53) Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred - by Jeffrey J. Kripal (285 pages)
Click here to find an essay inspired by this book.
Along with the hilarious Baby Be of Use board books that I described below, I also received two of the three books in the The Haggis-on-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance series. As a child do you remember those reference-style, Encyclopedia for children books on various subjects? Well, the folks at McSweeney's have published a couple of volumes of absurdist parodies of those types of books. The two I received were Giraffes? Giraffes! and Animals of the Ocean: In Particular the Giant Squid. The books are authored by Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey (in reality, Dave and Christopher "Toph" Eggers.) If you like absurdist humor, you may find them as funny as I do.
52) Impassioned Clay: A Book of Meditations - by Ralph Helverson (67 pages)
Impassioned Clay was the UUA meditation manual for 1964. [I'm currently behind on my project of blogging my way through the meditation manuals, but I will post a link to the review here when it is up.]
51) I Live Real Close to Where You Used to Live: Kids' Letters to Michelle Obama (and to Sasha, Malia, & Bo) - edited by Lauren Hall (128 pages)
Two years ago, McSweeney's and 826 National published a volume of letters by children to Barack Obama. They follow that up with this volume, released recently. On one level, the kids' letters prove, hilariously, that children say the darndest things. But, this book also has a deeper significance.
The letters are striking for what they say about our culture of celebrity and the universality of popular culture. But mostly, the letters are striking for the radical honesty and heart-breaking lack of censorship on the part of the children. They write about parents who are out of work, the fear of losing their home, and dilapidated schools. The students deeply relate to areas of Michelle Obama's concern, her emphasis on exercise and the nutrition of school lunches. These letters are touching and hopeful, stunning and (often) hilarious.
I Live Real Close was produced by students in McSweeney's eight 826 National writing and tutoring centers. Click the link to read more about this amazing project.
When I need to pick out a gift, one of the places I usually turn in the McSweeney's on-line store. The gifts I gave this Christmas included these two t-shirts, the Where the Wild Things Are-inspired furry journal, and this house-themed planner.
Of course, with every order I couldn't help ordering a little something for myself. Plus, with each order McSweeney's sent me free stuff! One of the "free gifts" they sent was the Baby Be of Use bundle, six adorable and naughty not-for-children board books. Lisa Brown's spoofs on the board book included titles like Baby Fix My Car, Baby Do My Banking, Baby Mix Me a Drink, and Baby Plan My Wedding. Hilarity ensued during the Holidays!
50) Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands - by Michael Chabon (210 pages)
Maps and Legends is a collection sixteen essays on literature by Michael Chabon. The book started out slowly for me. I just don’t share Chabon’s excitement for Sherlock Holmes mysteries, for Cormac McCarthy’s novels, or for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. And, I have never been a big lover of comic books and graphic novels the way that Chabon is.
However, the last five essays in this collection are absolutely magnificent. In “My Back Pages” and “Diving Into The Wreck” Chabon writes with vulnerability and insight about the process of working on his first and second novel. Maps and Legends ends with the amazing, mind-blowing essay “Golems I Have Known” which I would say a lot more about only I don’t want to spoil the ending for you. (And, it is worth it!) I will just say that I particularly enjoyed the connection he made between the mystical process of writing and Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem’s writings about Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, and the mysterious golem.
Interestingly, I read this book in parallel with a book by religious scholar Jeffrey Kripal on the paranormal. The overlaps are uncanny, and I will say more about this when I write a review of Kripal’s book. But, let me just point out one amazing coincidence. Normally, I would have overlooked Chabon’s essay “The Other James” about a British Biblical scholar in the early twentieth century who wrote excellent ghost stories. Except, I was reading Kripal’s book about the meaning of the study of the occult in exactly that era. The parallels were just uncanny.
As always, Chabon’s writing is vivid and delicious and I never cease to be amazed by the expansiveness of his vocabulary that is as broad as any writer I’ve ever read. Furthermore, Maps and Legends was published by McSweeney’s who manage not only to publish amazing books but also aesthetically fascinating books. In this case, this book features a beautiful three-piece, tricolor dust jacket.
49) Citrus County - by John Brandon (209 pages)
In reference to the Southern Gothic genre, Flannery O'Connor once remarked, "Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." With Citrus County, John Brandon gives us a contemporary version of the Southern Gothic novel set in a middle school - How Grotesque! - on Florida's swampy Gulf Coast.
This light but gripping novel centers around two thirteen year olds. Shelby Register's family recently moved to Citrus County after the death of her mother. Toby McNurse is the town's amoral trouble case who lives with his abusive uncle. Shelby falls in love with Toby but their romance is complicated by the fact that Toby has kidnapped Shelby's four year old sister and is holding her in an underground bunker. Yes, it is dark. And, somehow it works.
My favorite part of the book was the character of Shelby and Toby's misanthropic geography teacher Mr. Hibma. I found myself rooting for him at every turn just as I found myself rooting for Shelby and Toby. All three are grotesque and all three are, somehow immensely likable.
Also likable is the author, John Brandon. Here is his "About the Author" description: "John Brandon was raised on the Gulf Coast of Florida. During the writing of this book he worked at a Frito-Lay warehouse and a Sysco warehouse. During another part of the writing of this book he was unemployed. During the revising he was the John & Renee Grisham Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. His favorite recreational activity is watching college football."
48) McSweeney's Volume 4 (241 pages)
My collection of McSweeney's contains all 35 volumes published to date. There are still a few of the earlier volumes that I haven't read yet. Any day I am expecting Volume 36 to arrive on my doorstep and it promises to be a doozy with numerous pamphlets stuffed in side of a cubic human head. While waiting on v36 to arrive, I went back and read Volume 4 which was published a decade ago.
McSweeney's Volume 4 was the first issue to utilize creative packaging. It contains 14 pamphlets inside of a small, cardboard box. Three of the pamphlets were standouts: Paul Collins writes true historical dispatches of some of curious oddities from the 19th century. In his contribution he tells of the life of a man named John Symmes who tried to advance his theory that another world, accessible through a hole at one of the poles, existed inside of the Earth. Collins traces the history of Symmes' life and legacy. Another standout contribution comes from Paul Maliszewski who writes about Vladimir Nabokov's extreme fussiness concerning the cover art of his books. Finally, I was delighted by Rick Moody's comic-tragic story about an ostrich farmer in Ohio.
McSweeney's Volume 4 also contains short stories by Jonathan Lethem, Haruki Murakami, and Denis Johnson.
47) The Girl Who Played With Fire - by Stieg Larsson (722 pages)
No wonder tens of millions of copies of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy have sold. These books are ridiculously addictive. Fire, the second book in the series, moves at a much faster pace than Dragon Tattoo. It also comes across as far more formulaic. The opening sequence, set in the Caribbean, appears written for a screenplay. Lisbeth Salander is a bit too much of a superhero. And, the conclusion is just plain over-the-top. I'm already craving the final book. I think I'll go get it today.
46) Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War - by Andrew J. Bacevich (252 pages)
Last month I was seated next to former UUA President John Buehrens at a worship service in Dallas. The preacher was discussing the rules by which the Roman Empire operated. John smacked me on the thigh with his copy of Washington Rules and told me, "You should read this."
Washington Rules is a survey of US military history since the early 1950s. Bacevich details the rise of the CIA and SAC and then continues on through Cuba, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the War on Terror. Bacevich argues that even though presidential administrations have come and gone, an unquestioned Washington commitment to global militarism has endured. Bacevich is surprisingly non-partisan. He is as big a critic of Kennedy and Johnson as he is of Eisenhower. He criticizes Obama and Bush.
Bacevich asks hard questions about the consequences of this commitment to global power projection. An excerpt from the dust jacket sums up his point: "Time has expired on the American Century. Not changing is not an option. [It is time] to reassess America's approach to the world - to reject militarism and to acknowledge that fixing Detroit shoudl take precedence over fixing Afghanistan."
