Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

Uncle Claude had seen the lion in the foothills before you got to Garland Peak.  He had seen her only once early in April and had gone back time after time to have another glimpse of her or of her mate.  He had been so bent on hunting her hide that he had wasted a lot of hunting time just fooling around looking for her and he hadn't got a piece of game this year, though there had been plenty to be had and the boys had stocked up well.  She was about as big as a good-sized dog, he said, and she looked for all the world like an overgrown house cat.  He thought about her so much that he had given her a name; he called her Goldilocks because, running the way she had in the sunlight, she had been as blonde as a movie star.

I said in my review of Henry IV pt. 1 that the theme of our ninth grade English class is "coming of age."  Gosh, I wish I could assign my students Jean Stafford's The Mountain Lion.  Here's a book that understands the sheer weirdness and terror of being a kid, and what gets lost in the process of growing up.  Its protagonists, Ralph and Molly Fawcett, are two years apart, and at first they are aligned against the forces of conventionality and moralizing represented by their prissy older sisters and prim mother.  They get nosebleeds at the same time, and when they're sent home from school, they walk home through the California suburbs spinning fantasies about a demon-like figure called the Skalawag that pursues them home.  They're strange kids, but part of being a kid is being strange; it's about saying and doing things that convention will one day repress in you.

Molly and Ralph begin to drift apart after the death of their grandfather.  Molly never seems to really grow out of her weirdness, but rather begins to grow into it.  She becomes sickly, truculent, and too smart for everyone around her.  She writes poems about gravel.  Ralph, on the other hand, gets pulled into the orbit of his uncle Claude, a Colorado rancher whose lifestyle both contrasts the conventionality of his mother's home and epitomizes the image of the masculine adult that Ralph yearns to be.  (Ralph's pubescent sexual longings, including for his own sister, riddle him with guilt--and his idolatry of Claude is at least in part a way of sublimating those longings by embracing his maleness.)  Claude himself is obsessed with hunting a mountain lion near the ranch, but Ralph quite Oedipally decides he's going to be the one who finds and kills it first.

There's so much going on in The Mountain Lion I want to talk about.  Stafford is never afraid to be plainly weird, and somehow the weirdness always works because it's believable, when attached to Ralph and especially Molly.  But it also captures something ineffably true about childhood.  Like the questions Ralph demands of his grandfather:

Ralph had felt compelled to force him to talk and so he began to ask questions.  Was it true that if you swallowed a lemon seed a lemon tree would grow in your stomach?  Did he like Post Toasties?  Had he ever seen a buffalo, not in a zoo?  Did he have very many dreams?  At first Grandpa answered briefly, but not unkindly, but then suddenly he jabbed the ferrule of the shillelagh into the ground and said sharply, "Dammit, lad, can't you see I've got something on my mind?"

Or this associative riff that seems to convey a great deal about Molly's mind:

Once Molly almost cried when they had stopped at a town called Blackriver and a man with a bandanna around his neck looked right in the window at them and then turned and spit tobacco juice at a cat.  She felt the same surprise and anxiety as she had one morning when she woke up and saw a grasshopper on her pillow, looking at her.

And occasionally it takes a dark turn, as when Molly, deep in her psychic rivalry with Ralph, pours acid on her hand, scarring herself permanently:

There was a test tube marked H2SO4 which Molly knew was the most dangerous of them all.  That was what was used to make the walnuts pale.  Then she held her left hand over a basin and poured the contents on it.  At first it did not hurt at all; it stung a little like the liquid soap in the basement at school, but that same blue smoke came up from her hand and almost at once big puffy blisters came out, as white and opaque as mushrooms, and there was a new and terrible smell.  The smell, not the blisters, alarmed her, and sent her plunging to the sink where there was a cold water tap.  But the more water she allowed to flow over her hand, the bigger the blisters got and when she took her hand away and sniffed at it, the smell was worse than ever.  Then she began to cry, not with pain but with terror at this odor of her destruction and she stood in despair in the shadowy room, full of the sound of rain.

Such violence presages the end of the book, which is extremely violent, but too perfect in its horribleness to give away.  The mood of the book is so foreboding that I expected the ending to be violent, but I hadn't guessed the precise way in which it would be violent, and so I was both satisfied in my expectations and shocked.

I don't think I could ask my students to read it.  They don't have the right distance to understand their own strangeness, or the honesty to grapple with some of the darker feelings that, as adults, we learn to repress and ignore.  And they'd find the ending gratuitous.  They're not ready to understand themselves that well--but I'm not sure I am either.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Henry IV, Part One by William Shakespeare

FALSTAFF: Can honor set to a leg?  No.  Or an arm?  No.  Or take away the grief of a wound?  No.  Honor hath no skill in surgery, then?  No.  What is honor?  A word.  What is in that word "honor?"  What is that "honor?"  Air.  A trim reckoning.  Who hath it?  He that died o' Wednesday.  Doth he feel it?  No.  Doth he hear it?  No.

The theme of the ninth grade is, at my school like so many of others, "coming of age."  It doesn't really mean much, in practice, but it "sells" to the students that the arc of the year has a purpose.  And in some moments it lends a shape to cross-textual conversations.  How is the process of growing up different for Holden Caulfield than it is for Jeanette Winterson in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Pip from Great Expectations?  Unfortunately, it also means that we teach Hamlet way before kids, in my opinion, are really old enough to read it.  (Who is, though?)

My solution was this: I asked my assistant principal to order Henry IV, pt. 1.  Even more than Hamlet, I think of H4pt1 as Shakespeare's quintessential coming-of-age story, centering as it does on the young Prince Hal and his need to grow up and straighten out in order to inherit the throne of his father, the title king.  The dissolute prince, always hanging out with Falstaff and his cronies, pales when compared to the hotheaded bravery of Percy Hotspur, who drives the rebellion against Hal's father.  (In fact, I learned while reading about the play, that until relatively recently, most performances treated Hotspur as the protagonist, and relegated Hal to a supporting role.)

Reading it again this time, my attention was focused on these themes, and what would be accessible to my students.  Will they relate to the pressure put on Hal to be a model son?  Perhaps not as much as students at some of the schools I have taught.  Will they sympathize with the moralizing Henry IV, as they sympathize with Holden's stuffy old teacher who tells him, "Life is a game you play according to the rules?"  (It may sound weird, but teenagers have a conservative streak they have trouble growing out of.)  Or will they find Falstaff's catechism on honor, as I do, some of the truest words in literature?

