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Short Takes

By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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THIS BOY‘S FAITH: Notes From
a Southern Baptist Upbringing

By Hamilton Cain
Crown, 272 pp., $25

After coming to Jesus while jumping on a neighbor’s trampoline at age 7, Hamilton Cain took comfort in his role within a “symmetrical Baptist family: father, mother, brother, sister.” In this thoughtful, leisurely memoir, Cain paints himself as smart, sensitive (“eccentric,” in his mother’s estimation), and a bit of a suck-up. He inhabits a milieu whose judgment and censure not only keep its denizens in line but also promise protection from a dangerous world surely hurtling toward a terrifying end. As a child, he found this comforting: “parents sheltering their children, God sheltering the parents, a divinely inspired order.” Such a life wasn’t devoid of fun, either — from summer pilgrimage tours to youth group gatherings that, as adolescence hit, began to bear “hints of darker, more enticing transgressions.”

Interspersed with memories of both the strictures and the sensual pleasures of his Tennessee childhood, Cain tells his adult story: marriage to a “vegetarian Jewish atheist from California” and the birth of their three sons, the eldest of whom is severely disabled by a genetic illness. His own faith, left behind after reaching the apex of Baptist boyhood — being chosen to give the Youth Week sermon (an honor for which he campaigned for years) — won’t quite vanish, announcing itself in apocalyptic fears. After witnessing the fall of the twin towers, standing by as an adored baby struggles to move and breathe, Cain feels the absence of the God he once felt nearby. Still, in the act of caring for his son (maybe in the act of just going on), he sees persistent values from his childhood: “Sacrifice, Steadfastness, Redemption, Apocalypse, Magic. Still clinging to me like burrs, after all these years.”

A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD: African American
Athletes and the Republic of Sports

By Gerald Early
Harvard, 236 pp., $25.95

Was Jackie Robinson, integrator of Major League Baseball, a militant or a martyr? According to cultural critic Gerald Early, it all depends on how you see affirmative action, of which Robinson was “our most magnificent case.” In Early’s analysis, while conservatives see integration in sports and elsewhere in terms of conformity, the outsider given the privilege of assimilation, those on the left view Robinson and other African- Americans in sport as trailblazers who, when given the opportunity, transform rather than join the mainstream. However much folks on both sides of the political spectrum wanted to see their values reflected in Robinson’s success, Early says, “[B]oth sides were wrong about sports eliminating the stigma of race.” Anyone who’s followed the coverage of Tiger Woods, Donovan McNabb, and LeBron James knows he’s right; if anything, sports provides an arena in which America repeatedly reveals just how confused we still are about it.

“A Level Playing Field’’ isn’t a history of race in sports, but rather a collection of previously published magazine articles, along with three essays based on the Alain Locke lectures Early delivered at Harvard’s Du Bois Institute. Among the six pieces in the book, four focus on Robinson, or at least take as their starting point the story of this man, “an athlete who carried with him the meaning of his country, the belief in the virtues of its democratic values, on his back.” One of these, an article originally published in The Nation, ends with a point that feels thoroughly original, that sports, like the blues — America’s first black-authored art form — is about teaching us how to lose. As timeless and rich as Robinson’s story is, an essay on Curt Flood feels the most current. The outfielder’s 1969 crusade against baseball’s reserve clause, which he compared to indentured servitude, provoked a response we still see today: white disbelief and outrage when black athletes fail to demonstrate what Flood called “tail-wagging thanks” toward managers, team owners, and fans.

HOW TO EAT A SMALL COUNTRY
By Amy Finley
Clarkson Potter, 280 pp., $24

Moving your family to France in search of marital repair, personal growth, and a whole lot of wonderful meals sounds like — well, it sounds a lot like a certain recent publishing phenomenon. “How to Eat a Small Country’’ shares a few key traits with Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,’’ in particular an infectiously likeable narrator and mouthwatering descriptions of European food. But Finley’s memoir is less precious, more honest, and ultimately more rewarding. For one thing, it starts with a fairly graphic description of the first step in preparing lapin à la moutarde: killing a rabbit. Cooking, real cooking, it turns out, is a test that reveals a lot more than eating does.

From their home base in Brianny, a village in Burgundy, Finley and her French-born husband haul their two kids all over France, sampling local dishes — everything from eels to frogs to sheep’s head. Along the way, they try to reinvent their marriage, which has fallen into discouraging patterns that will be unsurprising to most married readers (he’s a control freak, she’s a martyr). Both projects are mostly successful, though not without some obstacles. Finley’s voice is smart, funny (“Note to parents: a large, well-fed swan is not nearly as afraid of your children as your children should be of it.”), and generously descriptive of meals she encounters. If she sometimes recounts improbably long conversations, she’s more than redeemed by how well she writes about mothering her young son and daughter. You can learn a lot from this book, and it will make you want to get to a good French restaurant, if you can’t quite make it to the Continent.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.