Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009: A Year in Reading

As I have done in previous years, this page contains an anotated list of all the books I have read in 2009.

When I began this blog post on 12/31/2008 I was reading a book of poetry by Ric Masten and Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture in preparation for my sermon on January 11th. I was also reading the third edition of John Carver's Boards that Make a Difference (see #4 below) as well as slowly savoring a fantastic collection of essays edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (#8 below) entitled State by State. Other books you will find on my reading list for 2009 include: books by Sarah Vowell (#44), Nick Hornby (#15, #22, #45), Billy Collins (#5), Michael Chabon (#27), Deb Olin Unferth (#11,#14), and more volumes of McSweeney's (see #23, #33, #42, and #46 below).

Books Finished:

46) McSweeney's 27 (339 pages)
Unfortunately, the 27th volume of McSweeney's literary quarterly was the most disappointing that I have read to date. McSweeney's 27 contains three separate volumes in a single box. One is a collection of six short stories. The second is the guide to a New York art exhibition of pieces that include the written word. The third is a sketchbook by famed cartooist Art Spiegelman.*

None of the short stories moved me. In fact, several of them were just terrible. The collection kicks off with a noir-ish story by Larry Smith that wasn't too bad. The second story, by Jim Shephard, involves a bloodthirsty feudal Lord. I can't think of a worse short story that I've ever read. The collection also includes a 70 page short story by Stephen King. It helps that it was very bad. If it had it been good I would have been conflicted. On one level I get it: King has a side to him that is a little bit artsy and having him contribute might bring McSweeney's to a more mainstream audience. On another level I recoil in disgust. McSweeney's should be a place for publishing emerging writers. I am sad for the writers who didn't get accepted so that 70 pages could be devoted to a Stephen King story that takes place in a port-o-potty.

[* An interesting note: Over a decade ago I attended a lecture by Art Spiegelman. At that time he only accepted speaking engagements if there was a clause in his contract allowing him to chain-smoke for the duration of his lecture. He spoke for a little more than an hour and went through a dozen cigarettes. The lecture was in a large auditorium at a private college. I have no idea if Spiegelman still insists on a smoking clause, but it would surely be even more difficult to get people to accept his conditions nowadays.]

45) Juliet, Naked - by Nick Hornby (406 pages)
When I returned to the United States from my South America sabbatical I was excited to find that Nick Hornby had published a new novel. I was eager to see if Hornby had regained his mojo after his atrocious 2005 novel A Long Way Down. (In the meantime Hornby had published a quite good young adult novel that I reviewed earlier this year. See #22 below.) The good news is that Juliet, Naked is not horrible. It is also not nearly as good as his first three novels.

Juliet, Naked focuses on the unhappy, apathetic, long term relationship of convenience between a professor, Duncan, and a museum curator, Annie, in a depressing seaside town in England. At 25 they blinked and now they are both 40ish with not much to show for the past 15 years. Duncan’s singular passion is the music of a mysterious American singer-songwriter named Tucker Crowe who quit music and dropped off the face of the earth 22 years before, leaving his small number of fans to wonder. Duncan is an obsessive “Crowologist” determined to crack the code of Crowe’s genius, especially Crowe’s final and critically-acclaimed album, Juliet.

Juliet, Naked starts strong. The first chapter is simply exhilarating. The book stays strong for a while. The previously unreleased acoustic demo version of the Juliet album, entitled Juliet, Naked, finds its way into Annie and Duncan’s life. It turns into a weapon they use to psychically wound each other while taking their relationship to the breaking point. As they are breaking up, Annie responds to Duncan’s betrayals with her own. She enters into an on-line flirtation with Tucker Crowe.

And then the book loses its way completely. The plot becomes contrived. The characters grow tedious. I wanted all of them to just go away. There is no use in giving you a spoiler because Hornby manages to spoil the story by writing it. It seems at times that the only reason the book exists is to, to borrow a British phrase, take the piss out of obsessive fans who take the fun out of their passion by taking it far too seriously. This is a common theme in Hornby’s writing. Fish. Gun. Barrel.

The book did leave me with one deep craving. Hornby’s rich and imaginative description of Tucker Crowe’s music left me wanting to listen to it. Hornby even provides a track listing for Crowe’s Juliet album. (What do you call ekphrasis if it is auditory rather than visual?) Hornby’s writing is most alive when he is describing the improvisations on Crowe’s live version of “You and Your Perfect Life.” The book was a let down but I’d buy the album in a second!

44) Radio On: A Listener's Diary - by Sarah Vowell (237 pages)
Whenever I find an author I truly admire it is just a matter of time until I wind up reading everything the author has published. This is why I wound up reading Nick Hornby’s young adult novel about skateboarding and teen pregnancy (which I liked) and David Foster Wallace’s book about the mathematics of infinity (which I did not.)

I just finished reading Sarah Vowell’s first book, Radio On, which I liked, and now I’ve read every book she has ever published. The book’s form is fairly simple; Vowell spends an entire year keeping a journal about what she hears on the radio. She takes on this project in 1995. This year’s news included the Oklahoma City bombing, the death of Jerry Garcia, O.J. Simpson’s acquittal, the Republican shutdown of the United States government, Clinton’s decision to take military action in the Balkans, and Newt Gingrich being named Time’s Man of the Year.

Of course, I view this year a bit differently. On January 1, 1995 I was beating my head against the computer while trying to finish college application essays. In June I graduated and in August I started college. (The back cover of the Reed College student handbook featured an altered photo of the college president sitting in the Student Union and holding an… ahem… tobacco water pipe. The caption declared, “This one’s for you, Jerry!”)

Radio On begins with Vowell’s six page tribute to the band Nirvana whose lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. She goes on to voice her contempt for Rush Limbaugh (not surprising) and almost every program on NPR which is surprising in that an NPR program that began in 1995, This American Life with Ira Glass, would help Vowell get her break. Vowell despises Garrison Keillor, Car Talk, NPR game shows, and opines, “Now, I’m as opposed to fatwahs as the next person, but if only the Christian equivalent could force… into hiding… [NPR news personalities] Robert Siegel, Linda Wertheimer, and Noah Adams.”

Vowell’s diary is a complex love letter to the possibilities and failures of radio and it was written with all the angst the punk-loving 24 year old could summon. It is also a trip back through memory lane as we get to listen in on such things as rock critics debating the merits of the Foo Fighters’ debut album. The person Vowell mentions most frequently in her book? Courtney Love. Long live 1995!

43) Galapagos at the Crossroads - by Carol Ann Bassett (283 pages)
I happened to pick up Carol Ann Bassett’s book about the Galapagos Islands while I was browsing through the new releases section at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library. I am planning to talk a little bit about the Galapagos in my first sermon when I return from sabbatical and I was curious to read another person’s impression.

Unfortunately, this book annoyed me from start to finish. Bassett is a professor who teaches environmental writing and literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon and is no stranger to the islands, leading her students on an annual summer program to the Galapagos. Her book was disappointing. For one thing, I disagree with how she chose to present her experiences and at times I found her either deliberately misleading or ignorant. Her writing is full of odd non sequiturs and she ought to consider firing her editor. The book is also distractingly self-referential. Bassett is the book’s main character which is an irony because she insists, not incorrectly, that humans have too large of a presence on the islands.

In writing this book Carol Ann Bassett spent a year in the Galapagos and sought to learn as much about the Islands as she could. The premise of the book is to examine different groups that have an interest in the Islands and to reveal the way these competing interests interact. Her book is about biologists, ecologists, “locals,” tourists, fishermen, politicians, creationists, and more. She encounters some fascinating individuals. Her interview with the captain of a boat that sinks Japanese whaling vessels and disrupts the activities of other ocean villains is captivating. But other chapters miss the mark. Bassett appears terribly naïve when she acts surprised about how many Americans don’t accept evolution. She then chooses to focus on the influence of Jehovah’s Witnesses within the local population of the Galapagos but never connects any of it back to the politics of creationism in the United States. Her exploration of the tourism industry could use a bit more investigative journalism as well.

Bassett, however, is extremely effective in showing how the political instability and corruption in the Ecuadorian government undermines the ecology of the Islands. Since 2002 the Galapagos National Park has had 14 directors. The Ecuadorian navy is on the take, taking bribes for the fishermen they are supposed to be stopping and smuggling animal products to the mainland. Villagers riot with impunity when laws are enforced and have taken giant tortoises as hostages to get their demands met. (I blogged about Ecuadorian politics during my stay in the country.)

42) The Almost Church Revitalized: Envisioning the Future of Unitarian Universalism - by Michael Durall (86 pages)
You can read a review of Durall's book here.

