Monday, February 28, 2011

WHY STAY CATHOLIC? by Michael Leach

"Why in the hell would an intelligent Episcopalian woman choose to become a Catholic?" I had been a Catholic for less than six months when a cradle Catholic of Irish descent - a classmate of mine at a Catholic university - asked me that question. I don't remember how I answered. I'm sure I wasn't very articulate.

Today I still am not sure how to answer her question, or the more compelling question now that I've been a Catholic (more or less) for nearly two decades: Why Stay Catholic? The hierarchy's attitude toward women and children has not improved. Now more than ever, church leadership seems to run the gamut from insensitive to corrupt. So when I saw the title of Mike Leach's new book, which I first read about in an interview by Heidi Schlumpf in Publishers Weekly, I emailed an editor friend at Loyola Press and brazenly asked for a copy.

Disclaimer: I've been involved in in religion publishing for over 30 years. I know and admire Mike, who has worked in religion publishing longer than I have, and in much more exalted positions. I used to work at Loyola Press, and my editor friend there did not charge me for this book. So you are free to discount everything I'm about to say, though I'll also point out that nobody urged me to read the book or even told me it existed, and nobody asked me to write this review (if they had, I would have refused - I'm a contrarian), and - believe me - nobody is paying me for writing it.

So maybe you can trust me when I tell you that this is a good book for lapsed and semi-lapsed Catholics as well as for regular mass-attenders who nevertheless are troubled by aspects of their church ("weary Catholics," Mike calls them). I'd also recommend the book to people who are considering converting to Catholicism. And Protestants could benefit from reading it too: a lot of what Mike says in the first half of the book is true for all Christians.

Mike writes for laypersons, not clergy or academics. His style is light and breezy, but his ideas run deep. He does not have an agenda. He's not trying to defend irrelevant teachings or counterproductive practices. He's not trying to get you to go to mass every week (he admits he doesn't always go himself). He's clearly not trying to put a good spin on the church's serious faults.

But neither does he spend much time complaining. Mike is in love with the church. It's his family. It's where he meets God. It's where he rubs shoulders with people of faith who have changed the world for the better. It's where he sees the realities - the Reality - that lies beneath the surface, what Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called "the dearest freshness deep down things." What Mike wants to do, I think, is to talk about God's presence everywhere in the world, God's unimaginable love and grace for everyone, and some of the people who make that love and grace visible.

In Part 1, "Ideas," Mike leads with what Andrew Greeley has dubbed the "sacramental imagination." In the next 24 short chapters, he looks at a wide range of great Catholic ideas:  God's all-embracing arms, the seamless garment of life, everyday faithfulness, social justice, the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and even the Catholic penchant for parties ("Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, / There's always laughter and good red wine./ At least I've always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc). Each chapter in this section ends with an "I stay Catholic" sentence or two. For example, a chapter on inclusiveness ends, "I am still Catholic because the story of Bethlehem teaches me we are all welcome. I stay in the church because I know this is true no matter what anybody says."

Underlying just about every chapter is what must be Mike's favorite scriptural passage (and is certainly mine): "Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruler, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!" - Romans 8:38-39, NRSV. Mike puts hands and feet on this love in Part 2, "People," and Part 3, "Places," where he offers vignettes of 15 contemporary Catholic Christians and 10 admirable Catholic institutions. In these days when so much of the news about the Catholic church is truly dreadful, it's great to be reminded of so many good Christians, mostly working under the radar. And for readers who want to know more, he ends each chapter in these two sections with one or more URLs.

A two page article that begins "If I were Pope" is worth the price of the book, as is the concluding chapter on how a third Vatican council could unleash a tidal wave of forgiveness. The most moving chapter, however, is the one about Vickie, the love of Mike's life. Over 40 years ago he left the priesthood to marry her. Seven or eight years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. In sickness and in health, their love affair continues. Mike loves her, and he is faithful.

