Tag Archives: politics

The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell

I think my exhaustion is not going to do honor to this last review – but in your mind, know that I loved it.

I don’t listen to NPR, so I did not know anything about Sarah Vowell, other than my boss thinks she has a very unique voice (that would apparently drive me nuts) and so many people recommended her, and this book to me – that I finally picked it up.

So glad I did. The short version is: It’s about the Puritans. The long version? The founding of a nation, religious doctrine, feminism, rifts in Protestantism, the separation of church and state, nationalism and patriotism. Her writing is funny, engaging and insightful. I really love her comparisons to modern politics, and it’s peppered with personal stories about the research itself.

I love when books do that awesome thing where afterwards, I feel like some sort of expert on something I didn’t even know I wanted to know anything about.



Filed under Books

Water Witches – Chris Bohjalian

I think this is the second or third book I have read by this author. The first one I read, I really really liked (Midwives). The second one (Before You Know Kindness), also with an environmental theme, I remember enjoying reading – but had to look up what it was about on BN.com.

I fear that this third one will fall into that same “oh yeah, that was okay” category.

In a moving, life-affirming novel suffused with ecological wisdom, a Vermont ski resort’s plans for expansion collide with environmentalists seeking to preserve a mountainous wildlife habitat and riverine ecosystem. Narrator Scott Winston, a transplanted New York City lawyer who represents the ski resort, switches allegiance after he and his nine-year-old daughter spot three mountain lions in an area targeted for clearing. Complicating matters is the envy that Scott’s pragmatic wife, Laura, a native Vermonter, feels toward her famed sister, Patience Avery, a dowser (water witch) who also opposes the ski resort and whose talent for locating underground springs, missing persons or lost objects with a divining rod figures prominently in the novel’s denouement. The struggle between the developers and their opponents culminates in an environmental board hearing that has all the dramatic excitement of a courtroom trial. With wit, insight and mordant irony, Bohjalian charts Scott’s metamorphosis from rationalistic materialist and skeptic to one who believes in higher powers and the interconnectedness of all life. In a refreshing twist, instead of offering a bucolic idyll, the author takes us through a Vermont beset by drought, a declining ski industry, unemployment and endangered ecosystems.

I don’t know about life-affirming or ecological wisdom, but it was a good book. It’s a little heavy-handed on the “there are two sides to every issue!” and “kids are amazing, innocent beings” but overall – nice. That’s really the best I could do – nice.

One thing I did enjoy about it, and this is the kind of stuff I will remember is the little glimpse into the world of “dowsing.” I knew very little about water-dowsing or this group of practicing diviners (divinators?) and probably won’t investigate further but I feel like I got a little glimpse into something, and somehow, knowing my life, this will probably come in handy one day during an inane conversation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography

This was a pick for the Tutor.com Office Book Club, so I am kind of “discussed” out, but for your enjoyment – some thoughts!

  • This man is amazing. As much as I thought I knew about him, I didn’t. Printing, bifocals, electricity, sure. But paving roads, libraries and the Freemasons? What doesn’t this guy do? How many “Renaissance Men” have there really been? Him, DaVinci and Jefferson?
  • It’s amazing what has been left out. Some of it was intentional, because he knew history would take care of it, but it never ceases to amaze me that there was very little mention of his wife or children. Wouldn’t expect a female autobiography to gloss over all of that.
  • Interesting to think about how the autobiography or memoir has changed as a genre, and writing styles.
  • Definitely recommend the Norton Critical Edition of the book. Having some reference material made a somewhat dry book very interesting.
  • Franklin was an ethical vegetarian
  • And a serious cheapskate! He remembers every not-yet-a-dime ever spent!
  • Man, this guy is funny. You sometimes have to look for it, but he’s kind of a riot.
  • The ambition, the drive, the commitment.
  • Couldn’t help but wonder what Ben would have been like in today’s world – would have been as successful? Devoted himself to which causes? Would he be an inventor? Professor? Media mogul? Politician? Would today’s society allow him the meteoric rise that he had back then?
  • Thinking about what impact he may have had on today’s leaders – comparisons between Obama and Franklin
  • Interesting to think about some of the issues that he felt strongly about still being debated today, namely the debate over immunization
  • He talked a lot about humility, but obviously had a hard time with it. If that was his worst quality? Forgiven.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I read this upon the suggestion of my friend Michelle. I had it on my list for awhile, but her glowing review sent me straight to the library.


