Mysteries of Pittsburgh

the-mysteries-of-pittsburgh-michael-chabon-amazoncom-books-1419884591kn48gMysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon

The description of Mysteries of Pittsburgh at Barnes and Noble, and on the back of my book, calls it an “unforgettable story of coming of age in America” and says it “echo[es] the tones of literary forebears like The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield and The Great Gatsby‘s Nick Carraway.”  My problem with the book is that it read like a book that was trying to be a coming of age story that echoes the tones of The Cather in the Rye and The Great Gatsby.

Like so many others, I know and love Michael Chabon from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, two books which I absolutely adore.  So when I came across Mysteries, Chabon’s first book, at (naturally) a used book sale,  I had to pick it up.

Mysteries follows a young man, Art Bechstein, the summer after his graduation.  Art, the son of a mobster who yearns for his family to go legitimate, meets a young man Arthur Lecompte, at the beginning of the summer and Arthur’s best friend, Cleveland, who has gotten pulled into the mob world and wants to play on Art’s connections.  More relevant to the plot than any of the mob-stuff, though, is Art’s relationship with a girl he meets at the same time, Phlox, and his budding relationship with Arthur while he’s trying to discover who he really is and break free from his father’s control in every way.

The novel isn’t bad, and in some ways it, like Tractors in Ukranian, suffered from my high expectations.  One thing the novel did well in particular was emphasize how when you’re at that point in life, one summer can somehow take an entire lifetime and everything can change.  And the descriptive writing is great, with Pittsburgh being its own character in the book.  Beyond that, though, I never really got pulled in.  The characters didn’t feel entirely fleshed out and came off as a bit flat, and the novel felt like it was trying too hard to be a coming of age story, trying to hard to evoke all the other coming of age stories.  It never felt real to me, or that the story was wholly its own and wholly comfortable in its own skin.  The book has received numerous accolades, but I think Chabon took a little more time to really find his voice.  But once he did he can’t be beat.



The New York Times Book of Mathematics: More Than 100 Years of Writing by the Numbers

nyts_bookmath(3)The New York Times Book of Mathematics: More Than 100 Years of Writing by the Numbers, by Gina Kolata, ed.

My Dad got me this as a Christmas present since I’ve always been interested in math.  I was even on the Math Team in high school-Mu Alpha Theta for life!  I’m a big fan of science, math and nature writing so this was a good choice for me.

The Book of Mathematics is a fairly comprehensive book of most of the developments in math over the last several decades, as well as intriguing articles about game theory and statistics, computer programming, robots, etc.  In particular, there’s a very long article about the way some people are using game theory and complex computer programs to make it seem like the world of The Foundation is write around the corner.  It’s a really great book for an amateur mathematician, or just someone who’s a bit interested in the subject, since all of the articles are written for a popular audience.

My one complaint about the book is that since each article has to stand on its own, the book eventually gets a bit repetitive.  Every article on Fermat’s last theorem or on Andrew Wiles has to explain the theorem all over again and the history of failed attempts.  Same for the Riemannn Hypothesis, and even more basic concepts such as game theory are explained in every article that discusses game theory.  I could probably have used about half as many articles.  In particular, the shorter (less than one page) articles only had information that was already included in the longer articles.

I like to read things straight through, so the repetitiveness got to me.  This would probably be a good book for someone interested in math who wants to pick it up occasionally and flip through, reading a bit at a time and then putting it down for later.  And considering it’s size-500 pages, only in hardcover, and 6.4″x9″-it’s probably intended to stay at home for reading in spurts, not to be carted around with you.  And if used as intended, it’s a good read.


Mr. Sammler’s Planet

Bellow_MrSammlers_PengBMr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow

Some things are so completely and totally of their time that it is impossible that they could have been created at any other time.  Experiencing them is like stepping into a time machine.  Try to imagine someone making Leave it to Beaver at any time other than the late 50s, or the terrible movie PCU existing in any decade other than the 90s.  It just doesn’t work.  That’s how I felt about Mr. Sammler’s Planet.  It’s a slice of the late 60s/early 70s, and couldn’t be anything else.

