Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Sad Loss

This morning's Washington Post includes an article about how the Book World as a stand alone Sunday section will soon be no more (as of February 22). As a cost-cutting measure, the Post will now incorporate book reviews in the Style section and in the newly revamped Outlook section. I suppose we will all adjust, just like we did when the powers that be at the Post moved the Style Invitational to Saturday instead of Sunday (heretics). Selfishly, I will miss my Sunday afternoon/evening post-church relaxation ritual of curling up with the Book World, reading all the reviews and wondering which of these books must be added to my personal "must read" list. It's also fun to read what events Politics and Prose is hosting and pretend that I can go to them.

They say that the Book World as we know it will still be available online, at least for a time, but IT'S JUST NOT THE SAME!! You can't curl up on the couch with an afghan, a mug of tea, and your computer. I guess some people do (if they have laptops), but it just does not feel natural to me.

While I mourn the demise of the Book World, my greater concern is for the future of newspapers and books. I realize that the Post, like all newspapers, is fighting for its life and that this is a cost-cutting measure. Are we headed in a direction of all reading being done on computers and newspapers and books being quaint relics of the past? I would miss books even more than newspapers. While I have a sneaking interest in the Amazon Kindle, and it would solve a lot of problems that we have in our household with book storage, I am not ready to let go of books. I LOVE BOOKS. I love the way they feel in my hands, the way they smell, they way we can scrawl thoughts in their margins and return to our favorites again and again like old friends. Don't see that happening with a Kindle - can't imagine scrolling through a jillion pages trying to find the favorite quote that will fit perfectly into Sunday's sermon.

In the long run, I suppose computerized reading will save a lot of trees - but also generate a lot of e-waste. Discarded computers leach a lot of toxic chemicals back into the earth, so environmentally the book/computer dilemma is probably a wash. Anyway, have had a vague sense of depression all day ever since I found out about the Book World. Is the downfall of the Book World one more step toward a world without books? Let's hope not.

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

She Grows on You - Kind Of

I Was Told There'd Be Cake
Essays by Sloane Crosley

I was not sure what to make of these at first. Initially Sloane Crosley struck me as a self-absorbed, selfish, self-effacing dilettante. Moreover, she uses living in New York City as an excuse for being that way, implying through her many generalizations that everyone there is rude, self-promoting, and self-centered. Since members of my family live there, I know that those generalizations are not true. Also, I think she exaggerates for the purpose of making absurd situations even more so, which is fine, but humor about one night stands or "cutting blow" doesn't do much for me.

Still, there is something likable about Sloane Crosley, almost in spite of herself. She is more likable than she gives herself credit for. This collection of random essays (think Sarah Vowell without the history and not quite as funny) is entertaining (it gets more entertaining the further you read), fast, witty, and in some cases terribly funny. She has one extended description of being a bridesmaid for a childhood friend from whom she grew apart in high school and had not spoken to for ten years when the woman called and asked her to be in the wedding. Somewhere along the way, Sloane found herself promoted to maid of honor, and the whole thing deteriorates from there. This girl was such a bridezilla the essay was almost (but not quite) unbelievable. The story is hilarious, but I could not help but wonder if the former bride read it, and how she felt about being the butt of such a huge joke. However, a case could be made that she had it coming.

There is a sense that underneath all her self-deprecating humor, Sloane Crosley is searching for something. She grew up in an areligious household, which could be part of the issue, but maybe not. Perhaps she does not consciously miss what she never had. There is one essay where she writes about trying to find a place to volunteer - she pokes fun at her own laziness and selfishness, but still seems to want to find some way to contribute. Her brief stint working at the butterfly exhibit at the NYC Museum of Natural History does not fill that need for her. It is hard to put your finger on, but it seems like beneath her brittleness and even crassness, she wants to connect with people (see the essay "The Beauty of Strangers"). One of the primary ways that she does this is with humor - but that same humor can also be a tool to keep people at a distance.

