Monday, February 20, 2017

The Best of What I Read in 2016

            I keep lists: of ancestors, of sermons I’ve preached, of places I’ve been to, and of books I’ve read. I am not sure why lists appeal to me, but when the time comes to reminisce they are handy for jogging my memory. I track my books on And so, without further ado, here are the books I read in 2016 that I don’t want to forget.

            Where We Came From: My ongoing fascination with human evolution was enriched by Svante Pääbo’s Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. Pääbo’s book is a memoir about how he fell in love with genomics, and how his team eventually became the first to sequence the Neanderthal and Denosivan genomes. While the book does get a bit technical from time to time, Pääbo is able, for the most part, to describe the science in terms understandable to lay people.
The inside look at the politics of science is a reminder that Washington and Ottawa are not the only places to find politics. The book feels, in some ways, like a road trip where you know the destination and can’t wait to get there. Hands down, the best science book I’ve read in years—and I’ve read quite a few.

            Science Fiction! Several of my favorite books were science fiction. Two African American women writers were my hands down favorites. The first was N. K. Jemisin, who wrote, The Fifth Season trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Broken Earth. Her books encouraged me, as a reader, to reconsider systemic racism and personal prejudice by making the point of contention not skin color, but unique but not widely-shared human gifts and skills. The turns of plot are both surprising and believable, the Earth Jemisin creates is detailed and exotic, and the key characters are well-developed.

            The other author—perhaps the best I read all year—was Nnedi Okorafor. Her novella Binti reminded me, a bit, of Margaret Atwood at her best as a stylist—as when Atwood’s poetic chops spill over into her prose. Okorafor’s writing is also near-poetic and subtly engages all of the reader’s senses with compelling descriptions of characters, their looks, their smells, and their families. I’m looking forward to reading the Novella’s full-length follow up, which was published in late January, 2017.

            Modern Media Tech and Its Casualties. My PHD was in Speech Communication, and during those studies I became fascinated with how different speech, reading and writing arts and technologies demand different kinds of intellectual equipment. People in oral societies with low literacy develop fascinating ways of communicating via spoken word and other media that are quite different from societies where books are front and centre. High literate societies, on the other hand, are very different than those where screens predominate. I explore this in my own book, Not Sure.        
            Adam Gazzaley’s The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World is pure gold for parents, teachers, preachers, and university students who want to understand what is going on in their brains, and the brains of their wired audiences. I found the book’s structure—one half given over to neuroscience, and the other half to explaining its consequences—a bit off-putting. And the book is dense. But the effort it took to read was richly rewarded with deepened understanding of a technological change that is still sweeping over us. A good companion to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and a look under the brain’s hood for those who want to understand why it is that we entertain ourselves to death.

            Behind the Trump Phenomenon: Two books that provided very helpful background for understanding Trump’s victory and white Evangelical Christian support for him were Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and Robert Jones' The End of White Christian America. Isenberg focusses on how America was built on the backs of poor immigrants such as indentured servants, jail parolees, as well as slaves. She traces out the generational poverty of this sort of deep-family-history, and it isn’t pretty. Jones shows how the structures of Christian religion, both mainline and conservative, have often worked against racial justice, inclusiveness, and an honest appraisal of why things are the way they are.

            Memoirs: When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of the author’s long illness with cancer, up to just before his death. Paul Kalanithi is a neurosurgeon struggling to finish his residency and keep his marriage afloat. He’s a good man and his story, as sad as it ends, is also inspiring. I was fascinated by the role religion played in his life, even though he doesn’t dwell on it. With several doctors in my own extended family, the description of the grind Paul had to go through as a resident was sobering and sad. But I came to love this man, even if only from a great distance.
            Stefan Hertmans wrote an inventive memoir about his grandfather titled War and Turpentine. I was impressed and often moved by the way Hertman’s described the social and familial traps his grandfather had to navigate. The grandfather’s diary of his time as a soldier in Flanders Fields serves as the non-fiction basis for this book. But Hertman then adds his own fictional gloss to the story in order to make a truer portrait rise and shine. The aching pains from long ago that marked his grandfather’s life is given great prominence here, and encourages all readers to be sensitive to the hurts they or others struggle with too. The book includes some very compelling descriptions of First World War battles, as well.

            Written in English: As an old English major, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of English—and by extension, the evolution of language. John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English focusses on the impact of Celtic and Norse grammars on English grammar, and the reasons why this sort of influence is often missed in “history of languages.” I know. It is hard to imagine that this might be scintillating. But it is! Language is a window on so much more. His takedown of the Sapir Whorff hypothesis is marvelous. His speculation that Phoenician traders may be the source of up to a third of proto Germanic words that are not Indo-European is really fascinating.

            Fiction: I read many novels that were not sci-fi, but my favorite was Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. This slim work is part mystery, part gripping yarn, and part parable. The protagonist, Tony, reflects on what he has made of his rather empty life. I resonated with his doubts and disappointments. The ending, though, is a big surprise, one that Barnes has carefully laid the groundwork for so that it is also totally believable.

            Theology: As a minister and theologian, I’ve read (a nearly) countless number of books about the meaning of life and basic theological questions like, “Is there a god?” and “if so (or not) so what?” The best of a dozen I read this past year—if not in style, then in terms of offering a helpful overview of more liberal perspectives—was David Ray Griffen’s God Exists but Gawd Does Not.
             This is a book about Process Theology, deeply rooted in the work of Alfred North Whitehead. Griffen describes the “Gawd,” of classical theism, as one who sits on a throne and interferes in the world on behalf of some but not others. He contrasts this concept of Gawd to Process Theology’s God. He nailed much of what eventually made me uncomfortable with the sort of God that I was raised with. His explanation of the Process alternative, however, was less compelling.

            New Amsterdam Dutch: I couldn’t put Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Centre of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America down. A great deal of American political and social culture is partly rooted in how the Dutch set the table at Manhattan. From the Declaration of Independence, to the Bill of Rights; from pluralism to religious freedom, the Dutch experiment in New York informed the nascent American psyche, and sometimes for the better. I read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton a few months later, and I couldn’t help but note how often Shorto’s book shed light on Chernow’s.