Book Review: The Philippian Fragment

Author: Calvin Miller

Date: 1982

Publisher: InterVarsity

Length: 175 pages

Illustrations: drawings and decorations by Joe DeVelasco

Quote: “He loves all men and especially those who are of the household of faith. But his preaching is a persecution of the saints.”

Calvin Miller, an innovative minister best known for his poetic rendering of the New Testament as the Singer Trilogy, turned his hand to satire in a collection of epistles allegedly written by a second-century pastor in the church at Philippi.

According to the blurb on the jacket, the story “demonstrates conclusively that in church life the more things change, the more they remain the same.” A work of satirical fiction is not exactly historical proof. There was no such person as Marcus Sparkus, who had “written thirty-two scrolls now, with such titles as The Impossible Possibility, This Way to Success, The Zeal Deal, and the ever popular You Are Numerus Unus,” before being thrown to the lions—“It left the class unsettled.” Even in the 1980s that didn’t happen, although the careers of Jim Bakker, Bob Schuller, and Pat Robertson suggested that some Christians wished it would.

History also disappoints us by failing to mention Croonus Swoonus, who “is through crooning that he ‘found his thrill on Palatine Hill’…there were numerous rumors that his singing career was about over when he had the good fortune to be born again.” Little Richard, who was bouncing in and out of churches in the 1980s, was not unique in history, but neither did he have this precise parallel in second-century Philippi.

Then there’s Hezekiah the Abominable Monster of Bythinia: “He was at the business meeting in the congregation in Cenchrea where a brother was dismissed for his views on baptism…Hezekiah…became distraught…It put such a strain on his own need to be secure he began weeping and then, of course, chewing scrolls.” Indeed, “Some say the Ghoul of Galatia” (who “lurks outside empty churches on the dark of the moon and pounces on old elders”) “is a wolf who once wore sheep’s clothing until he saw the sheep devouring each other.”

Flippant, irreverent comedy? Or wise insights into the group dynamics that cause church and Bible study groups to fall apart, with a tendency to help students laugh off their quarrels and focus on what matters? Moreover, do the characters, in their own way, tend to glorify God?

Sister Phoebe, who can’t bring herself to vote on the question of whether Jesus might be expected to return before or after the Tribulation, despite “studying furiously,” leaves a “scroll study” to visit the lepers and spends the afternoon binding lesions. Brother Coriolanus forms a grudge against Eusebius when Eusebius fails to promote Coriolanus’s daughter; he recommends that Eusebius join an order of silent monks, and when Eusebius is put in prison he’s willing to inherit Eusebius’s good clothes right away, but when he finds himself in prison too Coriolanus “no longer speaks for God but is content to seek Him.” Eusebius himself fears that he “will embarrass God running and crying before the lions.” He won’t. This fictional Eusebius can only be imagined as a sort of distant relative to the real Saint Eusebius, but if he’d been real, his famous cousin would have no reason to feel ashamed of him.

I tend to vote thumbs up on The Philippian Fragment. It’s written for college students; it addresses the questions that cause unnecessary grief to college students; its snarky tone is likely to appeal to students, and I think it steers students in the right direction. In the end I think it uplifts Christ more than it rebukes Christians, although it does both.

Unfortunately, The Philippian Fragment no longer qualifies as a Fair Trade Book, but if you send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the lower left-hand corner of the screen, you can add this book to a package that includes one or more Fair Trade Books and pay only the one $5 shipping charge.

 Book review cat returns from Morguefile, after taking Thanksgiving off…
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Book Review: Bushwhacked

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Bushwhacked

Author: Molly Ivins with Lou DuBose

Date: 2005

Publisher: Random House

Length: 305 pages of text, 40 pages of references and index

Quote: “There are countless subjects on which George W. Bush might have pleaded ignorance in 1990, but a failing oil business was not one of them.”

As a Texas columnist, Molly Ivins attracted national attention by writing like everybody’s favorite aunt: outspoken but not mean, a consistent Democrat but willing to commend or criticize people on both sides. She liked Ann Richards—there were obvious temperamental affinities. She ripped Bill Clinton for messing with Texas, and she ripped W Bush for letting him.

When W Bush campaigned for President, Ivins teamed up with Lou DuBose to write the warning biography Shrub. Though unchallenged on important facts, and unsympathetic to W’s campaign, Shrub failed to convince readers who were tired of Clinton tackiness that W was anything worse than rich, Republican, and blond. How pleasant it would have been if his administration were now remembered for nothing worse than that! Shrub didn’t warn us of the real danger of a W Bush administration. I have to admit that, although I had foreseen that W might become a “Walking Target,” I didn’t anticipate the terrorist attacks of 2001 either. Few if any people expected the people who hated W Bush to be quite as nasty as they were. I expected the assassination of W, the medical unfitness of Cheney, and another appointed president.

