Saturday, November 19, 2011

Post-Grad Reading: Books #21-30

This post is quite long overdue, since I am now well past book #30. So before I hit Book #40, I'd better post an updated list of mini-reviews of my reading...

21. Murder on Embassy Row (Margaret Truman)
  • Another excellent Margaret Truman mystery, this time focused around DC's international delegations on Embassy Row, and most especially the elite caviar-centered worlds that some of them inhabited. Though I missed the central characters from the other Margaret Truman mysteries I've read, I enjoyed following this story and found it a very gripping and quick read.
22. Walking the Bible (Bruce Feiler)
  • As much as I did enjoy this book and agreed with its premise-- the connection of land to spiritual feelings, with an eye for historical accuracy but not an obsession with it-- it was pretty one-sided. One might expect that, though with a subtitle like “A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses.” Feiler is Jewish, though not strongly religious as the book begins, and the book focuses on the events of the Torah. As such, you find him focusing on the powerful spiritual connection that the Jewish people have to the land. In some ways it's a good companion to The Lemon Tree, which while a reasonably balanced account sometimes skewed toward the Palestinians. There were moments when I became upset with Feiler for being so distraught over the feelings that the Muslims he met also experienced toward the land. All in all, though, it was a good read and a good spiritual narrative.
23. Theodore Rex (Edmund Morris)
  • I have been trying to get through this behemoth of presidential history for some five to seven years now-- ever since my last Theodore Roosevelt obsession-- and now I finally did it. This is volume 2 of Edmund Morris's trilogy, and it focuses exclusively on Roosevelt's presidential years. It does so in minute detail, looking at policy, politics, and personal life in the White House. Though it obviously can't cover everything, Theodore Rex is nothing if not a thorough sweet of Rooseveltian presidential history.
24. Spade & Archer (Joe Gores)
  • This book was written as a prequel to The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, one of the greatest noir novels of all time, many years after the fact. Needless to say, Joe Gores is not Dashiell Hammett. That being said, Spade & Archer was a fun read depicting the cases of the years leading up to Falcon. It also did not feature Miles Archer nearly as much as I expected. Basically a fun but not “good” read.
25. The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammett)
  • A classic detective story. Nick and Nora Charles are two of Dashiell Hammett's most famous characters, and this novel makes it clear why this is so. I actually saw the movie (the first one) before I read the book, and I was pleased to discover how close they are. Apparently some adaptations were better back in the day. Anyway, great writing, snappy dialogue, fun and fascinating characters-- all of these traits make The Thin Man a great read.
26. Thirteen Moons (Charles Frazier)
  • I picked up this book when I was in Cherokee, NC, for an alt break trip, and I have to say, reading it took me back there again. Thirteen Moons is a historical fiction novel, centered around the “white chief” Will, who as a boy is sent off as an indentured servant to run a store in the mountains of western North Carolina, and is adopted there by Cherokee. It tells the story of his life from that point, to his ascent as a lawyer and lobbyist for the Cherokee, through the Removal to Oklahoma and how he gets his band of Cherokee to be able to stay, through the Civil War. It's a fantastic story with beautifully crafted prose. Highly recommend.
27. Naked Spirituality (Brian McLaren)
  • This is McLaren's most recent book. I bought my copy after attending a talk he gave about it, and I'm glad I did. We've all heard people say, “I'm spiritual, but I'm not religious.” This book does a beautiful job of taking that idea and translating spiritual feelings into a series of semi-religious practices that do a wonderful job of exploring the depths of spiritual sensations. Never judgmental or overly condescending, McLaren's writing is personal and yet applicable to all who might wish to deepen their relationship with God, or who wish for a church that put the need for love above the need for any number of types of traditions. An excellent read, especially as I struggle through finding a new church for myself in a new location.
28. A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)
  • A genuinely ridiculous book. I alternated between laughing at the idiosyncrasies of the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, and being thoroughly disgusted and repulsed by him as a character. At any rate, it was extremely well written, and Reilly is an undeniably unique character in American literature. Deserving of its Pulitzer Prize, and worth reading...once, anyway.
29. The War Lovers (Evan Thomas)
  • Yet another in my string of reading books about the life of Theodore Roosevelt, although this one is not exclusively about him. Rather, Thomas examines all the people involved in the time leading up to and including the Spanish-American War. On the pro-war side, this cast of characters included Roosevelt, his good friend Henry Cabot Lodge, and newspaperman William Randolph Hurst. On the other side, with a more intellectual and “civilized” bent, was Speaker of the House Thomas Reed and philosopher/professor William James. An excellent book that takes an honest look at the motivations behind the chronic human love of war. Plenty of shades of the conflicts of the 21st century in here, too.
30. The Shallows (Nicholas Carr)
  • The Internet: now so ubiquitous a part of modern life that it staggers the imagination to think of going without it for even a day or two. We are a constantly connected people-- a trait which, Nicholas Carr argues, is rewiring our brains for an age of Google. The ability of humans to remember is diminishing in the face of a world where everything can be looked up. Carr does an excellent job with this book, making a case for how the Internet is changing us without passing a harsh judgment either for or against this reality. Superb book.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

