Reading List 2010

(From Yale’s open courses:

Black Boy – Richard Wright

All autobiographies are fictionalized.

Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor

This is a difficult book, not because the plot is hard to follow or because the story goes slowly – it was a fast read. I’ve read things about the way that O’Conner should be interpreted or about her personal beliefs. But on its own, the meaning isn’t obvious. I don’t think that a lot of interpretation is nearly as important as absorbing everything though.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

The first time I read Lolita, I was just fascinated and amazed. This time I read more slowly and more carefully and had more pity for Lolita herself.

On the Road – Jack Kerouac

I liked this book more after reading it than while I was reading it. The last trip to Mexico was very vivid, and I also have taken many road trips – from Virginia to Los Angeles, to Seattle via Michigan, to Maine, and to Denver, plus the return trips except for the last. Kerouac spent a lot of time in Denver as well.

Franny and Zooey – J. D. Salinger

I had mixed feelings about this story, not least because I have mixed feelings about the subject matter. I had a lot of sympathy for Franny but was never sure how I was supposed to feel about Zooey. The first section that focused on Franny was more engaging.

Lost in the Funhouse – John Barth

This was like no other book that I’ve ever read. Some of the stories were outstanding and some were terribly boring, but they weren’t typical. It may sound a bit pretentious, but I feel that I understand modern literature in a different way for having read this.

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

Reading it again was worth it, and I’m sure that reading it for a third time sometime in the future will also be worth it. Gravity’s Rainbow has been on my reading list for a long time now and I plan to read it in 2011, despite the difficulty, because I truly do enjoy Pynchon.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

This book is so sad that it was hard to read. It’s more than a bludgeon to beat the reader over the head with its message, but the pain and violence aren’t insignificant and I can’t imagine reading it again for a long time.

Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson

At some point, it occurred to me that my sympathies might lie with Lucille rather than with the protagonist, Ruth. I felt that the author was making value judgments about the superiority of one type of personality.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

If I could only have ten books to read over and over again for the rest of my life, this would be one of them.

The Human Stain – Philip Roth

I loathe this book. I loathe the plot and I loathe the writing style. And if Nathan Zuckerman is Philip Roth’s alter ego, then I loathe Philip Roth.

The Known World – Edward P. Jones

I agree with all the positive reviews about the merits of this book, but it didn’t make a lasting impact on me. The prose, the story lines, the characters were all well crafted, but I was never completely drawn in. It’s still a book that I’d recommend as a worthwhile read.

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

There are a lot of  wonderful moments in this book. I’m glad that I missed the hype, because with no expectations, I enjoyed it a good deal. However, too much of it seemed contrived and self conscious. This isn’t a new criticism, and like many people, I also think that Safran Foer will be worth reading again in the future.

(Free Kindle books)

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

I don’t ever remember reading this before, but everything in it was familiar – apparently picking up descriptions and discussions of the book is pretty much the same as actually reading it.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I enjoyed these stories a long time ago, and they’re pleasantly nostalgic.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll

I’d forgotten how short these books were. I can still clearly remember the illustrations in the book I had as a child.

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When I first read this in high school, it was very successful in making me identify with Raskolnikov. The whole time I was reading, I felt his guilt and fear. I had a lot of personal philosophical problems and contempt for the people around me at the time that were causing my own guilt and stress, although I never killed anyone. This time, I appreciated the writing and psychology, but felt no particular identification, and I’m glad that I read it first when it could make more of an impact on me.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say about a good book. This was a good book.

Perdido Street Station/The Scar/Iron Council – China Mieville

I loved all three of these books. PSS was brilliant but uneven – I was captivated by the world building and the constant moving through the city, seeing something new with every page, but the ending felt a bit exploitative and tacked on. The Scar was the best of the three – one of my favorite books. IMO, Iron Council had pacing problems – I didn’t enjoy it as much while I was reading it, but after I’d finished, I felt that the setup paid off, and I was extremely satisfied to see that my instincts about the protagonist weren’t accidental.

The Darkness that Comes Before/The Warrior Prophet/The Thousandfold Thought – R. Scott Bakker

I really don’t understand how people whose literary opinions I respect can like this series. It’s not uniformly horrible – there are some worthwhile plots and philosophies – but ultimately I failed to find any of the characters believable. A major problem I had was that Kellhus was supposed to be insightful, motivational and a figure that inspired near-fanatical devotion, but his speeches and dialog failed to capture that.

Neuromancer – William Gibson

I feel like I missed a lot from this book, probably because I tried to read it too quickly (before a book signing). Gibson is a prophet of technology, and his most famous book is worth reading if only for that. However, I was never able to get immersed enough to care about the missions and motivations of the characters; I felt that I was watching things go by without being able to get a hold on them. I feel that this book deserves a re-read in the future.