One thing that struck me during this re-reading is that the conflict isn't really what I remembered it being.  It's not about Hal struggling with the decision to throw off Falstaff and his life in Eastcheap.  In fact, it seems that decision is made well before the play starts.  The love that Hal bears to Falstaff is pretty scant, and he can't really find a kind word to say to or about the man until he thinks he's died on the battlefield.  It's entirely believable that Hal hangs out in Eastcheap for exactly the reason he says he does: it will make his enemies underestimate him and make his ultimate rise to power seem all the more awesome.  If that reasoning is to believed, he's not a traitor to Falstaff, he's a psychopath.  And yet it will take literally another play to get to the point where Hal dismisses Falstaff for good.  Is that Machiavellian strategizing or real inner conflict?

I don't think this play will be easy to teach.  There are a lot of war-room strategy meetings that I often want to glaze over, as I do with those same scenes in Othello and Julius Caesar.  It's going to be important to find what matters about these scenes--Percy's hotheadedness, the eerie magic that hangs around Shakespeare's version of Wales, the parallel father-and-son relationships--and not skip them over to get to the tavern scenes and the grandiose speeches.  We'll see how that goes.
Best of 2017

It is a bit late for this, but I thought I would post it anyway.  These 9 books were my favorite reads of 2017.  A few caveats:  I have listed them in the order I read them, and not attempted to rank them further.  I also gave myself certain limitations - I loved both of the Marilynne Robinson novels I read this year, but decided to choose one, just to not repeat authors.  I also chose not to include books I reread, even though I counted them among my not-quite-50 books of the year.  That eliminated Junot Diaz and Tim O'Brien, who probably would have made the list otherwise.   These decisions are a bit arbitrary, but they may be no more arbitrary than my decision to stop at 9 titles or my decision about what to read next.

Best of 2017

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,  Jeff Chang
Bellevue, David Oshinsky
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
Thrall, Natasha Trethaway
Otis Redding, An Incomplete Life, Jonathan Gould
The Green Road, Anne Enright
The Bread of Time, Philip Levine

Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan

Three of these titles (Change, Oshinsky, Gould) are non fiction and four are fiction.  The Trethaway is poetry and Levine is an odd combination - he claims it is his memoir, but some of it is fiction.  This probably accurately reflects my reading life - a balance of fiction and non fiction with a too small smattering of poetry.  The list is a microcosm of the 50 Books experience as both serve to make me just a little more self-reflective about my writing.  So thanks for that.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Death Penalty: An American History by Stuart Banner

As the twenty-first century began, capital punishment was an emotionally charged political issue administered within a legal framework so unworkable that it satisfied no one. Supporters and opponents of the death penalty had fought to a stalemate . . . . Mercy had been banished from the system, replaced by an arcane set of rules that haphazardly selected who would live and who would die. Americans were stuck with a compromise between adopting and abolishing the death penalty that embodied the worst of both options. Yet the issue was so important that neither side would budge.

It's strange reading my review of this book from almost eight (eight!) years ago, when I read this book for a law school course and had no idea that the death penalty would encompass my professional life. I devote no more attention to this book than the others lumped into the review, ostensibly with no inkling whatsoever of my future.

It was also strange to be re-reading this book, now with a more focused interest. Where before I read the book as being an interesting history of an interesting topic, now I read the book looking for clues, hoping the past might present insight into the, well, present.

And that is, I guess, what I got. Stuart Banner's book is a thorough history of the death penalty, starting in the seventeenth century and continuing through to the beginning of this one. This is a history of a death penalty adapting to an increasingly modern society.

For the colonies, deterrence, retribution, and penitence were the purposes of the death penalty and the death penalty was much more common It applied to a plethora of crimes that we would never execute for today (horse thievery, for example), though, the sentences were not always completely carried out.

To emphasize these three purposes, the death penalty was highly ceremonial. It was a long morality play with rituals cultivated to be "a powerful symbolic statement of the gravity of the crime and its consequences." Being public, the execution deterred others, it displayed the awesome power of the government to take away life; it also served penitence because the prisoners would often give speeches about the error of their ways.

Opposition to the death penalty began to form because, as modern thought took off, people began wondering if we could punish crimes better. The Enlightenment brought modernity to penal theories and scrutiny of the death penalty. Did the death penalty actually deter? Did it serve retribution or penitence any better than other forms of punishment? Some thinkers started to argue that the death penalty was a relic of a barbaric past to be left behind like so many other unscientific practices. Notably, this debate took different paths in the north and south because of slavery and the perceived necessity of the death penalty to maintain slavery.

During the 1800s executions moved from the public square to the prison yard. The elite political classes began to shun the public display of governmental might. In contrast, the common attendees to an execution tended to be rowdy and sympathetic to the prisoner. Rather than a ceremony emphasizing respect for the government, executions started to motivate disrespect. So executions were moved and became hidden.

This move meant the professionalization of executions because, now, fewer people were conducting all the executions. With a burgeoning professional class of executors, the idea that executions should be painless developed.

Hanging a person, it turned out, is not simple. In its ideal form, the prisoner's neck would snap and death would be instantaneous. In its less ideal form, however, the prisoner suffered as he slowly suffocated to death. As the twentieth century lurched forward, new technologies of execution--the electric chair, the gas chamber, and then lethal injection--were meant to solve this problem by offering scientific approaches to death: quick, painless, and problem free. However, none of these solutions were perfect: stories abounded of imperfect electrocutions or gas chambers.

The twentieth century also brought changing views of crime. As sociological causes began to be emphasized more strongly, the justifications of deterrence and retribution were undermined. If crime is caused by sociological factors--and not individual choice--how can deterrence or retribution support use of the death penalty? This debate gradually undermined the use of the death penalty leading to a steep decline-except in the south, where the death penalty was still perceived as required to sustain racist power structures.

Finally in 1972, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty, only to bring it back in 1976, leading to a new strengthened emphasis on constitutional law for the death penalty. Gradually, federal courts would become the most important arbiters in regulating who would and would not get executed, taking roles formerly held by governors, juries, and trial courts, bringing us to today’s death penalty.

That was a mouthful.

