January Book Log

January 30, 2012

Okay, so I know the blog has been very book/reading-heavy lately. That will probably change at least a little bit soon. James will be born before long and that will certainly occasion some non-reading posts. There is also a teaching post brewing in my noggin. Anyway, it’s still the end of the month and that means it’s book log time. I am dialing it back a bit this year to make sure I actually get some writing out there in the world, so these will be shorter for a bit. Anyhow, onward…

1. After Dark by Haruki Murakami (4/5) – This book was read as part of my attempt to address important authors I’ve missed or haven’t liked in the past. I had a viscerally negative reaction to The Wind-up Bird Chronicles when I read it several years ago. Many people, including several good friends consider that book a masterpiece, so I thought I needed to try again. I went with a short book because, frankly, I was scared. I didn’t need to be. I was very happy with this book. Murakami does a great job with the concept – following various characters through one night – and keeps it nice and surreal in spots. I was also pleased to find that he seemed to have something to say about human connection and how valuable it is. A very interesting story. The only issue I had with this was the translation. The language is awfully clunky in spots, but I can’t blame Murakami for that too much. This was good enough that I’ll be diving back into him. Perhaps I’ll try Kafka on the Shore soon.

2. The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood (5/5) – I am slowly working my way through Atwood’s rather absurd catalog (seriously, she needs a Nobel Prize, I’m just going to keep saying that until it happens). This was a pretty long book (better than 500 pages) that had been sitting on my shelf for a long time. In it, Atwood re-imagines the Grimm’s tale The Robber Bridegroom. She does it well. I enjoyed watching her work with the fairy tale tropes that largely require a good versus evil set up and don’t always leave room for nuance. She handles it masterfully as the three main characters come across as plenty human and keep the story from feeling ridiculous.

3. Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (4.5/5) – This was an “it” book from last year. I almost bought it once and checked it out of the library once only to not get to it. I’m glad I finally did. Spiotta is a writer with amazing chops. She weaves multiple voices and an alternate-reality narrative into a pretty sad story about a never-was musician. Or is it sad? That might be the best part of the book. The details scream “sad story,” but she presents it in such a way that it can be read as triumphal as easily as defeatist. I’m always telling my students to let the reader decide how they feel about a story. Spiotta does that here, and I appreciate it.

4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (5/5) – I’m teaching this for the first time in several years, and I’m glad. It’s a wonderful book to teach to high school students if you can get them in the right mindset. Rereading the book for the first time in several years has only increased my esteem for it. There is a depth here that I think I largely missed before. The way Holden’s grief for his younger brother shapes the narrative is something I that had not fully hit me before. There is so much desperation in this book, but it’s a relatable kind of desperation. Anyway, I can’t imagine there’s anything new to say about this book, so I’ll stop with this: I heartily disagree with everyone who is impugning this book right now. I think they might need to read it again.

5. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (4/5) – A lot of people really liked this book, and I get why. There is a stark beauty that she gets out of the first-person plural portrait that is rare among the books I’ve read. That said, I didn’t find it as perfect as others have. I found that she relied a little too much on list making. The lists sometimes made it read as a really beautifully written history text. In fact, it’s probably history as much as novel. Very good, but I don’t see it as the masterpiece others do. In fairness, it may have suffered from being read in short snatches during a very harried week.

Winter/Spring Book Queue Update:

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

Godless Morals

January 18, 2012

Lately, there have been several articles about how little trust people have in atheists. I referenced this in an earlier post about being an atheist parent during Christmas. Essentially, the reasoning boils down to this: people believe atheists are less trustworthy because they aren’t worried about god punishing them. Thus, they can act immorally without fear of reprisal. I find this disturbing for many, many reasons.

The one that leaps out at me is this: the people who do not trust atheists because we don’t have god working as a hidden enforcer are effectively saying that they would behave immorally were it not for god. That is, they consider the welfare of others only because they are afraid of divine punishment, not because they care about other people. As I see it, this makes that set of believers look pretty awful.

I don’t want to dwell on that, though. I know there are many believers who are altruistic for all the right reasons. Instead, I want to talk about what my moral beliefs are and where they come from.

Rights of the Individual

My most basic moral is this: people have the right to do as they wish unless doing as they wish would infringe on the rights of another person. Former Senator Santorum would disagree with this. He thinks he should be in charge of everything we do. I will note that I include in this an unfair use of public resources. That is, I’m not libertarian (as I think all my readers know). Rather, no one has a right to reap profits from society without paying something back to maintain that society.

Why do I believe this? It’s all about fairness. Fairness is an intrinsic quality that has been shown to exist in primates. If something I do doesn’t affect you, it’s none of your business, but if it does, you have a right to question the fairness of that effect.

Treatment of Others

Of course, my moral beliefs go beyond this very basic concept. I also believe that it is important to be kind to and supportive of the people you care about and, in general, all people in the world.