“A Work of Bare Utility”: The Quiet Splendor of the Brooklyn Bridge

It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.” -Montgomery Schuyler (quoted in David McCullough's The Great Bridge)

~~* ~~

The enduring power of architectural landmarks stems from the stories they recall, as well as the emotions they evoke in the viewer. From the Brooklyn Promenade in New York, the casual observer can see such icons as the Statue of Liberty, as well as the still-noted absence of the World Trade Center towers, whose monuments are even now starting to rise from the dust. These structures are clear examples of places with stories and with emotions, but they are not alone in this category on the Lower Manhattan skyline. They are joined by the equally impressive and perhaps even more unique Brooklyn Bridge.

Before the bridge became a design and then a reality, the East River was an obstacle inhibiting passage between the two separate, growing cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Then as now, residents were wont to live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan, but the only way to cross between the two cities was by slow, crowded, and unsafe ferries. Ice in the winter could halt all passage, and high winds could send the boats aground. These circumstances made the so-called “Great Bridge” a much-needed project.

The problem lay in the river itself, and in the capacity of contemporary engineering to conquer it. Historian David McCullough writes in his book The Great Bridge that, “the East no river at all technically speaking, but a tidal strait and, in that day, especially, one of the busiest stretches of navigable salt water anywhere on earth” (24). There was no hope of supporting the bridge in the center of the river; it required a single arc stretching between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Enter the engineers. John Roebling had pioneered construction of suspension bridges in Pittsburgh, Niagara Falls, and Cincinnati; his son, Colonel Washington Roebling, worked with his father on these projects, serving as both confidant and co-engineer. These bridges separately formed the core of the Great Bridge in Brooklyn, an efficient design that allowed for the crossing of a near-impassable body of water.

The design principle of the suspension bridge worked better for the Brooklyn Bridge than any other design could have. Suspension bridges are capable of spanning up to 7,000 feet through the use of compression and tension. Two towers are embedded in the earth to support the majority of the deck's weight; cables are strung to hold tension as they are stretched taut between two anchorages. The cables are able to transfer the pressure (compression) of the deck to the towers and then directly into the earth. (For more on suspension bridges, check out )

The bridge would cost the Roeblings dearly-- indeed, it turned out that John Roebling's legacy would be as the bridge's designer; an accident at the work site and its subsequent surgery went bad and killed him. Washington Roebling served as the bridge's chief engineer until its completion, though it impacted his health negatively too.

The Great Bridge also made use of the most recent technology in its construction. This was particularly true of the caissons that were to support the towers, which had to be sunk in the river and work be conducted inside to permanently embed them in the stone at the bottom of the river. Weight on top, compressed air inside, and excavation of the riverbed would all help to push these great structures to a stable position at the bedrock, where they would be filled with concrete.

This simple concept, however, became a more complicated reality when they had to adapt the workers to such starkly different levels of air pressure. This situation lead to the ailment that we now know as “the bends,” sharp pain in the joints that appeared among workers coming out of the caissons, and was first identified during the work on the Eads Bridge in St. Louis. In some cases, both in St. Louis and in Brooklyn, the disease would cause paralysis or even death. Among these statistics was Washington Roebling himself, who was paralyzed by an attack of “the bends” in 1872, and ultimately had to oversee the final construction of the bridge from his house near what is now the Brooklyn Promenade.

