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American Transcendentalism, a history by Philip F. Gura. Hill & Wang 2007. 306 pages plus extensive footnotes, index. St Paul Public Library owns this.

A very extensive account, beginning with the teens of the 19th century, and following the movement until it dispersed in the 1880s and 90s. This book discusses many people connected with the movement, not just the well known ones like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. It examines the roots of the movement in new translations of writings of other world religions as well as in the Higher Criticism, the examination of the Bible in light of historical, linguistic and other knowledge. Transcendentalism was, in many ways, an outgrowth of the American Unitarians. Therefore, this book also contains much material on the theology of the Unitarians of the time, and the conflicts within it, and with other denominations.

The controversies of the time included whether Jesus was divine or human, whether individual salvation was more important than the spiritual progress of the society, and whether God is "a personality or an organizing power in Nature." The Transcendentalists were very concerned with the nature of the divine, and especially with the idea of the divine dwelling within every human being, and often, within all of the natural world. Most of them were idealistic, and utopian communities like Brook Farm were the result.

The rise of the abolition movement and other social causes ultimately took energy and interest away from the more theological concerns of Transcendentalism, starting in the 1840s. Many of the leaders became more concerned with a corrupt and corrupting society than with the exact nature of the Divine. Nevertheless, it continued to have influence on religion and philosophy well into the 20th century

I found this book fascinating, but because it is dense and scholarly, it took me weeks to finish, reading a few pages at a time. It’s especially interesting that many of the conflicts described are still controversial. Many Pagan may find this book useful, since significant ideas in modern Neo-Paganism actually come into Western thought through the Transcendentalists. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of religion.


Mar. 19th, 2008 04:39 pm
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The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, "stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science" Viking, 2007.

Featured on the PBS show, "The Brain Fitness Program" and available if you give them money. I'm glad I got it from the library. It's an interesting book, but then, I find neuroanatomy interesting. It's about half history of research on the brain, and its adaptability, and half anecdotes. Early research resulted in a model that after childhood, the brain cannot adapt, change, compensate. This led to, for example stroke victims, not being given all the rehabilitative help they might have been able to use. Recovery from strokes and injuries is much more possible than originally thought, because the brain can re-route much more than seems possible. Some of the stories are quite amazing. The book is written at a first year college level; it assumes you know a little about anatomy, and don't mind learning more. Some of this re-routing can be applied to adapting as one ages, so the topic is of interest to anyone who is concerned about healthy aging.

But there is little about how to exercise the brain in this book, just that it can be done. There are references to the work of Merzenich, who designed a couple of programs, including the one PBS is s/e/l/l/i/n/g giving as a premium with a $365 donation. I’m a bit snarky because I think it's a marketing technique. The local PBS station has been showing "The Brain Fitness Program" show over and over, and really flogging it. I went online and researched it. The program would be of some use to some people in maintaining "brain fitness" as they age, or recovering a bit of their mental agility, I think. It would not help me, because a number of the components are based on sound, hearing rising or falling tones. I've never been able to distinguish tones, even in high school. I got a "B" instead of an "A" in Music Theory as a result. This sort of exercise would be as frustrating for me as a color distinguishing exercise to someone who is color blind. I think they have other programs, and I may look into them at some point. But rather than spend money on this program I'll just get harder crossword and puzzle books to keep my mind limber, and keep walking.
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Talking With My Mouth Full, crab cakes, bundt cakes and other kitchen stories, by Bonny Wolf (NPR food commentator). St. Martin’s Press, 2006, From the Minneapolis Public Library

A lovely collection of essays and recipes. The author grew up in Minnesota, and now lives in Washington, D.C, the opposite of my life. Perhaps that's one reason why I have such an attraction to this book. I haven’t copied all the recipes I want to, so I will have to get this book again. The chapter on bundt cakes alone is worth getting the book, a basic history of the cake pan, and a few recipes for it I hadn’t seen before.

This book has chapters on jello, the State Fair, oysters, shad, and latkes; no wonder I love this book.

