Reading List, February 2013—My Last (And Next) Five Books

I’m back on track with reading now, hopefully. As you’ll see, Christmas threw a big, and welcome, wrench into my reading list.

My last five books, in order of completion:

2115402141: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. It’s my Christmas tradition. This year I put it off until the last moment, and didn’t start reading it until I went to bed on Christmas Eve. But that didn’t diminish this classic one bit.

I’m not sure what I can say about this story that hasn’t been said many times before, except that I did wonder about one thing. After Marley’s Ghost had visited Scrooge and warned him of three more spirits, the first to come 1 a.m. the next day, Scrooge woke up at 12 and it was dark outside.

Twelve! It was past two when he went to bed. The clock was wrong. An icicle must have got into the works. Twelve!

He touched the spring of his repeater, to correct this most preposterous clock. It’s rapid little pulse beat twelve: and stopped.

“Why, it isn’t possible,” said Scrooge, “that I can have slept through a whole day and far into another night…

What is this “repeater” thing he has? Sounds pretty cool, whatever it is. I wish I lived in the high-tech days of the early 19th century.

FARTHER AWAYBy: Jonathan Franzen.2: Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen. This is a collection of essays, speeches and criticism from Franzen over the last few years. Oddly, the pieces are presented in reverse chronological order, but it works, in part because the first one in the book, and therefore the most recent, his 2011 commencement address at Kenyon College, serves as an introduction for the rest. I mentioned one of the essays here.

Franzen has written several nonfiction books along with his novels. I tend to look forward to the fiction more than the nonfiction, for some reason, but I really enjoyed reading this one. If nothing else, he offered up a lot of suggestions for future reading.

Casual_Vacancy3. The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling. Perhaps you’ve heard of J.K. Rowling. She’s written a few books that have received  moderate attention in some circles. But those were all kids’ books. The Casual Vacancy is definitely not a kid’s book. Although, interestingly, the adolescents in this book are the most well-developed characters. The adults, for the most part, are fairly cartoonish, and only the kids are really fleshed out.

This is a book about politics. And I don’t mean electoral politics, although an election is a central part of the story; I mean the politics of rich and poor, the haves and have-nots. It’s also a very English book, much more so than I remember from the Harry Potter series, although it’s been a few years since I read those books. Between all the British idioms and the large number of characters, it took me a hundred pages to really get rolling in this book—but that’s OK, because it’s more than 500 pages long.

This was one of four books I received for Christmas. The holiday really shook up my reading plans for January … in a very good way.

PreacherKing4. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. And The Word That Moved America, by Richard Lischer. This was a fascinating book. Not a biography per se, but an examination of the evolution of King’s preaching and speaking style, beginning with his tutelage under his father, who was also a pastor in Atlanta. It chronicles King Jr’s education in rhetoric and theology, and the many pastors and professors, in addition to his father, who influenced him. And it details how his message changed from one of identification in the 1950s and early 1960s to one of more confrontation in his last few years. Throughout, though, he always insisted on a strategy of nonviolence for the movement.

This book was some pretty serious stuff. So while I read it, I was simultaneously reading the next book on this list. In terms of balance, it actually worked out quite well, and I finished both of them on the same day.

Dogfight5. Dogfight, by Calvin Trillin. The blurb on the cover calls this book “laugh out loud.” I normally hate that adjective, because it’s almost never true. For this book, though, it fit. It’s a look at the entire 2012 election campaign (stretching back to 2011, of course), but all told in verse.

Some—OK, a lot—of the rhymes are pretty strained. But that’s part of the charm of the book. There were probably dozens of lines in this book that provoked audible guffaws from me, so the cover blurb was accurate. Just one example:

And Bachman, still the faithfuls’ faithful fighter,
Emerged as Palin lite—or even liter.


Now, time for my best (but inevitably wrong) guess at the next five books I’ll be reading:

1. The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard. Found this on the bargain list in the Kindle store a couple of days ago. Among other things, it’s set in Provincetown, Mass., and I have a great longing for a taste of Provincetown right now.

2. One Heart, by Elie Wiesel. Recommended by my friend Anne the last time I did one of these lists. Hey folks, if you recommend books to me, I pay attention!

3. We Can All Do Better by Bill Bradley. Another Christmas gift, and, after pretty much taking a break from serious politics (Dogfight doesn’t count) I’m ready to get back at it.