The book follows a few days in the life of Mr. Sammler, a Holocaust survivor living in New York City.  His friend/benefactor is dying and in the midst of this he has to deal with his daughter, Shula, who has stolen a manuscript that he needs to return to its owner, the benefactor’s son who is convinced that his father has hidden cash throughout their home and is tearing it apart searching for it.  At the same, he is regularly conversing with his benefactor’s daughter, Angela, a sexually liberated woman who keeps talking to Sammler about her sexual exploits and discussions with her psychologist.  This sounds like some sort of wacky, slapstick comedy but it’s not.  Instead, these and other pieces of the plot take place around the edges of the book, just random things happening alongside Mr. Sammler’s constant inner thoughts about how culture is crashing down around him.

And that’s really what this book is about, a compendium of all of the cultural fears of the 60s and 70s.  New York City is a pit of vice and crime?  Check.  Everyone being obsessed with psychoanalysis?  Check.  Large black man who is a criminal and also sexually intimidating?  Check.  Counter-cultural students disrupting lectures?  Check.  An obsession with sexuality and constant disgust with everyone’s obsession with sexuality?  Check.  Extra special disgust for a woman who has lots of sex?  Extra check.

There are authors that I read that are absolutely of their time but everything that I find intriguing about the 60s and 70s–authors like Richard Brautigan, who I absolutely love to read.  Mr. Sammler’s Planet made me role my eyes and was instead everything I wouldn’t have liked about the era.  I can understand its critical acclaim at the time, though.  It’s a near-perfect distillation of all the fears of the decade in one short book.


Diary of a Madman

Diary of a MadmanDiary of a Madman and Other Stories, Nikolai Gogol

This is a collection of Nikolai Gogol short stories I picked up at a used book sale somewhere, probably the library book sale where I find most of my purchases.  This particularly collection includes “Diary of a Madman” (obviously), “The Nose”, “The Carriage”, “The Overcoat”, and “Tarus Bulba”.  That last one is very unlike the others and doesn’t really seem to belong, except that it’s also one of Gogol’s most celebrated short stories.  For most of this review, I’m really talking about the first four.

A couple of things stand out upon reading this book.  Firstly, man, Russian fiction is strange.  The first three stories are completely surreal.  “Diary of a Madman” follows the narrator’s descent into madness, including discovering two dogs exchanging letters about him and believing himself to be Spanish royalty.  In the second, an officer’s nose becomes detached from his face and wanders around town in military dress.  In “The Overcoat” a poor office worker scrimps and saves for a new overcoat, only to have it stolen.  After dying from the cold, he becomes a ghost wandering around the town and stealing other people’s overcoats.  The first and third I could at least understand, the latter being a particularly tragic tale.  “The Nose”, on the other hand, is just bizarre.  I have no idea at all what it’s really about, despite reading several different interpretations of it.

The second thing that stood out was that, even if everyone involved had the absolute best intentions, the Soviet/Communist experiment was always doomed to fail.*  What all the stories have in common (except the last, which, more about later) is the characters’ obsession with status, social rank, and their place in the bureaucracy.  “The Overcoat” in particular details how the bureaucracy causes otherwise good and decent people to treat those of lower ranks terribly because it’s what’s expected of them as bureaucrats.  From this and other Russian authors of the 1800s one gets the sense that, for the new middle class at least, it wasn’t the royalty or capitalism that was oppressing people, it was bureaucracy.  And the Soviet Union didn’t attempt at all to get rid of the bureaucracy.  Instead, they strengthened and grew one of the worst things about pre-Soviet Russia.

The last story in the book, “Taras Bulba” stands out from the rest.  It’s far longer, almost a novella instead of a short story, and is historical rather than of its time.  The story is about the titular hero and his sons.  Bulba is an old Cossack who wants to make sure that his sons do not turn soft but get to experience violence and war.  They go off to slaughter, rape and pillage/defend the Orthodox faith (potato, potahto), Bulba kills one of his sons for going over to the enemy and his other son is captured and murdered.  The story is (I guess?) meant to be a celebration of past Russian glory.  Bulba is the hero and is even based on some past Cossack legends.  It was,  you know, not for me.  I’ve been anti-Cossack ever since I was a young kid and watched An American Tale approximately one thousand times a year, and later Fiddler on the Roof.  I have to say, reading this particular tale of how awful they were  didn’t make me much more inclined to like them.  It was strange since to me everything about this story made it an excellent, deeply ironic critique of the Cossacks and what Russians held to be heroic, except for apparently it wasn’t meant to be ironic.  It left me with the disjointed and slightly off feeling you might have if you read A Modest Proposal and then found out it was serious, or listened to a Sarah Palin speech and found out she was an actual politician not a performance artist.

