21 December 2014

Reading for the Year, 2014

OK, it's time for a victory lap of sorts. If you're wondering what's on my mind, take a look at the books I read this year. I'm at 66, and while I'll finish a few over the Christmas break, I'm not sure I'll make it to 70 before 2015 begins and brings with it new experiences (trips to New Orleans, Germany, the Republic of Georgia, and a return to Philadelphia and New York City) to read up on.

Looking back at 2014, I spent a month reading fiction from countries competing in the World Cup--Germany's win was capped by my reading of five novels by German writers:Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Mussel Feast, A Minute's Silence, Thomas Mann's His Royal Highness, and Peter Longerich's massive biography of Josef Goebbels. Looking back, though, I think my favorite World Cup-related novel was Paolo Giordini's The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a thoughtful love story.

My trips to New York were aided by Kevin Baker's Dreamland and John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer. I read four Dos Passos books this year, and he just blew me away. He is truly America's greatest modernist writer.

My favorite novel of the year was Henderson Smith's Fourth of July Creek, which was lyrical and which vividly described themes that began during the book's historical setting (Reagan's first two years in office) and which resonate today.

The best nonfiction I read was Timothy Egan's Short Nights of the Shadowcatcher: the Epic Life & Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. Curtis's quest to capture the images and ceremonies of the remaining Native American tribes in the American West in the 1910s rendered him divorced and penniless, but it preserved traits of those cultures that were dying out, and they allow Americans today to appreciate them. Egan is one of the best writers working in America today, whether you read his columns for The New York Times or others of his fine books, the best of which might be The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl.

I crossed a few more classics off my list of to-reads: Alex Haley's Roots, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (yes, that's right), Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, and the Goethe book (my Audible subscription really helps me to get through these). I also got to re-read John Steinbeck's East of Eden and The Old Man and the Sea.

A few other books that I would recommend that I didn't mention above:
1. Two historical novels, Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings begins with the gift of a slave to a Charleston teenager, and follows her repulsion to slavery to Philadelphia and a prominence in the abolitionist movement. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See was an epic tale and brought back to me a visit I made to St. Malo, France, hitchhiking over my spring break in 1991.
2. Books that I put right to use in my teaching included Edgar Sawtelle, The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, Where'd You Go Bernadette (a delightful surprise), and Boy, Snow, Bird.

If you have any recommendations for 2015, post them below. I'm already building a collection, and I'm looking forward to sharing some recommendations with my brother-in-law, Don Gates over the Christmas holiday. I can't wait to read more!

07 December 2014

The "We Three Kings" Wormhole into another Time and Space

At choir practice today, I was assigned a solo to sing along with our Three Wisemen.

The thing about getting into your mid forties is this: the space-time continuum starts to break down. We're in the church, getting ready to go over the song, and all of a sudden, I'm in my home church in Athens, Ohio, eleven years old, with a towel on my head, with several extra-large rubber bands clamping the towel to my cranium, with my buddies, Seth Jasovsky and Eric Jasovsky, getting ready to walk down the aisle with me, singing "We Three Kings" for the Christmas pageant.

I'm not sure if the space-time continuum is fuzzy or if it was just too long ago, but I can't see how ridiculous I/we must have looked in our costumes that night. At the time, we either thought we were cool--or we just didn't care. What was cool was this: hanging around ANYWHERE with Seth & Eric and Julie Dittes Gates and Sonia and  Paul Jasovsky that Christmas in the "magical land of Ohio," or any other for that matter.

In church, reveling in the memory, I was grinning so much, I missed the first note or so of the solo. It's OK. I have until the weekend to get it right. I just know that my solo will NEVER top the trio singing "We Three Kings" that shuffled down the main aisle, dragging the hems of fathers' bathrobes, that unforgettable Advent evening at the Athens Seventh-day Adventist Church over 30 years ago.