Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Duke Altum's NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2005

This gets harder to pull off every year, but since I have managed to do it for the last two I suppose I better buck up and see if I can push out a third. But how do you narrow down all that you’ve read in the course of one year into a neat, convenient list of the “10 Best”? Answer: you can’t. However, you can recommend some particularly good ones that stand out in your memory from recent months past, titles that you feel would be of others’ benefit to know about. So that’s what my list is going to be this year: a smattering of books that provide unique and fascinating insights into our common condition, into a particular region or historical period, into spiritual or moral questions, or into subjects various and sundry and interesting… in fact, the best of the lot may just cover all of those categories.

So without any further effusions, here are ten noteworthy and highly-recommended (by yours truly anyway) books that I’ve read in the past year or so, listed in no particular order. Who knows, maybe one of them will catch your eye. And even if they don’t… keep “casting out to the depths” with your reading! If you do so, you can’t fail to bring up pearls of wisdom to stimulate your mind and fortify your soul…



Grendel, John Gardner
This is an utterly unique and enthralling book, especially if you happen to have read Beowulf. Gardner, with powerful imagination and beautiful, crisp prose, engages us in a haunting re-telling of the epic poem, this time from the perspective of the monster. But in doing so, he also gives us a rich meditation on loneliness, spiritual hunger, and the struggle to come to terms with the mystery – and at times, misery – of existence in a fallen world that seems cut off from its Source. Why does Grendel kill and howl in the night? What motivates him to maim and slaughter the very creatures he is so obviously interested in? Is it possible that the monster yearns for communion and for understanding, just as we do? Or is he simply Evil incarnate? Such are the depths plumbed in this most original, rewarding, and surprisingly moving novel.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Please see my post entitled ‘An African-American Ulysses: Duke's scattered reflections upon getting halfway through Ellison's Invisible Man’ from October 24, 2005 (in the Archives section -> October 2005).

R. S. Thomas Reads the Poems (CD), R. S. Thomas
Technically this is cheating because it is a CD I’ve listened to (3 actually), not a book I’ve read, but since it’s a recording of Thomas reading many of his own poems, I figure it’s acceptable. This rare recording (a gift from Mutt, I want to note) of Thomas reading work from throughout his long career is one of the treasures of my entire collection. I couldn’t possibly express in a few lines here how powerful an experience is it to hear Thomas’ shaky octogenarian voice read his stunning poems, which are mostly about God, nature, Wales (where he served for fifty years as an Anglican priest), and human yearning. Listening to Thomas’ world-weary croak as he wheezes through these verses makes me feel like Jacob wrestling with the angel: the poems are a struggle with Divine forces and truths far greater than I can ever understand, but they do not leave me without a blessing either. Absolutely unforgettable.

The Aeneid, Virgil
Please see my post entitled ‘Of Arms and the Man’ from September 21, 2005 (in the Archives section -> September 2005).

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Breece D’J Pancake
Please see my post entitled ‘A Troubled Guest on the Dark Earth’ from October 4, 2005 (in the Archives section -> October 2005).

Holy Thursday, Francois Mauriac
I think I may have actually read this last year, but I don’t care – it’s such a great book that I couldn’t keep it off of the list (and most likely just forgot to add it to 2004’s). It’s not often that a Nobel Prize winning-novelist also writes a deeply personal, spiritual memoir on the Eucharist (and it would NEVER happen today), but that’s exactly what this book is. Wise, lucid, heart-felt reflections on the meaning and value of the sacrament that the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the source and summit of all Christian life.” The writing is nothing short of gorgeous, and Mauriac’s ruminations on this most important of themes are often quite profound. Especially recommended for anyone who would like to develop or awaken within themselves a more fervent desire to draw closer to Christ and to, more specifically, “know Him in the breaking of the bread.”

The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas
Here’s a novel that you truly feel you’re dreaming, rather than reading. The story is simple enough: two Norwegian girls strike up an unusually close, almost mystical, friendship, and then one wanders into a natural labyrinth created by a frozen waterfall, and never returns. The other spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out what happened. But a secret (never quite revealed) is passed between them too before she disappears, and from there, the sheer magic and wonder of Vesaas’ spare but beautifully poetic prose takes over. His description of the frozen waterfall (the titular ‘ice palace’) is among the most stunning, evocative passages I have ever read in my life, even in translation (I can’t imagine what the experience of reading it in the original Norwegian must be like). This book is the proverbial mystery wrapped up in an enigma, but it’s so magnificently rendered, you hardly mind not being able to cross all the t’s at the end. No wonder the publisher who first brought out an English translation called it “the best novel I have ever published.”