4. Are You Happy Now, by Richard Babcock. Another novel purchased from the Kindle bargain book bin.

5. Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey. This has been on my list for a long time, and I really wanted to read it before Musial passed away. Obviously, I didn’t. Maybe this time.


Previous ‘Five Books’ Lists on Shoulblog:

Reading List, December 2012

Reading List, May 2012

Reading List, January 2012

Reading List, October 2011

Reading List, December 2012: My Last (And Next) Five Books

It’s been way too long since my last Five Books list. But it’s been a crazy-busy last few months, and for a while there my reading seemed to have just fallen off a cliff. But hopefully I’m back on track now. So herewith, are the last five books I’ve read, and a semi-wild guess at the next five.

The Submission1) The Submission, by Amy Waldman. I wrote about this book here, and I still feel it’s one of the best novels I’ve read recently. The story involves a selection jury for a memorial to go at Ground Zero on lower Manhattan.The entry process is anonymous, and the winner turns out to be Muslim. The resulting uproar will be all too familiar if you look back at the “Ground Zero Mosque” flap from a couple of years ago.

After The Submission, things got a little scrambled. I had several books going at a time for a while there, and it seemed like I wouldn’t get through any of them. I finished one, but then the Summer Olympics happened, an election happened, and my reading stalled. Once October rolled around, I was able to get back on track and finish some books. Here they are, in the order I completed them.

the-greatest-prayer-crossan2) The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan. This probably isn’t one I  would have chosen on my own, but it was selected by our minister for a Vacation Bible School summer reading study.

The “greatest prayer” refers to the Lord’s Prayer, and the book dissects the prayer, line by line, to examine the meaning of the individual sections as well as the prayer as a whole.  The book’s prologue calls it “a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth.”

That sums it up pretty well, I think.

Anyway, it was an interesting read and an enlightening discussion.

divine providence3) Divine Providence by Charles Camillo. It has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with the flood of 2011, and the Corps of Engineers’ and Mississippi River Commission’s multi-layered efforts to fight it. Camillo works for the Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The division and the commission had to fight the flood from Cairo, Ill., down to the mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, and it was a harrowing battle  in each location as the record-setting crest moved downstream. For the first time in history, the Corps had three floodways operating at once—Bird’s Point in Missouri and Morganza and Bonnet Carré in Louisiana. In the end, the Corps won, but just barely.

whoIam4) Who I Am by Pete Townshend. This is one I looked forward to from the moment I first heard he was writing it. I bought it for my iPad on the day it was released, and jumped right in.

Pete Townshend, if you don’t know by now, is the guitarist and songwriter for The Who, and one of the intellectual leaders of rock music — throughout the Who’s long career, he wrote a number of commentaries, including a regular column in Melody Maker magazine and several memorable articles in Rolling Stone, among others.

In this book, he goes lays it all out, back to his childhood, his very early musical influences, the growth of the Who, the creation of Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia and their other albums, and his life during what I consider the post-Who period—although he and Roger Daltrey are actually still going strong, as evidenced by last week’s 12-12-12 concert.

As I figured I would, I loved this book. There were a lot of great surprises in it for me. But I don’t really want to go into those, because there are some important people who I know haven’t read it yet. So here are a couple of things I didn’t like about it: way too much information about his affairs and the dissolution of his marriage, and too many details about his various studio setups, particularly in recent years (I’m not a audio tech geek; he obviously is). But you can put up with those things; if you’re a Who fan, it makes a great read.


5) The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. This is actually one of the books I had started way back in June. but events got in the way. We had this in the house, and my friend Anne said it would be a great follow-up after reading To Kill A Mockingbird, so I jumped in. She was right, and it was a great book. After starting it and being unable to continue at the time, I started again from the beginning in November, and sped through it.

I did enjoy the book, and it was indeed a worthy successor to Mockingbird, although Harper Lee’s novel remains the best book I’ve read this year, and maybe ever.


Along the way, over the course of these last five books, I’ve been moonlighting with some other books, as well. There were the two audiobooks I listened to during a driving trip to Little Rock, Ark.

And I also undertook another project: I read the four gospels of the New Testament. Once or twice when I was younger, I set out to read the Bible, but I started with the Old Testament. But, as I’m sure many others did before me, I got bogged down in the begats and gave up on it. Starting with the New Testament felt much more “contemporary,” since that’s the stuff we talk about in church all the time. Contemporary goes in quotes because I was reading the King James version. As I move forward from there, I think I’ll switch over to a more modern translation (although I did enjoy the use of the verb “stinketh” in John 11). And yes, I will move forward, with Acts and on through the New Testament, and then on back to the Old Testament, unless someone wants to suggest a better plan. I’m open to suggestions of a direction to go from here, either in terms of a reading plan or for a favorite translation.