Banner’s book is heavy; I’ve been reading this book on and off for almost twelve months. (At 311 pages, it’s not exactly War and Peace so it's not the length that made it take so long). That said, it’s also comprehensive, and fully supported with citations to sources. The book aspires to be no more than what its title promises, an American history, and in that it is highly successful. I'd recommend this book to anyone with a professional or academic interest in the death penalty in the United States.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

There remaineth a rest for the people of God (somehow the thought of the Devil always propelled her mind to the Holy Scriptures), and for the other people, the people of Satan, there remained a rest also.  Held fast in that strong memory no wild thing could be shaken, no secret covert destroyed, no haunt of shadow and silence laid open.  The good yards at Paddington, for instance--a savage place! as holy and enchanted as ever it had been.  Not one of the monuments and tinkerings of man could impose on the satanic mind.  The Vatican and the Crystal Palace, and all the neat human nest-boxes in rows, Balham and Fulham and the Cromwell Road--he saw through them, they went flop like cardhouses, the bricks were earth again, and the steel girders burrowed shrieking into the veins of earth, and the dead timber was restored to the ghostly groves.  Wolves howled through the streets of Paris, the foxes played in the throneroom of Schonbrunn, and in the basement at Apsley Terrace the mammoth slowly revolved, trampling out its lair.

Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes moves in the same way as her novel Mr. Fortune's MaggotIt begins as a black comedy, a satire of conventional mores, this time a needling portrait of a woman who becomes a spinster.  Then it becomes something else entirely, something more interesting and profound.  In this case, it does that when the spinster becomes a witch.

Lolly--Laura--doesn't exactly chafe against the mores of society, but she is slightly estranged from them.  After the death of her beloved father she moves in with her brother and his wife because no one has enough imagination--not Lolly, not her brother Henry, not her sister-in-law Caroline--to think she might do anything else.  Lolly goes along, not marrying, submitting to the dead dullness of the everyday life of a woman at the turn of the century, until one day a realization comes upon her: she doesn't actually have to do any of that.  She chooses a place in the English countryside, a town called Great Mop, out a guidebook, and moves there.

Lolly's choice to become a servant of the Devil seems hilariously sudden.  After all, the book seems to operate in another mode entirely.  But it's not totally out of the blue.  After all, Warner tells us that Lolly's sense of alienation takes the form of an attraction to darkness and ruin:

Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial; a something that lurked in waste places, that was hinted at by the sound of water gurgling through deep channels and by the voices of birds of ill-omen.

The best part of the novel is its depiction of Satan, who Warner describes as a kind of genial huntsman, traveling through the English countryside looking for souls to snatch.  In this way he's sort of an inversion of the image of Christ as "fisher of men," and Warner imbues her Satan with a kind of aloof fatherliness that seems to borrow from depictions of God.  But Satan, unlike God, is uncoupled from the intricate network of oppressive conventionality that Lolly has run from: "Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament, great-great aunt Salome and her prayer-book, the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilization."

God and St. Paul, for Lolly, are "men's things, like politics, or mathematics."  Warner, like many after her (and probably some before?) reclaims the archetype of the witch as a symbol of feminism.  "When I think of witches," she tells Satan, "I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded."  Satan kindly reminds her that there are warlocks, too, but for Lolly and for Warner the decision to follow Satan has a special valence for women, because it represents a rejection of the everyday burden conventionality places on them.  The radical gender politics of Lolly Willowes are cut by a mildness, a light satirical touch, that make it seem less radical than I suspect it really is.

In that way, the novel itself is a little like its depiction of Satan.  The conversation between him and Lolly that forms the climax of the novel is its best part, and it's hard not to feel like he's introduced too late and rushed off too quickly.  But as Lolly notes, Satan, unlike God, is pretty much done with a soul once he's gathered it.  In "his satisfied but profoundly indifferent ownership" he won't bother her, making her servanthood look more than a little like true independence.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Power by Naomi Alderman

It follows that there are two ways for the nature and use of human power to change. One is that an order might issue from the palace, a command unto the people saying “It is thus.” But the other, the more certain, the more inevitable, is that those thousand points of light should each send a new message. When the people change, the palace cannot hold.
Five thousand years have passed between our present and the present in The Power. The novel is a "historical" look back at how we got from where we are now to where they are then: a society where women hold all the power, and a world where men were in charge is practically unimaginable. We get to watch the transition--the period in the not-so-distant-future where girls start to discover that they have The Power: their bodies can generate electric charges that can hurt, maim, or even kill others.

Alderman has worked with Margaret Atwood, and it shows. The Power could almost be read as an alternative reality to The Handmaid's Tale. While this reads a little less literary, Alderman is similarly dark and incisive. The horrors of womanhood, rather than being taken to Atwood's extremes, are turned on their heads. Yes, women are empowered here, but this isn't a fairy tale. Alderman's women, even the good ones, aren't simple heroines. They're angry and violent--at their own histories of abuse, but also, clearly, at the millennia of human history that have gotten them there.

I have some trouble taking books with sci-fi style premises seriously. I think this is my own blind spot, and not a reflection on Alderman or her writing, but I think it kept me from reading this as a piece of literature. Alderman's prose moves quickly and she sells the premise brilliantly. I was never lost or confused, never doubted for a moment that this could, on some level, happen. The novel focuses on the first few months of the shift; we don't get to see the full unraveling, but the reactions of women--both individually and collectively--felt honest and real.

I really enjoyed this book. I couldn't put it down (which may also be part of why I couldn't fully take it seriously), and Alderman's imagining of what women would do if given the reigns was thought-provoking and terrifying. As a meditation on power and who wields it, it was one of the more thoughtful books I've read in a while. As a dystopic (or utopic depending on how aggressively feminist you're feeling!) novel, it's thrilling.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

The new lane, peaceful, quite shady, deep-rutted, and despite the dry spell still full of pools, beautifully reflecting the sky, wandered on between clumps of trees and broken hedges screening indeterminate fields, and now it was as though they were a company, a caravan, carrying, for their greater security, a little world of love with them as they rode along.  Earlier it had promised to be too hot: but just enough sun warned them, a soft breeze caressed their faces, the countryside on either hand smiled upon them with deceptive innocence, a drowsy hum rose up from the morning, the mares nodded, there were the foals, here was the dog, and it is all a bloody lie, he thought: we have fallen inevitably into it, it is as if, upon this one day in the year the dead come to life, or so one was reliably informed on the bus, the day of visions and miracles, by some contrariety we have been allowed for one hour a glimpse of what never was at all, of what never can be since brotherhood was betrayed, the image of our happiness, of that it would be better to think could not have been.  Another thought struck Hugh.  And yet I do not expect, ever in my life, to be happier than I am now.  No peace I shall ever find but will be poisoned as these moments are poisoned--

On the Day of the Dead in Quauhnahuac, Mexico--possibly the most mispellable place in the world--British Consul Geoffrey Firmin's ex-wife comes back to him.  He hasn't answered any of her letters; but still she's drawn to return to him by an inescapable love.  When she arrives at seven in the morning, he's already in the cantina, drunk as un zorrillo.  Probably his drinking was what drove them apart in the first place.  But she returns to him anyway, hoping to save him from himself, and yet the passing year has only driven him deeper into the arms of the bottle.

