Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Holy Hullabaloos - Picking Books for a Book Club

This was only my third time with this book club. I volunteered to host because I just don't know what my schedule is going to be like and I figured this one would work. The host is supposed to have some food that is connected to the book. This book is a law professor's road trip to the locations of the dispute in key Supreme Court cases on the separation of church and state. There wasn't a lot of food in it - there were some animal sacrifices in a Santeria religious group in Florida (Church of Lukumi Babalu Ave., Inc. v. Hialeah) which included killing and then eating a goat among other animals. There was a lot of beer. There was Limburger cheese in Wisconsin (Wisconsin v Yoder.)

I was able to find some goat meat at Sagaya and J got it really tasty and stringy by today. We also had some Wisconsin cheese, but couldn't find any Limburger in Anchorage, which is probably just as well.

I'm spending a lot of time on the food, because the book was disappointing.

Jay Wexler says he was inspired by a couple of road trip books to write this book the way he did. Despite (or perhaps on account of) being a Boston University Law professor and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, his attempts at making this a 'fun' book for dim law students didn't work. He came across as socially perceptive as the Forty Year Old Virgin.

The book's concept was to give the reader the key separation of church and state issues by highlighting the important Supreme Court cases on this topic AND by describing his road trips to towns where the cases took place. Ideally this would give us insight both into the law and into the actual impacts on the communities where the events took place. I found the law coverage is pretty sketchy - there's not even a list of the cases, they aren't in the table of contents, there's no index, and some times I couldn't even find the case name - and the visits are pretty superficial. And he regularly paints himself as "the creepy liberal academic from Boston" who is something of a doofus:
"Luckily for me Meg had asked me before to write up a list of questions . . . it saved me from having to think too much during our conversation." (140)
Surely, Ginsberg's law clerk wasn't trying to convey himself as walking into a meeting with the Chaplain of the US Senate without any preparation. Was this supposed to be a joke? I didn't read it that way at the time and only now see this the only possible explanation. After all, fourteen pages before he told us that he'd printed out and read the previous six months of sermons. This attempt to dumb himself down, to not look like a wonk. just doesn't ring true. He's trying too hard to be one of the guys. He isn't. The frat jocks this seems to be aimed at are more likely to remember the part when he got drunk in an Austin bar than they are to remember any of the court cases.

While his road trip stories fill in some background for the cases, his interviews, at least as portrayed in the book, are pretty superficial. They add some sepia tones to the cases. There were some better parts - like the discussion of the emergency room doctor who sued to get 'under God' taken out of the pledge of allegiance - but I can't find them now to cite them because the book is so badly labeled. The chapter titles were chosen, apparently, for alliteration rather than illumination. (Hasidic Hallabaloo, Santeria Skirmish, Amish Agitation, etc.) Since he makes references to cases and people in each chapter that aren't the main topic of the chapter, and there's no index, and no list of cases (I know I'm repeating myself, but these are serious omissions, especially if he wants these used in law school classes) it's hard to use this as a reference book to the cases. I got the sense that he rushed to finish this and that his editor didn't spend a lot of time on it either.

The parts that illuminate the main court cases in this 238 page book could have been covered in 40 or 50 pages at most. You can get a lot of the basic ideas of these important cases online in a few minutes.

This link gives you a list of the key Supreme court decisions on separation of church and state with a brief synopsis of the precedents set.

And here's one with a synopsis of the principles the court considers in deciding separation of church and state cases.

We do get a little bit more discussion of the cases than these lists. But even his interviews with people involved in the cases are too shallow to add much value. Maybe the jokes work better in a classroom where you get feedback from the students and can adjust.

One member of the book group defended the book on the grounds that he learned about separation of church and state Supreme Court decisions and that the author, though a strong advocate for separation and a self-declared atheist, urged people to be respectful of those advocating the other point of view. And I agree that I learned something from the book. But we can say good things about a lot of books, but with so little time and so many books, I want to read books that are brilliant, or at least very good.

The disappointment of a number of us in the group led to a discussion of how to pick better books. One person said it was all about the subject for him. Another likes good writing and how the story is told. I feel that there are so many books out there, really good ones that we will never have time to read, that I'd prefer to have great books - that teach me new things and change how I think about the world and that have interesting, if not exciting, writing and structure.

So how do we pick such books? Do we just go with prize winners? Nominated books? I can pick them for myself by hanging out at the bookstore or library and reading enough to get sucked in or turned off. But even then, if I'm wrong, I can stop reading. But if a whole group is reading, you have to plow through.

So, from the American Booksellers Website, here's a list of different book awards as a start for coming up with a list of seriously good books. (The first two categories are children's books.)

The Randolph Caldecott Medal

The John Newbery Medal

Booker Prize for Fiction

National Book Awards

National Book Critics Circle Awards

Nobel Prize for Literature: 1950 to Present

PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

The Pulitzer Prize: 1950 to Present

The Quill Awards

The American Book Awards / Before Columbus Foundation

Awards from the American Booksellers Association

Indies Choice Book Award (2009 - current)

Book Sense Book of the Year Award (2000 - 2008)

American Booksellers Book of the Year (ABBY) Award (1991 - 1999)

Checking out the Indies Choice Book Awards above there I found The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski which won the best author discovery award for 2009. You can start reading it at the link. It didn't take long for me to decide to suggest it for our book club.

[Update: Here's what Jay Wexler posted on "Holy Hullabaloos: The Blog" today:

September 22, 2009
"as socially perceptive as the Forty Year Old Virgin"

Here is a guy who really did not like Holy Hullabaloos!

I have to give him credit for being a good sport for linking to this post. In an Aug. 27 post he praises Ketchikan, Alaska whose library stocks Holy Hullabaloo (Loussac doesn't) and whose newspaper reviewed the book.
I came across a review of the book in the Ketchikan Daily News! That's right, the two newspapers that have reviewed my book are the Boston Globe and the Ketchikan Daily News.
You can also see him in a bit of video at a book store trashing his own work.]


  1. Talking about food and books made me think of a book I just read, and enjoyed quite a lot, "Breakfast with Buddha". I bought it at Costco just because I liked the title. It's a very easy read and told from one of the main characters who is a food reviewer. I don't know if it's 'serious' enough for a book club title, but was a great read nonetheless. cs

  2. I thought that reading a book is an individual thing. Or do you read out the text loud? I have talked so much about church state division so I just write the key words: Dictatus Popae, 1075, Gregory VII, Henry IV, Papal State, Holy Roman Empire, investiture, Canossa, exile, 1122, Concordat of Worms, Calixtus II, Henry V, Sinode/council of Lateran. I think these are enough. The story is too long to write it down right down and I am packing for classtrip. My point is that why Americans make fuss of things which have been already "played down".


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