And now, I will hazard a guess at the next five books I’ll be reading:

•   Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen. I’m already about halfway through this book of essays and speeches … some great stuff so far.

•   A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. My annual rereading of the classic Christmas story.

•   The Preacher King: Martin Luther King and The Word That Moved America. A Kindle bargain book a few months ago; I’m looking forward to diving in.

•   A Month of Sundays, by John Updike. Another reread; it’s been a couple of decades since I last read this one, and some of my views have evolved a little in that time.

•   Stan Musial: An American Life, by George Vecsey. It’s been on my list for a year and a half now; this time I’m going to do it.


Previous Five-Books lists:

List: My Last—And Next—Five Books

Reading List: January 2012

Reading List, May 2012: My Last—And Next—Five Books

Reading List, May 2012: My Last—And Next—Five Books

Here we go with the latest “reading list” post, representing the last five books I’ve read. This one took a little longer than the last installment, only because I’ve been kinda busy with work, and I got bogged down a little in the science of No. 3. Still, five books in less than four months is a lot quicker than usual for me

1) Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott. Years ago, I read and enjoyed her Bird By Bird, a book about writing. This one, however, is more about religious faith and her journey to Christianity . I liked it, but found it a little too much; everything that happened, every minor coincidence, was, for Lamott, evidence of God’s plans for her. I think there are two types of people; those who see a beautiful sunrise and see evidence of the glory of God’s creation, and those who say, “Wow, what a beautiful sunrise.” She tends toward the former, I toward the latter. Still, it was an enjoyable read.

2) To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It’s embarrassing that I lived for more than 52 years in this country without reading this book. My kids have now all read it in high school. (I suppose it’s possible it was assigned at some point for me and I didn’t read it, but I don’t think so.) Anyway this is one to read in high school, and again in college … and maybe again every few years after that. I loved this book.

As an editor, I guess I’m sort of a picky reader; I sometimes get hung up on little language things that don’t bother other people at all. That said, I found this book just about perfect. I particularly liked the characterization; the kids were a lot smarter than average kids, of course, and yet there were still many things about the world that they didn’t understand, that were revealed to them over the course of the story, and it was all just right. Scout’s voice was pitch-perfect throughout.

3) Merchants Of Doubt: How A Handful Of Scientists Obscured The Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke To Global Warming, by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes. The title here pretty much gives away the plot, but it’s definitely worth reading. It begins with the “tobacco doctors” who, at the bidding of the big tobacco companies, testified before Congress to raise doubts about whether cigarette smoking is really all that harmful. The hazards were well-known in the medical and scientific community, and were pretty much “settled science,” although, as the authors of this book point out, science is never really “settled”; the nature of the discipline is to be always asking questions, always exploring. The Tobacco Doctors exploited this by putting out very narrow studies that seemed to call the previous body of work into question; for example, other factors that could be the cause of the increased cancer rates among smokers. These studies didn’t go through the same kind of rigorous peer review that previous studies had, and therefore wouldn’t be considered “scientific,” but that didn’t stop the tobacco doctors from finding friendly media—think The Wall Street Journal—to push their propaganda. American journalism and, really, society as a whole, is always looking for “the other side of the story,” to present a “balanced” view of an issue, so the Tobacco Doctors were able to push the idea that there’s “controversy” about it. And controversy can lead to doubt, which can give industry-friendly politicians cover to avoid acting on a critical issue.

It was smoking then; later it was nuclear winter, then secondhand smoke, then the ozone hole, and now, of course, climate change. There’s no “debate” about climate change among scientists now, but a few corporate-backed faux researchers—actually some of them the same people who worked for the tobacco companies—have been able to keep alive the perception of controversy by using the same methods.

A few generations from now, after the ice caps have melted and we’ve spent trillions of dollars trying to keep the rising oceans at bay, our grandchildren will wonder why we were so gullible.