I will pay attention to what happens to Sloane Crosley. She clearly has potential as a writer, even as a humorist, but I think right now she is selling her talent short. Still, there are nuggets of wisdom and maturity in her writing that jump out like pinpoints of light to show the way home. I hope she will follow those lights and truly reach her potential as a writer and human being.

Reverent Reader

Thursday, January 22, 2009

At Last...

War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy

Well, friends, thank you for your patience. War and Peace was a long haul, but absolutely worth the time and energy. This is such a sprawling yet interwoven cast of characters and events, that is is impossible to narrow it down to one (or even a few) theme(s) or primary emphasis. Tolstoy moved easily back and forth between the familial and relational dynamics of the principal characters and the strategies and mechanics, successes and failures, of the Napoleonic wars. Me being who I am, I was more taken with the interplay between the characters (that will surprise no one who knows me) than with the battle scenes or the interminable tension leading up to the battles. However, it was clear that Tolstoy did his homework (the book is heavily footnoted). He was able to bring the battles to life in a way that constantly reminded the reader that people taking bullets or being bayoneted is not an abstract concept. Nicholas Rostov's pricking of conscience after he slices through a Frenchman rang true - I wondered how many soldiers experience that regret after "doing their duty to the fatherland."

I actually finished the book the night before Inauguration Day, and the timing seemed significant to me. There are many issues with which Tolstoy struggles that are still relevant today, nearly two centuries later. We are all hoping that our new president can level the playing field for all races and classes of people, and the strained relationship between peasants and nobility that shows itself in War and Peace reminds us that an unacceptable gap between those who have (whether they have money, education, opportunity, or whatever) and those who have not is not something new. The gap is just, if at all possible, even wider now than it was then. Likewise, Tolstoy elegantly points out the futility of warfare as a means of resolving disputes between nations or sovereigns. He does not do this in a didactic way, but just through the story line we come to see how unproductive fighting is. Surely we can find a better way.

As I said in a previous post, I think some members of the Russian nobility joined the military out of sheer boredom. It is astonishing, really, how little these people had to do. Pierre/Count Bezukhov is the character who evolves the most in the story - he is really transparent in his restlessness and his quest for some sort of meaning in his life. When he is released after being a prisoner of war, he articulates the epiphany he has had about how little one needs in the way of material things to be happy, the reader can tell that he will not be the same again, his life has been permanently transformed.

Oh, and Pierre's wife Helene - what is up with that? She is a sought after woman - everyone wants to be her friend and get invited to her soirees, yet it seems to be common knowledge in the story that she has numerous lovers, none of whom is her husband. I think of the ostracism that Anna faced from her own class of people in Anna Karenina when she had a long-term adulterous relationship. Helene has numerous adulterous relationships yet seems to be the epitome of the Moscow and Petersburg social circles. I don't get it. However, I think both these women (and others to a lesser degree) behave the way they do because they are so stifled by the conventions of their social class and of the time period in which they live. They have so few options. It strikes me as no accident that both Anna and Helene wind up essentially alone and commit suicide.

I cannot even begin to guess how many times I read certain sentences or paragraphs in War and Peace and was stunned by the truth that I found there. This is especially true for Tolstoy's musings (sometimes through the thoughts and voices of his characters, others through the voice of the narrator) about death and our fear of it, spirituality, our ongoing quest for meaning and purpose in life, and the question of whether or not we as humans are dependent on free will more or less than on divine guidance. That is not to say that I agreed with all his conclusions. Tolstoy clearly does not have a high opinion of women, and there were a few off-the-cuff comments about women's depth of character or intelligence that he would never get away with now. I just chalked it up to the times in which he lived.

