If you liked “Call the Midwife,” you might enjoy…

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I devoured this novel a few weeks ago, in that great gulping way where you’re enjoying a book so much that you look forward to getting back home so you can get back to it and then realize that you have to slow down or it’s going to be over too soon. It has many of the pleasures of Jennifer Worth’s memoir Call the Midwife, but it’s a thoroughly American story, taking place in Depression-era Appalachia, and the midwife, Patience Murphy, is apprentice-trained with a mysterious past. If you don’t like progressive tellings of American history, you might not like this one, but if you have a soft spot for the labor movement and, well, labor–you’ll love it, as I did.

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“People like you are why everyone thinks good food is elitist!”

For your weekend reading pleasure I insist that you read Tracie McMillan’s wonderful piece, “9 Things You’ve Never Heard About America’s Food.”  Here’s a taste:

“It drove me mad when I started to hear foodies wax rhapsodic over local produce, going on to imply, not-so-subtly, that to buy it was a measure of character and moral standing. I grew up eating processed food during the week, fresh stuff on weekends–that’s how it works when you’re being raised by a working, single dad–but that didn’t mean my family didn’t care about food; it was just what was easiest. And the families I now reported on? They cared about their meals and health, but they were mostly eating what was easy–readily available, affordable, tasty. My family and the ones I reported on weren’t immoral. We were just broke and stressed.”

Read it all here! And then get Tracie’s book!

Why French Parents are Supérieur

For your weekend reading plaisir, I present (HT Al Hsu!) Pamela Druckerman’s WSJ piece on “Why French Parents are Superior”

“the French have managed to be involved with their families without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this. “For me, the evenings are for the parents,” one Parisian mother told me. “My daughter can be with us if she wants, but it’s adult time.” French parents want their kids to be stimulated, but not all the time. While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are—by design—toddling around by themselves.”

I can’t wait to read Pamela Druckerman’s book, Bringing up Bebe!

{see you on monday!}

Plagues and Famines: better not to know? (part 1)

Have you wondered if maybe it’s better not to know about great suffering? After all, does knowing help?

Maybe it’s happened to you: you read an eyewitness account of famine, perhaps visit a developing country and see firsthand what extreme poverty looks like, and, turning back to your own life, you’re not sure how to go on as you have been.

You have a fridge. And it’s big. And full.

And not only do you have shoes, but you have more than one pair. And they fit you properly and are in decent repair.

And what you spend on your daily coffee is more than what 75% of Africans have to live on each day.

When you go to the grocery store, you feel overwhelmed by how much food there is. And how much plastic. And excess packaging. And things meant to be used once and then thrown away.)

This weekend, I read William Kamkwamba’s book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. When he was just 15, William built a working windmill out of scavenged scraps and junk complete with a functional circuit breaker, to power his family’s house in their Malawian village. He also built a solar powered water pump, giving his village its first source of drinking water and enabling his family to have two plantings of maize, their staple food crop.

William taught himself everything he needed to know to build the windmill from a discarded American textbook called Using Energy, and through extensive experimentation. And he was motivated to do it–at least in part–by the terrible famine that killed many Malawians in 2002. In the book, William tells of seeing starved, skeletal people walking from place to place, begging for some work to do in exchange for something to eat. At the worst point of the famine, William and his family got three bites of nsima–that’s the Malawian staple food, a cornmeal mush–a day.

William’s ingenuity and determination was motivated by the hope that his invention would protect his family from going hungry.

Because where William lives, “hungry months” are a regular feature of each year.

Where William lives, most people get malaria quite a few times in their lives, and cholera is not an anachronism.

At this point, I want to acknowledge that compassion fatigue is a real thing. How much suffering can we know–and summon the energy to care–about?

Is it better simply to not know about famines and other kinds of suffering ‘elsewhere’ since we can’t do much to help anyway?

I want to discuss this question in more detail tomorrow. For now, I’ll leave you with this:

“The righteous know the rights of the poor;
   the wicked have no such understanding.”
 (Proverbs 29:7, NRSV)

What might that mean?

Is Everyone Losing Weight Without Me?

I’ve always loved books, but for a number of years–okay, for a lot of years–my reading choices have tended toward the serious. And yet few things are more enjoyable for me than curling up with some really funny reading material. And so I picked up this book at the library yesterday and finished it this morning, laughing loudly and inappropriately in the library (I started reading it before I even left the building), in the doctor’s waiting room, and while reading in bed.

I love laughing out loud while reading. It has a hint of hedonism mixed with a dab of Crazy Lady.

What surprised me about the book is how many times Mindy Kaling (perhaps better known as the actress/writer/director who plays Kelly Kapoor on The Office (which, I’m sorry, I don’t really like*) references her weight.

Really? This woman feels like she needs to explain her weight or her looks?

Yes, yes, she does, because Hollywood’s obsession with unearthly skinniness makes normal women unwelcome.

I thought this passage was particularly incisive (as my favorite kind of comedy writing is)–

“Since I am not model skinny, but also not super fat and fabulously owning my hugeness, I fall in that nebulous “normal American woman” size that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I’m a size eight (this week, anyway). Many stylists hate that size, because I think, to them, it shows that I lack the discipline to be an ascetic or the confident sassy abandon to be a total fatty hedonist. They’re like: pick a lane! Just be so enormous that you need to be buried in a piano, and dress accordingly.”

And this one, too–

“My mom’s a doctor but because she came from India and then Africa, where childhood obesity was not a problem, she put no premium on having skinny kids…Part of me wonders if it even made them feel a little prosperous, like Have you seen our overweight Indian child? Do you know how statistically rare this is?”

And then her chapter on ‘Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who are not Real’–

(THE SKINNY WOMAN WHO IS BEAUTIFUL AND TONED BUT ALSO GLUTTONOUS AND DISGUSTING)

“I am speaking of the gorgeous and skinny heroine who is also a disgusting pig when it comes to food. And everyone […] is constantly telling her to stop eating and being such a glutton. And this actress, this poor skinny actress who so clearly lost weight to play the likeable lead, has to say things like, ‘Shut up you guys! I love cheesecake!'”

It’s great how Mindy lampoons the ridiculous and double minded nature of weight and bodies and dieting in our culture while recognizing that she is enmeshed in that culture too. Because aren’t we all?

*it probably speaks to the quality of the book that I didn’t really have to know much about Mindy Kaling or The Office to find the book hilarious and enjoyable*

Oh. And Happy Groundhog Day!

{I really should tell you about the time Tim and I were stranded with a broken car in Punxsutawney (in Februrary, no less) eating popcorn at the car repair place where they told us it would take 2 days to fix the car, so why didn’t we find a place to stay? We jury-rigged the car ourselves and drove it back to Chicago and then to California, and it never did need to be properly fixed again.}