Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2008: A Year in Reading

I had so much fun putting together my reading list and essay for 2007, that I decided to make the 2008 list an ongoing project. So, here is how 2008 is shaping up reading-wise so far:

Books Finished

1) Bowl of Cherries - a novel by Millard Kaufman (326 pages)
Eat your heart out Holden Caulfield! This coming-of-age novel tells the tale of Judd Breslau, kicked out of the Ph.D. program in English literature at Yale at age 14. ABD (all but dissertation), Breslau takes up residence with a burned out Egyptologist, his captivating daughter, and his stable of washed up academics. Judd's life journeys then take him to Colorado, to New York City, and, finally, to an obscure Iraqi province where he awaits punishment for a capital offense. The story is witty, satirical, and epic.

What makes this story all the more remarkable is that it is the first novel by the 90 year-old Kaufman. (The dust jacket says he is at work on his second novel.) Plus, I have read only one other author, David Foster Wallace, who matches Kaufman's grand and enormous vocabulary. Bring your dictionary and prepare to be amazed. A book this unusual could only be published by the great people at McSweeney's.

2) After - poetry by Jane Hirshfield (93 pages)
I am going to say something heretical here. I like Jane Hirshfield better than Mary Oliver. While Oliver's nature poetry is about revelation, Hirshfield conceals as much as she reveals. Her poems are ethereal, beautiful, and often imbue the world with mystery. Her poems do not exclusively deal with nature, but those poems are among her best. Check out her poem: The Woodpecker Keeps Returning.

3) McSweeney's Volume 21 (279 pages)
This issue of McSweeney's featured 14 short stories, most of them loosely themed around the emergence of one's honest and authentic self (for better or for worse). Of particular note are Rajesh Parameswaran's story of a man with a fake medical practice, Christian Winn's story of a fistfight with a Mormon missionary, and especially Greg Ames' story of a mellow guy who gets more than he bargains for when he begins a relationship with a vivacious woman and tries to decide whether and how he will stand up to her dangerous ex(?)-boyfriend. Also, fantastic stories about forensic canine taxonomy in South America, haunted baby-strollers, and a hilarious Good Samaritan story involving rattlesnakes and weddings.

4) Worship that Works: Theory & Practice for Unitarian Universalists - by Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz (176 pages)
This is a book that I will post more about later as I am reviewing it for the Spring UUMA Newsletter and plan to cross-post that review on my blog. This book is the result of a sabbatical by the co-ministers of the West Shore Unitarian Church in Cleveland. They took a cross-country road-trip experiencing the best transformational worship services - both UU and non-UU - that our country has to offer and wrote this book about what they discovered. At first I wondered how they could do justice to their subject in less than 200 pages, but the book manages to be packed with substance without being dense. Of particular note were sections of the book in which they offered a theoretical and theological framework for understanding the various parts of UU liturgy, from announcements to candles of joy & concern to prayer and meditation. In writing it in a style that is accessible to lay-people, these two colleagues have done our movement a great favor!

5) Did I Say that Out Loud? - meditations by Meg Barnhouse (110 pages)
I had the pleasure of sitting next to Meg Barnhouse during the Service of the Living Tradition as last June's UUA General Assembly in Portland, Oregon. Since then, this is the second book of meditations by her that I have read. Her short pieces are usually hilarious (a meditation on the theological significance of seeing a goat riding in the back of a pickup truck) and occasionally fierce (a piece about being asked to perform a baptism for a family member at a church that is extremely sexist.) As a UU minister in South Carolina, a Southern flavor manages to creep into much of her writing. At other times, she captures odd moments perfectly well, like when she works out a deep significant meaning from a line from Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" only to discover later that she had misheard the line. One line from one of her mediations sums up this book quite nicely: "The present moment is my wealth." It is a wealth she seems completely incapable of squandering.

6) McSweeney's Volume 13 (264 pages)
OK, you shouldn't hold it against me that Volume 13 of McSweeney's was 264 pages of comics by many of today's most creative independent cartooists. After all, I am trying to read the whole McSweeney's catalogue and it would be elitist to skip this volume because it is filled with comics. Plus, there are also some incredible nuggets thrown in besides like an essay on the influence of cartooning on the abstract expressionist painter Philip Guston, an exploration of the last, unfinished Peanut's comic strip, and a piece on how Michael Chabon, author of the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, became interested in comics.

7) Letters to a Young Poet - by Rainer Maria Rilke (121 pages)
As part of my reading discipline, each year I try to read a couple of "classics" that I've never previously read. In that spirit, I picked up Rilke's most famous work, from which I've quoted innumerable times at weddings and during worship services, but never read in its entirety. I went into it expecting something transcendent and earth-shattering. It didn't live up to my lofty expectations; in fact, it was somewhat flat.

8) This Book Will Save Your Life - a novel by A.M. Homes (372 pages)
This is the sixth book I've read by A.M. Homes. The only books by her that I've not read are her two earliest novels and a travel memoir. Eventually, I plan to finish off her entire oeuvre.

While reading TBWSYL, I couldn't help imagining that some English major at UCLA or USC is working on a term paper, or maybe a thesis, in which she is contrasting this book with Michele Huneven's Jamesland. The two books are remarkably similar. Both are resurrection tales of lonely, empty, desperate lives returned to wholeness. Both are set in the City of Angels. Both feature restaurant openings. Both have threads of natural supernaturalism running through them: In Jamesland it is the ghost of William James and a recurrent deer motif. In This Book Will Save Your Life there's meditation, sinkholes, wild-fires, feral Chihuahuas, and a saber-toothed tiger roaming the city.

We should find Richard Novak (50-ish, divorced, estranged from his family, super-wealthy, and paying for all his human contact) loathsome. Instead, we find ourselves pulling for him at every turn. The author allows us to feel for a character who we would otherwise see as a stereotype.

9) The Death of Adam - essays by Marilynne Robinson (263 pages)
In honor of Women's History Month, I plan to read exclusively books by women this month with the probable exception of a volume of McSweeney's with contributions by male and female authors. I could scarcely have started with a better choice than this collection of essays on modern thought by Marilynne Robinson.

I had the great delight of meeting her in the Spring of 2006 when she spoke at a conference I attended in Iowa City, where she resides and teaches at the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop. She is an intellectual giant.

It is worth noting that 25 years passed between her debut novel, Housekeeping, and her second, the superb novel Gilead. She writes like someone who would take 25 years between novels. Each word of every essay is exact, deliberate, precise, and intentional. As a whole, these essays are indispensable to anyone who would like to be considered thoughtful about the world in which we live. Robinson's introduction is a bold and shaming essay declaring that we are ignorant about the great books that shape our world - The Bible, Calvin's The Institutes, Darwin's writings - precisely because we have not read them and permitted others' flawed interpretations of them to dominate our thinking.

She follows this by moving directly to her most important essay of the collection, a scathing critique of Darwinism that I universally recommend. In the ten subsequent essays, she rescues the term "reality" from those who use it to construct a hegemony of thought and does battle with free-market capitalism in her essay on "Family." Later essays are particularly devoted to rescuing the figure of John Calvin whose bad rap, she argues, is undeserved. Her concluding essay, "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion," is inspiring of courage.

The Death of Adam was originally published in 1998 and most of her essays were composed in the mid-90's. It has been a long decade and that pre-9/11, pre-Iraq War world seems more distant than it really is. Thus, her essays leave certain things unsaid that, had they been written yesterday, would have certainly merited comment. I am left to wonder whether Robinson would change these essays or just more strongly emphasize them if she were to revise them for the current day. Whatever she did to them would certainly be worth reading.

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you this news: today I received a box in the mail from a man named Jim McGorman who lives in Pennsylvania. Jim sold me seven out-of-print volumes of McSweeneys. Now, I've added volumes 4-10 to my collection. They are beautiful! Volume 8 is guest edited by Paul Maliszewski, Volume 10 is guest edited by Michael Chabon, and Volume 6 contains an original CD by the band They Might Be Giants. Jim McGorman is a very cool photographer and film maker whose films have been featured on Wholphin which is put out by McSweeneys. You can watch his film, "A Taste of Nate", here. But don't confuse him with this Jim McGorman, also from Pennsylvania, who is in Avril Lavigne's back up band.]

10) Famous Fathers - short stories by Pia Z. Ehrhardt (166 pages)
I first encountered the writing of Pia Z. Ehrhardt (what a name!) in the 2004 book The Future Dictionary of America in which the words she invented were hilarious and clever. I later read her short stories in McSweeneys (where else?) This collection contains 11 short stories mostly set in and around New Orleans and mostly about various kinds of adultery and infidelity. They allow us a beautiful and disturbing glimpse into characters' longings, temptations, rationalizations, and desperations. The story "A Man" which is not set in Louisiana and does not deal with infidelity (I think) is probably one of the most haunting stories I have read in quite some time.

11) 365 Ways to Criticize the Preacher - a short novel by Pat Jobe (120 pages)
To the contrary of what I had assumed, Rev. Pat Jobe is not a woman. (Oops!) He is a United Methodist minister in North Carolina who has written a book with an irresistible title! 365 Ways... chronicles a year of diary entries by Beverly Roberts, a 70-year old church lady who hates her minister. The first entry is a litany of all the things wrong with the children's Christmas pageant. Her January 1 entry reads, "My new year's resolution is to keep Rev. Chister on his toes. If I always let him know when folks need a visit or a comforting word, he'll appreciate all my help. Or if he doesn't, he'll hear about it." By March she is cutting her pledge. By April she is trying to gather a majority of the Deacons Board to fire Rev. Chister.

