Notes from the Now

Posts Tagged ‘2009’

My 2009 in Reading

In literature on January 1, 2010 at 12:13 am
Here’s my reading list for 2009.  Looking back it’s been a good mix of topics and ideas, I put stars by particularly good reads.
Here’s looking forward to 2010!
  • American Scripture: Making the Declaration of independence Pauline Maier
  • ***That the world may know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity James Dawes


  • The Book of Saladin Tariq Ali
  • ***Running to Maputo (1990) Albie Sachs
  • Off The Books: The Under ground economy of the Urban Poor Sudhir Venkatesh
  • Harold! Photographs from the Harold Washington Years Muwakkil, et al


  • The Rise of Barack Obama Pete Souza
  • ***The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid & International Charity Michael Maren
  • ***Waiting for the Barbarians J.M. Coetzee


  • You Shall Know Our Velocity! Dave Eggers
  • ***Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America Paul Tough
  • On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan
  • Genghis: Bones of the Hills Iggulden Conn
  • Weep Not, Child Wa Thiong’o Ngugi
  • ***A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki & the Future of the South African Dream Mark Gevisser


  • The Book of Ralph John McNally
  • Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence Geoffrey Canada


  • ***Outliers Malcolm Gladwell


  • Shakespeare Wrote for Money Nick Hornby
  • The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey Salman Rushdie
  • Hiroshima Notes Kenzaburo Oe
  • The Waiting Country: A South African Witness Mike Nicol
  • ***FAB: The coming revolution on your desktop Neil Gershenfeld


  • Billions & billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium Carl Saganl
  • The Dream: Martin Luther King JR and the Speech that Inspired a Nation Drew Hansen
  • Unlucky Lucky Days Daniel Grandbois
  • The Other Ryszard Kapuscinski
  • Armageddon in Retrospect (2008) Kurt Vonnegut


  • ***Zeitoun Dave Eggers
  • Sound Unbound (Edited by DJ Spooky)


  • ***How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood Renaissance Jacqueline Edelberg
  • Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak
  • Star Trek (2009) Alan Dean Foster
  • Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon


  • ***Invictus: Nelson Mandela & The Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin

The Economist’s Best of 2009 List

In literature on December 6, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Sticking with the “Best of 2009” theme, here’s the Economist’s Best of 2009 list.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I’ve read any of these yet, but here are a few that sound intriguing to me:

  • The Idea of Justice. By Amartya Sen. Belknap Press; 496 pages; $29.95. Allen Lane; £25
    A commanding summation of the work of Amartya Sen, an Indian-born Nobel laureate, that focuses on economic reasoning and the elements and measurement of human well-being.”
  • It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower. By Michela Wrong. Harper; 368 pages; $25.99. Fourth Estate; £12.99
    A down-to-earth yet sophisticated exposé of how an entire country can be munched in the clammy claws of corruption and tribalism to ensure that those in power win the fattest share of the cake.”
  • When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment. By Mark Kleiman. Princeton University Press; 256 pages; $29.95 and £20.95
    America has one prisoner for every hundred adults—a rate unprecedented in American history and unmatched anywhere in the world. Brute-force crime control has been a costly mistake, both socially and financially. Mr Kleiman shows how smarter enforcement strategies are more successful and make existing budgets go further. An important book that deserves a wider readership.”
  • American Rust. By Philipp Meyer. Spiegel & Grau; 384 pages; $24.95. Simon & Schuster; £12.99 Set in America’s crumbling industrial heartland, Mr Meyer’s first novel is a paean to the end of empire—a book that is as painful as it is enjoyable.”
  • In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. By Daniyal Mueenuddin. Norton; 249 pages; $23.95. Bloomsbury; £14.99
    A remarkable debut by a Punjabi writer who has gained plaudits from Mohsin Hamid and Salman Rushdie. A small book that reveals, in every detail, the extent to which life in Pakistan is dictated as much by whom you know as what you do.”

On the Sem Coop’s Best of 2009

In Chicago on December 2, 2009 at 5:29 am

My local independent bookstore, the Seminary Co-Op / 57th Street Books announced their “Best of 2009” list this week.  Check it out!

