Some of you might remember at the beginning of this year I vowed to read more long-form writing. Immediately afterwards I posted my reviews of The Best American Essays 2015 and The Best American Essays 2013 but since then my zeal for such collections has cooled. Fortunately, I’ve been reading some great individual stuff here and there and even joined a long-form discussion group that meets every two weeks to discuss articles dealing with international politics and related topics. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I’ve read only one additional essay collection since February. Through Overdrive I dowloaded a Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2106, more or less to see what kind of essays editor Jonathan Franzen would assemble for 2016’s offering. Like just every essay collection there’s stuff in here I loved, stuff I thought was OK and stuff that made me wonder why in the world was it included in the first place.
Some are by familiar writers like Oliver Sacks, Joyce Carol Oates and Sebastian Junger but the rest were unknowns which is perfect because I was introduced to new voices and that’s why I read collections like these. Of these unknowns, Jaquira Diaz’s “Ordinary Girls” in which she recalls her turbulent childhood raised by an abusive, schizophrenic mother was a favorite piece of mine, as was Francisco Cantu’s “Bajadas”, his firsthand account of life as a border agent. In previous essay collections featured on my blog it was the LGTBQ-themed essays that made for surprisingly good reading. This time around it was Alexander Chee’s “Girl” recalling his maiden experience in drag one Halloween evening in San Francisco’s Castro District, and Mason Stokes “Namesake” in which he looked back on the life of his beloved uncle, a life-long bachelor and saw many a striking similarity between his uncle and himself, a gay man. Both pieces were among the best in the bunch.
Before the end of the year I’d like to round things out with a few more collections like this one, perhaps one or two focusing on crime or science and nature. We’ll just have to wait and see.
When I signed up for the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge I figured on two things. One, as much as I’d like to read 20 books over the course of summer I probably wasn’t going to read that many. While I fell short of my goal of 20 books at least I read 16 and really, that’s nothing to complain about. Two, I knew I wouldn’t stick to my original selection of 20 books and four alternates and holy cow, I sure didn’t. Of those books I read only six. The other 10 I either borrowed from the library, downloaded from Overdrive, or in the case of one book (Roger Scruton’s Kant: A Very Short Introduction) I bought for my Kindle off Amazon.
Last summer, when I came across a Time magazine article listing former President Obama’s favorite books of this summer I was inspired to create my own. So once again, here’s my five favorite books from this summer.
This year I’d also like to add one honorable mention. It was hard to post this list without including Juliana Barbassa’s Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. Therefore, I had no choice but to include it as an honorable mention.
Last week I learned Cathy, of 746 Books is once again hosting her annual 20 Books of Summer Challenge. The rules are simple and there’s no pressure. Just choose 20 books to read between June 3 and September 3. Nothing is set in stone. You can swap out a book for different one, skip a book or two or even fail to read all the books on your list. You can even cut your list down to 10 or 15. I’ve selected 20 books plus four alternates in case I end up tossing a few aside. Truth be told, I’d love nothing better than to read all 24 of these before the end of summer.
- Assault in Norway by Thomas Gallagher – Published in 1981, I’ll be reading this vintage paperback for the European Reading Challenge.
- What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank – I’ve been itching to get my hands on this book for years. Now is my chance!
- Five Ideas That Change the World by Barbara Ward – This one is for my Old Book Reading Project, since it was published way back in 1959.
- Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich by Robert Frank – We all know the rich are different. But just HOW different?
- Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner – One of several books I’ve selected for my 20 Books of Summer I picked up at a Friends of the Library book sale.
- War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence by Ronan Farrow – I keep seeing this at the library and it’s about time I read it.
- The Knowledge Web: From Electronic Agents to Stonehenge and Back — And Other Journeys Through Knowledge by James Burke – One of several carryover books from last year’s list. Maybe this year I’ll finally read it.
- Women, Race, & Class by Angela Davis – Another one for my Old Books Reading Project.
- The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal – The sole novel on my list. I’m hoping to apply this one to the European Reading Challange.
- A Nation Rising: Untold Tales from America’s Hidden History by Kenneth C. Davis – I bought this one from the old Quality Paperback Club and never got around to reading it. Better late than never!
- Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War by Ian Buruma- I’ve had pretty good luck with Buruma in the past.
- The Case for God by Karen Armstrong – Another holdover from last year. It’s been too long since I’ve read anything by Armstrong.
- The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone – Published in 1989, this one has been sitting on my shelf forever.
- The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath by Kevin P. Phillips- Yet another book that’s been ignored and finally needs to be read.
- The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by Picked up this National Book Award winner at a Friends of the Library book sale.
- The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy – I grabbed this from one of those Little Free Libraries you see all over the place.
- The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes -It was on last year’s list and maybe this year I’ll finally read it!
- An introduction to Contemporary History by Geoffrey Barraclough – Another for the Old Books Reading Project.
- Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez – When I picked up this book at the Friends of the Library Book sale it just “felt right.” We’ll see if my intuition has led me to a good book.
- The Evolution of God by Robert Wright – No matter what happens I will finally read this!
- (Alternate) Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond – Just like The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East I found my copy in a Little Free Library.
- (Alternate) The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi – I’ve heard good things about Taibbi’s writing. Can’t wait to find out for myself.
- (Alternate) Is Latin America Turning Protestant?: The Politics of Evangelical Growth by David Still – I’m hoping this one makes a nice companion read to Harvest of Empire.
- (Alternate) Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad by Firoozeh Dumas – If I’m lucky I’ll enjoy this one as much as her earlier book Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America.
Greetings all, sorry I haven’t been doing much posting of late. The bad news is I’ve been cursed with another bout of writer’s block. The good news is even though I’ve been unable to write I’ve still been reading. Fortunately for me, over the last four months or so I’ve read some great books, several of them so enjoyable they might make my year-end Favorite Nonfiction List.
- The Best American Essays 2016 edited by Jonathan Franzen – One of several collections I read during my essay reading binge. Since I’ve been thinking about cranking out an essay of two of my own, I’ll probably be reading more of these.
- All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai – Being a man of a certain age, I remember Senator Gary Hart’s run for the presidency and his ultimate fall from grace. Bai, in his 2014 book shows how it all unfolded. Perhaps more importantly, we see how much the world has changed – and hasn’t.
- 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range – After spending a year or so on my Overdrive wishlist, I borrowed a Kindle edition in hopes of applying it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. 1924 greatly exceeded my modest expectations.
- Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region by Masha Gessen – Just like the above mentioned 1924, Where the Jews Aren’t also spent time on my Overdrive wishlist before I got around to reading it. I’ll review this one for my ongoing Soviet Spotlight series.
- The Library Book by Susan Orlean – Whenever a book makes everyone’s best of list I’m always afraid I won’t like it. I’m happy to say this wasn’t the case. By the way, word has it Paramount will be turning The Library Book into a TV series.
- Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization by Lars Brownworth – My soft spot for the Byzantine Empire inspired me to read this one.
- The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss – A long time ago a former co-worker of mine raved about this book. Needing something representing France for the European Reading Challenge I dowloaded a copy via Overdrive. There’s a strong likelihood this one makes my year-end Favorite Nonfiction List.
- A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel by Edmund Levin – Earlier I mentioned my soft spot for Byzantine history. That’s nothing compared to my fondness for books about Jewish history and Eastern Europe. With that in mind how could I resist Levin’s 2014 book?
- New World Coming : The 1920s and the Making of Modern America by Nathan Miller- Even though I live in a rural area, I’m blessed with several local public libraries, each of them surprisingly well stocked with not just recently published materials but also older books. During one weekend library visit I spotted New World Coming and couldn’t resist it.
- The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White- The sole novel out of this bunch. I found The Abyssinian Proof a huge improvement over her 2006 debut novel The Sultan’s Seal.
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – This one made a number of “best of” lists including one billed as an explanation into why Trump won the presidency. When I spotted three copies of this at my public library I grabbed one without a bit of hesitation.
- Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt – I’m embarrassed to say even though I’ve owned a copy for years I’d never read Berendt’s 1994 best-seller until just recently. I loved it, and I bet it makes my year-end Favorite Nonfiction list.
- The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book’s Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey by Margaret Leslie Davis – A buddy of mine recommended me this one after he heard it reviewed on NPR. Since I’m a sucker for books about books I couldn’t resist.
- Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in 17th-century Mediterranean by Adrian Tinniswood – I don’t know about you, but when someone mentions pirates I immediately think Caribbean. I had no idea at one time pirates were the scourge of Mediterranean and parts of the North Atlantic.
- The Italians by John Hooper- This one has been on my radar for a couple of years. About a week ago I was in the mood to read something about Italy for the European Reading Challenge so I downloaded a copy off Overdrive. I was not disappointed. Hooper, a British journalist with years of experience living and working in Italy has written a excellent book. It’s a great companion to Tobias Jones’s Dark Heart of Italy.
Typical of me, my reading has been heavy on the nonfiction, with the emphasis on history. Since the European Reading Challenge is my favorite reading challenge, it’s no surprise I read 1924 (Germany), The Abyssinian Proof (Turkey), The Black Count (France), A Child of Christian Blood (Ukraine) and The Italians (Italy). Also typical of me, all these books with the exception of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil came from the public library, or were borrowed through the library’s Overdrive portal. Speaking of the public library, the books All the Truth Is Out, Lost to the West and New World Coming I’d never heard of until I spotted them on the shelf. Lastly, many if not most of these books were published no recently than a two or three years ago. That means there’ll be no shortage of About Time I Read It posts in the coming weeks, should I find a way to overcome my bad case of writer’s block.