The bridge's tall granite towers and proud arches dominated views of Lower Manhattan when it opened in 1883. Though it no longer claims that distinction today, it still represents the stories of the men who designed it and the men who built it, as well as the use of modern science to overcome the adversity of nature to human progress. By linking two previously separate cities together, the Brooklyn Bridge represents the most practical of monuments, one that provides a spectacle for the eye, an experience for the tourist, and a functional transportation option for all who would pass over it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Writing by Hand, or, Why I Love the Mail

The same day that I began my latest writing project, I heard a story on NPR about the many financial woes of the United States Postal Service.

This struck me as ironic because my project was to send one postcard, by mail, per day for at least a month, to all of the friends and family who had given me their addresses.

It also struck me as sad, because the financial problems experienced by the postal service sharply demonstrate the apparent reality that 'snail mail' (a telling nickname) is going out of style and out of use.This isn't exactly a breaking news update, but people don't write letters much anymore. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

This Is (Still) My Song: 9/11, Ten Years On

The difficulty for a writer... is that it seems to be a law of language that happiness, like goodness, is almost impossible to describe, while conflict, like evil, is all too easy to depict.” 
-W.H. Auden

Today is, of course, the ten-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks that killed nearly 3000 people in New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania. And like so many other writers, I turn to words as I try to remember and process what happened.

I was 12 years old, and just beginning my seventh grade year at Dover Middle School. And I didn't find out about the attacks until the end of the school day. I can only assume that our principal had decided that it was better for the general student population that we continue functioning normally until the school day ended and we were on our way back to our parents. I can only assume that there may have been kids at my school whose relatives were on one of those planes leaving Boston, and that those kids were called out of class and told sooner. But none of it touched me during that bright sunny day of learning and growth and new friends.

Art class was the end of my Tuesday at Dover Middle School. I remember distinctly that the period was winding down and we were beginning to gather our things for dismissal when the principal came on the intercom and asked teachers to settle their classes, that there would be a special important announcement in two minutes' time.

Settling middle schoolers down is never an easy prospect, but by the time the principal's voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing the attacks that had taken place earlier that day, we were all attentive. I don't remember exactly what he said, but I believe he laid out the events of the morning in simple terms: two planes hit the two World Trade Center towers in New York City, and one had crashed into the Pentagon, and one had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. I believe that he urged us to go home to our parents, and not to watch TV. (Or was it that my parents kept us away from the TV news? Ten years makes the memory hazy sometimes.)

At any rate, when the announcement was over, I do remember clearly that the usual buzz of activity resumed in the classroom. Most people seemed to just write it off in favor of the normal social and academic concerns of seventh graders. I also remember one unusual event-- the girl who sat next to me breaking down in tears because she was afraid that her mom had been on one of the planes or in one of the WTC towers. Since I never heard about it again, I can only assume that her mom was okay.

As for me, I remember just sitting quietly and listening to the announcement, listening to the buzz, trying to absorb the news. I knew little of the complexities of world affairs, had not yet heard of al-Qaeda or the Taliban, knew little of Saddam Hussein beyond the simple facts I had learned for geography bees in elementary school. But something within me understood that forces greater than my understanding had undertaken to hurt us, and that the world of politics and foreign affairs that I was barely aware of, would be changed.

It is not just the hubris of a writer and memoirist that leads me to say that I understood the significance of what was going on. My art teacher saw the look on my face and told me after class that she could tell that I knew what was happening. I don't think I could possibly have understood fully what was happening-- as I said, my knowledge of the world was limited, and I hardly had any information about the day's events.

But what I do know is that what I felt that day when I heard the announcement is a feeling that has continued through to today: a deep quiet inside me, a space where I must retreat to reflect on the chaos and sometimes evil of the world, a space where I can mourn and wish for the peace of the world. I felt it again the night that bin Laden was killed. On 9/11/01, many felt anger; on May 1, 2011, many of those same people felt great joy and release. I understand their anger and joy on the respective nights, for the attacks struck home for millions of people-- both those who directly lost loved ones and those who lost their basic sense of safety. The death of bin Laden was a necessary catharsis for many, and I cannot deny that the world is almost certainly a better place without him.

But I felt the same sense of deep quiet on May 1 of this year that I did on September 11, 2001. I found it neither a catharsis nor a crime, neither justice nor vengeance.

