December Book Log

December 31, 2011

Last book log of the year. Encouragingly, I managed 75 books, though just barely (I finished two in the last two days). Break is never as restful as I think it will be. In any case, I’m going to dial back my reading ambitions a bit for next year in order to focus more on writing (at least, that’s the idea). One minor note is that I did not read Next, which was the last book on my queue. I just wasn’t in the mood when the time came. I’m sure I’ll get to it eventually.

A full recap of the reading year will be coming in the next few days. For now, let’s get to the monthly log…

1. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris (4/5) – I read this book for two reasons. The first is rather obviously implied by the title. The other is that I was really in the mood for some Sedaris. He’s funny in a way that’s different from everyone else I’ve read. This collection is, for the most part, delightful. However, there are three non-Christmas stories that reference other holidays and seem to be included to make things a bit longer. That’s all well and good, I guess, but those stories pull you out of the general mood. Still, a nice collection and fun to have around at Christmas time.

2. Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy (4.5/5) – This was the last book on the list Cate gave me for the year. I thought it was pretty brilliant. The only thing that keeps me from giving this a five is that, like many short story collections, there is a sameness to these that gets a bit trying at times, especially given the almost universally grim subject matter. Still, Percy is a wonderful writer, and his dark world is a fascinating place to visit and reminds me eerily of where I come from.

3. How the Dog Became the Dog by Mark Derr (5/5) – I’d been waiting to get this from the library for months and the mood had kind of passed by the time it showed up. I almost didn’t read it, but Cate thought it looked neat and encouraged me. I’m glad she did because this was a fun and fascinating book. It’s always nice to have a complete picture of incomplete knowledge and Derr provides that here. He’s very careful to make clear that we don’t know just exactly how the dog came about (that is, where it originated and how), but there are several good ideas out there with evidence to support them. He clearly has his favorites (he seems to favor genetic evidence, as would I), but he paints a balanced picture overall. Equally nice to read are his thoughts on the human-dog relationship. He pretty much convinced me that the whole notion of purebred dogs is problematic and not at all reflective of the traditional human-dog relationship. After reading this, I don’t think I’ll ever get a purebred dog. Anyway, great read.

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (4.5/5) – This is Lahiri’s only novel and the only book of hers I hadn’t read. It isn’t as good as her short stories and it seemed clear that she got a bit lost in the middle as the story meanders for quite a while, but the beginning and ending are more than strong enough to make up for it. It was nice to see her explore, in depth, the themes of immigration and integration that are so vital to her short stories with one set of characters. So while, this isn’t as strong as her two story collection, it is, in some ways, more complete and thus an entirely worthwhile read.

5. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (5/5) – This, I learned, is one of those rare books that was recommended for, but not awarded the Pulitzer. Why this ever happens is beyond me and strikes me as enormously stupid. This is, quite obviously, a masterpiece. I will confess that it took me a bit to get used to the archaic language Hemingway uses here and immerse myself in the world, but once I did, I was captivated. I blogged a little earlier in the week about the political leanings of this book, so the only other thing I’ll say is that the more I read of Hemingway, the more I’m convinced any criticisms are the result of the most shallow readings possible of his books.

6. The Tent by Margaret Atwood (5/5) – This slim Atwood volume is something I’d been almost reading for several years. I finally read it because it was short and I could check it out in ebook format from the library, thus utilizing my fancy new Nook. I was pleasantly surprised. That’s saying something because we’re talking about Margaret Atwood here. This collection is some strange combination of poetry, fiction, and essay. It isn’t perfect, but it all works wondrously together I found myself intrigued, disturbed, and comforted at various points. A wonderful little book.

7. Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon (4.5/5) – I had not reread any Chabon this year, and I hadn’t read this collection in a long time, so it was due. A very nice collection of stories. Like Refresh, Refresh, they do get a bit same-ish at times (lots of people are getting divorced), but I love his language so much and each story does a wonderful job of pointing to the internal machinations each of us experiences. There’s a reason I keep coming back to Michael Chabon

A word about this season’s book queue: I decided to do something a bit different this time. I’m going to balance the queue between writers I’ve already read and loved with some who are undeniably important but whom I haven’t read or have had mixed feelings about. I’ll mark the authors I know and love with an asterisk. Anyway, I intended to have this finished by the end of school year-ish.