Going Native, Stephen Wright
If you took Kerouac’s On the Road, Oliver Stone’s film Natural Born Killers, a few episodes of The Jerry Springer Show, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and several splashes of suburban ennui and threw them all in a blender, the concoction you get might taste a little bit like Wright’s hellish road novel Going Native. But notice I only said “a little bit.” To describe the book in that way sells it far, far short of its deserved worth. In terms of sheer originality and talent, this one ties Vesaas’ The Ice Palace as the best novel of the year for me. But it is a very, very different book… it can only be described as a surreal, violent roller-coaster ride through the unhinged carnival of a society that lost its moorings a long time ago, and seems to be hurtling headlong into an unknown, unforeseen future. That society is ours… and so, Wright seems to imply, is that future. Hallucinatory, unnerving, heart-pounding, terrifying, jaw-dropping, belly-laughter-inducing, chilling… these are only some of the words I can think of to describe Wright’s performance in this novel. I’ve never read another one like it.

Blue Blood, Edward Conlon
Fascinating, impeccably written memoir from Conlon, a fourth-generation Irish-American police officer working the seamy streets of the South Bronx (and still working them as a detective, it should be said). What separates this book from most other cop stories, I would imagine, is above all the quality of the writing: Conlon went to Harvard and knows how to string sentences together. He also draws liberally from a variety of interesting sources: everything from The Godfather to Gangs of New York to the Confessions of Saint Augustine. His detailed, precise descriptions of street cops trying to rid the neighborhood of the scourge of drugs makes for riveting reading, fully immersing you in the dirty, noisy, often violent life of the street. I’ll never forget reading the passages that describe sifting through the rubble that was all that was left of the Twin Towers after 9/11 (somehow Conlon was able to capture in words the soul-sucking sadness and weariness inherent in such a task, and not just rely on the “gross-out” factor). The entire book is a gripping, meticulous, balanced account of life as a New York City cop in the 21st century, and I highly doubt a better (or more accurate) one exists currently.

The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes,

Denise Levertov
Very profound collection of poems on, well, religious themes by Levertov, a woman of Jewish origin who converted to Christianity as an adult. Inspired in part by the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, many of these poems attempt to re-imagine familiar biblical scenes from the point of view of a character (or even an object!) within the story, and the experiment yields some rich insights. (Examples: one poem presents to us the last supper from the perspective of a servant girl, another is ‘narrated’ by the fig tree that was cursed by Christ in that strange gospel passage!?!) I found almost all of the poems to be both challenging and edifying to my faith, in addition to being beautifully rendered... an instructive, wise and thought-provoking little book that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether they’re “into” poetry or not.


I Am Not What I Am said...


Couldn't agree less with you on Grendel. Having read (as I am sure you have), as well as taught, the imminnently superior Beowulf, this thinly veiled take on the Vietnam War is inferior in all aspects. Gardner's heavy handed sopofry is apparent in all aspects of this book.

-Why don't we understand Grendel?
-Is Grendel really the monster,
or are we?
-What is Grendel's point of view
on the battle with the Danes?

Simply take away, Grendel, replace it with Vietnamese (since the book was published around 1970) and you will certainly understand my point.

Mutt Ploughman said...

Have to admit I have never heard nor considered that point of view from 'I Am Not..' on Gardner's 'Grendel', but I suppose this must have been a major criticism of the work when it appeared. Not having read it, I guess I would have to come to my own conclusion, but it was an interesting thing for him to point out. Obviously, Duke felt differently about the book.

Hey Duke, illuminating, interesting 'Notable Books' list. Interesting too that my list was a 'Best of' and yours was a list of notable books. Seems like there's a difference.....our respective lists shows the differences in what Duke and I read and treasure the most in reading. As readers can see, I am much more of a fiction reader myself: my list only included one nonfiction work, if I remember correctly. While Duke's features nonfiction, theology, poetry and even audio! Duke's tastes run farther and wider than mine, something I am not convinced that I should not be trying to emulate more than I do......I guess we read what we are ultimately drawn to, and it is interesting to me that I have always been first and foremost a fiction person, and Duke takes a lot of pleasure from a lot of different forms. I also enjoy biography, history, and some poetry, but 99 times of 100 I will always choose fiction, either stories or novels. Interesting to note.

