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25 April 2007

A few things I've been reading

I was thinking about all of the books I've started this year but have yet to finish. Boy, is it a list! No wonder I haven't finished many books; I've started so many.

Related to food: 2 books on wine received during the holidays: Jay McInerney's A Hedonist in the Cellar, and Matt Kramer's Making Sense of Italian Wine, Julia Child's memoir My Life in France and Julie Powell's Julie and Julia. Received a review copy of Patricia Wells' latest, Vegetables at the Center of the Plate. It's the only food-related book I've finished this year. It isn't a vegetarian cookbook, but a vegetable cookbook, with recipes using fresh veggies and herbs. Some of the dishes are scant on vegetables, but it is a nice collection of recipes that are surprising both in taste profile and ease of preparation. Many of the recipes include snippets of folklore, suggestions for wine pairings, or French cooking idioms, which makes it a interesting cookbook to peruse.

Essays: I've started a few collections so far this year. I like reading essays, but I rarely read an entire book at one time. Rather, I like dipping in, reading an essay here and there, especially with collections authored by various writers. Even if there is a central theme, I find it best to read different essays separately, allowing each to stand on it's own. The Best American Spiritual Writings 2006 (edited by P. Zaleski), and The Best American Essays 2006 (edited by Lauren Slater) are two volumes I've been reading recently. I've also been perusing a book titled Spiritual Men: Story, Soul and Substance, by Brian Doyle, that I originally picked up because I was intrigued by a book that contained essays about Van Morrison and William Blake. A fourth book of essays that I've started is Bookmark Now: Writing in the Age of Information Overload, edited by Kevin Smokler. The dust jacket claims that this book is Smokler's reaction to NEA's "Reading at Risk" report that claimed that literary reading was dropping among all age groups. To briefly quote Smokler: "The sky is not caving in on American Literature. Instead, it is opening above us, and in that unknown lie infinite possibilities". I've only read the introduction, so I can't make a judgement of whether this collection lives up to the dust jacket hype, but it looks promising. If that wasn't enough, waiting for me to begin next, after I complete or tire of these collections is Ayun Halliday's No Touch Monkey, a collection of travel writing that looks hilarious.

Novels: One of my book groups read Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon a few months ago. I started the book but didn't have time to finish it before the group met. I had read this book when I was in Jr. High and had seen the movie. Re-reading this, I was intrigued by how skillfully Keyes adapted the first person narration to match the increasing, and subsequently decreasing mental ability of Charlie. I'm not in a hurry to return to this, but I would like to finish it since I started it. Another book I've started, but then set aside is Russel Banks' The Sweet Hereafter. I bought this book at a bargain sale about 3 years ago and it has sat on the bookcase shelf since then. I don't know what possessed me a few weeks ago to pull this off the shelf well after midnight. I had difficulty putting it down but at 2am, I knew I had to stop and get some sleep. Besides, I didn't think I could take any more sadness that evening. One thing that struck me is, like Flowers for Algernon this book handles changes in first person narration very well, with each chapter told from another character's viewpoint. Last month this group read Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro. I really like Munro's stories. Sitting on the bookshelf is an issue of the VQR from last year that focused on Munro. I'd like to read that too. And, since I was the only one in my book group that liked Munro, one of the participants gave me a copy of Lives of Girls and Women, Munro's only novel. Before I start that, I should start reading The Memory Keeper's Daughter. It is the May selection for my reading group and I'd like to have it finished by the time we meet in a few weeks.

Non-fiction: I've started reading Bait and Switched, by Barbara Ehrenreich. I was to post on this at the beginning of April when Emily did (and (Un)RelaxedDad). I've been remiss in doing so. I did see Ehrenreich at a panel discussion at CUNY a few weeks ago. She wasn't talking about this book specifically, although she did talk about issues of fair and equitable pay. I picked up a copy of her latest book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Maybe I'll post more about this soon. I have three review copies to finish: Crazy 8, by Cait Murphy, about the 1908 baseball season, 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania (the longest title in this list I think!), by Matthew Chapman, and Louis Theroux's The Call of the Weird.