Anyway, when W was reelected, the two disappointed Democrats wrote this chronicle of the other problems with the Bush administration. Oddly enough their faultfinding ignores what most of us liked least about W’s terms: the war. They managed to find 305 pages of domestic disagreement with W Bush.

Partisan? Ivins was always partisan; even her Clinton-bashing book was titled You Got to Dance with Them That Brung Ya. Readers who want to get a complete set of the facts of any historical period need to read what’s written from all sides.

For instance, another example of Ivins’ and DuBose’s wit, which the publishers liked enough to put on the back jacket, was “Republicans win elections in the ‘red states’ in the center of the country, where cattle and chickens are produced and slaughtered…Republicans use the USDA to pay off their contributors in the red states. The result of that crude electoral calculus is laissez-faire food-safety policy whenever a Republican is in the White House. (If you must eat while the Republicans control the White House, both houses of Congress, and the judiciary, you might want to consider becoming a vegetarian about now.)”

I find this analysis of facts that are true, so far as they go, so clever that I could almost momentarily forget how big food-producing corporations buy Democrats, too. (See Jim Hightower, If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates.) One of the minor scandals of Bill Clinton’s years as governor of Arkansas was the cronyism that allowed Don Tyson to go on selling chicken, although the birds were cruelly treated and disease-ridden, their litter was dumped into inadequately filtered drinking water, and Tyson was once prosecuted for trucking out chickens that had had bricks of cocaine jammed up their back ends…while the chickens were still alive. (Don Tyson’s heirs identify as Christians, but complaints of fowl abuse continue to plague this company.) In Bushwhacked Ivins and DuBose can complain only that W Bush, due to cronyism, allowed Lonnie Pilgrim to go on selling meat from disease-ridden turkeys. For those who were aware of the sordid facts behind Tyson chicken, the Pilgrim’s Pride story brings the score to 1-3, advantage still with the Republican administration.

Actually, in the long and ugly history of corporations selling food you wouldn’t want your dog to eat if you knew the facts, both political parties have racked up lists of failures to enforce the rules much longer than this…but we still needed this book, because none of the Republicans who so gleefully exposed Bill Clinton’s failures had any interest in discussing the dangers of eating Pilgrim’s Pride turkey. The more you read about corporate food producers, the better vegan food will look to you.

Bushwhacked is recommended to anyone interested in the history of the turn of the century. If not always complete or balanced, it’s eminently quotable. Ivins and DuBose really tried to make the boring Enron and Halliburton stories a good read, and probably came closer to doing so than any other writer ever did or ever will. They documented examples of pre-recession poverty, the shortcomings of the school system, and similar domestic problems for which Democrats tend to think there ought to be a simple solution involving federal funding.

I doubt that Bushwhacked contributed a great deal to the election of President Obama, but for those who want the history beyond the headline news of the first five years of this century, Bushwhacked is an informative source and an entertaining read.

Molly Ivins unfortunately no longer has any use for the dollar she’d get if any of her books, mentioned here or not, were still Fair Trade Books. However, if you send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address at the lower left-hand corner of the screen, you could squeeze at least one of Jim Hightower’s books, which are still Fair Trade Books, into the package along with Bushwhacked.

 Book review cat…again? Why not the chicken?

Book Review: The Creative Art of Needlepoint Tapestry

Title: The Creative Art of Needlepoint Tapestry

Author: Joan Fisher

Date: 1962

Publisher: Hamlyn Publishing Group

ISBN: 0-600-31750-1

Length: 176 pages including index

Illustrations: charts, photos, diagrams

Quote: “The branch of creative needlecraft with which we are concerned is known…by…different names:  needlepoint, needlework tapestry, tapestry work, canvas work, canvas embroidery…”

Fisher goes on to define, explain, and give examples of several forms of this creative needlecraft, from simple bookmarks through pictures to hang on the wall, cushions, and handbags. Some projects mix embroidery stitches for textured effects; some could be worked in cross stitch or even in knitting, crochet, or weaving, although the final effect of translating a simple geometric motif from one craft to another may be a completely different product.

Historical examples from European museums appear in small black-and-white photos. More detailed pictures and instructions for reproducing some of these pieces have appeared in Piecework magazine, but this book does not attempt to help you copy the embroideries that were preserved in ancient castles and cathedrals.

