Monday, January 11, 2010

December Reading

I realized a few days after Christmas 2009 that I was having a bit of hard time tracking some characters in a few stories I was reading - or, at least - each time I picked up the book I had to take a few minutes to re-orient myself. It dawned on me as I did this that the reason I was having difficulty is that I was in the middle of 7 separate books and 1 piece of theology - simultaneously. Since the pre-Christmas days were spent grading numerous student papers, processing exam essays and re-reading Unveiling Empire, I decided in the few last days of December and into January 2010 I needed to get some books checked off my list.

Besides, several peer/friend/news sources were publishing their best reads for 2009 already. That meant I was in the middle of 7 books - while already reserving new book - while recognizing I've got other things to do with my time - (like extended travel over the holidays and time with my wonderful kiddos and lovely wife.) (BTW, I would add that two of the books I was reading were books I both read and audio-read. I redeemed many road trip miles listening to audio pages as we traveled over 3000 miles between Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada in December!)

In no particular order - the books I read.

The City of Thieves by Benioff. I've long enjoyed Russian stories. I'm not sure if this is just because of who I am or because I spent over 6 months on two different summers in Russia and Ukraine. This story - which has connections (one wonders how accurately) to David's grandfather's real life experiences in WWII was, well, intriguing. In the midst of the freezing winter, two boy-men search for eggs. Their exploits and experience strain the imagination - but, in the midst of crazy, freezing war/winter - it may just be true.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edward. I got this story on a whim in early December. I'd flown for business and left (errantly) without book or audio book. Since I would be gone for more than 24 hours with idle time in hotel/travel - I had to get something. I enjoyed it. The principle character - a medical doctor - decides at the moment of his children's birth (twins born) to give the second child away. He creates a fiction regarding her death - which his post-partum wife believes - and the next 2, nearly 3 decades of their lives are fractured/framed by the hapless decisions made in a few moments over a few days. While some of the scenes/settings strained *likely* scenarios - nothing in the story was un-believable. More importantly, I thought the story overall (as fiction, as in real life) demonstrated that it is possible for momentary decisions - and the regret associated with them - to linger on and effect life in the long run - for decades. I know I feel this way about past decisions I have made, at least.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. I liked this story better than my wife. I think, in part, because most of this book was listened to and the narration and characterization of persons helped fill in the story for me. Based on the journals, records of Sudhir's real life experiences in "the projects" of Chicago - he tells the story of some of the persons who lived in and made life happen in these projects in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Sudhir, contemporaneous with the events he writes/records - was becoming a scholar himself and has since gone on to publish within the field of sociology, holding a position (at the time of this writing) at Columbia University. This story, it seems, he waited to write until many years after his experiences both to protect the identity of the persons he worked with - and to justify his potentially unethical practices as a "rogue sociologist" still in grad-school. (For example, though he saw regular and routine illegal practices involving beatings among other things, he never reported to police/authorities what he witnessed.) My wife did not like the ending. My claim is that no ending to the story would "tidy" up all the pieces - because it was/is real life - and real life is messy. I like the fact that Sudhir was a graduate student at approximately the time I was. (He was/is perhaps 6-8 years my senior. I always feel "jealous" of those who have published and made a reputation for themselves more so than I - a good jealousy - a prompting jealousy. At the same time I realize my own life's story is full of its own complexities and I am reminded to be so thankful for the life I life in spite of my own trials/tribulations.)

Ken Follett's 1024 page World Without End slowed me down a bit. But I enjoyed it. I read his other mammoth, 973 pages The Pillars of the Earth last summer while in Madaba, Jordan. The story - extended as it is - involves a host of characters over, well, centuries. At too many points Ken re-tells the story of previous events to help the careless read remember who persons are and how they are connected - and this feels a bit pedantic at times - but, proved helpful to me on occasion as well! Some of the likely scenarios involving modern concerns seemed, not contrived but implausible as described - for example, some of the homosexual events described. And yet, as a work of fiction and acknowledging that homosexual practices/love/desire have long been a part of human history - perhaps my reaction to the experiences is more off-kilter than Follett's fiction. With the first story - I felt like I learned much about life in the 12 century England - including cathedral making - and in this story, set in the 14th century, I learned about bridge-making, dying, wars, and more. Enjoyable.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. This book came recommended - and it proves to me why I no longer recommend books - only report that I have read them. The book like others I have read in the past two years - pushes us into the possible/plausible future to imagine what life will look like. Like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, we follow the journeys/events of two characters in trying to figure out both what happened in the years after the "waterless flood" that consumed most of life - while also learning the story of "The Gardner's" who both predicted the future events and tried to live in anticipation of their catastrophic reality. I liked the book, but would not read it again nor certainly recommend it. It bogged down in my opinion. I liked the book I read last year by Atwood better - Oryx and Crake. (I would add, in 2008 I also read a series of books with my daughters that have their own fictive presentation of post-apocalyptic life - The City of Ember and The People of Sparks.) (I would further add that early in 2009 - April - I read two books by James Howard Kunstler - The Long Emergency and World Made by Hand. For the genre, Kunstler's book seemed most believable and I pray not - most likely! Further, Kunstler's work, for all its pessimistic expectation - as a person has done more to provide "tools" for people to plan for the possible/plausible future he imagines. Kunstler makes me most afraid of the potential future. I want to think he's wrong . . . .

From a genuinely, high-respectable, really good guy - and person I'm thankful to call a friend, comes Desiring the Kingdom - about worship and worldview by James K.A. Smith. For all that I love about Jamie - and he really is *that* nice of a person - even as I started into his book I recalled the formative reading I did in the 1990's - based on the 1970's work of John Westerhoff, Will Our Children Have Faith. While it is clear that the philosophical (and theological and anthropological) underpinnings of Smiths' work is more tightly nuanced and framed - to my mind Jamie is assessing (and prescribing) much of the same way of viewing life/enculturation/education/patterns of formation! Jamie picks up on themes from Bellah's Habits of the Heart and talks about habitual practices that shape and form us into persons - persons of worship or not - based on our experiences in becoming persons through not just how we think or what we think - but how we live and where we live. I'm all for life more intentionally grounded and connected in patterns of worship. I believe the texts of the Hebrew Bible advocate this - that Jesus embodied it - and that we must live into its reality in the mundane of life for the extension of the Good News of the Priestly Kingdom, Holy Nation - Kingdom of God made known in the texts of the Hebrew and Christian Bible.

Mrs. Bridges by Evan Connell is a book about the mundane, ordinariness of Mrs. Bridges life. The book was recommended (in a way) by an NPR author I happened to listen to in early December. Like so many things I "hear" - I do not remember the name of the NPR author - but he described how this short novel was inspiring to him. It had (and has!) short chapters - that provide glimpses/portraits/mosaic-like - narration of events in the life of Mrs. Bridges. I liked the fact that - though the story was not highly "constructed" or "framed" for its connection - in wandering through the mosaic of short experiences-stories - I was still carried along to know Mrs. Bridges life and story. I "got it" without it being overly constructed. I think even I could write this way.

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