book reviews, comics, faith, history, humor, literature, nature, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2016

It’s hard to narrow down a year’s worth of reading to a manageable list of the cream of the crop, but I’ll try.  From the books I read in 2016, here are the fifteen books I would most recommend.  First are the top three essential books that I would most enthusiastically recommend to anyone.  The other twelve were also great, and I recommend them heartily, too.  If you want to check out last year’s list, click here.  Like last year, I’m putting them in the order that I read them.  Unlike last year, I’m including longer excerpts from my reviews to give a fuller recommendation.  But if you’d like even more, click on the title of the book for the complete review.  Now to the books!

The Top Three

Evicted (Matthew Desmond)

“an essential book.  Please, please, read it.  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  […]  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.”

Kindred (Octavia Butler)

“a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  […]  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.”

The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)

“an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  […]  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.”

And all the other great ones

Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

“It starts with one of the famous lines of literature: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  From there, we follow Clarissa Dalloway (and other characters) through all the preparations for a party that evening at her residence.  […]  The narration floats and glides from character to character, in and out of minds, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next, like a butterfly flitting here and there.  It can be disorienting, but it is also so fluid.  We get to experience life through so many eyes and minds.  It’s exquisite.”

Our List of Solutions (Carrie Oeding)

“a collection of poetry full of longing and insight and barbecues.  One thing I noticed is that this collection works as a cohesive book and not merely a random selection of poems by one author.  Characters and objects and themes recur throughout the book, filling out the neighborhood feel to the proceedings.”

Sula (Toni Morrison)

“a really great novel.  It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town.  In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely.  Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again.  […]  I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books.  I love many difficult literary books.  But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids.  I’m more easily distracted.  So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected.  An impressive achievement.”

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert)

“There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth.  Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts.  Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing.  Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species.”

This One Summer (Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki)

“a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  […]  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.”

Inspiration and Incarnation (Peter Enns)

“I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  […]  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.”

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

“a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller.  Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried.  It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book.  The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book.”

Does Jesus Really Love Me? (Jeff Chu)

“a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  […]  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.”

Thunder & Lightning (Lauren Redniss)

“an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich)

“a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book.”

The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)

“a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  […]  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.”

Julio’s Day (Gilbert Hernandez)

“a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.”

I mentioned in my last set of reviews for 2016 that I don’t plan on doing my monthly roundup of mini book reviews anymore. However, I’ll still do a best books of the year feature of the books I liked and would most recommend. I’m already working on that list. I hope I find as many good ones as this year.

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humor, personal

Mystery Science Theater 3000

I discovered Mystery Science Theater 3000 at the right time.  I was in junior high, and it hit the right funny sweet spot, weird and wacky and nerdy all at the same time, that made it irresistible to me.  Plus, it came on right after American Gladiators on Saturday evening, so I didn’t have to miss beefed-up body builders smashing peons with foam pugil sticks.  Win-win.

I loved many things about the show: the cheesy movies they skewered with hilarious one-liners and non sequiturs of course, but also the concept and characters.  A mad scientist and his henchperson send a worker drone to outer space to see what the effect of bad movies will be on his psyche (it’s all explained in the theme song embedded above).  The jumpsuited everyman creates some robots to keep himself company, and they riff on the bad movies together.

There was something about Joel, the guy in a jumpsuit with the bots, that endeared him to me.  Maybe it was his sleepy eyes, or his laid back persona, or his seeming discomfort at being in front of the camera.  I could relate to his awkwardness, but he seemed to take it all in stride.  Whatever it was, I liked Joel.  I liked him a lot.

And then suddenly, with no forewarning, he left the show in the middle of the fifth season.  His character found a way to escape the Satellite of Love, and poof, no more Joel.  He was replaced by another worker drone named Mike, but it wasn’t the same.  After he left, I didn’t watch the show anymore, except reruns that starred Joel or, more likely, the beloved episodes I had taped to VHS. (In hindsight, my response was unfair to Mike.  But, in my defense, I was a teenager at the time.  I’ve been assured by a few trusted MSTies that the Mike seasons were also great.)

