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The Beginner’s Goodbye , Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the “Real” America, and more!

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The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95)

Grief makes people a little crazy. In the case of 37-year-old widower Aaron Woolcott, it means that his recently-deceased wife keeps showing up to check on his emotional recovery. Aaron’s late wife, a stolid and somewhat unimaginative doctor named Dorothy keeps checking on his progress while she is unable to tell Aaron exactly where she is in the afterlife. Nevertheless, he finds her visits comforting, if a little disconcerting. Dorothy, who died in a freak accident when a tree crashed onto their house, provided the stability in his life that Aaron alternatively longed for and found stifling. Aaron, who runs the family business—a small publishing company—struggles to move forward after her death. “That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with,” he notes.
His single sister insists that he move in with her and he despairs of creating a new life for himself. However, his contractor, his buddies and his co-workers all conspire, sometimes helpfully and sometimes not, to give him the impetus to imagine a life beyond Dorothy. At the conclusion of the book we learn that Aaron has indeed had the courage to forge a new vision of life without Dorothy, and Dorothy has given him the requisite courage to do so. Like James Joyce’s famous concluding lines of Ulysses, the novel ends with a life-affirming acknowledgement of the cycles of life.—By Susan E. Zinner

Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the “Real” America by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel (Gotham Press, $26.00)

First published in 2010, Our Patchwork Nation is still, and particularly, relevant in this election year. Journalist Chinni and political geographer Gimpel felt that the usual “Red State, Blue State” designations were too simplistic, and sought a more subtle and nuanced way to describe the various types of communities represented in the U.S.
After extensive on-the-ground research, and using counties as their basic unit of reference, they found twelve primary types of communities, each with its own lifestyle, beliefs, and behaviors. These are reflected in the ways in which they vote, worship, spend leisure time, shop, and save.
The basic community models are:
  • Boom Towns
  • Campus and Careers
  • Emptying Nests
  • Evangelical Epicenters
  • Immigration Nation
  • Industrial Metropolis
  • Military Bastions
  • Minority Central
  • Moneyed ‘Burbs
  • Mormon Outposts
  • Service Worker Centers
  • Tractor Country
Locally, Lake County is Moneyed ‘Burbs; Cook County is Industrial Metropolis; and McHenry County is Boom Town (exurb).
While it is fascinating to see the breakdown of which communities fall into each type, it really is no surprise that Ann Arbor, MI (Campus and Career), has more bookstores than gun shops, and more Starbucks than Walmarts; it was not a shock that in Baton Rouge, LA (Minority Central) bars are still de facto segregated. Many of Chinni’s and Gimpel’s conclusions could be reached by intuition. In addition, they lump together as Service Worker Centers resort areas and economically devastated communities, Florida retirement communities and aging Rust Belt communities.
However, they also point out differences between communities which would seem similar on the surface. While both favor small government, in the rural South Bible Belt evangelical church and family reign supreme, where in the rural Midwest, there is local civic-mindedness and more mainstream Protestantism.
What would be interesting to know is if the residents of these communities gather together out of like-mindedness or merely an accident of geography. How will the various community types vote in November? It will be fascinating to watch; not all are as obvious as Minority Central and Mormon Outposts.—Cynthia Taubert

She-Fire: A Safari Into the Human Spirit by Mary Jean Irion. (Trafford Publishing, $20.77).

Whether or not you'll consider She-Fire a good read depends a bit on what you consider a good journey. Dag Hammarskjold famously said: "The longest journey is the journey inward." If that journey appeals to you (or if you're on it, willy-nilly), if you see life in historical perspective, if you believe we're living through and into an amazing time of religious transformation, you won't want to miss this book. Also, and not insignificantly, if you enjoy language, metaphor, and myth, you'll relish every page. Those who enjoy splendid descriptions of life in the wild will like this book—but the others will love it.
Irion invites the reader to a heart-to-heart chat as she offers—for your acceptance or rejection—her musings on what elephants and lions and wildebeests and giraffes can teach us about ourselves, our beliefs, and our culture. The last page is numbered 463, but creative organizing includes sections that are clearly optional. My advice: read them all. You'll be glad you took this Safari Into the Human Spirit.—Sister Terri MacKenzie

The Tools:  Transform Your Problems into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels (Spiegel & Grau; $25.00).

