Wednesday, February 08, 2012

2012: A Year in Reading [Under Construction]

This blog entry contains a list of books I’ve read so far in 2012.  Check back as this page will be updated periodically.  Interested in books I’ve read in previous years?  Click here for links to older reading lists.


21) Love, An Index – by Rebecca Lindenberg (88 pages)
This is a special book, a dazzling and deeply affecting poetry collection.  The poems deal with the poet’s loss of her partner, the poet Craig Arnold, while he disappeared hiking a volcano in Japan.  These poems have to do with memory, loss, and grief.  The title poem provides an index of their relationship.  It is a collection that manages to be both heartbreaking and beautiful all at once.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

20) State of Wonder – by Ann Patchett (353 pages)
The latest Ann Patchett novel was the selection of the SMUUCh book club for the month of May.  In this novel, a medical researcher for a large pharmaceutical company travels to the heart of the Brazilian rain forest to investigate the death of her lab partner and the progress of a lead researcher working to produce a fertility drug.  Like most Patchett novels, this one introduces a number of eccentric characters.  I was engrossed by the author’s writing and by my own memories of traveling in the South American rainforest.  A fun book.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

19) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – by Michelle Alexander (268 pages)
Since its release, this book has generated a lot of buzz.  It is surely one of the most important books on the subject of anti-racism to be released in the past decade.  In this book, legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that the War on Drugs and the criminal justice system in the United States functions intentionally as a system of racial control and oppression not all that different from the old Jim Crow system.  It is truly a powerful argument and an important book.  I plan to preach on it in June, and several of my colleagues, including Rev. Matthew Johnson-Doyle, Rev. Mark Stringer, and Rev. Marlin Lavanhar have already preached on it.  If you are inclined to agree with Alexander, you may find her writing to be a bit tight, the work of a lawyer exhaustively proving her point over and over again.  If you have any doubts about her thesis, her style is meant to make her case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars

18) McSweeney’s Volume 7 (340 pages)
This year I am continuing to read all the back issues of McSweeney’s that I haven’t previously read.  I’ve got five issues left to read.  Volume 7 is fantastic, a collection of nine separately packaged stories.  My favorites included a story about cancer by A.M. Homes, a charming postlude to Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay, and a tremendous novella about bowling and relationships by Courtney Eldridge.  This volume also contains a 100-page case study about Islamic terrorism in Thailand, excerpted from William Vollmann’s seven volume study of violence.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


17) When I Was a Child I Read Books – by Marilynne Robinson (208 pages)
Clickhere to read the review.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars!

16) Embryoyo – by Dean Young (91 pages)
Dean Young’s poetry is distinctive and challenging, a little bit beat and often absurd.  He’s a Tony Hoagland on hallucinogens.  Sometimes he misfires, but at other times his poetry is absolutely striking.  I cannot help but reprint a small excerpt from one of his most orderly poems, entitled “Ten Inspirations.”

You decide to make a god.
Don’t have no commandments,
no Renaissance altarpieces, no
relics, tax-sheltered televangelists,
funny hats.
You do have yourself.
Wow, god acts like Walt Whitman.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

15) Hot Pink – by Adam Levin (199 pages)
One of my favorite books from 2011 was Adam Levin’s incredibly ambitious (1,000+ page) and glorious debut novel, The Instructions.  This follow-up collection of short stories (published by McSweeney’s Press) is not as grand or as ambitious, but it is almost as hard to put down.  In “Scientific American,” an earnest suburban couple is baffled by a crack in their bedroom wall that oozes slime.  In “Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls,” a disabled college student experiments with liberation.  In “Hot Pink,” an adolescent trip to a cookout turns into a comedy of errors.  The stories of Hot Pink are replete with original characters as well as Levin’s clever dialogue that is practically Midrashic at points.  (Consider especially “The Extra Mile,” a story about a joke between the Jewish residents of a retirement center.)  This is a collection of ten highly inventive short stories, and most of them succeed.  With the completion of this book, I’ve now read 76 of the 150+ books published by McSweeney’s press.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

14) McSweeney’s Volume 6 (193 pages)
This old volume of McSweeney’s was a lot of fun and very unusual.  It was an “art” issue, combining more than a dozen very short stories with articles about and reprints of various pieces of art.  The best thing about this edition is an amazing essay about art and culture by Breyten Breytenbach.  This literary quarterly came with a CD of original music by They Might Be Giants to accompany the stories and art.
Rating 3 out of 5 stars

13) McSweeney’s Volume 5 (280 pages)
Not all of the contents of this issue of McSweeney’s worked for me, but there was still plenty of parts to enjoy.  Highlights include a “failed genius” article by Paul Collins about a Renaissance attempt at creating a universal language based on musical notes.  (Paul Collins has written several fascinating historical articles about failed geniuses, affectionately known as his “Profiles in Discourage.”)  Paul LaFarge’s short story “The Observers” is great as well.  However, the best part of this issue is the inclusion of David Foster Wallace’s amazing and obnoxious short story “Mr. Squishy”, here included under a pseudonym though he fooled no one.  Too much of the rest was filler.
Rating 3 out of 5 stars