45) Seasons of the Soul - by Robert Weston (58 pages)
Seasons of the Soul was the UUA meditation manual for 1963. [I'm currently behind on my project of blogging my way through the meditation manuals, but I will post a link to the review here when it is up.]
44) Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self - by Marilynne Robinson (146 pages)
I’ll read anything that Marilynne Robinson writes! I cherished her brilliant novel Gilead. I loved her earlier novel Housekeeping. I was dazzled by her essay collection The Death of Adam. I’ve eaten up critical reviews of hers that have appeared in magazines and newspapers. Most recently, I read her critical review of Sam Harris’ newest book that appeared in The Wall Street Journal. (Her novel Home is sitting on my bookshelf and it demands to be read!)
Absence of Mind is the published version of a series of lectures she delivered at Yale University. This famous lecture series on issues in religion, The Terry Lectures, has featured brilliant thinkers such as Erich Fromm, John Dewey, Carl Jung, Paul Ricoeur, and Hans Kung. Paul Tillich’s most famous work, The Courage to Be, was delivered as Terry Lectures. In my mind, Robinson’s contribution carries forward this tradition of absolute brilliance. In fact, it may even raise the bar!
Robinson’s prose and thinking is poetic, nuanced, subtle, and sophisticated. This is the most intellectually challenging book I’ve read in some time. What she does is examine and critique a wide range of modern intellectual thought including the philosophical positivism of Comte, Freudian thought, neo-Darwinist thought, and thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, and Daniel Dennett. She uses the term “parascience” to describe their intellectual pursuits.
What all of these thinkers do, she argues, is to offer theories that diminish the role of the human mind. These theorists offer reductionism. Desire to reproduce, for example, does not explain all of our behaviors and our thinking. She argues that scientific inquiry is a tool available to the mind. Science is a possession of the mind, not the other way around. She insists of the difference between “fruitful” inquiry and “soluble” inquiry. She argues that the reductionist solutions proposed by parascientists foreclose the kind of inquiry that makes us most human. She writes,
“[Evolution] does not imply that a species carries forward an essential similarity to its ancestors. A bird is not a latter-day dinosaur. We can assume the ancestors ate and slept and mated, carrying on the universal business of animal life. Still, whatever the shared genetic history of beast and bird, a transformative change occurred over the millennia, and to find the modern sparrow implicit in the thunder lizard is quite certainly an error, if one wishes to make an ornithological study of sparrow behavior. On the same grounds, there is no reason to assume our species resembles in any essential way the ancient primates whose genes we carry. It is a strategy of parascientific argument to strip away culture-making, as if it were a ruse and a concealment within which lurked the imagined primitive who is for them our true nature.”
In exalting the concept of the mind, Marilynne Robinson reasserts the dominant place of humanism (in its classical, renaissance, and even enlightenment sense) in making sense of our human and existential condition.
43) True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society - by Farhad Manjoo (232 pages)
A few weeks ago I attended a fancy dinner and found myself sitting next to Bill Haefele who serves as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Professor of Psychology at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. We enjoyed a fine dinner conversation during which he mentioned a book he was reading.
I immediately went out and picked up that book, Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough. It was a tremendous read and some of Manjoo’s arguments will serve as pillars in the lecture I will give later this week on “Post-modern Politics.”
True Enough delves into the politics and culture of contemporary American society. He begins by evoking the deep fragmentation in our politics and says that we’ve moved to an extreme place where we not only disagree about the problems we face as a society; we disagree about basic facts. This book is an exploration of the phenomenon known as “truthiness,” a term coined by comedian Stephen Colbert in 2005 to refer to people’s ready willingness to accept things that evidence tells us are not so.
We have always had fringe elements in our society, people who believe that the moon landing was a hoax, for example. Now, Manjoo argues, the fringe has become mainstream. Significant numbers of Americans doubt that HIV causes AIDS. Significant numbers of Americans believe that 9/11 was an inside job. Other examples he provides includes the Swiftboat campaign against John Kerry in 2004 and the commonly-believed assertions that Saddam Hussein helped to plan the 9/11 attacks and possessed weapons of mass destruction. (Published in 2008 before Obama was elected, this book is astoundingly prescient. The last two years have provided case study after case study that reinforce Manjoo’s arguments. In hindsight, Manjoo seems to have understated his case.)
True Enough chronicles decades of psychological experiments that help us to understand our world. Manjoo looks at Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. He brings up fascinating studies dealing with selective perception and the way we take in media. He ends by invoking a sobering study by Edward Banfield on the effects of a society without trust.
At times Farhad Manjoo is too repetitive and his writing style lags. However, he more than makes up for it by writing a fascinating book about a deeply troubling social reality.
42) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - by Stieg Larsson (642 pages)
I honestly can't remember the last time I read a trade paperback. It was probably a Tom Clancy novel that I read in the late 1990s. But, I figured I'd take a shot at the trilogy of thrillers by the late Swedish author for a couple of reasons, namely because I will probably wind up going to see the movie version when they do an American remake of it and because Larsson's books have been so astonishingly ominipresent that I wanted to find out what they are all about.
Dragon Tattoo tries to be something like 3 parts Silence of the Lambs, 1 part La Femme Nikita, and 1/2 part Dan Brown. Add gratuitous sex and stir. I think I would have enjoyed this book only about half as much if it hadn't been so thoroughly Swedish. The characters drink aquavit and eat pickled herring and small details like that made Dragon Tattoo seem somehow different than just your run-of-the-mill thriller.
41) The Uncarven Image - by Phillip Hewett (49 pages)
The Uncarven Image was the UUA meditation manual for 1962. [I'm currently behind on my project of blogging my way through the meditation manuals, but I will post a link to the review here when it is up.]
40) Bel Canto - by Ann Patchett (318 pages)
In 2007 the SMUUCh fiction book club created bookmarks to honor the church’s 40th anniversary. The bookmarks contained a list of the book club’s favorite 40 books. Bel Canto was one of their top 40 reads. Prior to reading this novel, I had only read one thing by Ann Patchett, a short essay on the state of Tennessee contained in an anthology of essays on the 50 states that I read in early 2009.
Bel Canto takes place in a small, poor South American country. The political leaders of the country throw a lavish birthday party for Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese industrialist, in the hopes that he will build a factory in their country. The businessman agrees to attend the party only when he learns that the entertainment will be provided by Roxanne Coss, a world famous opera singer. The birthday party is ambushed by guerillas who are attempting to kidnap the president. It turns out that the president has stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera instead of attending the party. Their mission botched, the guerillas decide to hold the dinner party guests hostage.
It is a far-fetched story, particularly in how long the hostage situation drags out. At the same time, Bel Canto is a rich psychological study of the new life the hostages and captors alike develop together in their world apart.
39) Parts and Proportions - by Arthur Graham (44 pages)
Parts and Proportions was the UUA Meditation Manual for 1961. You can read more about it here.
38) Islam: A Short History - by Karent Armstrong (189 pages)
I read this book in preparation for my sermon on Islam and Islamophobia on 9/5/10. Surprisingly, this is the first book by Karen Armstrong that I've read. While it is an excellent short history, the book did bog down with her overview of the various empires and dynasties that battled for dominance.
Two features help make this book worth reading. First, Armstrong's interpretation of the Islamic faith as inherently intertwined with politics is an interesting way of understanding Islam. "Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philosophy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and shrines like everybody else. But all these religious pursuits sprang directly from the Muslims' frequently anguished contemplation of the political current affairs of Muslim society." Second, Armstrong's fifth section, Islam Agonistes, provides as good of a short introduction to modernism as I have ever read.