That's probably also how Mike relates to his church, and why he is still a Catholic.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Oprah's 2-in-1 edition
I was thrilled when a friend phoned me a week ago Friday to ask if I'd read A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations - and if so, would I like to go to Oprah's book club taping with her in exactly seven days? Sort of, and YES!, I said.

I loved A Tale of Two Cities when I read it 50 years ago, but the details had become a bit hazy since then. And I must have read excerpts from Great Expectations (wasn't it in our high-school English book?) or watched a film version, though I remembered nothing but Miss Havisham, the eternal bride. But I'd gladly spend all week reading, I promised.

Reading 900 pages in 4 days, it turned out, was the most fun I've had since the internet was invented. No Facebook! No blogposts! No article writing! Very little e-mail! It was the best of times.

Getting to see Oprah just three months before she shuts down her show was a bonus. And yes, she is fabulous.

Though, for the first time ever in the history of Oprah's book club - 65 books in 15 years! - her selection did not become a bestseller. "I guess I shouldn't have chosen a book that most of you already have on your shelves," she said. Indeed, most of the 350 of us in her studio were carrying well-thumbed older editions of the books. (Opportunity for those who don't still have your high-school copies: right now the large, handsome paperback is on sale at Amazon for $4.97.)

Oprah's guest was novelist Jane Smiley (A Thousand AcresMoo), who has also written a short biography of Charles Dickens. Compared to Oprah, Smiley is somewhat reserved (who isn't?), but she more than held her own in the discussion. Since this was Oprah's book club, not her regular show, there was no hoopla. The two women simply sat at a desk and chatted about Dickens, Victorian England, and the two books for half an hour or so before taking audience questions. I had predicted that many people in the audience would be wearing glasses, and I was right. We were English teachers, librarians, and bookstore nerds all - including cast members of Les MisĂ©rables who dropped in for the show. (They carry a shelf of books with them on tour so they can read when they're not onstage, one of them told us. "Haven't you heard of Kindle?" asked Smiley.)

The book club webcast will be broadcast at 5:00 p.m. EST today. Click here to see the webcast or to click through to more information about the two Dickens books.

If you decide to read or reread these books, here are a few things I noticed that might interest you too.
  • Notice what a difference the narrative point of view makes. In TOTC, Dickens steps back, sits down next to God, and watches the pageant unroll. He not only tells us a story, he also inserts social commentary and philosophy. In GE, by contrast, Pip tells his own story. If he doesn't experience it, it's not in the book. This makes GE seem more personal and relational than TOTC. I liked both approaches, but I found GE easier to read.
  • Look at how Dickens portrays women. A badly mistreated woman is at the heart of both stories, but a woman is the hero of neither. In both books, women, if victims, wreak vengeance. Well-treated women, by contrast, are generally docile creatures who exist to serve the interests of their husbands, fathers, or employers (if they are servants). Hey, Dickens was what he was, and grown-up feminists can enjoy him anyway. But if you're discussing these books with kids, his view of women might be worth talking about.
  • Compare the societies Dickens describes (English and French, 18th and 19th centuries) with our society today. We've come a long way from the days when orphans were left to roam the streets and miscreants were hanged for minor offenses, and for that I am deeply grateful. Now, as we consider ways to cut back governmental spending, we might want to think twice about policies that increase the gap between rich and poor, that reduce social services for the indigent, and that allow the infrastructure to crumble. In Dickensian London, it was every man for himself, and the results weren't pretty.
  • Admire Dickens's brilliant psychological insights. In 1859 when A Tale of Two Cities was published, Sigmund Freud was 3 years old. C.G. Jung would not be born for another 20 years. Without their help, Dickens instinctively knew how events shape people, how relationships deteriorate and grow, how repressed rage finds an outlet, how love and hatred are created. He also knew how people thought and talked - children and adults, nobles and peasants, servants and masters, city folk and country folk, criminals and lawyers, terrorists and bankers. As Smiley pointed out, Dickens has a range of human understanding that surpasses that of perhaps any other novelist in the English language.
Yes, Dickens's books are long. To find time to read one, you might have to turn off your electronic devices for a while. Except for Kindle, of course: you can download both books free of charge here.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Heartstone is C.J. Sansom's fifth Tudor mystery featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. I loved the first four: Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, and Revelation.