I enjoyed reading Duke's list. There certainly is a wide variety. Nice to see the my gift of the R.S. Thomas audio CD made it on there, although if you've ever read one of Thomas' poems, you can see why his work would top similar lists of anyone who would ever care to notice....

Keep it coming Duke, I like reading your posts. As for 'I Am Not...', any time you wanna come on here and air your thoughts on our posts, we invite and appreciate it......

Duke Altum said...

To I Am Not...: thanks for reading and commenting on the list! This blog is wide open to outside opinions/contributions, especially yours... my first thought was, if he only disagreed with one choice out of ten, I did pretty well! (Although I know that your not pointing out any other disgreements doesn't mean they weren't there... but then this is part of the fun of such lists: how would yours be different? the same? Part of the appeal of reading/writing such lists is to compare them to what you yourself would choose...)

Of course I understand your point re: 'Grendel'. I was aware of the historical context within which is was written, though not specifically of Gardner's views on what was going on at the time. But here's where I guess we part ways. To me, these views and the historical context are almost irrelevant. I say "almost," because in one sense these factors are always important to be aware of, as they can never be completely ignored if any work of fiction is to be properly understood. However, and this is an important point I feel, great literature is able to transcend its own historical and political contexts, and make itself relevant to readers in other cultures, other ages. Obviously you know this already, as one who has taught Beowulf to modern young readers! (And yes, I have read Beowulf more than once, and also, of course I would NEVER claim, as your post almost implied, that Garnder's take on it was superior to the original!!! The very idea is laughable. Maybe if Gardner's 'Grendel' is still around and being read and discussed all over the world in 1000 years, then and only then such a claim could even begin to be considered...)

A possibly helpful analogy here might be Dante's Divine Comedy. There is no doubt that this magnificent epic poem was the work of a man immersed in a very specific cultural and political situation, and he is none too subtle throughout the whole thing in lambasting his political enemies, extolling his friends, and wearing his own political and moral views on his sleeve. However, this is not what most readers focus on when they read the poem. They rightfully see it as a magnificent spiritual allegory, an expression of our common condition and struggle to find redemption and reach heaven.

Obviously Gardner's book is nowhere close in terms of quality and timelessness to the Divine Comedy, so the comparison is only a loose one... but it IS, I felt anyway, a profound expression of spiritual and moral themes that resound in any human heart that inclines itself to think on such things. Sure, Gardner's opposition to the war in Vietnam (perhaps to war in general, I don't know) may have been in the forefront of his mind when he wrote it, although that's tough to confirm or deny at this point (and I can only assume you know it from secondary sources?). But again, to me, whatever "agenda" the writer may have had when we writes a work is not all that important IF (and I admit, this is a big if) the work itself is able to transcend such temporal borders and speak to issues and themes that are of great relevance and importance to all human beings. I felt that 'Grendel' was that kind of work. It spoke to me not of one specific war, but of ALL war, and not just the physical kind either. It spoke of not one specific campaign of violence, but of ALL violence. Not of one specific manifestation of human suffering and evil, but of ALL human suffering and evils. ANd I would not be surprised if, contra what you seem to be arguing, that this was Gardner's true intention in writing the book... I don't know of course, but I DO know enough about him to know that he was a writer deeply concerned about the moral and spiritual implications of great fiction. He wrote at least 2 non-fiction books on this subject alone. So it may not be too much of a stretch to guess that although he may have wanted to make some points about Vietnam along the way, it was the desire to explore the darkness in the human heart, the darkness common to all of us, that most powerfully motivated 'Grendel.' But I admit I am speculating as much as, well, you were.

Ultimately I can only say this: the book made a big impact on me in the way described in the original post. I stand by those comments, although I was interested by, and appreciated, reading your take. As for that list of questions you wrote, I actually don't think there's anything wrong with asking them at all... to not ask questions like that seems to me to be sort of a tacit statement that the world is made up of only black and white, that there are no shades of grey at all... and while I do believe in absolutes of course, I also believe that we can't expect to live up to any of them (although we should always, indeed we are commanded to, strive to!). Even so great a moral and spiritual thinker as Solzhenitsyn once wrote, "The line dividing good and evil courses right through every human heart." Is Grendel really the monster, or are we? I'd say the correct answer is both. (But none of this is to say, of course, that some evils ought not to be called out as such and firmly resisted, which I gather is part of your point somewhere in there.)