December Book Log

December 31, 2010

Last book log of the year. I did manage to hit my goal (exactly) as I finished my 60th book a few days ago. I think I’m going to hold at 60 for next year, but really try to read some big books I’ve been putting off for a while.

Anyhoo, this was a nice rebound month. I’d been on a dry run for bit, but there were some books I really liked this month. I also managed to finish my queue for the first time in a while (or at least, I’ll have finished once I’m done with Tess of the D’Urbervilles).

1. For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin (3.5/5) – I loved America, America and I’d been really eager to read something else of his. I thought the first half of this book was terrible. So much so that I almost put it down. I’m glad I didn’t, though, because the second half was wonderful. This was one of the oddest reading experiences I’ve had.

2. The Sky is Not the Limit by Neil deGrasse Tyson (3.5/5) – This was a mixed bag. The more autobiographical, the more interesting I found it. However, about 1/3 of the book is devoted to explanations of various scientific topics he finds interesting. I also find these things interesting, but then, I’d already read about them and couldn’t see why they belonged in a memoir. Overall, I enjoyed it, but he clearly hadn’t reached maturity as a writer.

3. Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood (4/5) – I love how reliable Atwood is. I’ve never hated one of her books. This wasn’t my favorite of hers, but it was still very good and I enjoyed seeing her writing style applied to a more conventional narrative as previously I had read only her more fantastical works.

4. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (5/5) – This was a Cate suggestion, and I was very pleased with it. A wonderfully compelling bit of magical realism. I couldn’t find anything wrong with this. Cate mentioned that she thought there was a place in the middle where it dragged just a bit, but I didn’t find that at all. Good characters, good pacing, really fascinating story.

5. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (4.5/5) – I really took a while to get into this book, but eventually, I found myself rapt. I still don’t think this is as good as Home mostly because I don’t feel we see the characters as well here as we do there. That said, it is quite a book and I totally understand why it received so much praise. I always enjoy reading things where I feel like the author has done exhaustive research in the name of authenticity.

A note on the queue: You’ll notice the new book queue has a lot of big books on it. I’ll be supplementing with smaller volumes here and there, but I want to get to some of these things. For example, I haven’t read Great Expectations in a long time, and I really love it, so a reread is overdue.

Winter/Spring Book Queue:

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
The Chateau by William Maxwell
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
A Gesture Life by Chang Rae Lee
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Zoli by Colum McCann
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
Tales from the Perilous Realm by J.R.R. Tolkien
Daugther of Fortune by Isabelle Allende
Libra by Don DeLillo

Best Books of 2010

December 27, 2010

One of my favorite things about the end of the year is that everyone indulges themselves by churning out myriad meaningless lists. I am no exception. What follows are the five books I most enjoyed (and the one I liked least) reading in 2010. In general, you will find that they were not released in 2010, but that’s when I read them, so there you are.

Let us start from the bottom…

Biggest Disappointment of the Year:

Expensive People by Joyce Carol Oates – Oates was someone I needed to get around to, but I just hadn’t. This seemed like a good place to start. It was nice and short and it had been considered for the National Book Award. It turned out to be the kind of novel I wish people would stop writing. Characters who aren’t really people. Writing with no regard for the reader. A plot that isn’t compelling because you don’t care about the characters. I get that there is a purpose behind this kind of thing, I just don’t think the purpose is a worthy one.

Now, on to the good…

First, a couple of honorable mentions: I loved both The Unnamed and A Farewell to Arms. Joshua Ferris has written two remarkable books now, and I’m really glad that he’s young and will presumably be writing for a while. He’s probably on the list of people whose books I’ll have to buy as soon as they come out. I think he does The Road one better, and that’s saying something… When I was in college, I was unkind to Hemingway. I was lost in admiration of purple prose and Hemingway obviously didn’t fit. Now I see how wrong I was. I’ve loved everything I’ve read so far (still a ways to go), but I think this was my favorite.

Update: Okay, hang on a second. I made a mistake when I typed this the first time. I left out Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. That is an enormous mistake. There are a lot of these books right now that have multiple intertwining narratives, but none of them do a better job than this. This book provides such a complete view of the world. It was like reading One Hundred Years of Solitude if all took place in a summer. I don’t know where it would go on the original list, but I can’t end the year without mentioning how wonderful it was.

5. America, America by Ethan Canin – When I finished it, I talked a lot about All the Kings Men. That is reasonable. But, I want to say something new about these books. What Canin does unbelievably well (here and in other places) is show what it’s like to be out of place. That is, to be conscious that you are Different from the others around you and that, though they may accept you, it is very difficult to ever really feel part of that group. It’s a powerful feeling and one that most of us encounter in life. That he writes about so deftly amidst such a complex story helps to explain why I loved this book so much.