It's just what is. Not what should be, but what is, right now. The world has a way of changing at unexpected, often inopportune, moments, and we have to be aware of what happens as it goes, and keep living our lives. Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world live in societies much more dangerous than ours, and yet life goes on there too. People are born, people die of natural causes and not, people go to school and get married and have more kids and go to jobs and to the grocery stores.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that maybe what I realized that day and carry through until now is this: that we don't live in a peaceful world, but that the world we live in has plenty of places where peace and normalcy reign. Especially here in the United States we have that to be thankful for. And when violence happens, the best we can do is just keep going. I choose to mourn violence in all its forms, but I give thanks for the peaceful moments in my life and in the lives of those I love-- like the one right now where I resort to words of reflection to absorb my feelings about this national day of remembering.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Men's Underwear: A Tale of Public Transportation

The bus was full for so late on a Tuesday, Cassie thought as she slowly made her way to the open seats at the back. Glancing at the seats to the left and the right, she made an odd discovery.

A pair of old gray men's briefs was resting on one of the spots.

Shoes and socks, she'd heard of. Hats and sunglasses, she understood. But...underwear? That was both unusual and, well, disgusting. Settling on the seat opposite, Cassie giggled silently at the thought of where the underwear might have come from, how it might have wound up on a bus seat, very much without an owner. Teenagers having a muffled assignation on a quiet part of the ride, perhaps. Scandalous.

Or maybe-- Cassie had heard about people in New York City who took off all their clothes on the subway, as a way of getting comfortable and beating the heat. It had been another boiler of a July day-- someone could be trying to reenact that classic Seinfeld episode. The image was uncomfortable and hilarious as she imagined sitting across from a naked guy on the bus, calmly reading the paper as those around him squirmed.

The bus lurched to a stop, and saved her from descending into uncontrollable laughter at the thoughts in her mind. The front door opened and a petite Hispanic woman got on and walked to the back, carrying a large bag and looking exhausted. Setting the bag on her lap, the woman leaned her head against the bus window and closed her eyes. She smelled vaguely of Lysol-- possibly a cleaning lady.

As the bus swerved up the busy rush hour streets, its frequent ungraceful stops and starts caused the woman's bag to tip over onto the floor of the bus. Some of the contents toppled out-- a t-shirt, a few different colors of socks, a fancy bra.

As the woman quietly regathered the contents of her bag, Cassie watched from the back of the bus and stopped giggling. Women like that one rode the bus every day. Normally Cassie didn't give them a second thought, but as she watched the woman settle back into her seat, she began to spin a story in her head. Though she had no way of knowing for sure, it appeared likely that the workday was far from over for that hard-working woman. The work she took home was surely the laundry of the family she worked for-- perhaps belonging to the children she had chased around all day, or the mother and father whose breakfast dishes she had watched. Or, alternatively, it may have belonged to her own family-- that she had to take her family's laundry to her job in order to get it done spoke volumes about the hours she worked.

The bus lurched to a stop again. The wealthy-looking passengers at the front shifted uncomfortably as a man dressed in ragged clothes and an army cap stepped on, clutching a couple of trash bags as he paid his fare in coins. The other passengers continued to display signs of disgust as he walked by-- some subtly holding their hands to cover their noses, some outright moving over so that the man wouldn't sit down next to them. Pretending not to notice his rejection by fellow passengers, the man slunk to the back of the bus, assaulting the senses of all that he passed.

As the man settled into the seat at the very back corner of the bus, he held his bags tightly in his arms, resting them on his lap. A dirty white t-shirt poked out of the top of one bag as he did so.

As Cassie sat at the back of the bus, she found these fellow passengers raising troubling ideas. Accidentally or not, the people most often seated at the back of the bus seemed to be minorities and poor people-- a fact that shouldn't be the case, but nonetheless was there. That article of clothing could easily have belonged to someone like the housekeeper or the homeless man. It needn't come from something as ridiculous as a careless tryst or a public transportation strip-down. It could belong to someone for whom that clothing was a livelihood, or even all that they owned...

These thoughts would have to wait-- she had a dinner party to get to. *Ding!* “STOP REQUESTED.”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

10 Sermons That Rocked My World

I have grown up in and around churches, and have heard dozens upon dozens of sermons. Good, mediocre, boring– on all theological topics under the sun. Two pastors in particular, however, stand out in my recollection, and of each of those pastors I have found a handful of sermons that irrevocably have stuck out in my memory– ones which helped to define my faith and rocked my world in doing so. Here are the links and brief summaries.

