2015 Reading List [a work in progress]

by Glenn on January 19, 2015

#23

Marsalis, Wynton. To A Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2005.

#22

Leveen, Steve. The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life: How to get more books in your life and more life from your books. Delray Beach, Florida: Levenger Press, 2005.

#21

Cowen, Tyler. The Great Stagnation. New York: Dutton, 2011.

#20

Allen, David. Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work & Life. New York: Viking, 2003.

#19 (Finished 3 December)

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

#18

Whipps, Ray & Betty, with Craig Borlase. ‘Til We Meet Again: A Memoir of Love and War. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015.

 #17

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. SparkNotes.

#16

Chafets, Zev, editor. Remembering Who We Are: A Treasury of Conservative Commencement Addresses. New York: Sentinel, 2015.

#15 (Finished 6 July)

Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. New York: Signet Classics, 1963.

#14 (Finished 6 July)

L’Engle, Madeleine. Sold Into Egypt. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 1989.

Concerning the life of Joseph, Madeleine L’Engle writes:

“The story of Joseph is the journey of a spoiled and selfish young man finally becoming, through betrayal, anger, abandonment, unfairness, and pain, a full an complex human being. I have much to learn from his story.”

I read this as part of my preparation for a little talk I am giving on the life of Joseph next Sunday. The first “real” book I was given as a child came from my godmother. It was L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. It took me a while to get to and through it because I was still in a comic book phase and was intimidated by chapter books.

L’Engle takes a really clever approach to telling Joseph’s story. She uses 12 chapters, one for each of Jacob’s sons. Each chapter has commentary and then concludes with an imagined monologue by one of the characters in the story. She is also processing the loss of her husband, Hugh, who died of cancer.

I love what L’Engle says about herself in Sold Into Egypt:

“I am not a Christian writer. I am a writer who is a Christian. There is a big difference. Journal: ‘Christian’ writing still makes me irritable, because a ‘Christian’ writer does not necessarily have to be a good writer, and so does not have to serve the work.”

 

#13 (Finished 4 July)

Mayle, Peter. A Good Year. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.


This was my second trip through this breezy and joyous book. It’s the kind of book that encourages you to forget the pain  of losing your job by chucking it all and moving to the south of France to inherit your late uncle Henry’s chateau and 40-acre wine-producing estate.

It’s been a while since I’ve read it. There was one line that strikes me funny now years after the Bush administration. It’s when Charlie is tasting some wine and is trying to make a good impression. He says (about the wine), “It has just that little more complexity, a longer finish, more—how shall I put it?—gravitas.” It seems like this word became very popular in the presidential campaign of 2000 to describe the contribution that Dick Cheney would bring as a Vice-President. You wonder if Mayle was making any kind of allusion when he tossed that in.

Anyway, I’m ready to buy a copy of Rosetta Stone and begin speaking French.

I think both the film and the book are wonderful. Here are some thoughts about that.

 

#12 (Finished 8 June)

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

A unique approach to teaching a subject. What I didn’t expect from a book on learning. The authors are thoroughly immersed in their subject. They’ve got some insights on learning but rather than present them in a highly academic format, they chose one designed to help you remember. Learning isn’t easy. One of the mistakes I’ve made in learning is thinking, “Well, if I just underline and re-read this material, I will have learned it.” It doesn’t work that way. Or, at least that’s not the best way.

They don’t have much to say about education in general although their ideas could certainly be used to help educators. Their goal is to help people learn, which means both teachers and learners have things to do to get better. Make It Stick teaches you how to engage.

 

#11 (Finished 31 May)

Mamet, David. Glengarry Glen Ross. New York: Samuel French, 1982, 1983.

So, this was my first David Mamet play. I’ve read, I think, all of his nonfiction writing—his books about acting and playwriting and one about politics. They are compelling page-turners. He writes to clear the room of nonsense. It’s inspiring for someone on the outside looking in on the theatre world. Mamet seems brave saying some of the things he says.