All in all, a strange, but interesting, collection of stories.  I don’t know that I really enjoyed this book, but I am glad I read it.


*Of course, even arguing only from Marxist theories and, again, with the best of intentions, it was always doomed to fail for a lot of reasons.  Including that Marx’s theory was that communism could only come after industrial capitalism, while Russia was still primarily an agricultural and feudal society, and that he intended it to be, you know, communal, based on small independently run communities and it was instead implemented by the Soviet Union, the largest country in the world.  Throw in the fact that Stalin hardly had the best intentions and only missed out on winning “most evil world leader” by some very extreme mitigating circumstances and that whole thing was never going to work.

Faith Rooted Organizing

faith-rooted organizingFaith Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World, Rev. Alexia Salviterria and Peter Heltzel
Up until about 6 months ago, my entire professional life has been working in a faith-based context, either directly at a congregation or working on faith outreach for an advocacy organization.  So I’ve read a lot on the topic and attended a lot of trainings.  And this is, I think, the best book on congregation based organizing I’ve read.  It’s certainly my favorite, at least.

Congregation based/community organizing is actually a pretty basic concept.  It’s the idea of bringing people together to advocate for change.  Usually political, trying to get more money for a homeless shelter or bus routes that better reflect the trips of the people who really need them, but they an also be to stand with people who aren’t usually listened to to get badly needed changes in their lives.  So, for instance, one of the “actions” taken by a community organizing group my church is a part of was to have other community members-including white, middle class folks-join residents of a broken down, low-income rental building in confronting their landlord about needed changes, or even joining them for the walk through with maintenance.  Other organizations have banded together to challenge banks about their lending to minorities.  The idea is that congregations are called to do more than just serve others through a food pantry, and to also advocate for change in the world.

Almost every aspect of congregational organizing is based on the tenants laid out by Saul Alinsky when he started the Industrial Areas Foundation in the 1930s.  Anytime one studies up on congregational organizing, Alinsky, IAF, and other organizations that came from that model come up.  This isn’t too surprising, since they are amazingly successful and Alinsky may be the first person to really create a system of community organizing and lay out some rules.  Salviterria also originally comes from that model and has worked with the PICO National Network, one of the organizations, alongside Gamaliel Foundation and DART, that was built in the IAF model.  While they are successful, though, I’ve always been uncomfortable with aspects of these organizations, and Salviterria had a lot of the same criticisms.

The issue I have with the typical model is two-fold.  Firstly, while some organizations, such as Gamalial, try to be more tied to faith, for a lot of the traditional model they’re not really faith-based.  They work out of congregations out of practicality, because in some areas of the US and in some communities they’re still the only trusted institutions, and because in all parts of the US, despite the “rise of the nones“, there are tons of congregations.  I don’t really mind this, I can respect pragmatism and practicality and it’s not as if the organization tries to remove faith from what they do-everything I’ve been to that was hosted in a congregation still started with a prayer.  But for someone looking for a truly faith-based organization, this is not that.

The second, and larger, issue I have with them is that I have never enjoyed working with them.  Everything I’ve done with the IAF has seemed overly confrontational, and with a distinct lack of respect for the members, although I know others feel differently.  There is such as strict model that they stick with because of the past success, but they strongly discourage anyone from veering from it.  While they say over and over again that they’re built on relationships and power-sharing, I’ve always felt that they don’t share power, or rather, they’re only built on raising to power those who are willing to follow everything  that they say about what should be done.  And their relational meetings have felt rote to me, not really respectful or about building relationships.

I want to emphasize here that there are a lot of people I know who do not feel this way, and have really enjoyed being part of IAF or similar groups.  I think some of my criticisms, particularly about their resistance to change, are valid objective critiques, a lot of them are likely more of a mismatch between my personality and the organization.  They’re not for me, but that doesn’t mean they’re not for anyone.