Spring Book Queue:

This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann*
The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee*
Run by Ann Patchett*
The Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt*
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood*
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I just finished reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. Obviously, that will be discussed in a few days during my monthly book log, but I found one particular passage especially resonant. For those who don’t know, For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of an American fighting with guerrillas during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Nominally, it’s communists versus fascists with the main character on the side of the communists. Mostly, it doesn’t take sides, but focuses on the horrible injustice of war, but there is a spot in the middle when Hemingway writes this:

Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. “But the big estates remain. Also, there are taxes on the land,” he said.

“But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here,” Primitivo said.

“It is possible.”

“Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.”

“Yes, we will have to fight.”

And this is exactly what has happened in the 70 years since Hemingway published that book. The rich have continually fought against attempts to increase equality. This is especially true of the income and inheritance taxes. They have been largely successful and those of us not at the very top have taken a long time to wake up to what was going on, but finally – finally – there is a fight.

It is impossible to say if there will ever be any kind of real equality of opportunity in the US – that is what those taxes are meant to create – but at least now, there is some sense that what has been happening is unfair and that there has been conflict, even if it’s been non-military. Hemingway only shows us that it is an old fight we are fighting. The fight of the few rich and powerful against the many poor and marginalized.

Barry Larkin

December 22, 2011

It’s been a while since I linked one of my baseball articles here, but I’m pretty happy of the writing I did in this post on Barry Larkin and the Hall of Fame over at Redleg Nation.

Books I Love, Part Four

December 20, 2011

It’s been quite a while since I did one of these. Seems like a nice late-December post.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. If there is a book that is responsible for me being a reader and thus an English major and thus a teacher and a writer, it is this book. I came across it in high school, when most people do, and I was floored. I remember being utterly crushed when Gandalf died. The magic in this book is so wonderful and the philosophy is so compatible with my normal mindset that I couldn’t help loving it. I’ve reread it a few times since and I’m always pleased with the quality of the writing. At this point, it’s been a while, and I mean to read it again reasonably soon.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Pretty much everyone who reads knows about this book. To this point, it’s Kingsolver’s masterpiece, and that’s saying something. It isn’t surprising how much the first book you read by someone affects how you see their writing. This was the first thing I read by Kingsolver and it sets such a high bar, that I’ve been glad at how often she reaches it. What, just exactly, I love about this book in particular is really not that different from what most people love about it. She does a fantastic job with multiple voices. She roots a complex story in the real world. She allows her characters to be real and sometimes objectionable. It’s a fully fleshed out and wonderful book.

Summer by Edith Wharton. In college, this book served as part of my introduction to early-20th century American literature. It’s one of my favorite periods in literature and Wharton is one of its masters. This novel, better than anything else I’ve read of hers, deals with issues of women’s rights and their dependence on men, the inequities of class, and pretty much anything else you’d expect from a progressive novel. Reading Wharton always disappoints me in a way because we haven’t really come that far since her time.

The language in this book is especially beautiful and its her descriptions that stick with me now, when I haven’t read the book in a number of years. There is also a realness to the poverty that I think often lacks in novels of the time. When I read Wharton, I always feel that she understands poverty despite having no experience with it herself. I find this especially true in this novel.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. I’m not far from having read everything McCann has put out so far. I’ve loved all I’ve read, but this book is a beyond compare. In my discussions with others, it seems to be highly polarizing, but I don’t understand the people who dislike it. I found the reading of this book to be unusually thrilling. Throughout the whole thing, I constantly wondered if he would pull it off. Some of the people and voices are so far apart, it seemed impossible. He does pull it off though. Then ending draws everything together so well and it’s so beautiful. And there really is nothing like McCann writing New York.

A Nonbeliever’s Christmas

December 15, 2011

Cate and I do not believe in god or, frankly, anything supernatural. I doubt this is a surprise to anyone. We do, however, celebrate Christmas. Every once in a while, someone will get worked up about this, so I thought it might be nice to write a post about why we celebrate and how we’re going to handle it with Simone.

Let’s start with this: Christmas is not nearly as Christian as a lot of people seem to believe. At least, not in its roots. I’m not going to go into a history lesson here, but Christmas incorporates traditions from all manner of winter festivals. A simple tour around Wikipedia can give you plenty of information on that. Beyond that, I rather like the basic message of Christmas: Peace on earth, good will toward men. That’s something I can get behind, and I don’t need god or Jesus to tell me these are good things. Despite a recent study indicating that most people think I’m about as trustworthy as a rapist because I don’t believe in god, I do try to make the world a better place. And that, at its best, is what Christmas is about for me.

Second, Christmas is fun. I get that some people want to make Christmas all about religion and that’s fine with me if that’s what rolls your jelly. Similarly, I don’t see why anyone should get worked up when I enjoy the secular aspects of Christmas. For many Americans Christmas is pretty non-religious at this point. Pretending it’s not seems a foolish exercise to me.

Third, there are plenty of other nice things to celebrate. Christmas comes, more or less, at the Winter Solstice, and correspondingly, there’s a lot of reverence for nature built in to it. At least there can be, if that’s your thing. It does happen to be my thing and it’s something I enjoy thinking about and taking note of around this time of year.

Now, what about Simone? For one, Christmas is a wonderfully convenient time to teach children about charity. We’ve already started that by donating some seldom used things and giving to charities of our choice (Simone gave to the zoo).

Though we do intend to raise Simone to think for herself, I feel no more obligation to school her in Christianity than most Christians likely feel to teach their children about Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam or Judaism or Sikhism or the various Pagan traditions out there. That is, we’ll give her the basic plot at the appropriate time, but we’re not going to present it as anything other than one of the many mythologies the world has produced. We will, however, have Santa. There are a few reasons for this.

Primarily, it’s about having some magic in childhood. Childhood was a wonderful time for both Cate and I because we had parents who fostered our imaginations. Reality will sink in eventually, but I feel myself better for having spent part of my youth believing in magic, and I don’t feel the need to deprive Simone of that. Santa is a wonderful bit of magic.

Equally important is that when children are older, Santa can teach important lessons about critical thinking. When Simone does start asking questions, I have no intention of lying to her. Eventually, she will figure out that the the big man with the white beard who rewards her based on her behavior is not real. The parallels between Santa and god are not lost on me, and I doubt they will be lost on her. Learning that Santa isn’t real is also about learning to think for yourself and to treat others well not because you are going to be rewarded or punished, but because it is the right thing to do.

Missing George Harrison

December 13, 2011

Two weeks ago was the tenth anniversary of George Harrison’s death. Correspondingly, I’ve been meaning to write this post for two weeks.

The summer before his death, I was in St. Louis taking classes and catching up from the semester I lost to major surgery. I had just discovered Harrison’s masterpiece All Things Must Pass and had decided to take a summer class called “The Music of the Beatles.” I was in the midst of my most serious period of musicianship. I was playing the guitar for hours every day. I was at the point of music nerd-dom where I conversed about different production styles and coveted intimate knowledge of different guitar tones. At one point, I listened to every song on All Things Must Pass to determine who was playing the lead and rhythm on each track because a friend had asked if I knew where Clapton played lead and where Harrison played lead.

I had discovered ATMP because it had just been beautifully remastered and repackaged. Harrison had a website up where he discussed remastering his entire catalog. It was exciting the way it always is when you find you haven’t missed out entirely on being a fan. He was still there. He was still producing. And then he wasn’t.

Harrison has always been my favorite Beatle. I like his songs the best. I like his willingness to experiment. He is one of very few artists who I find can sing about religion and spirituality in a way that is not judgmental or otherwise off-putting. His songs are simple and honest, but generally done with care and careful ear toward sound.

Most of all, Harrison was someone I related to. He was the hermit I have always felt like. He was also the first artist I ever cared about to die when I was paying attention. Others I came to too late or they held on longer or they are still holding on. Harrison died when he was younger than my father is now. He was an icon of my parents’ youth and my youth. He had a profound impact on me in the way all great musicians can impact you when you are young. His death was a kind of double blow. Part of my youth was gone and my parents were mortal. If Harrison could die of something mundane like throat cancer, so could they. So could anyone. Of course, this is something I knew, but to that point in my life I had been lucky. The only people near me who had died had always been ill or were very, very old.

