Saturday, November 29, 2008

Books I Read in October and November 2008

For days after our return from Scotland, I tried to divine meaning from the things I lost on the way home. By the time we'd cleared customs and another security checkpoint in Newark, I realized my camera, a copy of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum and my Kindle were gone. It's still hard to fathom how I could have left the the paperback tucked into the seat pocket, the Kindle wedged between the seats, or let the camera slide out of my open bag on the floor or how I could have gotten off the plane without noticing. After ten days without my laptop, internet, television, telephone or newspapers, I interpreted the careless losses as a final departure from technology. Maybe I lost them because I felt too connected to the grid. I'm still not sure, but I haven't replaced anything.

I have a suspicion I've lost track of a book or two I may have read these weeks, but here are all of them that I remember. The list is dominated by works of non-fiction, a direct result of my near obsession with the election and questions it created in my mind about who we are in America.

Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama. This story of race and inheritance came about after Obama was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and was offered a book deal. It was finished when he was 33, prior to his real entree to politics and so is a much more revealing view into Barack Obama than The Audacity of Hope. The book is beautifully written and makes me believe that had he not taken the path he had, Obama could have been a novelist. I see that quality of watching, listening and interpreting the world that is a common trait of the writer. The focus is race in America, but as the world has discovered, Obama's own lineage as the son of an absentee Kenyan father and an independent white mother from the middle west are not a typical American story. As ludicrous as it seems to express this thought, I believe that his circumstances and lifelong journey to discover where he fits, what our collective history means and how we can continue to grow and evolve resonates with my own feelings of never quite fitting in. I don't think I've met a thinking person, especially among writers who has not lived with a feeling of separateness for as long as he or she can remember. As different as our backgrounds and lives have been, there is something in this book that made me frequently feel a kinship with the main character.

Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin. I intend to write a separate post and a contest/give-away on this lovely novel. I was fortunate enough to have won my copy at author Leslie Pietrzyk's excellent blog, Work in Progress at the end of September and I read this wonderful story that begins with a couple that meet in college and follows them through the next fifteen years. Lots more to say about this notable book and I promise it will be forthcoming.

The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton was the perfect collection of travel essays to take on the long trip. I became enchanted with de Botton when I read his novel, On Love and became a devotee of his works when I read How Proust Can Change Your Life. Alain de Botton is as much a philosopher as he is an artful essayist who helps us to examine those aspects and feelings about travel that are not what we typically think of or anticipate.

The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin is a brilliant and even handed journey into the inner workings of the Supreme Court. Toobin provides us with fascinating characterizations of justices who served from the Reagan Administration through the summer recess of 2007 and behind the scenes insight into how several historical decisions came about. The book is a great primer for those of us who understand that the ability to nominate justices to the Supreme Court is perhaps the most important legacy a President can leave, but don't have an in-depth understanding of the machinations of the court and the significance of the differences in each justice's philosophy toward the interpretation of the Constitution.

The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman provides an excellent history of the politics and the economy in the United States, beginning in the Gilded Age and provides a compelling argument for narrowing the wide gap in income inequality that we're currently experiencing. Krugman is the 2008 Nobel prize winner for Economic Sciences, a columnist for the New York Times and a professor at Princeton.

The GOD Delusion, by Richard Dawkins sat on my TBR pile for quite a few months before I finally picked it up. Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and he's written many books, most related to the science of evolution. I believe this book and Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything were both released the same year and my reluctance to jump into the Dawkins book was initially tied to the public personas of both Dawkins and Hitchens. Just as I can't bear to listen to a fundamentalist televangelist (although I've done it), the activist atheist is just as obnoxious to me; however, in light of how frequently religion popped into conversation during the election season, the time was right to read the book. Dawkins makes rational arguments against the likelihood of God's existence, discusses the global roots for religion and morality and presents the case that non-believers need to speak out against religion. While I can concur with his rationale for the scientific arguments about the likelihood of the existence of a God and even about the apparent human need to believe in a supreme being, I'm personally uncomfortable with the idea that atheists and agnostics need to become vocal in the political arena. Fundamentalists are often dangerous, but are in the minority of believers. I don't believe that intelligent human beings leave their intellect at the door of religion and I don't believe that most people who ascribe to the notion of a deity of some sort are dangerous. What does concern me is the influence religious groups are able to exert within government in order to insert church into state. The vast amount of money and influence the Church of the Latter Day Saints was recently able to bring to bear in the State of California with the passage of Proposition 8 is a good example of this. He makes some interesting observations about the way society views its non-believers and it's interesting to note that at the national level, there is only one self-proclaimed atheist in Congress. We are a religious nation and I believe the majority would feel more comfortable electing a Muslim than an atheist to national office. The Libby Dole negative ad and response in North Carolina made it clear that calling someone "Godless" was perhaps the worst thing one could ever do. His statistics about the number of Americans who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible were quite staggering to me, as were the statistics on the number of people who believe in creationism as science as opposed to evolution. America is unique in the western world in its religiosity. There were some interesting things in the book, but in the small world where I prefer to live and let others live and believe what they will (as long as they don't try to force their beliefs on me) it was a little too snarky and sarcastic at times.

Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back, by Frank Schaeffer is a fascinating memoir. It was the second part of the book's title that caught my attention. This book provided an interesting behind the scenes view of fundamentalist Christian history in America and some frank truths about the influence of evangelists in government. The author grew up in Switzerland, the child of missionaries and although they were fundamentalists, they believed in secular education, had a love of literature and artwork and they practiced a tolerant and a compassionate ministering style. They were somewhat embarrassed of a certain uneducated, intolerant brand of proselytizing preacher, although it would be years before they moved back to America and had to deal with it. When they did move back, they became part of the Christian Coalition that mobilized such a large part of the Republican base and they did it via the pro-life movement. The author never strays from his pro-life position, but concedes that the tactics used and the movement itself took advantage of a group of people based on a flawed position. In fairness, he also points out the the extremists on the pro-choice side of the issue present unsupportable, flawed logic as well.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter was the winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction and I discovered it when I did an on-line search on "anti-intellectualism". Once again, the election pushed me toward this search. As I observed the appeals to "Joe Six-Pack" and "hockey moms" and the denigration of higher education and intellect, I was mesmerized. It was fascinating to me that there was a case being made that not only were average, uneducated working people capable of running the free world, but that they were preferable to those who'd pursued a specialized higher education and who valued intellectual curiosity and an interest in the world. Although there are a handful of books newer than this one on the subject, Hofstadter's 1964 title is still viewed as the seminal work on this subject. To my surprise, anti-intellectualism has been a part of American culture and politics since the days of the Puritans. Despite the fact that this book is nearly a half century old, it is entirely relevant and readable. I will say that it has been a very long time since I've read a book this heavily foot-noted. The research that went into this was extensive. It was a fascinating read.

* * *

The length of time since my last post and my reading diet over the last couple of months are symptoms of a strange state of mind that's inhabited me since the election. I came too far out of my tiny world and I am having a hard time finding my way back. I've got more non-fiction books in my TBR stack and it's hard to let go of the big picture issues related to social justice, the environment, the economy and global foreign policy to focus all my attention back on the imaginary people in the tiny fictional world I've created or to jump into reading novels again and hide out there. It's impractical to worry about the real world so much, but having poked my head out of this cozy cocoon where I spend most of my time, it's hard not to view what I'm doing and think, so what?

It's the curse of the overly curious, I suppose. I still read all of the blogs I love every day and I check into Twitter to see what people are doing, but there's a paralyzing force that freezes my fingers in place over the keyboard and taunts me whenever I'm about to "speak".

What could you possibly say that will make any difference at all?

Obviously, none of us would ever tap out a word, if making a difference was the sole criteria for doing so. I will find my way back sooner or later. I've stopped watching the cable news, unsubscribed to all the news and political blogs in Google Reader (I miss you Andrew and Ezra) and sometimes it's true, I literally sit at my desk, stare at the screen and lose time, waiting to figure out what it is I'm supposed to do.


Melissa Marsh said...

It's funny that you say, "What could you possibly say that will make any difference?" because I, too, have been having those same thoughts. What is funny about it is that we are on radically different sides of the spectrum, politically and religiously. :-)

I don't ascribe to the fundamentalism of anything - I think it's dangerous. Fundamentalist atheists are just as dangerous as fundamentalist Christians (and is is fundamenTAL or fundamentalist? Anyway...)