Tudor England, with its larger-than-life monarchs and political intrigues and foreign wars and religious chaos, is a novelist's playground. Sansom, who knows his history, has created an engaging protagonist who is enough of an insider to know what is going on, and enough of an outsider to evaluate it for contemporary readers. OK, Shardlake is a bit anachronistic, not only in his language but also in his views about society, women, children, religion, and warfare. If he weren't, the stories would be less interesting, so who's complaining?

Well, I am, but not because of Shardlake's progressivism. Unfortunately, Sansom's writing in book five has gotten flabby. He did not need 640 pages to tell this story, and the story itself is less than compelling. (Shardlake bullheadedly persists in trying to find out who incarcerated Ellen in Bedlam, the London insane asylum, 19 years ago. He equally bullheadedly tries to uncover details about Hugh Curteys, an orphaned young landowner who has been made a ward of the Hobbey family. His saner friends Barak and Guy can't dissuade him; nor can various of his enemies. So he endangers himself and others in picturesque ways for two months before finally stumbling onto the truth, and then of course things get really dangerous.)

Sansom has already abundantly proven that he can do better. He has no excuse for a plot that doesn't get exciting until about page 500, or for a protagonist who continually tells us that he knows something is not right but can't figure out what it is, or for lengthy, improbable conversations structured only to give 21st-century readers insight into 16th-century history and customs. He should not be allowed to put Master Shardlake through so many miseries without any accompanying character development.

And somebody needs to tell Sansom - or his copy editor - that he is being needlessly irritating. His characters are constantly saying something "quietly" (or, toward the end of the book, "gently"); sometimes quietness breaks out three times on a page. Characters, including the narrator, are hazy on pronoun case usage. Comma splices abound. Even the sloppy editing, however, has its delights - when stags and does get together in Hampshire forests, they inevitably produce "fauns."

Yes, Heartstone has gotten some excellent reviews. The New York Times reviewer said it "may be the best novel in this richly entertaining and reassuringly scholarly series," and both Publishers Weekly and Booklist gave it a starred review. If those reviewers actually read the book, perhaps they enjoyed Sansom's detailed descriptions of Tudor warfare: the callousness of Henry VIII and his court, the cruelty involved in conscripting and managing troops, the ignorance of the highest military leaders, the sordid daily life in the camps, the layout of battleships, the view from the deck of the oncoming enemy fleet. His descriptions of civilian life are equally arresting: dangerous, painfully slow travel; children bought and sold so that rich men could grow richer; impossibly corrupt magistrates at all levels; peasants being driven off the land; justice perverted by false accusations and murder.

Sansom's ability to evoke a bygone place and time is probably why even mildly disappointed reviewers give him some credit. As Amazon's UK reviewer charitably noted: "If Heartstone is not quite vintage Sansom, that is perhaps because the author has set (and maintained) such a high standard." USA Today's reviewer, though calling Heartstone "Sansom's least compelling novel,"admitted that it's still "better than pretty much any other historical fiction out there."

Certainly there are pleasures to be found in this needlessly inflated book. Fans of Matthew Shardlake should definitely read it, especially since there is bound to be a sixth book in a year or two. By the time we see Shardlake again, Henry VIII will have died, and either Edward VI will be on the throne or courtiers will be plotting to put their own favorites there. In such exciting times, perhaps Shardlake will get his groove back. Maybe he'll even fall in love.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ethical business : 10 field marks

In a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce two days ago, President Obama appealed to some 200 business leaders to act responsibly. "I want to be clear, even as we make America the best place on earth to do business," he said,  "businesses also have a responsibility to America."
Now, I understand the challenges you face [the president said]. I understand that you're under incredible pressure to cut costs and keep your margins up. I understand the significance of your obligations to your shareholders. I get it. But as we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation. 
A blogging friend of mine - a man who automatically opposes or is cynical about anything Mr. Obama says - responded predictably: "Amazing. The president (apparently hearkening back to JFK) tells these CEOs to ask what they can do for their country, as if providing jobs, goods, and services in a very uncertain economy is not enough. What an insult!"