This was a book that I just couldn’t put down. It was seemingly written more by Relin than by Mortenson, and I had my nitpicks, but the overall message and story was so inspiring and so moving and hopeful, that they were easily overlooked. (Okay, not entirely overlooked. One of my major nitpicks is the almost deification of Mortenson, and it’s written in theory, by him – but it seems as if it was a posthumous biography. I was almost shocked that he is still [fortunately] alive.)

This is essentially the true story of one man’s struggle and determination to build schools for the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson himself is amazing, but the story of these people and the conditions and the obstacles is the true star, in my mind.

The book also served to confirm and validate my long-held belief that a lot of the world’s problems and poverty could be alleviated or eradicated by focusing on the education and empowerment of women and children. If you give a woman the chance to free herself from poverty, and an education, they can protect themselves from tyranny. They can become self-supporting and in turn, can show her children that there is another way. If you are raised in poverty and have the bleakest of futures, it’s hard to imagine a better world, and it’s easy to turn to hate.  If you have a future, and a chance, and access to at the very least, clean water, food and medical care, then maybe we can turn future potential terrorists who had to unite against something to people who can create their own paths and futures.

Give a woman a chance to participate in her government and economy, or be able to read and write and you will give her options. My guess is that the options will be to take care of her children, and most likely have less children that she can’t afford, and stay in marriages where she may be abused. We need to stop treating women like second class citizens, and invest more time, money and effort into those that will be raising the next generation.

The “Three Cups of Tea” refers to the idea that the idea that “he first cup of tea, you’re a stranger; the second cup, a friend; and the third cup, you’re family.” It was a nice reminder that relationships have to be built, and once they are, when they are maintained, there is nothing stronger.

The book was so inspiring and hopeful, that as I was reading it, I kept hoping that we had a different outcome. For example, he is in the Middle East when the attacks on 9/11 happen, and reading about the CAI trying to get tribal leaders together and rally against Osama and for educating women, I actually had a glimmer of hope that it was all going to be okay, and we wouldn’t be bombing innocents. Of course, this didn’t happen. But if the CAI and other organizations succeed in educating women and children, I want to believe that this won’t happen again.

You can read more about the book and the story on their website, and I highly recommend that you do. I as so moved, that I made a contribution to the  Central Asia Institute’s charity at www.ikat.org. My guess is that after reading this book, you will want to do so as well.


Filed under Books, Personal

Saving the World at Work – Tim Sanders

What Companies and Individuals Can Do to Go Beyond Making a Profit to Making a Difference

I keep trying to read these kinds of books, and often they just aren’t very good. This one was definitely better than the rest. The idea of course is that there is lots of stuff you can do to make the world a better place, and some of it is at your place of business. This is all true and good, but what irritated me was his main point was that you don’t have to be a CEO to affect change, and yet his main case study in proof of this was of an intern getting her mom to give her boss some sort of book about how bad the carpet industry is. The boss left it on the CEO’s desk (with no comment) and it wasn’t until the CEO faced some sort of external pressure for change from shareholders did he see the book on his desk. This seemed more like serendipity then a how-to on getting CEO’s to change direction.

I was a little disappointed that there weren’t more tips for non-CEOs.  As employees it’s harder to get high-level change, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can’t do on our own. For example, I am unsubscribing us from junk mail. You can also put CFL bulbs in your desk lamps, and if you have a kitchen, bring some old silverware and place settings for people to use, instead of disposable products. You may be able to convince who ever orders supplies to make some more eco-friendly choices, especially if you can prove that the company will be saving money.

One thing that I really enjoyed about the book, was something I felt was a little misguided, but I liked the spirit of. The author believes that this newest generation of employees cares about their impact on the world as a whole, and wants to work for a company that not only treats them well, but also tries for a better impact on the world as a whole. Whether it’s a mission based business, or just a responsible company. It’s something I certainly feel strongly about, but I am not convinced enough that my peers are. But, I liked it anway.  It seemed an appeal to CEOs and HR to make sure they are offering benefits that reflect a more progressive world view as they only way to attract great employees (benefits for domestic partners, paid time off for volunteer/community work). I really love the concept, and it’s something I hope to accomplish in my future career goals. There was one interaction Sanders described, which I am paraphrasing here:

Recruit: Do you offer benefits for domestic partners?

Interviewer: Why? Are you gay?

Recruit: No, but but I am evolved, and I want to work for a company that is as well.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama

I swear – I haven’t abandoned this blog, its just that I wanted to finish the two books I was reading before I started anything else, and both books were taking more time and energy that I planned.