Why? This is the one that, I suppose, could be surprising to believers since kindness is heavily stressed in many religious texts. At the same time, it shouldn’t be surprising if you have knowledge of myriad religions. Kindness crops up over and over because everyone wants to be treated well. This is really just the golden rule. I don’t believe kindness should be legislated, but I will think you’re a bad person if you are frequently cruel or callous for no apparent reason.

The Wider World

All life is deserving of respect. I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. In fact, I have no issue with the consumption of animal products. I do however, have issue with cruel treatment of the animals we raise for food. They should be provided comfortable lives and normal living conditions. If this means you have to pay more for a hamburger, so be it.

An aside about abortion: Yes, I am prochoice. I do not believe an unfeeling clump of cells constitutes human life. When it’s viable, that’s another issue, but pretending that everything from a fertilized egg to a newborn child is the same is disrespectful to both the woman carrying it and to the child that is born.

This leads me to general environmentalism which cuts across all of these categories. If your factory pollutes the environment, that affects me and I have a right to question it. If I pollute, it negatively affects my loved ones and shows disrespect for life in general.

These are, I think, pretty basic concepts, but they cover most of the basic precepts that religious Americans hold dear. And I don’t need god for any of them. I don’t need the fear of god to do the right thing. I do the right thing because I care about the world around me. I care about the world around me not because god tells me to, but because I am human.

The Flaws of Capitalism

January 13, 2012

So, I realize I’ve been blog-absent for a bit. It’s been a busy time. I lost a friend, as you know, and the baseball world has been taking much of my writing energy. I’ll probably have a longer post soon, but I’ve come across some little nuggets lately that I wanted to share in response to all the capitalism-is-perfect bloviating coming out of Republican primary candidates lately. They go like this:

“All of our antibiotics are 50-years-old because it’s not cost effective for drug companies to come up with new ones.”

That might not be an exact quote, but it’s pretty close. I caught that snippet listening to Science Friday on NPR today. The discussion was about a strain of TB that’s been found to be resistant to all the drugs we have. Good thing capitalist companies are making money selling old and increasingly ineffective antibiotics while sending there R&D to work on problems you didn’t even know you had. Yea capitalism!

“There are no private schools in Finland.”

That’s from an article in The Atlantic. The Finland it refers to would be the Finland with the best education system in the world. All of its teachers are also unionized, but that flies in the face of what we know here in America – that unions are the devil and just encourage slackers and hangers-on to drag down the system.

He Taught Me to Play

January 3, 2012

It is impossible to overstate the importance of playing guitar in my life.

I was seventeen when I decided I wanted to play the guitar. This was partially because one of my friends was learning to play and partially because I had discovered Eric Clapton. There were probably other reasons, but I have forgotten them.

My parents knew someone who played. I knew him, too – his step-daughter and I had been childhood playmates – I just didn’t know he played. They sent me to him. He helped me pick out my first guitar – an Alvarez – and started me with some chords. I went once a week for lessons. No charge. He learned songs I wanted to learn and taught them to me.

After a few months, I went off to college and I was on my own. I kept practicing and I learned fast. When I came back to visit, I could improvise a little and I knew more songs. We played together, but they weren’t really lessons anymore.

In the middle of my first semester, when doctors found a desmoid tumor in my right shoulder, he and his wife came to St. Louis with may parents. We played guitar in a hotel room the night before they cut me open.

After that, it was regular. When I was home, we’d get together and play. Over the summer I might jam with his band. On those nights, he always drank a lot, but I wasn’t paying too much attention. Lots of people drink on the weekends.

Later, after college, when I was busy with my lost years, I joined the band for a while. In some ways, it went well and in some it didn’t. When you play guitar a lot – and I suspect this is true of all instruments – you end up sounding either like a too-good copy of someone else or like yourself. Greg sounded like himself. That’s the biggest compliment I can give him as a musician. He was good. By them, so was I. We both had egos. I was cocky about how good I was and so was he. I wanted more space. I left. It was amicable. We still played sometimes. I borrowed the whole band to play my dad’s 50th birthday party. It was a good show. We put our egos aside. We shared solos and vocals. We played some duets.

We talked about playing together again, maybe doing some shows as a duo, but it never happened. He dropped off the map. I stopped hearing from him and so did my parents. We figured there was some bad blood we didn’t know about. I always thought he blamed me for the band breaking up not long after I left.

Yesterday, we learned that wasn’t the case at all. Greg had been trying to clean himself up. He’d spent some time in rehab. It’s the kind of thing that’s obvious looking back. It wasn’t hard-living. It was a serious problem, I just didn’t see it at the time. He had a lot of pride. The kind of pride that keeps someone from telling others when you’re trying to get better. That’s what happened.

Not long ago, he fell off the wagon. It killed him. That’s not much of an epitaph. Let me do better.

