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, history, literature, politics

Book Reviews, August 2016

The batch of book reviews for August is another hodge podge of comics and American history.  Much like I did for a review last year (Ari Berman’s study of the Voting Rights Act), one of the reviews is twice as long as usual in order to cover the topic of the Second Amendment more thoroughly.

  • Batman: Contagion by various writers (including Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Dennis O’Neil, Alan Grant, and even a short chapter by Garth Ennis) and artists (including Kelley Jones and Mike Wieringo, among others) is a crossover event comic that under-delivers on a promising premise.  What if an ebola-like virus struck Gotham?  How would Batman save the city?  If any peril merited the mind of the world’s greatest detective, this would be it.  Unfortunately, it mostly involves our heroes punching bad guys while numerous civilians we’ve never met before succumb to the deadly virus. As a big crossover event, it means Batman gets help from Robin, Catwoman, Azrael, Oracle, Nightwing, and Huntress in order to save the city.  Though one of the heroes contracts the virus, we as readers never doubt the cure will arrive in time.  The whole exercise feels nothing like a real outbreak of a deadly pathogen.  The artwork is mostly pedestrian or outright bad, with the exception of Kelley Jones’s exaggerated dark and brooding version of Batman.  The original comics came out in 1996, a year after Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and the film Outbreak.  If you want an interesting story about ebola, try one of those.
  • The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman is an important book that looks at two important things regarding the Constitution.  First, it is a history of how the Second Amendment has been interpreted.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, it wrestles with how to interpret the Constitution today, showing how the theory of originalism does not work as a coherent theory of interpretation.  So first the history of the amendment.  The Second Amendment is notoriously difficult to interpret because it has such a strange grammatical structure: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Waldman starts with a lesson about colonial America and the history of militias versus standing armies.  It is this context that informs the writing of the Second Amendment.  During the Constitutional Convention, there was no debate about an individual right to “private gun ownership” or that it needed to be protected in a bill of rights.  Later, during the House debate on the Bill of Rights, “None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting, or for any purpose other than joining a militia” (55-6).  In the literature of the time, especially political writings and those of the founders, almost every use of the phrase “bear arms” had a military context.  It was the duty of every adult male in the community to join the militia and bring his own gun when training or when mustered for duty.  The courts of the early era mostly all understood the right espoused in the Second Amendment as a collective right so that there could be a local militia.  Waldman then proceeds to give a history of the NRA, showing how it evolved from a marksmanship and recreational organization to the militant lobbying group it has become today.  In 1958, their Washington headquarters had the sign, “FIREARMS SAFETY EDUCATION, MARKSMANSHIP TRAINING, SHOOTING FOR RECREATION.”  By contrast, their new headquarters in the 1990s had an edited version of the Second Amendment which omitted the first half about militias.  The key moment in between these two mottoes happened in the late 70s when new leadership ousted the old in what was called the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” and the group became much more political.  This change in the NRA coincided with a new interpretation of the Second Amendment.  From 1888 to 1960, “every single [law review] article concluded the Second Amendment did not guarantee an individual right” (97).  In the next 20 years, however, articles were evenly split, 27 apiece, for an individual right, but 60% of those for an individual right “were written by lawyers who had been directly employed by or represented the NRA or other gun rights organizations” (98).  It should also be pointed out that law review articles are not peer reviewed.  These articles cited each other and found tenuous arguments and often misunderstood or taken out of context quotes to bolster their claims.  The NRA itself is not above trying to misconstrue the founders when it suits their purpose.  For instance, a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington contained the quote “One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.”  From context, it is clear that Jefferson is not speaking of firearms at all, but rather is asking for some letters back so that he can prepare rebuttals in his capacity as Secretary of State (See the quote at the link for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action site and this explanation of the Jefferson letter).  This sea change in interpretation of the amendment culminated in the 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller which finally established a federal individual right to own a gun.  Two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago, the right was incorporated to the states, thus overturning Chicago’s handgun restrictions.  The late Antonin Scalia, a firm believer in originalism when it comes to interpreting the Constitution, wrote the  Heller majority opinion.  This is notable because the decision picks and chooses from the original context of the writing of the amendment, avoiding much of the history and context of the colonial militias.  