I don't like to call myself a liberal or a conservative, but I think those two labels really came to the forefront at this election. And I truly think that when you look at the popular vote in this election, you can see how divided this country is along the conservative vs. liberal boundaries. Obama got 52.7% while McCain got 46%. To me, that is not a landslide. A landslide is a person getting 70 or 80 or even 90 percent of the popular vote while the other guy gets considerably less.

Now, were all those who voted for Obama liberals and all those who voted for McCain conservative? Probably a big fat no on that one. Lots of issues were at stake in this election, but I still believe that this election drew quite a line between the two and made the labels of "liberal" and "conservative" much more apparent.

I also have to say that I think that there should definitely be separation of church and state - and I agree that religion should not try and impose their beliefs into the government. That being said, I take great issue with special interest groups trying to push their issues into government, as well. What is the old saying? You can't legislate morality? The whole passage of Proposition 8 in California is a prime example of this, IMO. What bothers me is that the people of this state, which I would consider quite liberal, voted for this proposition. Yet now the courts are getting involved? Why? The people voted. Twice. And twice they voted against gay marriage. Isn't that democracy at work?

And even worse...the Mormon church, despite their role in the whole thing, is being terrorized for it. What I cannot understand is that members of the group that so wants tolerance for themselves (the gay pride movement) is not displaying tolerance to those who disagree with them. Leaving a burning book on a church step, mailing letters with white powder to the church, and other acts completely baffle me and, IMO, are quite hypocritical.

Anyway. Yeah, we're pretty different in our viewpoints, but I think we can debate and talk rationally and calmly. :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, that's some heavy lifting. Reminds me of my recent reading binge. A lot of fascinating things happening in the science versus religion arena these days. I'm sorry you lost your kindle. Man, those are expensive. How did you like it? could you read regular ebooks downloaded from online or did you have to buy only the kindle versions?

Patti said...

the same is happening to me, although it hasn't stopped me from my foolishness ;) I have this sense that things are rapidly changing in ways i am not accustomed and that force is causing me to step out of the stream to observe and process what i can. there is a day, soon, when i feel my truest truth will come home to roost. in the mean time, i wait.

i have missed you and wondered constantly what you must be up to.

Larramie said...

I'm pleased to see that you've "recovered" enough to let everyone know you're alive and well, Lisa. Balance and moderation will eventually get you back on track because over-indulgence in anything almost guarantees losing your bearings for a while.

In the meantime, "Don't push the river, it flows by itself."

debra said...

A wise woman once told me, "When the time is right the words will be there."

Lisa said...

Ah, my friends! I've missed you.

Melissa, It's funny that we do have such different leanings, yet you are one of my favorite people :)

I agree with you on the atheists. For me, I can't state with any certainty that anything is true or untrue if I don't have any empirical proof. I view an atheist who insists there is no God in the same way I do someone who insists that they are certain that there is one.

I also agree that this election brought out a polarization between liberals and conservatives that I've never seen before. I don't really consider myself either one because I tend toward the left on some things, the right on others and the center on a lot of things.

I think that if you were to give every voter in the country a multiple choice test to gather views on all the issues, there are plenty of people who would be surprised at where on the left/right continuum they fall. I think people are generally a lot closer than we're led to believe. Unfortunately, elections seem to rarely be about substance and although it's out there to find, it's not easy. No matter who ran this time around, I think most people can agree that the current administration has become incredibly unpopular and it would have taken a near miracle for a Republican (any Republican) to win, unless the Democrats had put forward a mediocre candidate (again). But here we are and we're seeing problems we've never seen before and it's going to be a tough road for all of us.

You know, I've never had strong feelings about gay marriage and I have to say that I don't entirely understand how or why it's become such a huge issue. In all honesty, it's the government's role in the concept of marriage that I've never understood. I've always looked at marriage as more of a religious institution that has become a legal status and institution. I think the law should be fair and I suppose if marriage meant that one man and one woman would pair for life and reproduce, it would make sense to afford special rights and protections. But since it doesn't mean that and heterosexuals can marry and divorce without having children and a marriage may be devoid of sex or it may include outside sexual partners (I'm not advocating either -- I'm just saying), then I don't know what people are trying to protect. I'm not sure if the fact that Californians have voted twice on this is the way democracy is supposed to work or not. What if a state decided that marriage between the races was illegal and voted to ban it? This isn't a likely solution, but my personal opinion is that either everybody can choose to marry who they want, or the government shouldn't recognize any marriages. People can marry within churches and establish legal civil unions. That's just me though. As someone who has been married and divorced more than once, I don't personally see the legal point. After cohabiting with Scott for a time, we became married under common law (and we do consider ourselves "married") and although we've never been married in a ceremony, we'd have to file for divorce and divide our property if we ever decided to part ways. Kind of strange.