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi

I enjoyed reading it, but the further I get from it, the less impressed I am. There wasn’t any specific thing that was bad – the setting, the plot, and the characters all had many interesting aspects. There just wasn’t anything sublime. I never got the feeling that the story was one facet of a rich world of history and real people.

City of Saints and Madmen – Jeff Vandermeer

Despite some flaws, this was an amazing book. The part that seemed like it might be the most dry, a history of the city, was the most mysterious and sinister. Where I lost interest was when things became overly meta. Vandermeer did an excellent job of taking phenomena related to organic fears – the mushroom growing upon decay and dampness, the squid living in the murky and possibly bottomless ocean – and creating a world where those fears become a source of culture. Finch and other books set in Ambergris will be on my reading list for 2011.

Year of Living Biblically – A. J. Jacobs

The idea was interesting but the execution lacked focus. I admit that I was biased because the author didn’t do things the way that I would have, and perhaps as someone who grew up with a system of religiously related rules – particularly at Christian school – I was overly hard to impress. Jacobs acknowledges that living apart from a devout community has a significant impact on his inability to live identically to an Old Testament Hebrew, and it’s part of the point that even in Orthodox Judaism, it’s impossible to re-create that exact environment within a larger modern non-theocratic society. But I still felt that his effort was too disorganized to be a proper experiment.

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

Rothfuss is a very likable and clever author and his prose is fun and easy to read, but I had mixed feelings about this book. Several other readers were in agreement that it was a promising start, but the plot doesn’t get very far off the ground and an important female character is extremely irritating and lacking in personality. I’m not sure that I want to invest the time in finishing the series.

The Unlikely Disciple – Kevin Roose

It’s a revelation to hear about your own culture (at least one you used to belong to)  from someone else. I went to Baptist school, went to Liberty’s campus many times for concerts, many of my schoolmates went to college there. The rules of my high school were fairly similar to the rules at the university – dress code, restrictions on movies and music, mandatory chapel, expectations for dating… I plan to write more about how my experiences compared to Kevin Roose’s after I finish Genesis.

Lost Christianities – Bart Ehrman

I didn’t get all that I could out of this read because I didn’t finish the accompanying text of “Lost Scriptures” which contained a sampling of some extra-Biblical texts. There was too much material to take in at one time considering that I wasn’t familiar with most of the documents. The Yale courses on the NT give a more localized, more specific discussion on the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thecla. I decided to read the canonical books again (starting with my blogged review of Genesis), then come back and read the Lost Scriptures while using this book as a reference, so I will return to it within the year.

Requiem for a Dream – Hubert Selby Jr.

The movie follows the book fairly closely. It’s one of the few books that I’d say is not necessary to read if you’ve seen the movie.

Sympathy for the Devil – Tim Pratt

This was a collection of short stories, and I can sum it up by saying that it was pretty good. Almost every story was good, but as a whole, it wasn’t incredibly memorable. It seemed like a lot of the stories had weak endings. I don’t mind ambiguous or open endings, but too often the stories simply seemed as if they’d been left unfinished, unresolved.

A Garden of Earthly Delights – Joyce Carol Oates

I first read this book in the Radford library, when I stayed on campus all day between classes, about five years ago. Although the first section is by far the best, the writing stuck with me and I considered it one of the most compelling books I’d ever read. It was every bit as striking on a re-read.

Ulysses – James Joyce

It took me two years. I had to read the Telemachiad twice and then I stopped about 30 pages short of the ending for almost a year. And as soon as I was finished, I immediately felt that I needed to read it again, more carefully. But not right now.


Genesis 21-25

21: Birth of Isaac and rescue of Ishmael. Both the laughter that Sarah talks about and the laughter of Hagar can mean mocking. When I was taught the story, the laughter of Sarah was unquestionably delight and the laughter of Hagar was unquestionably mocking, as some kind of weakass justification of Sarah and Abraham being willing to drive his teenage son into the desert with one skin of water. Abraham seems to be the only person in this story, not excluding God, who has a sense of morality. God tells him to not let it seem evil in his eyes on account of the lad and on account of his slavegirl. Ah, I think that the Bible has a verse about this, right… woe to those who call good evil and evil good… God could have told Abraham that it was a bad thing to drive out his own son, but that it was necessary to fulfill a large plan. But he says that Abraham shouldn’t consider it evil.

It’s a little odd that Hagar would fling Ishmael under one of the bushes, since Ishmael at this time is probably about sixteen (he was thirteen when he was circumcised). He grows up in the wilderness, becomes a bowman, and marries an Egyptian. Some people have put together a site including what they believe happened to Ishmael’s tribes, and while I can’t vouch for the scholarship, it seems interesting:

Next, there’s a continuation from the previous chapter of Abimelech. He had just offered to let Abraham settle on his land before being interrupted by the Ishmael story, and he and Abraham make a pact, dig a well, and settle a land dispute. However, although the land is described as Philistine, this appears to be an anachronism since the Philistines did not live in this area for another four hundred years.