  1. The Living Christ” by Rev. Anne Robertson. Growing up, Sunday School for kids occurred during the first worship service, so usually one of the only sermons I ever heard happened at Easter when Sunday School was cancelled. This one is probably the best stuck in my memory, because it tied Easter to, of all things, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol…and helped to form my belief that God cannot be contained to our human imagination. God is bigger.

  2. Transformation in Whoville” by Rev. Anne Robertson. I also inevitably always heard the sermon preached at church on Christmas Eve. This is my favorite Christmas sermon of all time because it was framed around Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” A reminder that Christmas is bigger than our busy-ness and greed and materialism– Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. It’s up to us to choose whether we are the Whos or the Grinch each year.

  3. Tower of Love” by Rev. Anne Robertson. Preached the Sunday after Tuesday September 11, 2001. Where was God in the midst of those terrorist attacks? Everywhere you looked, if you looked with the right eyes. “As the World Trade towers fell, the tower of love grew strong.”

  4. What’s It All About” by Rev. Anne Robertson. This sermon won preaching awards and it’s not hard to see why. God is love. “Square one in the Christian faith and in all of life is love. If you’ve missed it, you’ve got to go back.”

  5. Everything You Need to Know” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. The first sermon I heard preached by my college campus minister. It has wound up being effectively a preview of my faith career for the next four years of my life and spiritual development. Can’t find a word in it that’s not true.

  6. Why the Atheists Are Right (And Wrong)” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. The second sermon of my college career– quite a powerhouse combo, those first two Sundays. After four years of evangelical Christian school, it rocked my world to hear a Christian minister admit that people who were skeptical of faith might possibly have a point.

  7. Faith Questions” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. This is actually an annual occurrence at my campus church, where students anonymously submit questions online and the pastor answers them during the service, sight unseen. I cannot really recollect any one question that had an answer that rocked my world– rather, it was the whole existence of this kind of sermon. To put it in Mark’s words, “As I am fond of saying every year, “Faith Questions” is not simply a description of what it is we are answering. “Faith questions” is itself a sentence, a statement. Faith questions. A lively meaningful faith is not afraid to ask difficult questions and to wrestle with complex issues as they relate to our understandings of God and what we believe.” That realization alone– that asking questions was an acceptable part of faith– completely changed my faith life.

  8. Jesus Added You As A Friend” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. Facebook is indeed a technological and communications marvel. It’s a wonderful tool. But how has it diminished our sense of real relationship? “Christ reminds us that our friends are not means, they are ends in and of themselves. Our friendships are not social networking tools. They are real relationships. And in that reality, they are meant to reflect the relationship we have with our greatest Friend of all.”

  9. Update Your Status: What Are You Doing Right Now?” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. A reminder that God doesn’t base his love for us on our accomplishments. He loves us because he loves us. Isn’t being a child of God enough of a status for us? “In reality, what could you or I do that would impress God?”

  10. Wiping Away Every Tear” by Rev. Mark Schaefer. A thorough rebuke of Rapture theology, showing why it is a tempting but all things told rather harmful idea. I keep coming back to this one, all the time, as I think about my faith. “God does not abandon the creation. We are not rescued from it and taken to some other plane of existence. We are raised to new life in the creation. God redeems and restores the world.”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Lust Ain't Just for Nancy Pearl

Some people have disposable income. These people can afford to be defined, not necessarily by their money, but by what they do with it.

Some people spend their disposable income on alcohol, on bars and clubs and always-flowing libations. These people are called partiers, socialites, or (alternately) 'alcoholics.'

Some people spend their disposable income on clothes and shoes-- more than any one individual could possibly need. These people are called 'shopaholics.'

Some people spend their money on fine food and fine wine. These people are called 'gourmets.'

Some people spend their money on toys, slides, water guns, stuffed animals, and amusement parks. These people are called 'parents.'

I'm mostly kidding about the latter, but it's true that there are as many ways to spend money on your interests as there are interests. Which brings me to an admission:

I am a book-aholic. A bibliophile. A bookworm. A first-degree book lover. I'm a girl who reads.

This condition has been exacerbated by a lifelong proximity to books-- a tantalizingly close one. I grew up inhabiting libraries and bookstores; at any given point my own house vaguely resembled both of the above.

