My review from earlier this summer in the The Cresset.
On January 1, 2014, I resolved to read 25 books in the coming year. I set the following three rules for myself:
- They had to be books that I had not read before.
- I had to read them cover to cover.
- They could not be books that I was reading in order to teach.
As I read, I posted short reviews on Facebook—until August, when I stopped using Facebook for a month as our family took a Sabbath from electronic entertainment. When I returned to social media, I decided to not inflict on my friends a barrage of reviews from the previous month but save them up for the rest of the year and make one glorious blog post out of them.
I’ve posted them here in reverse chronological order.
- Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. A delightful epistolary novel written entirely as letters of recommendation by a beleaguered creative writing professor. This was under the Christmas tree for me last week and it was a fun way to end my year’s worth of reading.
- Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. I tend to be skeptical about current bestsellers and books that have a lot of buzz. But I was running low on books that looked good to me in the audiobook collection of my local library and a male colleague had recommended this as essential reading. I agree. This may be the most important non-fiction book I’ve read this year and I highly recommend it for all men and women. For a feminist manifesto, this has a light touch (Sandberg points out that both men and women negatively perceive women who seem strident) but is full of interesting recent research and a lot of practical advice from Sandberg’s business experience.
- Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem. I listened to this as an audiobook and the reader was not one of my favorites, but I did enjoy the content. Some of my favorite parts were stories of America’s history with wildlife. This book is worth reading just for the story of President William Taft and his failed attempt to replace Theodore Roosevelt’s popular “Teddy Bear” with “Billy Possum.” The description of the current fate of polar bears and whooping cranes was thought-provoking.
- Lila by Marilynn Robinson. This novel is exquisite in the way that Robinson is at her best. I like it almost as well as Gilead, which is one of my favorite novels written in the past 100 years. I read this over Thanksgiving break, over a 36-hour period. It was my best reading experience of the year.
- Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships by John T. Price. I thoroughly enjoyed these personal essays about an Iowa boyhood and a young writer/professor trying to figure out his relationship to a place as he matures as a person.
- Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende. Allende is one of those prominent authors that one feels like one should have read. This book, however, is probably not one of her best. The plot was predictable and, although I was mildly interested in the main character and how her life was developing, I could see pretty well where this was headed from the beginning. I would recommend this as light reading of particular interest to young women—the kind of thing to take on a long airplane ride. It won’t require a lot of concentration, but it will keep you entertained.
- Culture Making: Rediscovering our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch. One of my tasks this year was to help choose a book to be my college’s “all-campus reading” selection. It needed to be something that intersected with the theme of vocation (we have a grant for such a purpose), readable by first-year college students (who have to read the book as part of their orientation), and with an author who could come to campus and speak. This was the book that met all the criteria. For its genre—Christian cultural criticism—it’s not bad. It asks Christians to not just consume and critique culture but to recognize the ways in which they already participate in making it—and to do that work of cultural creation more intentionally and deliberately.
- Friends of Meagre Fortune by Adam Richards. This book was recommended by a Canadian student of mine who wanted to me to read a popular Canadian author. Unfortunately, I thought this book was badly written and it was quite a slog for me to get through. There were too many characters, a narrator who knew too much, and too much purple prose. Since one of my rules for the year was to finish every book that I count on this list, I did not give up. But I would not recommend this unless you like big messy plots and can read quickly and skim through the descriptive passages without noticing the mixed metaphors.
- Let’s Talk about Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. If you’re already a Sedaris fan, you’ll love this. This book displays all of his shocking wit. Other than hearing him occasionally on This American Life, I don’t think I’ve read or listened to a whole essay collection since reading Naked in the mid-90s. As with all really great humor, Sedaris’ strength is in pointing out human foibles—the ways in we are cruel, senseless, and stupid. He holds up a mirror to humanity (and to himself) and we will giggle at what we see, but also grimace. If you’re not familiar with Sedaris—perhaps read some reviews before you dip in. This book is not appropriate for kids.
- Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I have a soft spot for economics, and find the whole Freakonomics enterprise fascinating. This book got me thinking a lot about what incentives motivate both my students and my colleagues. This is a great book for anyone who is trying to figure out whether there might be a better way to get things done. It doesn’t provide simple answers, but a lot of great questions about human motivation and how one might wield the carrots and sticks more effectively. As a parent, a professor, a department chair, and part-time administrator, these are questions I need to ask.