Unfortunately, I haven’t read any of their recommended books yet, although I do have Nick Hornby’s latest on order at the Chicago Public Library.

Besides Hornby’s book, the other books they listed that caught my eye were “Green Metropolis” which seems to be arguing for population density (i.e. urban living) as an environmental good and David Byrne’s “The Bicycle Diaries“.

The People’s Historians

In Events, History, University of Chicago on November 8, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Last night, I attended the Keynote to Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s Annual Convention, and got a chance to see “The People’s Historians” — Howard Zinn and Dave Zirin.

I haven’t read anything yet by either Zinn or Zirin (although I’ve seen the documentary “You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train”).  I’m under the impression that the go-to books are: “A People’s History of the United States” and “A People’s History of Sports“.  Does that sound about right?

“The Other” By Ryszard Kapuscinski

In Africa, Education, sociology on November 2, 2009 at 11:20 pm

I’m usually a bit wary of the “lecture repackaged as book” genre.  For the most part, we readers are simply missing too much information, as these lectures were never intended to stand on their own (although I suppose that in the modern day this is changing).  Generally, they are grounded in a time and place, with a context that we are blind to, an audience which is silent to us,  and on top of all that tend to take the author out of their comfort zone to begin with.

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “The Other” fits this general outline fairly well.  It’s superficially geared for a Polish audience and clearly is a homecoming of sorts for Kapuscinski [bio], who regularly references Polish philosophers who have limited global renown (at least to those outside of the discipline).  Even the topic of “The Other” (or “the Europeans” developing understanding of “the Other”) seems to lose some of its impact as merely a summation of the insights Kapuscinski gleaned from his travels & adventures.

In spite of all this, what Kapuscinski brings to the table, and what makes “The Other” a worthwhile read (in spite of the aforementioned flaws in the sub-genre), is perspective.  A quarter way through “The Other”, I felt like it was all either too general or too specifically geared for his audience.  By the halfway point, I found myself wishing that we all had such perspective on the world and the complexity of human interactions.  As I continued to read “The Other”, with the absurdities of American politics in the background, I couldn’t help but think how there still is little understanding of “the “Other”  — abroad or at home, in spite of the networked, interlinked, globalized world of today.

Reading On This Date: October 24…

In Uncategorized on October 24, 2009 at 2:05 pm

One of the benefits of having a list of books I’ve read over the past decade, is that I can post the occasional “what was I reading on this date X years ago” entry.

So looking at October 24th:

Currently, I’m reading the interviews that make up Vaclav Havel’s “Disturbing the Peace”.

The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation

In History, literature, sociology on October 18, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Early this year, I read Pauline Maier’s document history of the Declaration of Independence. It looked at the Declaration as the end point of a process and made some fascinating comparisons to other document sources, the conventions of the day, the competing interests in the revolutionary movement, as well as the genius of the primary author (and of the drafting committee). The declaration itself was a fascinating hodge-podge of old & new, (and ‘er, “something borrowed & something blue”) that has shown itself to be much more than the sum of its parts.

Drew Hansen’s “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation” tries to do something very similar with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (audio). Hansen puts the speech in its context at the March on Washington, in the Civil Rights Movement of the day, and in Dr. King’s career up to that point. Hansen illuminates which aspects of the speech were part of Dr. King’s usual ministerial stump speech, which parts were crafted specifically for the context of the March on Washington, and what was simply inspiration that came to him at the moment.  In so doing, Hansen gives us tremendous insight into the man, the moment, and the times.

As interesting as the textual analysis itself was, Hansen succeeds most in putting the speech as a whole in its context during it’s time, in its immediate aftermath, and talking about the process (of decontextualization) that made it iconic.

For as much of a watershed moment as it’s “remembered” as being, and in spite of the powerful impact that it had on those who were listening at the times, the speech was essentially forgotten for most of the interval before Dr. King’s assassination.  King himself had begun to lose his luster as moving the struggle for civil rights outside of the South brought him new detractors, and challenging the Vietnam war further complicated his relationship with the powers that be.  Sadly, it is his martyrdom that allowed for his entire career to be looked at beyond the individual news-cycles of the day, and helped society at large to appreciate the affection that African-Americans had for Dr. King.   It is only further after the fact that the speech was recalled and elevated to be a stand-in for the entirety of the Civil Rights Era.

