Thursday, September 30, 2010

Enough, by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman

In this challenging book, these two veteran Wall Street Journal reporters ask, as the subtitle states, why the world's poorest starve in an age of plenty.  If you have studied the topic of poverty and food production, some of the content here may not be completely new to you, but much of their argument goes beyond what you may typically have heard.  Thurow and Kilman's WSJ reporting on famines in 2003 won them some recognition, even a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize.
Here's what I love most about this book: it pays tribute to Norman Borlaug, who passed away last year.  You don't know who that is?  Only a Nobel Peace Prize winner, one of my heroes, who is personally, almost single-handedly responsible for saving the lives of literally millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of people around the world.  He fathered the Green Revolution, back when "green" didn't indicate anti-market, eco-feel-goodism.  He developed various strains of wheat that increased yield and resisted disease.  I read an interview with him in Reason Magazine a few years ago and became enthralled with his story.

(By the way, I became frustrated while I was teaching that Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring, is so well-remembered by the environmentalists; she is lauded in children's textbooks, and has a number of children's books written about her, even though she is single-handedly responsible for the deaths of countless millions.  By leading the movement to ban DDT, she allowed malaria to spread unchecked, while supposedly saving some birds, although the environmental benefits of the DDT ban are questionable.  I think it's shameful.  I noticed no similar laudatory treatment of Borlaug, and thought about writing a children's book about him.  Now I see someone beat me to it!  Andy Andrews published The Boy Who Changed the World just last month.  I have yet to read it, but will certainly check it out.)

Thurow and Kilman continue the Borlaug story.  After winning the Nobel Prize in 1970, he went out of fashion until a Japanese business man and philanthropist drafted him to bring the Green Revolution to Africa.  In spite of some early successes, it did not take hold as well as it had in India.
Borlaug with Africans.  How many of them and their descendants owe their lives to him?
The reasons for the persistence of poverty are varied.  The culprit I often hear is corrupt governments.  Surely one does not have to look hard to find governments who use foreign aid to buy chalets in Europe, or who give out food aid based on tribal divisions, and who steal from and oppress their people.   But the problem of hunger is much greater than that.

Part of the reason agricultural development was stymied in Africa, despite Borlaug's efforts, is a complete lack of infrastructure.  When farmers had a bumper crop, the transportation, market structure, and commodities exchanges were not there to help them reap rewards, so they had no incentives to produce, to invest in equipment, fertilizer, or seeds.

The worst part of this story, I think, is the way U.S. agricultural aid disincentivises farmers.  Farmers in Africa work hard to produce a crop, and if they can get it to market at all, they are greeted by truckloads of American-grown grain, which is virtually free for the asking.  How will they make money off of their efforts?  But the United States, by law, cannot send money to these struggling nations for infrastructure, equipment, or other investment in their agricultural development.  Why?  Because the U.S. government wants to support its own farmers, buying their produce!  Now, I'm all for the success of American farmers, but so much of our farming industry is subsidized by the government for the supposedly noble cause of feeding the hungry around the world while making the problem worse that it makes me angry!  Well-meaning Christians and government officials may think they're helping the hungry, but by perpetuating the policy of subsidizing American farmers to produce crops to send overseas to hungry nations they are perpetuating the very problem they think they're solving.

Enough does tell some encouraging stories.  My favorite is about Dr. Joe Mamlin who, when treating AIDS patients in Kenya, realized that his efforts were futile if the patient has nothing to eat.  He began handing out food along with the medicine he dispensed, and eventually started a network of clinics with their own gardens in which they grow crops and raise chickens.  This dual emphasis of improved nutrition and medication has vastly improved the effectiveness of the clinics' work.  (Another side note pet peeve: I am glad Western Christians are increasingly taking action and showing compassion, helping people with AIDS.  I know many of the victims are truly victims, wives and children of wayward husbands who visit prostitutes while traveling or working away from home.  But why do these activists never, ever mention the fact that the epidemic can easily be contained if they only have sex with their wives?)

Thurow and Kilman end with some practical steps we, as individuals and as a nation, can take to move toward alleviating poverty.  In spite of their examples of heroic individuals and their actions, I mostly finished this book feeling frustrated and helpless in light of the vast power that our government, agricultural lobbies, and cultural forces, both here and abroad, have to maintain systems that perpetuate poverty.  I do hope that Thurow and Kilman's voices will be heard by people who can make a difference.  Too many people are starving among plenty.  Borlaug's intellectual heirs, Dr. Mamlin, and others who share Thurow and Kilman's views can make those numbers shrink, the sooner the better.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy

What a soap opera.  Yes, this is a classic, by one of Great Britains greatest British authors.  But it's still a soap opera, a love triangle with a tragic end.  It is beautifully written, with descriptive passages that bring the English countryside alive. 