My friend does not really believe that providing jobs, goods, and services is all a business needs to do, of course. He does not support pimps or drug pushers, for example, even though they provide jobs and goods or services; and I suspect that he's not fond of gambling casinos or abortion clinics either, even if they are entirely legal.

His comment, though, got me thinking, and for that I thank him. What, exactly, does an ethical business do beyond providing jobs, goods, and services? Here are some preliminary thoughts - please improve on them.

An ethical business ...
  1. exists to provide life-sustaining jobs and useful goods and services.
  2. makes a profit so that it can continue providing jobs, goods, and services; but rather than sitting on excessive earnings or turning them into fat bonuses, creates new products or hires more workers or increases overall employee compensation.
  3. manages its affairs so that not just executives and shareholders but also rank-and-file employees are adequately compensated.
  4. keeps honest and transparent accounts so that its directors, contractors, shareholders, and employees can make informed decisions.
  5. markets its products honestly, not making misleading claims or delivering shoddy merchandise or poor service.
  6. assures healthy working conditions for all of its employees at home and abroad, refusing to outsource to anyone who uses child labor, sweatshops, toxic working environments, or slave labor.
  7. makes sure that its methods and materials preserve the environment for future generations at home and abroad, and takes responsibility to clean up any environmental disasters it inadvertently causes.
  8. does not attempt to profit through taking advantage of consumers' ignorance, addictions, or desperation.
  9. does not lobby or bribe lawmakers so as to be excused from ethical behavior in any of the above areas, or so as to gain an advantage over other companies.
  10. gives back to the community not only through creating jobs, goods, and services; but also, whenever possible, by providing funding for community projects, rewarding employees who engage in community service, and supporting legislation that fosters the common good.
When President Kennedy challenged us to ask what we could do for our country, none of us took it as an insult. Rather, his words were an affirmation that we could, with vision and hard work, make the world a better place. I take President Obama's words to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the same way. Ethical businesses are a tremendous force for good, and the world needs them now more than ever.
For further reading: Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and a director of ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs, has written an interesting op-ed piece listing over a dozen concrete actions President Obama has recently taken in support of the business community. Check out "President Obama's Challenge to Business: 'It's Time to Invest in America.' "

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Last August I reviewed Moving Millions for Christian Century magazine and wrote a brief note about the book here. My full review was published in their January 11, 2011, issue and is available to subscribers here. CC would like us all to subscribe, of course. In case you want to try before you buy, however, here's the review as I submitted it to them. Please do not repost it: CC holds the copyright. Good news: the friends I mention in the first paragraph have been told their green cards are on the way.

The Strangers Within Our Gates
Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration
by Jeffrey Kaye
Wiley, 310 pp., $27.95

When I hear the word immigration, I immediately think of friends, refugees from a war-torn country, who have spent more than 20 years and 30 thousand dollars trying to become legal U.S. residents, to no avail.

I then think of Arizona relatives, who—convinced that illegal immigration increases crime, taxes, and unemployment—strongly support their state’s recent efforts to ferret out undocumented immigrants and send them back home.

My refugee friends and Arizona relatives agree about one thing: America’s immigration system is broken. President Obama, whose “path to citizenship” plan would help my friends, has said so. So has Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wants to “secure the borders” Arizona-style, even if it would mean sending people like my friends back into danger.

Everyone knows that the United States needs to fix immigration. Nobody knows how to do it.

Jeffrey Kaye doesn’t know how to do it either, but his fascinating study of the economic and political forces affecting immigration should be required reading for anyone likely to express an opinion on the topic.