If and when readers feel ready to embroider bedspreads, carpets, or draperies, however, they will find here several charted patterns that can be repeated or expanded to fill a large piece. Meanwhile, those who don’t want to commit to a big project will find instant gratification in embroidering belts and pincushions.

As books go out of print, the physical construction of the book becomes more important to readers. The difference between cheap and quality paper, pages sewn down to lie flat or glued together to spring back together, and good and poor binding, become obvious as a book ages. Wear and tear accelerate the aging process. When a library book contains charts for needlework, which means by definition that the book will spend a lot of time exposed to the air, it’s painfully easy to see which books become discolored, brittle, or mildewed first. Many books published in 1982 or even in 2002 look “older,” by now, than either of my two library copies of The Creative Art of Needlepoint Tapestry. Checking the date of publication for this book surprised me because, although both copies had library processing, dog ears, and pencil marks, both copies still look, feel, and smell “new.” You might say that this was a well made book.

Some people using the name “Joan Fisher” are active in cyberspace. Some have died. If you order The Creative Art of Needlepoint Tapestry from this web site, using either address at the lower left-hand corner of the screen, I’ll write to the publisher in an effort to find out the status of the Joan Fisher who wrote this book. The price is $5 per copy + $5 per package, for a total cost of $10 if you buy only one copy of only this book; you could probably fit two copies of this book into one package, for a total price of $15. If the author is still living, $1 out of each $5 per copy will be sent to her or to a charity of her choice.

Book review cat:

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Book Review: Prevention’s Stop Dieting and Lose Weight Cookbook

Title: Prevention’s Stop Dieting & Lose Weight Cookbook

Author: Prevention magazine staff, edited by Mary Jo Plutt

Date: 1994

Publisher: Rodale

ISBN: 0-87596-198-3

Length: 436 pages including index and appendices

Illustrations: full-color photos

Quote: “[E]ating foods low in fat will do more than just make you look better. It’ll make you feel better, too…”

But extreme-low-fat diets are Out, you say, and high-fat, low-carb diets are In? Er um, for one thing, remember what happened to Dr. Atkins? Actually, the difference between viable low-fat and low-carb diets is not nearly as big as the difference between faddy ones. People who stay trim and healthy eat reasonably balanced diets that include some fat–only less than the unbalanced diets fat people eat–and some carbs–only more complex and fewer simple carbs than the unbalanced diets fat people eat. So low-carb people can use this book; the majority of the recipes are, in fact, lean protein and fiber-rich fruit and veg, and they recommend using enough oil to lubricate pans and ward off the depression some people develop on extreme-low-fat diets.

Will you lose weight, look better, and feel better? Gentle Readers, I got this book from a friend who likes to be mistaken for one of (her daughter’s and my) schoolmates, and often is. With her straight shoulders, trim top-heavy figure, and long blonde hair (it wasn’t always blonde), she looks and acts like a well-preserved forty-or-fifty-something. If you didn’t know her oldest child was fifty you wouldn’t believe she’s seventy. Of course, she’s also into exercise and all the other habits of people who enjoy very long healthy lives, and she also comes from a long line of ancestors who were blessed with similar tastes, habits, and longevity. And cheekbones.

Can you use these recipes if your diet needs to be “free” from some specific food? More of the recipes are gluten-free than are dairy-free, but a lot of them are the kind where it’s easy just to substitute water or stock for milk, or omit the cheese. Most of them are sugar-free and low-carb. Many are grain-free.

Do they taste delicious? Some of the recipes do have that old familiar 1970s health-food-store flavor. Most do not. The ones that appeal to me really depend on the quality of the fruit and vegetables you use. If you use store-brand canned veg, they might come out on the boring side. If you use fresh garden produce, they’ll be delicious.

And, for a timely bonus…I didn’t plan ahead to post this review just before the Winter Holidays, but this book actually contains flavorful, healthy, tradition-inspired recipes for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s feasts.

Since this book is a collection from a magazine’s archives, it’s not a Fair Trade Book. As usual, to buy it from this site, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of this screen. (This is a good-sized book–I’d like to promise that you could get two copies into a package for a total price of $15, but that depends on the packages the post office has in stock that day. However, you could get four skinny little Pocket-Book-type paperbacks into the package alongside this book, for a total price of $30.)

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Book Review (or Announcement): Narcotics Anonymous

Title: Narcotics Anonymous

Author: Narcotics Anonymous members

Date: 2008 (6th edition)

Publisher: Narcotics Anonymous

ISBN: 9781557767349

Length: 396 pages plus 29-page index

Quote: “As our members stay clean ten, twenty, thirty years and more, our fellowship has more and more experience dealing with challenges beyond ‘not picking up the first drug.'”