I learned a couple of things.  I had never heard of a reddleman.  One of the main characters, Diggory Venn, marks flocks of sheep with reddle.  As a result of his trade, he is red from head to toe, thus making him a bit of a pariah, even though he makes decent money.  I never did figure out why they would want the sheep marked with reddle, though. . . .

Furze-cutting on the heath.

I guess I never really thought of what a heath is.  The story takes place in Egdon Heath, a fictional, rural area in Enlgand.  A heath is a lowland region with only small vegetation, shrubs and grasses.  It doesn't sound too pretty; the bleakness provides a fitting backdrop for the bleak story.  One part of the bleakness is the drudgery of cutting furze.  One character loses most of his sight, so he can't pursue his studies and open a school, so he cuts furze to generate some income.  I was listening to the audiobook and thought this must be "firs" but the usage didn't sound quite right.  Turns out it's furze, an evergreen shrub that grows on the heath and is used for cooking fuel.

Fans of Thomas Hardy and of 19th century British fiction will love Return of the Native.  Most modern readers will look elsewhere for their reading enjoyment.  This isn't a bad book, but it was a bit of chore to get through.  I didn't love it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Free Running: The Urban Landscape is Your Playground, by Sebastien Foucan

You may have seen Sebastien Foucan running around.  He's the one who does the impossible-looking leaping, jumping, climbing, and running in Casino Royale, a bunch of commercials, and (I missed this one) on tour with Madonna.  He's the founder of freerunning, and one of the founders of Parkour, which means "obstacle" in French.  Both of these sports? activities? lifestyles? involve running and jumping, climbing and balancing, tumbling and leaping around buildings, railings, ledges, whatever obstacles the urban landscape presents.  If you've never seen these guys in action, you should take a look; you'll swear they're using special effects.

I picked up this little book thinking Foucan might be the trail runner of the city, eschewing typical road running for something a bit more adventurous.  He is, and does, but the book doesn't speak too much about freerunning itself.  Rather, it's a collection of his thoughts, which amount to little more that self-esteem platitudes.  Not that they're bad, just a little trite.  Examples:

Enjoy what you are doing because it might be the last time you do it--and don't attach your happiness and success to a specific person or place, because you have to continue to exist and thrive even when these are gone.

If your motivation is wanting to win a trophy, or to beat someone, you aren't thinking about what's best for you and your body.

The world is your playground--enjoy it!  Remember: freerunning started as children playing, so think like a child and enjoy how you move.
As these quotes demonstrate, Foucan definitely shares a trail-runner-type mentality.  I would love to see him at a trail race, bounding over boulders, stumps, fallen trees.  I'm sure he's fit; I wonder how he'd do in a 50 miler or 100 miler.  I wish this book would have spoken more about training and fitness.  He clearly has gymnastic skills, climbing skills, and running skills, but has he been trained in gymanstics or track, or has he developed those skills only through freerunning?  I don't know.

If you've never seen him in action, check out these videos:
From Casino Royale.
Foucan chased by a chicken in a Nike commercial.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The God Seeker, by Sinclair Lewis

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like Sinclair Lewis is the greatest little-known American novelist.  Steinbeck, Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, all seem to more widely read and better known than Lewis, but Lewis is at least their equal.  In fact, I find Lewis to be more readable and to tell richer, more satisfying stories with enduring themes.  The Nobel committee agreed; they gave him their prize for literature in 1930, the first U.S. writer to receive the honor.  (In spite of the Nobel committee's tradition of assinine choices for the Peace Prize, the honorees for the Literature prize seem to be legitimately deserving.) 
The God Seeker, the last Lewis novel published before his death, returns to the state of his birth, Minnesota.  The story follows Aaron Gadd, through his debauched teen years, rebelling against his stern father, his conversion and decision to become a missionary, his adventures as a missionary and craftsman in pre-statehood Minnesota.  Among the strengths of the novel is the portrayal of this period in Minnesota's history.  Lewis weaves actual events and individuals through the story.  The interactions of the Catholic and Protestant missionaries, the various Indian tribes, the traders, and the pioneering farmers and townspeople alone make The God Seeker an interesting book from a historical perspective.