4. Home by Marilynne Robison – I’m currently reading Gilead, the book for which she won the Pulitzer and for which this book serves as a companion. I prefer Home. For one, it does something too few books do, and that is tell the story of a woman who is not married and does not have children, but is (somehow) still a reasonable person. That said, filling a hole does not, in itself, constitute greatness. What makes this book great is the way it treats a rather significant period of time during which very, very little actually happens. The title is appropriate in this way as home is so often a place where things just are. In this book, what they are is fascinating.

3. The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell – I’ve written a lot about Maxwell now. I still don’t understand why he’s fallen by the wayside other than his utter lack of flash (which is probably reason enough). This book is a story we’ve all read a hundred times before, but, as with most everything he does, Maxwell manages to make it feel like it is precious and unique and so fragile that we might destroy it if we hold it too long. The characters in this book are as real and developed as any you will find elsewhere in literature and reading him is like listening to The Band. He makes it look so easy that it seems like he isn’t even trying.

2. Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel – A lot of people do not like this book. I think those people are idiots. Yes, it is sentimental. Yes, it is fairly obvious. But it is still really, really good. I said earlier that filling a hole does not make for greatness, but this book fills a hole that, I think, had gone almost entirely unnoticed. There is something great in that. By using allegory, he does a very good job of making the Holocaust feel real just when it was starting to feel like something Hollywood used when it wanted to make a Serious and Important movie.

1. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri – I keep trying to come up with something that feels remotely relevant to say about this book, but I’ve run out of adjectives. It is very good. It is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read. I had an exceptional run this year. I read book after book that blew me away, but nothing sticks in my head the way this does. I’m not going to say anything more about it, but you are missing something if you haven’t read it.

There is quite the battle going on among our politicians right now. At least, there is the pretense of a battle. Part of the new tax-compromise legislation has to do with the Estate Tax (or, if you’re conservatively minded, the DEATH TAX, mwahahahaha!!!!). Under the current package, when you die, the first $5 million dollars in your estate goes untaxed. The rest is taxed at 35%. Democrats are up in arms because they want it to go back to the way it used to be (first $3.5M exempt and 45% taxed thereafter). I think both sides are out of their ever-loving minds.

Politicians are really big fans of talking about what a meritocracy America is. This is bullshit. In a true meritocracy everyone starts in the same place and then gets wherever they end up through hard work (and, of course, sometimes luck). If my parents leave me $5 million and yours leave you a funeral bill, this is not a meritocracy (obviously, there are plenty of other things that make America not a meritocracy, but let’s stay focused on just this one).

It is not a meritocracy because, for instance, it is a whole lot easier to start your own computer company if you’re  brilliant AND have wealthy parents to help you out than if you’re brilliant and dirt poor. And yet, many people still refuse to acknowledge that rich people tend to beget more rich people and that poor people tend to beget more poor people and that this has, as much as anything, to do with the fact when your parents are rich, then you will, at some point, probably end up with all of their money (and power!) whether you have done anything to deserve it or not. Thus, allowing rich people to continue to pass all of their wealth down from one generation to the next does little more than create a wealthy ruling class. We might as well given them royal titles.

This is why we need an estate tax, but both proposed version seem absurdly conservative to me. The socialist in me wants to say you can either give to charity or the government can take it (let your progeny make it on their own merits), but that would never fly. So, this is what I propose (because anyone is going to listen to me): The first $200,000 is tax free. That amount of money is, for everyone who isn’t rich, life changing. You can pay off a mortgage with that kind of money and still have something left over. After that, it’s a 50% tax rate up to $1 million. This means, that if you die a millionaire, you can leave your kids $600,000 dollars. Again, that is one hell of a chunk of change. After that it’s 75% the rest of the way up. Why? Because there are too many people in America who don’t get the opportunities wealthy people give to their children. There are too many people who have to wonder where their food comes from instead of which absurd college prep academy is best for their kid.

If you want to live in a meritocracy, you can’t have a ruling class. The two are mutually exclusive.

Toys Brainwashing Children

December 13, 2010

I don’t know that I have addressed the ridiculous gendering of toys for small children in this space. It is something that has been such a given that it’s never struck me forcefully enough to compel me to write about it. Until now.

A few nights ago, Cate and I were out doing a little Christmas shopping with the goal of getting Simone some blocks. While we were in the toy section, I popped over to look at the Fisher Price Little People because Simone really likes them and I wanted to see what was out there. Among a bunch of mostly innocuous play sets, I found this. In case, you are too lazy to click the link, I will tell you what it is: It is a Little People Wedding Cottage.

Let that sink in, then I’m going to tell you something else… Okay, here it is:

The recommend age range  for these sets is 1-3 years.

ONE TO THREE YEARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! How can they possibly be serious?

Why, exactly, is it that girls (and yes, if I need to state it explicitly, the set is clearly targeted to girls. Everything is pastel, mostly pink, and though there’s a groom figure, he seems to mostly be a prop) are supposed to start thinking about their weddings before they can form a sentence? Why? (Never mind the assumption that she’ll marry a man, I don’t have the energy for that one.)