37) Glory, Hallelujah! Now Please Pick Up Your Socks - by Jane Ellen Mauldin (66 pages)
This was one of two UUA mediation manuals published in 1998 and the 18th that I've read. (I am currently in the process of reading all 60 UUA meditation manuals that have been published since 1961.)
Glory, Hallelujah! is a collection of domestic-themed meditations interspersed with short prayers. The meditations explore the holy moments one encounters in daily family life - tucking a child into bed, building forts as children, the experience of family pets. This collection of meditations failed to grab me.
36) McSweeney's Volume 35 (266 pages)
I began reading the most recent issue of McSweeney's just about as soon as I received it in the mail. Unfortunately, this issue was a bit of a disappointment. The first section contained four short stories from the United States. The only stand out in the group was Steven Millhauser's "Phantoms," sort of an interesting almanac of apparitions in a small New England(?) town. The second section contained a sampling of short creative fiction from Norway. (With the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson tearing up international bestseller lists, maybe the thought was to see what neighboring Norway had to offer.) It is an interesting concept but only a few of the stories charmed me. I found Roy Jacobsen's "Alarm," in which an elderly man finally gives in and decides to request a personal safety device he can use in case he falls, to be the best of the bunch. This edition of McSweeney's was redeemed by an endearing and heart-warming piece showing lunchbags that the artist Robert Barnes decorated for his daughters.
35) Glad to Be Human - by Kaaren Anderson (52 pages)
Since 1961 the UUA has published 60 meditation manuals. This is the 17th of the 60 that I have read. I am currently trying to collect the whole set and I am considering a modest writing project considering what these meditation manuals tell us about the devotional practices of Unitarian Universalists over the past half century.
Kaaren Anderson's Glad to Be Human was the UUA meditation manual for the year 2000. It contains 18 prose reflections. Most of the selections tell a story, often a story from Anderson's childhood, and then infer a message for living from the story. One story talks about her band teacher reaching a point of frustration and throwing his director's baton across the room. In another story, she shares about a hilarious experience of serving as a Salvation Army bell ringer inside of a fancy mall where bell-ringing was prohibited because the mall didn't want to annoy customers. Anderson made demonstrative gestures with a sign that read "Ding-Dong."
This was a very enjoyable collection of meditations. Kaaren Anderson is clearly a gifted story teller, and a superb writer who uses vivid words.
34) Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences - by Lawrence Weschler (235 pages)
This book, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a work of exquisite beauty. The book is about what Weschler refers to as "convergences." We might also call them interesting parallels or uncanny similarities. But, the point is that these things that are like each other can help us to better understand our perceptions of the world.
If that doesn't make sense, let me explain with a few examples of Weschler's convergences. The author points out, for example, how the composition of a photograph of the corpse of Che Guevara is completely similar to Rembrandt's famous painting "The Anatomy Lesson." Weschler examines a dozen photographs by Joel Meyerowitz taken a Ground Zero in New York and compares these photos to famous paintings by the likes of Velazquez, Vermeer, Millet, and Jasper Johns.
Weschler doesn't try to explain the meaning of these convergences. Instead, he delves into the similarities in such a way that the reader must decide on what the meaning is. In a section entitled "Pillsbury Doughboy Messiahs," Weschler muses on what to make out of the fact that Newt Gingrich is a spitting image of Slobodan Milosevic (and/or the other way around.) But, more than that, Weschler points out all these fascinating similarities concerning the political trajectories of the two men. Time after time while enjoying this book I exclaimed to myself, "Well, isn't that fascinating!"
The convergences that Weschler identifies are buoyed by his wonderful writing style and by his broad engagement in the world. In the text, you run across statements like, "This other time, I happened to be in Chicago for a few days and decided to pay a call to my Assyriologist friend..." That essay goes on to discuss the convergences between cuneiform tablets, Christopher Logue's modern translation of Homer's The Iliad, and the experiences of Breyten Breytenbach, a political prisoner in Apartheid-era South Africa. Weschler brings him into the essay this way, "Speeding northward, the skyscrapers of the city gleaming up ahead, I was in turn reminded of some comments Breyten Breytenbach, the Afrikaner poet and painter, had made to me, as we sat in a Paris bistro one fine afternoon not long after his release from a seven-and-a-half-year stint in apartheid South Africa's prisons on various trumped-up charges of political subversion."
Weschler sees the world very differently than everyone else. It is a wild voyage to see the world through his eyes.
33) Been in the Storm So Long - edited by Mark Morrison-Reed and Jacqui James (50 pages)
Each year since 1961 the Unitarian Universalist Association has published a meditation manual. Of the 60 meditation manuals that have been published (for a decade they published two each year) I own about a third and have read about a quarter of them. My daily spiritual practice includes reading a selection from a meditation manual, book of poetry, or other devotional book.
Been in the Storm So Long is a sampling of short pieces by African American Unitarian Universalists. A few of the pieces, like Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley's "Litany of Restoration" and Thandeka's "Legacy of Caring" can be found in the hymnal. Other gems from this collection include a reflection by David Eaton entitled "I see her from time to time" and Jacqui James' piece "Dark and light, light and dark." Many of the pieces in this collection don't quite work as meditations; they weren't written for that purpose. However, I found myself touched by several of the pieces in this collection, whether they sang out like joyous praise songs or challenged me with incisive questions.
By the way, I've decided to try to collect all 60 volumes of the UUA Meditation Manual series. You can see which ones I still need on my Amazon Wish List.
32) The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal - by Ben Mezrich (258 pages)
I am a graduate of Harvard but when I talk about it, I often need to make the distinction between being a graduate student at Harvard and an undergrad. (There is probably also a distinction to be made between, say, the experience at Harvard Law and the experience at Harvard Divinity.) I was a graduate student and during my time at Harvard I only became friends with one undergraduate student. It wasn’t Natalie Portman. For the record, I did see Natalie Portman pretty regularly on the quad but I never even said a word to her. My friend and I met in the fall of 1999. I was in my first year at Divinity school and she was an undergraduate freshman. We connected because her older sister had been an acquaintance of mine.
Let me describe her: She lived in a dorm room where T.S. Eliot had once lived. She was taking all the necessary classes to get into medical school but her main academic interests were cultural anthropology, post-colonialism, and public health. She managed to pull down an amazing GPA even though she sometimes spent weekends clubbing at New York City’s coolest nightclubs. She briefly dated Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha. And, upon graduation, she left for a year in West Africa on a Fulbright scholarship. But, the most amazing thing of all is that all these things made her a fairly average undergraduate student at Harvard.
Yesterday I read Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires in a single day. And, I never read an entire book in a single day. After writing a half-dozen novels, Mezrich turned to dramatizing true stories of Ivy League kids who strike it rich. In Bringing Down the House he told the story of the M.I.T. card-counting club who won millions playing blackjack in Las Vegas. In The Ugly Americans Mezrich follows a group of Princeton grads who get rich trading on the volatile Asian markets. Rigged (which I haven’t read) tells the story of a Harvard grad who embarks on a dangerous adventure to revolutionize the oil trading industry.
In the opening pages of The Accidental Billionaires we meet Mark Zuckerberg (age 19) and Eduardo Saverin (age 20). Both young men are students at Harvard and both are disaffected, dateless outcasts living under the shadow of the socially-stratified student body. But, who are these two guys exactly? Mark is a hotshot computer programmer who supposedly at age 17 turned down a million-dollar offer to work for Microsoft. Eduardo had spent the summer before his junior year trading oil futures using an algorithm he developed for predicting hurricanes. He had earned $300,000 that summer. Trying to gain acceptance at an exclusive Harvard social club, Eduardo shares his investment success story. He receives the response, “So, how are you going to turn that into $3 million?”