She seeks refuge in the company of his visiting brother, Hugh, a committed Communist haunted by the Spanish Civil War, and with whom she may have already had an affair.  The entire book takes place over that day, the Day of the Dead, whose name is not, for the three of them, merely a coincidence but a promise.  We know from the first chapter, a flashforward, that the day ends with Geoffrey's violent death.

If In Search of Lost Time is the classic novel of memory, Under the Volcano is the novel of drunkenness.  Lowry captures the disorienting feeling of being borracho exactly, with all of its attendant hallucinations and phantasmagorias.  It's not easy reading: from one paragraph to the next, Geoffrey might end up in the bathroom and have to trace his own steps to figure out how he got there.  Lowry is coy about giving us an objectivity Geoffrey doesn't and can't possess; at one point he writes that the Consul "either thought or said" something.  Lowry's style, even in chapters closer to the point of view of Hugh or Yvonne, is characterized by long, circuitous, heavy sentences which take on a sinister maze-like quality when used for Geoffrey.  But what they capture, they capture exquisitely:

The Consul sat helplessly in the bathroom, watching the insects which lay at different angles from one another on the wall, like ships out on the roadstead.  A caterpillar started to wriggle toward him, peering this way and that, with interrogatory antennae.  A large cricket, with polished fuselage, clung to the curtain, swaying it slightly and cleaning its face like a cat, its eyes on stalks appearing to revolve in its head.  He turned, expecting the caterpillar to be much nearer, but it too had turned, just slightly shifting its moorings.  Now a scorpion was moving slowly across toward him.  Suddenly the Consul rose, trembling in every limb.  But it wasn't the scorpion he cared about.  It was that, all at once the thin shadows of the isolated nails, the stains of murdered mosquitos, the very scars and cracks of the wall, had begun to swarm, so that, wherever he looked, another insect was born, wriggling instantly toward his heart.  It was as if, and this was what was most appalling, the whole insect world had somehow moved nearer and now was closing, rushing in upon him.

Among the perfectly rendered phrases in that passage, I want to select for special praise the description of the cricket with "polished fuselage."  Lowry is full of perfectly alienating phrases like that, which despite being just plain beautiful, communicate the alienation of Geoffrey from his surroundings.  I also liked a group of stags which look at the trio "in all their monarchical unlikelihood" and a description of "[r]ows of dead lamps like erect snakes."

But I couldn't help shaking the feeling that Under the Volcano is somehow less than the sum of all of its striking parts.  For every arresting paragraph there's three more that are plain slogs, that twist and turn and end up somewhere not quite worth the attention.  The story itself, such as it is, never quite operates on the level of believable human interaction.  Yes, I will buy that the Consul is incapable of making a fuss when his wife returns because his soul and his brain are so pickled.  But I don't quite buy the way that Yvonne shows up, not to have it out with Geoffrey, but to go off immediately on a horseback ride with Hugh.  When things do happen--like the violent climax, in which the drunk-ass Consul ineptly navigates his final encounter with la policia--it can be painfully muddled and obscure.  The narrative digs deep into the three characters' souls with such indelible detail and psychological realism that it never quite pays enough attention to the surface. 

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

No, the worst thing, worse even than sitting around crying about that inevitable day when my son will leave for college, worse than thinking about whether or not in the meantime to get him those hideous baby shots he probably should have but that some babies die from, worse than the fears I have when I lie awake at 3:00 in the morning (that I won't be able to make enough money and will have to live in a tenement house where the rats will bite our heads while we sleep, or that I will lose my arms in some tragic accident and will have to go to court and diaper my son using only my mouth and feet and the judge won't think I've done a good enough job and will put Sam in a foster home), worse even than the fear I feel whenever a car full of teenagers drives past my house going 200 miles an hour on our sleepy little street, worse than thinking about my son being run over by one of those drunken teenagers, or of his one day becoming one of those teeenagers--worse than just about anything is the agonizing issue of how on earth anyone can bring a child into this world knowing full well he or she is eventually going to have to go through the seventh and eigth grades. 
I've always loved Lamott's writing (didn't someone on the blog read Bird by Bird last year?). She's funny, thoughtful, and I've always admired her ability to honestly and accessibly voice her own insecurities. In this, her memoir of her pregnancy and her son's first year, she doesn't disappoint. Lamott gets pregnant relatively late in life; she is alone, early (and thus, relatively unsuccessful) in her career, and still impressively hopeful. The book follows her and Sam through his first year and all of its attendant joys and horrors.

Lamott is her sarcastic, vulnerable self throughout. Nothing is off-limits: her struggle with addiction, her laundry list of insecurities, the ways in which pregnancy ravages her body. While I'm not sure that the title really bears out--this is not an instruction manual--her honesty is reassuring, even in its infinite anxiety. She doesn't lay out what we should do as mothers, but she does make it okay to not know what we should do. Of all the books and articles and endless pieces of advice I've encountered in the past 8 months, this may have been the most reassuring takeaway: it's okay to be utterly and totally clueless (and occasionally terrified).

I'm lucky to have a massive support system throughout this insane process--a fabulous husband, a steady job, an amazing community of friends--but almost all of Lamott's fears rang true (although she does veer into a slightly scary anti-vaxx space a couple of times). I know some women enter motherhood calm and collected, emanating grace and confidence, but that is not even close to how I feel. Seeing my fears laid out on the page made them that much more manageable, and having Lamott's wit and wisdom to help dispell them made me feel just a little bit more ready.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I remember one time you said your life made you feel so ashamed you couldn’t even talk about it to God, you had to write it, bad as you thought your writing was. Well, now I know what you meant. And whether God will read letters or no, I know you will go on writing them; which is guidance enough for me.