Fair disclosure: I’m not the ideal person to review this book. I don’t even know any NA members well. I know some people for whom Alcoholics Anonymous has worked miracles, and a few for whom local AA groups have come to seem like abusive cults, so I’m guessing that Narcotics Anonymous can work either way too. I myself chose abstinence at an early age, and have always been glad I did.

For those for whom it’s too late to choose abstinence…well, this is a book full of short, rather bland because anonymous, testimonies from people for whom the NA way works. There are a lot of them. There have been five previous editions of this book, and each edition has been thicker than the one before as more recovering addicts have supplied stories of how their program has kept them clean through different life passages and challenges. So there’s a good chance that NA could help anybody out there who is ready to recover from all use of drugs.

Even antibiotics, some might ask? Maybe not antibiotics, but definitely all “mind-altering, mood-changing chemicals.” The NA way is for people who are ready to live without legal “substitute drugs” like Antabuse or psychopharmaceuticals like Prozac, too. “All of us, from the junkie snatching purses to the sweet little old lady hitting two or three doctors for legal prescriptions, have one thing in common: we seek our destruction a bag at a time…until we die…In this program, the first thing we do is stop using drugs.”

Lack of emotional support from loved ones is not a valid reason to use drugs, but when twelve-step programs work, emotional support from the group is what gets people through what may be a long withdrawal/recovery period (depending on how much damage they’ve done to themselves). When it works, recovering addicts transfer their emotional addiction to the group and form lifelong bonds with their friends in the group. When it works, they avoid the financial and social costs of dependency on legal drugs, and are often able to go back to work and lead normal healthy drug-free lives.

If you are, or know, an addict who would like to have a relatively high “bottom” and get into recovery while still able to hold a job, this book is for you. It’s our Sunday book because many twelve-step programs are sponsored by churches–although NA has no specific religious affiliation and welcomes non-Christians who want to work this program, too.

Since this book has no individual author, it’s not a Fair Trade Book, and the price to buy it here ($5 per copy + $5 per package) actually seems pretty competitive according to Amazon. (The copy I physically own, which is locally available for a much lower cost, was heavily used by at least two addicts before it reached me, and contains many handwritten marginal notes. People who go to NA meetings are likely to acquire copies of this book in similar condition, free of charge.) Two copies could be shipped in one package for a total cost of $15.

Book review cat:

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Book Review: The Five Minute Marriage

Book Review: The Five-Minute Marriage

Author: Joan Aiken

Date: 1977

Publisher: Warner (paperback), Doubleday (hardcover)

ISBN: 0-446-89682-9

Length: 280 pages of text

Quote: “My uncle is so set on the marriage between my two cousins, that he intends to disinherit them both if the wedding does not take place before his death.”

Conrad Aiken, the well-known American poet, had two daughters who grew up in England. Neither tried to write the sort of very very serious and ambitious novels or poems their father wrote. Jane Aiken Hodges specialized in period romances; Joan Aiken (who also married) wrote a few period romances, a few ghost stories, a few murder mysteries, a few contemporary novels, a few imitations of Jane Austen, and one volume of light verse, but was best known for stories about children. Indeed a pair of children, usually a brother and a sister, always “gifted,” emotionally but not physically precocious, are a sort of trademark of her fiction; they’re in this romance too.

The most conspicuous feature of this novel is that Ms. Aiken was obviously playing with the genre. This is a Regency Romance with all the trimmings, the nice but poor girl adrift in a hard world with a mother who’s more of a burden than a protector, the handsome hero who doesn’t seem too promising at first but comes through for the heroine in the end, and all the historical details at a convenient distance from the action…but everybody, arguably including the heroine, Philadelphia or Delphie, has a given name lifted from Arthurian romance, and the hero is burdened with a family name that you’re meant to pronounce like “Pennystone” while you see it as a rude joke.

In the years to come, in her novels for Jane Austen fans, Joan Aiken would really pitch into the bizarre mix of snobbery and misogyny that seems to have complicated women’s lives at the turn of the eighteenth century. In this novel she accepts it. Delphie is obliged to marry Gareth because her uncle thinks she’s Gareth’s first cousin; she consents to the marriage on the promise that it can be dissolved easily once her uncle dies, but the plot thickens…it doesn’t have to make sense, hey? It’s a Regency Romance…Cousin Elaine may be trying to kill Delphie, Cousin Mordred overtly tries to kill Gareth, various other vague and/or illegitimate relatives complicate matters as much as possible…anyway, at the beginning Gareth and Delphie don’t like each other, at the end they do, and all the plot twists tie up in the requisite cellophane-transparent heart-shaped bow at the end.