Bibliophilia is a genetic condition in my family, but my mom and I both got a particularly severe and fast-moving strain. We're the two who have to be dragged out of bookstores. We have both found our excuses for buying books at different points.

She is a school librarian for a Pre-K through 12 academy. She built the high school library from scratch. Bringing in appropriate and useful new books is her job.

I, on the other hand, found my excuse in the school holidays that I spent working at Barnes & Noble. While I worked there, I could tell myself that by spending part of my paycheck on books, I was both learning how to do my job better and keeping myself employed. I helped other customers to find books that were right for them, and was also one of my own best customers.

Now I find myself an underemployed college graduate with plentiful free time. I've worked my way through more than twenty books in the three months since graduation. And I am painfully aware of the fact that I live ten minutes down the street from one of the best bookstores in DC, Politics & Prose.

That information haunts my book-loving soul. Every day that I wake up with minimal commitments (which is most days), that literary devil on my left shoulder suggests that it's a nice day for a walk. Why don't we just stroll up Connecticut Avenue and see where we wind up?... And, right on cue, up pops the angel on my right shoulder to remind me that there's a bookstore up there, and we're trying to save money. Avoid temptation, Carolyn, avoid temptation...

It's a daily struggle. Most days, I succeed. Most days I can prevent myself from strolling up the street and perusing the bookstore. Inertia is a powerful ally in that battle. But it doesn't stop the visions of much-desired books dancing in my head...evidence of things hoped for.

Some days, when I don't succeed in staying out of the store, I can still refrain from buying books by just enjoying the ambiance of being around them. When this happens, my friends and boyfriend find considerable amusement in watching me persuade myself not to buy books, and (when I give in) when I decide which books to pick up. They enjoy my anguish, the fiends.

My boyfriend and I once looked in the window of a bookstore after it had closed for the night. He laughed as he watched my face. Said it looked like a little kid's on Christmas morning. I said that was appropriate, since my usual Christmas morning also involves rejoicing over newly acquired books. He understands-- he is a fellow book-lover, but he has better self-control in bookstores than I do. I usually make him hold my wallet if I don't want to splurge on new books.

The fact is that no matter how much I value the ideal of simple living-- and I do-- my books are my greatest obstacle. The best I can do is to give some of them away when I am done with them, and not be too obsessed with getting them back. I remind myself that they are best enjoyed by all. Literacy is not supposed to be an elite activity. Everyone should be able to read. I know this, I believe this.

...But I love my books. Can I have more, please?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Bibliophilia, Books #11-20

Ah, the overly sophisticated way of saying that I'm addicted to books. I enjoy it, too-- I love being able to sit down and read for pleasure so much that I've hardly been writing. Will return to that soon, I'm sure... Anyway, for your enjoyment, here's the list of books #11-20 that I've finished this summer. This list marks the completion of my summer reading goal, but I'm sure I will continue on and possibly hit 25 by the time Labor Day rolls around.

11. The Language of God - Francis Collins
  • A decent book all things told, written by the head of the Human Genome Project. Found the science excellent, the theology subpar, and the fusion of the two agreeable. Too much C.S. Lewis. Called the Gospels 'eyewitness accounts' of Jesus's life. Worth reading, but disappointing for someone who was hoping for a little more solid theology. For a more in-depth review, see my Divine Science review.

12. Murder at the Watergate - Margaret Truman
  • I love Margaret Truman mysteries because, well, they're murder mysteries set in DC. I've read three so far, all with the same basic central characters and a revolving plot of supporting characters, and all have been excellent. This one, centered around Mexican corruption and murders that result from it, turn domestic politics into foreign affairs seamlessly. An excellent, and very fast, read.

13. The Bible: A Biography - Karen Armstrong
  • A biography of the world's most printed book, from ancient Israel's Torah to modernity. I love the way Armstrong writes about religion, with a historically-minded accuracy and fairness, and a believer's reverence. Though this book moves quickly and doesn't dwell on events that you might expect, this is actually a strength. It makes its point very effectively: if you thought you knew how to read the Bible, you are probably both wrong and right; but either way, half of the significance of the Bible is how it is read and interpreted.

14. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The tales of the greatest detective in the world never fail to entertain. I'm deeply ashamed that I never made it all the way through all of Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes tales until now, but my favorite remains “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

15. The Magicians - Lev Grossman
  • Billed accurately as Harry Potter and Narnia for grown-ups, this darker fantasy novel follows the discontented young Quentin Coldwater as he makes his way into the world of magic through his admission to Brakebills College (think Hogwarts, if it were a college instead of a boarding school) and his search for the magical kingdom of Fillory (think Narnia, but more violent). A phenomenal read, especially for people mourning the loss of their childhood via the end of the Harry Potter movies.

16. Peace Like a River - Leif Enger
  • This book, recommended and loaned to me by my boyfriend's mother, took me a while to get into. Maybe partly because of my time constraints for reading, maybe because I found The Magicians shortly after starting it and got hopelessly distracted by my longtime love of fantasy, maybe because it didn't get really interesting until about halfway through. But I wound up reading the first half of the book over two weeks, and the second half in a day. It wound up being a good story. I suspect it will mean more to Midwesterners (like my boyfriend and his family), but I enjoyed the intertwining of faith, adventure, family, and a touch of romance that made up this story.

17. Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Power, and Print - James McGrath Morris
  • Continuing my apparently ongoing recent fascination with the great figures of the early twentieth century, this biography of publisher Joseph Pulitzer draws on recently uncovered sources, the likes of which most historians can only dream. Morris paints a picture of Joseph Pulitzer as an immigrant with brilliant political and journalistic instincts whose rise to power was only eclipsed by the onset of blindness. He did not hesitate to show Pulitzer in all of his many, many flaws, making this a fair portrait of a character who is not easily liked, but not unsympathetic either. An excellent biography.

18. Measure for Measure - William Shakespeare
  • One of Shakespeare's best plays, in my opinion-- Measure is entertaining but thought-provoking, raising timeless issues of justice, sexuality, and morality. It helps that I've seen this play performed, so I was able to picture things in my head as I read the play, but even without that, I think I would have loved reading it. It's a comedy, to be sure, but definitely one of Shakespeare's darker comedies.

19. Gods and Generals - Jeff Shaara
  • Written after The Killer Angels but set in the years preceding it, this sequel by the son of Michael Shaara carries the story forward well, but does not quite live up to the storytelling ability of the father. That being said, it was still a lot of fun to read, and the comparatively few inadequacies can be chalked up to the fact that where The Killer Angels takes place over three or four days, Gods and Generals tells the story of five or six years-- a few years before the war began, and then the first two and a half years of the war, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. An excellent work of historical fiction.

20. The Luxury of Daydreams - Amy McVay Abbott
  • It's hard to know exactly how to review a book written by someone you know without letting your bias creep in, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Luxury of Daydreams. Amy's writing style is humorous and sincere, beautifully phrased and entertaining. It will certainly be most enjoyed by people more familiar with the Midwest and mid-life situations than I, but all the same, Amy tells many wonderful stories that can be appreciated by people in most any location or stage of life. As someone who is not too far away from that age, I especially appreciated her “Letter to My Seventeen-Year-Old Self.”