22: The near-sacrifice of Isaac. God now calls Isaac Abraham’s only son. The commentary gives a Midrash that I find extremely sad. “Your son. He said to Him, ‘I have two sons.’ He said to him, ‘Your only one.’ He said, ‘This one is an only one to his mother and this one is an only one to his mother.’ He said to him, ‘Whom you love.’ He said to him, ‘I love both of them.’ He said to him, ‘Isaac.'”

God says he will bless and multiply Abraham because he has not held back his son, but he had already made those promises to Abraham, so the conditional makes limited sense. If Abraham had failed the test, could God have rescinded his previous promises?

Remember Abraham’s brother Nahor? His granddaughter Rebekah is Isaac’s future wife.

23: Death of Sarah. The Hittites offer Abraham a grave in which to bury Sarah, and then agree to sell him one. While the seller seems to have over-charged Abraham – the commentary says that 400 silver shekels is a huge sum compared to other land purchases in the Bible, the Canaanites do not seem hostile or wicked toward him. They acknowledge him as a prince of God, measure the payment in public, and complete the agreement in full view. Abraham appears to be back in Mamre at this point.

24: Abraham’s servant meets Rebekah. Abraham sends his servant to his birthplace in Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac. It’s not clear why this is – because the Canaanites are wicked and ungodly as they’re later portrayed, because Abraham simply favors his own family and homeland, or because the people there are more civilized than the Canaanites. Historically, it seems that the people of Ur had more going for them. It also appears that a woman there has freedoms of refusal. The servant asks what he should do if the woman does not want to come back with him, and later Rebekah is asked whether she wants to go immediately and her family abides by her decision.

Alter says in the commentary that the camels are anachronistic and would not have been used for carrying burdens at this time, so are probably a plot device added by the later era writer because they illustrate the difficulty of drawing water, as each would have drank many gallons.

Rebekah lives with her mother and brother Laban. Laban, while conniving and materialistic, is hospitable. Rebekah is assertive and seems to have some say in her own life, compared to Isaac, who has yet to do anything of note except for almost being sacrificed by someone else. How did the servant get the ring into Rebekah’s nose? Did she have a piercing, or did it just stick in there somehow?

25: Esau sells his birthright to Jacob. This seemed like the oddest thing that I’d read so far, although it was a rather mundane sidenote. Abraham remarries and has six more children, but gives everything to Isaac. He has sons by concubines, which may have referred to his second wife, and sends them all away to the East. Although he lives to be 175, people didn’t seem to have the incredibly long lives and fertility of his predecessors since it was considered amazing that he could have a child at 90. And it remains distasteful that he would send away more sons. The commentary suggests that this may be an attribution to allow Abraham to be the forefather of almost every group that lives in the near east, excepting the Canaanites. Also odd is the mention that Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him, suggesting that Ishmael had peaceful contact with Abraham and Isaac later in his life.

Rebekah is also barren, but becomes pregnant when Isaac prays for her and has Esau and Jacob. When Esau begs Jacob for food, there’s a rare use of the vernacular in his speech – he asks for some of this “red red stuff”. Alter talks in the introduction about the limited and somewhat formal vocabulary in the Torah, and it’s well worth reading. Using common speech for Esau probably indicates his coarseness. Esau is stupid and short-sighted, but Jacob is greedy and manipulative. I couldn’t tell from the passage how old Esau and Jacob were meant to be at this time.

Genesis 16-20

I really must organize these new posts into a topic page. I’ve been busy, traveling for Thanksgiving and looking for a new job.

16: Hagar and Ishmael. Earlier, the commentary said that Hebrew slaves were not chattel, but it’s unclear if Hagar has any choice in sleeping with Abram. she is given to Abram “as a wife”, perhaps in contrast to being a concubine, but she is still a slave to Sarai and when Sarai blames Abram for impregnating her, Abram doesn’t defend her.

In the code of Ur-Nammu, a law code coming from the land that Abram once lived, the penalty for Hagar’s behavior was actually less than the way that Sarai appears to have treated her. It says: If a man’s slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt.

If these stories are meant to demonstrate the justice of God, they fail to do so for me. When Hagar runs away from Sarai, God tells Hagar to return and suffer abuse at her hand. It disturbingly reminds me of the way that certain Christians believe that divorce is not warranted by abuse. Hagar does return and “the LORD’s messenger” promises to multiply her seed, but Sarai remains the chosen wife. The moral that we were given in Sunday school and Bible classes was that God picked flawed humans to receive his grace, but what I’m getting from it so far is that if God likes you for inexplicable reasons, you can be an asshole without consequence.

