Tuesday, December 26, 2006


As has become the tradition on this blog, here is my annual "Notable Books" list, in which the ten books that impacted me the most during the year are described. As usual, comments welcome!


The Fall, Albert Camus – This bleak but fascinating meditation on the human condition and the nature of justice, in the form of a long monologue from a Parisian lawyer in a seedy bar in Amsterdam, penetrates deep beneath the skin and lingers in the mind long after it’s over. It was a stroke of brilliance for Camus, a writer of rare genius indeed, to set the story in this notorious city, in which the winding canals purposely echo the descending levels of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Who’s ultimately to blame for this mess we’re all in? Is it God? Is it ourselves? And will the accounts be reconciled in the end? The Fall wrestles with these Big Questions as hauntingly as anything I’ve ever read.

Testimony of Hope, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan – These written texts of the Lenten spiritual exercises Cardinal Thuan preached to Pope John Paul II and the Vatican staff in the Jubilee Year 2000 are among the most unique and moving meditations on the subject of hope you will ever come across. Drawing heavily from his experiences while in prison for 13 years (9 of them in solitary confinement) under various Communist governments in Vietnam, Cardinal Thuan gently but powerful urges us to grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus in the midst of our personal sufferings. A shattering, perspective-changing book that both challenged and rewarded my faith.

The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andric – This epic novel of war-torn Bosnia, told in the form of a history of the villages surrounding a massive stone bridge from the sixteenth century through World War I, vividly depicts a suffering that transcends both race and culture. But it also is a moving and rewarding meditation on the value of community and tradition, as a means of preserving hope in the midst of calamity. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel idealistic about the abilities of art to cross the chasm between races and cultures and be a force for peace in the world. Andric’s crie de coeur for his shattered homeland ought to be required reading not just for literature students, but for anyone studying diplomacy and/or foreign relations as well.

Pastoralia, George Saunders – This year brought me into contact with the hilarious and bizarre work of George Saunders, and trust me when I say that alone is worth celebrating. Saunders’ second collection of stories is strange, satirical, bleak and, at times, surprisingly moving. A writer of remarkable wit and compassion, Saunders can make you laugh out loud at any point, but can also turn around and give you a chill down your spine. This is one of the most memorable collections I’ve read in a long time. Characters wrestle with boring office jobs, morbid reality TV shows and sarcastic, rotting messengers from the underworld, but there’s a deep-seated longing within them, and you recognize it as something common to us all. Each story puts its finger on it somehow, and refuses to let go.

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, Donald L. Miller – Of course I’m not qualified to properly rate this book as social history, but it was a meaningful and memorable read for me this year, as it cast my home city in an entirely new and different light. This fascinating account of the founding of the city of Chicago and its emergence as a central force of American capitalism and tenacity (especially following the Great Fire of 1871) kept me engaged through its 600+ pages, with interesting anecdotes and vivid portraits of the city’s major characters – and there have been many! It’s often been said that the story of Chicago’s rise from the central plains is the story of America itself in microcosm, and with Chicago’s complex brew of courage and corruption, brutality and bravery, I can certainly understand the claim.

Gitanjali, Rabidranath Tagore – What the heck is this, and what is it doing on this list? Well, what it is is a book of poetry-in-prose form from the first non-Westerner to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Why it’s here is simply this: it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before, nor am I likely to again. These fascinating, beautiful meditations on the Divine, the natural world and human longing absolutely bowled me over, not just for their deep wisdom and the stunning beauty of the language, but for how they spoke to my Western heart despite their obvious Eastern origin. Reading them as a Christian, I was completely shocked at how this Hindu writer could connect with my heart, speaking as a fellow man doing his best to understand the mysteries of life. Thomas Merton took a lot of heat from other Christians for seeking to find common threads between Eastern and Western religious traditions, as Tagore was trying to do long before… but reading something like this reveals quite clearly that such threads exist, and are worth exploring.

Prince of Darkness, J. F. Powers – After years of putting off reading him for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I finally picked up a used copy of Powers’ debut collection of stories (he only had three, I was surprised to learn, and just two novels in his lifetime), and immediately regretted the delay. These funny, deeply insightful stories contain some of the most brilliant writing I’ve read all year. Powers is of course most famous for his satiric fiction about all-too-human priests, and indeed his best stories are the ones in which these men of God wrestle with fallen humanity, in either themselves or others, in amusing and often poignant ways. But in the final story, when a priest fully expecting to be named a pastor of his own parish learns he is instead being re-assigned to serve as an associate once again, his superior’s words in a hand-written note remind us of the profound spiritual import of these earthly struggles: “…and when you get there, I expect that you will find not peace, but a sword.”

The Border Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy – Of course I understand this is cheating since we’re talking about three books here; however, as I read them – perhaps unwisely, I’m still not sure – all in one shot (my copy of the novels includes them all in one volume), I figure I can get away with it. I might not have put any one of the three novels on this list (with the exception of The Crossing), but taken together they amass a weight and a cumulative power unsurpassed in recent literature. All three novels focus on young men embarking on long and painful journeys that take them across the U.S.-Mexico border and back again, during which blood is shed, hearts are broken, and souls struggle to come to grips with a God that would allow for so much evil and pain in the world. All written in prose as starkly beautiful as poetry, and as muscular and free-ranging as philosophy. McCarthy’s fiction is on another level entirely from that of his contemporaries.

The Toilers of the Sea, Victor Hugo – This is surely the strangest, most obscure of the books on the list this year… but it’s also one of the greatest man vs. nature classics you’ll ever read. Here’s some trivia for your next party: Hugo wrote three huge books in a kind of trilogy that was meant to expound upon man’s most important “contentions”: Les Miserables was a tale to explore man’s struggles with God; Notre-Dame de Paris man’s struggles with Law; and this one, man’s struggles with Nature. In it, a humble fisherman ventures out alone to the wide open sea to recover the engines of a wrecked steamship, and there he wrestles with the elements, himself and, climactically, a giant octopus (“devil-fish,” as Hugo puts it). As wild and unruly as the ocean itself, the book could have used serious editing, but is nevertheless a fascinating, rambling treatise on the physical and spiritual struggles of the human animal. And by the way: if you want to write a huge, sprawling, philosophical novel, you almost have to set it upon the open sea, as both Hugo and Herman Melville seemed to realize instinctively…

Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Christopher Dawson – This important and insightful book surveys the formative impact that religion, most notably Christianity, has had on the common culture we have to come to know as “Western civilization.” I say “important” because in our time, as the European Union seeks to draft a new constitution that denies its own religious heritage, it is more important than ever to recognize and seek the meaning of Christianity’s influence on our understanding of human life, society, and culture. Dawson artfully lays out how Christian beliefs led directly to the institutions we, until very recently, had always taken for granted, such as the university, the courts, marriage and the family. And in a provocative last chapter of particular interest to readers of this blog, he demonstrates how one literary work, William Langland’s Piers Plowman, could have changed the course of history if its profound insights on the relationship between religion and society were taken more seriously.

BONUS ROUND -- Books that I would have put on the list if it were not limited to 10: District and Circle, Seamus Heaney; The Harafish, Naguib Mahfouz; Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter; The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer; The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright; The Collected Poems of Richard Wilbur

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