Back to the book!  Faith-Rooted Organizing aims to keep a lot of the practical aspects of the usual models of congregation based organizing.  There was a lot in this book that was very familiar to me from a logistical standpoint.  But she also tries to adapt it to an explicit faith, not just congregation, context.  As one of my co-workers used to point out, if you want people to stay engaged at something at their church, you have to give them a reason to do it through the church, not just some other volunteer group.  After all, there’s a lot more competition for civic life these days.  I also found that she was a bit better on how to actually accomplish things logistically, and what she had done in the past, than some other organizing books which are heavy on the concepts and light on the applications.

Tied into this is that Salviterria evidently had some of the same problems with traditional organizing as I do.  The book emphasizes respecting one another, and argues for cooperation over “power.”  A lot of the differences are subtle, but I got the sense from her book that when she talks about authentic relationships, she means it.  IAF talks about the organizing coming from relationships, but it also talks about everything being about shared self-interest, and, again, in my experience, every relational being has been about how to get something out of it, not just getting to know someone.  And yes that’s part of any meeting when you want a volunteer, but when you’re conducting a relational meeting to check a box it’s always going to be a bit more rote and about how you can use someone.

I find myself struggling to explain the book better, because a lot of what I liked about it was the subtle differences between it and other organizing manuals, and it’s really getting into the weeds of a subject and a world that I’ve been heavily involved in for over a decade but that most people don’t even know exists.  I will sum up, though, that if you are interested in getting your congregation involved in advocacy, either with politics or just in the community helping some members stand up to a local slumlord, this is the book I’d recommend.  It’s comprehensive on both the how and the why.  And if you like the concept of congregation or community organizing but have been turned off by other organizations, give Faith-Rooted Organizing a try.  It just might appeal to you where others have left you cold.




Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

LambLamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore

This book was first recommended to me by a very good friend.  While I trust his book recommendations implicitly, I was still a bit hesitant about this particular book.  I hadn’t read anything by Christopher Moore before, but did know of books like The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Bite Me: A Love Story, which didn’t exactly sound like stories about the Son of God, you know?  Plus my to-be-read bookshelf is getting pretty full.  I was always going to read it, I just wasn’t sure exactly when.  Then I was up at an event for work and the table next to mine was run by the New Hampshire Bible Society.  The Director of the NH Bible Society is a nice guy, but horrible at outreach events.  He spent the entire time reading-including Lamb, which it turns out he was rereading.  I was a bit surprised to see it turn up at this event, but it did give me the kick I needed to finally check it out.

I’m sorry I delayed for even a second, and I should have known better than to sit on a recommendation from my friend.  Lamb is an absolutely fantastic and hilarious book.  I’m truly amazed by it.  It walks what is a very fine line, managing to be satirical and irreverent without being sacrilegious.  Written from the perspective of a previously unknown 13th disciple, Levi called Biff, Lamb primarily focuses on the lost years, Jesus’ life as a child and before he began his professional ministry, although the book does cover the other gospel years at the end.  The book is amazingly well researched.  Another review I read said that the book did its best when it was entirely made up by Moore, and strained itself a bit when it got to the end and had to follow the Bible.  I disagree, and enjoyed the book throughout.  Also, while Moore filled in a lot on his own, this ignores the fact that his description of Jesus’ childhood years is not entirely from his imagination.  He pulls from the non-canonical Gospels, and an extensive amount of research on what life was like in the Roman colonies about 2000 years ago.

Lamb is a hilarious book in its own right, and even funnier if you know enough about Christianity and the Bible to get all of the allusions–Moore recommends reading the Bible first to get all of the jokes, and if you can’t get a hold of one, just finding someone going door to door who can explain it to you.  I also thought it did a fantastic job of portraying a more human side of Jesus, who after all is believed to be fully human and fully God.  I also read this right after Silence, so Lamb’s alternative of what happened to Judas was a welcome counterpoint, although it’s merely a footnote in this book.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys humor, and anyone interested in Christianity and religious type novels.  Again, I’m sorry I waited at all to read it.  It really is an excellent novel, a lighter treatment of serious subjects, provides a new (although not entirely different) perspective on Jesus ministry, and a fantastically fun read.  It’s now one of my favorite books, and I expect it will make it into my regular rereading rotation as well.