41) McSweeney's Volume 32 (255 pages)
McSweeney's 32 contains ten short stories by authors who have imagined the world in the year 2024 and tell us about what life is like in a particular city 15 years in the future. In Budapest citizens construct a post-communist, post-capitalist political entity. On the Caspian Sea a boat rushes to reintroduce endangered seals to the wild while simultaneously smuggling to safety the bratty children of the head of state of a breakaway nation of the very-former Soviet Union. In Waterloo (Iowa?) children are dependent on the handheld personal digital device to end all handheld personal digital devices. Global flooding proves to be cataclysmic in two stories, set in Houston and Rotterdeam respectively. Meanwhile, in a third story set in suburban Phoenix, developers help to solve the problem of rising ocean level: oceanfront property in Arizona. Two stories are set in Los Angeles. The better of the two is Salvador Plascencia's story of a young couple receiving government subsidies to try to reintroduce the English language to LA. By 2024 English is the fourth most common language in the United States behind Spanish, Cantonese, and a third language that was not identified.

Of the ten stories my favorite was Anthony Doerr's story about a new technology used to combat Alzheimer's in Cape Town, South Africa and the black market that springs up around the dealing of people's memory cartridges. My second favorite was Chris Adrian's tale of a mysterious black square that is discovered on Nantucket. Scientists are foiled in their attempts to investigate what happens when people pass through the black square. In his powerful story Adrian explores the emotional considerations that help to transform Nantucket into the pseudo-suicide capital of the world.

These ten authors show us a grim view of the future.

40) Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party - by Max Blumenthal (316 pages)
You can read my review here.

39) Dot in the Universe - by Lucy Ellmann (197 pages)
I was surprised when I stumbled upon Dot in the Universe, Ellmann's 2003 novel. I didn't know it even existed. When I was 20 I randomly read Ellmann's fantastic experimental novel, Man or Mango?: A Lament and thought it was one of the best things I had ever read. I quickly went back and read two of her earlier novels, Sweet Desserts and Varying Degrees of Hopelessness. Neither of them lived up to Man or Mango? In fact, I remember virtually nothing about them.

Dot in the Universe attempts to follow in the same surrealist mode as Man or Mango? but falls short in terms of both substance and execution. This novel is about being married to a nymphomaniac, the process of reincarnation, opossums, incest, and a spiteful grandmother. It just didn't work for me. But, it seems like I managed to miss another novel of Ellmann's that came out in 2007. I remain hopeful. It is just too sad to think that Ellmann found the magic formula once and never was able to replicate it.

38) An American Childhood - by Annie Dillard (270 pages)
There is a routine that I have when I come to the end of a truly amazing book. About two pages shy of the end I close the book and remember. I remember my favorite parts of the book and its moving passages. It is almost a prayerful act of giving thanks. Ten or twenty or thirty minutes later I open the book and finish it.

Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood is a truly remarkable book. It tells the story of the author’s childhood in upper class Pittsburgh from age 5 to age 18. Annie Dillard’s unsurpassed prose makes this a joy to read from beginning to end, but the book is also surprising for what Dillard omits. She spends very little time describing key events and important moments. Rather, the book is set within one key event, the decision of her father to leave and travel by boat from Pittsburgh to New Orleans only to turnaround in Ohio and come back. This central part of the book is always present but never fully explained. Likewise, she mentions her first truly significant boyfriend but she gives almost no information about him, not even his name.

There is a part of this book that is almost a tease; it leaves you wanting more. You want to read what she wrote to her minister in letter as a teenager announcing she was leaving the church. You want to read the poetry she wrote while inspired by Rimbaud.

While minimalist when it comes to these sorts of details, there is still plenty of meat here. Mostly, Dillard’s childhood is amazing for her intellectual curiosity and her self-directed passion. She provides us with an insightful epistemology of childhood and an anthropology for those of all ages.

You’ll be seeing a lot more of Annie Dillard’s name on my reading blog. There are ten more books by here that I have not read… yet.

37) The Writing Life - by Annie Dillard (69 pages)
It is with almost a sense of shame that I confess that I’ve never previously read anything by Annie Dillard. I know her writing though. Every picture is worth 1,000 words and every work of writing by Annie Dillard has inspired 1,000 Unitarian Universalist sermons. Along with Emerson, Thoreau, and Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard has to rank among the ten most frequently quoted writers in UU sermons.

The Writing Life is short but it is brilliant and intense. While the theme of a writer writing about her own writing may seem to be of little appeal, and, in fact, may be thought to be a bit pretentious, this short piece does not succumb to the trips and traps of the form. She does not call herself a saint, a hero, a fraud, or a martyr… at least not too often.

I didn’t read this small book in the best setting to catch all of its intricacies; I read it on a bus traveling into the Amazon rainforest. However, parts of it are as vivid as anything I saw in the jungle. Her description of a stunt pilot will not be soon forgotten. Neither will her description of the physical space in which she wrote most of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She wrote it, mostly late at night, while sitting at a library carrel surrounded by cinderblock walls. She had to close the blinds to the outside world in order to write about it.

The dam has burst. There is much more Annie Dillard yet for me to read.

36) A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail - by Bill Bryson (272 pages)
I have absolutely no excuse for choosing to read a piece of travel writing about the United States while I am traveling in Ecuador. Except that I’ve been meaning to read A Walk in the Woods for a while now and it sort ofjumped off the shelves at me at one of the two English bookstores (that I know of) in Quito.

Bill Bryson’s tale of hiking (parts of) the Appalachian Trail in his mid-40s received rave reviews when it was published in 1998. Bryson’s book remains popular today although it seems dated, as so many books that touch on ecology and conservation do, in this post-Inconvenient Truth world.

Reading this book was an interesting experience. I tore through it even though I don’t think I particularly enjoyed it. Even more oddly, I had the feeling while reading it that I would wind up reading a lot more of Bill Bryson’s books. Bryson is generally lauded for his humor but I didn’t think he was that funny. Instead, I found him eerily misanthropic. Much of this book consists of him making fun of various people he meets on and off the trail. He roasts hikers with annoying habits and the citizens of small towns in the American South who interact with hikers. There is hardly an institution he fails to criticize harshly: the National Parks Service, the Army Corp of Engineers, and various regional Appalachian Trail groups. Bryson spends even more time complaining about his friend Stephen who hikes much of the trail with him. It grows wearisome.

This is not to say that Bill Bryson is without several keen observations. He had several insightful comments on humanity, nature, wilderness, and American approaches to nature. I am sure that I will wind up using his account of a conversation with a taxi driver on page 31 in a future sermon at some point.

35) Sixty Stories - by Donald Barthelme (449 pages)
I had never heard of Donald Barthelme until I read an issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly (issue number 24, if I’m not mistaken) that dedicated half of the issue to honoring him. Sixty Stories is an anthology of Barthelme’s short stories from 1964-1979. I am unsure whether Barthelme held a relationship with the French experimental writing group known as Oulipo (perhaps I am conflating two different issues of McSweeney’s) but many of his stories are “Oulipian.”

Barthelme's stories are complex, unconventional, and they experiment with form. I even wondered whether several of the selections in this anthology could properly be called “stories.” For example, “A Manual for Sons,” probably my favorite piece in the collection, contains 21 sections offering information about fathers. “The Glass Mountain” consists of 100 numbered sentences describing an urban man’s attempt to climb the glass façade of a building using suction cups. Even in stories that seem straightforward by comparison are often thrown off course by the author inserting himself into his own piece to offer observation or commentary, usually towards the end of the story.

Here are a few of my other favorites from this collection:

“On Angels” consists of a discussion among Angels of what they are after God is proven not to exist. This story includes substantive quotations from different theologians.

In “The Falling Dog,” an artist is struck by a dog that lands on him after falling out of a third story window. This breaks the artist’s dry spell; he has spent too many years recycling a theme that has become outworn. The rest of the story consists of the artist brainstorming ways to develop the falling dog theme.

In “Rebecca,” the story begins with the protagonist unsuccessfully attempting to change her last name: “Lizard.” The story then explores the tensions in Rebecca’s lesbian relationship. Her partner is unsatisfied and it turns out that Rebecca may, in fact, be part lizard.

Finally, “Daumier” is an absurd story about a group of rustlers who instead of driving cattle are driving hundreds of French au pairs across the range. They are pursued by a band of ordained Catholics who attempt to head them off at the pass.

Always bizarre, oftentimes frustrating, I would recommend Sixty Stories only to those devoted to experimental literature and the short story form.

34) Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition - by Vickie Howard (240 pages)
You can read my review of Brides, Inc. here.

33) McSweeney's Volume 31 (158 pages)
Graustarkian romance. Biji. Consuetudinary. Nivola. Pantoum. Lengendary saga. Socratic dialogue. Whore dialogue. Senryu. What do all of these things have in common? They are all writings forms that have been mostly forgotten in our world today. Volume 31 of McSweeney’s unearths and modernizes these ancient forms. The results wre largely mixed.

Both the nivola and the Graustarkian romance seem like forms that have been abandoned for good reason. However, this volume did contain some wonderful surprises. Chief among these was a modern Socratic dialogue in which Susan Sontag, Ernest Hemmingway, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, and Charlie Chaplin debate whether Citizen Kane is the best movie of all time. Douglas Coupland’s biji gets a bit silly at times, but as “the voice of Generation X” he seems the perfect candidate to resurrect this form. A biji is a literary work comprised of short observations, quotations, advice, and factoids. In other words, it is the perfect form for people who blog and twitter.

