I must, I tuck my thumb safely against my palm and offer only my fingers. Sometimes I just nod and apologize, referring vaguely to injury. Wouldn’t you think, as a society, that we would have some polite way to signal “I’d love to shake your hand but I can’t”? Sometimes my body language seems to convey the message, and I haven’t been victimized by an overly enthusiastic handshake in the past six months.

In the good news department, I can still use a regular computer keyboard, and it is in fact easier than writing with a pen. So my blogging habit hasn’t suffered, nor has my work.

“Fire From Heaven” by Mary Renault

On a whim, I read Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault. It was her first book based on the life of Alexander the Great, covering the period from his early childhood until his father (King Phillip of Macedon) died. Alexander eventually vanquished the High King Darius of Persia and ruled a vast empire until his death at age 33. He ended his wars of conquest because his soldiers refused to go beyond the Indus River into the Indian subcontinent.

If you are curious about the ancient world but intimidated by “the classics”, this is a way to get started. Several of Renault’s books impressed me when I read them 40 years ago. Fire From Heaven did not disappoint me. Renault also wrote two non-fiction books about Alexander and the Persian Wars.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Fire From Heaven is young Alexander’s education. His father was portrayed as a Macedonian who passionately admired Athens and wished to be “accepted” as overlord of Greece. Phillip hired the philosopher Aristotle to tutor Alexander. Perhaps this is what allowed him to develop into a leader who was greatly loved, rather than merely being feared.

Renault was born in England but spent the later half of her life in South Africa, where her lesbianism was more socially accepted. Her literary treatment of homosexual love in the ancient world is probably more sympathetic and respectful than most other authors.

Courtesy of Wikipedia, I learned that Renault (who died in 1983 at the age of 78) wrote six contemporary novels between1939 and 1953 before she concentrated on the ancient world. I look forward to exploring them.

“Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” – my favorite TV show!

I just love watching “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on TV, also known as Triple D! I am really hooked. Guy Fieri is so much fun. Now that three episodes have been taped here in Atlantic County (in Brigantine, Galloway and Atlantic City), my enthusiasm for Guy knows no bounds.

Shortly after Galloway’s Oyster Creek Inn was featured, we took visiting relatives there, and managed to sample both of the dishes (robust appetizers) that had been featured on DDD – Jersey Devil Shrimp and Clams Mexicali! The shrimp was spicy and delicious. The restaurant, which I first visited in 1975 (no kidding), was unchanged, despite having been flooded in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy to a depth of a foot above the floorboards.

What’s great about Triple D is that it is so GOOD NATURED! It’s not competitive. Everybody is having a good time. Chefs are featured in their own kitchens, doing things their own way.

Maybe I’m wrong in thinking of myself as a frustrated writer of book reviews. Maybe I should have been a restaurant critic. One on wheels, like Guy Fieri! I’m ready for a road trip!

“Persuasion” by Jane Austen

I re-read Persuasion because it was selected by a book group. We were asked to read the first ten chapters (out of 24), but I couldn’t stop and finished the book. One of the major plot twists (a dire injury) comes after Chapter 10, so our discussion was somewhat limited. And confused, since we kept wandering past Chapter 10.

As a comedy of manners, this book rates 100%. Jane Austen is, as always, observant and very witty.

Thinking back to Mansfield Park (see blog entry May 25, 2013), I have asked myself whether this is also a book about morals. Yes, to some extent. The moral question being explored is the value of “constancy” or “firmness” in a person’s character. Austen’s characters seem to value it, but at a crucial moment in the plot (the “dire injury” referenced above), firmness becomes stubbornness, with a disastrous outcome. Austen makes note of this, but it is not analyzed in any depth.

Jane Austen will always be a “go to” author when I want to soothe myself by reading.