- The Gollum and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. This one is among my top three favorites for the year. A clay woman designed to be a slave and a Jinni trapped in human form end up on the streets of New York City in 1900. The story is remarkably realistic, given the premise. Much of the novel is about these two creatures’ struggle to pass as human and thus it is a meditation on what it means to be human and what it means to be other. I loved this until close to the end of the novel when it became a little too cinematic for my taste. The demands of the plot to have a dramatic ending detracted from the more philosophical aspects of the story in which I was interested. I think many readers, however, will enjoy the face-paced and exciting ending.
- This a Story of a Happy Marriage by Anne Patchett. I like stories of happy marriages; this was actually a collection of essays with that theme. The “marriages” were not just Patchett’s actual happy marriage, but some of her other bonds and covenants—her relationship to a well-beloved dog, her long friendship with a nun, her business partnership that was the foundation for starting a bookstore.
- Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. This is for those who look for realistic novels that explore the complexity of human relationships. I didn’t love his earlier book, The Corrections, but I liked this one a lot. I appreciated the Minnesota setting of much of the plot because I could picture the geography, and I appreciated the theme of “freedom.” The novel asks, what does it mean for these characters to free themselves from the burden of the past or to be free to pursue their passions—and, in the end, is this freedom a good thing? I will admit that there were times when I got bored with the usual sex, drugs, and rock and roll that are a staple of most contemporary novels. But in the end, I liked where this novel ended up. To add to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, there was also mountain top removal mining and bird watching.
- MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. The weakest of the MaddAddam trilogy, mainly because it is just a spinning out of the plot lines that are set in motion in the first two books. But it offered a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy for those who want to know what happened to the characters.
- The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. A continuation of the MaddAddam trilogy. I really liked this second book—especially the hymns written by “God’s Gardeners”—a post-apolcalyptic environmentalist cult that develops its own theology and religious practices.
- Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into America’s Grasslands by John T. Price. I heard Price speak at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in April and immediately went and bought all three of his books. I am interested in reflections on how to understand the relationship between humans and the non-human (“natural” world) without romanticizing the non-human or overemphasizing the nature/culture distinction. Price’s essays analyze how writers adapt to and reflect on a world that has been utterly transformed by human influence (grasslands turned to corn and soy monoculture). This book felt a little too dry and academic at times—like it was written as a Ph.D. thesis. Price is best in the personal essay format, but this book has some merit for those wanting to know more about the particular writers that he discusses. And his discussion of the difficulties these writers had staying in and connecting to just one place—even one that they felt a deep connection to—was interesting.
- The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope. A woman refuses to give back the family diamonds that her late husband had given her to wear. His family is not happy. Lawyers are involved. Various relatives and friends of the woman try to figure out whether or not she is a good person. Other characters decide whether or not they can and should marry. The diamonds are stolen. The woman is suspected. My favorite Trollope novels are ones in which essentially well-meaning people are put in difficult ethical dilemmas. The problem with The Eustace Diamonds is that the protagonist is not well-meaning. It was tedious to have to wait for the inevitable consequences of her bad behavior to finally catch up with the main character.
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. This is a great example of the post-apocalyptic genre. It was grim in the way that novels about people doing stupid things to ruin the planet and destroy the human race should be. Thought-provoking. And there were some funny moments when Atwood (even in 2003) didn’t quite predict the digital age. For example, physical books were being destroyed because they had been replaced by CD-ROM.
In July, I was in a mini-van with my kids for about 3600 miles (most of them also with my 81-year-old father). We listened to some children’s audiobooks (Fairest by Gail Carson Levine, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary, and Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder). I didn’t get much other reading done.
- The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. This is science/nature writing at its absolute best. I’ve read skilled and creative science writing by people who are practiced writers (Rebecca Skloot, Annie Dillard, etc.) but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so beautifully written by someone whose primary training is first in the sciences (he’s a biologist). Haskell observes a one-meter circle in an old-growth forest for one year and has the most interesting things to say about it. Highly, highly recommended for everyone. This is a must-read for my naturalist friends.