Excluded from the social networks at college, Zuckerberg decides to start his own on-line. With Saverin’s start-up funds Zuckerberg creates Facebook. He launched the social networking site in February 2004 after a little more than a week of round-the-clock programming. Within two weeks 5,000 Harvard undergraduates had created profiles. Within eight weeks Facebook has 50,000 members at a dozen schools. That summer Zuckerberg moves to Silicon Valley with his roommates and a couple of programming friends. After six months he turns down an offer to sell the business for $10 million. Zuckerberg and his friends drop out of school and build their business. About two years and two hundred million users later Google and Microsoft compete in a bidding war for an ownership stake in Facebook and Microsoft winds up purchasing 1.5% of the company for a cold $240 million. His company was worth $15 billion and, at age 23, Zuckerberg owned half.
Mezrich has been widely criticized for taking liberties with the story. He admits to as much. He has also been criticized for his sophomoric writing style. Well, it is sophomoric. But, think of it this way: When he was a sophomore at Harvard, in a single, intoxicated evening, Zuckerberg hacked Harvard’s computer systems, downloaded pictures of the entire student body, and created a website that allowed students to rate every female student and a few pictures of farm animals by appearance. His site received 22,000 hits in two hours and the prank nearly got him expelled from school. Mezrich’s writing style is immature because his characters are immature.
The movie version of The Accidental Billionaires, featuring Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake, will be released this fall. Click here to watch the trailer.
31) McSweeney's Volume 3 (278 pages)
With the completion of McSweeney’s Volume 3, I have now read 24 of the 34 volumes they’ve published. This volume contained very few short stories; it read like an elaborate deconstruction of a literary journal. The copyright page stretches to three pages in length. The “note about the type” turns into a short story about the Duke of Garamond who is consumed by his rivalry with a nobleman named Palatino.
My favorite contents from this volume were: the Judy Budnitz short story “Flush” about the relationship of two daughters with their mother; Mark O’Donnell’s rendition of a wedding reception in the form of a musical; interviews with scientists involved in splicing spider genes into goats so that the goat milk contains silk proteins that have industrial and medical applications; and, a fascinating historical piece about the rise and fall of the late 19th century painter and showman John Banvard who created enormous paintings that were displayed on spools.
30) A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century - by Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens (197 pages)
Wow! I just finished reading A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century, co-authored by former UUA President John Buehrens and Starr King School for the Ministry President Rebecca Parker. Besides being a great book, A House for Hope was also the top-selling title at the UUA General Assembly in June. (The book I edited, The Growing Church, was the fifth highest selling title.)
A House for Hope is an introduction to systematic theology for religious progressives. The central metaphor is that doing theology systematically is like building a house. Each part of the house—the garden, the walls, the roof, the foundation, the welcoming rooms, and the threshold—correspond to a traditional theological theme: eschatology, ecclesiology, soteriology, the doctrine of God, theological anthropology, and missiology. (You may have noticed that Parker and Buehrens have built a house without a bathroom. I am sure there is a joke to be made there but I will refrain from even trying to imagine what that joke might be.)
As someone with a formal theological education, there were parts of this book that seemed a bit basic. Both Buehrens and Parker write in a style that is distinct, but both also write in a style that is accessible. At the same time that they succeed in producing a book that is not bogged down in jargon, they also succeed in generating a book with some meat on its bones. This is a great book for those who wonder what’s next after they read A Chosen Faith or Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age. Before I had even finished the second chapter I knew I would wind up offering an adult religious education course on this book. And, the morning after I finished it, I received an email from a parishioner who had just read it asking me if would teach a course on it! I’m planning to.
29) Given Sugar, Given Salt - by Jane Hirshfield (85 pages)
Here is a stanza from Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “Rebus,”As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,Given Sugar, Given Salt is the third collection of Jane Hirshfield’s poety that I have read and this collection did nothing to undermine her status as my favorite poet. Like the stanza I quoted above, Hirshfield’s poems layer image upon image, metaphor upon metaphor. This results in poems with tremendous complexity and depth, poems that lack straightforwardness.
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues,
this one a ladder, that one an anvil or cup.
I enjoyed the playful questions in the poem “Sleep” (Does the wool / sleep along with its sheep? / The hoof with its cow? // The finger sleeps / and the ring does not – / what of the vow?) My favorite poem, however, is one called “Bone” in which the family dog discovers a chew toy that belonged to the previous family dog, now deceased. It is just a beautiful poem contrasting the difference between a life lived with immediacy, entirely in the present, and a life layered with memory.
28) Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras - by Diana Eck (238 pages)
In June I picked up a copy of Encountering God at the Johnson County Library used book sale. I decided to read it in preparation for a sermon on Unitarian Universalism and interfaith understandings that I delivered earlier this month. Diana Eck, the author, is a Methodist, and is a professor of Hinduism and comparative religions at Harvard as well as Director of the Pluralism Project.
Encountering God is a diverse book. It opens with an autobiographical chapter about Eck’s experience of growing up as a Montana Methodist and then making her way to India to encounter Hinduism. Another chapter takes a look at the history of interfaith efforts beginning with 1893 World’s Parliament of Religion. In a series of four chapters that make up the center of the book, Eck describes how her exposure to Hindu and Buddhist theology and practices has made her a better Christian. For example, an understanding the Hindu concept of shakti has given Eck a deeper understanding of the idea of the Holy Spirit.
In another chapter in the book, Eck makes an appeal for pluralism by describing three approaches to interfaith understanding: exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. The book contains several other gems. Her discourse on the idea of unity and the idea of diversity is quite interesting. So is the penultimate section of the book in which Eck offers some thoughts on how one can do interfaith criticism appropriately and responsibly.
Encountering God was published by the Unitarian Universalist owned Beacon Press in 1993 and draws from Eck’s writings from the mid-1980s on. Twenty years later, as a result of globalization and the internet, not to mention the events of 9/11 which brought the Islamic world into the spotlight, Eck’s writings appear almost dated, or possibly prophetic.
27) A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir - by Donald Worster (464 pages)
I read the first half of this biography of John Muir for my sermon on Muir that I delivered in late May. Over the past two months I slowly slogged my way through the rest of biography.
I found A Passion for Nature to be an uninspired biography of an inspiring life. This book failed to grab me. Maybe reading biographies written by Robert Richardson (most notably his biography of Emerson) has spoiled me. Regardless, I found myself fighting through this book from beginning to end. By contrast, the first couple of segments of Ken Burns’ documentary series on America’s National Parks manages to sum up the earlier parts of Muir’s life in just a few minutes.
As I read the second half of this biography, from Muir’s marriage to Louisa Strentzel until his death, I found myself most interested in Worster’s attempt to explain Muir’s complex relationships with America’s captains of industry in the late 1800s. Burns’ documentary on the National Parks is subtitled, “America’s Best Idea.” A theme running through it is the idea that nature has a democratizing effect on people. There is a popular image of Muir as a kind of everyman; as nature’s prophet.
So, I found myself surprised to learn of Muir’s interactions with robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie and, especially, the railroad tycoon Edward Harriman. Try to picture John Muir writing these words to eulogize Harriman,
“… cutting canyons through ridges, carrying off hills, laying rails and bridges over lakes and rivers, over mountains and plains, making the nation’s ways straight and smooth and safe, bringing everybody nearer to one another. [Harriman] seemed to regard the whole continent as his farm and all the people as his partners… Nothing he had was allowed to lie idle. A great maker and harvester of crops and wealth… fortunes grew along his railroads like natural fruit. Almost everything he touched sprang up into new forms, changing the face of the whole country.”
Even though I didn’t enjoy this biography, it was beneficial to gain a fuller understanding of Muir’s interesting life.
26) You Don't Love Me Yet - by Jonathan Lethem (224 pages)
Critics consider this 2007 novel by Jonathan Lethem to be a sort of self-imposed time-out. Set in Los Angeles, You Don't Love Me Yet contrasts with many of Lethem's books which are set in New York. More straightforward, this novel also contrasts with many of Lethem's other novels which are highly stylized riffs on various genres.