And as far as talking rationally about our differing viewpoints, well yes we can ;)

Charles, I really loved the Kindle and I'm glad I had it for the whole trip -- and yes it was expensive and I'm still kicking myself for losing it. You could send .pdf files to the Kindle, but I'm not sure if I could have transferred them to the Kindle. In the time I had it, I bought what I had from Amazon. Apparently, it didn't take long for the person who found the Kindle to figure out how to use it. By the time I got home and went to deactivate it, the finder of the Kindle had downloaded four books from Kindle. I won't tell you the titles -- I didn't even know there was Kindle porn! Luckily, I called and told Amazon what happened and they credited me back for the stolen porn :)

Patti, You marathon running machine! Yep, I think we're going through the same experience. I feel sort of overwhelmed right now. I've missed you too and even though I don't always leave a comment, I still read all your posts.

Larramie, You are so right and I love that quote. I think I'm on my way back. I'm just feeling like my hard drive's been rebooted or something!

Lisa said...

Debra, Oddly enough, that is one thing I do have some faith in :) I think my poor feeble brain has been overstimulated and is telling me to cool it!

Elizabeth said...

Lisa, What a fantastic surprise to click on your blog and see so much! Thank you for the many book recommendations -- I'm especially interested in the novel Matrimony. I also heard Krugman a few years ago (before Bush won the 2nd time) and was struck by how articulate and good-humored he was. I love that you are listing and reviewing the books on your blog and hope that you haven't exhausted yourself! Lots of good things on which to ruminate... thank you.

Elizabeth said...

And I should say that it'll all come back. When you're stumped about fiction, think of the great satirists, the place that fiction has in the formation of who we are -- I might be a romantic but I am a firm believer in the transformative power of art -- not just personal but cultural

Lisa said...

Elizabeth, I think you'll like Matrimony and I'll be doing a longer post about it this week for sure. I've seen Krugman on news programs and he is very likable and I think it was after reading several of his NYT columns that I decided to order this book. I usually post about the books I read every month, but I didn't get to it in October, so I've got two months worth today. Normally they're almost all novels too.

And thanks so much for the encouragement. I sort of feel like what's happening all around us is somehow taking root and germinating within me right now and that it can't help but inform my fiction. This election was truly the most amazing political event of my lifetime and it's have a profound impact on me already...I'm just not entirely sure what it means.

Denis said...


Carleen Brice said...

Welcome back! Did you see the video yet??

Seachanges said...

lovely to see you back - and with so many reviews! I actually liked Richard Dawkins' book but did not read it from cover to cover in one go. Simply dipped in and out of it every so often. It helped me to straighten some of my own thoughts about fanaticism and the role religion plays in people's lives... You've given us a lot of books to look out for! Lots of energy after your break. Great.

Yogamum said...

I am sad about your Kindle. And impressed that someone figured out how to download p*rn!!

Your reading list is quite impressive!

steve said...

I think this is the first time you've had more nonfiction than fiction on your reading list.

I haven't read Dawkins, though I've heard him discuss the subject on the radio. It's interesting that the two most strident evangelists for atheism are British (though Hitchens became a naturalized U.S. citizen). The radical American concept of religious freedom is not really in their tradition. Hitchens seems particularly humorless. Dawkins appears to be a far more likeable person--friend of the late Douglas Adams, married to Lala Ward--but he seems to have picked up some of Hitchens's stridency.

I wish Hitchens were more like H.L. Mencken and Dawkins like Carl Sagan. Mencken's wonderful humor endeared the old freethinker even to professing believers like me. Sagan's respect for the great religious traditions (while taking on the fundamentalists) earned my respect.

"What could you possibly say that will make any difference at all?"

For me, you've already made a lot of difference. For one thing, I wouldn't have known about the Dickens Challenge had it not been for your blog. And your encouragement of me and the other DC authors has made a world of dirfference for us.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Oh no! I hate it when I lose things - and you've lost some precious equipment there! And the Kate Atkinson on top of it!