- The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). I have mixed feelings about this one. I like the major theme of the novel—the tension between material and spiritual reality. The main character is a nineteenth-century botanist who is compelled by the wonders of the physical world. Yet she keeps encountering characters who are strongly drawn to something beyond the physical. The problem with this novel was that, in order to develop this theme, Gilbert had to invent some highly improbable plot elements. I enjoyed reading this, but couldn’t always engage fully with the world she had created.
- Longbourn by Jo Baker. This rewrite of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants had some flaws (a weak ending and wearing its concern for some twenty-first-century issues a little too obviously), but it had a compelling plot and believable characters. I only occasionally dip into the ocean of fiction inspired by Austen and when I do, I am selective (I did read PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley and Stephanie Meyer’s Austenland). This one is recommended for Austen fans looking for a fresh look at a favorite novel. Perhaps some passages from this will show up in my Literary Criticism class as examples of how Marxist and Feminist perspectives can help us see what’s underneath the glittering surface of gentry life.
- Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. What phrase should one use in lieu of “couldn’t put it down” when speaking of an audiobook? I loved this well-crafted historical novel set in seventeenth-century America. Every tragedy that was common at that time (smallpox, death in childbirth, farm accidents, child death, ship wrecks, tuberculosis, Indian-settler violence) was included in the plot, but it did not have a despairing tone. And I think Brooks did a particularly masterful job of handling with subtlety and generosity the severe Calvinist faith of her protagonist.
- The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. I really liked this realistic family drama set in contemporary small-town Maine and New York City. One thing I admire about Strout is her command of her narrative prose. I loved the fact that the narration of this novel was always focalized through one of the characters—there were no descriptive passage that weren’t from the perspective of a character. It made the whole thing quite restrained and powerful. It also wasn’t too sad and terrible (although there was a lot of sadness and terror in it). This was the first novel I’ve “read” as a downloaded audiobook from the local library. Hooray for the public library!
- Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin. I did read this in preparation for teaching, but I hadn’t read it before and I didn’t require it of my students, so I’m going to count this toward MY book-count for the year. Austen biographies are really tricky because there is very little primary source material (a lot of her letters were destroyed) so they tend to get overrun by minutiae. This one managed to keep it pretty interesting although Tomalin engaged in unwarranted speculation a few times (like supposing that Austen’s mother sending her infants to be raised for the first couple of years by neighboring villagers must have resulted in a cold or distant relationship between her and Jane). This biography gave me a much better sense of where the composition (rather than the publication) of Austen’s novels fell within her life.
- Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope. A 25-year-old Irishman gets elected to British Parliament and juggles four different love interests (three out of the four with wealthy heiresses), fights a duel, and gets over his fear of public speaking, while thinking hard about money, privilege and whether the electoral system really is about representing the interests of the people or maintaining the status quo.
A Review of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son
(Cresset, December 2013)
A Review of Paul Harding’s Tinkers
(Cresset, September 2010)
A Review of Paul Mariani’s biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins
(Books & Culture, December 2008)
I like to read Michael Perry’s books about life in rural and small-town Wisconsin because I recognize the places and people in his essays. When I say that I recognize these places and people, I mean this quite literally. My niece sang in a choir with Perry’s parents, my parents buy meat from the same one-eyed butcher who processes Perry’s pork, and my mother once took a writing workshop with Perry. Thus I was surprised, a couple of years ago, when I encountered a review of one of his books in the New York Times or when I saw him on the list of scheduled speakers for Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing.
It’s not Perry’s writing ability that engenders the surprise. Indeed, he writes with well-timed humor and thoughtful poignancy. It’s that his books produce a particular satisfaction in me that other readers won’t necessarily share: the pleasure of judging how well he describes a world that I know well. His latest book, Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting, is no exception. When Perry invokes the smell of fresh tires at Farm & Fleet, I’m there. When he describes his father towing a cow down a country road, I know exactly what that road looks like.
But the number of readers who have this experience is not enough to generate a book contract with HarperCollins. This has made me wonder about the broader appeal of Perry’s books to readers who don’t have family in Bloomer, Wisconsin. Part of the appeal, I imagine, has to do with the genre in which Perry writes and part of it with his credentials as a chronicler of rural life.