Guitar is the first truly creative thing I ever did. It led me to writing classes. It led me where I am today.

So many of the best experiences I’ve had over the last fourteen years have happened because Greg got me started on the guitar. I have life long friends who I became friends because we both loved to make music. I write stories and books because that was where writing songs took me.

Playing music with someone is a special thing. It’s a cliché, of course, but when it goes well, it bonds you to them. You can’t play well – you can’t really make music in a group without letting others in. When you play with someone a lot you get to a point where you don’t even have to look at each other. You close your eyes and go and when it works (it never works all the time) it’s great. I played with Greg more than anyone else.

I’m writing all of this and it all feels short. It’s not right. It’s not enough. We all have a few people who are there at the right moment. Who give us a map and a flashlight and point us in a new direction. Greg was one of those people for me. He set me on my course, whether he knew it or not. He was a good friend. I’m going to miss him.

2011 Reading Year in Review

January 1, 2012

Time for my annual favorite books of the year ramble. This year, I thought it would be fun to start with some trivial numbers from the year (I mean fun for me, you might find it mildly amusing, though).

Books Read: 75
Pages Read: 21,454
Average Pages per Book: 286
Average Pages per Day: 59

Biggest Reading Month: October (8 books, 2141 pages)
Smallest Reading Month: May (5 books, 1169 pages)

Five Longest Books Read:

  1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 959 pages
  2. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – 883 pages
  3. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser – 856 pages
  4. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – 512 pages
  5. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – 471 pages

Five Shortest Books

  1. Native Guard by Natasha Tetheway – 50 pages
  2. The Simple Truth by Philip Levine – 66 pages
  3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson – 70 pages
  4. The Art of War by Sun Tzu – 70 pages
  5. Now and Then by Robert Penn Warren– 75 pages

There. That was fun, wasn’t it? Now, if I haven’t scared you away yet, let’s look at the highlights a lowlights of my reading year (rereads are excluded from consideration):

Biggest Disappointment of the Year:

(Note this is not the worst book I read this year, that would be The Hunger Games, which was required for my job. You can find my contemptuous screed on that book here.)

The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides. A lot of people are putting this on best-of lists, but I just don’t see it. I loved Middlesex, but this book has so many issues and is so rife with misogyny (most notably, a female character whose greatest sexual pleasure comes when her boyfriend rapes her), that I could never get into it. There are some wonderful passages and plenty of good moments, but the book, as a whole, doesn’t work.

Enjoyable Nonfiction:

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson and The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene. A couple of very different titles. Notes might be Bryson’s best-known work and is a delightfully funny read. The Hidden Reality is Brian Greene’s third pop-science book and a great explanation of the various kinds of multi-verse we might live in. I highly recommend both.

Favorite Books of the Year:

Honorable Mentions – Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (her best, I think), Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (a wonderful modern fairy tale), Dancer by Colum McCann, The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, The Tent by Margaret Atwood, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

5. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach – Unlike the Eugenides, I agree with everyone listing this as one of the best books of the year. It’s fantastic. I noted when I first read it that a some pop-culture references might cause it to feel dated in a few decades, thus preventing it from being an enduring masterpiece, but overall this is a fantastic book. I was very excited to read it and it absolutely did not let me down. A great exploration of all the different kinds of love that drive us.

4. Zoli by Colum McCann – I love Colum McCann. I gather he considers this book to be a bit of a failure. Oh, that I should fail so. This is such a wonderful and rarely told story. It follows a Roma (Gypsy) poet/singer through post WWII Eastern Europe. The main character is just so real and fascinating. I can’t find anything bad to say about it. If you haven’t been reading Colum McCann, you are doing yourself a disservice.

3. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – In some ways, this is the most remarkable book on this list. Not because it is an unexpected story, but because it is such a common story. Rich people. Banana republic. Hostage crisis. Kind of writes a terrible book on its own, doesn’t it? But this is beautiful. Patchett goes so many places with this, exploring the constraints of class and language and how they might be overcome through art. Lovely.

2. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee – Lee’s newest book, The Surrendered, was up for a number of awards and I’m excited to read it this spring, but I can’t imagine it could be any better than A Gesture Life. This book explores one man’s experiences with comfort women while in the Japanese army in WWII and his later struggles to repair his severely broken relationship with his adopted daughter. What really sets this book apart, though, is the beautiful descriptions Lee gives of even the most everyday things.

1. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – One of the longest books I read this year, and instantly one of my favorite books ever. This is a complete masterpiece. Byatt takes hundreds of pages to lovingly explore the lives of many beautifully flawed characters. In addition, you get fairy tales, early 20th century England, free-love, socialism, war, and the consequences that spring from all of that. I was hooked on this book from the very first page and spent all my time reading it dumfounded that anyone could ever produce something like this. Unbelievably wonderful. This spring, I plan to start slowly working my way through everything she’s written. I suggest you do the same, and start with this.