February 2012

12) It Chooses You – by Miranda July (216 pages)
In this artsy book published by McSweeney’s, artsy independent filmmaker Miranda July finds herself struck with writer’s block as she revises a script for a movie she’s not sure will even be greenlighted.  In a fit of procrastination, she begins answering ads in the Los Angeles PennySaver, sort of a print version of Craig’s List for people without computers.  With a photographer in tow, she goes to interview and learn the stories of people selling unusual stuff:  bullfrog tadpoles, an antique hairdryer, a suitcase, leopard cubs.  These interviews reconnect Miranda July with the human spirit and with her story, and they impact the film in surprising ways.  While the premise of this book seems a bit forced, through the force of July’s personality the book turns out to be touching and sweet.  I can’t wait to see The Future, the movie she was working on that led to this book.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars 

I’ve now read 69 of the 150+ books published by McSweeney’s.  In case you’re interested those 150+ books include:
40 issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary quarterly that began in 1998 with the idea that it would publish only works rejected by other publishers.  It turned into a leading literary journal known for its outrageous packaging and amazing content.  I’ve read 31 issues. 
 37 works of fiction (novels and short story collections) that range from Adam Levin’s 1,000+ page debut novel The Instructions to a 55 page novel by Jonathan Lethem.  I’ve read 15 of these books.  
18 books of artwork of which I’ve read 3.  
4 children’s books as part of McSweeney’s new McMullen’s imprint.  
8 works of non-fiction, of which I’ve read 6.  These works include a wonderful collection of essays by Michael Chabon, Darin Strauss’ amazing Half a Life, and William T. Vollmann’s gigantic, 7 volume, 3300+ page treatise on violence entitled Rising Up and Rising Down.  You can buy it for me from my Amazon wish list.  
8 books from The Believer series.  McSweeney’s also publishes a monthly arts and culture magazine called The Believer, which gives only positive reviews.  I don’t subscribe to The Believer, but I have read the three anthologies of Nick Hornby’s columns.  
8 books in McSweeney’s Voices of Witness series.  These books use oral history to document human rights abuses in the United States and around the world.  I’ve read one book in this series on the experiences of undocumented immigrants.  Other oral history collections deal with those wrongfully imprisoned in the United States, those whose rights have been grossly violated by the Patriot Act, and victims of awful regimes in Burma, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.  
16 works of humor (I’ve read 9) that range from six short board books by Lisa Brown that constitute the Baby Mix Me a Drink series, to the awesome Future Dictionary of America (with its proceeds going to in 2004), and collections of children’s letters to the Obamas.  
4 volumes of poetry, of which I’ve read one.  
7 books in the Collins Library series.  Paul Collins is an amazing historian of weird history and literature.  Collins caught my attention for a series he published in McSweeney’s literary quarterly of “Profiles in Discourage,” stories of failed geniuses and eccentrics.  The Collins Library reprints forgotten curious works from a bygone era.  I’ve not read any of them yet, but I’m planning to read the reprint of a story called The Rector and the Rogue.

11) Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful – by Alice Walker (81 pages)
I picked up this volume of Alice Walker’s poetry because I was interested in learning the context for her wonderful poem, “Love is Not Concerned,” that is reprinted in the hymnal.  I wound up using that poem and two of her other poems from this collection for my sermon on Love back on February 12.  Walker’s poetry weaves together personal stories of motherhood, friendship, and family with larger concerns of racism, sexism, and environmentalism.  A truly powerful volume of poetry!
Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

10) The Pharmacist’s Mate – by Amy Fusselman (84 pages)
I picked up this slim book published a decade ago by McSweeney’s at a charming, independent bookstore just off the UC Berkeley campus back in January.  Fusselman’s short book – memoir? fictionalized memoir? – was surprisingly powerful.  In it, the author writes about grieving her father’s death and going through fertility treatments and living her life for a time with these two realities weighing on her consciousness.  Her memoir is interrupted by the inclusion of short passages from her father’s journal from his time as the assistant pharmacist aboard a naval vessel during World War II.