This play has a lot of f-bombs, but it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1984. I’m not sure I know what I think about it. What I do know:

1. I am both sympathetic to and repulsed by many of the characters.
2. This is not a business or an office I would want anything to do with.
3. Desperation makes people do dumb things.
4. These are some sad people in a sad situation.

I watched a film version of this play—the screenplay is also by David Mamet—with an incredible cast including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey. A play is different from a novel in that the playwright depends on the actors to bring the characters to life, where the novelist controls the universe.

 

#10 (Finished 23 May)

Fosdick, Harry Emerson. A Great Time to Be Alive: Sermons on Christianity in Wartime. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944.

I don’t know if this is the third or fourth time I’ve read through this collection of sermons preached during World War II by Harry Emerson Fosdick at Riverside Church in New York City. It’s a book I’ve gone back to again and again (and again?) for many reasons. For one, people don’t preach like this any more. To be sure, I’m not sure anyone should—they would sound ridiculous. These messages are well crafted exemplars of great oratory and artistry, preaching at its finest quality in a time when the stakes were high.

The first sermon, “A Great Time To Be Alive,” which the collection is titled after, is the one that hooks me every time. Fosdick does some remarkable things. He captures the times. The sermon opens 180 degrees from his title, “This certainly is a ghastly time to be alive.” Then he goes on to say that these aren’t just a “grim and hideous time,” it’s especially hideous for Christians living in contradiction.

A remarkable connection to other times of contradiction follows. He tells the story of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who reported attending a Bible society’s meetings in the South. “[B]y chance the meetings were held in a room whose windows opened on a slave market where Negroes were being auctioned off. So Emerson describes the scene: ‘One ear therefore heard the glad tidings of great joy, whilst the other was regaled with “Going, gentlemen, going.”‘” This becomes a sub theme in these sermons. Something like, “We’re not just at war, we’re still trying to resolve a fundamental injustice of our country’s founding that wasn’t exactly solved by the Civil War.”

And then the genius move comes. Fosdick, as much judo expert as preacher then goes on to say, “Nevertheless, this is also a great time to be alive…” Here’s a magnificent quote:

“[O]urs is a day when we cannot seek for ease but must seek for adequacy. Life’s restful days we love, but other days come too—great days—that require of us not ease but adequacy. Some eras are like a lullaby; some are like a spur. Which of the two is likely in the end to be the greater?”

Fosdick is political without being an ideologue. He speaks of “the major forces of our time … fascism, communism, and democracy,” and notes how all three “agreed on the necessity of radical change if a civilized world was to be possible.” His conclusion was that World War 2 “is not simply another war—this is a revolution.”

The conclusion of the sermon is, “This is a great time to be alive if only because it drives us back to the fundamentals: What shall it profit a man or a nation to gain the whole world and lose the soul?” The kicker: “A great time calls for great religion.”

So much to think about. And that’s just the first sermon.

Fosdick’s religion is Christianity. It’s not the Evangelical church of my upbringing, but it’s one of the things I enjoy about these sermons. At the risk of sounding pejorative, he takes a liberal view of things. His Christianity has different emphases (not, for example the primacy of faith), yet I don’t know of any preacher better able to capture the moment he was in, make connections to a larger history, speak of his country honestly while staying off the continuum of “American exceptionalism” on the one end and the “We are terrible” on the other, and speak in a literate and compelling way.

I’m sure I’ll be back to this.

 

#9 (Finished 18 May)

Allen, David.  Making Life Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life. New York: Viking, 2008.

#8 (Finished 17 May)

Casper, Mike.  The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long For and Echo the Truth. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014.

#7 (Finished 10 May)

Buckley, Christopher.  The White House Mess. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

The White House Mess was Christpher Buckley’s first venture into satire. Here he pokes fun at the genre of White House memoir using the fictional presidency of Thomas Nelson Tucker (TNT) as seen through the eyes of his aide, Herbert Wadlough. The longer it goes, the funnier it gets. Having recently read more serious books and having a number of others under way, The White House Mess seemed like a good palate cleanser.