I don’t even know if my daughter will want to get married. If she does, great, if not, that’s cool too. I really don’t care as long as she’s happy.

I am aware, of course, that society expects my daughter to care, more than anything, about looking pretty and finding a man. I am aware that it will be a long hard battle to make sure she knows that she has worth beyond these things. I just wasn’t aware I need to start fighting now. She is eighteen months old. She likes trains and kitties and Tigger. She has no concept of relationships.If she were a boy, she would be allowed to be interested in all kinds of things, she would have choices. But she is a girl, so she doesn’t. She is to start planning her wedding now and realize that this will be the best day of her life and that if she fails to obtain this or finds she does not want that, she will be a failure. That really cheeses me off.

I want the world to quit it.

On Valuing Time Over Money

December 6, 2010

The list of things I would rather do than work is extensive. I like my job, but let’s be realistic. It’s a job. I’d rather be doing the aforementioned other things. These things, typically, require time and/or money.

I am a teacher. I do not think this is any secret.

Another non-secret: teacher pay is decent, but I’m not exactly rolling in it.

I am fortunate enough to be in a job that I chose. I could leave, the economy not withstanding, but there is another reason beyond professional satisfaction that keeps me moored to this profession. I realized long ago that I value time much more than money.

Time, I think, is the great American waste. We seem to understand that those things we really want to do require both time and money, but we don’t realize that this requires some balancing. Instead, we tend to pursue wealth doggedly even if the hours are awful and the job is unsatisfying.

I have friends who make a lot more money than I do. At times, I envy them. We can’t afford to travel, for instance, at least not with anything resembling frequency, and it would be nice to just buy a new laptop or a new couch when I deem it necessary instead of wondering if we can afford it. But the paychecks aren’t big enough. That’s just how it is.

Then there’s the other side of that coin. Frankly, most of what I want to do (think spending time with my family, reading, writing, playing guitar) requires a lot more time than money.

Very shortly, I will have two weeks off. A few months will go by and I’ll have another week. Then summer comes and that’s another eleven or twelve weeks. Sure, I do some teaching-related things during this time, but mostly, I do what I like.

When my friends are at work in a few weeks, I’ll be making pancakes for a late breakfast before sitting down in front of the Christmas tree with a book. When they are working in April, I’ll be strolling around the zoo. During the days in the summer, I’ll be playing guitar or chasing after my child in the yard or going to a movie with my wife.

Of course, when my friends are vacationing in Italy or New York or California or France, I will quite likely be in the classroom teaching English to ungrateful teenagers. This is what we give up. We are a single-income household and that income is not enormous, so, for now, we miss out on some of the big things, but I get time, a lot more time than most people my age, to do the little things, the things that others typically talk about not having time for.

Like most people, I’ve had to compromise and make deals with myself. I like teaching, but it isn’t my dream job. I don’t mind getting up to go to work in the morning, but that doesn’t mean I’m always super excited, either. In essence, I work so I can do the things I want to do. Sure, I get to make the world a better place, but I keep the job because it gives me the capacity to hold, albeit loosely, to my dreams. I find this is worth a smaller paycheck.

November Book Log

December 1, 2010

Read 4 books this month. 5 books to go to hit my goal of 60 for the year. I do believe I’ll manage. I should be able to get through my book queue as well.

1. The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell (3/5) – I read this because I so enjoyed The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Unfortunately, this book comes nowhere near that standard. The story is convoluted and totally unbelievable (more than one gaping hole in the plot). Frankly, it reads like a very well proofread first-draft. This is not a compliment. That said, she does a great job writing about what it’s like to parent a newborn/small child. These are the kinds of things that aren’t written about enough and she captures them perfectly. This prevents the book from being a total disaster, but it still isn’t very good.

2. Tinkers by Paul Harding (4.5/5) – I read this because it won the Pulitzer last year. I understand why. The prose is breathtakingly beautiful and all three of the stories he tells are compelling. The only bad thing I can say is that there are three stories and this is a very small book and so it comes off a bit fractured in places. It’s a minor complaint about an otherwise masterful book, but a complaint nonetheless.

3. Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce (4/5) – This is a very well researched and objective account of exactly what some of America’s craziest religious extremists think. These are scary people and there are an awful lot of them. It’s not everyday you hear Americans talking about how great a theocracy would be (when has that ever worked, by the way?).  My only minor quibble is that she’s a bit overly thorough in places and so a few of the chapters feel repetitive. Otherwise, this is an excellent read and utterly terrifying.

4. Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen (5/5) – And speaking of terrifying… I think this might be the most suspenseful book I’ve ever read. Almost the entire thing is build up and it’s all interesting and well-written. Additionally, this book provides a scarily believable tale of domestic abuse. This whole book is done exactly right there’s not to much or to little of  anything. It was wonderful to read.

Fall  Book Queue Update:

For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin
The Prophet and the Astronomer by Marcelo Gleiser
Tess of D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood
Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson