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Books I Read Over the Summer (2012)

September 3, 2012

Title says it all. These aren't necessarily book reviews or summaries, just a list of the books and some quick thoughts on what I read over the summer. Tomorrow I start teaching again, at a new school and with new preps, plus I am now enrolled in graduate school, so it maybe a while before I have any freedom on my reading lists, even some of the books below were chosen for me. Please add your comments, ask questions, debate, or add your own recommendations. (Note, the list is in the order in which the books were read): 

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin (2009)

The stories in this book felt uneven, or rather they felt too consistent, at times making it feel as if the same narrative was being repeated over and over again, which may have been Mueenuddin's intent.  That being said, there was a Salman Rushdie meets James Joyce quality to how the book dissected a Pakistan in midst of great, if not rapid, social change. The first story "Nawabdin Electrician" sticks out because it is one of the few stories in the collection that does not center around a love story but around random acts of violence. I also should point out that I went into this book looking for material to supplement a Middle East literature unit for tenth grader only to find most of the stories would not work with that age group, and from that disappointment probably stems most of my "disappointment" with the book.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

Because of the Sean Penn film and the number of English classes for which this book is a part of the syllabus, I don't think I really need to say much about it other than I think it serves as a nice complement to the other summer reading books my fellow teachers and I assigned. The other two titles center around stories of immigrants who find salvation, real or imagined, in the confines of America, while Into the Wild offers up the journey of a Chris McCandless who in many ways tries to escape the privilege he was born into and that so many immigrants seek.

Canada by Richard Ford (2012)

Good book, especially for the voice of its narrator. See this previously written article for more details.

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin (2000)

I started this book before last school year ended. Having read the first two in the series earlier in the Spring, I was riding a wave of momentum, as well as trying to stay a few chapters ahead of the television series that so many of my students wanted to discuss on Monday mornings. That being said, this book crushed the momentum developed earlier in the series. Martin foreshadows everything so I can't exactly say he has no plan, but the Red Wedding was devastating for me as a reader because Martin essentially created a Gordian knot in the first two books and then introduces a few convenient magical spells and some curses to alleviate himself of having to figure out what to do with all the kings he the author spent two books crowning. I am now trudging through A Feast for Crows, literally only reading it while sitting on the toilet constipated.

You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin (2010)

Until the last fifty to seventy pages, I was ready to praise this book as everything that John Frandzen's Freedom could have or should have been. Personally, I thought Frandzen's book became too bogged down in its political views, its aims to shock and awe through gratuity, and the sheer size of its narrative. Baldwin even executes a similar plot stunt as Frandzen's book, published in 2011, by having a husband rediscover his marriage by reading it from his wife's perspective. The end of You Lost Me There is not a bad one and it does not unravel the book, but I found it perhaps too quiet. Still, this was his first and it made me want to read his second book, a nonfiction account of his time in Paris.

Young Mandela: The Revolutionary Years by James David Smith (2010)

If you search this book on the internet, some questions about Smith's research practices, his reliance on gossip and hearsay, and his motives are raised, and as a reader, you will find yourself asking them as well. But I do not think these issues subtract from the book's greatest strengths, which are to paint a smaller, more intimate picture of an iconic figure. This book does well to capture the fact that a figure such as Mandela is not always an icon to his own wives, children, and grandchildren. I do not think these negatives decrease the stature of the man, but reveal that like most people who dedicate themselves to a job or some higher purpose that dedication takes time away from other interests, including one's family. People can question his ethics--he was quite the womanizer--but such flaws do not negate that on his shoulders the modern South Africa was built, proving that perhaps vanity is a necessary quality for some martyrs and leaders to accomplish the tasks that benefit all of humanity.

Arkansas by John Brandon (2008)

I ordered the John Brandon bundle through McSweeny's, after it turned out my local library does not carry any of his books, and decided to read them in the order of their publication. I had a lot of expectations for Arkansas because the praise for it compared Brandon to all of the following: Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and the Coen Brothers. And while he lacks the raw Biblical power of McCarthy or Faulkner and the ability to create farce in the manner of Twain or the Coens, the comparisons are not far off. Arkansas is a great first book, especially if you have ever lived in or visited the South for an extended period of time. I can not wait to read Citrus County and A Million Heavens.

Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss (2012)

The cover makes this book look like it was printed in another decade. Just a name on the front. No picture. I read it at the beach, while on vacation with my wife's conservative father and brother-in-law. Both of whom asked me about the book, wondering either why I was reading it or looking for some way to judge the book politically, but as Maraniss makes clear in the introduction, this book is not about Obama's politics but about how his personality was shaped, hoping that this dissection of the man's identity will then lend itself to understanding for both his supporters and his detractors.

The future President does not appear in his own biography until the seventh chapter and the book ends before he enters Harvard Law School and that's the genius of David Maraniss. He is a master historian and researcher who crafts paragraphs as if he were a novelist and without even involving Obama's greatest achievements he portrays the President as lightning in a bottle (a figure of speech that can be taken in many different directions); the result of long-developing weather patterns, trapped within the confines of how a nation and its individuals handle race, class, geography, and globalism.

I cannot say this book will make those who oppose Obama as a President change their political paradigms--and that's not the author's intent--but I do think this book helps to demystify the President and demonstrate that there are multiple paths to the office other than being born of politicians and wealth--because considering the roots on both sides of his family, Obama's rise to the Presidency is all the more unfathomable than most of us give it credit, going well beyond his being an African-American. But, as with Maraniss' other books, these pages are more than one individual's biography but an account of all American society and how the world works.

After reading Maraniss' biography on Vince Lombardi and now this, I will read anything he writes, because he's proven to me that he can make me understand myself and my country better for his ability to capture entire eras of history--as if netting the stars--as well as his courage not to shy away from the complexities and contradictions that exist in the lives of every individual and place.

Forbidden City by William Bell (1990)

This book is a quick-hitting young adult novel. I read it because it is on the tenth grade reading list. I think it will be an exciting book to teach, but unless you deal with adolescents I'm not sure I would recommend it. Also, am I the only one who finds it strange that we're trying to pass this book off as Asian literature at school? I mean, Bell is a white Canadian.

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon (1995)

My affection for Michael Chabon has been documented on LCB before. I saw the movie back in the '90s, but his crafting of sentences made this a completely different experience. For anyone who's ever thought about what it is like to write a novel then I would say pick up this book. Also, what's interesting about this second novel of his is how is serves as a bridge for how he got from The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and everything else that followed.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2000)

Again, another book I had to read because it serves as part of the tenth grade curriculum, and I don't want to completely bash it because it has some very teachable moments; but it reads like a Disney Channel sitcom trying to detail the oppression of Iran's Muslim Revolution. Satrapi often comes off as a spoiled brat, Americanized without having ever been to America, which probably shouldn't be the case considering the setting. Something about it just doesn't ring true in how, and to be honest, I think the hollow tone of the work is because of the genre in which it is rendered: it's a graphic novel when it would have been more powerful as a traditional novel.


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