Friday, August 12, 2005

Duke Altum's Notable Books of 2004 (Part I)

For the past two years now at around Christmas time, I have been compiling a list of some of the most significant, memorable books I've read during the last twelve months... usually I just share the list with Mutt, since he's the only other nerd I know who would really care. But now that The Secret Thread has emerged as an outlet for such offerings, I figured I would share the list that I came up with at the end of last year... these are ten books which struck a chord in my soul and made an lasting impression on me... some of them are familiar, a few veer towards the obscure, but they ALL are well worth checking out (in my humble opinion). I've included a description/comment on each one.

I'm splitting the list up into two posts, as it's a lot to read in one take.

If nothing else, maybe you can browse the list, see which books you know/recognize, or read about one you're not familiar with.

Without further ado, then, here's the first five (these are listed in no particular order):


1. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner -- Here's an American classic that just about everyone has likely heard of, but (I am almost ashamed to say) I had never read until this year. After I finished reading it, I understood why it is so highly regarded. It's difficult to finds the right words to describe and/or recommend this book... on one level, it is simply ingenious and fascinating fiction (with its shifting points of view and innovative structure)... but on another level, it is a dark, but profound, philosophical exploration of death and its physical/emotional/spiritual affects, on both the immediate victim and those around her (a woman, in this case). Because death is something that affects us all, and because I have never read a novel that presented so many different characters' points of view so powerfully and effectively, I would recommend this short novel to anybody, whether they've read William Faulkner previously or not. It is a challenging, but thrilling and rewarding reading experience... one from which I highly doubt anyone could emerge unaffected.

2. Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry -- Ascending now from the dark, into the light! Although it would be hard to top Faulkner's technical wizardry and originality, I still think that if I had to pick only one novel as my favorite selection of 2004, Jayber Crow would be my choice. Recommended to me by a noted literary critic/theologian/social worker/family man (my uncle U.D.), this poetic and deeply felt novel follows the life journey of a man (orphaned at an early age) who believes he may be called into the ministry, but ends up living out a totally different vocation (or is it?) as the only barber in a fictional Kentucky river town (as the poet Dana Gioia writes in his remarkable short poem 'Curriculum Vitae': "We shape our lives/Although their forms/Are never what we meant.") That may sound humdrum, but when Walsh (my uncle) first told me about it, I remember him saying, "There's more theology in that book than in most theological textbooks," and was he ever right... this book offers an abundance of spiritual insights, especially when it comes to questions about God's providence, discerning one's own personal vocation, and the meaning and value of simple things. This novel is saturated with the
True, the Good and the Beautiful. I honestly believe it will linger in my memory throughout my life, it is that profound and moving. (By the way: Berry, who is a highly regarded poet and essayist as well as a novelist, lives in Kentucky, and has a written a series of novels/stories set in this same fictional town he calls Port William. He has been a farmer there for decades, and writes with an amazing, quiet beauty about the land in that region.)

3. Saint Thomas Aquinas: Meditations for Every Day, Saint Thomas Aquinas -- As someone interested in both the theology and history of Catholicism, I had always wanted to dip into the work of "the Angelic Doctor," but was just too daunted by the sheer breadth (not to mention difficulty) of his vast writings to even attempt it. How do you approach the work of someone who wrote a massive, 3000-page theological treatise, only to stop before finishing it, saying, "I have seen things that turn all of my writings to straw"??? And yet, I had always heard that there was no better teacher of the riches of the Catholic faith and Tradition than Aquinas. But then, in November, my dilemma was solved! My brother-in-law gave me (as a birthday gift) this magnificent volume, which draws from ALL of his vast corpus (including his prayers, hymns, etc., not just theological works) and breaks it down into daily readings organized by topic, which can be followed in sequence along with the liturgical year. I started reading them at the beginning of Advent, and I have been utterly amazed at how much they have helped me to understand my faith better, AND, how they have inspired me to deepen my own personal
devotion to God. I told Mutt, "It is like being set up with a continuous IV of Truth." (Maybe my recent surgery had something to do with the choice of analogy there.) The readings are only 1 1/2 pages each and are loaded with scripture, making each one a substantial, yet manageable, nugget for reflection. Outside of the Bible, this book has undoubtedly been the most valuable to me this year in terms of growing in my understanding of my faith... even though I have only been reading it for about two months!

4. Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems, Billy Collins -- I think most of you know that in recent years I have been trying my hand at writing poetry (pause a second here for guffaws/chuckles from the peanut gallery). Alongside of that, in this past year I decided that I needed to read a lot more of it if I was going to have any success at all in writing it (brilliant deduction, I know). To that end, I have been checking out various poets whose work seems to resonate with me... one poet who has truly delighted and entertained me, but also made me ponder deeply the mysteries of our existence here (as all great poets do), is Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Collins has a warn, humorous, very readable style
which draws him some fire from smug academic circles, but also makes him very accessible to a wide audience of readers. However, I have learned that his casual style should not be mistaken for a lack of intelligence or perception: once the first layer of wit and whimsy of one of his poems has been penetrated, there are often deeper and more serious undercurrents roiling underneath. To anyone out there who feels some attraction to the wisdom poetry can offer, but does not want to spend the time/money to go get a PhD first in order to understand it, I would heartily recommend reading Billy Collins. I found this collection (which covers most of his work to date) to be entertaining and challenging to both mind and soul: in other words, the best kind of reading.

5. Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist -- Some of you might remember the film version of this novel (starring Anthony Quinn) by Sweden's 1951 Nobel laureate, but this terse, powerful tale of the earliest days of the Church goes far beyond Hollywood storytelling. It's amazing that an author from Scandanavia could be so successful at immersing the reader not only into the cultural milieu of first-century Jerusalem, but also into the heart of a man as he struggles with the same question every man has grappled with since John the Baptist: "Are You the Christ?" Lagerkvist's Barabbas is continually haunted by this question as he comes into contact with earliest Christian communities (who literally cough out their liturgies in the choking dust of hidden caves and tunnels), and Gentiles who are willing to sacrifice their lives for their belief in Him... and as he struggles with the unimaginable burden of being the one whose place Jesus took on the cross. And now you can probably see the genius of what Lagerkvist was up to in this short novel... because, as one songwriter I know of put it, "Barabbas, oh Barabbas/It should have been you/Barabbas, oh Barabbas/It should have been me too." Here is a very potent parable that reminds us that "grace is free, but it ain't cheap."

(stayed tuned for part II of the list)

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