Perry writes in a well-worn genre that was launched upon the waters of Walden Pond when Henry David Thoreau set off to suck the marrow out of life. Call it the “Experiential Narrative Essay Collection.” When Barbara Kingsolver resolves to eat only local foods for a whole year, Bill Bryson dons his backpack to hit the Appalachian Trail, or Michael Pollan decides to build a cabin, this is the kind of book that results. I’m most familiar with books that record experiments in rural living, but the genre has a broad range; some interesting recent examples including A.J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.
Coop records Perry’s experiences over a year in which he and his wife made a small foray into raising hogs and chickens and concurrently added a second child to their family. It records these experiences, interspersed with memoirs of Perry’s childhood. As he farms, he thinks about his experience growing up on a farm. As he parents, he reflects on his own family, which included sixty foster children, many with severe disabilities. Even as he fills pages with memoir, though, the central narrative of the book is about the economic triumph of feeding day-old bread to his hogs or teaching his six-year-old daughter to cut hay for her guinea pig. What do readers find so satisfying in reading about other people’s experiments in living? Why should I care how Perry constructs a “chicken tractor” or whether he allows his daughter to watch the hogs being slaughtered? Continue reading
On April 21, 1780, the curate of Selborne Parish, Hampshire, wrote to Daines Barrington, his correspondent and fellow naturalist: “The old Sussex tortoise, that I have mentioned to you so often, is become my property.” This letter marks the beginning of a relationship well-known to readers of English nature writing, that of Mr. Gilbert White and Timothy the tortoise.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, nature-essayist and New York Times op-ed columnist, also narrated a meeting of these two figures in a slender novel published in 2006: “I met Mr. Gilbert White when he was twenty years old. The human year 1740, and I just come to England. Stolen from the ruins I was basking on. Jut of wall that had stood forever in sight of the Mediterranean Sea. In earshot of its mild tides. Thrust into a heavy bag by hand unseen.” Yes, the tortoise is the narrator—the conceit that gives this novel, full of minute details of eighteenth-century life, its purpose.
The difference in perspectives of White and Klinkenborg is illuminating. Gilbert White identifies the tortoise with an English location, Sussex, and labels it property. Klinkenborg narrates an earlier meeting and gives an imagined back-story, the tortoise stolen from its idyllic native home on the Mediterranean, “thrust” into a bag.
Klinkenborg’s aim in Timothy or Notes of an Abject Reptile is to complicate our assumptions about human-animal relationships and to cast a tortoise-shaped shadow on the legacy of one of the heroes of the history of ecological science. It is a didactic novel, one that sets out to teach that humans are merely animals; Klinkenborg, through the voice of Timothy, instructs humans toward a sharper recognition of our kinship and common fate with the rest of the natural world.
When this novel arrived in bookstores, I immediately went out and got it, perceiving correctly that I belonged to the target audience: a reader of nature essays, a person who enjoys identifying the species that come to my bird feeder, and watches with interest the worms and insects that populate my (chemical-free) garden. I have even done scholarly research on Gilbert White.
Along with my interests in the natural world and Gilbert White, I have also recently read a stack of novels in a genre which Timothy fits well. There’s no established label for this genre, but I call it the “literary re-write”: a novel or play that takes a well-known classic of western literature and re-tells its story from the perspective of a minor character or shifts the perspective enough to call into question the driving assumptions of the original. John Gardner’s Grendel, Jane Smiley’s Ten Thousand Acres, and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea are three of the better-known examples of the genre. More recently, the Pulitzer-prize winning novel March, by Geraldine Brooks, fits this label. All of these “literary re-writes” are didactic novels like Klinkenborg’s Timothy. They set out to make the reader feel uneasy about the cultural and historical milieu which produced the original. At worst they are preachy and supercilious. At best, they present convincing and compelling characters that enable one to inhabit a world that exists alongside the one created by the original, in a tension that deepens one’s reading of both the original and the re-write.
It is not difficult to see why Jane Smiley might take on family dysfunction in King Lear or Jean Rhys might explore the unwritten story of the mad wife in Jane Eyre, but why would Klinkenborg choose the relationship of a little-known eighteenth-century clergyman and a tortoise for interrogation? Continue reading