YDLMY follows Lucinda, the bass player for an LA rock band trying to get its break. The novel is a light-hearted send-up of the avant garde art world, the recording industry, and the lives of privileged kids in their twenties. Lucinda somehow works full-time for a visionary performance artist, taking complaint calls as part of ongoing performance art exhibition. In other words, if you stop to try to really contextualize the book, you have to admit that it comes across as vaguely incongruous, even as a work of satire.
But, to overthink YDLMY is to misread it. This is a light book, and it was a pleasure to read. Parts of it were absolutely hilarious. Lethem's 10 page description of the bands first live performance is a fine piece of music writing. A very pleasurable summer read.
25) God's Dog: Conversations with Coyote - by Webster Kitchell (101 pages)
In the spring of 2009 I read Webster Kitchell’s other two collections of story-sermons about his conversations with Coyote the Trickster God. At the spring meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association Executive Committee I had been tasked with preparing a short memorial service for ministers who had recently died and I included a passage from the late Rev. Kitchell’s Coyote writings in the service. This year, at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, I picked up a copy of his first collection of Coyote sermons on sale at the GA bookstore.
Many ministers have their own recurring literary devices that they turn to in order to spice up their sermons or to summon a different kind of creative energy during the writing process. I have my “Holmes’ Prairie” sermons and I’ve discovered I can do no more than one of them each year.
God’s Dog was Kitchell’s first collection and represents his freshest explorations of the genre. In his second and third books you can tell that the idea is getting a little stale. While most of the coyote conversations in this collection are quite good, Kitchell’s take on weddings is by far the funniest and his coyote conversation about death is one of the finest sermons on the subject I’ve ever encountered.
24) When You Are Engulfed in Flames - by David Sedaris (321 pages)
This is the sixth book by humorist and This American Life commentator David Sedaris. That it is the first of Sedaris' books that I've read is somewhat remarkable; somehow I had never managed to pick up one of his books until now. I greatly enjoyed Sedaris' writing style, wit, outrageousness, and his powers of observation. Each of the pieces was good in its own right, but the collection seemed thrown together, unlike (as I understand) his other collections that have greater thematic integrity.
23) McSweeney's Volume 23 (175 pages)
Even though it was rather short, the 23rd volume of McSweeney's was one of the strongest editions of the literary quarterly from top to bottom. It contains 10 stories and there is not a clunker among them.
Two stories, however, stood out. The first was Chris Bachelder's uproariously hilarious "birds and bees" letter from a father to a son. The second was the Roddy Doyle short story "Black Hoodie" in which a trio of students are assigned the school project of creating their own business. They come up with an interesting business plan. Two of them, one black and the other wearing a menacing black hoodie, go to retail stores and walk around in order to distract the security guard. Meanwhile, a third student in a wheelchair rolls around the store stealing merchandise. Then, the students go back to the store, turn over the stolen goods, and shake down the proprietor, billing the store for the lesson they have taught the store employees about stereotyping customers. Of course the story takes an interesting turn.
I should also mention that this edition of McSweeney's came complete with a paper dust jacket that folds out into a giant square covering slightly over five square feet. One side of the dust jacket contains 37 very short stories by Dave Eggers, each written in a tiny font, between 7 point and 4 point! I will be sending McSweeney's press my bill from the opthamologist.
22) Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Underminded America - by Barbara Ehrenreich (206 pages)
I’m probably partial to Barbara Ehrenreich because we both graduated from the same college. Previously I’ve read two books by her, Nickel & Dimed, her account of the plight of the working poor, and Bait & Switch, her account of the struggles of middle class corporate employees in the age of downsizing. Ehrenreich is a gifted writer who combines keen observations with biting criticisms.
In Bright-Sided, Ehrenreich takes on the teachings of “positive-thinking.” She explores the impact of positive thought in the areas of health care, business, religion, and academic psychology. She also includes two chapters of history, tracing “positive thinking” back to its origins in the New Thought movement which was a reaction against the negative theology and anthropology of Calvinism. Ehrenreich chronicles how New Thought religion morphed into the prosperity gospel movement and the secular teachings of the likes of Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie.
After finishing Bright-Sided I am still not entirely sure what to make of it. At times I found myself securely in her camp. At other times I found myself skeptical. Ehrenreich begins Bright-Sided by describing her own battle with breast cancer and her own misgivings about the prominent role of positive thinking in breast cancer support groups. Insightfully, Ehrenreich chafes at the notion that positive thinking can produce mind-over-matter results. Do those who died just not think positively enough? Ehrenreich describes how the cult of positive thinking instructs those with cancer to repress authentic feelings such as anger and how the focus on the self can lead people away from warranted critiques of shortcomings in the medical field. Further, if the focus is so much on the self then how do concerned people raise important questions about environmental factors that lead to cancer?
Ehrenreich is especially on her game when she takes on the prosperity gospel espoused by mega-church pastors like Joel Osteen, Robert Schuller, and Creflo Dollar. (Her account of Joel and Victoria Osteen’s reaction after prevailing in a civil case filed by a flight attendant who had been treated abusively by Victoria Osteen is shocking.)
At the same time, I found a quite a bit of imprecision in Ehrenreich’s approach to the topic. At times she seems to conflate New Thought, positive thinking, and positive psychology. Surely there must be more balance. There is without question some good to come out of these schools of thought. Strengths-based counseling and assessment technologies like Appreciative Inquiry surely represent some of the good outcomes of the positive thinking movement.
While reading Bright-Sided I was reminded of a piece of information that a member of the church I serve shared with me. The member, a professor of psychology, shared with me that studies have shown that individuals who are slightly and mildly depressed are best able to perceive reality. Moderately and severely depressed people as well as optimistic people are less able to perceive reality accurately. At the same time, I tend to believe that positive thinking has its place but needs to be used in moderation.
21) Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman - by Jon Krakauer (358 pages)
In my Memorial Day sermon a little over a week ago I talked about the life of Pat Tillman, an star player in the NFL who turned down a multi-million contract in order to enlist in the US Army after the 2001 season. Tillman wound up becoming an Army Ranger and serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004 he was killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan and the Bush White House and the top echelons of the US military exploited his death for political gain while deliberately suppressing the truth of the circumstances of his death and spreading misinformation.
Jon Krakauer interweaves the story of Pat Tillman's life with a history of Afghanistan from the mid-1970s to the present day. Krakauer impressively quotes from Tillman's journal and also from his friends and family in painting an impressive portrait of the man. When Tillman reaches Iraq, Krakauer strays from the story to talk about incidents when soldiers were exploited and lied about for propaganda (Jessica Lynch) and incidents in which "friendly fire" is covered up (the battle of Nasiriyah.) In the final third of the book, Krakauer painstakingly reconstructs the events that led to Tillman's death.
This is the second book by Krakauer that I've read. Like the first one, Into Thin Air, I found Krakauer's writing style to be frustrating. He writes about exciting topics. In Into Thin Air, Krakauer perfectly captures the complex jargon of mountain climbing and the speaking styles of these expert climbers. In Where Men Win Glory Krakauer captures the complex jargon of the US Army and the distinctive vocabulary of Army Rangers. However, Krakauer's commentary is overwritten and clashes with the story he is telling.
20b) The End of Major Combat Operations - by Nick McDonell (162 pages)
McSweeney's 34 also included this piece of writing as a stand-alone paperback. I read McDonnell's The End of Major Combat Operations in observance of Memorial Day. McDonell was a journalist embedded with the United States Army's 1st Cavalry Division in Mosul, Iraq in early 2009.
McDonell's reporting consists of short dispatches mixed with longer, reflective pieces showing the experiences of soldiers in Iraq during the first months of the Obama administration and after Obama had announced a timetable for the withdrawal of the military from Iraq.