4) The Art Of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. This novel popped up on all of the “Best of the Year” lists for last year. Having read it, I can see why. It’s the story of a gifted young shortstop who plays for a small Midwestern college (cool!), and seems destined to be one of the best defensive shortstops ever. But then one day one of his throws to first base inexplicably goes awry and severely injures one of his teammates. The aftermath of that play makes up the bulk of the book, and it’s an exquisitely plotted and beautifully written story. Easy to read, too; I managed to finish this book in less than the two-week checkout from the library, a real rarity for me.

If you have read it and you have an e-reader, you can get Vanity Fair’s How A Book Is Born: The Making of The Art Of Fielding. It’s a $1.99 Kindle Single about the behind-the-scenes machinations that it takes to get a book published. It was OK, but I think it promises more than it delivers.

5) Troubled Waters: 30 Years In The Barge Business, by Jack Lambert. All right, this was as much for work as for play, as it’s all about the industry I cover in my day job, and my own magazine is getting ready to do its own memoir, celebrating 125 years in business. This little (106 pages, including almost 30 pages of photographs) book covers what are perhaps the most interesting three decades of the barge industry, including the growth in the 1960s, the booming ’70s, and the bust in the ’80s. The author ran one of the barge lines that fell victim to the bust, and spares no opinions about what went wrong. It’s an interesting little read. You won’t find this little book on Amazon, but it’s published by a small publisher called Riverwise in Winona, Minn.

Crystal Ball Time

OK, that’s the last five. Here, I traditionally offer a prospective outline of the  next five books I’ll read, but it’s all a little more up in the air this time. But, based on what’s stacked on the table next to my bed, on my iPad and on my library request list, here’s a wild guess:

•   The Submission, by Amy Waldman

•   Stan Musual: An American Life, by George Vescey.

•   Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

•   The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve it, by Neal Bascomb

•   Light In August, by William Faulkner

See you at the library!

List: Top Five Musical Crimes Against Humanity

Perhaps I’m still a little cranky about the state of music these days. (That always seems to happen after one of those Super Bowl halftime shows.) But as great as rock music can be, the extraordinary heights it can deliver us to, there are also plenty of “what were they thinking” moments. Here are my top five … or perhaps “bottom five” might be a better title.

(Oh, and, starting today, I have a set of standard disclaimers regarding these Shoulblog lists. You can read it here.)

5) Thorn Tree In The Garden. The band was Derek and the Dominoes. The album was Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The star was Eric Clapton, but the band also included Duane Allman, Bobby Whitlock and other rock giants. The double album was loaded with blues-rock classics: I Looked Away, Bell Bottom Blues, Key to the Highway, Little Wing and of course, the title track, Layla, which is one of the all-time classic songs. If I ever had the gall to make one of these “top five” lists for best songs ever, Layla would probably come in at No. 2. Go see Eric Clapton in concert, and Layla is the last song he will play. It’s the perfect “last song,” the ultimate ultimate. But on this album of classic, someone had the idea of making Layla the penultimate song, following it with a soporific acoustic song called Thorn Tree In The Garden. Mind you, it’s no “Her Majesty”-like ditty thrown in for a laugh at the end.; it’s ostensibly a full-fledged song, at nearly three minutes. You spend that entire three minutes thinking, wow, what a letdown.

4) Sweet Home Alabama, with lyrics. It would have made a great instrumental, wouldn’t it?

3) I Want You To Want Me Live At Budokan. It’s a truly awful song in the first place. It’s the soundtrack for the word “insipid.” But then Cheap Trick performed it live in front of what sounds like a million screaming kids, and the wretchedness is magnified. It gets my vote for the worst song ever.

2) Spanish Moon, transferred to CD. The Little Feat double-live album Waiting For Columbus is one of the best live albums ever, with absolutely brilliant performances of all of their best songs. The song Spanish Moon  never really thrilled me in the studio version, but the live version really, well, came to life.

Musically, it’s like a bell curve: it starts small, with just the percussionist; then the drummer joins in. A few bars later, the bass player is added to the mix, then an organ and a guitar, the Tower of Power horn section, and finally the vocals. Soon the full band is grooving through the song, following the same driving rhythm established at the very beginning by the percussionist. It peaks … and then one by one, the instruments drop back out, until its just the guitar, bass and drums. The guitarist takes an extended solo, and then exits with a flourish. Same for the bass player. When he is done, it’s just the drummer—and the crowd, which is clapping along ecstatically. The drummer finishes the last few beats, and the crowd keeps clapping, in time, until it finally erupts in an enormous ovation. I can’t think of any recording that better captures the potential exuberance of a rock concert . I must have listened to it a million times on vinyl, and when CDs came about I eagerly bought a copy and put it on to play.