Initially, I wasn't that impressed with The Color Purple. I reached the midpoint and was discussing it with Chris, and I mentioned that it seemed to be covering ground too similar to other books I'd read recently--Beloved and Homegoing--without catching me in the same way. He observed that I'd probably read many other books on the same topics without complaint, but was kind enough not say "try harder". However, I did, and ultimately came to appreciate The Color Purple on its own, somewhat unusal terms.

So, to kick things off, there are a few unusual things about the book that set it apart. It's in epistolary form, with about half the book being letters from the main character, Celie, to God and about half being from (minor spoiler) her younger sister, Nettie, who disappears early on but reappears later to pick up the other half of the narrative.

The story itself is broken into two pieces: the first half of the book is primarily letters by Celie, describing her life in the Jim Crow south; the second half is dominated, though not monopolized, by letters from Nettie, who has connected with a family of black missionaries headed to Africa under a white-owned missions organization.

Celie's letters are written in dialect, but never in a way which overwhelmed me--I'm not a huge fan of dialect--and it provides a nice ironiic syslistic distinction between Celie's tales, in which white people hardly appear, and Nettie's, in which the white missionaries make only token appearances but whose presence is felt even in the much more "proper" way Nettie learns to speak.

Nettie's story covers a lot of similar ground as Things Fall Apart, but from the perspective of the missionaries. It was interesting and at times quite sad--colonialism was a real bitch--but the emotional heft of the story belongs to Celie and her emotional, spiritual, and romantic awakening. But I did want to include this excerpt, which resonated with me regarding the way that our unconcious nationalism can easily breed resentment toward those who don't accept what we think they need to hear:

The Africans never asked us to come, you know. There’s no use blaming them if we feel unwelcome. It’s worse than unwelcome, said Samuel. The Africans don’t even see us. They don’t even recognize us as the brothers and sisters they sold. Oh, Samuel, I said. Don’t. But you know, he had started to cry. Oh Nettie, he said. That’s the heart of it, don’t you see. We love them. We try every way we can to show that love. But they reject us. They never even listen to how we’ve suffered. And if they listen they say stupid things. Why don’t you speak our language? they ask. Why can’t you remember the old ways? Why aren’t you happy in America, if everyone there drives motorcars?

Which brings me to the other thing I didn't know about this book: it is, in large part, a lesbian romance. Or rather, Celie seems to be a lesbian while her lover, Shug, is bisexual. Their friendship develops so naturally into a physical romance that it almost happens without notice. There's certainly no fanfare or any particular fuss made about it, in Celie's mind or by those around her.

Finally though, The Color Purple is a deeply spiritual book, although it takes pains to demonstrate that it's not a pamphlet of colonial Christianity. The libertine Shug turns out to be the novels spiritual center, in spite of Celie's letters to God. At one point, Celie is faced with a tragedy that undermines her faith:

What God do for me? I ast. She say, Celie! Like she shock. He gave you life, good health, and a good woman that love you to death. Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won’t ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown. She say, Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you. Let ’im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you. She talk and she talk, trying to budge me way from blasphemy. But I blaspheme much as I want to.

But Shug is there to give this lovely speech:

I is a sinner, say Shug. Cause I was born. I don’t deny it. But once you find out what’s out there waiting for us, what else can you be? Sinners have more good times, I say. You know why? she ast. Cause you ain’t all the time worrying bout God, I say. Naw, that ain’t it, she say. Us worry bout God a lot. But once us feel loved by God, us do the best us can to please him with what us like. You telling me God love you, and you ain’t never done nothing for him? I mean, not go to church, sing in the choir, feed the preacher and all like that? But if God love me, Celie, I don’t have to do all that. Unless I want to. There’s a lot of other things I can do that I speck God likes.

I would like to write at more length about the treatment of God and spirituality in the book, but honestly, I don't feel qualified. Much of Walker's theology seems rooted in animism and pantheism, but she ties such a lovely bow on it that I'm not compelled to critique or dissect it. Celie's spiritual journey is something beautiful, as far as I can tell, and it doesn't need me whitemansplaining it.

So sometimes, I guess it's true that books require some extra work, not just on an intellectual level, but on a personal one as well. I feel as though recentering my focus on The Color Purple helped me root out some unconcious racist assumptions in myself--and if that's not a good takeaway from a book, I don't know what it. Also, the end made me cry.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide by Cass Sunstein

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, attempting to vindicate the freedom of speech, warned that "the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people."  If the American constitutional system is working well, or at least well enough, We the People can cast our votes and love our families and live our lives.  We do not need to focus on the impeachment mechanism.  But if we are going to keep our republic, we do need to know about it.  It's our fail-safe, our shield, our sword - our ultimate weapon for self-defense.

I picked up this book for no particular reason, no reason at all. .. 

In all seriousness, though, there has been, and likely will be, a lot of impeachment talk bandied about, and I wanted to have a historical/constitutional/legal framework for understanding those discussions.  Already you have politicians and commentators spouting a whole range of nonsense, from the cynical ("The only basis for impeachment is what Congress thinks is a basis for impeachment") to the misguided ("Only criminal actions are impeachable.")  Sunstein's guide, on the other hand, traces impeachment back to the founding fathers' views and reviews the few instances in which presidential impeachment has actually occurred in our history.  Sunstein also, helpfully, poses a number of hypothetical situations (none involving the Russians...) and opines on whether impeachment would be permissible in such situations.

After the Revolution and the Articles of Confederation disaster, the drafters of the Constitution still feared a monarchical executive, but also saw the need for a strong one.  Impeachment was critical to balancing those considerations.  On one hand, the framers recognized that making impeachment too easy would undermine the president's authority and diminish the separation of powers, making him depended on the approval of Congress, rather than the people.  On the other hand, even though there would be a chance to vote him out every four years, they were still afraid of a president coming under the thrall of a foreign power, and realized that there would be other situations in which a president needed to be removed immediately.  Thus, when crafting the impeachment clause, they created a high standard ("treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors"), and added institutional safeguards (the House votes to impeach, two thirds of the Senate must vote to convict) in order to ensure that impeachment was possible, but would not occur too often.