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Return of Reading

Let all the bookworms rejoice! I graduated from college, which means I finally have had time to read for pleasure again (in between hunting for jobs and doing odd jobs to make money, that is). Here is a list of all the books I've read so far, with brief reviews.
  1. The Geography of Bliss (Weiner) - A travel memoir centered around a grumpy NPR reporter's attempt to find the happiest places in the world. Not my favorite travel book, but a lot of fun nonetheless as Weiner takes the reader to places both expected and unexpected in the quest for locational happiness. Begs the question: is it really the place that matters?
  2. The Greatest Show on Earth (Dawkins) - A love letter to evolutionary biology. This book can hardly be described in any other way. It is not nearly as vitriolic as many of his other works, particularly as it refers to religion in general-- though he is unsparing in his attacks on those who discount evolution. Sometimes difficult to get through and fully comprehend, this is nevertheless an excellent piece for anybody curious to read an argument for the scientific basis of the theory of evolution. (Read a longer review here)
  3. True Compass (Kennedy) - Superb memoir by one of the greatest senators of the twentieth century. No matter your feelings about the Kennedy clan's politics, you cannot deny that they lead interesting lives. Ted Kennedy wrote this book very shortly before he died, and at least part of it with the knowledge that he had cancer. Its focus on sticking to your beliefs and pushing through tragedies rings true, but it doesn't shy away from the harder events of Kennedy's life.
  4. A New Kind of Christianity (McLaren) - Brian McLaren is a leading voice in progressive Christianity, specifically in the “emergent” church. I loved this book most for its format-- questions and responses (not answers). He raises issues that have long been considered foundational to Christianity, and points out that there may be more ways of looking at the issues than have previously been raised. It offers more questions than it answers, but that's a good thing in this case. Needs to happen more often in the church.
  5. The Killer Angels (Shaara) - A classic historical fiction novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. Depicts the battle from the perspective of a variety of different commanders on each side. I couldn't put it down.
  6. The Lemon Tree (Tolan) - One of the best books on the Israel-Palestine conflict that I have ever encountered. It treats fairly with both sides, giving voice to each side by telling the crisscrossing stories of two families who, at different points in time, lived in the same house. Don't mistake this for only a biography, though-- it's much more of a history of the conflict, just with a very unique lens. Well worth the read.
  7. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Morris) - The first in Edmund Morris's trilogy of works on the 26th president, this volume traces Roosevelt's entire life before he became president. And what a life it was: crusading assemblyman, author, soldier, media hog, police commissioner, Civil Service Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy... a diverse career, depicted here by Morris in a fact-filled but highly readable and entertaining way. How could you not be entertained by a life like that?
  8. Outliers (Gladwell) - I'm almost ashamed to say that this is the first Malcolm Gladwell book that I've picked up. However, for this recent grad, I think Outliers was a good place to start, though it was his third book. The focus was on rethinking success-- or more accurately, the most successful people. It manages to simultaneously reenforce and reevaluate ideas that you may have already had about success-- and more importantly, about how your environment affects it.
  9. Foundation (Asimov) - An Asimov sci-fi classic. He wrote it when he was 21 years old, which does rather make this 22-year-old feel unaccomplished. That being said, it's an excellent start to a series that is effectively about the rise and fall of empires. Excellent read, and certainly not a high level of complexity in terms of writing style.
  10. Mort (Pratchett) - A fantastically wacky novel about what happens when Death decides to take an apprentice. I'm not overly familiar with Pratchett's DiscWorld, but this book didn't really demand it. Funny, yet raised some interesting ideas about death, justice, and shifting realities. Not that the latter was the primary point of the novel, necessarily...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

#TheWalkingGallery: A New Kind of Art

On June 7, 2011, I will be participating in a unique event. Part art show, part advocacy, part storytelling show-- The Walking Gallery encompasses all of these things. It is the brainchild of Regina Holliday, a remarkable health care advocate whose experiences stemmed from the loss of her husband (my professor) to cancer nearly two years ago. I've written about them before in "Health and the Hollidays." Regina has continued to be a tremendous inspiration to me, as she speaks out with her voice, her story, and her art.

At The Walking Gallery, people from a variety of careers and backgrounds will converge on the Kaiser Permanente offices in downtown DC, all of us wearing jackets (business suit jackets or lab coats) with paintings on the back. Each painting tells a story relevant to the person wearing it, and each is related to health care advocacy. We will wear our jackets that night, and whenever we speak at or attend advocacy events.

Regina just finished painting my jacket-- you can see pictures and Regina's write-up on her blog. The concept is based around the lessons I learned in Prof. Holliday's class-- the power of the media in telling stories. The class I took, American Society on Stage and Screen, analyzed the way the society in which we live is portrayed by the art we produce. In the case of that class, we looked at the mediums of theater and cinema. Prof. Holliday taught the class well, leading us in discussions of how race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and more had been depicted on the big and small screen through the years.

We did not have the chance to discuss this in his class, but since Prof. Holliday's death I have been thinking about how media tells health stories. Sometimes they do it well, and deal honestly with tough issues-- Regina's painting on my jacket shows examples of this. Other times, the challenges faced by real people are, at one extreme, glossed over, and at the other, overdramatized. The story of health care reform has not been told well-- when we realize this, it is no great surprise that people don't think we need a more complete reform. That reform has to happen not only in the legislative process but in the way we look at our system, and changing that starts with the way we tell our stories. I will be proud to wear my jacket in The Walking Gallery and elsewhere, and to use it to talk about the need to tell our stories well.