There are issues of plausibility in the portrait painted of Beverly Roberts. Her racism, xenophobia, and sexism are a bit too strong. Similarly, her "conversion" raises the question of how people actually do change their ways. Do changes happen suddenly or gradually? Are there miraculous transformations or do changes happen only over a period of time and with lots of effort?

Despite its many shortcomings, 365 Ways... is a valuable reminder of how anger, meanness, and destructive behaviors so often stem from our own unresolved pain and trauma.

12) Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 - a history by Cynthia Grant Tucker (240 pages)
In preparation for my March 16th Women's History Month sermon I read this history of midwestern women who were Unitarian ministers in the late 19th Century. My sermon contains a lot more information about this book, but let me just make one comment: as a UU living in the Midwest this book described theological tensions and social realities that I still recognize today. Our history does help us to understand ourselves.

13c) McSweeney's Volume 26: Where to Invade Next (80 pages)
The 26th volume of McSweeney's arrived in three pieces. It contained two booklets of short-stories and a hard-bound book(let) bearing the title Where to Invade Next. The epigraph is a quote from General Wesley Clark:
"About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, 'Sir, you've got to come in and talk to me a second.' I said, 'Well, you're too busy.' He said, 'No, no.' He says, 'We've made the decision we're going to war with Iraq.' This was on or about the twentieth of September...

"So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing Afghanistan. I said, 'Are we still going to war with Iraq?' And he said, 'Oh, it's worse than that.' He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, 'I just got this down from upstairs' - meaning the Secretary of Defense's office - 'today.' And he said, 'This is a memo that describes how we're going to take out seven countries in five years.'"
McSweeny's is a liberal press. Where to Invade Next is written in the voice and from the perspective of a neo-conservative Pentagon insider. It makes the case for pre-emptive war with Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea. It is a chilling read. Inside the isolated logic of this book, it seems not only wise, but imperative, to "take out" these seven countries. McSweeney's has done it again by producing an innovative and affecting piece of experimental writing.

14) Housekeeping - a novel by Marilynne Robinson (219 pages)
Written 25 years before her second novel, Gilead, Housekeeping describes the childhood of two sisters raised alternately by a grandmother, a pair of great aunts, and an aunt in the Northwest town of Fingerbone. Like everything else that Marilynne Robinson writes, this novel features her always meticulous language. It is as if every single word is intentionally and carefully placed on the page. (A random side-note: While reading it, I thought often of my visit to Kansas City's Steamship Arabia museum.)

13a & 13b) McSweeney's 26 (235 pages)
As a companion to Where to Invade Next (see 13c above) McSweeney's 26 also contained two volumes of short stories. Both volumes contain present-day short stories but are packaged to model World War II-era Armed Services Editions released by the Council of Books in Wartime. (During the 1940's more than 1,300 pocket sized titles were released and there is even an account of a soldier who had been shot in the ankle who pulled out his armed services edition of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop while waiting for help to arrive. Who knew?) Each story is also fronted by a reproduction of a winning work of art entered into the National Army Arts Contest in 1945. (Again, who knew?)

In my opinion, the best of the featured short stories are "Porcus Omnivorus" - a tale about an unusual encounter by a pair of Bosnian Muslims who have moved to the United States, "Moving Crucifixion" - a story of internet dating deceit in the United Arab Emirates, and "How Jesus Comes" - the story of a highschool track & field team's encounter with a tornado in 1976.

15) Coyotes – by Lauray Yule (61 pages)
In mid-April I got to spend a week in the high desert of New Mexico. I was meeting with the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association Executive Committee at Ghost Ranch, now a Presbyterian retreat center and once home to Georgia O’Keefe. My time in the Southwest was very enjoyable and included the opportunity to see wildlife such as mule deer, elk, wild turkey, as well as a wide array of bird species. On top of this, the land was simply breathtaking.

As a souvenir I bought this short book about coyotes, an animal that I became fascinated with after reading UU minister Webster Kitchell’s coyote books. One interesting factoid I learned from the book: Coyotes and badgers have been known to form cooperative hunting partnerships, combining the badgers’ excellent digging skills and the coyotes’ speed in order to catch burrowing rodents.

Unfortunately, I did not get to see any coyotes while I was in New Mexico. However, it turned out that I was an American Airlines casualty and due to flight cancellations I had to take the train home to Kansas City from Albuquerque. Riding in the lounge car, writing my sermon, I periodically gazed out the window at the spectacular terrain. In the late dusk I peered out the window and glimpsed a four-legged silvery ghost running across a field. I would like to believe it was a coyote.

And, what would a coyote be without a road-runner? I took this picture on the streets of Albuquerque a block or two from the University of New Mexico.