Although the other being is first titled the LORD’s messenger, he is later identified as the LORD and Hagar calls him El-Roi. It’s not clear whether she considers the messenger to be a god, although I believe that later when angels are worshiped as such, they tell the worshiper to stop. It’s also unclear whether the name is a further descriptor for the God of Abram or if Hagar does not know the name of the LORD.

17: God covenants with Abram. Here God identifies himself as El Shaddai, although it is said that Abram had already invoked the name of the LORD, that is YHWH. How does God appear to Abram, in what form? God renames Abram Abraham and promises him that he and his seed will have the whole land of Canaan as an everlasting holding, but the Jews have never held the whole land of Canaan as described in Genesis.

Abraham does not seem biased toward having a son with Sarah instead of having Ishmael be his heir. He’s skeptical that he and Sarah can have children, but his response is “would that Ishmael might live in your favor”. He promises Ishmael twelve chieftains, and I looked up where they are named later, but I don’t remember ever noticing that list before. Abraham is circumcised at ninety-nine and Ishmael at thirteen. The commentary says that circumcision was practiced in several West Semitic tribes and in the priestly class of Egypt, but would have been a new procedure to Abraham, having come from Mesopotamia.

18: Angels visit Abraham and Sarah, and God and Abraham discuss Sodom. The Terebinths of Mamre is an excellent name for a place. Abraham sees three men, and one of them is God. The story switches between one speaker and plural speakers in referring to God and the other two unnamed men. God has appeared to Abraham several times now, does he have an appearance by which Abraham can recognize him? Alter mentions that the story appears to be an adaptation from the Ugaritic Tale of Aqhat. A translation of the story can be found here:

This story comes immediately before Sodom and Gomorrah, and those towns’ treatment of strangers is contrasted with Abraham’s hospitality. Among other things, Abraham gives God some cottage cheese. He serves meat and milk together. After talking with Sarah, God then talks to Abraham about Sodom and again sounds less than omniscient. He says he will go down and investigate Sodom, to see if the outcry that they have dealt destruction is true. He says he will know if it is not so, as if it’s something he needs to find out. Where does the outcry come from – are people in the area calling upon God? What do guilty and innocent mean in this context? He appears to take Abraham’s pleas for more mercy seriously instead of it being a test of Abraham that he already knows the answer to.

19: The destruction of Sodom. The Sodomites aren’t merely gay but want to rape the angels. In the New Testament, Jesus identifies the sin of Sodom as inhospitality, which was a serious offense in ancient Near Eastern culture. It’s so important that Lot’s “innocence” that leads to him being saved is probably the virtue of hospitality, even though he offers his own virgin daughters to be raped.

Lot begs to be allowed to flee to a nearby town instead of going to the high country, lest evil overtake him and he die. What is he afraid of that will happen in the high country that makes him feel safer in Zoar? He may have become unfamiliar with the rural setting, but it seems unlikely since he came with Abraham all the way from Mesopotamia.

It’s long been assumed by many moralists that Lot’s wife becoming a pillar of salt was a supernatural punishment from God for disobedience or wishing to be back in Sodom. I’ve heard sermons about how she must have been materialistic and wished for the luxurious but sinful life of the city. However, the sons-in-law who Lot talks to but are left behind are married to different daughters than those who come with Lot, so she had left children in Sodom. But it makes as much sense to think that she was caught in the brimstone because she didn’t leave fast enough without any special judgment.

Lot decides that it’s safer in the high country after all and he lives in a cave. Why did he not go to Abraham for help? His daughters don’t believe there is anyone left alive, get Lot drunk and sleep with him. This story may be to insult the tribes with the offsprings’ names. That’s the last we hear of Lot.

20: Abraham and Sarah in Gerar. This is almost an exact retelling of the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt. Again Abraham tells the king that Sarah is his sister, and again the king discovers the lie. This sounds to me more like the retelling of a fable than a historical event, especially since Sarah was now over ninety and appeared to be infertile. This time, God appears to the king, Abimelech, in a dream, the only time that I can think of that he appears to a non-Hebrew, and he has shut the wombs of all the king’s household.

Abimelech is afraid of Abraham and wants Abraham’s intercession, even though Abraham was the one to wrong him. He even offers to let Abraham settle on his land. Abraham explains that Sarah is his half-sister, the daughter of his father. In chapter 11, Lot’s father marries his niece, but Sarah is merely described as being Abram’s father’s daughter-in-law. When he tells his story, he says “when the gods made me a wanderer from my father’s house”, using a plural verb with gods and suggesting that he might not consider God the only god.