45) The Zero – by Jess Walter (324 pages)
Prior to picking up this book at a library book sale I had read two of Walter's short stories as well as the first chapter of a previous novel, Citizen Vince. The Zero was a let down for me. This work of post-9/11 fiction follows a New York cop in a bizarre terrorist investigation following the September 11 attacks. The cop is afflicted with a medical condition that causes him to suffer lapses in which he blacks out. This episodic novel has been described as Helleresque, Kafkaesque, and neo-noirish. The concept just did not work for me.
44) McSweeney's 39 (276 pages)
This latest release from McSweeney's arrived just before Christmas and it was spectacular. Every single work of fiction was better than the one before it, but what set this issue apart from the rest was several non-fiction selections including a story about a European conman in Uganda, the tale of a man who became the trusted adviser of the Shah of Iran, and a brilliant reprint of a speech by Vaclav Havel.
43) Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal – by Jeffrey Kripal (340 pages)
I cannot rave enough about this newest release from Jeffrey Kripal. It is the best book I read all year, and deserves a blog post of its own. It is a thrilling read. The book itself was a splendid work of art, beautiful to behold. Want to get a sense of what this book is about? Read this sermon I delivered after finishing it.
42) The Sacred Depths of Nature – by Ursula Goodenough (185 pages)
I read this book as a part of SMUUCh’s brand new “Spiritual Texts and Contexts” reading group. Goodenough dives deeply into the physical, chemical, and biological science that created the universe and life on planet Earth (well, at least more deeply than this non-scientist could easily understand!) Nature, for Goodenough, is more than beautiful flowers, trees, and wildlife. By explaining the deep complexity of RNA and enzymes, she evokes awe at even the cellular level. Sometimes her reflections and the science mesh seamlessly. At other times, the combination feels force.
41) Unincorporated Person of the Late Honda Dynasty – by Tony Hoagland (85 pages)
This is the third collection of Hoagland’s poetry I’ve read, and he is quickly becoming a favorite of mine. This collection of sarcastic poetry locates the reader late in the Honda Dynasty, or in the midst of suburban sprawl. The first section of this collection is the best by far. Hoagland uses the mall food court to discuss diversity and puts us in touch with the innovator who invented the extra-large personal bag of chips. In poetry he writes of his compassion for and fascination with Britney Spears, and, in the collection’s best poem, writes of the dissonance he experiences hearing a Muzak version of Dylan’s “It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at a shopping center. It is a great collection of poems by a fantastic poet.
40) God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Quetion - Why We Suffer – by Bart Ehrman (280 pages)
You can read the sermon I delivered on this book here.
39) Let the Great World Spin – by Colum McCann (349 pages)
This novel has received rave reviews from everyone I know who has read it. My wife loved it. Members of the church book club loved it. An essayist reviewing post-9/11 fiction for McSweeney’s 33 loved it. One of my colleagues said it was the best piece of modern fiction he’d read in years.
McCann’s critically acclaimed novel takes the form of ten interlocking short stories that take place on the same day in August 1974 that Philippe Petit did a tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in New York City. In the stories we meet an Irish-Catholic priest, a grandma who is a prostitute, a passenger during a fatal hit-and-run accident, a judge, and a group of mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam. Through McCann’s vivid and tactile prose these lives separated by fewer than six degrees come beautifully to life. I generally prefer more obtuse and quirky novels, but there is no denying that this one is very, very good.
38) The Denial of Death - by Ernest Becker (297 pages)
Read the sermon I preached on this book here.
37) Mcsweeney’s Volume 38 (264 pages)
The most recent issue of McSweeney’s is a solid collection of short fiction and non-fiction. On the fiction side, I was most impressed by Roddy Doyle’s short story “The Hens.” I also enjoyed Nathaniel Rich’s story “The Northeast Kingdom”, Rachel Glaser’s “The JPEG,” and Adam Levin’s hilarious short piece “Cred.” On the non-fiction side I was blown away by Chanan Tigay’s piece about Arabs who serve in the Israeli Army.
36) Blue Like Jazz: Non-religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality - by Don Miller (243 pages)
You can read my review of Blue Like Jazz here.
35) McSweeney’s Volume 33 (281 pages)
This was just ridiculous. I received this behemoth in the mail in December of 2009 and didn’t get around to reading it until just now. McSweeney’s 33 is a tribute to the newspaper. The issue is printed as a giant newspaper with ten full sections on 15” x 22” newsprint. In addition, this issue contains a marvelous “Sunday magazine” and a great books section that features short stories and reviews.
My favorite parts were the magazine that brought us fascinating dispatches: a woman writes about social life at an Antarctica research station; a gay couple attends NASCAR in Michigan; a Pakistani-American playwright/lawyer defends foreclosures in California. The long-form journalism from destinations around the State of California is fantastic as well. Plus, a comics section and a food section that was a lot of fun!
34) Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind The Most Audacious Heist In History – by Ben Mezrich (309 pages)
Mezrich’s non-fiction-ish books about audacious kids from fantastic universities who take the world by storm and play by their own rules are guilty pleasures in which I delight. Sex on the Moon deviates from his formula in a few key ways. What is similar throughout his high-wire tales about MIT students who make a fortune counting cards in Vegas, Princeton grads playing the Asian stock markets, and a Harvard dropout who founds Facebook and becomes a multi-billionaire is that the audacity pays off. Enemies are made and risks are taken, but, in the end, glory does not go to the meek.
Sex on the Moon is different. It’s audacious, risk-taking protagonist winds up in a federal prison. This book tells the story of Thad Roberts, an ex-Mormon from Utah who is by the idea of becoming an astronaut. Thad applies himself and gets accepted to an extremely competitive internship program with NASA. The charismatic Thad takes the program by storm; he is an emerging scientist and a party animal. He is in the process of leaving his wife for one of his intern co-eds when he hatches a scheme to steal priceless moon-rocks from the Apollo missions. He is busted and goes to prison.
The rude awakening at the conclusion undermines the rest of the book in retrospect. Thad’s story is not tragic, but stupid. The shine comes off. Thad’s wife is presented as a superficial model and party girl. But she lives in Salt Lake City, so we may want to take that with a grain of salt. Mezrich sexes up the college students accepted to NASA’s internship program. He probably exaggerates. The reader is left feeling not only that the story is not nearly as exciting as Mezrich makes it out to be. The reader is left feeling like the story is without a reason to exist.
33) Of Gravity & Angels – by Jane Hirshfield (70 pages)
This is the fourth poetry collection that I’ve read by this author, and I had a harder time getting into these poems than the ones in her other collections. As all her poems are, the ones in Of Gravity & Angels are challenging and often somewhat opaque, a mixture of Eastern religious thought and beautiful nature imagery. Her amorous poems in the second section of the collection were the most striking poems.
32) The Hunger Games - by Suzanne Collins (372 pages)
So, this is the current state of Young Adult fiction? And, how much is Suzanne Collins paying in royalties to Stephen King for ripping off his novel The Running Man?
As with King’s novel, subsequently made into a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian police-state, in which your only ticket out of abject poverty lies in your willingness to put your life on the line and win a gladiator-themed reality television program.
In The Hunger Games, North America has become a totalitarian state. The land is divided into 12 districts and each district produces goods and raw materials that are consumed by the wealthy denizens of the Capitol. The citizens of the districts are perpetually undernourished and live in a state of servitude. Orwellian “Peacekeepers” mete out harsh penalties for crimes such as criticizing the government. As punishment for an uprising many years ago, and as a reminder of the absolute authority of the Capitol, a lottery is held each year and each district sends an adolescent boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games. They are placed in a large arena and fight to the death. The last surviving child is allowed to live, is afforded a life of celebrity and privilege, and, for the next year, the home district of the child receives increased rations. The two children selected from District 12 include Katniss, the anti-authoritarian survivalist and bow and arrow enthusiast, and Peeta, the doughy baker’s son who wears his emotions on his sleeve. What will be their fate?
Even though I don’t watch reality television, it is easy to see how The Hunger Games draws heavily on reality television themes. (Survivor, Hello!) Each contestant has their own stable of image consultants, designers, coaches, and trainers. Their fate in the games depends not only on their combat skills, but on their ability to win the hearts of viewers. In the Hunger Games, you definitely do not want to be the Biggest Loser!
31) Here If You Need Me - by Kate Braestrup (212 pages)
I've been meaning to read this memoir since it came out in 2007. The book tells of the author's experiences as an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who serves as the chaplain during search and rescue operations carried out by the Maine Warden Service. The author made the decision to pursue the ministry after her husband, a police officer who had planned for a second career in the UU ministry, had died in a tragic car accident while on duty.
The author's approach to theological questions and to the art of pastoral ministry make me proud to be a Unitarian Universalist and a UU minister.
30) Death of the Liberal Class - by Chris Hedges (217 pages)
You can read my review of this book here.
29) Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer – by Steven Millhauser (293 pages)
I am drawn to and utterly fascinated by America at the turn of the twentieth century. The poetry of Walt Whitman. The psychology of William James. The muckraking journalism of Upton Sinclair. A few years ago I was enthralled by contemporary writer Chris Adrian’s debut novel, Gob’s Grief, which is set in New York City at the turn of the century. I was almost equally enthralled by Steven Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel set in the exact same time period.
I had previously read only a few of Millhauser’s short stories and I am glad to have read one of his novels. Martin Dressler gives us the life of an ambitious man building his empire in New York City’s rapid expansion and development. The son of a German immigrant and tobacconist, Martin Dressler leaves school and the family trade to enter the hotel business. He works his way up from bellhop to assistant manager. Then he opens a restaurant and then a chain of restaurants. Next it is a hotel and then a series of ever more elaborate and ambitious buildings until he is consumed by… well, something. Maybe it is his ambition that is his downfall. Or, maybe he has forgotten something about the essence of humanity.