It’s tough to read something like this without comparing the story to the happenings in the present day, and there’s a consistency in the style (and substance) of the attacks — all usually prefaced with “I’m not a racist” — made on Dr. King and President Obama that’s startling and ultimately disheartening.   Dr. King suffered through a line of attack that should be familiar to the modern American — from being accused of trying to enslave the white man, to being a socialist, being more orator than “doer”, winning an under-deserved Nobel Prize, taking attacks on personal conduct/history — and ultimately came to understand that while he had seen the promised land, that he was unlikely to get there with us.

Fortunately, one piece of his legacy is still making the journey to that promised land with us.

Haul from HP Booksale

In Uncategorized on October 14, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Even though I’m supposedly limiting my book purchases to what I can trade for at swaptree, I couldn’t resist stopping by the Hyde Park Book Sale over the weekend.

I spent $5.50! Here’s my haul:

“The Plot Against America” Philip Roth (hardcover, great shape)
“Little Children” Tom Perrotta
“Reading Lolita in Tehran”
“Interpreter of Maladies” Jhumpa Lahiri (it’s nice to have an extra copy on hand to give away)
“Independence Day” by Richard Ford
“Free Burning” by Bayo Ojikutu
“Segu” by Maryse Conde
“Disturbing the Peace” by Vaclav Havel

Readinglist: Literature of Trauma

In literature, University of Chicago on October 11, 2009 at 12:51 am

Strolling through the Seminary Coop Bookstore in Hyde Park, I paused to take a look at some of the reading lists for Fall Quarter classes at the University of Chicago. Here’s the list (sorry about the blurry iPhone photo) from Eng 319, “The Literature of Trauma“.   It was Zeitoun, which I’m reading now, that caught my eye, but there are quite a few other interesting and current books on the list.

Recent Lit Events Attended (Sept-Oct 2009)

In Chicago, Education, Events, news on October 7, 2009 at 9:18 pm

In the last two weeks, I’ve seen Ralph Nader speak about “Only the Super Rich Can Save Us” and Jacqueline Edelberg speak about “How to Walk to School” at the University of Chicago’s International House and Divinity School respectively.

To be perfectly honest, I’m still processing both talks and since neither book is one I’m going to read for a while (we’ll see what the wait at the Chicago Public Library is like for both of these), I don’t know to what degree I can say anything meaningful and coherent.

I can certainly clue you in to where I think I’m going with both these.

“Only the Super-Rich…” :: The very idea of utopian literature today is somewhat preposterous. Ours is an era that almost presumes that any attempt at significant change (not even “utopia”) will necessarily end in dystopia (you can’t change the military budget without demilitarizing, you can’t improve the healthcare system without ushering in socialism, any environmental protections are going bankrupt our business, etcetera. I’d add deregulation will cause the financial sector to collapse under the weight of it’s own greed, but that one actually happened). So, it’s an interesting move by Nader to take this tact to reminding us that things can be different. I don’t know how I feel about setting this up as “the left’s answer to the Fountainhead“, as I feel like the Fountainhead has already done enough harm. I like that Nader designed this as a civics course, but have some serious doubts about how well that’ll work as literature. All said, it’s interesting enough for me to check out from the library during the winter. I’m going to write about Nader himself and the rest of talk over at my regular blog sooner or later.

“How to Walk to School…” :: I think all I’ll say here is that it’s dangerous to think that every positive change can be systematized and turned into a model that’s replicable. It’s also dangerous to discount the uniqueness of the environments or the social capital of the individuals involved, or to dismiss the unintended consequences as being non-consequential. So even though it’s a very positive heart-warming story at Nettlehorst, I left the talk more concerned about how these individual instances get turned into banners for arm-chair policy wonks to run cookie cutter reforms under. I’m hoping that the book differentiates between what is unique to that neighborhood and what is more generally applicable in a better way than the talk did.