McDonell's reporting is haunting. In particular, McDonell describes the relationship of soldiers with "terps" - Iraqis who provide assistance to the US military by serving as interpreters. This is done at extreme personal risk. Proceeds from this book go to The List Project, "a nonprofit organization founded in the belief that the United States has a clear and urgent moral obligation to resettle to safety Iraqis who are imperiled due to their affilitation with the U.S."
20a) McSweeney's Volume 34 (216 pages)
McSweeney's 34 came in a plastic pouch containing two books: this collection of short stories and a book of military reporting from Iraq by Nick McDonell. I'll review McDonell's contribution later.
The short stories in McSweeney's 34 contain several gems. In particular, I was impressed by Anthony Doerr's short story "Afterworld" about an elderly woman with a seizure disorder who had managed to find safe passage out of a German-Jewish orphanage during the holocaust. Her seizures bring her back to a place of vivid memory of the other girls who perished in a concentration camp. (Doerr's story set in a futuristic South Africa in McSweeney's 32 which featured a woman with Alzheimer's was one of the best in that collection.)
Other highlights of McSweeney's 34 include Sean Casey's wonderfully creative short story "Conversations with Girls," T.C. Boyle's story of a shipwreck off the coast of California, and the return of the letters section with an uproariously hilarious letter about red wine by comedian John Hodgman.
19) Lives of the Heart - by Jane Hirshfield (106 pages)
Jane Hirshfield is currently my favorite poet. Her poems tend to be based in nature and contain hints of Eastern thought. They are often melancholy, subtle, and opaque, requiring several readings to draw out their meaning. Lives of the Heart is not her best collection, but it has several gems. This collection's first section contains a series of rather good poems: "Secretive Heart," "Mule Heart," "Salt Heart," "Abundant Heart," "Unnameable Heart," "Clappered Heart," and "Irreversible Heart." Other extraordinary poems include, "Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight" and "Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World."
My favorite poem in this collection is the title poem, "Lives of the Heart." You can - and should - read it here, though I must apologize for the lousy music, the cheesy picture of an eagle in flight, the "Comic sans (serif)" font, and the annoying centering. But, enjoy the poem in spite of these.
18) Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace - by David Lipsky (335 pages)
In 1996, at age 34, David Foster Wallace published his magnum opus. It was ingeniously experimental, boldly difficult, and thoroughly ambitious. Infinite Jest checked in at nearly 1,000 pages, not including an additional 100 pages of endnotes that are required reading if you hope to follow the plot. At the time DFW was a rising star, though he had not yet found commercial success. IJ was a revelation and you couldn't read it as if it were any other book. Reading it became an event, a spectacle. (You can still find internet sites where people talk about strategies for reading it, like keeping a bookmark in both the book and the endnotes, or ripping it in half to make it more portable.) Reading it was an exercise in not only mental endurance, but it was also physically demanding.
In 1996 Rolling Stone sent David Lipsky to accompany DFW on the last stop on his book tour. Lipsky wound up conducting a five day interview with DFW. Rolling Stone decided to kill the story but Lipsky held on to the interview tapes. When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Lipsky decided to release the entire, unedited transcription of his five day conversation with DFW. That is what this book is. A.O.C.Y.E.U.B.Y brings David Foster Wallace back to life and captures him as a young author who has just burst on the scene, received press from Time and Newsweek, and exhilarated the literary world.
In 2006 I read the complete works of David Foster Wallace over a 7 month period. I was enthralled. I published this remembrance of him after learning of his death.
17) Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison - by Michel Foucault (307 pages)
D&P begins with an account of the horrific (and somewhat botched) torture and execution of a man accused of plotting regicide in France in the 1700s. It then explores the reasons why punishment by public spectacle - the scaffold and the pillory - gave way to the system of the modern prison in a relatively short period of time.
Michel Foucault, perhaps the most influential philosopher of the second half of the Twentienth century, locates these changes in the shift from a monarchical/agricultural society to an industrial/capitalistic society. It is particularly interesting to note that the forms of discipline observed in penal institutions were not limited to prisons, but that schools, universities, hospitals, factories, and the military all employed similar concepts of discipline. Foucault is especially fascinating in his exploration of the effects of Jeremy Bentham's concept of the panopticon on prisons.
Foucault writes of his own book, "[it] must serve as a historical background to various studies of the power of normalization and formation of knowledge in modern society."
I should mention that I have written this review having just returned from a trip up to the Fort Leavenworth military base where I visited the Frontier Soldier Museum. One exhibit showed the daily discipline of soldiers, where activities are prescribed to the minute. Another exhibit showed the former disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth with their design modeled after the panopticon.
16) Panic!: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity - edited by Michael Lewis (366 pages)
Do you remember where you were when the Dot.com bubble burst? I was in my first year of seminary and I had walked over to Mass. Ave. in Cambridge to break from studying by enjoying a slice of pizza, a root beer, and a couple of games of the ever-addictive Ms. Pacman. The TV inside the sub shop was tuned to CNN’s coverage of the free-fall of internet stocks. The previous year I had been living on the West Coast and a number of my acquaintances had discussed the idea of moving to Silicon Valley and latching on with a Dot.com startup. The zeitgeist was astounding to behold. If you were a smart, creative, and bold person in your early twenties and you knew something about computers, you believed that you’d be able to retire at age 25 (or 30, at most) with $5 to $10 million in the bank. Even more astounding was the fact that if you played your cards right, it was totally realistic. But, how many 23 year-old paper millionaires would elect to cash out when their bosses were worth $100 million or a half-billion on paper?
In Panic!: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, Michael Lewis gives us a documentary history of four market crashes: the Wall Street crash of 1987, the Southeast Asia currency collapse of the late 1990s, the bursting of the Dot.com bubble, and the collapse of Bear Stearns as a result of bad debt from subprime mortgages. For each crash Lewis gives us a sampling of magazine and newspaper articles that paint a picture of times leading up to each crash. He also gives us documents from each crash as well as various attempts to explain each crash (or point fingers) after the fact.
This collection of writings pulls from a variety of sources like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Fortune Magazine, and Barron’s among many others. Michael Lewis, as always, demonstrates his knack for pulling out the personalities related to the stories. Who knew that Jim Cramer, the controversial host of the cable television program Mad Money, swore that he was giving up investing to coach fifth-grade soccer after the Dot.com crash? Or, consider Kate Kelly’s WSJ piece on Bear Stearns’ 73 year-old CEO James Cayne. It seems that Cayne enjoyed leaving work early Thursday afternoon, taking a private helicopter to an exclusive golf course, his chosen destination for three and a half day weekends. Cayne also, allegedly, enjoyed smoking marijuana in hotel lobby bathrooms. He also spent the ten most critical days as his company faltered at a bridge tournament in Nashville without a cell phone or email device. And, since Cayne posted his golf scores on a website, it was possible to figure out which significant meetings Cayne did not attend. Not a bad way to earn $34 million per year.
On a more serious note, I found Panic! to be informative, helping the lay reader understand complex market systems and how it was possible for the markets to crash over and over again. I leave you with this challenging quotation from Michael Lewis:
“There’s plenty to criticize about American financial life, but the problems are less with rule-breaking than with the game itself. Even in the most fastidious of times it is boorishly single-minded. It is more than a little nuts for a man who has a billion dollars to devote his life to making another billion, but that’s what some of our most exalted citizens do, over and over again. That’s who we are; that’s how we seem to like to spend our time. Americans are incapable of hating the rich; certainly they will always prefer them to the poor. The boom and everything that went with it—the hype, the hope, the mad scramble for a piece of the action, the ever escalating definition of ‘rich,’ the grotesque ratcheting up of executive pay—is much closer to our hearts than the bust and everything that goes with it. People who view us from a distance understand this. That’s why when they want to attack us, they blow up the World Trade Center and not the Securities and Exchange Commission. Why don’t we understand this about ourselves?”
