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Reading Blog - April 2023

Tags: books

I had an unusual amount of time to read and reflect on the Reading Blog posts, because I posted March so early and had a lot of travel time in April.

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America (Liz Carlisle, 2015)

I wasn't prepared for this book to start out where it did - with Dr. Carlisle as a traveling country music singer in Montana. She's since been on a Talks @ Google panel (The Wonders of Pulses), written two more books, and become a professor.
Her turning point was meeting this 'underground' community of farmers who grow organic pulse crops, unlike most farmers following the grain markets. On the wide spread of things which I read about food, this story goes against the organic-skeptic, farm-as-economic-tool materials which I usually read, and is more on the threatened family farm, Government of Beans, endorsed by Michael Pollan end of things.

The history starts in the mid-80s, with a few Montanans inspired by Silent Spring, Whole Earth Catalog, and solar energy. David Oien started with a portion of his parents' barley farm, and I appreciate that this book embraces a journey through solar, bio-diesel, organic-fed beef, and a 'green manure' crop to restore nitrogen, before landing on the current venture.

It's said that history often rhymes. Montana had a wave of pea farmers in the 1910s-1930s and this later moved to Idaho, so it seems an ideal region for pulses.
I bought 10 pounds of lentils, but I wasn't on track to finish the book before my trip, so I decided to put it aside for a future lentils post.

Museums and the Working Class (Editor: Adele Chynoweth, 2021)

This is another academic niche book, so be prepared for comparisons of how scholars have divided class (I appreciated the word precariat).

The museum-rethinking world is struggling with the same issues as many political leftists - socialists helped tear down barriers to race and gender equality, with a messaging that these are attempts to divide workers' power. Now in the critical view, race does matter and include unique experiences. A museum in the 2020s has likely had meetings about representation of race in subject matter, artist representation, and messaging, but less about working class. So now there's this book.

The editor is a curator and lecturer on museum studies in Australia, and currently works in the national government. The essays are collected from eight countries, though with a tilt toward the Commonwealth (i.e. there's a dissection of Australian claims of a classless society compared to UK). Several contributors described their childhood class (i.e. whether their parents rented or owned) in an initial footnote. Museum As Muck, a UK group for museum workers in and from the working class, puts aside conventional self-labeling and asks event attendees what job the adults in their household had when they were 14.

Historical parts of the book expose how a wave of public museums were founded in the 19th-century with paternalistic goals around pacifying/educating factory workers, or diverting them from base entertainment (advocacy for museums often directly linking them to the temperance movement!). Then museums would have high standards for formality, or use operating hours inconvenient to workers, so it's not clear if there was a disconnect or if appealing to public interest was mainly used for public funding.

There was a shocking story about crime museums where police and coroners would keep body parts and various souvenirs. These have been passed down and transferred into major museums today. A Canadian contributor to the book had advocated for more respectful treatment of tattooed skin, which led to it being removed from display.

This is part of a "Museum Meanings" book series. One which stuck out from that list was Curating Under Pressure: International Perspectives on Negotiating Conflict and Upholding Integrity; maybe it will appear in a future reading blog?

Three Centuries of Travel Writing by Muslim Women (Editors: Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Daniel Majchrowicz, Sunil Sharma; 2022)

Another book going all-out on an academic niche. 45 travel writings with materials on the book's website: I got this 500-page book last summer and finally brought it along on a trip. I'd committed to read this collection before another book on my shelf (One Thousand Roads to Mecca, Wolfe 1997).

In the introduction, the editors make an interesting point about travel in Islam. Not only is the pilgrimage significant (here including Mecca, Medina, and Shi'a sites in Iraq), but early on hadith and other information were memorized and passed along orally, so a true scholar would be well-traveled.
The editors acknowledge that the book is shaped by when and where travel writing was possible for Muslim women. Women would often write their travelogue for family, not publication. Early accounts are from India, Pakistan, and Iran, and mostly feature wealthy women and royal caravans. It's only in the 20th century that we get an account from Southeast Asia, or from a woman who'd never left her hometown before the hajj.

Travelers braving the sea, evading bandits, and quarantine on Kamaran would compare their situation to suffering death or Judgment Day. Some expressed feeling peril just from the first thought of leaving family behind. The dangers were real, with many experiencing a death in the group.

The hajj ideally equalizes pilgrims by having them wear the same clothing and perform the same tasks. Famously Malcolm X wrote about changing his views on race. Here a few writers describe this as equalizing rich and poor, or being intended as a "conference" of Muslims around the world to meet new people from around the world.
No one is perfect, and several writers do express contempt for one group or another. There are complaints that beggars have converged on Mecca to take advantage of pilgrims, local practices of divorcing and re-marrying, port taxes, and people carrying their own food out of distrust. The sharif of Mecca gets special criticism from the leader of Bhopal. She claims she could make it more efficient and crack down on bandits. The context notes help here, by pointing out that she'd sided with the British in a recent conflict and her opponents had fled to Mecca.

The writers and editors have a lot to say about purdah, the overarching term for practices including hijab and veiling, traveling with a male family member, and separating men and women. Wiki says "by the 19th century, purdah became customary among Hindu elites" as well as Muslims, so there are several accommodations such as a vehicle to carry women to a train car, or a fatwa that women only need to be escorted to a ship gangway (i.e. not needing someone on board). There are a variety of stories of women leaving purdah for professional or practical reasons, those who value the privacy or find it holding back women's prospects, a British Muslim revert who continued to travel and mix with men, discussing tradition with her local counterparts, etc.

After cultural shifts in the early 20th century, the book follows a progressive generation of Egyptian and Turkish women to Europe and America (where they may use Orientalist tropes for Western readers) and India (a writer lectures at women's groups including a 'purdah club'). These and later sections include several perspectives on feminism and the meaning of studying or touring in a colonizing country.
Highlights include familiar places (NYC, Helsinki, Zurich), an account of suffragette protests in London, and a tour across Europe in the run-up to WW1.

Updates to Previous Reads

Podcast update: The Lazarus Heist returned with a new season about North Korean hackers.

Since I mentioned A Chemical Hunger in a read-blog before, I am also trying to follow this discussion on Substacks about whether there is a social media-driven teen mental health crisis starting in 2012:

The director of Ukraine on Fire (a documentary which posed Ukraine's Maidan protests were a CIA plot) Tweeted about a 'Yugo-Nostalgia'.

I was unaware of this as a trend, but it seems genuine (a Guardian article from August includes interviews with an anti-fascist pan-Yugoslav choir based in Vienna). Thinking over a quote there: "For a long time I was ashamed to even think the word 'Yugoslavia'."
On a positive note re: Yugoslavia, I found frozen burek (Balkan Bites) at a local grocery store, and then fresh burek at a Swiss grocery and Belgian bakery.

A friend confirmed a story from the Kazakh nomad autobiography that Russians will sit and quietly contemplate for a few minutes before starting a trip (Wiki adds: "another version… states that the traveler must sit for a moment on or beside their suitcase")

The 5–4 podcast released an episode on former Chief Justice Rehnquist. When faced with a memo he wrote as a clerk for Justice Robert Jackson against Brown v. Board, he said it was Jackson's thinking. Both legacies appeared unclear, but it's now apparent that Rehnquist had a history in voter suppression.

Updates to Previous Words

The Los Angeles Times will stop using 'internment' to describe the imprisonment of Japanese and Japanese-American families during WW2.

There was a New Yorker article about the word 'indigenous' which is getting some sharp feedback on Twitter.
In the same issue I learned that caterpillars go through multiple stages called 'instars', which reminded me of the polyphenic phase locusts.