When you blog, you think globally and act locally. So in that sense, it does make a difference.

CindyLV said...

Oh Lisa! Welcome back to your blog! I've missed you!

Sorry to hear of your losses. Maybe the universe is helping you make some room for new stuff to come into your life? I remember reading a book on decluttering using the principles of Feng Shui. The author quoted a Balinese philosophy regarding possessions. All possessions belong to the Universe. When a person discovers some sort of loss, the person just assumes some univeral "they" have come for the item, freeing up space and energy for new items to manifest. Okay, that sounded better when she wrote it.

Regarding the writing stuckness, hmmmm.... welcome to my club. I recently dug up a copy of Vein of Gold by Julia Cameron. I've started writing morning pages, artist dates, daily walks and nurturing my battered creative soul. Get back to your basics. You'll find your way back to the page.

usman said...

Before clicking your bog, I actually sent an email to you.
I guess, yours is the angst of the sentimental soul, the thinking person. I've gone through this, of course in my own ways. I sometimes have bouts even now. It was after a particularly long spell 4 years ago that I turned to writing.
What difference does saying something in 'fiction' vs 'non-fiction' make?
Especially when some of the non fiction is also cooked up at worst; or at best is one man's opinion.
It is only how people use language as a way of expressing their feelings and thoughts. I recently read 'A prayer for Owen Meany", and John Irving said some pretty awesome, thought provoking things in a work of fiction.

As to the religious issue you mentioned. I am by nature a religious person in thought, not in action. I do not want to be labeled as anything, but what I believe my thoughts at the moment dictate. I'm with you when it comes to the issue of fundamentalists of any kind, especially those who force themselves down your throat and INSIST they have the elixir. Live and let live sounds fine to me.

It is so good to you are alive and kicking.
btw: IMO, this is the best time for you to pick that diary of yours, and write your heart out, on anything and everything. You may discover a pile a gold as you sift through your mind, that is obviously disturbed ( if I assume correctly) at the world around you.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You did some pretty heavy lifting with this list. Sorry to hear about the loss of such an expensive purchase.

Lisa said...

Denis, "Hi" back :)

Carleen, I did and I want to know when it will be up on the new blog. Rob did a great job on it!

Seachanges, Glad to see you here. I have been reading all of your posts and considering all the business travel you do, I am amazed at your productivity. I've really enjoyed the fiction pieces you've posted.

Yogamum, Eh, it's just stuff, right? I was a lot more sad to lose all the pictures on my camera. Fortunately, Scott took lots of pictures on his camera too.

Steve, I think it's interesting (although I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise) that the two most vocal spokesmen for atheism are/were British. Hitchens is brilliant, but he really strikes me as a person who is not very nice. And Dawkins seems lovely.

Thanks for the kind words about the DC. I suppose I'd never thought about that.

Electric Orchid Hunter, "When you blog, you think globally and act locally." I love that! What a great thought.

Cindy, Hey! It seems like every couple of years my "stuff" starts making me feel claustrophobic and I feel a need to purge. Now -- normally that means I choose what to get rid of and how, but I suspect all the "things" were starting to feel confining. I tend not to form many attachments to things, so except for the pictures (and the waste of money), I didn't feel too terrible about it. I think the stuff needs to be cleared out so I can think :)

Usman, Yes! It sounds like we've gone through the same things. "A Prayer for Owen Meany" is one of my favorite books! You know, there is a movie called "Simon Birch" that was adapted from the novel and I have no idea why they didn't just call it "A Prayer for Owen Meany".

It's funny because words like "religious" are so powerful. I find that I feel a great compassion and love for people and living things and that despite what people might believe, I think human beings have an innate morality about them that they either choose to respect or disregard.

VERY GOOD ADVICE. This is probably a great time to capture these muddled thoughts of mine and perhaps that's just what I'll do.

Patti, Like I said, it's just stuff and I think it was a prompt to scale back some. The list was heavy at times, but it was all pretty good stuff and it was kind of a nice change from my usual fare of one novel after another. But I'm jonesing for some fiction at this point :)

Timothy Hallinan said...

God, you're good, Lisa. This was just a tremendous piece.

Lisa said...

Tim, Well...thank you :)

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf