book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read a lot of great books in 2015, and I would recommend many of them to interested readers.  But I thought it might be helpful to narrow it down to a smaller list of titles for a year end wrap up.  So here are the five books I would most recommend to anyone, followed by ten more that were also great (and I feel bad leaving off books I liked by Anne Lamott, Patrick Hicks, Marilynne Robinson, and Brian Turner, among others—it was a good year of reading).  I’ve put them in the order that I read them with a brief quote from my original reviews (and a link to the review if you want to see more).  First, the top five.

Complications (Atul Gawande)

“a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.”

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)

“a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.”

Get in Trouble (Kelly Link)

a book so good I reviewed it twice!

“It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.” (blog review)

“It’s this quality of the fantastic, when in the best hands like Link’s, that helps the reader to get out of the ordinary world and see something different, all while shedding light on some part of the ordinary that we often overlook. Plus, it’s fun.” (Rock &Sling review)

Hiroshima (John Hersey)

“And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere.  It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face.  As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons.”

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

“a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.”

And the runners-up

Gulp (Mary Roach)

“the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

“The book is satisfying but not overlong, and still I wished I could spend more time with these delightfully eccentric sisters.  I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes a slightly twisted and dark story.”

God and the Gay Christian (Matthew Vines)

“Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.”

Carver: A Life in Poems (Marilyn Nelson)

“In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.”

Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans)

“a mix of memoir and a meditation on church.  The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together.”

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

“Coates’s writing is an inspiration for me.  He is a writer that I admire for many reasons: love of language, curiosity of self and the world, and deep humility.”

Neurotribes (Steve Silberman)

“a comprehensive and important history of autism […] it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition”

Davita’s Harp (Chaim Potok)

“another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.”

Killing and Dying (Adrian Tomine)

“is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.”

March, Book One (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell)

“This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.”

I hope 2016 brings at least as many good books my way!

book reviews, faith, literature, personal

Book Reviews, March 2015

In March I read two books from the Girl Canon, a list of “books not necessarily for girls but which investigate, address, or represent the female experience in some essential way.”  I’ve read a few of the books on that list already, but I found it a useful guide to add even more to my ever-growing “to read” list.  It’s almost like there are too many books!  I also, sad to say, have my first negative review this month.  It’s more fun to recommend good and great books, but it is useful to know which books to steer away from.

  • Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh is a classic in children’s lit (it says so on the back cover!), but I managed to never read it.  I’m glad I did, though.  Even before we started having kids, I liked to pick up YA lit or kids’ classics that I missed growing up every once in a while.  Some of it is nostalgia, I’m sure, but some of it is a curiosity to know what kids are reading these days or what my own kids will someday read.  And I just like good stories, so I’m not bothered if they happen to come in packages meant for a younger crowd.  If it was the only thing in my reading diet, that might be a problem.  But usually it’s once or twice a year as a change of pace.  Anyway, enough about me, what about Harriet?  I enjoyed most the aspect of her spying/observing the world.  She spends much of her time each day observing her classmates or the people in her neighborhood, jotting down questions, stray thoughts, and sharp barbs.  Some of it is simplistic (she is in sixth grade, after all), but much of it is her learning about people and how they relate to the world.  It’s not explicitly said, but she is learning about social stratification and class structure and her place in that structure.  She’s practicing to be a writer someday, and she is learning the empathy necessary to write about all kinds of people.  There are lots of misadventures along the way (it is a kids’ book after all), but she learns to be a better person herself, too.
  • The Forgers by Bradford Morrow is a disappointing thriller about books and forgery.  I had high hopes when I picked up the book on the NEW shelf at the library on a whim.  I’m a sucker for books about the love of books (I’ve got a future post percolating on the subject), but they sometimes disappoint, and when they do it’s a big letdown.  The Forgers isn’t bad, but it starts with more promise than it delivers.  It starts with the blurbs.  I picked up the book based on the gushing from respectable writers like Michael Cunningham and Joyce Carol Oates.  I figured if they liked a book labeled a thriller, it must be pretty good.  But I suspect they liked it for its meditations on fakery and deception, both literary and personal.  The beginning also hooked me in with the description of a grisly murder of a man in the rare book world (possibly a forger) who has had his hands chopped off.   I was compelled by the mystery for the majority of the book, but I expected more of a payoff at the end.  It seemed that the action dragged in the final third as if the reader was expected to get more out of the contemplation of duplicity and double-ness of forgery.  I guess I expected more thriller from my literary thriller.  Though it has its moments, I’m sad to say I don’t think I’d recommend this book.
  • Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright is a helpful book on a difficult topic.  Part of my difficulty was my confusion on what exactly “the authority of scripture” means.  Wright contends that the authority of scripture only makes sense as shorthand for “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.”  The Bible is not a rule book or a book of doctrines, or at least not primarily so.  Rather, “most of its constituent parts, and all of it when put together […] can best be described as story.”  And this story is one that is ongoing.  In Wright’s formulation, we are currently in the last act of a five-act play: “creation, ‘fall,’ Israel, Jesus, and the church.”  The culmination of the story is the salvation of all of creation, not merely individual souls.  I liked all of these ideas, but it still remained mostly on a theoretical level, so I was glad that he presented some examples at the end of the book.  The first example of how to understand the Sabbath for today was particularly enlightening for me.  I liked the discussion about how Sabbath is sacred time (analogous to the Temple as sacred space) and the related theme of Jubilee.  Jubilee occurred every seventh year with the forgiveness of debts and then a great Jubilee on the fiftieth year (after seven seven year periods) with the restoration of land and the freedom of slaves.  It is the picture of the restoration of creation that Jesus inaugurated but that is not yet complete.  He closes the book with his second example of monogamy, which is more troublesome.  He contends that one man/one woman is the intended order of creation and the polygamy of the Old Testament was a sign of the disordered-ness of humanity after the first act of the play.  While it fits with his overall system and understanding of scripture, it doesn’t take into account LGBTQ individuals.  Despite my hesitation at the end of the book, I would still recommend it for anyone interested in the Bible and how to understand it.
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is delightfully macabre story of two sisters ostracized by their community.  When we first meet the narrator Mary Catherine Blackwood (affectionately called Merricat by her sister), she is shopping in the village.  She goes into town twice a week to get groceries and other necessities.  Their large house is outside of the small village, secluded from prying eyes.  They live apart, and that suits them and the villagers both fine.  Merricat lives with her sister Constance and their uncle Julian, who is an invalid.  The rest of the family, we soon learn, all died under mysterious circumstances years ago.  The Blackwoods are the object of morbid curiosity by the villagers, leading to confrontations as the sisters would rather live cloistered away from view.  Jackson gives us a wonderful narrator in Merricat, a woman we sympathize with and root for even as she does strange things like burying trinkets and money on their property or saying secret words to ward off impending danger.  The book is satisfying but not overlong, and still I wished I could spend more time with these delightfully eccentric sisters.  I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes a slightly twisted and dark story.  As a side note, the edition I read had an introduction by Jonathan Lethem that gave some of Jackson’s bio and explicated the story, revealing most of the key plot points.  I skipped the intro initially and read it only after I had finished the book.  I wish books that had this kind of introduction would move it to the back of the book so that readers who don’t want to read spoilers could more easily avoid them.