You won’t believe it. You’re not actually meant to believe it. You’re meant to laugh, and feel relief that your own love life, however messy it may be, is surely less preposterous than Delphie’s. That you will do.

I have exactly one serious objection to this novel, apart from my feeling that editors should have insisted on spelling Gareth’s family name “Pennystone.” The objection is that, if this should happen to be the first of Joan Aiken’s books you read, you might not go on to read and appreciate the books Aiken herself seems to have taken more seriously. This is an amusing romp through the ridiculous, hardly to be compared with the mock-history series that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the character studies of The Girl from Paris or If I Were You, the nonstop nonsense of Arabel’s Raven, the dreamlike stories in Not What You Expected, the subtle social commentary of Morningquest, or the right-to-death eloquence of Midwinter Nightingale.

Though Joan Aiken no longer needs a dollar, readers “meeting” this writer for the first time should visit the blog about her books maintained by her heirs: Some writers’ heirs seem to prefer that the writers’ books quietly disappear and stop reminding them of what they’ve lost. Other writers’ heirs, like Walter Hooper with C.S. Lewis and, apparently, Lizza Aiken with Joan Aiken, keep the books alive for one or more generations after the writers are gone. There won’t be any more books by Joan Aiken but there are plenty of them already (she wrote more than a hundred), and many are still in print.

Anyway, to buy The Five-Minute Marriage (and other vintage Aiken books) here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. If you buy four books for a total of $25 that may work out to less than you’d pay some other sellers whose per-book price appears, at first, to be much lower, so shop carefully.

Morguefile book review cat:

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Book Review: Ingrid Bergman My Story

Book Review: Ingrid Bergman My Story

Author: Ingrid Bergman with Alan Burgess

Date: 1980

Publisher: Delacorte

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 477 pages plus index

Illustrations: black-and-white photo inserts

Quote: “I will go on acting…After all, they always need an old witch in some production or other.”

Once upon a time there was a shy little Swedish orphan who had embarrassed her parents, while they were living, by “always being something else; a bird, or a lamppost…I remember the day I decided to be a small dog. I was quite disconcerted when my father refused absolutely to put a leash around my neck…I still trotted at his heels woofing.” This love of play-acting stayed with little Ingrid as she grew up.In some small way, acting helped her endure the loss of her parents, the aunt who adopted her, and finally her home country.

Bergman was a successful actress in Sweden, married to Petter Lindstrom, in 1937. By 1938, “if you were anybody at all in films,you had to be a member of the Nazi Party,” and “If you get an invitation from Dr. Josef Goebbels to tea—and you’re pretty certain to get one—you just say ‘Yes.’ You don’t argue or have a headache. You go! He likes young actresses.” The manner in which the devoted bride reports hearing this advice could have been calculated to turn any woman against Goebbels.

So she decided she wanted to come to America, with or without Lindstrom, but she encountered more subtle kinds of censorship here. “It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t have a child, or that it would interfere with my career…that everybody should be shocked that I had had a baby…‘And please, please don’t have any photographs taken with your child’…The movie stars of Hollywood adopted children if they wanted them.” In Berlin Bergman had refused to learn the Nazi salute; in Hollywood she gave an interview to a representative of David Selznick during which she knitted baby clothes. In her first few films she also refused to wear makeup, although she came to agree that the filming process made makeup necessary.

American audiences, of course, loved her anyway. In some ways it was mutual. “Americans laugh because the joke is against them. And they have nothing against success.” In other ways she clung to Swedish customs. In her early theatre training “You played old people, young people, nasty people, good people, but you rarely played what you looked like or what you were. You got inside somebody else’s skin.” She refused to play “Hollywood peaches-and-cream-girl” parts unless she could alternate them with more challenging parts: barmaids, hags, martyred saints, anything but pretty young girls. She played a Protestant missionary lady who was not a romantic heroine but an action hero. She played a nun. Audiences were delighted.

Then, as Bergman approached age thirty, Snow White drifted. She and Lindstrom quarrelled; she left him for Roberto Rossellini. It couldn’t have been his looks, it seems unlikely to have been his manners, it probably was’t money, and if it was a publicity stunt it wasn’t a helpful one…but the relationship didn’t last long. Rossellini’s next companion was also divorced, and before that divorce was final Bergman had found her third husband…and this book tells us more about the soap opera of all those family-blendings than I for one was interested in knowing.