Then, later it moderates somewhat by mentioning a list of exceptions to the absolute individual right to a gun (i.e. rights of felons and the mentally ill, carrying firearms into schools and government buildings, and allowing for conditions and qualifications for commercial sales), none of which have an originalist explanation.  They are clearly in the opinion in order to secure the swing vote so that it could pass 5-4.  The decision is not in the least conservative, either, as it overturns over 200 years of precedent.  It is the very definition of an activist judiciary to find a new “true” meaning of the amendment that the courts had never before found.  This inquiry into the change in interpretation of the Second Amendment thus serves as a good case study for why originalism does not work as an interpretive framework for the Constitution.  The first question is whose intention counts when trying to figure out what part of the Constitution means?  Do we side with those drafting the document (they certainly didn’t all agree; that’s why they debated it), or the new Congress, or the ratifiers in the states?  Perhaps more to the point, a theory that rests on finding an original meaning (if one can be found) does not keep pace with social progress.  How could the founders, smart as they were, consider the principles that would shape our current more technological, globally connected, era?  Each generation reads and interprets the document differently, applying it to the contemporary dilemmas.  Waldman has done a superb job explaining the history of a thorny debate.  I highly recommend anyone interested in the Second Amendment to read it.
  • The Wicked and the Divine Vol. 1: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie is a promising start to a comics series.  It begins with a solid premise: every 90 years, gods return to earth as popular icons, but it doesn’t last.  They die within two years.  Much like any pantheon, the gods fight amongst themselves, while being adored and misunderstood by humans.  This particular go-around, the gods are popstars.  The series plays with notions of celebrity and fandom in interesting and playful ways.  It’s still early, but I’d recommend giving it a try.  [After reading Vol. 2: Fandemonium, I would definitely recommend the series.]
  • The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell is 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 focuses on the Massachusetts Bay Colony rather than the earlier Plymouth of Mayflower fame.  The Bay Colony features interesting figures like John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson.  She gives the necessary background for why the Puritans were leaving England in the first place, leading to Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.”  The sermon is famous for calling the Massachusetts colony “a city on a hill,” an example for the world, but also the same watchfulness was a warning to live up to their ideals.  The colony had famous religious freedom battles where first Roger Williams and later Anne Hutchinson were banished.  Williams sets up the colony in Rhode Island known for its religious tolerance, which paves the way for the First Amendment’s protections more than a century later.  But it’s not all religious squabbles in the early colony, there are also skirmishes with, and the slaughter of the Native population (after smallpox had already ravaged them).  Particularly horrifying is the description of the Mystic Fort Massacre.  A group of allied colonists and Narragansett and Mohegan warriors surrounded the Pequot fort and set fire to their homes, shooting anyone who tried to escape the walls.  I was deeply disturbed to find that the destruction of the Natives was immediate and unrelenting.  For the past few years, ever since I knew I would be living in South Dakota, I’ve been reading and learning about the decimation of the people who lived on the Plains.  But that’s not where it started.  It goes back to every first encounter with Europeans, including the Puritans of New England.  While that is certainly a hugely depressing point in the book, much of the rest of it is made fun by Vowell’s sharp wit and humor.  As a side note, I would point out that Vowell makes no secret that she is politically liberal, but that she is also a patriot (an earlier book of hers is called The Partly Cloudy Patriot, an apt self description).  She spends time comparing the Puritan conception of what “a city on a hill” meant to them to how Reagan repurposed it during his presidency.  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.
  • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley is a decent, if not great, thriller.  I picked up the novel because Hawley is the showrunner for the TV series Fargo, which has had two great seasons so far. I enjoyed the book, but I expected more.  The story revolves around a plane crash, what led up to it, and its aftermath.  The mystery is the unfolding of how the plane came down on the short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York.  Hawley spends time with each of the characters on the private jet, the pilots, flight attendant, the banker and his wife, the cable news executive and his family, and an artist.  My main problem with the novel is that there are a couple of villains in the book and, despite his attempt to humanize them, they come across as flat characters to me.  In fact, the more I thought about them afterwards, the less I liked the book overall, even though I had enjoyed reading it.  This shortcoming left a sour taste and is seriously affecting my feelings for the book.  The book wrestles with the idea of our constant bombardment of infotainment from cable news and the need for narratives to fit every news story whether we have the all the facts or not.  It would be even more interesting if the novel itself didn’t fall prey to its own narratives that forced the villainous characters to fit certain roles.  I have to say I ended up disappointed with this book and wouldn’t recommend it.
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