According to the authors, “a tool is a technique or procedure that can generate a force that allows you to do the work of change. It is work that must be done in real time. When do we use a tool? In the present.” This book guides readers who are looking to make positive changes in their lives with a blueprint for action. These tools are geared for use on a daily basis to build inner strength, increase willpower, improve creative powers, focus on goals vs. distractions, gain faith in higher powers as well as help us cope with other common pitfalls and problems that we all face. Readers can either empathize with or see snippets of themselves inside each of the stories the authors share. The five tools can be summarized to work in a quid pro quo fashion:
The Reversal of Desire; Active Love; Inner Authority; Grateful Flow; and Jeopardy. The  authors write that by using the tools for the rest of your life you will be more appreciative of every moment.
The authors caution that like New Year’s resolutions, many of us will abandon the tools—even after they have begun to change our lives. John Wooden said “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.” —Kathleen Welton

Born with a Junk Food Deficiency
by Martha Rosenberg (Prometheus Books, $24.00).

Seasoned investigative writer, editorial cartoonist, and Evanston, Illinois native Martha Rosenberg writes with verve and insight about two huge entities—Big Pharma and Big Food—and the ways they manipulate for gain and profit the drug and grocery supply chain American consumers all draw from. Ambitious in scope, and containing hundreds of well-documented source notes as well as dozens of original cartoons, Rosenberg’s compulsively readable non-fiction book is a multifaceted exposé in the tradition of such pioneering Chicago-based muckrakers as Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris and Studs Terkel.
Readers who view themselves as informed consumers will still be shocked and intrigued by Rosenberg’s deft detailing of the many foibles, cover-ups, and—in some cases—criminal acts that have been perpetrated by officials in charge of enforcing food and drug safety laws in this, her first book. No federal organization including the FDA and USDA or private company is off-limits, and Rosenberg artfully uses her hard-hitting—albeit humorous—writing style to make salient points about the many unanswered questions raised by such chapter titles as: “The Drugstore in Your Meat,” “Weapons of Hormonal Therapy,” and “A Side Effect from Which There Is No Recovery.”
While it is a quick yet eye-opening read, the book is by no means exhaustive. Throughout, Rosenberg mentions recent impactful developments which continue to play out in both the drug and food regulatory arenas. Additionally, Rosenberg urges consumers to protect themselves, as she writes  that the desired transparency on the part of multinational agribusiness, pharmaceutical, and food production companies, and by U.S. regulatory agency personnel (many of whom hold medical degrees or PhDs), is historically lacking and probably will not be forthcoming anytime soon. And that is something American consumers need to know. —Victoria Cunha

The Essential Paul Simon Edited by John S. Jackson, Foreward by David Yepsen (Southern Illinois University Press; $34.95)

Illinois Senator Paul Simon motivated Americans for four decades with his wisdom. Those who followed Simon will find this compilation of his some of his writings and insightful editor’s notes by Jackson awe-inspiring. Simon wrote twenty-two books and this book includes many of his most eloquent writings. Simon wrote on topics such as water problems in the Mideast, the size of the federal government, television and violence, civil rights, gun violence, hunger, senior citizens, Iraq and Afghanistan, and politics and morality, making it his mission to make the complexities of politics available to his constituents. One particularly powerful piece was titled “Can You Legislate Morality?”

He wrote in 1983 that the law changes our conduct and this change in our conduct can change our hearts. —Kari Burns

Published: October 13, 2012
Issue: November 2012 Issue