What made this book for me was not the characters but the setting. Millhauser uses a rich vocabulary to exquisitely describe the hotels and lunchrooms and shops as well as the urban ambiance of the city. Millhauser conjures up and dreams an amazing landscape.
28) McSweeney’s 37 (249 pages)
This issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern features 15 short stories, five of them contemporary short stories by Kenyan writers. On the whole I found the Kenyan stories flat and lacking in appeal. Fortunately, many of the other stories are quite good. Of special note are stories by Jonathan Franzen, Joe Meno, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Hyduk’s account of being unemployed in the current economy. My favorite piece of writing in this collection was Jess Walter’s amazing “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington.” While McSweeney’s is always creative with its packaging and artwork, I found this latest edition to be a real clunker in the art department. The book was unwieldy and the binding came unglued by the time I had finished the first few stories.
27) Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives – edited by Peter Orner (371 pages)
This is the first book I’ve read of the now seven books to come out through McSweeney’s “Voices of Witness” series that is published for the purposes of “Illuminating human rights crises through oral history.” The other books in the series illuminate domestic crises including people harmed by the Patriot Act, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, and America’s wrongfully convicted. International oral histories tell the stories of human rights abuses in Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.
This collection gives voice to 24 undocumented persons living in the United States. These voices are diverse. They include teenagers and a gentleman in his sixties. They are gay and straight. They include people from Mexico and Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. Underground America is a gripping collection of stories. The oral histories of Victoria, a transgender young person, and Desiree, a lesbian, show the particular vulnerabilities of immigrants whose sexual orientation or gender identity places them in the minority. I was particularly drawn to the oral histories of Liso who is lured to the United States under the auspices of doing missionary work but is forced into indentured servitude, and Farid, a successful business owner in the United States facing deportation.
While I am not sad that I read this collection of oral histories, I am not sure how many in the series I plan to read. I think the ones about wrongful imprisonment and the Patriot Act sound fascinating.
26) The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion - by Jeffrey J. Kripal (185 pages)
I may be biased – after all, I took a course from him in graduate school – but, for my money, Jeffrey Kripal is the most exciting scholar of religion we have amongst us today. Last December I read his daring and provocative book, Authors of the Impossible, which deals with why the field of religious studies has ignored psychical phenomena and why it has judged some categories of the supernatural as worth exploring while other categories of the supernatural have been off limits. As a graduate student I read parts of Kripal’s award-winning first book, Kali’s Child and later I read parts of his second book, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom. At this time, I am returning to the corpus of Kripal’s writing.
The Serpent’s Gift is part manifesto and part meandering (snake-like in its twisting) meditation on the academic study of religion. Kripal calls for the academy to move beyond dualism (faith-reason; subjective-objective; etc.) by embracing a radical third. This “third” is the turn towards gnosticism and postmodernism. Kripal writes of categorical triplets: premodern, modern, postmodern; faith, reason, gnosis. He also evokes or implies others who have thought in parallel, including Paul Ricoeur’s concept of first naïvete, disillusionment, and second naïvete, and, presumably, the mystical system of Pseudo-Dionysus and others that posits kataphatic, apophatic, and hyperphatic mystical experiences.
Kripal writes that this gnostic turn will succeed in evoking the erotic, heretical, mystical, and mythical dimensions of religion that traditional scholarship conspires to conceal. Kripal’s four chapters deal with the sexuality of Jesus, the heretical thought of Ludwig Feurbach, the mysticism of the Hindu guru Ramakrishna, and, most notably, the X-Men comic book series. It is this latter chapter that is most compelling.
Kripal manages to write about deep and subversive thoughts in a way that, while challenging in a scholarly sense, is often charming, funny, and certainly iconoclastic.
25) Clamor – by Elyse Fenton (75 pages)
Elyse Fenton’s time at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, overlapped with mine and I picked up her debut volume of poetry earlier this month when I traveled back to Stumptown for the kickoff to Reed’s Centennial celebrations.
Clamor is full of complex, challenging poems that deal with the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking subject matter of the poet waiting for her beloved to return from tours of duty in Iraq. Just as “clamor” can refer to either a cacophonous, busy noise or to silence, Fenton captures the dual nature of life in wartime. There is home – the garden, coffee, writing – and there is the other, the life of the loved one in battle.
These poems draw from a rich background in the humanities. We find characters such as Dante and Persephone. We find words like “chthonic.” However, in these complex and difficult poems, Fenton often hits us with a line that makes you swallow hard:
“Each eggplant that I pick / is ripe and sun-dark in its own inviolable / skin. Except there is no inviolable anything / and you’ve been home now for a year.”
Her poem infidelity is a confession of her dreams of death befalling her beloved. “I never dreamed you whole.”
24) Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War – by Deb Olin Unferth (206 pages)
Deb Olin Unferth’s collection of very short stories, Minor Robberies, was quite good. I found her debut novel, Vacation, to be a total disappointment. Her memoir, Revolution, was a spectacular read that shows Unferth at the height of her writing powers.