 

#6 (Finished 4 May)

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like A Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003, 2014 (Revised Edition).

This was a fun and funny read. I’ve had this on my shelf for so long (actually his first edition) but I think this is a case of “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” I want to be a better reader and this book (I grabbed the revised edition) is an excellent and empowering help. Thomas Foster has a wonderful sense of humor and strikes me as the kind of teacher I wish I could take a class from.

He can be critical without being dismissive or going for the ad hominem. Here’s an example, in a  paragraph on “reading” movies:

“Hollywood has always produced a certain number of films that do not repay the application of brainwaves—think gross-out comedies; titles whose last name is a number, as in Rambo 17 1/2; and some adaptations of comic books.”

I am grateful for the chance to learn from him. His view of learning seems to be that it should include a measure of joy and be, in the end, about learning and not about becoming pretentious. Just prior to offering a list of suggested reading, Foster writes,

“I have strong opinions about literary merit, but that’s not what we’re about here. All I would claim for these works is that if you read them you will become more learned. That’s the deal. We’re in the learning business. I am, and if you’ve read this far, so are you. Education is mostly about institutions and getting tickets stamped; learning is what we do for ourselves. When we’re lucky, they go together. If I had to choose, I’d take learning.”

What I like is that he not only teaches his material, but he seems encouraging and protective of his students:

“Don’t cede control of your opinions to critics, teachers, famous writers, or know-it-all professors. Listen to them, but read confidently and assertively, and don’t be ashamed or apologetic about your reading. You and I both know you’re capable and intelligent, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Trust the text and trust your instincts. You’ll rarely go far wrong.”

The book’s conversation style is great.

 

#5 (Finished 29 April)

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity.

I have written posts on Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3. The whole is a remarkable statement of apologetics and an affirmation of both the faith and what that faith means for the “big C” Church and individual followers of Christ.

 

#4 (Finished 5 April—Easter Sunday)

Wright, N.T. Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.

My feelings about this book are complicated. I’ll describe in a separate post. But the best quality of this book is that it gets good at the end. I am a fan of N.T. Wright and the book ends in a beautiful place.

 

#3 (Finished 22 February)

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 2003.

Recently, I watched a newish film version of Romeo and Juliet, which I wrote about here, and thought I would go back to the script.

Harold Bloom writes,

“The subtle outrageousness of Shakespeare’s drama is that everything is against the lovers: their families and the state, the indifference of nature, the vagaries of time, and the regressive movement of the cosmological contraries of love and strife.”

What strikes me is how close this play is to being a comedy. After the fight at the beginning where Escales has had enough with violence in the streets and threatens violence on the households of the Montagues and the Capulets, it seems peace in Verona is possible:

CAPULET
“But Montague is bound as well as I,
In penalty alike, and ’tis not hard, I think,
For men so old as we to keep the peace.”

But the young people are not so quick to let go. Tybalt is spoiling for a fight and Mercutio can’t help himself and, at the end, five bodies litter the stage.

Majorie Garber in Shakespeare After All points out the irony in Friar Laurence: He is great in uttering aphorisms in general, “Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow,” for example, but pretty bad at living them out. So in spite of what he preaches, in the play he moves things right along, marrying Romeo and Juliet on the day they meet, with Romeo on the rebound, and quickly crafting a plan to fake Juliet’s death. Everything he does seems to be in haste. He and the nurse fail Romeo and Juliet.

Some years ago I read a Christian author who, in describing the balcony scene, claimed “Juliet may be considered the Bard’s Christ figure, and Romeo the embodiment of the church, thus presenting  Shakespeare’s opinion of a conversion experience.” His reading of this scene “suggests not only a sort of negotiation of love between Juliet and Romeo, but a kind of invitation from Christ to the church, to you and me, walking us, as it were, on the heart path a person would need to traffic in order to know Christ and be saved from his broken nature.”