A freelance journalist who reports for the PBS NewsHour, Kaye looks at immigration through stories about immigrants and those who hire them, interviews with political and business figures, interesting (and often ironic) historical parallels, and mountains of data. Though he clearly disagrees with many current attempts to regulate immigration, he never minimizes the complexity of the world-wide problem. Rather than advocating for a particular solution, he provides the context that is usually missing from news accounts, op-ed pieces, and political oratory.

Migration is not new, Kaye points out: “From the epic Exodus tale in the Bible to the story of Odysseus, our myths and legends attest to mobility as a central theme in the human saga.” Kaye’s own ancestors moved from Poland to England in the late 1800s, and in 1963 he moved with his family from London to Los Angeles.

Panic over immigration is not new either. A century ago, as boats full of Italians, Germans, Irish, and Eastern Europeans were docking at Ellis Island, newspapers accused the newly arrived of causing “wasteful administration of public funds,” increasing violence and crime, taking American’s jobs, and refusing to learn English—exactly what some of those immigrants’ descendants are saying about Mexican immigrants today.

What’s new, says Kaye, are “the globally interconnected business engines that promote and support” migration, not just in the United States, which has more immigrants than any other nation, but also in the more than 60 nations whose percentage of immigrants surpasses our own, and in the even greater number of nations whose citizens are heading out to greener pastures.

It’s easy to empathize with desperately poor people who cross seas and borders in order to provide for their families. According to Kaye, however, the poverty of individual families is only one factor in today’s immigration patterns. Business practices also play a major role in enticing people to leave their homelands.

In today’s global economy, businesses need a cheap, movable, disposable work force, and immigrants fill the bill. Despite low pay and, often, miserable working conditions, they grow, process, harvest, and serve most of the world’s food. They also build, repair, and maintain many of the world’s buildings. At the other end of the socio-economic scale, they provide a significant percentage of highly educated workers in the health-care and technology industries. Thanks to immigrants, businesses grow and consumers enjoy low prices. What would developed nations do without them?

For that matter, what would developing nations do without the money that immigrants send to their families back home—in 2008, $45 billion to India, $34.5 billion to China, $26.2 billion to Mexico, $18.3 billion to the Philippines? It is not surprising that “a business infrastructure trains, recruits, and markets Filipino workers the way that banana republics used to cultivate crops,” or that global recruitment enterprises ranging from publicly traded companies to illegal smugglers “comprise a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry.”

If business decisions entice immigrants to cross borders, government policies often drive them to leave their homes. Trade policies that look good for a developed country may devastate its poorer neighbors. NAFTA, for example, jointly signed by the United States, Canada, and Mexico, drove down the price of corn and ruined hundreds of thousands of Mexican peasants. And even efforts to help may have unintended consequences: a U.S. loan intended to stabilize the Mexican peso led to the “bankruptcy of hundreds of thousands of companies,... the disappearance of several million jobs,” and approximately six million additional immigrants to the United States.

So what are poverty-stricken families supposed to do when government agreements remove their source of income, an industry in another country offers wages several times higher than they could earn at home, and a business in their own country offers to ferry them to the promised land—legally in some cases, illegally in many others?

Obviously, they migrate. “Build walls, and people will go over, around, or under them,” Kaye writes. “Hire border guards, and smugglers will bribe them. Step up patrols, and migrants will find alternate routes. Provide better-paying jobs, and workers will get to them. Migration will not be stopped.”

And yet migration has a dark side. As Kaye notes, businesses that hire immigrants benefit from cheap labor, but native-born workers may then fear for their jobs. Countries that send immigrants benefit from huge cash inflows, but they may lose their best, brightest, and hardest-working citizens. Many immigrants—if they make it alive across the seas, mountains, and deserts separating them from their destinations—find better-paying jobs abroad, but they may spend years separated from their loved ones and are often ruthlessly exploited by their employers.

Wouldn’t it be better if everybody just stayed home?