16) Trading Up: Why Customers Want New Luxury Goods and How Companies Create Them – a business book by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske (284 pages)
On earlier reading blogs I mentioned that I intentionally try to diversify my reading by including books from different genres in my yearly reading list. Each year I try to read at least one business book.

Why are people willing to pay 2.5 times the cost of bottle of Budweiser for a bottle of Sam Adams? Why do people pay premiums for products as diverse as wine, coffee, and beer to home appliances to cars to lingerie to golf clubs? This book chronicles the "trading up" phenomenon and the habits of consumers who purchase "New Luxury" items. The answer is more complicated than, "Well Sam Adams tastes a lot better than Bud."

Sociologically, I found this book to be fascinating. One observation is that people don't spend with consistency. People in the middle-class "trade up" in some areas and "trade down" in others. The book mentions a woman in her twenties who spends hundreds of dollars on undergarments from Victoria's Secret but buys generic in almost every other category. Some people will drive a BMW but eat Ramen noodles. The business success of ritzy companies is intimately tied to the ability to buy cheap at Wal-Mart.

At other times I cringed. The book spoke about how people are turning to expensive products in order to sooth pain and escape loneliness. One person spoke of her expensive washer and dryer this way, "They are our mechanical buddies. They have personality. It's cool when they are all lit up and you are at the end of the cycle. The washer and dryer are the domestic hub. When they are running efficiently, our lives are running efficiently. They are a part of my family." Yikes! Talk about confirming my deepest, darkest fears about materialism and consumerism.

I did have one thought all throughout reading this book. I wondered, forgive me the blasphemy of asking, if this book had any relevance to church life. If you are a person in the business world or a minister who has read this book, I'd love to ask you this question.

17) Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe - a biography by Valarie Ziegler (171 pages)
Things I knew about Julia Ward Howe before I read this book: Unitarian, author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", inventor of Mother's Day, outspoken pacifist and suffragette, wife of Samuel Gridley Howe who was famous for his work with the blind.

Things I didn't know about Julia Ward Howe until I read this book: how filled with drama her personal life was, that she forced herself to study foreign languages by tying herself to a chair, that she relaxed from the hectic demands of motherhood by reading Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason(!)

Recurring thought: If the story of the Howe family (or the Ward family) were made into a movie, it might strongly resemble the movie The Royal Tenenbaums. In fact, I would be greatly tempted to cast Anjelica Huston as Julia Ward Howe.

18) The Holy Man - spiritual writings by Susan Trott (173 pages)
My colleague Rick Davis who serves the UU congregation in Salem, Oregon introduced me to this book. It is a light read about a famous monk who lives at a hermitage on top of a mountain who dispenses wise advice from the Buddhist and Christian traditions to the throngs of pilgrims who come to seek answers to the questions of life. With a meandering, episodic plot I found it to be warm and humorous although it did leave me short of enlightenment.

19) Every War Has Two Losers – an anthology of writings on peace and war by William Stafford (164 pages)
I read this book in preparation for my Memorial Day sermon. It was my mother who influenced me to look into the writings of Stafford. She read a poem by him, "At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border" at her church's Easter sunrise service. Stafford, a Kansas native and conscientious objector during World War II, is an acclaimed poet and unusually deep thinker about the human condition.

20) American Nerd: The Story of My People - non-fiction by Benjamin Nugent (224 pages)
I had to pick up this book; I went to college with the author. (Last year, I greatly enjoyed reading his first book, a biography of Elliott Smith.) While you might assume that this book will be somewhat fluffy, this turns out not to be the case. The opening chapters feature discussions of characters in novels by Jane Austen and E.M. Forster and advance the theory that the character of the nerd was first invented by Victorian authors who worried that the rise of industrialization would bring an end to feeling. The book also contains a look at the character of the nerd through the lens of racist stereotypes and a controversial mini-essay on Asperger's syndrome. Alongside this thoughtfulness, American Nerd also manages to be fun (without poking fun) and deeply empathetic. (My only complaint is that Nugent has avoided mentioning our alma mater, Reed College, in both of his books. This seems odd because this college is relevant to the subject matter he has taken up in each of his books.)

21) What Narcissism Means to Me – poetry by Tony Hoagland (78 pages)
Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs introduced me to the poetry of Hoagland when he read Hoagland's poem "The Change" at a gathering of ministers. "The Change" is a majestic poem about the tennis star Venus Williams. This short collection of poetry is an extremely pleasant read. Hoagland is hard to pin down, striking a tone that is at some points narcissistic and at others extremely self-effacing, and usually a tad depressive, but also witty and socially conscious. What you will certainly run into is lines that take your breath away, such as in his poem "Grammar of Sparrows" where he exclaims, "As if my mood was a coastal wetlands area in need of federal protection..."