Unferth’s writing style is choppy and abrupt. She states things simply. Her writing style is also extremely self-conscious, exuding the post-modern turn towards self-awareness, reflexivity, and self-critique. This writing style is perfect for a memoir and it is perfect for this kind of memoir, in which the absurdity and insanity of the story needs no unnecessary embellishment.
Revolution tells the story of Unferth, at age 18, dropping out of college and following her idealistic and ideological boyfriend to Central America where they decided they would try to foment the revolution and work to spread Marxism and liberation theology Catholicism. To call them naïve would be a great understatement as they haphazardly bounce around El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica during the mid-1980s.
Revolution is a misadventure of the highest order. They struggle to find work and manage to get themselves fired from volunteer jobs with an orphanage and a bicycle shop. They suffer continuously from a variety of tropical diseases. They are robbed repeatedly.
It is a crazy, scary, hilarious and wild tale and one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.
23) Five Skies – by Ron Carlson (244 pages)
Occasionally I will select a book that has been read and well-liked by the fiction book group at our church. This book was recommended to me by one member of the book club. Five Skies takes us to rural Idaho where three laborers are working to construct a massive ramp for an Evel Knievel-ish motorcycle jump over a canyon.
Five Skies features three male protagonists, none of whom would be described as verbally expressive. Through their silence and their oscillation between being soft-spoken and non-spoken the traumas of their previous lives are slowly revealed. And, that is about it.
As a whole, I didn’t particularly like this book that much. If I had to look for something that I particularly enjoyed, it would have to be the way the massive ramp looms as a character in its own right. It is a spectacle. It points to a way of being in the world that overshadows the human characters. I think a book group could have a very rich discussion on this aspect of the novel.
22) Zeitoun – by Dave Eggers (323 pages)
About five years ago I read Eggers’ powerful What is the What, in which Eggers tells the life story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese lost boy. That book was probably the most powerful book I’ve ever read. With Zeitoun, Eggers returns to this tried and true formula of writing a contemporary biography in the form of a novel. His writing thus inhabits the space between fiction and non-fiction. The events are true and real. The book reads with urgency and elegance.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian immigrant to the United States. He settled in New Orleans where with hard work he created the American dream for his family and himself. Zeitoun operates a successful painting and contracting business. When Hurricane Katrina strikes New Orelans, Zeitoun decides to stay while his wife and four children flee, first to Baton Rouge and then to Arizona.
Staying through the flood, Zeitoun finds himself canoeing through the flooded city. He rescues a woman trapped in her home, an elderly couple, and a number of dogs left behind. Then, astoundingly, he is arrested and indefinitely detained by the Department of Homeland Security.
As New Orleans residents were dying in their homes and facing horrible conditions in the Super Dome and elsewhere, various security agencies of the United States government focused their efforts on setting up makeshift Guantanamo Bay-style internment camps. Zeitoun’s civil and human rights were grossly violated. He and his friends spent between one and six months detained without charges or a phone call.
Zeitoun is both a powerful testament to the human spirit and a powerful indictment of gross human rights violations in our own country. It is an amazing, deeply affecting book and a quick read to boot.
21) A Better Angel - by Chris Adrian (225 pages)
A nine year old child prodigy with a thing for memorizing Emily Dickinson. The haunting, out-of-body wanderings of a woman in a coma. A psychotic fifth grader. The fevered, prophetic visions of a child from another century. An underachieving guardian angel. A boy possessed by the spirits of the dead from the September 11 terrorist attacks. A boy who discovers his father is the devil.
These are the odd, haunting, dark, medical and mystical things that populate Chris Adrian’s imagination. In these nine short stories, Adrian gives us a terrifying and surreal world filled with horrible diseases, loss, grief, and their attendant angels and demons.
The gem of this collection is “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death.” It was this story, published in McSweeney’s 14, that first turned me on to Adrian. I can hardly think of a better short story that I’ve ever read. In this story, Cindy is an adolescent girl with a damaged digestive track who stalks the halls of a children’s hospital. She seduces a boy with cystic fibrosis, aggravates a young intern named Dr. Chandra (likely a substitute for Adrian himself), and composes a book about animals with dreadful diseases.
While none of the other eight stories quite reach the level of this one, they are all moving and wondrous. Adrian is not for everyone, but he is most certainly my type of writer.
20) Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary – by David Sedaris (157 pages)
Ah, summer reading! In this short collection, David Sedaris takes a stab at writing animal fables. What he produces is this short volume of laugh-out-loud hilarious and irreverent animal stories in which the animals behave badly, but the joke is on us.
The collection begins with fables that take aim at obsequiousness, gossiping, narcissism, and political correctness. However, some of his best fables – The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat, The Judicious Brown Chicken, The Crow and the Lamb – take aim at contemporary and perennial spiritual crises. Why do bad things happen to good people? How do we account for suffering? What is the relationship between things of the spirit and things of this world?
