Well, this is another month where the book list is rather short. February is Annual Meeting time for the Parish with all that such meetings entail. Also, I wrote an article on Singleness and the Church for our Diocesan newspaper(what with February being the month for love and relationships). So once again there are only four books on the list for this month.
On the plus side, I managed to finish Niall Ferguson’s, Kissinger, 1923 -1968, The Idealist. This book was heavy sledding and was another reason I only finished four books this month. I expect March will feature more books because I’ve got a couple of books already started. For this month however, I’m going to start with the lighter material before moving on to the heavier. I should note that there may be a spoiler or two in this month’s round up.
February Book Reviews:
I’m continuing to work my way through this series. The previous novel wrapped up several of the background plots, and ended with (spoiler alert) Gamache in retirement.
As he settles into life in Three Pines he is seemingly content in retirement. However, when Clara Morrow comes to him to say that her estranged husband Peter hasn’t turned up for a promised reunion a year after their separation, she enlists Gamache’s help in searching for him.
As they begin to search for him, we are reintroduced to Peter’s family, successful, but cold and not caring for Peter. We also find that Peter is trying to reinvent himself. Letting the clinic precision of his early work go for work to which he is more emotionally attached to.
The search leads Clara and Gamache, along with Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Myrna Landers, into the past. Back to the days when Peter and Clara were in art school together. We meet former professors, and uncover old grudges. The search takes them from big cities to abandoned art communes.
At the same time, just having settled in to Three Pines, Gamache and his friends are forced to go on a trip down the St. Lawrence to a desolate island known as “the land God gave Cain.”
This is one of the most self-contained of the Gamache novels. One of the things I really like in The Long Way Home is that Penny reduces the cast of characters. It is mainly the four characters listed above, along with an increased role for Reine-Marie, Gamache’s wife. Having just a part of the regular cast is one way in which Penny is able to keep the series fresh. I’ve already started on The Nature of the Beast.
Killing It: An Education, chronicles Camas Davis’s journey from magazine editor to butcher. Along the way the book as the question as to whether or not eating meat can be done in a transparent, sustainable, and humane fashion. To do this, she began by heading to France to try her hand at learning to be a butcher.
It was in the early part of this journey that the book really grabbed my attention, because one of the first characters introduced is Kate Hill. I knew I had hear of her before but couldn’t quite place her. Then I remembered she was one of the cooking instructors featured in Bob Spitz’s The Sauciers Apprentice, which was part of my June Reading Round Up, last year. She was a memorable character in that story, and that immediately put me in a good frame of mind as I read this book.
Killing It is split in to two distinct parts. The first is Davis’s journey through France, and her education in butchery. The second is her return to the United States and her attempts to put what she has learned into practice.
In France the focus is on her relationship with the Chapolard brothers, the family of butchers who take her on as an apprentice. This apprenticeship certainly involves learning the techniques involved in whole animal butchery, but as much as anything it’s an apprenticeship into a way of life. A way where the life of the community is prized as much as the making of a profit. Where knowing who you are selling to is as important as how much you sell.
On her return to the United States, Davis is faced with a different sort of learning. How to introduce people into a way of life that is as completely foreign to them as a way of life, as French is as a language. The one thing that stands out in this section is Davis’s persistence in seeing her project through. First in continuing to develop her skill as a butcher, and second in passing not just the skill but the connection between the consumer and the meat that they consume.
Along the way there are many triumphs and almost as many disasters, but Davis persists. Her approach reminds me of Neitzsche’s comment:
The essential thing “in heaven and in earth” is, apparently (to repeat it once more), that there should be long OBEDIENCE in the same direction, there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living; for instance, virtue, art, music, dancing, reason, spirituality- (Beyond Good and Evil) Chapter 5.
The best proof this is actually found outside the book. Since returning from France Davis has founded the Portland Meat Collective, an organization dedicated to helping people gain better connection to the meat they eat, and to learning butchering techniques. She is also the founder of The Good Meat Project. Their website describes their purpose as:
We want to transform the way humans produce and consume meat. We believe we can become responsible. We know we must become sustainable. We are certain this transformation begins with education, one person, and one community, at a time
Killing It: An Education is a good read, and gives plenty of food for thought on how we produce and kill the food we eat.