And now it’s ten years later. I still tear up when I watch the closing number of the Concert for George Clapton put together. I am still sad to have lost someone who brought so much beauty and joy to the world. I am also glad that I found him before he was gone.

As the Father of a Daughter

December 8, 2011

As you have probably heard, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently decided for the entire country that young women under the age of 17 shouldn’t be able to buy Plan B. President Obama agreed with her, saying something about being “the father of two daughters” and “common sense.”

I have a daughter and I have heard of common sense, so let me take a crack at this…

Common sense tells me that if your issue is with 10 or 11-year-olds buying something, then maybe you should restrict them instead of restricting everyone under 17 and then only talking about 10 and 11-year-olds.

Common sense tells me that we should realize that some girls, sadly, are raped by people they know – maybe even their fathers – and that just maybe making them reliant on their parents to get a prescription is not the best course to take.

Common sense tells me it’s ridiculous that young women who are – in most states – considered legally old enough to have sex don’t also have full access to birth control.

Common sense tells me that pretty much no one wants to come up to their parents and say “So, um, a condom broke.” And maybe, just maybe, this reluctance is going to hold kids off long enough that suddenly there is a much bigger problem.

Common sense tells me that you can buy a lot of dangerous crap over the counter and that this is only different because the pander-machine that is the Obama administration thinks liberals won’t punish them for it.

I really, really hope Simone would feel comfortable coming to Cate or I if she needed Plan B. I also realize that she might not. And you know what? That’s her right because, if  you ask me, I don’t own her. I am not entitled to control her body until she turns 18. In fact, I don’t control her body now. Simone is a person and she always has a right to autonomy (within reason, it’s not like I let my two-year-old play with knives). This assumption that our daughters need us to control them is misogynist and morally repugnant.

And here’s the thing: This was the last straw for me. I won’t be voting Obama in 2012. Maybe I’ll vote 3rd party and maybe I’ll write in Hillary Clinton or someone else. It won’t be Obama, though. Why? I have a few friends who insist that you should always vote Democrat and try to shove them to the left. But I think there has to be a limit. The Obama administration has always operated as though they had liberals in the bank. Nothing they could do will send us away. If that’s really the case, they don’t have to pay attention to liberal values. And they haven’t. So I’m gone. If they want me back, they’ll have to earn it.

Simone and Christmas

December 5, 2011

Forgive, while I get a little sentimental…

This is Simone’s third Christmas, but in a way it feels like her first.

Two years ago, she was six months old and mostly confused by all the fuss (though she did seem to enjoy the blocks we got her).

Last year, she had fun, but she still didn’t get it. Was she glad she had a giant sock full of candy on Christmas morning? Yes. Did she really know to expect such a thing? No.

This year has been different. This year, she’s old enough to understand presents and even the concept of Santa, but she isn’t greedy or grabby. There are a few presents under the tree right now and she’s interested, but she’s willing to wait, at least so far. A few days ago she wrote a letter to Santa and she asked for two things: toy animals and candy. When we ask her if she wants Santa to bring her presents, she holds up one finger to indicate that one present, really, would be plenty. I take no credit for this. She’s 2 1/2, and we haven’t had enough time with her yet to teach her things like that.

Last week, we went out for our Christmas tree. She was excited to help decorate and picked out one special thing to go in her room. She snuggled with me on the couch and watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It was, frankly, everything I fantasized about parenting being when Cate was first pregnant with her.

So much of the last two weeks reminds me of the magic Christmas has when you are young. Watching Simone experience it for what is, in many ways, the first time has been wonderful.

Raising Curious Children

December 1, 2011

What do you do with your kids?

Kids need to be able to explore freely. And if you look at most households, they’re not designed for that. They’re designed to have the kid not explore. The kid comes into your kitchen and pulls out the pots and pans and starts banging on them, what’s the first thing you do as a parent? “Stop that, you’re getting the dishes dirty!”

Yet, these are experiments in acoustics. That’s what that is.