My two favorite fables were the darkly funny “The Faithful Setter” and the entirely absurd “The Grieving Owl.” If you have a dark sense of humor and want to howl with laughter, this book is for you.
19) The Great Night – by Chris Adrian (290 pages)
A few years ago I read Adrian’s short story, “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death,” in McSweeney’s. I’d never read a short like it and it took my breath away. Another short story of his, “The Black Square,” was almost as good. I had never encountered an author with a voice like Adrian’s.
The Great Night, released in late April, 2011, is the third novel I’ve read by Chris Adrian. It was my least favorite of his three novels. The Great Night is a creative, modern retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Adrian sets his action inside of a park in San Francisco in which Titania, Oberon, and Puck conjure up the full magical spectacle of the Great Night. Trapped in the park are three brokenhearted souls: Henry, an obsessive-compulsive doctor who experienced childhood trauma and who was dumped by his boyfriend; Will, an arborist grieving the loss of his brother who recently split from his wife; and Molly, a drop-out from the Unitarian Universalist Starr King School for the Ministry who struggles to live in the aftermath of a boyfriend who took his own life. Also trapped inside the park are a handful of homeless individuals rehearsing a musical adaptation of the movie Soylent Green that they plan to stage as a protest against the city of San Francisco.
With The Great Night Adrian gives us a dark reimagining of the Bard’s classic comedy. Sure, this book is funny at times, but the humor is dark. In San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, Adrian conjures up a world in which the dark, magical realism that is a hallmark of his writing is on full display. Supernatural beings intervene in human affairs; dreams and trances abound; the spirit world intersects with the earthly realm; memories haunt; magic is afoot. The Great Night has all of the special effects of his earlier novels but it is missing the heart.
By the way, Adrian’s biography is worth repeating. He is the author of 3 novels and a collection of short stories. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2010 he was named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under the age of 40. He is a medical doctor and a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology at a hospital in San Francisco. He has studied at Harvard Divinity School and at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Does he ever sleep?
18) Losing Moses on the Freeway: The Ten Commandments in America - by Chris Hedges (176 pages)
This is the fifth book by Hedges that I've read. I go back and forth in my thinking about Hedges' writing. Sometimes I find him prophetic and powerful. At other times I find him to be preachy and miserable and given to gross oversatements.
Published in 2005, Losing Moses is like a non-fiction, book version of Krzysztof Kieslowski's film The Decalogue. For each of the ten commandments, Kieslowski creates a one hour short film exploring the meaning of the commandment. In Losing Moses, Hedges finds a story from contemporary American culture that explores the deeper significance of each of the commandments. Some of Hedges' stories are powerful; the story of competing Chess stores in New York is fascinating. Other stories, such as the one about a young music fan devoted to the band Phish, come across as preachy and heavy-handed.
17) The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel - by David Foster Wallace (551 pages)
After David Foster Wallace killed himself in the fall of 2008, rumors began to circulate about an unfinished novel that his estate was planning to posthumously publish. I’ve read just about everything David Foster Wallace has written. I’ve read both his novels, including the epic 1,000+ page Infinite Jest. I’ve read his three volumes of collected short stories. I’ve read both his essay collections, among the most amazing works of writing I’ve ever read. I read his famous Kenyon College commencement speech about a dozen times before it was published as a short book. I’ve even read (with very little understanding) his book on the mathematics of infinity. And, I’ve read a transcript of an interview he gave over several days to David Lipsky. I have not yet read the book he co-wrote on structural linguistics and rap music. (It seems like it can’t be found on Amazon for less than $50.) And, I’ve also not yet read his Amherst College undergraduate thesis in philosophy (on free will) though I did read his first novel which emerged from his undergraduate thesis in creative writing.
The Pale King is haunting to read. It is simply haunting to read the living and distinctive prose of an author who died tragically and too young. And, The Pale King is doubly haunting because what you’re reading is not a finished work, but a work in progress. His editor, Michael Pietsch, provides an amazing forward in which he describes how he ushered the book into form. He also provides a brief appendix where he provides many of David Foster Wallace’s notes in which he makes hints about the trajectory of the novel. (David Foster Wallace had wrestled with this novel for eight years; there is a weightiness to it all.)
The Pale King centers around the experiences of a bunch of IRS employees living in Peoria, Illinois. It is a disjointed novel. It is without anything resembling an over-arching narrative and many of the characters’ identities are concealed. We flashback to childhoods or formative events but we often don’t know who is being described. The Pale King focuses on two central themes in David Foster Wallace’s thought. The preeminent theme is the idea of boredom and attention; this is also the theme of his published commencement speech. A second theme is loosely related to his worries about free will. To what degree are we all just a part of the machine? Like any piece of David Foster Wallace’s writing, The Pale King is frequently arduous. Paragraphs, if not sentences, go on for pages. The details of examining a tax form might take up an entire chapter. In David Foster Wallace’s writing, there is not fun without a lot of work.