Except when the CD was created, I guess they had to make some compromises to go from a double album on vinyl to a single compact disc. They cut out a song or two, OK fine. But as I listened to Spanish Moon for the first time—it was the end of Side 2 on vinyl, and it’s track 9 on the CD—they faded out the ending! Of all the songs that made it onto the disc, they had to pick that one to truncate. Unbelievable. Of all of the musical crimes against humanity, that would be the most egregious, except for…

1) Let It Be, the wimpy organ version. Let it Be is indisputably one of the greatest songs in rock, a brilliant moment of clarity amid the disastrous breakup of the Beatles. Even today, hearing those first piano chords can instantly change your day and compel you to stop what you’re doing and listen. But when I hear it on the radio, my attention is always on alert, waiting for the veritable fork in the road. It’s that point when the radio station will reveal itself as either a voice of responsible programing, or just a money-grubbing embarrassment. It’s at exactly 1:58 into the song, after the second chorus has ended, and the music breaks into a solo.

But which solo?

The album version has George Harrison taking control with a brilliant, soulful guitar solo, one of the greatest guitar solos in music history. At that exact moment, the experience is transformed from a hymn sung up by the congregation, to an anthem bestowed down upon us from the heavens. “Hark, the Angels Come,” indeed.

But on the single version, the one that was anthologized on the “Blue” (1967-1970) album, the guitar solo is mixed out and replaced by an organ solo. True, it’s a Billy Preston organ solo, and on any other song it would probably be cool. But once you’ve heard the album version, hearing the organ version can be nothing but abject disappointment. What is probably a top-five song from the album becomes a song that struggles to make it into the top 101.

So there you have it. Agree? Disagree? Did I miss any? Make use of that comment box below!

List: Top Five Caveats For Shoulblog Lists

From time to time, Shoulblog does a “Top Five” list. The list is just what it says: the top five of whatever. But the “top” part is, of course, subjective. For various reasons—about five of them, actually—these lists may not be the definitive, all-time superlatives. Therefore, I offer these caveats:

5)  In a list of the top five of anything, I’ll generally try to restrict it to one song, record, whatever, per artist, per list. Yes, I know that sometimes a case can be made for more than one—for instance, how would one choose between Gimme Shelter and Sympathy for the Devil in a list of great songs?—but for the sake of variety and letting more groups have the glory of Shoulblog recognition, we’ll limit it to one per list.

4)  Of all of the numbers between one and five, four is the only one that’s not a prime number. Please adjust your expectations accordingly.

3)  The rule about writing is, “write about what you know.” That applies here, particularly in lists relating to music. There may be better or more representative songs/albums/artists out there, but if they’re not in my collection or I don’t know them, sorry, they’re not going to make the list. While I like to think of my music collection as pretty eclectic, I’m daily offered reminders of artists I wasn’t previously aware of, Plus, I’ve almost given up on any music recorded since the turn of the century. Not completely, but most of the stuff out there, I just don’t even bother to listen too. This is probably more a function of my age-induced crankiness than of a decline in quality, but don’t discount the latter possibility.

2)  Times can change; moods can change. What may seem like the best song in history one day might seem like a middle-of-the-packer the next day. Each of these lists is a snapshot in time. For instance, next week I might wish I’d made this caveat No. 4.

1) Hey, I ain’t perfect. Once in a very great while, I may actually be wrong about something. However, this is my blog, and just maybe what’s happening is that I’m correct and everybody else is wrong. (For instance, many people claim that 1 is also not a prime number. As far as I’m concerned, they have every right to be mistaken.) If you feel you’ve identified one such error—of commission or omission—feel free to let me know in the comments. Or, you can GYODB. Point is, as you well know from reading this blog for the last two years, I’m not perfect. Hopefully, though, it’s close enough for rock n roll.

List: Top 5ive Albums Of The 1980s

Everyone loves lists, right? Well then, here comes a list: the best albums of the 1980s.

Any such “Top” list having to do with music is going to be controversial, of course. But this one may be less so than others, at least for me. These five albums simply stand out from all the rest. These were some of the strongest efforts by their creators, and helped shape both my life and the music business in general during that decade and for years thereafter. There are going to be other lists in Shoulblog in the future, some music-related, but I wanted to start with this one because it is, in fact, the most cut-and-dried.

Even though this exercise seems pretty …Keep reading