In 1970 Julia Child was already a TV star, James Beard was writing cookbooks, and M.F.K Fisher discoursed about food, but they reached only a well-educated sliver of Americans. Using his great-aunt’s notes and letters, Luke Barr brings to life these important characters in America’s food history, highlighting a Christmas they spent together in Provence in 1970. The three comrades/competitors had prickly relationships with each other but were on the same road toward a uniquely American food culture. United by their growing impatience with formal French cooking, they planted the seeds for the local food movement. Although the book is about food primarily, it touches on other political movements of that time, making it an interesting cultural history.
After a divorce, Suzanne McMinn moves with her three kids to rural West Virginia, where she spent happy summers as a child. At first they live in an old family house dubbed the Slanted Little House. She starts raising chickens and keeping a blog about her adventures in sustainable living. The book describes in amusing detail the travails of raising animals—chickens, goats, and cows—along with baking and preserving. McMinn pulls readers along as she learns how to do things her suburban upbringing didn’t teach her. She buys property and builds a house with a man she calls 52, but that relationship deteriorates and threatens all she’s building. Caution: some bad language.
Pamela Druckerman, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, marries and moves to Paris with her British husband. When she becomes pregnant, she notices differences between the way French parents raise children and the way her Manhattan and U.S. friends do it. Her entertaining account combines personal stories with in-depth reporting on French parenting culture. Although she observed and interviewed professional people in Paris, Druckerman reports that similar parenting principles hold sway throughout the country. They harken back to the way Americans used to parent: teaching children how to wait and entertain themselves, to respect parental authority, and to understand they aren’t the center of the universe.
NYU professor Klinenberg looks at what he calls a remarkable social experiment: For the first time in human history, “great numbers of people—at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion—have begun settling down as singletons.” The trend has many causes, including late marriage, divorce, and an aging population. Klinenberg’s research includes interviews with singletons at various stages of life and highlights their challenges, which are most acute for the poor and infirm. Technology ameliorates some of the isolation, but Klinenberg argues for more robust public policies and offers Sweden as an example. How are Christians to think about this trend? Is it here to stay, as Klinenberg suggests? Klinenberg’s book provides important data even if you disagree with his conclusions.
In Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin, 2013), Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charlie LeDuff describes moving back to his hometown to write for the city’s second-string newspaper. He weaves in his own tale with the crime and corruption stories that became his beat. His stories of mourning mothers, corrupt judges, and ill-supplied cops and firemen bristle with anger, which has a corrosive effect on him. The book doesn’t pretend to paint a full picture of Detroit; it shows the dangerous and cruel underside of a city that many of its leaders betrayed. If it was a movie, it would be rated R for language.
In The Exact Place (Kalos Press, 2012), Margie Haack describes growing up poor on a farm in northern Minnesota in the 1950s. There Haack and her mother, stepfather, and five siblings lived in a three-room house lacking indoor plumbing. She writes about fights with her brother and small acts of disobedience that brought painful consequences. Her memoir shows how God made Himself known to her even in a wild and unforgiving place. —S.O.