I wrote about it at the time in my journal in an over-the-top and melodramatic way with tons of references to the show, here reproduced exactly with a few comments sprinkled in (two things to note: for some reason I used to write in all caps, a weird stylistic choice, but it does convey the earnestness of my cri de coeur, though the journal entries before and after are also in all caps so that kind of diminishes the effect in context, and also Joel’s last episode, Mitchell, aired on 10/23/93).

10/24

IT’S  TRUE.  THE AWFUL RUMOR IS TRUE.  WHEN I FIRST HEARD IT I THOUGHT “NO WAY,” AND I WENT INTO A STATE OF DENIAL.  BUT NOW IT HAS COME TO PASS.  THE PROPHECY OF DOOM AND UTTER MORONICY HAS COME TO PASS.  JOEL IS GONE.  HE LEFT.  JUST LIKE THAT.  GONE.  IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME WITHOUT HIM.  SOME LOSER NAMED MIKE NELSON IS TAKING OVER.  [Mike was the head writer on the show.]  NO MATTER HOW FUNNY HE IS IT WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.  JOEL, HOW COULD YOU?  I WAS A MSTIE THROUGH AND THROUGH.  I HAD MEMORIZED THE LOVE THEME THREE TIMES.  I WAS THERE DURING CLASSICS SUCH AS THE SIDEHACKER AND CATALINA CAPER AND EEGAH AND DURING SHORTS LIKE HIRED AND JUNIOR RODEO DAREDEVILS AND THE PHANTOM CREEPS.  WE LAUGHED TOGETHER, CRIED TOGETHER, PLAYED HIDE-AND-GO-SEEK WITH THE BOTS ON THE SATELLITE OF LOVE TOGETHER, ATE CHEESE BALLS TOGETHER , I COULD GO ON AND ON.  YOU MEANT THE WORLD TO ME, I LOVED YOU LIKE A BROTHER AND NOW YOU GO AND TREAT ME LIKE THIS? [I wasn’t actually a creepy stalker; this is a paraphrase of lines from aforementioned MST3K classic “The Sidehacker.”]  WHO’S GOING TO TAKE CARE OF GRETCHEN THE SLINKY?  WHO’S GOING TO CARRY TOM?  WHO’S GOING TO BE GYPSY’S BEST FRIEND?  WHO’S GOING TO WASH THE WINDOWS DURING THE MOVIE?  WHO’S GOING TO INITIATE HEALTH CARE REFORM?  [It was 1993, and somehow I had absorbed something about what was in the political conversation of the day, though I didn’t know anything about health care reform or what I thought about it at the time.  It was a joke, my own attempt at a non sequitur, which now that I’ve explained it, it’s not at all funny, if it ever was.]  WHO’S ON FIRST? [The famous Abbott & Costello routine was also a favorite of mine.] JOEL, DON’T YOU SEE WHAT YOU’VE DONE TO ME?  I THINK I’M GOING TO HAVE TO GET GAMERA [a kaiju turtle, sort of like a lovable Godzilla in shelled form]  TO KNOCK SOME SENSE INTO YOU.  YOU HAVE TO COME BACK.  YOU JUST HAVE TO.  YOU’RE FROM MINNESOTA, DOESN’T THAT MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU?  [My parents are from Minnesota, and we traveled there every summer to see family.  I was pulling out all the stops, even personal connections.]  YOUR PLACE IS BETWEEN TOM AND CROW CRACKING QUIPS LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW.  I BET YOUR SEAT IS STILL WARM.  JOEL, I’M GOING TO LEAVE YOU WITH THE COLD TRUTH: A COW HAS FOUR STOMACHS.

P.S. MOUNTAIN CLIMBING. [A reference to the classic episode “Lost Continent,” though in that episode they said “rock climbing” over and over.  Oops.]

I’ve been thinking about MST3K lately because Joel recently launched a Kickstarter to revive the show (it’s still ongoing, as of this writing, so if you’re a fan of the show and hadn’t heard yet, go ahead and contribute).  I think it would be great if the show can continue with new characters filling the familiar roles having fun riffing on bad movies.  A new generation could discover the joy it brought me, and the old fans could make more memories.