It was interesting that I could read a book about boredom, a book about IRS examiners in Illinois, with as much emotion as I did. In the past month I’ve officiated at three funerals and I definitely think I projected some of my own emotion onto the text. I think all of his dearest fans will project emotion onto the text. For a multitude of reasons, the book is without answers, without closure, without any kind of a satisfying finality. That truth is both fitting and tragic.
16) Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle - by Pamela Eisenbaum (258 pages)
I am currently teaching an adult religious education class at the church on "Reading Paul as Unitarian Universalists." I'm teaching this class, in part, because I wanted to force myself to read Eisenbaum's book on Pauline interpretation. The book was a gift from a former parishioner.
In this book, Eisenbaum, a Jewish professor at a Christian seminary, gives an overview of contemporary Pauline scholarship and adds her own unique interpretation of Paul. She argues for a radically and completely Jewish Paul who follows his calling to be an "apostle to the Gentiles" in order to help speed along the world to come that is a part of his Jewish eschatological theology.
Eisenbaum's book is helpful in pointing out some of the ways in which many in the monotheistic world continue to accept the theological categories of Augustine and Luther. Her reading of how Paul theologizes faith, law, and works is nuanced and, for the most part, convincing. Her book is proving very useful as I lead a group of some 25 Unitarian Universalists in exploring the Pauline espistles.
15) Unfamiliar Fishes - by Sarah Vowell (233 pages)
Unfamiliar Fishes is Sarah Vowell’s sixth book and I’ve read them all. In this book written in her distinctive style – part history, part travel-memoir, part cultural commentary – Vowell explores the history of the Hawaiian Islands from the time they were settled by New England Calvinist missionaries in the early nineteenth century up until their annexation by the United States in 1898. (Vowell is the type of personality that can travel to Hawaii and be perfectly content to spend the entire day in the fluorescent recesses of a research library, poring over the journals and letters of missionaries from two centuries ago. )
In some ways this book disappointed. Many of the historical characters she mentions are just not developed with much depth. Some of her contemporary digressions come across as forced. In other ways, the book excelled. I particularly enjoyed her insights about monarchy (she laments that one of the sad things about the Hawaiian annexation is the Hawaiians never had the opportunity to overthrow their own monarchs), as well as her description of the cultural clashes between morally uptight missionaries and pleasure-seeking sailors and whalers.
It was Vowell’s account of the debate about the annexation of the Hawaii that was most chilling. One of the leading voices pushing for the spree of US imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, in which the United States would seize not only Hawaii but also Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, argued that there was no contradiction inherent in democratic imperialism. He argued that the United States has always disenfranchised its voters and that it never asked Native Americans for permission. Similarly, Alaska and the Louisiana territory were purchased without consulting the people who lived there. So, what’s the big deal about claiming Hawaii or Puerto Rico? Chilling…
All in all, it was a pretty fascinating read about a part of United States history that is rarely told.
14) Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived - by Rob Bell (205 pages)
The release of Bell’s Love Wins attracted a tremendous amount of media attention, including appearances on Good Morning America and numerous television news programs. Much of this attention was due to Bell’s critics who accused him of being a heretic and a universalist. UUA President Peter Morales used this opportunity to pen a piece on Universalism for the Huffington Post. I preached on Bell’s book on March 27, 2011.
Love Wins is a short book written in his conversational preaching style. In fact, much of the book is not written in paragraphs, but rather broken lines that indicate the cadence with which he speaks. Each chapter is like a long sermon.
Last week I had lunch with a distinguished minister in a liberal-leaning Mainline Christian congregation. He told me he had read parts of it and that the book bothered him. He listed his complaints: there are no notes, citations, or references to theologians. It is like Bell ignored the entire history of Christian thought. Bell’s theology is essentially the same as Harry Emerson Fosdick’s from sixty years ago.
Indeed, in Love Wins Rob Bell gives us a theology that largely makes no reference to history or to outside influences. It is almost entirely self-contained Biblical theology. The most notable place where he employs the historical-critical method is in a survey of the uses of the word “Hell” in the Bible, where he provides definitions of what was actually meant by Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna. When the New Testament speaks of Hell, it almost always uses the word “Gehenna,” a proper noun that refers to an actual, physical location. Gehenna is the location of the trash dump outside of Jerusalem, a place where trash was allowed to burn freely which produced an odious sulfur smell, and where feral dogs gnashed their teeth while squabbling over scraps.
Love Wins probably wouldn’t be that interesting of a book to most Unitarian Universalists. Bell’s epistemological assumptions about the Bible are not ours. I am glad for his theology: it is kind and humane and leads to acts of goodness. Christianity is better for people like Rob Bell. It will be interesting to see the direction in which his theology goes next.
13) The Instructions - by Adam Levin (1,031 pages)
Click here to read my review of The Instructions.
12) Half a Life – by Darin Strauss (200 pages)
This brief memoir is written in a style that is almost minimalist, but its content is so deep and piercing that it will have you thinking for weeks. Darin Strauss began writing Half a Life when he was 36. His memoir concerns living in the aftermath of having accidentally killed a classmate in a freak auto accident when he was 18. This memoir has to do with how our brains process memory and trauma, with how to live with guilt and responsibility. (Published by McSweeney’s.)