The poetry was the strongest part of this volume of McSweeney’s. Although its form is restrictive and repetitive I want to try my hand at writing a pantoum. Even better were senryu, a type of haiku. While haiku tend to be meditative and draw heavily from nature imagery, senryu address human qualities with cynicism, irreverence, and hilarity.

Finally, I can’t help but mention consuetudinary. These are extremely detailed records of the details and duties of a specific monastic community. It is highly doubtful that this genre will ever catch on, but I am glad to know that it existed.

32) The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University - by Kevin Roose (319 pages)
Wow! Just, wow! I am not sure that I have ever read a book like The Unlikely Disciple. I found it to be a riveting page-turner.

The premise is this: The author Kevin Roose, a 19 year old sophomore at Brown University, decides to transfer to Jerry Falwell’s ultra-conservative Liberty University for a semester and then write about his experience. Roose, a liberal Democrat raised as a non-observant Quaker, goes to Liberty U. under cover. He is closeted about his true identity, and he does nothing to prevent any of his classmates from assuming that he is a conservative evangelical Christian.

A couple of observations: Kevin Roose is not your average 19 year old. He is not only an Ivy Leaguer but he is also a journalist who has written for Esquire and SPIN magazine. Just hearing about his schedule at Liberty wore me out. As a student there he takes six classes, sings in the choir at Falwell’s mega-church, plays intramural softball, dates lightly, and participates in a whole host of extracurricular activities, some of which are frighteningly strange (see below). On a lark, he also walks into the offices of the student newspaper, asks to interview Jerry Falwell, and is granted an interview. In fact, he conducts the last print interview with Falwell before Falwell dies of a heart-attack at the end of the semester.

But, more than any of this, what makes Kevin Roose special is that he goes to Liberty with an open mind. Liberty University is tremendously easy to ridicule, to criticize, and to make the butt of jokes. Roose could have written a slam book of Biblical proportions. Instead, the author tries at every turn to see good at Liberty. Roose most impressed me with the maturity with which he approached his subject. Time and time again he is charitable and generous, certainly more than I would be if I were in his place. He is not your average 19 year-old.

There is a lot that the book doesn’t directly say. So, let me say what the book doesn’t. Much of Liberty’s academic program is an utter sham. The University went for a period without a library! In the introduction to theology course students are presented with cherry-picked quotes from the likes of Kant and Nietzsche; the professors worry that if the students read longer passages it might cause them to stumble in their faith. The classes that Roose describes seem like indoctrination, not education. The curriculum is deeply anti-intellectual. Administrators and many professors hold that knowledge is an enemy of faith. And I haven’t even brought up the fact that they teach young-earth creationism!

Student conduct at Liberty University is governed by a long rulebook known as “The Liberty Way.” Students can receive fines, reprimands, and mandatory community service for wearing clothes that are too revealing, for dozing off during mandatory convocations, for hugging for more than 3 seconds, and for a host of other behaviors. This is a school where students lock their doors when they watch R rated movies. Those are also forbidden.

Sexuality on campus is extremely strange. Having sexual intercourse is cause for expulsion for a woman; the punishment for men seems to be less severe. The student body wears a lot of clothes and jewelry reminding them of the “purity pledges” they have taken. Many students claim to be saving their first kiss for marriage. At the same time hypocrisy is rampant. According to the author a lot of the students wear claims of the virginity on their sleeve or on their finger or around their neck while at the same time not keeping their pants on. Kevin Roose describes the atmosphere as simultaneously sexually-repressed and hyper-sexualized. A lot of students rush to get married as soon as possible. (One mother even sent her daughter off to liberty with 250 pre-printed business cards for her to give to possible suitors!) Both male and female students spend a lot of time focused on personal appearances and the author writes that the student body at Liberty has more physically attractive co-eds than Brown.

Then there is the weirder side of sex at Liberty: Students contemplate the benefits of joining the “Quiverfull” movement, a Christian movement that promotes having as many children as possible and that God will intervene when you’ve had enough. The male students on campus are hyper-focused on homosexuality. Gay put-downs and epithets seem to be the standard and many students seem to live in a state of “gay panic” where they worry if their roommate or dorm-mate might be gay. Our author bravely travels to the darkest places on campus. He makes an appointment with a counselor who does “reparative therapy” for gay students. He even visits a support group called Every Man’s Battle, a support group for male college students who think lustful thoughts, let their eyes wander, masturbate, or view pornography (or a Victoria’s Secret catalogue.) I cannot imagine anything more quixotic.

But, what makes this book incredible is that the author does not go to Liberty University with the goal of exposing all these things and the others that make this school so messed up. Kevin Roose is constantly stressing the positive: the closeness of the student body, the good feelings that come with being prayed for, the friendliness of the students, the general happiness of the campus, the unity felt on campus. Roose does admit that as a straight, white, normal looking male who can pass for an evangelical Christian he is at a distinct advantage to feeling included at Liberty. He even receives a deeper sense of spirituality there. What makes this book incredible also makes it slightly troubling.

In the end, I loved this book. I loved how open the author was to his subject. He finds good things to say about the students, the professors, and the staff. He has a lot to say about faith and about religion. And yet, I couldn’t completely buy it. Kevin recounts one gay-themed discussion in the cafeteria where a student said that if he found out his roommate was gay he would beat him to death with a baseball bat. This student then justified this stance with a scriptural prooftext. That such a statement went unchallenged at the dinner table speaks volumes.

The most powerful observations that Kevin Roose makes has to do with his many reflections on how his own beliefs about God and religion change during his time at Liberty. These reflections are, at the same time, often accompanied by self-aware statements about how even a few months at Liberty alters his perceptions. What used to be strange now seems usual. After leaving he finds himself shocked by things he used to take for granted and he has become desensitized to things that used to shock him.

All this begs the question, is truth best found by immersion or by clinical distance?

31) Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney's Book of Lists (215 pages)
Well, my sabbatical hasn't started yet, but you wouldn't know it from this piece of fluff. I will read anything that McSweeney's publishes. Or, maybe I can I count this as research for my List of Lists.

The McSweeney's web-site contains regularly posted lists. Mountain Man Dance Moves anthologizes some of the best lists to appear on the site. That list, by the way, refers to the author's recollection of bizarre dance moves executed by a guy who looks like a "mountain man" at a Beastie Boys concert. The lists and the humor are absurdist. The formula is to create a list and have the last item on the list not follow the pattern. For example, a list of state consolidations includes "Ohiowa" and "Wisconnecticut" but the last consolidated state on the list is "Arkansas."

The book produced many laughs. A list of "The Collected Apologies of Lawrence H. Summers, President of Harvard" has him apologizing for his comment of several years ago that men were genetically superior to women in math and science but with each successive apology becoming more sexist. A list of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon includes actual degrees (PhD in veterinary biosciences) that would have come in handy for the characters he portrayed in his various films.

Trust me, it's funny stuff.

30) Our Covenant (The 2000-01 Minns Lectures): The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and the Promise of Our Covenant - by Alice Blair Wesley (119 pages)
I read this book about the theology of covenant in UUism too late. I read it too late to use in the series of lectures on UU History & Theology I gave last month. I read it too late to use it in a sermon on covenant that is being reprinted as the cover story in the newsletter of the Church of the Larger Fellowship in September. I didn't read it too late to apply to covenanting work that the church I serve may undertake, though they are likely to undertake it while I am on sabbatical this fall.

Alice Blair Wesley is one of our sharpest historical minds. Her essays draw heavily on research into the covenantal practices of our Puritan ancestors. Her essays also critique the relationships between UU congregations today. This short book contains six essays that she was selected to deliver in 2000-2001. (The Minns is an annual lectureship in which a UU minister is selected to deliver a series of lectures across the country. Wesley delivered two lectures in the Greater Boston area, two in the Seattle area, and two in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

While the content of these lectures is outstanding, reading them we know they make better lectures than essays. There is a sort of repetitiveness that would be natural for an evolving series of lectures delivered over the course of a year to three different audiences. It doesn't work quite as well reading them. However, these lectures contain an abundance of grist for the mill for anyone who wants to take congregational covenants seriously.

29) Supreme Courtship - a novel by Christopher Buckley (285 pages)
After reading and really enjoying Boomsday earlier this year (see #18 below) I was really looking forward to reading Buckley's latest novel satirizing Washington politics. I was especially hopeful about the main plot: after having a series of ultra-qualified Supreme Court Justice nominees rejected, one because the nominee wrote that To Kill a Mockingbird was boring in elementary school, the President decides to nominate a populist choice that will send the Senate Judiciary Committee into a tizzy. The President nominates Pepper Cartwright, the nation's most popular TV judge. I found this plot to be enjoyable but I just never found myself thrilled by the subplots in the book: a Senator taking the role of the President on a TV program to launch him into the race for the White House. And who could possibly predict the book ending with the Supreme Court having to rule in a Presidential election? Not a bad read, but Boomsday was much better.

28) One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding - by Rebecca Mead (234 pages)
I blogged about this great book here.
I also reflected on a chapter from Mead's book here.

27) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - by Michael Chabon (637 pages)
For better or for worse, one of my reading habits is that if I begin a book I feel compelled to finish it. In fact, I've even compiled a list of books I have not finished so that I can be sure to go back and finish them some day. Twice I started this novel by Michael Chabon, and twice I put it down. The first time was in 2002 when, as a poor Intern Minister, I checked it out from a library in suburban Dallas, got halfway through it, and then had the book recalled. The second time was a few years ago when I started it on a trip and got about fifty pages in before switching to something else.

The third time was the charm. Kavalier and Clay is about the intertwined lives of two cousins who, as teenagers, take the comic book world by storm before war and their own life trajectories separate them. Chabon beautifully recreates the heyday of comic books during the 1930s and 40s. Even more interestingly, he associates the figure of the superhero with the figure of the golem in Jewish mysticism. In the face of fascism, such a turn to a superhuman force of salvation makes immense sense.

Kavalier and Clay was a joy to read. As a kind of historical novel, Chabon's interests are varied and fascinating. Also, he possesses one of the most impressive vocabularies I've ever observed.

26) Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: Kids' Letters to President Obama - edited by Jory John (145 pages)
My wardrobe contains a black hooded sweatshirt. Printed on the back of the sweatshirt are the stylized words, “826 Valencia” which are set over the image of crossbones. Most people who see this sweatshirt imagine that I am representing something thuggish and gangster-like. In fact, 826 Valencia is an amazing tutoring and creative writing center for disadvantaged children and youth. The writing center sits in San Francisco’s Mission district and is located at 826 Valencia Street. The writing center is fronted by a “pirate supply store” where you can buy eye patches, pirate maps, and tee shirts emblazoned with slogans like “bring your own citrus” and “cannons don’t sink ships; pirates with cannons sink ships.”

826 is a charitable side project of McSweeney’s founded by Dave Eggers in San Francisco in the 1990s. Their alternative media empire also produces a quarterly literary journal, a quarterly DVD journal, a monthly arts review magazine, and its own publishing house for experimental books. There are seven chapters of 826 around the country, located in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Ann Arbor, New York, and Boston. Not only does 826 tutor and teach creative writing; they also publish the work of their young authors.

I picked up Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country at Barnes & Noble. It consists of letters to President Obama written by children between the ages of 5 and 14. The book is hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking.

From the letters contained in this collection, it is clear that the children are attuned to a variety of issues. Most children reference the war in Iraq and tell Obama that he should stop it. They also lobby him to fix the economy and lower gas prices. Many children ask Obama to help their parents pay bills. Several others ironically advise Obama to stop people from smoking.

The letters take several different forms. Some are written in the form of a pen pal letter. Others ask Obama for things, such as an end to war or a Playstation 2. Some letters offer advice while others make a top 10 list of things he should do. (#6 on the list is to put hand sanitizer on his hands.)

This books if full of laughs. One writer tells Obama not to eat junk food and includes a picture of an obese Obama. Another writer wants to know if Obama and Santa Claus work together. Obama is warned about the ghost of Abraham Lincoln that haunts the Whitehouse. Lots of children express their interest in what kind of dog the President will choose. One bold youth suggests having a child in the Cabinet and offers his services.

But, Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country is more than physical proof that children will write the wildest things. The silliness and innocence of these letters is counterbalanced by the degree to which some of the children share their pain. Nothing is more heartbreaking than the child who writes that he wishes that he was President Obama’s “long lost son.”

Besides being an easy and entertaining read, it is also for a good cause. Proceeds from the book will go to 826 chapters around the country. Maybe we will have one in Kansas City one day. One can only hope!

25) Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion - by A. Powell Davies, edited by Forrest Church (94 pages)
Throughout my years in ministry I've probably read this entire collection, but never over a short period of time. What Forrest Church has done is to take snippets and passages from Davies' great sermons and form them into shorter meditation pieces. What is remarkable is that even though most of these sermons were delivered in the 1950s, they are no less relevant today.

24) The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America - by Steven Johnson (221 pages)
In October of 1998 I received a grant that allowed me to spend a week in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was writing my Reed College senior thesis on Thomas Jefferson and was able to visit Monticello and also the special collections library at the University of Virginia, an institution founded by Jefferson as the capstone to his monumentous life.

That visit proved most insightful. Jefferson's architectural designs for his home and for the University provided an insight into his theology and his politics. Similarly, an exploration of Jefferson’s gardens, for which he kept meticulous records that would inform environmentalists and botanists two centuries later, offered the same kind of insight.

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air deals with the life of Joseph Priestly, a British chemist and early pioneer in the science of electricity who was also a Unitarian minister, a theologian and church historian, as well as an influential political thinker. He was prolific and a close friend to both Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin.

Johnson’s book opens with a quotation from presidential candidate Mike Huckabee who laughed off a question about evolution, claiming his realm was politics, not science. Johnson then explains how this worldview was completely different from the thought of Joseph Priestley, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, three men who radically shaped the political landscape of the United States. Working in chemistry, botany, and electricity respectively, the three did not differentiate between politics, theology, and science. These fields needed to be in conversation and informed one another.

Johnson’s book is just marvelous. It is engrossing and creative and fascinating. It is also the first time I’ve ever found Joseph Priestley written about in a way that captured my interest. Johnson takes us inside Priestley’s laboratory where he discovered how to infuse water with “mephitic” air, thus inventing soda pop, and where he performed experiments putting mice and plants inside of tubes, thus discovering oxygen and making the first observation that would lead to the discovery of ecosystem science.

For Unitarians, this is a fascinating book as well. Unlike the New England Unitarianism which was an outgrowth from Puritan Calvinism and is the direct ancestor of modern day Unitarian Universalism, Priestley’s British Unitarianism was an outgrowth from the dissenting church in England and held a faith that was much more indebted to Enlightenment materialism than its New England counterpart.

The Invention of Air is one of the best intellectual histories I have ever had the pleasure of reading. By the way, here is a clip of Steven Johnson appearing on the Colbert Report.

23) McSweeney's Volume 29 (176 pages)
It has been about 9 months since I last read an issue of McSweeney’s Literary Quarterly. I began reading issues of McSweeney’s in early 2007 and have since read 17 of the 30 issues published to date.

Volume 29 is beautifully designed; its blue and black hardcover binding contains the image of a small silver rocket ship blasting into space and is inset with dozens of tiny sparkling silver dots that resemble stars. Pages inside the book contain reproduced art from matchbook covers from Eastern Europe.

The short stories in Volume 29 are of high quality. Ubiquitous McSweeney’s contributor Roddy Doyle is featured in his short story, “The Painting,” which tells the lovely story of a Polish artist living in Dublin who falls for one of his subjects. The McSweeney’s “media empire” also produces the quarterly Wholphin DVD of short films. The 7th volume of Wholpin contained a magnificent short film adaptation of Doyle’s short story “The New Boy.” This short was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008. “The Painting,” I believe, would make for an even better film.

Other stories that stand out in this volume are Brian Baise’s story of the awkwardness of returning to a place and reconnecting with lost friends and Laura Hendrix’s haunting story of a southern town gone mad.

In my opinion, by far the best story in this collection is “Augury” by J. Erin Sweeney. (If your name is Sweeney, is your story more likely to be selected?) "Augury" is a fantastic fable that can be read as a morality play on environmental sustainability, cross-cultural fascination, and even our simultaneous fascination with wisdom bearers (religious, intellectual, popular or otherwise) and our desire to destroy them. It is extremely rich.

McSweeney’s 29 also contains short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Yannick Murphy, and the fascinating Blaze Ginsberg.

22) Slam - a novel by Nick Hornby (309 pages)
Prior to reading Slam, I had read everything else by Nick Hornby: all four of his novels, his memoir, the collection of shorts stories he edited, and his four collections of critical essays on books and music. In the last book by Hornby that I read (see #15 below) he talked about the joy of reading young adult fiction. That inspired me to pick up his own work of young adult fiction.

If there ever was a contest for an alternate title for Slam, I would suggest, Are You There Tony Hawk? It's Me, Sam. Sam is a British 15 year old whose world revolves around skateboarding and graphic design, but mostly skateboarding. He idolizes legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk to such a degree that he actually carries on conversations with the poster of Hawk in his bedroom. Hawk, or TH, as Sam calls him, always answers with quotes from his autobiography that sometimes make sense but often don't.

The plot revolves around Sam getting his girlfriend Alicia pregnant and then having to grow up way too fast as a result. Hornby seems to do a remarkable job writing from the point of view of a teenage boy, but Sam's thoughts are often addled and annoying. At the same time, Hornby deserves praise for treating a serious subject without heavy-handed moralism or glorification.

I can't end this brief review without mentioning what I thought was the most hilarious passage in the book. At the birthing class that Sam and Alicia attend they are told to bring music to help them to relax at the hospital. Sam's CD begins with Green Day's punk anthem "American Idiot." Alicia does not stand for this and orders that her CD be put on. The first track: Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back." I can't remember when I last laughed as hard.

21) Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster - by Jon Krakauer (300 pages)
In 2005, the documentary movie March of the Penguins, became an unexpected summer blockbuster, eventually grossing $77.5 million domestically and making it the second highest earning documentary film of all time. (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is the top earner of all time.) The success of March of the Penguins has been attributed to all sorts of factors. Some claim its success was due to its cinematic beauty. Other claimed that the story of the penguins connected, on some deep level, with our own humanity. Still others recognized a degree of social commentary within the film. These claims may all be true, but many documentaries are cinematically beautiful, offer us a deeper understanding of our own humanity, and provide clever social observations but don’t succeed commercially. I have to admit that I’ve never seen March of the Penguins, but I’ve always had my own idea about why it was successful. On a really hot summer day maybe it was just enjoyable to sit in a theater and watch icy Antarctica for an hour and a half.

I shared with a friend that I thought Into Thin Air would be a good summer read for the same reason. My friend laughed and told me that with all of the solar radiation and reflected sunlight that the climbers on Everest get hit with, that overheating is a problem. I was discouraged and didn’t pick up the book for another couple of years. However, year after year I’ve gone into Borders Books and seen Krakauer’s account of a 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest that claimed the lives of 9 climbers prominently displayed and decided I had to read it. My friend was wrong and I was right. Everest has a lot more cold on it than hot. Frostbite and hypothermia abound.

My impressions of the book are mixed. I generally enjoy books about risky adventures. By no means was this a bad book; in fact, I had trouble putting it down. It was a page-turner. And, at the same time, I wanted more. Traveling on a commercial expedition, Krakauer was climbing with strangers and it shows. There is little character development. I yearned for Krakauer to be more reflective about the disaster. His analysis often came across as hollow.

My other impression of the book is that Jon Krakauer is an odd writer. In describing the world of high-stakes climbing, he is rigorous about explaining the relevant terminology. He clearly explains the technology, the techniques, and the insider lingo of mountaineering. And yet, other parts of his writing give the impression that he should have fired his editor.

Are the shadowy canyons on the side of Mt. Everest really crepuscular? Is there an uglier word in the English language than crepuscular? Is one of his fellow climbers really obdurate? Couldn’t he at least be obstinate, or maybe just stubborn? And although it is technically correct to refer to a moon as gibbous, does anybody actually refer to the moon this way? And, speaking of said moon, did its light really obviate the need for the climbers to use their headlamps? He could have just written something like, “The moon, though not even full, still provided enough light that, when it reflected off the ice and snow, was so bright that our headlamps were not needed.”

This last critique of mine may seem too heavy handed. I fully admit that in the past I have written about writers whose large vocabularies I’ve loved (see David Foster Wallace.) Yet, Jon Krakauer is describing a life and death adventure 29,000 feet above sea level, where hypoxia slows down the brains of the climbers, causing them to lose their decision-making ability and, at times, even consciousness. Who knew that memory of SAT vocabulary words resided in the deepest recesses of the reptilian parts of the brain?

20) Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science - non-fiction by Dr. Atul Gawande (257 pages)
About ten months ago I read another collection (look for entry #24) of Dr. Gawande's essays, Better, and gave it mixed reviews. What had led me to pick up his writing was an essay entitled alternately "The Learning Curve" and "The Education of a Knife" that had appeared in the New Yorker and a friend had sent to me. That piece remains one of the best essays I've ever read.

Complications is Dr. Gawande's first published collection of essays and begins with his essay "The Education of a Knife." From there he goes on to write a number of essays about the fallibility of surgeons, the mystery of medicine, and praticing this life-or-death work as a surgeon while living amidst uncertainty.

His essays include numerous keen observations and look at difficult dilemmas through a multi-faceted approach. However, I find that what makes these essays so readable is not always the depth of his analysis but the gripping medical cases he relates to serve as examples for pondering his profession. A few of the essays appear to be little more than filler. I could have done without his travelogue of attending a convention of surgeons and his goofy essay about a night on call during a Friday the 13th that is also a full moon. (Surely, he must have better uses for his time.) However, some of the essays are just stunning. His essay on pain management is fascinating as is his essay about the rehabilitation of surgeons and doctors who serially malpractice. The latter essay should be required reading for anyone in a profession that polices its own standards.

I am equally impressed that Dr. Gawande would dare tackle the subject matter in his essay entitled, "Whose Body is it, Anyway?" He boldly attempts to strike a middle ground between a school of thought that declares absolute patient autonomy and a different school that looks fondly upon the days of paternalistic medicine. Many will surely disagree with his conclusions, but I have to give him credit for going down this road.

Even though I was hard on Better, I'm a lot less critical of Complications. I'm not entirely certain this has to do with one book being better than the other. I think Dr. Atul Gawande is brave to reveal as much as he does about his profession and its failings and limitations. It inspires me to be more reflective about my own.

19) The House on Mango Street - a novel by Sandra Cisneros (108 pages)
A couple of weeks ago while I was in San Francisco my girlfriend Anne got to go hear one of her favorite authors speak here in Kansas City. Upon returning Anne loaned me a copy of The House on Mango Street. It was good to pick up a book quite different from one I would usually choose to read.

Through a series of short, poetic vignettes, Cisneros tells the story of a year in the life of an 8th grade girl named named Esperanza Cordero whose family has just moved into a dilapidated house with crumbling bricks in Chicago. Too old for the games of girlhood and not ready for the world of adulthood, Esperanza describes her home that is not a home and an identity that lacks easy definitions. Though she lives closely with the others who inhabit the impoverished area of her city, she describes them with keen observations that are offered at somewhat of a detached distance.

18) Boomsday - satirical fiction by Christopher Buckley (318 pages)
This is not at all what I needed: an enjoyable, hilarious, light, page-turner by an author I've never read before... an author with 11 other books all of which I am going to have to read at some point.

Boomsday begins with a teaser, an account of 20-somethings demolishing a golf course at a retirement center in Florida. Then the action abruptly switches to a small Public Relations firm in Washington D.C. where junior partner Cassandra Devine is working to save the image of a hospital CEO who took millions in bonus money while his hospitals hemorrhaged hundreds of millions of dollars and where conditions had deteriorated so badly that patients were being duct-taped to beds and wheelchairs.

Meanwhile, the US economy was going down the toilet due to the fact that the social security system was in shambles. Devine, a rising PR star by day and a Red Bull fueled political blogger by night, comes up with an idea to right the US economy. What if Baby Boomers are given incentives to commit suicide as a way to fix the economy? When Cassandra introduces the idea of "voluntary transitioning" as a supreme act of patriotism, all hell breaks loose.

Soon the plot takes off featuring a handsome, blue-blooded Senator from Massachusetts, a scheming President and his dirty-dealing advisor, a Californian billionaire, a ultra-moralistic Evangelical celebrity, and an ambitious priest. Their lives are all strangely interconnected.

Boomsday is cynical, satirical, and laugh-out-loud funny. Though written in 2007 it is also oddly prescient given the financial news of the last 8 months. And, by the way, the author is the son of the late conservative commentator William Buckley. Christopher caused a stir when he endorsed Obama for President.

17) Get a God!: More Conversations with Coyote - by Webster Kitchell (83 pages)
Along with Coyote Says, Kent McCusick also loaned me his copy of Get a God! I brought this third and final collection of Web Kitchell's sermons featuring his theological conversations with the Native American trickster god with me when I spent this past week at the Green Gulch Zen Center just north of San Francisco.

I went to Green Gulch for my final meeting with the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Executive Committee. One of the responsibilities we pass among us on the Executive Committee is that of sending sympathy letters to the surviving family members of ministers who have passed away. I have done so from mid-January through this past week. One of the letters I wrote was to the family of The Reverend Webster Kitchell, who died on February 9, 2009. At our gathering we begin each day with worship and it is the role of the letter-writer to lead a memorial service honoring colleagues who have died since our last meeting. I had always wanted to read Kitchell's books so I read two of his three books of Coyote sermons in order to prepare for leading a short worship service. During the service I used the following quote:

“The nature of the universe is change and process. Thus, existence is open to creativity and differentiation and opportunities and possibilities and accidents and excitement. The alternative would be to have a rigidly controlled universe, one with the stars all laid out in a four-square pattern. Some humans are manifestations of a kind of awareness that likes that sort of thing. You and I are manifestations of an awareness that likes the opportunity to change and grow and fashion ideas and things and relationships…. If you really lived the way life ought to be lived, you would be full of gratitude for the miraculous surprised of having been invited to the party. You didn’t earn this life. You just happened.”


16) Coyote Says... Mores Conversations With God's Dog - by Webster Kitchell (91 pages)
Thanks to Kent McCusick, the intern minister at All Souls UU Church in Kansas City, I got my hands on this collection of fun theological essays by the late Rev. Webster Kitchell. In these reflections Kitchell puts himself into conversations with Coyote, a trickster god and minor deity. These reflections are irreverent, clever, and a joy to read.

15) Shakespeare Wrote for Money - essays by Nick Hornby (121 pages)
Shakespeare... is the third and final anthology of collected columns Hornby wrote for The Believer magazine, which is published by McSweeney's press and is the only thing they put out that I do not subscribe to. (In 2007 I read the previous two anthologies of Hornby's columns.)