A young man, fearing a lifetime of dead-end jobs lies ahead for him, runs away to join the circus. After chance encounter with a suicidal stranger a Powell’s Bookstore employee is jolted into examining his own life. The hardscrabble central California town Merced is overflowing with poor, teen moms and one 30-something local teacher would like to know why. A dentist his and son find themselves honored house guests of an eccentric whose private castle deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains is stocked wall to wall with Nazi memorabilia. Looking back on her years as a teen runaway hitchhiking across America, a woman suspects she narrowly escaped the hands of a notorious serial killer.
These stories, in addition to a number of others are the subjects for the essays found in The Best American Essays 2013. You might remember from an earlier post I’d developed a craving for longform journalism prompting me to borrow a pair of Best American Essays collections. I’ll admit, I was pessimistic about having Cheryl Strayed as editor, fearing she’d got the job solely based on the success of her book Wild. But once I dived into this collection and began enjoying the essays I quickly learned Strayed was up to the job. (I also learned she’s written more than just Wild. Plus, I also remembered one her essays appeared in The Best American Essays 2015.) I even enjoyed this collection of essays more than the one from 2015. So much for me doubting the editing talents of Cheryl Strayed!
Like any anthology, there are contributions I liked and some, well, I didn’t. One of my favorites from this collection is “The Girls In My Town” by Angela Morales. In her piece Morales reflects on the high prevalence of teen moms in her hometown of Merced, CA. Another favorite was Vanessa Vaselka’s piece from GQ. As a teen runaway she hitchhiked across the country begging rides from long haul truck drivers. Chances are while doing so she had a close encounter with convicted serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades. I also enjoyed Poe Ballantine’s “Free Rent At the Totalitarian Hotel” about life in a run-down hotel during the late 80s. As for essays that weren’t favorites, just like with Best American Essays 2015 it was Zadie Smith’s contribution. (Maybe I should give her fiction a try. Who knows, maybe it’s more to my liking.)
From start to end this is a pretty good collection of essays and goes a long way to satisfying my craving for longform writing. I must say I’ve developing quite a taste for this stuff. Therefore, look for more essay collections featured on my blog.
This week’s edition of Nonfiction November is Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert. Our host is Julie at JulzReads who happens to be one of my favorite bloggers in no small part thanks to her love of historical nonfiction. Here’s how it works:
Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
Last year when I did this, I assumed the mantle of expert and recommended six books about Iran by Iranian authors. This time around, I’m going to recommend books by women who’ve left their respective religions. I’ve always had a soft spot for these kind of books and over the years a number of them have been featured on my blog.
There seems to be no shortage of these books, (especially memoirs) by women who’ve walked away from churches, synagogues or mosques. While there’s similar stuff by men it feels like female authors dominate this genre. Not long ago a good friend and I chatted about this on a Facebook thread and wondered why. Perhaps women leave religions because they’re oppressed or lack adequate opportunities. Maybe women feel more comfortable as opposed to men when it comes to writing about these experiences. Honestly, I have no idea why so many of these dissenting voices are female.
Below you’ll find an array of books by women who’ve walked away from their respective faiths.
- Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer – Drain spent her young adulthood protesting at funerals and engaging in hate speech before being tossed out of the wackadoodle WBC. Once out she never went back.
- Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family by Veronica Chater – Chater grew up with eight brothers and sisters in a Catholic fundamentalist (or “Trad” for traditionalist) household that rejected the Second Vatican Council and its spirit of inclusion and modernism.
- Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith by Carlene’s Cross – After her marriage to an evangelical minister fell apart Cross was forced to strike out on her own. Once she did, she left her old religion behind her.
- I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams – Raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith and married off at 17, after she’d had enough Abrahams left both her husband and religion and became a successful slam poet.
- My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood by Christine Rosen – I have a soft spot for Rosen’s memoir because both her and are former fundamentalists who came of age in the late 70s and 80s.
- The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion—and Others Should Too by Candace R. M. Gorham – Part memoir, analysis and oral history, Gorham looks at why she left her post as a minister within the black church to pursue a career in counseling. Her books contain a number of interesting oral histories of African-American women who left Christianity and are now atheists.
- Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion edited by Karen Garst – Speaking of oral histories, Garst’s book is another great collection of them. The cool thing is I personally know one of the contributors!
- Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman – Feldman grew up in strict Satmar Orthodox Jewish community in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood. At 17 she was married off in an arranged marriage and gave birth to a son a two years later. Later, she became disillusioned with it all, got divorced enrolled in college and left the faith.
- Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Hirsi Ali is a controversial figure, generating strong opinions about her both pro and con. In Infidel, she recalls her life growing up in Somalia, as well the time she spent living in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Germany, Holland and now the United States. She also discusses what made her start questioning Islamic culture, Islam and then later, religion in general.