22) McSweeney's Volume 20 (199 pages)
This past volume of McSweeney's contains 13 short stories and 50 reprints of original artwork. Stories of note include one in which a father is punched in the face in Puerto Rico, one in which two characters begin a courtship in a manatee pool, one in which a man marries a tree, one in which a pair of amateur private investigators track down an innocent French ornithologist in Alabama, and one in which a Jewish man convicted of manslaughter befriends the leader of a white supremacist gang in prison.

23) The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier – by Tony Jones (242 pages)
At "Ministry Days" prior to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly I will be facilitating a collegial conversation about the intersection of Emergent Christianity and Unitarian Universalism. This topic has been of interest to me after I spent a month attending Kansas City's leading Emergent church, Jacob's Well in Westport, for one month during my vacation in the Summer of 2005. Jones' The New Christians is an introduction to the Emergent movement tracing the history, theology, philosophy, and culture of this fascinating movement. I find myself inspired and challenged by many of their ideas: a hermeneutics of humility, an ancient-future orientation, and a strong commitment to the practice of open conversation. A great book for anyone interested in acquainting themselves with the Emergent landscape.

24) Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance - non-fiction by Dr. Atul Gawande (257 pages)
I first encountered Dr. Gawande's writings when I read an essay of his that was published in the New Yorker. That essay, entitled, "The Learning Curve" or "The Education of a Knife" begins with a remarkable scene: Gawande, then a surgical resident, fumbles in attempting to place his first central line in a patient while his supervising attending doctor, a man who has performed this procedure thousands of times, observes. This example illustrates a tremendous paradox: it is in that particular patient's best interest for Gawande not to attempt the chest tube; it is in the best interest of the continued availability and advancement of medicine for Gawande to learn this procedure. The essay goes on to discuss how we learn new things and the great genius of the essay is that the topic is relevant to far more than medicine.

I picked up Better hoping for essays just as powerful. All of the essays in this collection are good, ranging in topic matter from handwashing in the hospital, to C-sections, to polio in India, to advancements in the treatment of Cystic Fibrosis. But none of these essays pack the same punch that "The Learning Curve" did.

25) The Children's Hospital - a novel by Chris Adrian (615 pages)
I first encountered the writing of Chris Adrian in McSweeney's Volume 14 which featured a haunting and inventive short-story of his. If that short story was not enough to inspire me to read this lengthy novel, then the author's bio on the back cover certainly did the trick. "Chris Adrian is the author of Gob's Grief. He recently completed a pediatric residency at the University of California, San Francisco, and is currently a student at Harvard Divinity School."

The Children's Hospital begins with a flood that submerges the entire surface of the Earth beneath 7 miles of water. The lone survivors are those persons who make up the population of a children's hospital that, with the assistance of angelic forces, is transformed into a floating fortress. From there, the story only gets weirder and weirder. If you've ever wondered what would happen if you merged Grey's Anatomy with the story of Noah's Ark, you might be interested in this supernatural, medical, apocalyptic novel.

26) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars - a novel by Max Brooks (342 pages)
As a minister I frequently receive book suggestions from those in the congregation I serve. The range of books I am invited to read (and often given as a gift) is immense and far more than I could possibly read even if avoided all of the books that are on my reading list. So, when R. gave me two books by Max Brooks, World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, I couldn't help but smile. Of all the books I've received - including titles about church history, world religions, and spiritual practices; humanist classics; obscure novels; and even a romance novel (seriously!) - nobody has ever asked me to read about zombies.

I have a confession: I adore zombie movies. I generally dislike most horror movies and avoid most films with lots of violence. I do catch some action films - I saw the newly released Indiana Jones film a few months ago and will probably see the new Batman movie this week - but I am highly selective in that genre as well. But, if the movie has zombies, I'm there in a heartbeat.

The zombie movies created by George Romero were works of social commentary and the social commentary was not subtle in the least. They asked questions about the nature of our own humanity, free will, and depict civilization as often less than civil.

I was curious about whether a zombie book would work as well as a zombie movie. I am pleased to report that it did. Brooks' novel is written in the form of face-to-face interviews conducted around the world with the survivors of World War Z. He captures characters of different cultures, races, classes, and worldviews. Together, their individual stories flesh-out (no pun intended) the history of the zombie war. Along the way, we also receive plenty of pointed critique on everything from the military-industrial complex to suburban lifestyles to media responsibility and so on. A quick, light, and enjoyable summer read.

27) Waking Up the Karma Fairy: Life Lessons and Other Holy Adventures - meditations by Meg Barnhouse (134 pages)
A month ago at General Assembly I ran into Meg Barnhouse. She remembered me from the year before. Smiling, she reminded me of when we met. We had been standing together in a makeshift robing room at the convention center in Portland, Oregon as we waited for the Service of the Living Tradition to begin. Playfully, I had remarked to her, "You sure do have some mouth on you." (Or something to that effect.) She busted up with laughter and told me I hadn't seen anything.