I wanted to read Obama’s book for awhile, but to be honest – I didn’t have the heart to read it before the election. I had a feeling I was going to like it, and if my political dreams were crushed once again, I didn’t want to know all that I had been missing. My “health” wouldn’t have been able to take it.

So, I started it sometime after the election. And have been picking through it ever since. The reason I haven’t raced through it isn’t because it’s not good. In fact, the contrary. I have been reading, and putting it down to think about what I have read. I have also been really tired lately, and my brain would rather sleep than think, so my subway rides have been filled with drool instead of hope and optimism. The other problem with reading on the train? I cry. I cry a lot. Obama is an excellent writer and the whole story isn’t a tearjerker or anything, but I can’t help but think about the way I want things to be, or what it takes to be a good father, or a husband or a young black man trying to make it in a world that has always told him he can’t. Or what it means to have a man be my president who has lived without flush toilets in Indonesia. Not that it’s a major requirement for presidency, but I am in love with the idea that this is a man who may actually understand the middle class or what struggle means.

The book is essentially a collection of his thoughts on values, family, the constitution, opportunity, politics, faith, race and globalization. What I ended up doing, since I have a hard time remembering what I read, and it took me forever to read it, was to make little tags next to portions that stood out for me. This is going to be a long post, and I apologize. Some of the phrases just stood out because I agree. Some because I disagree. Some stood out because I liked his phrasing. Some of them I may not remember why I choose them, or they may not make sense out of context, and some of the quotes aren’t even his own (noted below) – but here is what caught my eye:

  • Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.
  • “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.” – M.L. King
  • It’s not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or “ism,” any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad. The Founders may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them.
  • “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” – D. Moynihan
  • While I was talking to some of the teachers about the challenges they faced, one young teacher mentioned what she called the “these Kids Syndrome” – the willingness of society to find a million excuses for why “these kids” can’t learn; how “these kids come from tough backgrounds” or why “These kids are too far behind.”  “When I hear that term, it drives me nuts,” the teacher told me.  “They’re not ‘these kids.’ They’re our kids.”  How America’s economy performs in the years to come may depend largely on how well we take such wisdom to heart.
  • What’s missing is not money, but a national sense of urgency.
  • So during my first year in Senate I proposed legislation I called “Health Care for Hybrids.” The bill makes a deal with U.S. automakers: In exchange for federal financial assistance in meeting the health-care costs of retired autoworkers, the Big Three would reinvest these savings into developing more fuel-efficient vehicles.
  • In other words, The Ownership Society doesn’t even try to spread the risks and rewards of the economy among all Americans. Instead, it simply magnifies the uneven risks and rewards of today’s winner-take-all economy. If you are healthy or wealthy or just plain lucky, then you will be come more so. If you are poor or sick or catch a bad break, you will have nobody to look to for help. That’s not a recipe for sustained economic growth, or the maintenance of a strong American middle class. It’s certainly not a recipe for social cohesion. It runs counter to those values that saw we have a stake in each other’s success. It’s not who we are as a people.
  • “When you get rid of the estate tax, you’re basically handing over command of the country’s resources to people who didn’t earn it. It’s like choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking all the children of all the winners at the 2000 Games.” – W. Buffett
  • Religion was an expression of human culture, she [Obama’s mother] would explain, not its well-spring, just one of the many ways – and not necessarily the best way – that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.
  • I am suggesting that if we progressives shed some of our own biases, we might recognize the values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of “though” and just “I,” resonates in religious congregations across the country. We need to take faith seriously not simply to block the religious right but to engage all persons of faith in the larger project of American renewal.
  • … I was reminded that no matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim that they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgment inflicts pain on good people – people who are made in the image of God, and who are often truer to Christ’s message that those who condemn them. And I was reminded that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society, but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights.
  • We lived in a modest house on the outskirts of town, without air-conditioning, refrigeration, or flush toilets
  • … I didn’t oppose all wars – that my grandfather had signed up for the war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed and fought in Patton’s army. I also said that “After witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this Administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance” and would “willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again.”  What I could not support was a “a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
  • Instead of guiding principles, we have what appear to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur?
  • “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”. – J.F. Kennedy
  • When we continue to spend tens of billions of dollars on weapons systems of dubious value but are unwilling to spend the money to protect highly vulnerable chemical plants in major urban centers, it becomes more difficult to get other countries to safeguard their nuclear power plants. When we detain suspects indefinitely without trial or ship them off in the dead of night to countries where we know they’ll be tortured, we weaken our ability to press for human rights and the rule of law in despotic regimes.  When we, the richest country on earth and the consumer of 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuels, can’t bring ourselves to raise fuel-efficiency stands  by even a small fraction so as to weaken our dependence on Saudi oil fields and slow global warming, we should expect to have a hard time convincing China not to deal with oil suppliers like Iran or Sudan – and shouldn’t count on much cooperation in getting them to address environmental problems that visit our shores.
  • Wanting to share the good news, I called Michelle from my D.C. office and starting explaining the significance of the bill – how shoulder-to-air missiles could threaten small commercial air travel if they fell into the wrong hands, how small-arms stockpiles left over from the Cold War continued to feed conflict across the globe. Michelle cut me off. “We have ants.” “Huh?”” I found ants in the kitchen. And in the bathroom upstairs.” “Okay…””I need you to buy some ant traps on your way home tomorrow. I’d get them myself, but I’ve got to take the girls to their doctor’s appointment after school. Can you do that for me?” “Right. Ant traps.” “Ant traps. Don’t forget, okay, honey? And buy more than one. Listen, I need to go into a meeting. Love you.” I hung up the receiver, wondering if Ted Kennedy or John McCain bought ant traps on the way home from work.
  • I invariably left the butter out after breakfast and forgot to twist the little tie around the bread bag; Michelle could rack up parking tickets like nobody’s business.
  • For three magical months the two of us fussed and fretted over our new baby, checking the crib to make sure she was breathing, coaxing smiles from her, singing her songs and taking so many pictures that we started to wonder if we were damaging her eyes.
  • For no matter how liberated I liked to see myself as – no matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners, and that her dreams and ambitions were important as my own – the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments. Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule. Meanwhile, she was the one who had to put her career on hold. She was the one who had to make sure that the kids were fed and bathed every night. If Malia or Sasha got sick or the babysitter failed to show up, it was she who, more often than not, had to get on the phone to cancel a meeting at work.
  • In all this I am encouraged by Michelle, although there are times when I get the sense that I’m encroaching on her space – that by my absences I may have forfeited certain rights to interfere in the world she has built.
  • “You can’t handle goody bags,” she said. “Let me explain the goody bag thing. You have to go into the party store and choose the bags. Then you have to choose what to put in the bags, and what is in the boys’ bags has to be different from what is in the girls’ bags. You’d walk in there and wander around the aisles for an hour, and then your head would explode.” (Pale Nerd: Okay, I am going to explain why I love this quote. I love the fact that I (and Michelle Obama) would trust this man with the fate of the free world, but know that goody bags could be his downfall. I also love that she completely understands the importance of a good goody bag.)
  • A few weeks later, we got word that the Kerry people wanted me to speak at the convention, although it was not yet clear in what capacity. One afternoon, as I drove back from Springfield to Chicago for an evening campaign event, Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill called to deliver the news. After I hung up, I turned to my driver, Mike Signator. “I guess this is pretty big,” I said. Mike nodded. “You could say that.”

I am sure that he will let me down. I don’t even agree with all of his ideals. I am sure that he can’t possibly mean or accomplish everything he says. But the idea, just the idea that this is something he at least claims he wants to do, and that he was elected gives me the audacity of hope. And for that, I am grateful.

I can’t wait for Tuesday (the inauguration). And I will probably save “Dreams of my Father” for 2012.


Filed under Books

American Wife – Curtis Sittenfeld

Man, I am so far behind in my blogging duties. Recently (as in, a week ago?) read American Wife. I enjoyed it a lot. I wanted to wait until after the election was over before I read it, because if it didn’t go my way (and it did), I don’t think I could have mentally handled hating this administration any more than I already do.

Anyway, this is a novelization of a memoir of who is obviously supposed to be Laura Bush. I’ve read in reviews that its a sympathetic portrait, although I have to say – I don’t think I feel very sympathetic for the woman, but it did make me think things through a little bit. I never thought I could be involved with someone whose politics are so different from my own, and yet – while Frank and I agree on a lot of things – we have some very definite differences on a variety of topics. They aren’t super important issues to me at the moment, but I wonder what would happen if either one of us ever ran for office.

Jezebel wrote a decent article about the real Laura Bush’s upcoming memoir – http://jezebel.com/5098712/what-will-laura-bush-reveal-in-her-memoir

Leave a comment

Filed under Books