Whatever the kid is doing, if it has the chance of breaking something, you’re gonna tell them to not do it – without thinking that that’s the consequence of an experiment that they are conducting. And every time the kid wants to do something, provided it’s doesn’t kill them – It’s an experiment! Let it run its course, even if it makes something messy.

You agreed to have a kid in the first place. Fine, clean up after them. Because it’s those seeds of curiosity that are the foundation of what it is to become a scientist.

-Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Montclair Kimberly Academy, January 29, 2010

As is the case for most parents, I constantly worry about whether or not we’re doing all we can for Simone. Parenthood is all about flying by the seat of your pants. You know you’re going to screw up, but you hope the good you do outweighs the bad. When I saw the above answer that Tyson gave in an interview with an out of character Steven Colbert, I felt a little better and a little worse at the same time.

For what it’s worth, I think what Tyson says above is exactly right. Not only is it exactly right, it has lifelong consequences for children.

With Simone, I think we do a pretty good job. Our breakables are mostly out of reach. Our house is, in general, very kid friendly. I think we encourage her to be curious and experiment. That said, have we ever told her to stop doing something when really she was just exploring? Of course we have. That is, we could do better.

Simone is a very curious child. Few things make me happier than the enthusiastic “Yeah!” I get when I ask her if she wants to learn something new. The idea that she could one day lose that enthusiasm scares the hell out of me.

There’s another quote from Tyson that encapsulates what he said above, but goes beyond early development. I can’t remember the source:

We spend the first year of our kids’ lives teaching them how to walk and talk and the rest of their lives telling them to sit down and shut up.

This also strikes me as uncomfortably true. I see the results of what he’s talking about every day in my job. So many people believe that education is all about learning the rules of math or science or English and then regurgitating that back to the world. This, we are supposed to believe, is how you become a Productive Member of Society. It’s also sadly wrong, because this kind of learning – though necessary at times – is all about discouraging the most basic and important part of what education is really all about – asking questions.

Think about it. Most people in the US subscribe to a religion. Religion, in many of its forms, teaches that some questions are unanswerable (this is the real meaning of attributing something to a god) and thus, are not worth asking/should not be asked. Most of our economic focus right now is on producing people with skills so they can do a job. Learning a skill is not, generally, about questioning and thinking as much as it is about repeating what a teacher shows you.

These are the students I get. I’ve written about it before. Most of my students have a severe lack of curiosity and it breaks my heart because, by the time they get to me, it’s mostly too late. I can’t teach them to be curious after that impulse has been flogged out of them by parents and  religion and the education system for fifteen or sixteen years. I try, daily, to encourage them to come up with their own answers to problems, but they don’t want their own answers (one of the saddest moments of my job is when a creative writing student asks me to tell them what to write about). They just want to know what’s right. Tell me what to say so that I can say it and be told I have done well.

The result of all of this is the incurious society we have today. Think about the vast swaths of people who do little more than a drudgery filled job of repeatable tasks before coming home to sit in front of the television. Certainly, that’s not everybody, but it’s a lot of people, and you can’t really say it’s their fault. They’ve been taught not to think. They’ve been taught to regurgitate. Perhaps this is why so many find polarized media so persuasive. It tells us what to think. It asks for no mental effort on our part.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. And if there is going to be a change, it has to come from parents. Parents have to encourage children to be curious and ask questions even when the questions make them uncomfortable or end with something broken. We can’t punish a child for being curious. Sometimes, a child will break something. It’s not their fault the thing was within reach. Sometimes, things we say won’t hold up to their questioning. It’s not because there is something wrong with the questions.

All of this is a long way of saying that, going forward, I want to be a little more patient with Simone (and James, when he comes along). A little more willing to let her mess things up. I want her to grow into someone who engages with the world. Who is willing to ask difficult questions and not take the answers she gets at face value. I don’t want her to conform and regurgitate simply because that’s the best way to get a pat on the head and an approving smile. That’s going to be a hard thing to do, especially as she gets older, but I want to try. We’ll see how it goes, I guess.

(A Side Note: If you want to see the whole interview I quoted at the top of the article – it’s definitely worth your time – you can find it here. If you just want to hear the rest of what Tyson had to say about education, that starts at almost exactly 1:13:00 in the video.)