Maybe, Kaye says, but only if massive income disparities between the world’s haves and have-nots were eliminated or reduced, and that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So long as businesses and governments think of immigrants as mobile resources, current migration patterns will continue. After all, immigration helps businesses prosper and lets governments ignore their thorniest problems:
Where sending nations should be addressing such urgent needs as developing their economies and finding ways to keep families and communities together, instead, outflows of migrants let them off the hook. By the same token, in destination countries, migration reduces the incentive to create sustainable economies that are able and willing to tap their own resources.
Given the global context of migration, can America fix—or at least improve—its broken system? Kaye is not optimistic. Our current approach is dysfunctional: though our economic health depends on our more than 12 million undocumented immigrants, we pay them poorly, deny them benefits, and force them to live in fear of deportation. Yet change is impeded by “a messed-up political standoff.”

If Kaye were a prophet, he might say that “the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34). Instead, he simply observes that, “in the final analysis, how we respond to migration and how we treat the strangers among us are reflections of our connections to humanity.”

Friday, February 4, 2011

THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES by Siddhartha Mukherjee

When I posted on Facebook that my husband was reading a book about sewers while I was reading a book about cancer, a lot of our friends made wisecracks. Yes, we probably do need to get a life - but not because of these particular books. The mark of a really good nonfiction author is the ability to interest readers in a topic that normally bores or even repels them. Siddhartha Mukherjee is a really good author, and The Emperor of Maladies is a gripping read.

An oncologist who researches and teaches at Columbia University and a staff physician at Columbia University Medical Center, Mukherjee writes about science so clearly that even nonscientific liberal-arts people like me can follow. He's obviously a liberal-arts person himself, referring to Plato's Republic as well as Agatha Christie's St. Mary Mead; using the Red Queen's race in Through the Looking-Glass as a metaphor for contemporary cancer research and an ancient Persian queen's self-directed mastectomy as a metaphor for progress in cancer treatment; quoting Shakespeare, William Blake, Voltaire, and Kafka along with cancer researchers and patients and surgeons-general.

The incredibly erudite Dr. Mukherjee, who is still a young man, may be the one who needs to get a life, but I'm grateful that he's chosen to write this long, detailed, fascinating account of the history of cancer research instead.

The book begins with Carla:
On the morning of May 19, 2004, Carla Reed, a thirty-year-old kindergarten teacher from Ipswich, Massachusetts, a mother of three young children, woke up in bed with a headache. "Not just any headache," she would recall later, "but a sort of numbness in my head. The kind of numbness that instantly tells you that something is terribly wrong."
It ends with Germaine:
Her quest for a cure had taken her on a strange and limitless journey, through Internet blogs and teaching hospitals, chemotherapy and clinical trials halfway across the country, through a landscape more desolate, desperate, and disquieting than she had ever imagined. She had deployed every morsel of energy to the quest, mobilizing and remobilizing the last dregs of her courage, summoning her will and wit and imagination, until, that final evening, she had stared into the vault of her resourcefulness and resilience and found it empty. In that haunted last night, hanging on to her life by no more than a tenuous thread, summoning all her strength and dignity as she wheeled herself to the privacy of her bathroom, it was as if she had encapsulated the essence of a four-thousand-year-old war.
In the 470 pages between Carla and Germaine, Mukherjee gives us what he calls "a biography of cancer" - the story of a disease born before recorded time and first mentioned in an Egyptian manuscript from 2500 B.C., a disease that may never die but that is increasingly being contained and managed. Most of the book follows 19th- and 20th-century researchers as they seek to understand what cancer is and how to target it; surgeons as they try to contain it by removing tumors and, sometimes, unaffected body parts as well; politicians and lobbyists as they campaign for more money for cancer research; and geneticists as they discover which parts of which genes are responsible for cancer's mad proliferation.

We all have friends and family members who are living with - or have died from - cancer, and we all are familiar with procedures like radiation and chemotherapy. This book will help you understand what cancer is,  how it is being fought nowadays, why various approaches are used, and how typical treatments have changed over the last decade or two. It does not, however, recommend treatments. It does not tell you what to do or what to avoid in order to escape or recover from cancer - with one exception: Don't smoke. And if you smoke, quit.

In four fascinating chapters in Part Four, "Prevention Is the Cure," Mukherjee tells the story of America's love affair with cigarettes. In the early 20th century, four out of five American men, including doctors and cancer researchers, were smokers. It was hard to get physicians even to consider the possibility that smoking was related to lung cancer, even harder to get policymakers to try to protect the public, and just about impossible to get tobacco companies to speak honestly about their product. Not until the 1960s did a brave and savvy surgeon-general dare to confront Big Tobacco, and U.S. smoking rates started to fall. In response, the tobacco companies began targeting the developing world, where cancer rates are now predictably rising.

"It is difficult for me to convey the range and depth of devastation that I witnessed in the cancer wards that could be directly attributed to cigarette smoking," Mukherjee writes.
It remains an astonishing, disturbing fact that in America - a nation where nearly every new drug is subjected to rigorous scrutiny as a potential carcinogen, and even the bare hint of a substance's link to cancer ignites a firestorm of public hysteria and media anxiety - one of the most potent and common carcinogens known to humans can be freely bought and sold at every corner store for a few dollars.
Amazon listed The Emperor of All Maladies among its best books of November 2010. Publishers Weekly and Booklist gave it starred reviews. The New York Times called it one of the 10 best books of 2010. No, reading about cancer doesn't sound like an exciting way to spend an evening (well, in a book this big, several evenings), but be willing to surprise yourself.

Hey, even Oprah's reviewer loved it: "With a Dickensian command of character and an instinct for the drama of discovery," he wrote,  Mukherjee "makes science not merely intelligible but thrilling."

Coming next: David's review of the book about sewers.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What wine goes with ... beans?

Lentil patties ISO compatible wine ...
Forget the wisecracks - this is a serious question for would-be vegetarian wine-lovers. Cabernet sauvignon? Beef, of course. Pinot noir? Made for salmon. Sauvignon blanc and shellfish, chardonnay and chicken, zinfandel and grilled meats - what's a vegetarian to do?

Well, there's always slightly fizzy chilled mineral water flavored with a soupçon of orange or lemon. In fact, that's very refreshing some of the time.

Fortunately, however, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, author of Drink This - a delightful wine guide I'm going to describe on The Neff Review just as soon as I finish reading every word of it - offers wine-pairing suggestions for vegetarians as well as omnivores. Here are some of her ideas:
  • Sauvignon blanc: Vietnamese and Thai salads; pasta or risotto with walnut pesto; roast vegetables; fruit
  • Riesling: Butternut squash risotto; Thai coconut milk curries
  • Cabernet sauvignon: Grilled mushrooms; eggplant and pasta; polenta with parmigiano or reggiano cheese
  • Syrah: Rich, smoky bean stew
  • Chianti: Anything Italian with red tomato sauce; grilled vegetables
  • Pinot noir: 95% of all foods, including truffles, mushrooms, grilled eggplant, grilled fennel, braised chard
As far as I know, there's still no book dedicated to matching wine with vegetarian foods (please correct me if I've missed it). Maybe the book isn't necessary, though - lots of inexpensive wines work well with a variety of vegetarian dishes.

If you like white wines, it's hard to go wrong. Sauvignon blanc and dry or off-dry riesling, for example, work wonderfully with salads, green vegetables, Asian food, summer fruit and vegetables, winter vegetables, pastas with white sauce, risottos ...

Red wines are great with vegetables as long as the wines don't overpower them (some reds can get a bit pushy). Pinot noir works well with most plant-based foods. Red zinfandel is good with foods you'd serve with Coke or beer: pizza, tacos, chili, stuffed potatoes. Chianti and other red Italian wines, unsurprisingly, are made for pasta and tomato sauce.

So what wine goes with beans? Grumdahl recommends syrah (also called shiraz) for bean stew. I recommend  zinfandel (Gnarly Head is good) for vegetarian chili with onions and cheese. The lentil patties pictured above are begging for a glass of pinot noir. Or maybe it's pinot gris they're hankering for. Try both, and let me know!