The quote under the photo above sums up the content of The Famine Plot. I’ve written on famine before, and of it’s use as a politcial tool. In many ways the Great Irish Famine of the mid-nineteenth century is the pre-cursor to famines such as the one that occurred during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and in the 1980’s in Ethiopia, to name just two.
Coogan, drawing on Hansard(parliamentary) records, along with historical documents of the era details how the English used the blight to reshaped Irish land and economy. The things that stand out in this account are how the confluence of belief in the free market, divine retribution, combined to turn a natural disaster into a moral one.
While Coogan lays the blame for the famine squarely at the feet of the British government, he particularly singles out Charles Trevelyan. He views Trevelyan as most culpable because he was the one who controlled the purse strings for relief and his contempt for the Irish coloured all of his views and actions.
At the same time Coogan makes it clear it wasn’t solely the English who created the disaster. Ireland’s landlords both those present and particularly those absent, had lived beyond their means. Practices such as the eviction of tenants and tearing down of cottages added to the problems. However, the solutions, workhouses especially, only made matters worse. This was especially true as the workhouses became breeding grounds for diseases such as dropsy, dysentery, and smallpox.
I used to think the above scene from the movie The Commitments was a bit of silliness, but as I read The Famine Plot, I discovered that many English did hold such a view of the Irish. Many of the same claims made about Black, that they were little better than monkeys, for example, were made against the Irish during the potato famine. All of this done to dehumanize them and allow the English government to shift blame from their policies onto the backs of the poor and vulnerable of Ireland.
On the whole The Famine Plot, is horrifying reading. Just when some progress is made in alleviating the suffering, the government decides to stop a program that is helping and the gains are reversed. While The Famine Plot does contain accounts of people such as the Quakers who made heroic efforts to keep people alive, it also contains a whole lot about how religion was used to justify horrible behaviour.
From the souperism(giving aid in exchange for conversions) of some Protestant groups, to the Anti-Catholicism built in to so many of the English actions, it mainly shows religion at its worst.
A debate has arisen over the years as to whether or not the famine constituted a genocide. This op-ed writer says no, as does this one. Coogan supports the genocide theory, but does admit that there is quite a bit of disagreement over this. This book is worth reading so that you can decide for yourself where exactly the truth of the Irish Famine lies.
If you find Coogan’s work on the Irish famine to be too controversial, you certainly won’t want to tackle Niall Ferguson’s first volume on the life of Henry Kissinger. This book is long, deep, and complicated. The first thing that stood out for me while reading this was that Ferguson was Kissinger’s own choice for writing this book. Ferguson initially declined, but was enticed by the fact that Kissinger was going to allow him access to his private correspondence.
This access gives the reader a much more nuanced and complex reading of Kissinger’s early life and career. However, it likely won’t change many peoples minds. Type Henry Kissinger into Google and the first phrase that comes up is War Crimes. Most people have a hard and fast view of who Kissinger was and what he stands for.
This is largely due to the fact that he was so closely linked to Richard Nixon in the public’s mind. However, as Ferguson shows throughout the latter part of the book, Kissinger had no desire to work with or support Nixon. In fact, Kissinger was a loyal, if not wise, supporter of Nelson Rockefeller in each of Rockefeller’s campaign bids.
As he traces Kissinger’s life from growing up In Germany at the time of Nazi ascendancy, to his fleeing to the United States, to his service in the U.S. Army, his academic career and his various forays into the halls of political power and to the field of diplomacy, Kissinger was motivated by the idea of nations to act in moral as well as pragmatic ways in the way they deal with each other.
There are too many complexities to deal with in a round up like this. I may need to do an in-depth review on another platform. So, instead here are just a few things that were new-ish to me:
I’m young enough that I was still a child at the end of the Nixon era. So, I didn’t realize that Kissinger had been involved as a consultant to presidents for quite a few years before he ascended to the cabinet after Nixon’s election in 1968.
Kissinger gave Ferguson carte blanche, essentially to tell Kissinger’s story as he understood it. As a result the Kissinger that appears in this volume is not the skilled, shrewd diplomat, but rather an insecure and rather naive figure whose lack of experience and knowledge of foreign countries often causes him trouble. On top of that his inability to deal well with the media also causes him trouble.
Most interesting is the view of Kissinger as an outsider. While many presidents were willing to make use of his mind, they kept him on the outside most of the time. Not surprising, since both Kennedy and Johnson were Democrats and Kissinger was a Republican.
That’s it for this month. I think I need to plot out a longer review of this book for later.