Anyway, here are lots of memoirs and pictures from one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses. Movie buffs should enjoy this book.

Ingrid Bergman didn’t outlive this book by long, so it’s not a Fair Trade Book. To buy it here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.

Morguefile book review cat:

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Book Review: How to Have Fun Cooking Breakfast

Book Review: How to Have Fun Cooking Breakfast

Author: Creative Educational Society

Date: 1974

Publisher: Childrens Press

ISBN: 0-87191-291-0

Length: 28 pages

Illustrations: About half the book consists of drawings.

Quote: “Fixing cold cereal is very easy.”

Two whole pages of this book tell and show children how to add milk, sugar, and fruit to packaged cereal. Two more pages explain toast. Other two-page spreads explain bacon, fried eggs, and scrambled eggs. Pancakes take four pages.

This book is recommended for precocious readers, ages four through six. Although it has the look of a third-grade book, and doesn’t mention that the “you” addressed will need to stand on a chair, eight-year-olds are likely to feel bored and talked down to by a cookbook that assumes that only fried or scrambled eggs will be “not too hard for you to do.” With adult supervision, even six-year-olds are usually competent to boil eggs and prepare hot whole-grain cereals like oatmeal, which aren’t even discussed in this book. When I was eight years old, not a very precocious cook, I was doing biscuits, coffee cakes, and corn bread, none of which is discussed in this book either.

Be very careful about giving this book to a child. The time window during which extremely easy books like How to Have Fun Cooking Breakfast will be appreciated, rather than taken as insults, is narrow. If in doubt, buy a book that discusses things adults think might be a little bit ahead of a child’s abilities. This one is for the moppet who’s not been allowed to explore the kitchen yet.

However, according to Amazon, this book has been a childhood favorite and become a collector’s item. I’ll take a chance and say that, if you buy it here, you need to send only $10 per book + $5 per package (you can fit plenty of other books in that package)…but this price information is subject to change. Committees aren’t authors, therefore books credited to committees aren’t Fair Trade Books; therefore, if you find a better deal somewhere else, feel free to take advantage of it.

This Morguefile image reflects my awareness that…I don’t know any children under age ten who bake yeast breads like this all by themselves, although I’ve known many children as young as six who liked to help mix, knead, and shape bread dough. A child old enough to read a picture book like How to Have Fun Cooking Breakfast is old enough to slice and toast bread, too.


Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

Title: Atlas Shrugged

Author: Ayn Rand

Date: 1957

Publisher: Signet

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 1074 pages

Quote: “We saw that we’d been given a law to live by, a moral law, they called it, which punished those who observed it—for observing it. The more you tried to live up to it, the more you suffered; the more you cheated it, the bigger reward.”

(Note: There’s a shorter opinion piece about Atlas Shrugged at .)

Ayn Rand grew up in the middle of the Russian revolution and saw firsthand how dictatorship, even in the name of Communist ideals, bred corruption, degradation, and inefficiency. In Atlas Shrugged, she imagined how the process might work if the United States adopted Communist ideals. The result is an evolution rather than a revolution (in contemporary terms), but it’s still bloody.

Atlas Shrugged is classic science fiction; potential developments in physics and chemistry form a large part of the plot. Rand’s focus was on the big industries of greatest economic interest in the early twentieth century—metal, mining, railroads, building, and the new fad for automobiles. Other science-fiction devices used in the story are weird new explosives something like neutron bombs (only without fallout or radiation), sonic weapons, unexplained breakthroughs in radio technology, and of course the “rays” that shield “Atlantis.” Nevertheless, Rand was no scientist, and mainstream readers didn’t dismiss Atlas Shrugged as “merely” science fiction because the plot is mainly about the people; the technology could be changed to set the story either forward or back in history.

The main character, Dagny Taggart, is, if possible, harder to like than Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, and that’s saying a lot. Biology may prevent Dagny from committing outright rape, but she’s still a sadomasochistic sex fiend who doesn’t kiss, but bites. She ignores a loyal lifelong friend and an attractive admirer, and wrecks Hank Rearden’s home merely because she “wants” him. While Hank is sacrificing the business he loves for the woman he loves, Dagny is preparing to dump him for the man she eventually decides she loves. What turns her on, in her steamiest scene, is flouncing out of an evening party where a lot of rich men have been hanging on her word, in order to stand up, in her satin gown and velvet cape, and order a lot of laborers to toil all night doing their jobs in the old-fashioned way, which most of them would be too young even to know how to do. It’s not surprising that, although she plays the role of counsellor and grants a sort of absolution to her sister-in-law (“Taggart” means “priest”), Dagny has no female friends. What’s hard to believe is that, at the end of the book, she has any male ones. She’s at her best at work, where Rand convinces us that Dagny loves railroading the way writers love writing.