Though "high crimes or misdemeanors" is not defined in the Constitution, Sunstein argues that, based on the historical record, the framers considered them to be official acts, not personal acts.  For example, according to Sunstein, if a president committed tax fraud on his personal income taxes while in office, that would not be an impeachable offense, even though it is a criminal act.  This seems wrong, or at least it did to me before reading this book, but the framers weren't concerned with personal morality, they were concerned with abuse of power.  (If the president used his authority over the IRS to cheat on his taxes, that might be impeachable).  Sunstein even goes so far as to say that obstruction of justice, for which Clinton was impeached and Nixon was going to be impeached and....well...moving on....might not be an impeachable offense.  He argues that if the president obstructs justice by covering up an action that is in itself not impeachable, then the obstruction wouldn't be, either.  This makes sense when you consider his example of covering up marijuana use by White House staff, but is a little iffier when applied to "an investigation into the president's illegal investments before taking office."  As a result, Sunstein does not think Clinton should have been impeached.  Though perjury is unlawful, "[w]e aren't speaking of systematic violations of civil liberty, or acquisition of the office by unlawful means, or the grave misuses of official authority that triggered impeachment proceedings in the American colonies."

In one of the most helpful chapters, Sunstein includes a list of hypotheticals and opining whether they would warrant impeachment.  In addition, he includes thoughts on the 25th Amendment and statutory interpretation, as well as an impeachment cheat sheet chapter.  

Overall, I thought Impeachment: A Citizen's Guide was very helpful and well reasoned.  Even when I wasn't sure I agreed with him, I could see where he was coming from, and it was helpful to have a well constructed framework in which to analyze the issues.  It'll be interesting to see whether they have any practical implication in the near future...

Thursday, January 11, 2018

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

"The criminal doesn't escape," Dix said wryly.

Brub said, "I won't say that.  Although I honestly don't think he ever does escape.  He has to live with himself.  He's caught there in that lonely place.  And when he sees he can't get away--"  Brub shrugged.  "Maybe suicide, or the nut house--I don't know.  But I don't think there's any escape."

Dix Steele (I know) is bumming around Los Angeles when he runs into an old friend, Brub Nicolai (I know).  Brub and Dix are old pals from their stint in Europe during the Second World War, and they relish catching up.  Dix is in town writing a novel and subletting from an old Princeton friend; Brub is a detective in Beverly Hills.  He gives Dix the inside scoop on the investigation into a recent rash of murders: young women, strangled.  There are few clues; the murderer has been careful.  But what he doesn't realize is his old buddy Dix is actually the strangler.

In a Lonely Place is a pretty traditional noir, though an exceptionally stylish and cerebral one.  Unlike Hammett or Chandler it finds the killer infinitely more interesting than the detective, who's dogged but limp.  Dix is right when he says that Brub has no imagination:

The obvious reach of his imagination was, "He's insane, of course."  It would never occur to him that any reason other than insanity could make a man a killer.  That's what all the dolts around town would be parroting: he's insane of course he's insane of course.  It took imagination to think of a man, sane as you or I, who killed.

But Brub is right that even when a murderer gets away with it, he's ultimately caught in his own "lonely place."  More than anything, the novel is about the poisonously antisocial masculinity that leads Dix to kill.  Hughes pointedly makes him a Princetonian and a serviceman, acculturated in male spaces and bitterly obsessive and controlled toward women.  Dix can't look at a woman without evaluating her appearance--perhaps the truest-seeming detail in the whole book--and we come to learn that he makes his first kill when a woman literally tells him "no."  His undoing comes when he falls for a neighbor, a would-be starlet named Laurel Gray (I know) whose fiery personality and unpredictability stoke his lust and his loathing at the same time.  Hughes understands just how blurred the lines between a man's love for a woman and his hate for her can be.

When Dix is finally caught, as of course he must be, it's two women, Laurel and Brub's wife Sylvia who rely on their suspicions.  Sylvia especially recognizes something amiss about Dix.  I couldn't help but think about the stories we've all heard recently amid the #metoo movement from women who have had to rely on their instincts to protect themselves from violence and harassment.  When something about a man seems off, those instincts can be self-preserving.  As determined as Brub is, it seems right that it's his wife whose imagination is well-honed enough to recognize who Dix really is.

Chloe's Top 10 of 2017

Year two of fifty books and blogging is in the books, and while I didn't quite blog everything I read, I came close (I omitted a handful of YA novels that I now kind of wish I'd done, but I waited too long and couldn't come up with anything good to say). I met my goal of more women (37/50!) and a few more authors of color (I can definitely afford some growth here). As I get older and farther away from school, I notice that nonfiction appeals more and more. Reading is still a luxury and an escape, but it also has become basically my primary source of information. Moving from New Yorker articles to full-blown books was a big jump, but it's one I've enjoyed. More nonfiction in 2018, perhaps! I continue to find that writing about reading is a fabulous way to process and remember what I read; I've loved being able to refer back to two years' worth of reviews when recommending books to friends. Here (in no particular order) are some of my favorites from this year:

  • A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Okay, I said in no particular order, but this was the best book I read this year. The characters were fabulous, it was beautifully paced, and it made me think and cry and laugh. Everyone should read this book. 
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Multigeneration spanning novels often feel awkwardly paced, but this one (and Wilkerson Sexton's for that matter) was artfully done. Her prose is so powerful and her ability to interweave storylines incredible.
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Men Explain to Me by Rebecca Solnit: I've always loved essays as a genre, but I've never been big on collections of essays (at least read in one go). Both of these books blew me away. Solnit can expound on a theme better than anyone I know and her phrasing is so gorgeous that her extreme whiteness can be forgiven. 
  • Only The Little Bone by David Huddle: This wasn't so much a novel as a loosely held together collection of vignettes, but it was hauntingly beautiful. I've picked it up a few times since reading it just to re-read the last few pages. 
  • The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg: This is the only graphic novel I read this year (surprising for me!), but it was really fantastic. Feminist fables deserve more airtime, and Greenberg has spun a handful of really beautiful ones here. As is often the case with really good graphic novels (and regular novels too, I guess...), she walks the line between tragic and comic really well, and her drawings are whimsical and pulled the whole thing together. 
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: This was a re-read, but I had almost forgotten how beautiful Ondaatje's prose is. I lost myself in this book more than any other I read this year, and it made me want to read more of him.
  • Shrill by Lindy West: God, this woman is funny. I laughed out loud in public several times reading this, but I also actually literally cried at least three times. I made my husband read it, and I tried to make my dad read it (probably a mistake). This would be have been poignant and relevant a few years ago, but in the era of Trump and Weinstein it felt especially important.
  • The Brothers Vonnegut by Ginger Strand: This wasn't particularly earth-shattering or mind blowing, but it was a really well-written, engaging piece of non-fiction. I tend to like my non-ficiton sciencey, and this struck just the right balance of science, social history, and biography. 
  • Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward: Ward writes gorgeous, heart-wrenching fiction, so it's no surprise that her memoir followed suit. This was a tough read, but an important one. 
Honorable Mention:
  • Expecting Better by Emily Oster: This was probably the most helpful book I read this year. It was rational and calming and was basically my bible throughout my pregnancy. 
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: This is one of my top ten favorite books of all time, so it seems like cheating to leave it off the list, but it also was not a new discovery (or re-discovery), so I kept it down here. 
2018 is going to bring with it a new addition to the Pinkerton household whose demands may make reading (or at least writing about reading) hard, but I'm going to naively aim for fifty again and see what happens.

