§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: September 2007

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester

Excellent memoir. I love Manchester’s sensibility. He writes like a passionate and educated man. I’ve read the two volumes of the Churchill biography he finished (and lament that he never finished the other two) as well as The World Lit Only by Fire.

First of all the title is obviously a nod to Robert Graves whose Goodbye to All That has to be the primary literary memoir of WWI. Manchester’s father fought in WWI and was left for dead in the Argonne as he himself would be “left for dead” on Okinawa. The “darkness” part of the title refers to the circumstances under which this memoir was written. Manchester returned to the Pacific islands where he’d fought in 1979 and planned to write this book to exorcise the darkness at the heart of his life that he realized he could only deal with by going back. He was a man with an interesting psychic life. His father died, aged 44 in January of 1941, his health compromised by his war wounds. Manchester had what was called “traumatic amnesia” and lost four months he never recovered. He was a student at the time and didn’t recognize the textbooks he studied from or the job he’d done to help defray college expenses. He also had dramatic dreams and just about the time he realized it was time to go back to the Pacific, his dreams began to focus on two characters: a cocky Marine sergeant and the elderly historian and writer he had become.

He’d enlisted, in the Marines like his father, shortly after Pearl Harbor, had a shot at officer’s training but decided it wasn’t for him, and instead he became a sergeant. He expected to fight the Germans but was sent to the Pacific instead where he lead a group of men who christened themselves the raggedy ass Marines—island hopping all the way to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. All were from the East Coast, trained at Parris Island, South Carolina, mostly college men, with academic interests and irreverent attitudes.

The organization of the book is both organic and brilliant, the work of a master craftsman juggling balls few writers could manage. Manchester kept a war diary so he didn’t rely entirely on memory, but in 1979 he was an historian who’d done his homework and was able to weave a history of the Pacific war into the story of his own experience so there were at least two takes on the what-happened-then part—his own story and the big picture. But there was also the present, a man in his late fifties revisiting the battlefields of his youth to explore the darkness he’s been unable to face. I suppose one might say the book’s organization goes from south to north, working its was up the Pacific Islands from New Guinea to Guadacanal to Tarawa, to Guam and Saipan and Peleliu and eventually to Iwo Jim and Okinawa and finally to a personal resolution when he saw Sugar Loaf (on Okinawa) and recognized that hill as the meeting place of the cocky sergeant and the old man in his dreams.

It’s an emotional story and Manchester is one of the best dealing with both facts and feelings. Let me quote a bit of his conclusion as an example:

To fight World War II you had to have been tempered and strengthened in the 1930ies Depression by a struggle for survival—in 1940 two out of every five draftees had been rejected, most of them victims of malnutrition. And you had to know that your whole generation, unlike the Vietnam generation, was in this together, that no strings were being pulled for anybody; the four Roosevelt brothers were in uniform, and the sones of both Harry Hopkins, FDR’s closest advisor and Leverett Saltonstall, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, served in the Marine Corps as enlisted men and were killed in action. But devotion overarched all this. It was a bond woven of many strands. You had to remember your father’s stories about the Argonne, and saying your prayers, and Memorial Day, and Scouting, and what Barbara Frietchie said to Stonewall Jackson. And you had to have heard Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge and to have seen Gary Cooper as Sergeant York. And seen how your mother bought day-old bread and cut sheets lengthwise and resewed them to equalize wear while your father sold the family car, both forfeiting what would be considered essential today so that you could enter college.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Animal. Vegetable. Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver with Stephen L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

This book was the choice of my f2f book group meeting this week and also of my nonfiction group online. I’ve liked Kingsolver’s novels, but don’t think I’d necessarily have read this one, unless I’d been pushed, but it turned out to be a landmark reading experience for me.

Kingsolver, who grew up in Kentucky and wrote about the land in Prodigal Summer (a novel I liked more than the critics), had lived in Tucson for years when the family decided to move permanently to the farm in Virginia which her husband had owned for a long time. They spent their first months working on the property, which they had used as a summer retreat for years, turning it into a working farm and renovating the farm house. Then they decided to live for a year eating only local food, much of which they'd raise themselves, and to write a book about it. I knew this was a serious experiment, not just a gimmick, when they began deciding what few non-local products they’d continue to buy. Olive oil was the primary one. Coffee was Stephen’s choice; spices were Barbara’s.

Kingsolver wrote most of the book, with sidebars and short essays by her husband who’s a biology professor and by her daughter who focused on recipes and the teenager's point of view. They started their experiment in March; the chapters focus loosely on the months of the year and the agricultural activities appropriate to it. In addition to a large family garden, they had plans to raise chickens (the project of younger daughter, Lily, who turned out to be quite an entrepreneur, selling free range eggs and natural chicken and hoping to use the money to buy a horse) and turkeys. The turkeys were Barbara’s project and their progress in some ways provides the “plot” of the book as she tried to start a breeding flock. This was a significant departure for the family which had been vegetarian before, in part to protest to the way animals are raised for food in the US—in feeding lots where they’re packed together in ghastly circumstances and plied with antibiotics and food intended to fatten them quickly.

One of the most interesting ideas Kingsolver explores is how they decided to become carnivorous again. Basically the “local food” concept trumped the veggie-only concept. Two major reasons were the high transportation cost of protein sources not produced locally (like tofu) and the fact that, in particular geographies and seasons, available local food IS animal. But, says Kingsolver, that doesn’t mean you have to support feeding lots.

Hopp explains the philosophy of industrial agriculture and documents its significant shortcomings: transportation costs of food in the US are enormous with most of the profits going to middlemen not to farmers and growers. Secondly, the loss of biological diversity has been enormous: from hybrid seeds to genetically modified food to the fact that animals raised for food—including turkeys—are bred artificially and have few breeding/rearing instincts, our current food sources may not be able to survive alone in nature.

Kingsolver, who kept a detailed journal of their farming experiences, down to the pounds of tomatoes harvested each day, balances family experience (focusing primarily on their local food experiment) with ideas she’s been advocating and writing about for years (she started her career in science journalism; in Prodigal Summer there’s a character who’s breeding chestnut trees again to repopulate forests after disease killed all the chestnuts). There’s a vacation—where they visit a cheese maker and a dairy farm. There are holidays and family meals with menus. There’s advice for readers who are interested in farming, the organic movement, local sources of food, bread making and cheese making at home, etc.

Check out the website: All the recipes are there.

Yesterday I went to the farmer's market and bought zucchini and eggplant for ratatouille (which turned out wonderful!) and mustard greens and arugla for the rabbits and organic coffee and free range eggs.