MST3K has a way of bringing people together; it’s not really a solitary experience, at least it wasn’t for me.  Back in junior high when I first started watching it, I would trade all the best lines on Monday morning at school with a good friend who also liked the show.  In college a friendship started my freshman year with another MSTie who had his own VHS tapes of episodes I hadn’t seen yet.  We would get a whole group of friends together to watch the antics of Joel and the bots on a Friday night (it was at Bible college—there wasn’t a whole lot else happening on a Friday night in rural Georgia).  Later, when I was in grad school, which was often an isolating and lonely experience, another friendship deepened over watching episodes of MST3K.  That friend even made me copies of dozens of Joel episodes for me to take to North Dakota, where I started another grad program even though I knew no one there, so I wouldn’t be too lonely.

I hope it can continue to bring people together and make them laugh.

Long live movie sign.

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humor, personal

Smothers Brothers

Seven years ago, Andy, one of my best friends, was shot and killed in the line of duty as a police officer.  I miss him so much.  Last year I wrote about one of my memories of him.  It helps me to continue healing from his absence when I think of the good times we had.  And since I know some people who knew him read my blog, I want to share some of the pieces of him I hold dearly in my heart.

I have a soft spot for the Smothers Brothers.  When I was in grade school I saw them perform once in Milwaukee, WI, at an insurance convention for my dad’s work.  They were funny and I liked Tommy’s yo-yo tricks.  A few years later a friend let me borrow his cassette tape of their greatest hits.  I thought it was hilarious.  It fit right in with the other funny elements of my youth: “Weird Al” Yankovic, MST3K, D.C. Follies, “Who’s on first?”, Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Jerk (an edited for, and taped from, TV copy).  I liked the Smothers Brothers cassette so much that I told my friend that I wanted to perform some of the routines for the high school Senior Variety Show when we were older.  He agreed, probably figuring I would grow out of it.  When senior year finally came, I approached my friend about our agreement.  I was still committed to doing a Smothers Brothers routine.  He wanted nothing to do with it anymore, mostly I think because he didn’t want to perform in the variety show at all if he could help it.  I hated to let go of the idea.  I had to find someone else to do it with me.

I asked Andy.  I’m not sure why he said yes, but he did.  I didn’t really expect him to.  He seemed to think they were funny routines, if old-fashioned, which made them safe for our Christian school. He was a good friend to agree to the silliness of getting onstage and pretend to be my brother and say ridiculous things.

I listened carefully to my dubbed copy of the tape, stopping to rewind every few seconds, so that I could write down an exact transcript of the two routines I had chosen for us: “You can call me stupid” and the song “Crabs walk sideways.”  I gave him a copy of the routines both on cassette and written out, and he learned them.  I had decided to play Tommy, the goofy and clueless one, while Andy would play his brother Dick, the straight man.  It seemed like the easier part to learn since Andy was starting from scratch.  I could already practically recite the entire greatest hits cassette, I had listened to it enough times.  We practiced a few times at my house and his house, and it seemed like we mostly had it.  Neither of us played guitar, so we sang a cappella.

The senior talent show was held in the gymnasium of the school, a stage on one end with chairs set up on the floor.  A few hundred students and parents gathered in the dark.  Our moment arrived and we gave it everything we had.  We belted out our lines and sang to the cheap seats (that is, all of them).  We were both a little bit nervous to sing in front of so many people, but thankfully it was so dark and with the spotlights so bright in our eyes, we couldn’t see anyone.  People by and large laughed at the right parts, so that helped too.  Afterwards, I could tell, when mostly the parents were telling us that we did a good job, that it was humor from another generation.

Those who know me now may be surprised to hear that I would do something like this.  Though I’ve always been an introvert and somewhat shy, I also used to have a bit of an exhibitionist streak, too.  I liked performing and acting, being someone other than myself.  I liked making people laugh.  I liked being a stranger to myself and my friends.  Something unexpected and wild.  I’m thankful that Andy played along with me for this moment.

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book reviews, faith, history, humor, literature

Book Reviews, June 2015

The June installment of short book reviews has humor, a look at evangelical Christian purity culture, and two more World War II novels, one of which has an appearance by a certain famous detective.

  • Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Mallory Ortberg is an extremely silly book.  Imagine characters like Captain Ahab or Miss Havisham or Hermione Granger or Hamlet with smartphones sending snarky, funny, and/or weird texts to other characters from their respective stories and you have the premise of this book.  The jokes originated on the-toast.net, which Ortberg co-created, though it appears that many are exclusive to the book.  It’s pretty humorous, though I found myself nodding in appreciation to the jokes more than laughing.  I can really only recommend the book to English majors (or other readers of classics), as it is hard to imagine enjoying the book without a familiarity with the characters and plots.  Also, the gag can be a bit repetitive; it’s better one or two at a time, which is why it probably worked so well online.  For a sample, check out texts from Miss HavishamMoby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, or J. Alfred Prufrock.
  • Dark Star by Alan Furst is an immersive historical novel set in Europe in the run up and first days of the Second World War.  The protagonist is André Szara, a journalist working as a foreign correspondent for Pravda on the European continent.  He gets entangled in the world of espionage, and only near the end of the novel is he able to figure out completely the role he has played in the dealings between Russia and Germany in peace and war.  He is a survivor.  Historical novels can fall into a Forrest Gump trap by having characters happen to be at famous historical events, and this one is no different.  Szara is on hand for Kristallnacht and the blitzkrieg of Poland.  In my experience, spy novels also run into trouble when they try to include a romance, which they often do.  And again, this one is no different.  Szara has two different affairs over the course of the novel that seem unrealistic.  The sad thing is that Furst handles the romance better than most, but it’s harder for me to overlook anymore.  I’d recommend this book to someone who likes spy novels because it’s definitely above average for the genre, but it’s probably not a gateway book into the genre for the common reader.
  • Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity by Dianna E. Anderson is an interesting, if frustrating, book about purity culture within evangelical Christianity.  Purity culture includes things like complete abstinence before marriage and all of the behaviors that go along with it like purity pledges, purity rings, and purity balls (i.e. father-daughter proms essentially).  The book argues against purity culture primarily because it shames women and men for any type of sexual encounters before marriage, instead arguing for everyone to research and develop their own sexual ethics.  The book is essentially an advice book, which I found frustrating because I didn’t know that’s what kind of book it was before I read it, so I had some expectations that weren’t met.  But let me first mention the things I liked about the book.  Foremost, I liked how Anderson emphasized consent regarding sexual relationships.  It is one of her guiding sexual ethics that she came back to again and again throughout the book, as well as devoting an entire chapter to the subject.  The chapter on the history of purity culture was fascinating, but brief for my tastes (one of my hopes had been that there would be even more historical analysis).  The book also had a good description of gender as a performance that we enact based on social cues and pressures, with an accompanying and thorough explanation of what transgender means.  I suspect that many in her intended audience would find this part informative and helpful.  Her intended audience seems to be unmarried Christians who are still part of the purity culture.  In many ways the book functions as the anti-I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an advice book on the other end of the spectrum but still within Christian belief.  Aside from historical analysis, I was also expecting more grappling with Bible passages.  Anderson spends a chapter shooting down and problematizing the way that purity culture interprets key passages.  But I was expecting her to put forward more of her own interpretation and theology of sex (part of my expectation was based on the inside flap of the jacket which describes Anderson as a “theologian”).  Her main biblical advice is “do no harm,” or basically follow the Golden Rule to love our neighbors.  This is all well and good, but it’s not a guide that is particularly or exclusively Christian.  I think this book is a good start to the conversation, but not the last word, nor would Anderson herself want that as she hopes her readers will research and figure things out for themselves.
  • The Final Solution by Michael Chabon is a fun detective story, featuring an old man who has retired to the English countryside as a bee-keeper.  The character is never named, but he is clearly meant to be Sherlock Holmes in his dotage.  He no longer has a Watson to chronicle his adventures, so Chabon does not even try to recreate the style of the earlier stories.  Instead, Chabon writes in his own mellifluous, if sometimes flowery, style a mystery that is worthy of the detective.  It takes place during World War II and concerns a murder and a missing parrot.  I don’t want to say much more than that so that others can enjoy the book.  Though I do have to say that I guessed early on the significance of the numbers that the parrot repeats (perhaps not much of an accomplishment, but I still felt pleased with myself).  In my experience, it’s seeing how Sherlock Holmes (or any detective, really) arrives at his conclusions rather than the conclusions themselves that gives the most pleasure.  But in this case, there are some mysteries that the old man cannot suss out.  I would recommend it to any Sherlock Holmes fan.  It’s a fun little novel.
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