The columns are formulaic in a comforting way; he begins each column by listing the books he has bought and the books he has read in the previous month. Then he proceeds to write about the books he has read. The Believer has a policy of only giving positive reviews so apart from Hornby occasionally referencing an "unmentionable new novel by an unnamed popular writer" he actually likes all the books he writes about. Interestingly, I consider this collection of his columns to be his best, but it is also clear that he is tiring of the column. So I am both saddened and understanding that he has concluded this project.

By the way, his original two books of columns for the believer were the inspiration behind my blogging about my reading habits just as his collection of essays on songs for the book Songbook was the inspiration of my 52 Songs in 52 Weeks essay project.

14) One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories In A Small Box - by Sarah Manguso, Dave Eggers, and Deb Olin Unferth (275 pages)
From the amazing folks at McSweeney's comes this creative collection of writings: a box containing three short books which contain 145 very short stories.

Sarah Manguso's contribution to the collection is tremendous. Her stories are the shortest, each only a single paragraph in length. Her stories touch on repetitive themes such as standing on the edge of the woods with a sense of foreboding and embarrassing memories from early and late childhood. Because her stories are so short, I will share my favorite:

"I listen to music as I work, sometimes taking breaks to sing, depending on my mood and on the songs I choose from the small device that plays any of five thousand songs according to my wishes. I change the music frequently, sensing what I need to hear in order to work most efficiently. Sometimes I see a deer walk past the window in front of my desk. It is always a lovely surprise to see a deer as I work. My fingers move fast on the keyboard and on the tiny controls of the small device. In my distraction as I work and twiddle with the two machines I think for a moment I would like to press the button that makes the deer walk by."

Dave Eggers' short book contains stories that are between one and three pages in length. His stories are random, sarcastic, and often quite funny. Two of my favorite stories in his collection deal, respectively, with how record players work and bears debating the literary works of E. M. Forster, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.

Deb Olin Unferth's contribution, Minor Robberies, contains mostly stories that are three to five pages in length. Unlike the novel of hers (see #11 below) that I read earlier this year, Unferth seems to shine brightest in the short story format. Her prose is highly original and unlike any author I've ever read. She is at her best in stories that focus on a single object, such as the mysterious container in her story "The Container" and the spice rack in her story "The Present of Concern." However, I think I enjoyed the story "Single Percent" the most of any in her collection.

13) When Moses Meets Aaron: Staffing and Supervision in Large Congregations - by Susan Beaumont & Gil Rendle (253 pages)
The subtitle explains exactly what this book is about. If you are curious, the title is based on the stoy of the Exodus. While wandering in the desert, Moses displayed the leadership skills of developing and articulating the vision whereas Aaron was the manager, in charge of making sure that the vision was carried out within the organization (tribes.) The book is pretty much what it sounds like.

12) Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance - by Barack Obama (453 pages)
"There is no good excuse for not having read that book." Truthfully, I feel this way about literally hundreds of books. Dreams from My Father was one of those. At this precise moment in time, knowing how history has unfolded, this book reads very differently than it must have in 1995(!) when it was first published. At that time Obama was only 34 and had not yet served in public office. It was published almost a full decade before his DNC speech that made the world sit up and take notice. This book is extremely impressive for the depth of its insights, for the breadth of Obama's experiences, and for its smooth prose. What more is there to say?

11) Vacation - a novel by Deb Olin Unferth (209 pages)
After reading Deb Olin Unferth's bizarre three page short story in McSweeney's 18, I wondered what reading a novel by her would be like. Fortunately, McSweeney's ran a fantastic promotion late last year and I was able to pick up Unferth's novel, Vacation. Vacation is an odd book that will only be enjoyed by those who love experimental prose. It is a story of leaving and following, of seeking and being sought. Her prose is both minimalist and untraditionally descriptive. This book also contains marital strife, dolphins, brain tumors, Nicaragua, earthquakes, and oddly shaped heads.

10) Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers Are Shaping Unitarian Universalism - edited by Tamara Lebak & Bret Lortie (162 pages)
You can read my thoughts about this book here.

9) Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama - by Tim Wise (143 pages)
I am writing this entry on Saturday, 2/21. On 2/17 I went to hear Tim Wise lecture at Johnson County Community College and bought two copies of this, his newest book: one copy for me and a copy for my girlfriend Anne that I asked Tim Wise to autograph for her. In the early fall we went to hear Wise lecture at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

In Between Barack and a Hard Place Tim Wise gives us a short book that capitalizes on the Obama presidency to make contemporary observations about race in America. In many ways the book feels rushed and hastily written, probably because it is. But the book also justifies the saying: "there is no time like the present." It has many important things to say, namely that although a person of color was elected President of the USA, the reality of the lives of the 100 million or so persons of color living in the United States did not change markedly between November 3, 2008 and November 5, 2008.

In an opening section on race in America at the present time Wise relies on a heavy dose of statistics that, while not making for page turning reading, does prove that racism is still alive and kicking in America. The latter half of the book is much more engrossing with a vivid discussion of subtler forms of racism that may live in the hearts and minds of many and even most of the whites who voted for Obama. The book concludes with a bold call for "audacious truth" (because audacious hope is not enough) and white responsibility.

If you have the chance to listen to Tim Wise lecture, do not miss it. You will not be disappointed. If you've never heard him, this book will give you a little taste of what he is about.

8) State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America - essays edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (585 pages)
As a part of the New Deal the Work Projects Administration (WPA) put more than 6,000 writers to work producing hundreds of books and pamphlets about our nation's places including guides to each of the 50 states. The list of contributors included Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Stegner, Studs Terkel, and Richard Wright.

Seventy years later, State by State is the modern, miniature version of this project. Anne, my girlfriend, gave me this book as a Christmas present and I have been slowly savoring it over the past two months. The 50 writers contributing essays on the 50 states are a who's who of contemporary writing. Contributors include Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Patchett, Dave Eggers, Ha Jin, Sarah Vowell, and Rick Moody.

That is just some of the fun though. Some of the contributors are known for things besides writing. John Hodgman of The Daily Show with John Stewart writes a hilarious essay on Massachusetts. Food celebrity Anthony Bourdain reminisces about childhood in New Jersey. Alexander Payne, the director of movies such as Sideways and Election, takes us through his home state of Nebraska. Carrie Brownstein, a former member of the band Sleater-Kinney, describes Washington state.

In these essays the writers struggle between representing their state in broad strokes or narrowly focusing on one particular element. Two of my of my favorite of the more narrow essays were Dagoberto Gilb's description of the corn industry in Iowa from the perspective of Latino campesinos (farm workers) and NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden's portrait of St. Lous, Missouri from the perspective of the large Bosnian community there.

This anthology includes diverse voices. The writers are male and female, gay and lesbian and straight. They are white, black, latino and latina, Chinese, Jewish, Indian, Muslim of African descent, and Korean. Graphic novelists Alison Bechdel and Joe Sacco contribute cartoon essays on the states of Vermont and Oregon respectively.

This book is an absolute treasure. It is laugh-out-loud funny. It is also often painfully sad as the writers describe environmental degradation, the genocide of Native Americans, and disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Tellingly, many of the writers make mention of the growing homogeneity in our nation, referencing suburban sprawl and strip mall culture. Ann Patchett puts another spin on it when she writes, of Nashville, Tennessee, "If the growth and modernization of a city means you get rid of the Klan but have to endure bad condos, I say so be it." Her essay is one of the shining stars of the collection.

I can't say enough about this book but I should probably conclude by naming my three favorite essays. Charles Bock's essay about Nevada tells the story of growing up as the son of owners of a pawn shop in Las Vegas. Lydia Millet's extraordinary essay about Arizona is situated at a local gas station on the outskirts of Tucson. Her essay captures the stunning beauty of the Sonoran Desert and the human footprint upon the land. My favorite essay, though, was Kevin Brockmeier's creative essay about a bumper sticker battle in Little Rock, Arkansas.

7) Even Now - poems by Susanna Lang (66 pages)
Three weeks ago Susanna Lang came to the church to speak and read poetry at our morning forum. She is a Unitarian Universalist, poet, activist, mother, and public school teacher from Chicago. This collection is published by Backwaters Press.

While I found some of the poems difficult to access, others were really stunning. I especially enjoyed the collection's first poem, entitled "Chairs" as well as the poems "Misplaced" and "Canvassing on Troy Avenue." Her poems cover a diverse range of subject matter, from gardening and the relationship between nature and urban landscapes, to birds, to baseball, to motherhood, and more, but my favorite poems by Susanna Lang were the ones that dealt with our country at war and with becoming engaged in politics. In these poems her voice is clearest.

6) Drink, Play, F@#k - satirical fiction by Andrew Gottlieb (195 pages)
The imaginations of writers have long given us versions of classic stories through an alternative perspective. Anita Diamant's The Red Tent tells the stories of Genesis from the perspective of Jacob's daughter, Dinah. In Ahab's Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund gives us an look at Moby Dick from the point of view of a female protagonist. And, let's not forget Wicked, the retelling of the Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the witch. (Note: I have not read any of these.)