“The Handsome Man’s Delux Cafe: No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series” by Alexander McCall Smith

Everybody loves Alexander McCall Smith! I started by reading The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency, stayed with that series for a while, and then branched out. I think I’ve read at least one book from each of his five series. Sometimes I’ve listened to his novels in the car. Perfect for long trips!

Is there anything new in The Handsome Man’s Deluxe Cafe? Not really… just the pleasure of familiar characters in new situations.

Parts of The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series were made into a BBC series for television. The quality was wonderful! How did someone find so many talented character actors? Too bad only six episodes were produced. However, 27 episodes for radio were broadcast by BBC Radio 4. I hope to track them down.

I feel lucky to have McCall Smith to give me an insider’s view of Africa. I don’t know whether I will ever travel to Africa, but if I do, Botswana will be on my list of destinations.

Having pondered McCall Smith’s extensive oeuvre, I’ve decided to read the Isabel Dalhousie series in its proper order. With that in my Kindle, I will be ready for anything – travel delays, doctors’ offices, you name it. If you feel stressed, read McCall Smith. He will take you “away” and warm your heart.

Ethics and Christmas

Last year after the Christmas holiday, I posted something warm and fuzzy. See January 5, 2014. Not this year! My holiday was lovely, but this incident at work was a nuisance:

My colleague from the Mail Room dropped a package on my desk and apologized. “I couldn’t refuse it from FedEx. It has your name on it…” We both looked at it with distaste.

Godiva chocolates. Three pounds of Godiva chocolates. I am so conditioned by the Ethics Office that I didn’t even salivate. I also refrained from opening the card and seeing who sent it until I had an Ethics Office employee on the line.

I was directed to open the card. The chocolates came from a company that does business with the College. No employee can accept ANY gift from such an entity. Never mind that I personally have no statutory or financial authority within the College, being, in fact, the part time occupant of a temporary position.

I had to follow “the procedure”. I was directed to donate the chocolates to a non-profit organization, like a nursing home. I’m pretty certain all the nursing homes nearby are profit making, but I selected one.

I drove to the nursing home, visited the manager and donated the loot, collecting a business card to document my visit. As required, I wrote a letter to the giver of the gift. “Thank you for your thoughtful gift, but…” A copy of my letter went to the Ethics Office, along with the business card.

I got through this in two hours, possibly an ethics compliance speed record. But certainly I could have done something far more useful with my working time!

I had to put up with wisecracks from fellow employees who said they would have followed the past practice of group consumption of food gifts, followed by total destruction of the packaging and total denial of receipt. “Chocolates? What chocolates?” Chocolates can disappear at the speed of light. But we all have to be above suspicion.

If I REALLY want chocolates, I will buy them for myself. Maybe what I want is a good stiff drink.

All this would be pretty trivial, except that I am treated daily to reports of the behavior of the Governor of New Jersey. He accepts football tickets and watches games from the fanciest boxes. Considering that pro football does major business in New Jersey, at the publicly financed Meadowlands Complex, is this not a conflict of interest?

“The Boston Girl: A Novel” by Anita Diamant

This novel tells the story of a woman’s life, in the form of reminiscences shared with an adult grandchild. Addie Baum is born in Boston into a Jewish immigrant family that is having terrible difficulty settling in American. The year of her birth is given as 1900. My own grandmother, Anna S, was born in Boston, in 1891.

Addie Baum has two sisters. One jumps into American life wholeheartedly, angering her parents and almost losing contact with Addie. The other sister is frail and anxious – in modern terms, seriously traumatized and depressed. She eventually takes her own life. Addie, much the youngest, has the advantage of being sent to school and finding a “settlement house” where she is befriended and learns to cope with America and understand Boston. Nonetheless, her family forces her to drop out of school.

The best part of this book is its vivid description of Addie’s life from her early teens until she meets her husband. Immigrant life is terribly hard. Addie’s mother miscarries on the boat to America. Her parents fight all the time, her mother being convinced that everything was better in the “old country”. Poverty renders their lives miserable. Addie’s father takes refuge in religion, spending as much time as possible studying and praying in his synagogue.