I'm extra grateful to my book club who brought me three of these favorites and provides me with badass lady thoughts and insights on a monthly basis. 

Also...shout out to my sister who gifted me 2/10 of my favorites this year, and who is 1/3 people who actually read my blog posts!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Symposium by Muriel Spark

I've read 5 or 6 Spark books now, and I never cease to be amazed at how cold she is to her characters. Not just in the way that many authors are mean, putting characters through their plot-required paces for some grand purpose. Rather, Spark treats so many--maybe most--of those who people who novels with barely contained contempt. A particularly worthy supporting character may earn pity. Unless you're Fleur Talbot, if you find yourself in a Spark story, prepare to get the sharp end of the stick. Everything is fair game: appearance, weight, intelligence, dreams, naivete, being too kind, not being kind enough. Anyway.

And Symposium is definitely not a kinder breed. Bookended by a dinner party involving all the novel's principals, it's a nasty, intermittently funny piece of work that delights in tearing the characters to shreds. To a man or woman, everyone--Hurley Reed, philistine painter; Lord and Lady Suzy, crushing boors;  the Utzingers, mutually involved in a bisexual cuckold; the Sykes, who I don't actually recall; and Margaret and William Damien, cheery, wealthy newlyweds--has something singularly unpleasant to hide or to flaunt.

The conversation at the dinner party is dominated by the unbearable Lord Suzy, who is quite distressed that the burglars who robbed his house also peed on the walls ("It feels like a rape", he says repeatedly, uncomfortably) and we are mercifully pulled from the dinner part to the weeks before, where we get background on everyone, but most especially Margaret Damien, the closest thing the book has to a protagonist.

Margaret is unlucky, always in the vicinity when bad things happen, and, tired of the blame, she's decided to get a piece of the action, by way of poisoning her new mother-in-law. How we get to this point is a masterful exercise in spare but clever plotting, spanning Italy to a convent with unusally profane and media-saavy nuns.

And is this funny? Well, sometimes. But much like The Finishing School, the mood here is so bleak and unsympathetic that you can hardly read for the characters, so the plot, twisting and unfolding, is the real draw. I laughed at the cursing nun, but what is one to make of a story in which everyone is a fool, and the last event is the only decent character being murdered by Suzy's gang of roving burglars? The tragedy is the irony, as Margaret is once again close to ground zero without being the bomb--but I can't say I really laughed.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I slide open a glass door and go onto Lou’s balcony. I’ve never seen San Francisco from so high up: it’s a soft blue-black, with colored lights and fog like gray smoke. Long piers reach out into the flat dark bay. There’s a mean wind, so I run in for my jacket and then come back out and curl up tightly on a white plastic chair. I stare at that view until I start to get calm. I think, The world is actually huge. That’s the part no one can really explain.

A Visit From the Goon Squad initially turned me off because of the guitar on the cover. It's silly, perhaps, but my experience with books that prominently feature rock and roll has been that they tend to be goofy pangyrics aimed straight at baby boomers. And the fictional songs... they make Lost's You All Everybody look like I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

But the acclaim Jennifer Egan's novel got everywhere convinced me to pick it up, and its accessible writing sucked me right in when I finally started it. That, and the opening section, about a cynical pickpocket named Sasha. I was immediately impressed at Egan's ability to sketch out a believable character quickly--a real benefit for a novel with as many wide-ranging characters and stories as this one has.

As the cover indicates, music does play a large role. Most of the players who get their own sections are connected in some way to a band called The Flaming Dildos, a band fronted by Bennie Salazar and his enigmatic friend, Scotty. But in reality, the book really works in practice more like a collection of short stories revolving around a recurring cast, of which Sasha, Scotty, and Bennie form only a small part. They're joined by a skeezy record executive safari-ing in Africa, a closeted gay football player in rural America, and dozens of others.

If there's a recurring theme in these stories, which jump in time between the 70s and the near future (maybe 2020 or so) and place (Africa, New York, Italy), it's the way time has a way of changing, crushing, flattening out, and sometimes, rarely, even fulfilling dreams. I won't lie--a lot of the characters have arcs that end in less than cheery places. There is a technique, which seems to me to be uniquely Sparkian, where Egan will sometimes spell out a character's entire future in the middle of a story that ends when they're still a teenager. In a way, this is depressing--learning that a bright young teen grows up to commit suicide at 20, or that a young girl ends up hooked on crack has a way of bringing a reader down--but at the same time, Egan skillfully uses this narrative irony to highlight the eternality of the good moment that is currently happening. Whatever happens going forward, those shining moments can't be snuffed out.

There's also the recurring question of image. Is Scotty an amazing guitarist or a burnout? Is Sasha a housewife or a wild child? Is a Mugabe-like dictator really so evil, or is it all a matter of perspective? And does it matter?

And if Dolly could get people to ask [if he was dating a starlet], the general’s image problems would be solved. It didn’t matter how many thousands he’d slaughtered—if the collective vision of him could include a dance floor, all that would be behind him.

And there is a hope, something just out of the grasp of these characters, elucidated near the end by Bix, who will go on to a reasonably happy ending himself:

“We’re going to meet again in a different place,” Bix says. “Everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find. Or they’ll find us.” “Where? How?” Drew asks. Bix hesitates, like he’s held this secret so long he’s afraid of what will happen when he releases it into the air. “I picture it like Judgment Day,” he says finally, his eyes on the water. “We’ll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form. We’ll meet in that new place, all of us together, and first it’ll seem strange, and pretty soon it’ll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost.”