If you read my book list from 2007 you will learn that I panned Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. When I saw the cover of DPF at an airport bookstore, I knew I had to read it. If you are familiar with Gilbert's spiritual memoir of spending a year in Italy, India, and Bali, you know that she begins the book by leaving her husband, who seemed like a pretty decent guy. In DPF we learn about her husband's search for healing and happiness. He spends the year drinking in Ireland, gambling in Vegas, and looking for romance in Thailand.

OK, the book is completely sophomoric although it certainly isn't dirty. It is funny, not to mention a great spoof. If you disliked Eat, Pray, Love you might enjoy Gottlieb's humorous send up of it.

5) Ballistics - poems by Billy Collins (110 pages)
Billy Collins is both one of the finest and the most popular poets writing today. However, I have to say that I was disappointed with his latest collection. Many of the poems in this collection seem flat. Additionally, by locating some of the poems in Europe, others in the United States, and still others in the Far East, the collection lacks a sense of cohesion. To be charitable, Collins' earlier collections set such a high standard that I can forgive his failing to live up to that standard each time. It is like a great actor getting handed a lousy role.

That said, there are several noteworthy poems in this collection. My favorites were: "Baby Listening", "Le Chien", "Tension," "The Golden Years," and, especially, "Hippos on Holiday."

4) Boards that Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations (Third Edition) - by John Carver (400 pages)
One of the pledges that I've made to myself in 2009 is to read more books about governance and leadership. I can't really say that reading Carver was fun exactly. You'd have to be a much bigger wonk for this sort of stuff than I to actually enjoy it. Yet despite Carver's odd prose and his addiction to exclamation points this is an amazing book. If you've ever served on a board or ever worked for an organization that had a board, you will never see board work and governance the same way. I am a Policy Governance convert. I have seen the light.

(By the way, he actually uses a word that I have never seen before: "farrago." The word means "a confused mixture." He gets huge vocab points for this.)

3) White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son - non-fiction by Tim Wise (200 pages)
During the fall of 2008 I went with my girlfriend Anne to see Tim Wise lecture at UMKC. We will be seeing him speak again in a few weeks at Johnson County Community College. Anne gave me this book for Christmas.

Tim Wise is a white anti-racist activist, educator, speaker, and writer. His prose is conversational and intense, matching the intensity he brings as a speaker. He makes the concept of white privilege easy to understand. He brings the idea home. Even if you think of yourself as open-minded, progressive, and as someone who is not racist, Tim Wise's analysis will shock and challenge you. In particular, his chapter on "Collaboration" is stunning. Equally as powerful is his chapter on "Loss." The section of this chapter entitled "White Privilege and the Danger of Frustrated Expectations" is one of the most important things I have ever read about white racial identity. More than that, the analysis in this section is tremendously relevant to the economic struggles that our nation faces in January of 2009. I cannot more strongly recommend these three short pages. [Wise's analysis later informed this sermon.]

2) Going Out Dancing - poems by Ric Masten (95 pages)
1) The Last Lecture - by Randy Pausch (208 pages)

I read both of these books in preparation for my sermon on January 11. Both books are written by Unitarian Universalists who died from cancer in 2008. Both books deal directly with mortality and all of the attendant questions that come along with realizing that you do not have long to live. Reading these two books side by side provided an interesting contrast. Masten, a poet, approaches death poetically. Pausch, a computer scientist, approaches dying logically, as a problem to be solved. Of course, this is a great simplification. Both books are far more about how to live than they are about how to die.

Total pages read: 10,963

Quick Links to Reading Lists

This post contains links to my annual reading list.

Here you'll find a list of books read in 2009.

Here is my anotated list of books read in 2008. Also, here is a quick summary of 2008.

Here is my list of books read in 2007. Also check out the essay on my reading in 2007.

Here is a list of books read in 2006.

Reading in 2008: The Year in Review

With 2008 coming to a close, here is a quick glance at my year in reading:

In 2008 I completed 44 books totaling 9,941 pages. Regrettably, that is 9 fewer books and over 1,600 fewer pages than I read the previous year.

In case you are interested, here is the breakdown:

I read 14 books by women, 23 books by men, and 7 books of collected writings that included both male and female contributors.

As for the types of books I read, these included: 6 novels, 14 works of non-fiction, 4 books of poetry, 5 collections of short stories, 2 graphic novels, and 13 religiously-themed books. You can read about these books in more detail here.

My five favorite books that I read in 2008 were:

5) Bowl of Cherries by Millard Kaufman
4) The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
3) What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland
2) The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson
1) The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian


From time to time on this blog I like to mention movies, concerts, and other arts events I have attended.

Last Sunday (12/28) I finally went to see the movie Milk, a biopic of Harvey Milk starring Academy Award winner Sean Penn. Several scenes in the movie caused me to tear up and I left the theater in reflective silence.

Released 30 years after Milk's murder in 1978, I was left to ponder both the significant gains made in these three decades as well as the slowness of the moral arc of the universe in its bending towards justice.

It has been literally a lifetime for me since Harvey Milk's election to public office. It has been half a lifetime since the rights of GLBT persons became a justice issue close to my heart...

... half a lifetime since I was a founding member of my high school's Gay/Straight Alliance.
... half a lifetime since I marched in the first ever Gay/Straight Youth Pride Parade in Boston.
... half a lifetime since the other high school students coaxed me up in front of the crowd on the State House steps in Boston and I led the crowd in an impromptu cheer that won our group a beatufil rainbow flag that was then proudly displayed in an awards case at our high school.

Walking out of Milk during the closing credits I also was struck by how little the rhetoric of those opposed to GLBT rights has changed in my lifetime. The footage of Anita Bryant's hate-speech does not seem like a clip from the past, in the way that showing a clip of Bucky Dent's 1978 homerun against the Boston Red Sox is clearly a flashback. Her words, sadly, are too modern, too indistinguishable from the words of a James Dobson or a Pat Robertson or a letter to the editor in the Kansas City Star.

Leaving the film I was aware that today's America continues to put the rights of GLBT persons on the ballot, making what is supposed to be inalienable a matter of public opinion. But I also walked out with hope. I walked out with more than hope. I walked out sure that the side of justice, human rights, and human dignity will prevail, just that the victory, like all victories of this kind, will come too slowly.

Sermon: "All I Want for Christmas..." (Delivered 12-21-08)

Desire. Yearning. To wish or to want. To pant or to pine. To hanker. When desire is misdirected we call it “coveting.” Coveting, by the way, is a violation of the tenth commandment. It is related to feelings that can become the dark side of desire: jealousy, envy, and greed.

Desire, wanting, craving: these feelings are often so tied up with the Holidays. Often, desire is expressed in ways that are cute and whimsical and harmless. One novelty record of old declares, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” In another recording, Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks sings, “Want a plane that loops the loop. I still want a hula hoop.”

Of course, this is not just a Christmas thing. Having grown up in a town with as many synagogues as Catholic churches, my gentile peers and I were sometimes gently teased about how getting presents on eight days was much better than getting presents on one day. Of course, that may reflect a Protestant-ized version of Hanukkah. And, these expressions of desire for stuff are not purely the outgrowth of industrialization and modern materialism. Marking the shortest day of the year and sparsest season with celebrations of excess and overindulgence is a tradition that far predates Black Friday. Thinking back to Roman celebrations like Saturnalia, these celebrations likely predate monotheism itself.

And, if this mixture of Christmas and Hanukkah and Solstice were not enough, just throw in the New Year as well and with it the ritual acts of taking stock of our lives and rededicating ourselves to changes, improvements, resolutions, and so on.

Though I am speaking about wanting and desire, this will not be a sermon about materialism, per se. Dispensing commentary on materialism often seems to me to be too obvious, too trite. But the subject of materialism may be more interesting this year as we live in a nation where, on one hand, an increasing many want for the bare essentials, where anxiety grips large numbers of people, and where, on the other hand, the prices of things seem to be free falling all around us. (Have you seen all those sales?) Our individual patterns of consumption may change, perhaps drastically, over the coming months and years. It will be interesting to observe whether the nature of our desires changes as well.

And though I don’t want to get all hung up on stuff and things, material items often provide us with a good lens for understanding the nature of desire. The second noble truth, as taught by the Buddha, is that desire is the root of all suffering. The third noble truth of Buddhism teaches that the way to end suffering is to stop desiring, to practice detachment from worldly things. This principle, by the way, is illustrated in that classic treatment of Buddhist philosophy. I am referring to the movie, A Christmas Story.

Follow me here. All through the movie the character of Ralphie wants nothing more than a Red Ryder BB gun. He is warned that desire is the root of all suffering; “you’ll shoot your eye out kid.” Still, he persists in this craving, subjecting himself to all manner of suffering and humiliation until, finally, he receives the longed for gift, proceeds to break his glasses, and, in the commotion that ensues, the Christmas dinner is devoured by a pack of neighborhood dogs. In the last scene, the family detaches from their desire for a picture perfect Christmas and, instead, goes to a Chinese restaurant. In doing this they symbolically renounce Western materialism in favor of an enlightened state of non-being as taught in Eastern religious traditions. (This is why it is no fun to watch movies with me.)

All kidding aside, this morning I want to talk about desire. This will not be a morality play. I will not condemn all desires as dangerous temptations. I will say that desire, when it takes the form of envy, jealousy, greed, or covetousness, can have harmful effects on us. This morning, I want to examine desire through the lens of contemporary theology, Biblical stories, and in light of recent developments in our society. Finally, I want to speak to you forthrightly about my desires as they relate to this religious community, what I desire for each person who takes part in this church.

In his newest book, Love and Death, the Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church speaks of how to live well, which is to live in such a way that your life proves worth dying for. Although he is a minister blessed with tremendous skills in writing and oratory, Church’s instructions on how to live well prove quite simple. He summarizes these instructions in three sentences which amount to just twelve words: “Be who you are. Want what you have. Do what you can.”

“Be who you are. Want what you have. Do what you can.” I want to propose to you that all three of these are, in fact, hard to achieve. They are all intense challenges. But, two out of the three don’t sound that hard on the surface. “Be who you are.” Oh, that isn’t too challenging. Obviously I am who I am. “Do what you can.” We can all point to things we do and declare, “See. Look at this thing I am doing. I am doing what I can.” I think Forrest Church has something more significant in mind here. But that middle instruction sounds difficult: “Want what you have.”

“Want what you have.” Excuse me! Are you talking to me?

And for those of you who are wondering exactly who the guy is who is telling us to want what he have, Forrest Church did not write these words as the leading voice of a historic, albeit small, religious movement, or as the minister of one of its most prestigious churches. No, in Love and Death, he writes as a 59 year old man who has suffered a recurrence of esophageal cancer, was given a terminal diagnosis, and was told that chances were not great that he would live to celebrate his 60th birthday or to see his daughter’s wedding which was scheduled for the month after he was to turn 60. In fact, he did live to see both, is still alive, but these things were not likely when he wrote the following,
Did I want cancer? Of course not, but to obsess on the bad things that befall us squeezes out a just appreciation for the good. The time we waste on wishful thinking or regret detracts from the time we might devote to being grateful for all that is ours, here and now, to savor and embrace. When I was sick I remembered to want nothing more than the caring affection of those who loved me. Wanting what I had, my prayers were answered.
And I wonder: how many of us can actually claim, truly and honestly, to want what we have. The words may roll easily from our lips. But our lips do not always speak the truth that lies in our heart. And that truth is that we often do not want what we have. How often do we say, or think, “I want my back to stop hurting.” “I want this loneliness to go away.” “I want to find love again.” “I wish I had a house like theirs.” “I want to have children.” “I want to get that raise or that promotion.” “I want my finances to look like they were back in July.” How often do we stew? Fantasize? Compare ourselves with others? If we were really determined to want what we have, we might find that actually wanting what we have is a lot harder than we think.

Dr. Seuss, who some consider a theologian in his own right, offered the famous couplet that, “Christmas isn’t something that you buy at the store / Christmas, it seems, means a little bit more.” One of the great paradoxes is that so much of the modern observance of Christmas in our culture is so centered on desire when “desire” is a feeling that is difficult to locate within the birth narrative of Jesus of Nazareth.

If you were directing this play the motivation you would give to your actors would be fear and awe and loyalty and wonder, peace and hope and joy and love. Desire doesn’t really enter the picture until much later. Decades pass between the second chapter of Matthew when the magi leave and the fourth chapter of Matthew when Jesus is tempted in the desert. It is striking to me just how far removed desire is from Jesus’ birth narrative.

Turning from the Biblical tradition to the present day, I find myself thinking of these ideas of temptation, desire, and longing in light of current events, in light of the economy, and in light of the kinds of impact those of us here this morning may be feeling.

It is so hard to challenge aspects of the culture in which we live. It is especially hard to challenge the things that are convenient, pleasant, and enjoyable. The life to which some of us may have become accustomed may have been just a temporary illusion. Our own expectations for what our lives would be like may not materialize.

So I return to my original questions: How is our relationship with our own desires? What role does desire play in our lives? For those of us who have had to radically readjust what we imagined our lives would look like, how does that feel? How many of us can honestly stand here today and say, “I want what I have”?

Coming to Kansas City from Massachusetts one of my earliest moments of adjustment was to the way shop clerks normally speak to people. I literally stood dumbfounded the first time a person at a bakery or coffee shop asked me what I needed. I was used to, “May I help you?” I was used to, “What would you like?” And, I stepped in front of the counter about to order a coffee and a cookie and was asked, “What do you need?” It was like I had been asked what the meaning of life was. It was like being asked if I had proof of God’s existence. I walked in through the door of the shop wanting a cookie and a small coffee, a feel good pick-me-up of sugar and caffeine in the afternoon, and then I was asked, “What do you need?” Was I being accused? Was I being judged? I was tempted to reply, “You know, I don’t actually need either the cookie or the coffee. These are not things I need. In fact, this is a moment of simple luxury. I desire that cookie. I covet that coffee. I yearn and pine and hanker, but by no means do I need them.” Of course, I didn’t say any of this. “May I please have a cup of coffee and one of those cookies?” I said.

I am not an enlightened bodhisattva. In my life there are things that I desire. That I want. I like to think that all my desires are only for things that are good, that my desires are enlightened, and that I want only things that are good for me and for others. But I know that self-deception rides shotgun to desire.

Near the turning of the New Year all of the members of this church community will receive a letter from me. Part of the letter will include a list of things that I desire not from you, but for you.

I desire for each person here a regular spiritual practice for sustenance and renewal [to borrow language from one of my colleagues] and that leads to a grateful heart and an expansive capacity for compassion and love.

I desire for each person here to develop a sense of their own ministry, and the ability to say, “In my life I feel called to do and to be. I feel empowered and equipped and supported by my church to live this calling.”

I desire that each person comes to feel that participation in this church community assists them in discovering their own spiritual practice and their own ministry.

Finally, I desire that each person here makes good use of the greatest gift this church has to offer. That gift is each other. I desire that we stretch in our sense of connectedness and that we find in one another abundant blessings and gifts. I actually propose that we act out this reality by speaking with those who we do not know, by calling people in our directory with whom we are unfamiliar and saying, “We are of the same church and I don’t know you. I would like to know you.”

I believe these desires are well-intentioned, reasonable, and benevolent. And this leads me to my final point. While introspection, seeking to fully understand and grasp the nature of our desire, is an exercise that can lead us to insight and wisdom, we also need to live. Our living is circumscribed by our desires. As we examine what it is we want, let us not forget also to be who we are… or to do what we can. Amen.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Week 31: "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" by The Postal Service

My knowledge of popular music is far from encyclopedic. At the same time, it is an interesting challenge to think of different American cities and then wrack your brain trying to think of a song that prominently features that city. Of course, New York City tops the list. This 52 Songs in 52 Weeks Essay Project even includes a song about NYC. Los Angeles is not far behind. Off the top of my head I can come with songs about LA by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Decemberists, Liz Phair, and Death Cab for Cutie. (And that doesn’t even count NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Weezer’s “Beverly Hills”, or Rage Against the Machine’s “Down Rodeo.”)

There are numerous songs about San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia. I once made a mix CD for a friend featuring songs about Chicago and that was before Sufjan Stevens released two albums about the state of Illinois. It is far more interesting to think of more obscure cities with their own songs. Courtney Love sang, or rather screamed, about Olympia, Washington. Built to Spill recorded a song about Twin Falls, Idaho. Susan Werner wrote a beautiful folk song about Petaluma, California. Everclear sang about Santa Monica.

When I moved to Kansas City in 2003 I was a little distressed that the only song about KC I knew was from the musical Oklahoma! although both Omaha and Wichita are memorialized in song by the bands Counting Crows and Soul Coughing respectively.

Yet, there is probably no city more overlooked in song than our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Before I heard the song I will write about this week, I knew of only one song about D.C., “Washington D.C.” by the band The Magnetic Fields. While all publicity may be good publicity, that song seems to juxtapose the singer’s desire for her loved one with her lack of desire for the city. “It ain’t no famous name on a golden plaque that makes me ride that railroad track. It’s my baby’s kiss that keeps me coming back.”

In 2003 a “band” called the Postal Service released a splendid album entitled Give Up. The Postal Service was really a collaboration of two musicians, Ben Gibbard of the Seattle-based alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie and Jimmy Tamborello, a pioneer of electronic music based in Los Angeles who recorded under the moniker Dntel.

The first song of this album is about DC. “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” is a song filled with beauty and melancholy. The song opens with low-pitched, synthesized organ chords and then quickly adds a complex rhythm of synthesized percussion and Gibbard’s plaintive voice. Backing vocals and strings signal that this is a going to be a song of longing.

The lyrics to “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” are filled with images of impermanence. “I am a visitor here. I am not permanent.” “A stranger with your door key explaining I’m just visiting.” “The District sleeps alone tonight after the bars turn out their lights and send the autos swerving into the loneliest evening.”

Several years ago when I preached on the subject about Loneliness I chose this song as a recorded postlude. You can see the video to “The District…” here.