I struggle with this. It’s one thing to glean from Shakespeare words which can help explain God or illustrate aspects of the Christian life, but it’s another thing—an overreach, I believe—to ascribe motive to Shakespeare. So, if you want to say that the balcony scene depicts love on its highest plane and this is something like Christ’s love for the church, then I’m right with you. In fact, how about Juliet’s words as a picture of God’s love and grace?

JULIET
“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.”

But to suggest that Shakespeare was trying to explain his view of salvation requires something like omniscience. I enjoy speculations, but I don’t feel confident walking the bridge from Shakespeare the Elizabethan poet to Shakespeare the evangelical preacher.

 

#2 (Finished 16 February)

Buckley, Christopher. Wry Martinis. New York: Random House, 1997.

Christopher Buckley is one of my favorite authors. He is a very funny man, both in person and in his writing. I’ve read a number of his novels:
Thank You For Smoking
Florence of Arabia
No Way to Treat a First Lady
Boomsday and
Supreme Courtship

They are laugh-out-loud sorts of books, but they are adult books. As satire, they are first-rate, but as staples for the soul of an evangelical, they don’t really qualify. So, I have enjoyed them and felt guilty about enjoying them. Satire is a tricky thing, I think, and Buckley pulls it off. Thank You For Smoking is my favorite of his novels. Somehow this book manages to be both utterly outrageous and surprisingly plausible. He has his finger on the pulse of our culture.

Wry Martinis is Buckley’s first collection of short-form writing, which I read second after I first read his second collection, But Enough About You. I read both on my Kindles but the latter I would have enjoyed better as an actual book. It’s organized by genre and while the writing is good, at times I found myself impatient with a whole series of the same kind of writing (“A Short History of …” for example). With an actual book I could have skipped around a little easier and mixed things up a bit.

Wry Martinis worked better for me as a front-to-back read. Among the high points for me was the collection of pieces, “Homáge to Tom Clancy,” but I also appreciated the opportunities to live vicariously through his experiences, especially  his description of his trip in an F-16. The pieces I enjoyed the most are the three in a section titled, “Babes,” where he writes about his mom, Patrica Taylor Buckley; Dorothy Walker Bush; and Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers). As hysterical as Buckley can be, I think his serious writing is his best, as these three tributes demonstrate.

Buckley’s best book for me is Losing Mum and Pup. I’ve both read it and listened to it. I’ll probably go back to it again. It seemed like this memoir was a way for him to process the grief of losing his two “larger than life” (a term he more or less has to use, though carefully, as he explains in the book) parents within a year. My mom is still alive and well, but I can’t say how much this book helped me after the death of my dad in 2005. There are many YouTube clips of Christopher Buckley being his funny self, but there is one especially touching one (watch here) where he talks about this book.

I feel a lot of bittersweet as I read Christopher Buckley’s writing. I am grateful for the laughter, but I do get sad seeing him renounce the faith of his father. I wish he would return to it.

 

#1 (Finished 18 January)

Ludlum, Robert. The Bourne Identity. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

Cover of the book, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum.

I think this was my third time through The Bourne Identity. (I’ve read the complete trilogy just once and am not really interested in the Eric V. Lustbader continuation.) This is a great thriller, though a bit anachronistic these days. It remains a page-turner. It’s an interesting premise: a spy becomes an amnesiac because of head trauma and tries to figure out who he is while people try to kill him. There are “wheels within wheels” of government secrecy and a love interest. The Vietnam War casts a long shadow in this book. It works well because Ludlum was so good with the spy thriller. Not sure how many of his books I’ve read over the years. There was only one loser—a book where the hunt was on for some Fountain of Life because they want to give it to a barely alive (on life support) Adolf Hitler so he could come back and, you know, try again. That felt like a stretch.

I once had a student, Becky O., who said in class, “Never judge a book by its movie.” Years later I saw that quote on a bumper sticker. I like to think she made that up. Anyway, that line is true when it comes to this book. The premise is about all that connect The Bourne Identity book to the film. The film is very entertaining, but it has very little to do with the novel.