Non-fiction/theological/spiritual theme:I just finished NT Wright's Evil and the Justice of God, a book that I both enjoyed reading and detested parts of. Wright is very readable and is adept at distilling complex theological arguments into readable prose; yet sometimes he throws out ideas without fully supporting his argument. This drives me crazy, even when I agree with him. For example, in this book he criticizes the US response to the 9/11 attacks as being premature and immature. In the aftermath of our flawed policies in the Middle East, it is too easy -- especially for a European -- to blame the US and the Bush administration; but Wright doesn't offer an alternative for what should have been done. Likewise, I think his discussion of the concept of "natural evil" is weak in this book. As someone who thinks that this particular theological concept is unfounded, superstitious, and bizarre, I would like to read a good theological explanation of it. Maybe I just don't get it, but I don't see scientific phenomena like earthquakes and hurricanes as being evil. Wright mentions it, but didn't define or defend it adequately for me.

I'm also in the middle of reading Michael Mayne's The Enduring Melody. I haven't read very far in this book, but in reading the journal entries from when Mayne was first diagnosed with cancer, I was struck by his courage in facing such horrible and painful circumstances. It's especially difficult reading knowing the Mayne died shortly after the book was published. I'm sure I'll post more about this book after I finish it.

Last fall, I read Francis Collins' book The Language of God and I re-read it in January for a discussion group. Based on that discussion, I promised an acquaintance I would read Dawkins The God Delusion. I plan to write about both of these books when I finish Dawkins. What I will say now is that after reading Collins (head of the Genome Project) and having heard him lecture, I think that he is fair, balanced, and respectful in his criticism of those with whom he disagrees. He approaches the discussion of science and faith (which he sees as complimentary, not contradictory) as a scientist, particularly when it comes to debunking errant ideas that try to pass as science (e.g., Intelligent Design). My opinion of Dawkins is not as positive. I haven't read The God Delusion yet, but in reading excerpts and interviews he seems to have an almost zealous, religious fervor in his approach to disproving that there is a god. Such zealotry is something that I don't like -- whether it is a believer in God, or a believer in atheism. Nevertheless, I will try to keep an open mind in reading his book.

I think the above lists 24 books, of which I have only finished 3, 4 I haven't yet started. And I haven't mentioned the several books I'm been reading (both completed and in process) about Africa, particulary about extreme poverty and the AIDS epidemic, and efforts to achieve the UN Millenium Development Goals -- a topic that I have been immersed in for the last 3 months since reading Jeffry Sach's The End of Poverty. I will post on these separately. If you don't know about the MDG's, read this from the UN or the Make Poverty History website or the One Campaign website. I'm not an American Idol fan (in fact, I've never seen the show), but I understand that they are focusing on the issue of Extreme Poverty on the shows this week, and that Bono will make an appeal on the show tomorrow. But, do not think that this is a celebrity fad; this is the clarion call to action for those of us in a position to do something.

I think I have plenty to keep me busy for awhile.

10 comments:

Courtney said...

I absolutely cannot believe how much you just added to my to be read list. Seriously, like 15 books. It's hard when you start too many books and they all pile up like that...I've been picking them up one by one to finish them.

Emily Barton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emily Barton said...

(Sorry, my former comment was full of errors and had to be deleted. Let's see if on this second go I can sound at least halfway literate while discussing books.)

It's always so comforting to find other people who are in the midst of billions of books at one time (especially when you happen to live with an "absolutely-only-one-book-at-a-time" man who thinks you're nuts). And, like Court, I've added tons to my TBR list, so thanks for the update.

Dorothy W. said...

What a list! Those books on religion and spirituality are interesting; I've been hankering to read more on the topic lately and so may have to check those out.

(un)relaxeddad said...

Oh man. As if my 'to do' list wasn't long enough already - will look forward to seeing what you say about Dancing in the Streets.

stefanie said...

Quite the list! And so many still in progress. I don't feel so bad about the twelve or so that I am currently reading!

Cam said...

Not only did I think of about 8 more books that I should have included on this list, but I stopped by the bookstore on the way home to pick up one book -- just one book -- and picked up 4. And the list keeps growing....

chiefbiscuit said...

I love the understatement of this post's title! Whew! You are a reader to admire ... what a lot of delving between the covers! ;)
Thanks for your intelligent synopses (not sure of the plural of that word ... )

danielle said...

I totally understand the desire to start so many great sounding books! I also know how hard it is to make progress on them--it's hard choosing one to read, so I end up juggling a few! Several sound like heavy reading, so I'm not surprised it is taking a while. Enjoy them though!!

Jill said...

Let me echo Emily above, that it is comforting to know that others get distracted as well. Keeping an on-going focus is perhaps a challenge all by itself.