I hadn't. Waking Up the Karma Fairy is the third book of meditations by Barnhouse I've read in the past year. Like the other two, this book was fun, original, opinionated, brazen, and true.

28) Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow - by Forrest Church (148 pages)
You can read a lengthier piece on this amazing book here.

29) McSweeney's Volume 15 (303 pages)
With the completion of this volume of McSweeney's, I've now read 15 of the 27 volumes! McSweeney's 15 is an interesting collection, featuring 10 short stories by American authors and 9 short stories by Icelandic authors (translated, of course.) In addition, this issue was printed in Iceland which may be the most literary country in the world. Of the Icelandic stories, I particularly enjoyed "Nerve City" and "Interference." However, Steven Millhauser's "A Precursor of the Cinema" is the clear gem of this collection. Written in the prose of a historian, his story reports about a mysterious late 19th Century artist and inventor. It succeeds as a riveting and intriguing story. I will definitely have to go out and see what else he has published.

30) Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto - essays by Chuck Klosterman (243 pages)
Have you ever wondered if Marilyn Monroe : 1950s :: Pamela Anderson : 1990s is a valid analogy? Have you ever pontificated why, if being a rock star is a common fantasy, seemingly nobody ever fantasizes about being Billy Joel? Me neither. But I do know that I've been told that it is essential that I read Chuck Klosterman about 150 different times.

Klosterman (along with Douglas Coupland) is probably one of the most lauded critics who writes about Generation X and popular culture. I fully expected to find this book enjoyable; I rarely pan anything I read. Yet, this book was a disappointment.

My reason for not liking Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is not purely utilitarian although, surely, someone with such a collossal accumulated knowledge of pop culture could put that energy to better use. My reason is not based in feminism, although Klosterman seems to have some unresolved issues with women and that worried me a little bit. My reason is not even aesthetic. He actually is a talented and engaging writer. Instead, I just found most of the book not all that insightful and it seemed like you could use the evidence he presents to argue the opposite of every "crucial" idea he posits. There is no nutritional value in this breakfast cereal.

However, one essay did have me laughing uproariously. His chapter in which arguments against the sport of soccer bookend an account of his brief and controversial tenure as a little league baseball coach is the high point of this book. Or maybe I am just being too generous.

31) The Age of American Unreason - non-fiction by Susan Jacoby (328 pages)
In 1963 Richard Hofstadter published the influential book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. Forty-five years later, unreason, irrationality, and anti-intellectualism continue as powerful forces shaping American culture, education, and government policies at home and abroad.

Jacoby does not spend the majority of her book focused on the last 40 years. She begins with a cursory history of intellectual and anti-intellectual currents in American thought from the colonial period to the 1960's. (The index lists 10 mentions of Unitarianism and 13 mentions of Ralph Waldo Emerson. We seem to be the group Jacoby turns to in order to lift up intellectual currents in American history.)

To be honest, I have my own quarrels and quibbles with how Jacoby depicts parts of our nation's history. In particular, I am critical of how she frames the First and Second Great Awakenings and how she portrays Emerson.

It is in the final third of the book that Jacoby comes to discuss current trends of unreason and anti-intellectualism. While I found myself agreeing with her on most of her points I was struck by how she arranged her critiques. It is curious that she describes the omnipresence of iPods among American youth with the same level of consternation that she directs at schools that have abandoned the teaching of evolution. She complains about politicians and media figures who have abandoned the use of the word "soldiers" by substituting the word "troops" in its place and she derides the astounding paucity of US ambassadors to the Middle East who actually are able to speak Arabic.

At first, this lumping of major ignorance with minor annoyance is jarring. However, soon you realize that she is arguing that all these things are interlinked. This argument is challenging. Is it fair to lump together parents who show Baby Einstein videos to their children with fundamentalists who teach their children that dinosaurs and humans roamed the earth at the same time?

Although I have my reservations, Jacoby does succeed in being provocative. Unfortunately, she also comes across as condescending, snobby, and even joyless at times. For this reason, her authorial voice distracts and detracts - something that can not be said about the intellectual giants, thinkers, and geniuses whom she praises.

32) Roller-skating as a Spiritual Discipline - meditations by Christopher Buice (55 pages)
My morning spiritual practice has two key elements. One is reading and reflecting on one or two brief meditations, poems, or passages from scripture. The second element is an expression of gratitude, in which I write a hand-written note (or at least an email) to someone for whom I am thankful.

For the meditations, I often turn to the meditation manuals published by the UUA. In solidarity with the Tennessee Valley UU Church which suffered an horrific shooting in July, I picked up this collection by The Rev. Chris Buice, TVUUC's minister.