With the completion of this book, I’ve now read 68 of the 150+ books published by McSweeney’s press.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

9) Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-racist Reflections from an Angry White Male – by Tim Wise (357 pages)
With the completion of Speaking Treason Fluently, I’ve now read all six books written by Tim Wise.  This may be his very best.  This book anthologizes more than 40 short essays penned by Wise between 2000 and 2008 on the subjects of white privilege and anti-racism.  Some of the essays are general and scholarly while others are more rhetorical and are concerned with the current events.  The best essays are the ones that bring an anti-racist analysis to news stories.  The Jeremiah Wright “scandal”, the Duke lacrosse rape case, school shootings, Barry Bonds homerun record, Don Imus, Bill Cosby, and more – Wise sees our society for what it is.  The best essay in this collection involves Wise asking the question of why the audience at Ronald Reagan’s funeral was lily-white.  I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.
Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

8) Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity – by Tim Wise (184 pages)
Why doesn’t Obama ever talk about race?  According to Wise, it is a cynical strategy born out of the political calculus that speaking openly about matters of race would alienate a greater number of whites, at least more whites than are alienated by either outright or concealed racism.  Colorblind documents the social reality of “Colorblind Universalism” or “Post-racial Liberalism,” movements that are committed to equality but refuse to discuss race.  Wise refutes these positions using both logic and a plethora of research studies having to do with psychology, sociology, education, economics, and law. 

If Dear White America was a work of polemics, Colorblind is more the work of an academic.  Accordingly, it does drag at points.  However, many of the studies Wise cites are extremely fascinating.  There is actually a psychological test that evaluates your level of racial bias.  Two groups were chosen, each group having people with significant racial bias.  The subjects are given copies of an identical health care policy.  Some are told that the policy was created by Bill Clinton.  Others are told that it was created by Obama.  Sixty five percent approved of the “Clinton” plan.  Forty one percent approved of the “Obama” plan.  Another study showed that mentioning race directly causes people to make less biased decisions whereas failing to mention race makes people more likely to make biased decisions.
Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

7) Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority – by Tim Wise (145 pages)
Tim Wise’s newest and shortest book is a polemical work of a leading anti-racist educator whose rhetoric has never been sharper.  It begins with Tim Wise imagining showing up at a patriotic Fourth of July celebration and asking people, “Why can’t you get over it?  Quit living in the past.  I mean, that whole Revolutionary War thing happened a long time ago.”  From there, Tim Wise is off, showing the predatory racism at the heart of the Tea Party, the overt racism of Fox News, and the race-baiting on the part of the front-runner for the GOP nomination.  Everyone I know should read this Dear White America!
Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

January 2012

6) Donald – by Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott (106 pages)
I will let the back-cover speak for itself:
What would happen if Donald Rumsfeld, former defense secretary and architect of the war on terror, was abducted at night from his Maryland home, held without charges in his own prison system, denied a trial, and kept in a place where no one could find him, beyond the reach of law?  Donald is a high-wire allegory that answers this question, in equal parts breakneck thriller and gradual descent into madness. But it is also a novel rooted in the harrowing stories of real people caught in America’s military campaigns. And while there are those who would try to convince us that war is full of uncertainty—of knowns and unknowns—Donald reminds us that there remain things we know to be wrong.
This very short book is most unusual.  It is troubling and disorienting.  It has moments of humor and satire but isn’t funny.  It is a revenge fantasy that makes you feel uncomfortable.  Though the idea is ambitious, the execution was lacking.
Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

5) St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – by Karen Russell (244 pages)
While Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! tended to drag along, this collection of short stories is just about perfect.  Russell, in her magical and fantastic stories, creates a style that we might call “South Florida Gothic.”  Each one of these short stories is more dazzling than the next.  Wow!
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

4) Vicky Swanky is a Beauty – by Diane Williams (106 pages)
I try to read everything that is put out by McSweeney’s Press.  Most of the time I am delighted.  Occasionally I am disappointed.  I picked up a used copy of Vicky Swanky at a bookstore in Berkeley and found this collection of 50 ultra-short, super-minimalist short stories to be a miserable reading experience. Yawn!
Rating:  1 out of 5 stars

3) Swamplandia! – by Karen Russell (316 pages)
In buying this book in early 2011 (and saving it for almost a year) I did something I don’t often do:  I bought a book for its cover, and its title!  There had been some buzz about this book, but I hadn’t really tuned into it.  This is an ambitious, visionary novel by a young, dynamic, up-and-coming writer.  The book deals with a trio of siblings trying to figure out their own coming of age against the backdrop of a rapidly changing landscape, with the soulless suburbs encroaching on the no-longer enchanted world of the swamp.  The characters are sometimes thin, but they populate a dark, swampy, magical, haunted landscape.  In the final third, the story seems to crumble under its own weight.  I’d still read anything that Karen Russell publishes.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

2) Mockingjay – by Suzanne Collins (390 pages)
1) Catching Fire – by Suzanne Collins (389 pages)
Last summer I read the first installment of The Hunger Games trilogy of young adult novels.  I found it to be surprisingly thought-provoking, rather addictive, and problematic.  In the end, I knew I would wind up reading the second and third books of the trilogy because I was interested in what was next for Katniss, Peeta, and others.  Unfortunately, the second and third books lack the philosophy of the first but continue many of the more annoying aspects from the original.  Probably the most interesting thing about the trilogy is its imagining of a world in which all thought follows the patterns of so-called “reality” television.  The world it imagines is disturbing.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Total Pages: 4,638 pages