“Is it possible that scandal is somehow an essential ingredient in capitalism? That a healthy free-market economy must tempt a certain number of people to behave corruptly, and that a certain number of these will do so? That the crooks are not a sign that something is rotten but that something is working more or less as it was meant to work?"
15) Wild Things - by Dave Eggers (281 pages)
Dave Eggers is simply amazing. As an author he is amazing at capturing humanity, as exemplified by his books like What is the What and Zeitoun, as well as the Voices of Witness series which he launched. At the same time, he is equally capable of putting seriousness aside and capturing the same youthful spirit that he demonstrated while playing frisbee on the beach with his younger brother Topher in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
It takes that playful spirit to turn Maurice Sendak's visionary, 335 word children's book Where the Wild Things Are into a nearly 300 page novel. In the novel, Max is suburban kid. His mom is divorced and is attempting to kindle a romantic flame with a man named Gary who utterly fails to impress Max. His father, largely absent, comes across as materialistic and narcissistic. His sister has just begun high school and her energies are focused on the process of coming of age; seeking the affection of the stoner boys, she no longer has time for games with Max.
Eggers' caricature of suburbia is hilarious, especially the opening scene where Max is chased down the street of their subdivision by his friend's mom who is worried that he is riding alone and without a helmet. When Max eludes her by veering his bike into the woods she cries, "Not the woods!... Molesters! Drugs! Homeless! Needles!"
Unfortunately, the story loses its trajectory as Max becomes king of the Wild Things on the lost island. Who are the wild things? What do they long for? What do they seek from Max? The simpler version is better.
I cannot end this brief review without mentioning the sheer joy of carrying around the fur-bound edition of this book. Some books you can judge by their cover.
14) The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right - by Atul Gawande (298 pages)
For my money, Atul Gawande > Malcolm Gladwell. My favorite book by Gawande is still his first, Complications, a series of reflections about surgery. Gawande’s second book, Better, featured a scattering of essays on how to improve the way we do things.
I picked up Gawande’s third book, The Checklist Manifesto, with diminished expectations. How interesting could a book about checklists be? The answer: a lot more interesting than I had expected. Gawande begins by asserting that we live in a world of extreme professional specialization. The sheer complexity of what we do presents roadblocks to success. He then asserts that a simple checklist can allow our brains to do complex work while helping us not to make “stupid mistakes.”
Gawande turns to two fields that have embraced checklists, aviation and advanced structural engineering. In aviation the era of the “ace pilot” is over: Too many ace pilots died testing out new aircraft. We now have flight simulators. Cutting edge aircraft are too complicated to be flown by a single person. In structural engineering, the era of the “master builder” is over. It is impossible for a single person to design a skyscraper. Instead, a skyscraper is designed as a collaborative enterprise between experts in at least 16 sub-specialties. Towards the end of the book, Gawande takes a look at the “miracle on the Hudson,” in which a few years ago a pilot landed a plane on the Hudson River and saved 155 lives. Gawande chalks this up not to individual heroism, but to teamwork and checklists.
For all the success that checklists have had in other fields, Gawande explores the challenges of getting doctors, surgeons, and hospitals to embrace their use. When a simple, 19 point checklist was tested during surgical procedures at 8 hospitals around the world the results clearly showed that the checklists dramatically improved surgery results. In a telling example of cognitive dissonance, operating room staff often did not buy in to the use of a checklist. However, when asked if they would want a checklist used if they were to have surgery, 93% of the operating room staff said they would.
Most surprising for me was Gawande’s observation of how using a checklist powerfully enhances communication. The simple act of pausing to make sure everyone is on the same page may be the most important point made in the book. I am left to wonder: How might checklists be incorporated in church life?
13) Motherless Brooklyn - by Jonathan Lethem (311 pages)
Lionel Essrog is a detective with Tourette's syndrome. As an orphan, he and three of his peers are taken under wing by Frank Minna, an anachronistic old-fashioned gangster. When an ambush during a stakeout leaves Frank dead, Lionel Essrog is left to piece together the clues and catch the killer. Who can he trust? Is he being hunted as well?
On the whole, Motherless Brooklyn was decent but by no means outstanding. The story failed to grab me. However, the funniest moment came late in the story when the investigative trail leads Essrog to Maine and he finds the proper place names of Maine sending his Tourette's into overdrive. Kennebunkport! Muscongus!
12) Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle - by Chris Hedges (196 pages)
After enjoying the last book I read by Hedges, I decided to read his latest book right away. (I've now read four of the six books he's written.) Empire of Illusion is not so much a complete book, though it seems to claim to be. Instead it reads like five distinct essays dealing with different illusions that afflict Americans in these modern times.
The essays are all over the place. Hedges tends to be a very literary writer. It is therefore jarring to read the first chapter ("The Illusion of Literacy") that begins with an interpretive analysis of professional wrestling and episodes of The Jerry Springer Show. Maybe Hedges should stick to writing about Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad. The second chapter ("The Illusion of Love") is even more disorienting as Hedges critiques the pornography industry.
In the third chapter ("The Illusion of Wisdom") Hedges moves away from sensationalism and assails trends in the modern-day University system. This chapter might provoke a great discussion as would his fourth chapter ("The Illusion of Happiness") in which he offers an unrelenting critique of positive psychology.
The book ends with probably the most solid and most fearful chapter ("The Illusion of America") in which Hedges looks at the recession and the influence of corporations and paints a bleak picture of the future of our country.
All in all, Empire of Illusion is not a horrible book, but it doesn't rise to the level of Hedges' other writings.
11) I Don't Believe in Atheists - by Chris Hedges (188 pages)
Click here for my review of this book.
10) Letters and Papers from Prison – by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Eberhard Bethge (421 pages)
Bonhoeffer was a brilliant German pastor and theologian who was an influential leader of the Confessing Church which offered resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer also participated in the “officers’ plot” which made several assassination attempts against Hitler. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for 18 months under suspicion of resistance to Nazi rule. He was then sent to a concentration camp and later executed. I read this book as partial preparation for my sermon on February 28, “Inglourious Unitarians: Religious Violence Revisited.”
This collection of letters and papers show Bonhoeffer’s theology as well as paint a more personal portrait of his life. Much of the heavier, ideological content is written in code and with an eye to the censors. He writes theologically about engagement with culture and about how he copes with his imprisonment spiritually. The personal side of it is rich. He writes about smoking, about longing for Christmas goose, and requests a never-ending supply of advanced academic texts in the realm of theology, church history, and other topics. He spends his days studying Stifter, Harnack, and Dilthey.
This book also includes Bonhoeffer’s writings, including a wedding sermon and a baptismal sermon, some pretty awful poetry, and an amazing short piece entitled “Lance-Corporal Berg.”
Honestly, this book will probably bore most readers and those wanting to understand Bonhoeffer’s theology would be better off turning to academic studies of this thought or to his own writings in works like The Cost of Discipleship. However, I found that this book, as tedious as it was, presented a full picture of his experience in prison.
9) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work – by John Gottman and Nan Silver (269 pages)
About two years ago I preached a sermon series on the theme of renewal. One of those sermons was on emotional renewal and a psychologist in my congregation loaned me Gottman’s famous book on healthy relationships. To my regret I barely had the time to read the back cover of the book before I preached that sermon. Gottman’s book is a fantastic guide to emotionally intelligent relationships.
8) A Sense of Urgency - by John Kotter (202 pages)
My colleague Ian Evison recommended this book to me about six months ago. Every year I try to read at least one book on the subject of business and management. Kotter’s book is relatively straightforward and, in truth, rather dry. At the same time, I found that it provided an interesting lens for looking at leadership and the culture of organizations.