For the Christian reader, Aaron's struggles as a young, passionate, if a bit theologically confused, Christian on the mission field provide plenty of moments of personal reflection.  Additionally, The God Seeker raises serious questions about the nature of cross-cultural ministry.  Other than a couple of very short-term mission trips, I have not served on the mission field, but I know enough and have read enough to appreciate the depth and insight of the issues Lewis addresses here.

Converted at a gospel camp meeting headlined by revivalist Charles Finney, and swept up in a passion to serve, Aaron brashly commits to return to Minnesota with one of the preachers who serves as a missionary there.  In the days leading up to his departure, he devours the scriptures but struggles with his carnality.  After he meets Selene, who would later become his wife, he can't stop thinking about her: "I've been thinking more about Selene than about experimental religion.  I'm not good enough nor pure enough to go."  Anyone who's been a young man in love can relate to his struggle.  "Whenever he thought of Selene's lips, of her breast, he writhed with the effort to convert it to prayer for the elevation of her soul."  Oh, the turmoil!

His struggles continued in a different vein once he arrived in Minnesota.  He quickly began to observe the injustices he sees visited on the Indians.  At Fort Snelling, he observes that the fort reminds the Indians that the territory, which had long belonged to the Indians, was now the white man's.  The fort was there "in case the Indians got a notion that they might have a right to their own land, and treacherously try to drive out the whites who had taken it over on the constitutional grounds of being white."  Besides the white privilege of taking over the land, he also struggles with their right to convert the Indians to Christianity.  Mr. Hopkins, a missionary with unorthodox ideas, tells Aaron, "I believe that if an Indian has never had any chance whatever to hear the True Word and yet has always been God-hungry and unselfish, maybe he might be elect and go to Heaven!"  Aaron didn't know what to think of that, but "was again convinced--perhaps a quarter-convinced--that the white invaders had been only a blessing to the Indians.  Why, of course!  They were white, weren't they?"

He even comes to consider that the Indians may have a superior culture.  Selene's father, the fur trader Lanarck, challenges him.  "You substitute an unventilated chapel for the open woods which were the Dakotah's tabernacle and a dreary staff of paid text-parrots for the Indian grandparents whose delight it was, in the old days, to instruct children in the duties of tribal morality and in the delightful myths about their demigods."  And given the communal nature of much of the tribal culture, Aaron wonders if they aren't better Christians than Christians are, providing for one another in need and living together as brothers.

Ultimately, Aaron leaves the mission and makes a name for himself as a builder.  I'm not sure he ever reconciled his love and admiration for tribal culture with the perceived superiority of his culture and religion.  Aaron's personal struggles and adventures on the American frontier make The God Seeker  a great read.  Lewis's sense of humor, vivid characterizations, and incorporation of historical events and settings add up to a novel worth a second look and place Sinclair Lewis high on the list of great American writers.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Arguing with Idiots, by Glen Beck

I'm not a fan of Glenn Beck.  I've never seen his TV show and only ocassionally heard him on the radio.  That said, I like him; I found very little in Arguing with Idiots to disagree with.  I guess this book was designed to resemble the . . . for Dummies or Idiots Guide to . . . books, with the frequent sidebars, graphics, and "ADD moments."  It's a shame that those elements make it a bit annoying, and even insulting, to read, because there is some terrific content here.

Each of the twelve chapters takes a hot issue on which there is a wide range of disagreement in political and public life.  The content (as well as the extensive list of sources he cites) can lead the curious reader to a more serious discussion of the issues, but the body of the book leans toward the polemical.  In his defense of capitalism, critique of public education and unions, explanations of economics and the mortgage crisis, and other subjects, his listeners and others who are familiar with conservative and libertarian public policy will not necessarily find anything new here, but he puts it all together in an entertaining, simplified way.

This book is mostly for his fans.  People who think they disagree with him would certainly do well to hear him out and reflect on his arguments, but they won't.  I couldn't believe--actually, it wasn't surprising, just typical--the vitriol against him concerning his rally last weekend.  Sharpton and his other critics all but called him out as a bigot, denouncing him loudly, but I never heard anyone say, "I disagree with Beck on the following points," with an engagement of his ideas.

If you like Beck, you'll love this book.  If you don't, well, you might learn something.  Be careful, though;  he might just change your thinking!