And yes, I cried when Prince Andrei died.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I thought Tolstoy ended it strangely. He ends with about a 40-page philosophical historical treatise that reminded me of something John Locke would have written - all about how no one individual, regardless of how powerful (he specifically is referring to Napoleon Bonaparte) they think they are, really has any more power than anyone else. He makes the argument that Napoleon only thought he was giving orders for all these invasions and conquests. Tolstoy says these things happened because "they had to," and millions of tiny decisions from people significant and not-so-significant converged to make things unfold as they did. I am still mulling all that over in my mind, and am not sure I totally agree with Tolstoy, but whether we do or not his ending the book with this extended essay on the subject was an odd choice. He had made the point numerous times throughout the narrative, and the long-winded treatise at the end felt anti-climactic - like he was beating a dead horse. I'm sure if Tolstoy were still alive he would listen to my suggestions and go right away and make changes (NOT!).

It's a terrific book - it will make you think, and it will stay with you for a long time. I already want to read it again, but not anytime soon. I've got a huge stack of other things waiting, and I need to knock off some quick ones to get my momentum back.

Stay tuned now for more frequent postings now that the trek is completed!

Reverent Reader

Thursday, January 8, 2009

*Midpoint Musings

War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy

One of my reading pals recently said "What in the world is that about?" when I told her I was reading War and Peace. I really have to give Michael Dirda from the Washington Post Book World a lot of credit for getting me interested in classics. As a liberal arts major, I had to read a fair amount of the "old dead white guy" writers in college, and had sort of written them off as the type of boring thing you would only read when someone was making you write a paper about it. Several years ago I read Dirda's memoir An Open Book, in which he describes books that had a major impact on him. His enlivening discussions of several books that had been important to him made me think that I really should give some of the classics a chance.

A little over a year ago, I read Dirda's review of the latest translation of War and Peace in the "Book World." He made it sound so intriguing AND entertaining that I decided to plunge in and see what made this tome so well known and so acclaimed. Okay...I didn't exactly plunge. I read some other Tolstoy stuff as a warm-up and was surprised by how much I liked it. I have decided that reading this stuff is a whole different experience when you are doing it just for fun, or just out of curiosity, and not because someone with the power to influence your GPA is making you read it.

So...have been reading the book for about two weeks and am a little more than halfway through. I like it a great deal - I find with these long suckers that you just kind of have to settle in and not rush. The advantage to an epic style like Tolstoy's is that the characters can become so real to the reader, and they have time to evolve just like live people. I liken reading War and Peace to settling down on the couch with a thick blanket - you just get immersed in it and it can be difficult to reemerge into the "real" world. Tolstoy has created a world with so much nuance and detail that (trite as it may sound) you really feel as if you are there.

I have read enough about Tolstoy to know that he himself struggled mightily with the mystery of death, the purpose of life, our relationship to God, and the delicate dance of relationship with other people. Tolstoy uses his characters to articulate and live out some the dilemmas that he wrestled with. And, if we are honest, I think we all have questions about these major parts of life. Tolstoy gives us a lens through which to examine our own questions of faith, our doubts, and our search for meaning in our existence. War and Peace is a big fat tome - you practically need a forklift to haul it around. But it is worth the time. It is not a book that comes easily to the reader, but it also is not as hard to follow as I had been led to believe. I think we have made this book into something of a myth, but it is not nearly as difficult as I would have supposed.

Three quick thoughts that I will try to unpack some in a later post: 1) War and Peace, as well as being an incredible novel, packs in a lot of good history. Before reading it, I knew zilch about the Napoleonic wars. Now I know a little more than zilch. 2) Along those lines, it is painful when soldiers in the novel witness posturing and self-aggrandizement and ignorance on the part of their superiors, and when they become disillusioned with war (as they find out it really does not resolve much. You wonder if these kinds of things still go on in modern armies. Wouldn't be surprised. 3). Tolstoy seems to absolutely nail the stifling vapidity of life in the Russian nobility. I might join the military too if my life was as lacking in direction as some of these poor creatures.

That's all for now. Stay tuned...