The story, in my opinion, self-sabotages in two main ways. The most obvious way is that, although it was written as a trilogy, it doesn’t work as a trilogy. The first third of Atlas Shrugged is stage-setting, and is likely to put readers to sleep if they don’t skip, skim, and miss things they’ll need to go back and look up later.  A corollary factor is that Atlas Shrugged is a story about middle-aged adults. It doesn’t read like The Rise of Silas Lapham toward the end, but it does for long enough that readers might expect that it will.

The other self-destructive tendency this novel has is Rand’s attempt to justify Dagny at her most repulsive. Rand apparently wanted to believe that Hank has a right to cheat on his wife, Lillian. Lillian deteriorates, as the plot moves along, from a half-educated, shallow, virginal debutante into an embittered hag. Yes, but Hank had a lot to do with that. Contemporary audiences understood the “waspish gaiety” in Lillian’s first scene to indicate that she’s not satisfied. Therefore, if Hank were really as brilliant as she’s supposed to be, he should have figured out that she wants something from him, and set aside some small portion of his mental energy for figuring out what that might be. She’s not his equal because she’s not been brought up to be his equal; she’s been brought up to be his student, an empty page for him to write on. That was what her parents thought he would want. If he really were a man any woman could admire, he would have accepted responsibility for finishing Lillian’s education, instead of blaming her for being ignorant about business, politics, and sex, and “falling in love” with Dagny. Which, as I think about it, I’m not sure I believe either; in real life, weren’t men like Hank usually scared of women like Dagny?

In real life Ayn Rand sometimes did behave like Dagny. Although married, she “honored” her male students with sexual favors and the idea that their wives weren’t good enough for them anyway, then dropped them, sometimes after the divorce, as younger and cuter students came along. Nathaniel Branden, the last younger man to be so “honored,”  wrote at some length about how and why this notion of adultery as compatible with personal honor was a mistake.

Then there’s another minor flaw: the world of Atlas Shrugged is demographically unbalanced. (I’m not sure how significant the imbalance was meant to be.) The world of this novel consists of North America, South America, and western Europe. All the important people except Dagny are middle-aged Caucasian men. No character is Asian, Native American, or even noticeably Jewish. No character is positively identified as African-American…but one of the baddies, Cuffy Meigs, has an African nickname, “bleary brown eyes,” and black curly hair. Meigs is the one whose irredeemable awfulness keeps the totalitarians from being able to destroy John Galt’s valley. Other characters, if described, have blond or red hair, blue or green eyes. Rand didn’t completely buy into the racist thinking of the early twentieth century, and wasn’t as impressed by Hitler and Mussolini as many Americans were in the 1930s—she was, after all, Jewish—but if readers wanted to believe that melanin in the human complexion indicated a lower level of evolution, Rand wasn’t going to argue with them. And she wasn’t trying to impress ethnic-minority readers.

Nevertheless, despite these flaws, Atlas Shrugged has some excellent features too. One thing I like is that, although John Galt and Ragnar Danneskjeld have been preparing for a real war against Jim Taggart, his friends, and their liberal-on-Communism philosophy, and although Hank and Dagny have been suffering psychological torture as they try to choose sides in the inevitable war, Rand finds a way to end the story without the war actually breaking out. John and Dagny won’t have to face off against each other, as they’ve feared, after declaring themselves “in love.” Lots of people have starved, killed each other in riots, or been killed as the industrial infrastructure of America has broken down, but people manage to avoid war. Hurrah.

The best part in the book is the short story a laborer tells Dagny by way of explaining the cliché “Who is John Galt?” Perhaps this story should have been chapter one; as it is, it comes just after the halfway point. John Galt was, in youth, the brightest and bravest laborer in the automobile company that went socialist. The story is about what he walked away from: the way even small-scale, benign, and semi-voluntary dictatorship inevitably corrupts people and their work. (The same group dynamics can be observed in the families of “helicopter parents,” which Rand luckily hadn’t had and chose not to describe—there are no real children in this novel.) The story is compact and readable, and true. Rand had firsthand knowledge; by now many of us share that knowledge.

