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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book reviews, comics, faith, literature, politics, psychology

Book Reviews, May 2016

In May I read two great books on serious questions about America today that I would recommend heartily, one on what it means to be gay and Christian in America, and the other on poverty and the crisis of affordable housing in this country.  There are two reviews for comic books, too, but only one of them is worth your time.

  • Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu is 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.  He would then tell his own thoughts, but it was clear who thought what.  He even managed to do this when talking to Fred Phelps, the late pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, in a tense conversation (the book was published in 2013, a year before Phelps’s death).  Chu also spends time with those who have lost faith because of the way the church treated them, and with people in ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, and with gay Christians trying to remain celibate, and with those who have reconciled their sexuality with their faith.  He talks to some who are well known like Ted Haggard, the disgraced pastor, Jennifer Knapp, the one-time star in Contemporary Christian Music, and Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network.  But he mostly talks with everyday ordinary people who are trying to figure out their faith and sexuality.  A recurring element throughout the book is the ongoing story of a young man who is struggling to come out to his conservative family.  It all adds up to a very powerful book.  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.

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  • Ocean/Orbiter: The Deluxe Edition, written by Warren Ellis with art by Chris Sprouse and Colleen Doran, is a collection of two stories about human space flight.  Though unrelated, both stories are science fiction about technologies beyond what we currently have.  In Ocean, a global research team attempts to figure out what is below the ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, before a technology corporation (a thinly veiled Microsoft stand in; their operating system is called Doors instead of Windows).  The answer threatens the fate of humanity.  The second story involves a space shuttle that disappeared for ten years and then suddenly returns to Earth modified by unknown forces.  Again, the answers to what happened to the shuttle affect the fate of humanity.  The concepts behind both stories are interesting to a point, but they were very idea focused and not invested nearly as much in character.  I don’t regret reading the book, but I don’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone unless they’re craving mysterious space adventure light reading.

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  • The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts by Paul Pope is a grab bag of early formative comics by an extremely talented artist.  Pope’s art is full of action and expressive characters both heavily influenced by Japanese manga.  The art is not a rip-off, though, but a blend of styles that becomes something new and uniquely his.  The title story fits nicely in the crime genre, but with a bit of a supernatural twist.  Rival gangs such as the Paid-in-Spades and the Do Nothings compete in the city, but individuals in the One Tricks gang each have a special ability to control others with their speech (much like Kilgrave in Jessica Jones).  The protagonist of the story is Tubby, a member of the One Tricks, and his girlfriend Vim.  They plan a heist of their own gang’s stash so they can get out of the city, but naturally it all goes wrong as these things tend to do.  The other stories in the collection range from poems put into comics to a short story about an eating contest to a pair of wordless stories about chance encounters.  A particular standout is a short piece about a young woman waiting for her artist boyfriend to pick her up after work late at night.  He says he’ll be right there, but then gets caught up in his work again and arrives later than he said, leading to her having to fend off sexual violence from strangers while she waits and waits.  It does a good job of perspective taking since most everything else in the collection is about young males and their viewpoint.  Overall, it’s a good read for those who like crime fiction or good art.
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond is an essential book.  Please, please, read it (Read an excerpt here).  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.  We meet Arleen and her two boys Jori and Jafaris (all the names have been changed) who get evicted at Christmas time after spending money on a funeral for Arleen’s sister instead of rent.  We meet Scott, a nurse who lost his license after he suffered a back injury and got hooked on painkillers and can’t keep up with rent because of his addiction.  We meet Lamar, a man with no legs, who tried to make up for back rent by helping paint the upstairs apartment, all to no avail after the house burned down later.  Their stories are gripping and heartbreaking.  And we meet their landlords Tobin and Sherrena, the former the owner of a rundown trailer park and the latter an enterprising owner of many dilapidated yet lucrative properties in the city leading her to proclaim that “the ‘hood is good.”  For the most part, their stories are presented in a straightforward manner based on first hand observations and recordings Desmond took while spending time with the people.  Occasionally he would add a beautiful description that made it more novelistic: “[she would] sit on a windowsill and light a cigarette, its smoke coming alive in the breeze like a raging spirit that had only seconds to live” (289).  When appropriate during the narratives, Desmond explains aspects of the housing crisis in cities like Milwaukee, but he leaves most of the research, his own and others’, in the 60 pages of endnotes (which are worth reading, too).  For example, “For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties” (75), and that over a period of two years, half of renters in Milwaukee “experienced a serious and lasting housing problem” (76).  Problems with housing ripple outwards, too, leading to health and psychological problems.  For instance, if the tenants at a property called 911 too frequently (3 times per month) the police could cite the landlord for a nuisance violation.  Landlords would likely evict renters who called 911 too much, thus leading to an incentive for renters not to call, which is of course a problem if there are genuine reasons like domestic abuse to get police involved.  Milwaukee recently changed the nuisance law to make an exception for abuse, but the incentives not to call remain for most situations.  So many poor people live in substandard housing in bad situations, but then they don’t even receive the help that they are entitled to because the programs are underfunded.  Sixty seven percent of poor people who rent received absolutely nothing from the federal government for housing assistance in 2013. It’s shameful.  At the end, Desmond offers two solutions that could begin to ameliorate the sad state of affairs in housing.  The first is to guarantee legal representation for those in eviction court, just like is done for criminal defendants.  Without a proper defense, most renters lose in court against their landlords, if they even show up to court at all.  But more fundamentally, housing should be a basic right for everyone.  One way to accomplish this would be to give everyone under a certain income a universal housing voucher that guarantees that no more than 30% of their income goes towards housing costs.  Such a program would not be cheap, but is certainly achievable if it were made a priority.  For example, the cost of the mortgage interest deduction to the federal government alone would be able to pay for the program.  For a country that calls itself a Christian nation, our priorities are certainly skewed.  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.
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