11) The New Personality Self-Portrait: Why You Think, Work, Love, and Act the Way You Do – by John M. Oldham (421 pages)
At last November’s church auction, Anne and I purchased spots at an event called “Dinner with Two Psychologists.” Ten SMUUCh members read this book and then joined together for a fine evening of BBQ and parlor games designed to help us to make educated guesses at each other’s personality self-portraits. (Anne, by the way, was the most successful guesser and walked away with a sweet Amazon.com gift certificate.)
The NPSP describes fourteen personality types that corresponded to the fourteen personality disorders contained in the DSM-III. Subsequent editions of the DSM have removed three of the original fourteen personality disorders. A personality disorder, the authors suggest, is having far too much of one personality type and lacking the flexibility to alter or diminish the style you lead with as the situation dictates. So, for example, having an overabundance of a dramatic style may result in having a histrionic personality disorder just as having too much of the devoted style may lead to having a dependent personality disorder. Or something like that.
The NPSP begins with a test that allows you to map your own style and then read at length about the qualities of your own and other people’s styles. This book isn’t the most thrilling read – the parlor games were better than the prose – but I found it to be immensely insightful and useful.
10) Big Sur - by Jack Kerouac (241 pages)
This is actually the first thing I've ever read by Kerouac. I spent all last week at the Asilomar Conference Center on the Monterey Peninsua in California. Big Sur was just a few miles down the road. In order to put myself in the "spirit" of the place I decided to go on the road with Kerouac's fictionalized account of his time at Big Sur, a book that would turn out to be one of last novels.
After publishing On The Road in the mid-50s, Kerouac became a bit of a celebrity. In Big Sur, his friends become concerned about his alcoholism and send him down to recuperate in a cabin on the Monterey Peninsula. There, Kerouac goes through the Delirium Tremens and a nervous breakdown that he documents in perfect beat prose. The novel ends with a long poem about the psychedelic sounds of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the rocks and beach at night. My experience close to Big Sur was considerably different.
9) Arkansas - by John Brandon (224 pages)
Last December I read John Brandon's second novel, Citrus County, and loved it. I've also enjoyed several short stories by Brandon that have appeared in McSweeney's, including a great short story called "The Occurrences" that appeared in McSweeney's 36.
Though I've loved everything by John Brandon up until this point, I was disappointed by Arkansas, his debut novel. Arkansas follows the lives of two low-level drug runners posing as associate park rangers at a state park. When disaster befalls their supervisor, they're left to figure out how they fit in the larger underground world of the drug trade in the American South. I didn't find this at all compelling.
Brandon is one of the most promising revivalists of the contemporary Southern Gothic style. While his first effort was disappointing, his subsequent writings give me great hope for his future works.
8)Moments of a Springtime: Pieces for Reflection - by Rudolph Nemser (36 pages)
Moments of a Springtime was the UUA meditation manual for 1967. [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.]
7) Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White - by Tim Wise (166 pages)
Tim Wise shares this story: Some years ago, it was suggested that a predominantly white high school in Northern California that sent a lot of its graduates to competitive colleges change its name to Martin Luther King high school to honor King’s memory. White parents objected. They argued that such a name might put students at a disadvantage in applying to colleges as the colleges might assume that the students were coming from an underprivileged school system that had inadequately prepared them for achievement in higher education. This objection tells you everything you need to know to reject arguments about affirmative action causing “reverse discrimination.”
The problem with Tim Wise’s book, Affirmative Action, is that it is too lacking in anecdotes. Much of what makes Wise a compelling thinker about race and privilege is his skillful rhetoric. (In his speaking appearances he often asks the audience to imagine the HR department at a large corporation. He asks us to imagine hiring teams sitting around and saying, “Wow, what a day! We had three Jamal’s and two LaShonda’s apply.”)
Affirmative Action is lacking in anecdotes but it is heavy in statistics. The book, a part of a series of position pieces on issues in higher education, was written in the aftermath of legal challenges to affirmative action policies in several states, most notably at the University of Michigan. The statistics, frankly, do not make for the most compelling reading. However, there is a large section on standardized testing that is fairly interesting.
I read this book knowing I would agree with Tim Wise’s analysis. He properly places Affirmative Action programs within a larger history and context of systematic “affirmative action” for the benefit and privilege of white folks.
6) Walking to Martha's Vineyard - by Franz Wright (72 pages)
The thing is, you can’t walk to Martha’s Vineyard. Martha’s Vineyard is an island. The title, I think, implies something about the poems themselves. The poems in this 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning collection are short and don’t employ a challenging vocabulary or make obscure literary allusions. But, Franz Wright’s poems are a bit impossible. They challenge the reader to make sense of them; their meaning is not readily apparent. For me, Wright’s poetry occupies that perfect middle-ground, somewhere between the torturously opaque and the obviously translucent.