Reverent Reader

*Ed, my darling, I know you hate the word "musings" in a blog. I was just going for an alliterative effect!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008 in Reading Review

2008 Review...

Well, this is the second time I've done this on Ex Libris Fides. It is a fun year-end exercise to go back over what I've read and reflect on which books have really stayed with me and had an impact, for good or ill. The total for 2008 is 79 books, 42 fiction and 37 non-fiction. The non-fiction covers a wide range of topics - lots of churchy stuff as well as lots of random stuff thrown in. In looking over my list for 2008, I think that most of the books had something to offer - there is only one that I would say is a total dud (which will be revealed later).

Just for the record, this is a record only of books - it's too difficult to keep track of magazines, newspapers, and Internet reading. So, here's the list for 2008, in the order in which they were read:

The United Stated of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation (NF - foodie history) by David Kamp
I Feel Bad About My Neck: and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (NF - essays) by Nora Ephron
The Book of Marie (F) by Terry Kay
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (NF - memoir) by Ishmael Beah
When Jesus Came to Harvard by Harvey Cox (NF - theology/ethics) by Harvey Cox
The Song of the Lark (F) by Willa Cather (read 2 times in 08)
Einstein: His Life and Universe (NF - biography) by Walter Isaacson
The Jump-Off Creek (F) by Molly Gloss
Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens (NF - theology/church development) by Neil Cole
Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (NF - theology) by Rowan Williams
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? (NF - true crime/social commentary) by Francisco Goldman
The God of Animals (F) by Aryn Kyle
Away (F) by Amy Bloom
Half of a Yellow Sun (F) by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
Pillar of Fire (NF - history, biography) by Taylor Branch
Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World (NF - humor/history/essays) by Sarah Vowell
Good Grief (F) by Lolly Winston
People of the Book (F) by Geraldine Brooks
Four Short Stories of Leo Tolstoy: Master and Man, The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Family Happiness (F) by Leo Tolstoy
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (NF - memoir) by Bill Bryson
A Generous Orthodoxy (NF - theology)
Death Comes for the Archbishop (F) by Willa Cather
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court (NF - history/current affairs) by Jeffrey Toobin
Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (NF - theology/biblical studies) by Elaine Pagels and Karen King
The Member of the Wedding (F) by Carson McCullers
Bridge of Sighs (F) by Richard Russo
Simple Church (NF - church development/administration) by Thom Raines and Eric Geiger
One for the Money (F) by Janet Evanovich
Morningside Heights (F) by Cheryl Mendelson
Complications: A Surgeon's Note on an Imperfect Science (NF - memoir/medicine) by Atul Gawande
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories (F) by Susanna Clarke
Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (NF - theology, emergent church) by Rob Bell
The Victoria's Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming: And Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer (NF - memoir) by Jennie Nash
The Life of Elizabeth I (NF - biography) by Alison Weir
Justice in the Burbs: Being the Hands of Jesus Wherever You Live (NF - theology/ethics) by Will and Lisa Samson
Mudbound (F) by Hillary Jordan
Run (F) by Ann Patchett
Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline (NF - theology/practice) by Lauren Winner
The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (NF - memoir/social commentary) by Steve Lopez
I Don't Know How She Does It (F) by Allison Pearson
Invisible Man (F) by Ralph Ellison
The Sunday List of Dreams (F) by Kris Radish
What Is the What? (F) by Dave Eggers (2nd reading)
Dreamers of the Day (F) by Mary Doria Russell
The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (NF - science) by George Johnson
A Thousand Splendid Suns (F) by Khaled Hosseini (2nd Reading)
Sarah (F) by Marek Halter
Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West (NF - memoir, politics) by Benazir Bhutto
The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (NF - theology/practice) by Shane Claiborne
A Spot of Bother (F) by Mark Haddon)
Handling Sin (F) by Michael Malone
The Wild Trees (NF - science/botany) by Richard Preston
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (F) by David Wroblewski
Transforming Congregational Culture (NF - church development) by Anthony Robinson
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink (NF - foodie articles) edited by David Remnick
Saturday (F) by Ian McEwan
The Painted Veil (F) by W. Somerset Maugham
Under the Banner of Heaven (NF - history/current events/social commentary) by Jon Krakauer
The Plot Against America (F) by Philip Roth
A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports (NF - history/sportswriting/biography) by Brad Snyder
Double Whammy (F) by Carl Hiaasen
The Writing Class (F) by Jincy Willett
The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief (NF - theology) by Peter Rollins
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (NF - history/economics) by Naomi Klein
The Book Thief (F) by Markus Zusak
Nefertiti: Queen of Egypt, Daughter of Eternity (F) by Michelle Moran
Jesus for President (NF - theology) by Shane Claiborne
Anna Karenina (F) by Leo Tolstoy
We Need to Talk About Kevin (F) by Lionel Shriver
The Shack (F) by William Young
The Year of Living Biblically (NF - theology/biblical studies/humor) by A.J. Jacobs
Mystic River (F) by Dennis LeHane
Assassination Vacation (NF - history/humor/travelogue) by Sarah Vowell
Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (NF - biography/history) by William Lee Miller
Three Daughters (F) by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
One of Ours (F) by Willa Cather
The Last Noel (F) by Michael Malone
Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (NF - memoir/history) by Peter Godwin

