What I’ve Been Reading – America, Hipsters, Pigs, and Messed-up Childhoods

Good books last month.  Let’s get to it!

Twenty-Five Books that Shaped AmericaThomas C. Foster : I’m a sucker for punishment, because as I read this book, I berated myself for not having read – or heard of – some of these books.  Foster does acknowledge that this is a personal list; there is no Great American Novel (he discusses that at the end) and there are perhaps hundreds to thousands more books that others would say better are suited to this list.  It’s a fairly ridiculous task to choose only twenty-five.

Besides doubling my “books to read” list, the book also had a defined thesis.  Foster focused on books that he believes have changed our country’s consciousness.  That is, they made how we look at ourselves, those around us, and the land in a whole different way.  These list spans from the early days of America when Ben Franklin created a new American individual in his autobiography to more recent literary history with views on memory and innocence embedded in To Kill a Mockingbird and the wandering restlessness of youth of On the Road.

To top it all off, this book was written with a witty and engaging tone that made it easy to read.  Spoilers do abound within, though, so beware!

Franny and ZooeyJ.D. Salinger : I know a few people who call this their favorite book.  I started it multiple times, but never got past the “Franny” section.  Finally, on an airplane, I devoured it.  The characters are terrible and selfish, too intelligent for society.  You can’t like any of them.  And yet, they ask the questions.  They realize how screwed up they are.  They blame everyone, they blame themselves.

Zooey is cynical.  Franny is depressed and cynical.  Both miss their dead brother, both know they are too smart to function in the “real world.”  And Franny is going through some sort of a crisis of faith.  This book reminds me of so many things: the hipster culture, built on irony.  The movie The Royal Tenebaums, another dysfunctional and overly intelligent family.  And Ecclesiastes – “everything is meaningless.”

This book really got me down, but in the best way possible.  And then the final pages come, and man, are they good.  Man oh man oh man.  Redemption and meaning revolve around these words: “don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? … Ah, buddy.  Ah, buddy.  It’s Christ Himself.  Christ Himself, buddy.”

All is GraceBrennan Manning : I had too much to say about this book.  I’ll post it tomorrow.

The Good Good Pig Sy Montgomery : This was the first book I read for The Book Group Without a Name.  It was chosen by my good friend, Jere, who loves animals with every fiber of her being. I only love animals if a) they’re babies or b) they belong to me.  I know that’s ageist, but it’s the way it is, folks. I do have a great love for pigs, though.  Don’t ask me why; it’s beyond me, at this point.

The author, Sy Montgomery, has traveled all over the world to research and write about animals.  In other words, she’s insane.  I admire her single-mindedness, her knowledge of her bliss, and her ability to just go and do.  I wish I could have those similar qualities, though I’d prefer to travel to places minus tarantulas.  But this book is about home: what it means, how to create it, how to love it.

The book isn’t totally about Montgomery’s relationship with her pig, affectionately named Christopher Hogwood.  It is also about how that relationship changed her relationships with her community.  Chris gave her a reason to stay, to find bliss at home in the normalcy of life, when she wasn’t traipsing through the Amazon.  And Sy learned how to communicate with children and others who lived around her through the quirks of this pig.  I know what it’s like to feel disconnected from people and unable to relate (read: every party I’ve ever been to), and I enjoy seeing others find a connection.  I use media—television, movies, books—to relate to people.  She used a pig.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and MeIan Morgan Cron : This book came highly recommended to me, and we now know, thanks to David Mitchell, how ruinous high expectations can be.  For that reason, I didn’t quite connect with it on the transcendental level, but regardless, it’s a beautiful book.  Just look at that title!

I’m attending a Quaker church right now, and I absolutely love it except for one thing.  I miss Communion.  I miss the Eucharist and the sacrament of baptism.  I love the egalitarian focus of the Friends Church, but there is an element of my soul that is really filled by tradition and ritual.  Cron would understand that, having an intense connection with Christ during his First Communion, and his communication of that experience is absolutely gorgeous.  He speaks for every individual who felt a tangible connection with the divine as a child and either feels strange because it continued or sad because it was lost.

The best part of this book is chapter 17.  I just re-read the chapter, and it is fantastic.  In my mind, it has a perfect tone, moves at a lovely pace, is a great length.  The penultimate chapter shows the continued struggle of a broken man who is now a father, as he realizes his choices impact his children for good or for ill.  The climax and then denoument is purely lovely.  I am in love with this chapter.  If you simply pick up this book and read chapter 17, do it.  Which I’m ruining for you now, because I’m building up your expectations too high.  Too bad.  I don’t care.  It’s beautiful and perfect.

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