Finally, Visit includes a lot of structural play--there's a chapter that's a clear piss-take/homage to David Foster Wallace, complete with endnotes that are longer than the text. There's a section, surpsingly affecting, that takes the form of a Powerpoint presentation. There's a chapter in 2nd person. But in all the play, Egan never loses the emotional thread of the stories she tells. And that's a lot more rare than finding someone who can put together a tricky sentence.

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig

--I'm sorry it's over.
--So what, I'll tell you another one.
--No, it's not that.  You're going to laugh at what I'm going to tell you.
--Let's have it.
--I'm sorry because I've attached to the characters.  And now it's all over, and it's just like they died.
--So, Valentin, you too have a little bit of a heart.
--It has to come out some place... weakness, I mean.
--It's not weakness, listen.
--Funny how you can't get along without becoming attached to something... It's... as if the mind had to secrete affection without stopping...
--You think so?
--...same way your stomach secretes juices for digestion.
--You really think so?
--Sure, like a leaky faucet.  And those drops continue dripping on anything, they can't be turned off.

Two men share a cell in an Argentine prison.  One, Valentin, is a young revolutionary who has given his life to the Marxist cause.  The other, Molina, is a gay windowdresser who often slips into describing himself as a woman.  They are an unlikely pair, but thrown into the cell they form a connection, you might say because they have no one else to connect to.  But that's not quite right: they form a connection because the cell, though a place where a grave injustice is committed upon each of them, is a self-contained world in which they are free to discover each other unencumbered by the obligations or social pressures that circumscribe them in the outside world.

Kiss of the Spider Women is written almost entirely in dialogue.  Most of that dialogue is Molina recounting to Valentin, with a detailed memory and a sense of flair, movies that he has seen.  It's through these films that Molina and Valentin process their own ideas of themselves, and come to know each other.

It's a brilliant setup that succeeds because the films that Puig invents are generally gripping.  The first is a supernatural thriller in which a woman enters into a sexless marriage because of an old legend that her ancestors turn into panthers when they kiss a man.  This film lets Puig explore the contours of both Molina and Valentin's sexuality, and foregrounds the hope and dangers of sex as a transformative experience.  (This is echoed by Molina's obsession with the films themselves, which offer a kind of transformation-by-proxy, which is passed on to Valentin as well.)  The second is a beautiful romantic drama that alienates Valentin because it is also a thinly-veiled piece of Nazi propaganda.  Molina doesn't care; its beauty is his highest principle, but Valentin cares quite a bit.  It's easy to share Valentin's disappointment when the movie is over because we, too, are drawn into the synopsis.

Puig slowly introduces more elements.  At times he reports the characters' thoughts in the middle of their dialogue; and he includes, footnote-style, a strange synopsis of the medical arguments surrounding the source of homosexual behavior.  A coda at the end is framed as a secret police report.  The novel overall is a masterpiece of control; Puig seems to know exactly when and how to tinker with the minimalism we're made to expect.  But there's never any real narrative, and the distance that creates permits us to appreciate scenes whose physicality otherwise might be alienating: when Molina helps clean off Valentin, whom has become very sick and defecated himself, or the moment when the two men have sex for the first time.

Kiss of the Spider Woman does become a gay romance, but a lucid and clear-eyed one. It neither asks us to believe that Molina drags Valentin out of some closet, nor dismisses Valentin's choice as one of expediency or desperation.  It asks us to imagine the way in which emotional and spiritual connections can become physical ones, and the way in which those connections can transform us in ways that defy our narrower conventions. 

Brent's Top 10 of 2017

Like the last couple years, finding reading time in 2017 was often a challenge. But I tried to read more women and POC this year, and it was rewarding. It was really my theology reading that kept me from closer parity--I guess finding good women writing about God is a priority for next year. My favorite books, though, reflect the type of diversity I'd like to aim for on the whole next year.

I certainly didn't expect to have a year where Marilynne Robinson didn't make my top ten, but besides Home being a weaker effort, this was just a really solid year of reading. Without further ado, and in no particular order:

Yaa Gyasi
The multigenerational, continent-spanning novel really took me by surprise with its scope and ambition. In spite of an ending that didn't quite pull everything together, it was one of the most compelling books I read this year.

Alice Munro
My third Munro book and by far the best, every story in this book is fantastic. It's cliche to say so, but reading a good Munro story is  like reading a novel in 1/10th of the time.

Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee
In another year, I doubt this would have made the top ten; in a year when everyone I grew up respecting somehow justified voting for Donald Trump, Scout wrestling with whether or not Atticus was a good man carried some extra weight.

Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison
I can't believe it took me so long to read this. Without question one of the greatest novels I've ever read on a stylistic level, its a tour de force that sucks you in and makes you feel every racially-charged page.

A More Christlike God
Brad Jersak
I intentionally kept this list theology-lite, but this was the book that finally turned me away from the angry-God theology I grew up with and introduced me to the Gospel in Chairs which radically reoriented my perspective. I'll always be thankful I read this book.

Patrick White
I don't know if I can say that I deeply loved Voss. But then, it's a hard book to love. Still, it's so singular and fantastic (in all senses of the word) it could hardly miss the list. Also: the hardest thing I read in 2017.

Under the Net
Iris Murdoch
This is the movie the Coens never made. It somehow wrings poignancy out of absurdity, and was probably the most fun I had with a book this year.

The Medusa Frequency
Russell Hoban
I know Chris is going to jump on me for choosing this over the likely-superior Kleinzeit, but this one got me in the gut in a way Kleinzeit didn't. They almost seem like sister books, with their twinned preoccupations. Hoban is such a gift.

The Towers of Trezibond
Rose Macauley
It's hard to imagine a book more tailor made for my interests. Macauley's mashup of travelogue, theology treatise, and madcap adventure story works wonders, and turns on a dime near the end to become something else entirely.

Brighton Rock
Graham Greene
My favorite Greene is The Power and the Glory, but Brighton Rock might be even more singular. Far darker than anything else of Greene's I've read, this is a bracing examination of evil and God, and who's really in charge. Spoiler: the answers aren't at the end.

And that's another year in the books! Thanks so much to everyone who participated, especially Chloe who absolutely killed it with her reviews. And here's an ever better 2018!