And brining chicken – I’ll have to try that sometime (3/4 tsp salt per pound of chicken, sit in the fridge 24 hours, then rinse and dry thoroughly. Rub with lemon and garlic, and maybe herbs. Roast in vertical roaster, at 475, 15 minutes per pound.)

I need to go nibble something now.
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Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow. Sourcebooks, 2003. The Minneapolis Public Library owns this book.

An excellent study of current and historical France, very readable, yet comprehensive. Subtitled, "why we love France but not the French" this book discusses how modern France has come to be, and how it works, as well as any outsider can explain. The authors have the advantage of being Canadian journalists who are bi-lingual, and who spent two years in France writing this volume.

France is an old country, with a complex past. The authors remind us that the French are an aboriginal people, in that some the people who live there, and some of the culture, can be traced back for hundreds if not thousands of years. The first section of the book is mostly about history, including the Algerian war, which was pivotal to modern France, but is often ignored today. In the second section, they examine the paradoxes of French government, education, health care, cuisine, economy and so forth. For example, while a democracy, the government is very differently organized and run from the way it is in the U.S. or Britain; this is not clearly understood by most Americans. Finally, in the last section, they put France in perspective, both European and global.

Truly exceptionally well done. Highly recommended.
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How Doctors Think
by Jerome Groopman, MD
Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

This is, much to my surprise, on the NYT best seller list. My surprise because I usually don’t like "best sellers" and it's not the run of the mill topic. This is for the "House" fans and medical geeks. It's not pretty but it's very interesting, and quite readable. It's about, among other things, the phenomenom that doctors are told, "when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras". Except, once in a while, there are zebras, and you’d better figure it out or the patient may die. Mostly about diagnosis, but also about treatment, and human interactions between doctors and patients. Highly recommended.
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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
By Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins, 2007.
Minneapolis Public Library owns

In many ways, this is A Year in Provence set in western Virginia, without the surly Frenchmen. I love this book, and not just because I agree with so many of the ideas. Kingsolver had discovered how much oil are involved in the food industry, both in the from of chemicals used on the land, and fuel used to transport food thousands of miles. She and her family, who co-authors of this book, decided to become "locavores" for one year, eating only what they could grow or obtain locally. They were not doctrinaire about it; it was an experiment, not a forced march. Month by month, she described her family planting a large garden, buying or swapping food with neighbors or at the farmer's market, raising chickens, and harvesting, cooking, and preserving their food, complete with recipes.

This was especially poignant for me because as I was reading this book I was harvesting and freezing tomatoes, drying herbs, and otherwise preparing for winter. I myself am a locavore, though I didn't know the word. I have been making an effect for some time to eat locally when possible. Having a farmer's market within biking distance helps, though I didn't actually bike there as often as I planned. I am fortunate to have that resource, especially since I am not a vegetarian, and the market includes two local meat producers. I have been buying organic ground mutton all summer, and have a supply in my freezer.

Kingsolver is a best-selling novelist; normally I don't read best-sellers. I am encouraged by the popularity of this book that people may be listening to and acting on her ideas. If you want a sample of this book, including recipes, go to
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How To Be Idle
By Tom Hodgkinson, Harper, 2005

My current favorite book has almost convinced me I should stop trying to put a few more bucks in the pension fund and just retire already. This Brit has written a lovely book on the importance of sleeping in, drinking at the pub, smoking, and all round slacking, which they call skiving in British. He arranges his short essays by time of day; the pleasures of tea are 4 pm, for example. He is very well read, and quotes classical and modern authors on food, drink, and idleness, with a bibliography at the end of the book. He is not merely praising laziness, but also critiquing modern society and its leftover Protestant work ethic values. We don't really need to slave the was we do. Modern consumerism has convinced us we need to work work work and buy buy buy. He points to the fact that at most times in history, people worked fewer hours than we do now. Only from the early 1800s, the time of the Industrial Revolution have people worked long hours many days in a row. It's time to sleep in, have long lunches, go fishing, and go to the pub. Idleness, play. and daydreams lead to creativity and a happier life. Hodgkinson edits a British magazine called "The Idler".


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