The central idea of this book is that altruism is absurd because the highest good for all people does not require conflict between people. The main plot is that collectivist morality is debunked and reintegrated. Although Rand chose to write these ideas in the form of unlikely science fiction, others have written them better. One nonfiction book that comes to mind is The Conscience of a Conservative. Then there were the more idealistic versions of American history, the actual histories of schools like Berea College, the doctrines of several religious denominations, the histories of various communes and communities, even the histories of the businesses that began when an employee said “Why wait for the boss to retire? I’ll start my own store and run it my own way.” There are even recognizable undercurrents of the idea in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, in most of Elizabeth Enright’s books, in Carol Kendall’s books and several other favorites of the early and middle twentieth century. Rand might not have appreciated the link being traced, but the idea of separating from others in order to help the survivors of the others’ destructive choices is actually biblical.

As I contemplate the paradox of Rand’s life, I wonder whether she just needed to have reworked her material a few more times, or whether her work really was spoiled by her compulsive, reactionary atheism. There was room for love and joy in her philosophy. Why does it come through so badly? Rand spent so much energy railing against dysfunctional forms of “altruistic love” that she didn’t give herself much time to write about the joy of real love, although the reader who slogs through to the end of Atlas Shrugged will agree that the characters meant to be sympathetic seem to reach something like that kind of love in the end. The joy of friendship, partnership, synergistic work, seeing and feeling that what is good for one person really is what is good for another person, pulsates through Atlas Shrugged, but it tends to be covered up by rants and smut. When John and Dagny get together at last, the attentive (and mature) reader understands that they symbolize a return to social connection after a period of separation, but on the literal level they read like just another fling for a rich girl gone wrong.

Rand did stay married, even if it was an “open” (and childless) marriage. She did send money to her relatives who hadn’t been able to emigrate from Russia. She was hospitable, in her way, and had a large circle of loyal friends who have kept her books in print after her death in 1982. It was possible for some people to enjoy her company. Unlike Dagny, she even had a few friendships that weren’t based on sex, a few even with women. In her life as in her novels, she seemed to spend so much time railing against the kind of love she despised, the smother-mothering and guilt-tripping kind, that she found it difficult to say anything about the kind she probably did enjoy. Sad.

So, in conclusion…Atlas Shrugged is a severely flawed book by a severely flawed writer, but if you have a lot of time to kill and are old enough to stand those first 400 pages, you will eventually understand why some people love this book. I don’t love it. I don’t expect I’ll ever reread it. Rand spent eleven years writing it, and should probably have spent eleven more years revising it into something even libertarian feminist book lovers could be expected to enjoy. Nevertheless, by the time the plot gets moving, the last third of this novel is a satisfying read. Almost good enough to make up for the time you have to spend in the first two thirds to understand what’s happening in the last third.

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Book Review: Cooking for Two

Book Review: Cooking for Two

Author: staff of Better Homes & Gardens magazine

Date: 1968, 1978

Publisher: Meredith

ISBN: 0-696-00450-X

Length: 90 pages plus index

Illustrations: many color photos

Quote: “Cooking for two can be creative.”

Peanut-butter meringues? Miniature Baked Alaska? Frankfurter pizza? These recipes, collected from Better Homes & Gardens during the 1950’s and 1960’s, definitely qualify as creative.

Actually they’re the sort of recipe that used to be notorious for getting beginning cooks into trouble. If you are that stereotype of 1950’s comedy, the Bride (or Bridegroom) Who Never Cooked Before, this is not the first cookbook you need. Cooking for Two makes things like Baked Alaska, fondue, and meringues sound easy by describing them fast. Actually they’re not all that difficult once you’re familiar with your equipment, but this is not the book for raw beginners who need to be told that it’s best to open a tin of beans before setting it on the stove.

If you are familiar with basic cooking procedures, this is a “fun” cookbook. Most recipes are reasonably simple, are reasonably cheap or were at the time, and leave room for variations.

If you need to adapt your cooking to a special diet, it’s usually easy to do so. There are no completely vegetarian menus in this book but there are several vegan recipes. Each menu does suggest a wheat product and a milk product, but there are several wheat-free and/or dairy-free recipes. Some recipes specify a simple main dish and no-fuss, pre-packaged milk and wheat products, putting the “creative” focus on vegetables, fruits, desserts, rice, and even beverage recipes your guest may not have tasted before.

Cooking for Two is still widely available, despite its nostalgic vintage appeal, and therefore reasonably priced. It’s not a Fair Trade Book, but if you send $5 per book + $5 per package to salolianigodagewi @ yahoo, you could add it to the same package with one or more Fair Trade Books and save shipping costs.

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