As in the past, I list below my personal favorites in both fiction and non-fiction. Making this list is not so much a comment on a book's literary quality, although some "classics" certainly make the list. However, the sole criterion for making the top five is simply how much I liked and enjoyed and was moved in some way by the particular books listed. The listings are roughly in order of preference, but those gradations are very slight. I loved them all!

Top Five Fiction 2008:
The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (I was surprised by how much I liked this - couldn't put it down)
Handling Sin by Michael Malone
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche

Very close/Almost Made the List/Honorable Mention
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Top Five Non-Fiction 2008
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (absolutely hilarious)
Pillar of Fire by Taylor Branch (a must for people who like civil rights history)
Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin
The Fidelity of Betrayal:Towards a Church Beyond Belief by Peter Rollins

Very Close/Almost Made the List/Honorable Mention:
Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement by Rowan Williams
The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne

For my own entertainment, and perhaps for that of those of you who have hung in this far, here are a few extra categories and books that were especially meaningful to me (or not) in this most recent reading journey:

Most Inspiring:
The Soloist: A Lost Dream, and Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (a must read, also going to come out as a movie with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. in March 2009)

Biggest Dud:
The Sunday List of Dreams by Kris Radish. Ridiculous, horribly written, dumb. Run from it.

Biggest Disappointment:
Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell (not terrible, just not up to the level of her prior works)

Most Theologically/Spiritually Broadening:
A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McClaren

Most Edifying About a Random Topic:
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston (I swear this will make you want to go see the redwoods)

Surprise Hit:
Saturday by Ian McEwan (at first I thought this would be a yawner, but got really into it)

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (no contest, one of the most frightening books I have ever read)

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (or anything by Sarah Vowell)

Classic Authors Whose Acquaintance I am Happy to Have Made:
Willa Cather and Leo Tolstoy

"New" Authors (to me anyway) from Whom I Look Forward to Seeing More:
Aryn Kyle, Hillary Jordan, and Molly Gloss

Current Author Most Likely to be Labeled "Classic" in 150 Years:
Geraldine Brooks

Most Engaging Theologian of the Bunch
Rowan Williams

Most Fun Collection:
Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink edited by David Remnick

That's about it. I'm sure as soon as I close the post, I'll discover other things I should have mentioned. This was a tough year to choose my favorites, because I read so many things that were really good. I cannot close a post about the year 2008 without mentioning the ache of loss I still feel about the loss of my long time best friend, KB. I will always miss her.

Send me your thoughts - I am figuring out my "must reads" for 2009, and would love to hear things that you recommend. Also, send me your favorites from 2008. I'm passionate about books and writing. Can you tell?

Wishing everyone a peaceful, fulfilling, and bookish 2009!

Reverent Reader