Kotter argues that it is essential for leaders to create a sense of urgency. Urgency is the opposite of complacency, an ingrained passivity. Urgency is also the opposite of “false urgency,” action that is frantic and panicked and manic, but that doesn’t change anything. Kotter offers practical strategies for cultivating a sense of urgency and dealing with “NoNos,” those who would try to undermine and sabotage change.
Interestingly, one person I know has claimed that our new UUA President Peter Morales used Kotter’s teachings about urgency while campaigning for the presidency and continues to make use of the core principles of “urgency.”
7) Be the Change: Poems, Prayers & Meditations for Peacemakers & Justice Seekers - by Stephen Shick (119 pages)
I have to begin this review with a mea culpa. From the summer of 2006 through the spring of 2009 I was the editor of the newsletter of the UU Ministers Association. As part of that position I was sent free copies of some Skinner House Books in exchange for reviewing those books in the newsletter. Last spring Skinner House sent me a copy of Stephen Shick’s Be the Change, but my tenure as newsletter editor came to an end before I had the chance to review it. It sat on my bookshelf for more than six months and I only recently picked it up and read it.
Be the Change contains an astonishing 154 separate pieces of writing. Shick’s writings include short prayers, responsive readings, and commentaries on choice quotations. Sometimes, the piece of writing seems like a paragraph that has been lifted out of a sermon or a newsletter column. Some pieces are highly specific; others are quite abstract. As I read this collection I found myself wishing that several of the pieces were longer and more developed. At the same time I made a note of many of the pieces, especially his responsive readings, that would work extremely well in a worship service.
I should also mention that Shick’s book surprised me. I was expecting the focus of his writing to be much narrower. Many of his writings are not explicitly about justice or peace. Instead, what Stephen Shick gives us is a kind of spiritual practice for people who have a commitment to making peace and working for social justice. The five movements are inward reflection, recognizing our capacity to be a force in nature, recognizing our capacity to be a force in history, committing to a practice, and accepting the movements of grace in our lives and in the world. It is an interesting project.
6) McSweeney's Volume 30 (199 pages)
The good folks at McSweeney's marked the milestone of their 30th issue by using the same printer in Iceland that they had used for their first several issues. There was not one clunker among the 11 short stories in this issue. Unfortunately, there was not any spectacular standout either.
Issue 30 did contain a good short story by Kevin Moffett about a frustrated writer whose father, on a lark, succeeds in publishing numerous stories. It also contains a surprisingly good (not to mention, wickedly funny) story by the actor Michael Cera.
5) Weekends at Bellevue: Nine Years on the Night Shift at the Psych ER - by Julie Holland (309 pages)
There are two books by philospher Michel Foucault that are on my reading list for this year. From what I already know of Foucault and his books Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison and The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception, I know he would have a field day with Weekends at Bellevue.
Weekends at Bellevue is Dr. Julie Holland's memoir of spending 9 years working the weekend night shifts in the psychiatric emergency room of New York City's famous public hospital. Having worked at a public hospital in a large city (Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas) I have firsthand experience with the smallest sliver of what Dr. Holland experienced. (The similarities stop there: Dr. Holland is a doctor and I was a chaplain; she worked nine years while I worked 9 weeks.) Dr. Holland gives us just a taste of what it is like to treat New York City's neediest psych patients.
Weekends at Bellevue is not as exploitative as one might imagine. The focus is not on her wildest cases, like the guy found naked in Times Square, barking like a dog and claiming to be God. Instead, the focus is on Dr. Holland. She tells us of the death from breast cancer of a colleague with whom she was especially close. She describes a bitter feud with her boss. She even tells salacious stories from her earlier days in medicine, such as a contest with a fellow medical student to see how many surgeons they could seduce in a single summer.
But the part of it that is most fascinating — and that Foucault would find most fascinating — is Dr. Holland's inner struggle between who she feels she ought to be as the ideal doctor and the cold, cynical, tough-as-nails persona she puts on to get herself through the night shift. This persona leads her to objectify, demean, and even abuse her own patients. She taunts prisoners brought to be evaluated. When she is not buying the story of a patient who is trying to get admitted to the psych ward, she might tell them, "You suck at lying." At times she slips over into outright sadism. This is exactly what Foucault describes in his analysis of both prisons and hospitals. And the psychiatric ward at Bellevue is part hospital and part prison.
I don't mean to paint too negative a picture of Dr. Holland. She is actually immensely likable: smart, unpredictable, sassy, and super-talented. Her own search through therapy to regain her full humanity is fascinating. I read this book at a breakneck pace, with the urgency of a busy night in the Bellevue ER.
4) The Solitary Vice: Against Reading - by Mikita Brottman (212 pages)
You can read my review here.
3) The Elegance of the Hedgehog - by Muriel Barbery (309 pages)
Last June I attended worship at the Arlington Street Church in Boston. In the announcements before the service, Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie announced that the church book club would be reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog and commented that the title sounded like a work of Unitarian Universalist theology. Well, it was funny when she said it.
Our church book group also read Muriel Barbery’s novel and everyone I know who has read it has raved about it. It took me a while to get into the book. The story is set in a very upper-class, old money Parisian condominium building. The dual protagonists consist of Renée, the concierge who keeps her superior intellect and love of art a secret, and Paloma, a precocious and melancholic twelve year old. Renée and Paloma are highly critical of the tastes, habits, and airs of the aristocratic class.
The first half of the book is especially focused on the intellectual lives of the two protagonists. Renée uses her cat in order to argue against Husserl and the entire philosophical school of phenomenology. Paloma is obsessed with Japanese culture. Then a gentleman moves into one of the condos and effects changes in the status quo of the building’s residents. At this point the book actually does become interesting and redemptive.
[A few more comments added a week later: One reader of my blog commented that my review of this book was a little harsh and, upon re-reading what I wrote about this book, I would have to agree. I've slightly altered my review and removed the parts where I was especially unfair. I think my hang-up with this book was its mocking of the bourgeois residents of the condo building. I found the critiques of their snobbishness and their stupidity to be grating and tiring. However, the second half of the book definitely made up for it. It more than redeemed the book.]
2) With or Without Candlelight: A Meditation Anthology - edited by Victoria Safford (65 pages)
Each year since 1961 the UUA has published a meditation manual. (Some years they've published two.) The 2009 meditation manual is a collection of 44 meditations by 24 different UU authors. The contributors include both ministers and laity. I read the meditations in this volume as a part of my personal spiritual practice. A few of the ones that stood out were Karen Hering's piece entitled "Oriented Times Three", Bill Neely's piece "A Farmer Feeds", and Kendyl Gibbons' multiple contributions.
1) The Whole World Kin: Darwin and the Spirit of Liberal Religion - edited by Fredric Muir (115 pages)
This small collection, edited by my colleague Fred Muir who also served with me on the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Executive Committee, addresses the subject of how Darwin's theory of evolution informs liberal religion. The collection contains 8 contemporary essays as well as a lecture delivered by Unitarian minister Minot Judson Savage in 1876.
Several things stand out in these collected essays. John Gibbons' essay which begins by recounting his experience of officiating at the memorial service of Ernst Mayr, the great 20th Century evolutionary biologist, is superb. Michael Dowd, the "evangelist of evolution," makes several interesting points, especially his distinction between private and public revelation and his remarks about "day language" and "night language." Dowd's wife, Connie Barlow, writes extremely directly about teaching evolution in Sunday school as our central religious story. (It will be interesting to see whether religious educators agree with her or think that she overstates her position.) Finally, the intellectual jewel of this collection is Naomi King's outstanding study of Darwin's "imperfect legacy." As one who visited the Galapagos Islands only three months ago, I found this short collection useful in helping to frame my religious response to the creation story of evolution.
Total Pages: 12,252