UUA meditation manuals can be generally divided into two categories: serious and silly. Serious ones, like Elizabeth Tarbox's Evening Tide, are beautifully written and poignant. But the silly ones are a lot more eye-catching. Who knew that you could glean spiritual insights from pig-racing (Jane Rzepka) or hosting a drag queen fundraiser (Vanessa Southern). The title of Buice's meditation manual gives it away. He begins meditations with lines such as: "I learned the Hindu concept of 'non-attachment to ends' from a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle." "The teenage cashier in the local fast food restaurant is my guru." "There is a controversy among those who search for Bigfoot." And, "I think about the Buddha when I am bowling."

Of course, all ministries require a sense of humor and an ability to be serious. It is all about picking your spots. How blessed TVUUC is to have a minister who is also capable of laughing at life's absurdities.

33) McSweeney's Volume 28 (117 pages)
Although beautifully packaged, this latest volume of McSweeney's literary quarterly was the lightest issue so far. Eight handsome little books explore the reinvention of the fable, with contemporary authors composing original fables. A few of them bear a striking resemblance to Friedman's Fables by psychologist and family systems theorist, Edwin Friedman. In this collection, the fable that truly stands out is "Virgil Walker" which features an octopus who is also a social climber.

34) The Audacity of Hope - by Barack Obama (362 pages)
35) John McCain: An American Odyssey - by Robert Timberg (207 pages)
Is this blog the place to make opinionated statements about candidates for public office? I've decided that it is not, but do not infer from that decision that I lack opinions. I have more than enough. When it comes to candidates for public office I try to follow the same rule on this blog that I follow in the pulpit: to discipline myself to as much neutrality as I possibly can.

I did decide however that it would be an interesting exercise to read a biography of each of the candidates during their respective conventions. In choosing the books, I elected for fairness. I was not going to read a puff piece about one candidate and then a book smearing the other. So, after choosing to read a book in which Obama writes in his own voice, I decided that fairness dictated that I select a book about McCain that, while short of a hagiography, does present McCain in a positive light. During the DNC I read Obama's Audacity of Hope. During the RNC I read Timberg's biography of John McCain. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never previously read anything of any significant length about Obama. I had, however, read a good-sized piece about McCain.

During the 2000 primaries, Rolling Stone dispatched well known authors to spend some time on the trail with each of the four major candidates: Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, Al Gore, and John McCain. David Foster Wallace spent a week on McCain's "Straight Talk Express" leading up to the South Carolina primary. (McCain had won New Hampshire, but it was at this point in the primaries that Bush pulled ahead, his backers using push-polling to insinuate that McCain had fathered a black child with a prostitute. The reality was that John and Cindy McCain adopted a girl from an orphanage in Bangladesh.) Anyways, I have no idea what Rolling Stone wound up publishing, but a 79 page essay about McCain under the title "Up, Simba" can be found in DFW's magnificent essay collection Consider the Lobster.

I hope that you are registered to vote and plan to go to the polls on November 4th. If you are like most American voters, you probably have your mind already made-up. But even if you know with 100% certainty for whom you plan to vote, I think the exercise of reading about each is worthwhile. I am glad that I did.

36) Donkey Gospel - poetry by Tony Hoagland (71 pages)
I enjoyed reading What Narcissism Means to Me, another collection of poetry by Hoagland, so much that I decided to pick up this collection of poems. Likewise, this collection did not disappoint. He is one of the brightest shining lights in contemporary poetry.

37) Gob's Grief - a novel by Chris Adrian (356 pages)
The other day I mentioned author Chris Adrian to my primary care physician. After telling him a little about Adrian’s life, my doctor remarked, “Don’t you just hate people like that?” Adrian is an overachiever of epic proportions. After receiving a degree from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Adrian went to medical school in Virginia. While in medical school, Adrian published his debut novel, Gob’s Grief. While completing his pediatric residency at a hospital in San Francisco, Adrian published his second novel, a 615 page masterpiece under the title The Children’s Hospital (see #25 above.) According to the “about the author” section of The Children’s Hospital, Adrian is now a Divinity School student at Harvard. I think my physician said something to the effect of, “People doing their medical residency don’t even have time to sleep; they don’t write 600 page novels.”

While Gob’s Grief is not as strong as The Children’s Hospital, it is a fascinating book and the two do share several characteristics in common. Both explore the telling of a story from several different perspectives. Both feature an epic, surprising climax. Both include a mysterious child named Pickie Beecher.

Gob’s Grief is set in New York City in the years following the American Civil War. There, two men named Gob and Will who each lost brothers in the civil war obsessively work to create a machine that will bring the war dead back to life. The two turn to industrialization and spiritualism to help alleviate the grief for their own and the nation’s losses. Historical figures including Walt Whitman as well as key feminist leaders from this time in American history play fascinating roles in this fictional story. I will eagerly look forward to Adrian’s next novel.

38) Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War – non-fiction by Evan Wright (370 pages)
Earlier this month I shared a room at a retreat for ministers with another minister from my generation who was reading Generation Kill. Written by a reporter embedded with an elite battalion of Marines, Generation Kill tells the story of the first few weeks of combat faced by this unit at the outset of the Iraq War in 2003.

My experience was that this book was an engaging page turner; I couldn’t put it down. While both the madness and the horror of war are made clear, what stood out are the depictions of the Marines as they faced combat. The book shines a light on how Generation X and Y respond to and interpret war. One Marine relates combat to playing the Grand Theft Auto video game. The author observes that this generation’s low tolerance for boredom and stimulation deprivation contributes to excitement about combat. More humorously, the author describes how, in the days leading up to the invasion, a rumor about the death of Jennifer Lopez circulates among the servicemen and women.

Generation Kill is a powerful, profoundly troubling, and perception-altering account of the War in Iraq.

39) Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior - non-fiction by Arthur paul Boers (139 pages)
Originally I read a good portion of this book for my sermon on October 12. I returned to it and decided to finish it up. This Alban Institute publication combines a deep insight into family systems theory with biblical interpretation. While I longed for the author to spend more time on case studies, I think this is a book that contains many worthy insights into congregational leadership. Perhaps the book's most commendable feature is the sincere humility and gentleness of the author.

40) In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby - by Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed (268 pages)
I received a free copy of In Between in exchange for agreeing to review it in a forthcoming issue of the UUMA News, the newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. I will post that review on my blog when it is complete. This book also formed the core of a sermon I preached on November 9th.

41) The Wordy Shipmates - a history by Sarah Vowell (248 pages)
During the Summer of 2007 I read three books by Vowell. In Shipmates, Vowell's quirky and endearing presence is not nearly as pronounced as it was in her earlier books. Still, she manages to do something special. She tells the story of the early Puritans in a way that is both sympathetic and compelling. Her recounting of the lives of John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson is entertaining and accessible. This is a must read for any Unitarian Universalists or any Americans who seek to understand themselves better.


42) The Care of Troublesome People - by Wayne E. Oates (78 pages)
Like Never Call Them Jerks (see #39 above) I read parts of Troublesome People for my sermon on October 12. Oates' book is far inferior. At points it seems sloppy and simplistic. It is also surprisingly repetititve for such a short book. Boers' book is by far the stronger of the two.


43) The Complete Persepolis - a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi (341 pages)
I enjoyed this gripping, autobiographical tale of the author's childhood in Iran, her adolescence and coming of age in Austria after fleeing from religious repression, her subsequent return to Iran and struggles as a young adult, and finally, her bittersweet exodus to France.

44) The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game - non-fiction by Michael Lewis (299 pages)
In 1985 Lawrence Taylor, a linebacker for the New York Giants, tackled Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg and ending his career. Taylor was big, fast, powerful, and relentless. He was probably the greatest linebacker ever to play the game.

In The Blind Side, author Michael Lewis tries to do for football what he did for Baseball in his book Moneyball. Moneyball set out to answer the question of how the Oakland Athletics could be playoff contenders year after year despite having one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. Its controversial conclusion was that the front office of the A’s used mathematical analysis to determine the skills needed for winning games and found that the market for baseball players undervalued certain skills.

In The Blind Side, Lewis sets out to answer why the left tackle is one of the highest paid positions in football. It turns out that football has been slowly growing more focused on passing over the past thirty years. Thus, the quarterback is the most valuable commodity on the field. Linebackers and defensive ends like Lawrence Taylor made life hard (and dangerous) for quarterbacks so teams schemed to protect the quarterback’s blind side. However, the most elite defenses could not be stopped by overloading the left side with an extra blocker or by pulling a guard as these strategies left other glaring weaknesses that an adaptive defense could exploit. The answer came in the form of the superstar left tackle.

The prototypical left tackle is at least 6’5”, though taller is better. He weighs between 325 and 350 pounds though that weight should be carried in the thighs and in the behind instead of in the gut. He should have oversized hands. He should be one of the quickest players on the team in terms of a short burst of speed. And, he should be agile. If the sport were basketball instead of football, you’d say you were looking for someone the size of Shaquille O’Neal who moves like a point guard. Players like Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones fit this mold and commanded some of the largest contracts in professional football because they were able to protect the quarterback’s blind side.

If this was Michael Lewis’ book, he could have written it in thirty underwhelming pages. Instead the majority of the book focuses on the life of a young man named Michael Oher who comes from the most underprivileged background imaginable and is blessed with all of the physical tools to become a star left tackle. Lewis’ book becomes a biography of how Oher is saved from his environment and given a chance to live out his potential for football stardom. It is a good thing that Lewis tells the story of Oher’s life. If he did not, the book would have been tremendously disappointing.

Total pages read: 9,941