Reading this book made me realize how little I know about my grandmother’s life. I was told she spoke only German until she started school at age 5. I don’t think she finished high school. I know she worked in a sweatshop – the evidence was always before our eyes. Two joints of her right forefinger were missing, severed by a stamping machine in a sweatshop. Family myth asserts that she started saving money as soon as humanly possible so her children could be more educated than she had been and avoid the fate of factory work. All three of them avoided the factory assembly lines, but only one, my mother, was educated beyond high school.

The author’s main “message” in this book is that the past was not BETTER. Often it was worse than the present.

This book is somehow lacking in narrative drive. Maybe this is what happens when an author has a message and a plot in mind and then writes a book around them. The alternative is the Stephen King approach – create your characters and turn them loose! Let them surprise you! (See blog post December 21, 2013.)

More quibbles… Once again I ask, “If a person or historical period is so interesting, why fictionalize it?” (See blog post December 6, 2013 about the novel Orphan Train.) I suspect that writing fiction is easier, and the author can slant the work according to his or her (contemporary) biases.

I wonder if Diament consulted too many experts while writing this book, leaving me feeling the lack of a distinct “voice”. I read her highly popular, earlier novel The Red Tent and had the same reaction to it – good, but somehow not as “great” as many people seemed to find it.

One (tangential) reason why I read this book was because the title reminded me of Nat Hentoff’s lively memoir (published in 1986), Boston Boy, subtitled growing up with jazz and other rebellious passions. No resemblance. Hentoff wrote voluminously on music and American politics. At age 89, he is still writing! Check him out!

Keep The Boston Girl in mind for a rainy afternoon or boring wait during travel. It will keep you occupied, but not make you miss your plane!

“Stern Men: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read this book because Gilbert’s Signature of All Things was such a delight. Stern Men was another truly great read. For starters, there’s the title pun – stern as in the back of a boat, stern as in taciturn and disapproving. And the stern man is number two on a boat, after the captain. Often the secondary characters in this book are unexpectedly interesting and important. That’s a lot to pack into a short title!

A quick plot synopsis would be: Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending.

Stern Men takes place off the coast of Maine, on a pair of imaginary islands occupied by lobstermen, their families and a few odd hangers on. In the past, the granite industry had temporarily brought prosperity and “summer people” to the islands. The ancient heir to that industry connives and manipulates to bring the island communities into modern times and save them from economic ruin, but we don’t learn this until the very end of the book.

The setting dominates Stern Men more than is the case in Signature of All Things.

The story is told from the from the point of view of Ruth Thomas, who returns to her island home after attending an exclusive boarding school in Delaware. Ruth is the granddaughter of an orphan adopted by the granite magnate’s family. She does not “belong” anywhere, but chooses island life. The time frame is the 1960s and 1970s. Most of what happens in the US bypasses the isolated islands. There is ONE reference to marijuana and a passing allusion to the Viet Nam war.

I was, of course, reminded of Linda Greenlaw, who wrote three nonfiction books about fishing off the coast of Maine before trying her hand at fiction with the murder mystery Slipknot. I liked Greenlaw’s lively and amusing nonfiction, but Slipknot lacked depth. I think she was trying to emulate Janet Evanovich. AND she was pushing a message. I’m getting tired of fiction with a message. Greenlaw’s message is explicated in an “Author’s Note” at the very end of the book. Please! Tell me a story or send me a message – but don’t do both!

There is, in fact, a message in Stern Men, but it’s tucked into a rant by a minor character, the stiff necked local pastor, who understands too well what damage greed and stubbornness can do to a community. He’s one of the minor characters that makes me wish for MORE – another chapter, another book, more of this wonderful fictional world Gilbert has created.

Stern Men qualifies as literary fiction, a term I still don’t entirely understand, but from me it is a high compliment, like saying that something may stand the test of time.