There is also an undeniable darkness that runs through many of Wright’s poems. Many of his poems contain a line or two that seems deliberately provocative. The titular poem contains the naked, uncomfortable line, “If they’d stabbed me to death on the day I was born, it would have been an act of mercy.” The line just sits there, challenging the rest of the poem.
That he does this, that the poet adds these horrible little utterances, may have something to do with the author’s life. (Allow me this bit of conjecture.) The dust jacket tells us that the poet works at a mental health center in Waltham, Massachusetts, as well as for an organization called “the Center for Grieving Children.” This bit of biographical information changed the way I read several of his poems, such as “Antipsychotic” and, especially, “Study in Acid & Green”:
blonde high-heeled skinny
kindersluts smoking and giggling
The dark side of the
And the way certain places
on earth amount
Then the I died (for laughter and beauty)
One of my favorite poems from this collection has been “5:00 Mass,” which has been a gift to me all through this snowy week. “The church is a ship in the brightening snowstorm; shafts of light falling in through blue windows.” The other poem that stands out is the gorgeous Walden in which the poet’s hope seems restored by the power of nature. “There is a power that wants me to live.” “There is a power that wants me to love.” Indeed.
5) McSweeney's 36 (564 pages)
Every issue of McSweeney's is a creative masterpiece, but the concept behind issue 36 has to be one of the most creative yet. This issue comes in the form of pamphlets contained inside of a cubic box (6.5 x 6.5 x 6.5 inches) painted to depict a grotesque human head. The theme deals with looking at all the random things a person might have bouncing around inside of his skull.
Inside this head we find some weird and wacky contents: fish postcards, over three feet of offbeat fortune cookie fortunes, and a bizarre tale about a "noble savage" roaming Paris in the early twentieth century.
The highlights of this issue include two short stories, one by John Brandon and the other by Ricardo Nuila, that are among the finest short stories that McSweeny's has published. My favorite part of this issue was the inclusion of Wajahat Ali's play "The Domestic Crusaders" about a Pakistani family living in the United States. This hilarious, troubling, and touching play features incredible dialogue and a gripping, startling climax.
It was a bit disappointing to discover that this issue contained several previews of future McSweeney's publications. I skipped reading a 40-page excerpt of Adam Levin's debut novel, the 1,000+ page The Instructions. I did read a portion of the forthcoming sixth release in the Voices of Witness series. This release will collect oral histories from the victims of Burma's repressive government. I was touched to read the testimony of Ma Su Mon, a young woman who was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 11 months for participating in the pro-democracy work led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held as a political prisoner in Burma for most of the past two decades.
4) Across the Abyss to God: A Book of Personal Affirmation - by Walter Donald Kring (41 pages)
Across the Abyss to God was the UUA meditation manual for 1966. [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.]
3) The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands - by Margaret Regan (248 pages)
The Death of Josseline is the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Common Read” book for this church year. Next week (January 24-28) members of the book club at the Shawnee Mission UU Church will host four discussion sessions on this book.
In this book, journalist Margaret Regan condenses decades of her experiences writing about immigration on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border. Though short, her book is broad. She examines immigration through the lens of the history of American economic and military policies in Central America, from the perspective of secular and faith-based human rights activists, and from the vantage point of ranchers, law enforcement agencies, environmentalists, Native Americans, and migrants themselves.
The title of this book refers to one particular death out of thousands of deaths in the Arizona after a policy of strict enforcement in urban areas pushed would-be crossers further and further into the dangerous desert. Throughout the book, bodies appear at regular intervals reminding the reader of the human toll of government policies. I found the penultimate chapter, detailing the arrest and deportation of eleven migrants working at a Tucson Panda Express to be as shocking, if not more so. Regan tends towards anecdotes, but those anecdotes show the human face of a broken immigration system. In this tale of the Tucson raid, I think we find the clearest proof that our immigration system is just another iteration of the criminalization of the poor.
Especially given the events of last summer in Phoenix, it is clear that Arizona is “ground zero” (a term I hate) for the struggle over immigration in our country. It is important, however, to remember that this drama is being lived in every state, city, and town in this country. Learn about Arizona, but then learn about where you live.
2) The Sound of Silence: A Book of Meditations - by Raymond John Baughan (41 pages)
The Sound of Silence was the UUA meditation manual for 1965. [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.]
1) The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - by Stieg Larrson (563 pages)
I read the first two volumes of Larsson's Millennium Trilogy in the fall of 2010. I don't tend to read a lot of thrillers and the series gets more and more far-fetched at every turn, but for some reason I couldn't put any of these three books down. Like the second book, Hornet's Nest was not as good as the first book in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact, the third book in the series reads like a long resolution of all the threads left dangling in the second book. Additionally, Hornet's Nest was astonishingly devoid of plot twists and turns. But, it was still a guilty pleasure.
Interesting note: The hardcover version of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest puts the apostrophe between the "t" and the "s" whereas the paperback version puts the apostrophe after the "s". Go figure.
Total Pages: 11,993