Saturday, February 8, 2014
2013: a year in books
This isn't everything I read in 2013. And not all of these count as best books. But these are the books whose reading mattered most to me this past year.
Book of Mercy, Leonard Cohen. Unpaged.
This slim book of prose poems are modern psalms that never settle for the easy insufficiencies. Some cry in despair, some roar in anger and those that achieve praise arrive at the heights of the sublime honestly.
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett. 353 pages.
A thoughtful novel set in an ethnobotanist's camp in the Brazilian Amazon. The visiting pharmacologist whose eyes we see through witnesses horrors and miracles as she tries to solve the mystery of her colleague's death while uncovering the mysteries of being female in a changing world.
Natural Fashion: tribal decoration from Africa, Hans Walter Silvester. 167 pages.
This collection of photographs of the Omo people of Ethiopia celebrates the human instinct for ornament. With 160 illustrations, nearly a picture per page, this book shows an exuberant natural tradition we all share.
Monstrous Regiment and Soul Music, both novels of Discworld, Terry Pratchett. 405 and 373 pages.
Brilliant comic fantasy that sheds its clarifying light on life's lingering questions and our day's most vexing puzzles. Pratchett is the master: a philosopher and a clown in equal measure. Eventually I will have read all of Pratchett and then I'll have to wait until a failing memory allows me to read them all afresh. Also The Light Fantastic, 216 pages; Mort, 243 pages; Pyramids, 323 pages; Wyrd Sisters, 265 pages; Guards! Guards!, 355 pages; the Fifth Elephant, 389 pages; Interesting Times, 368 pages; Thief of Time, 378 pages.
A Quiet Revolution: the veil's resurgence from the Middle East to America, Leila Ahmed, 352 pages.
I'm including this book among the year's reads even though I had to return it before finishing. The first half is incredibly interesting -- what the veil means for women who choose to veil, how the meaning of the veil has shifted. In 2015 I look forward to taking this solidly researched book written by a smart and liberal Muslim woman to its end and reading the promised "surprising conclusions" about the place of Islam in today's world.
Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson. 431 pages.
Modern Islamic techno/sci-fi thriller written by a female Western convert to Islam and set during the time of the Arab Spring. It's a great read for plot alone but intriguing, too, for its picture of the modern Middle East and its Muslim view of reality. The language can be realistically rough but the writing is evocative and clear, the story satisfying and surprisingly deep.
Faith, Jennifer Haigh. 318 pages.
A novel about trust and betrayal, sustaining family love and the destructions of desire, vulnerability and power. Seen through the eyes of a doubting modern woman whose brother is a struggling Catholic priest, this is a difficult story compassionately, carefully, and beautifully told.
From Falasha to Freedom: an Ethiopian Jew's journey to Jerusalem, Shem'uel Yilmah. 112 pages.
An exciting real-life journey from genocide through the wilderness to the Promised Land, only to find that the quest to arrive requires mental rigor and perseverance every bit as it required physical courage just to get there.
Free-Range Chicken Gardens: how to create a beautiful, chicken-friendly yard, Jessi Bloom, photos by Kate Baldwin. 218 pages; and Chicken Coops: 45 building ideas for housing your flock, Judy Pangman, 166 pages.
The first book is packed with inspiringly lovely pictures and a generous scatter of information. The second is more practical with useful diagrams and building plans. Maybe one of these days I'll actually put this book-reading into practice.
I Feel Bad about my Neck: and other thoughts on being a woman, Nora Ephron. 137 pages.
A collection of intimate and amusing autobiographical essays about being a woman in the youth-obsessed West, wittily, sometimes movingly, written by today's queen of rom-com.
Homestead, Rosina Lippi. 210 pages.
These twelve linked stories are the work of a gifted sociologist whose research into family groups in a tiny village in the Austrian alps gave birth to these exquisite fictions. The stories each focus on a different woman hopping from homestead to homestead and moving forward from 1909 to 1977. An appendix includes clan charts, family groups, naming patterns, and a glossary.
The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh. 322 pages.
I wanted to love this flower-infused novel about adoption, homelessness, true love and redemption. The writing is readable and the story well-plotted, but somehow it fails to achieve believability. The main character is unlikable and largely impenetrable and she lands at a happy-ish ending without the story earning its way there.
Greece on my Wheels, Edward Enfield. 315 pages
Old enough to know better, but full of erudite wit and all sorts of cycling vim, the author takes his readers with him bicycling through Greece.
Horace and Me: life lessons from an ancient poet, Harry Eyres. 238 pages.
Ah! What would it be to be able to read the hieroglyphs that are Greek to me? Second best is to read these essays by critic and translator of Horace. Eyres reveals a lively ancient voice who speaks pithily to the excesses and shallow facility of the modern world.
When Jesus Became God: the struggle to define Christianity during the last days of Rome, Richard E. Rubenstein. 267 pages.
A fascinating history of the religious (and sadly political) debate between Arius and Athanasius whose consequences affect our society still today. Not to mention how these theological machinations and cynical manipulations of the mob-instinct mirror some of the cultural wars of our own age.
Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis. 151 pages.
My obsession with Old Testament poetry continues. C.S. Lewis encounters the psalms as invitations to joy but also as stumbling blocks for as he puts it: "This book may not tell the reader all he would like to know about the Psalms, but it will tell him a good deal he will not like to know about himself." I loved what the Times Literary Supplement says about this book: "The Psalms were written as song; we should read them as poetry, . . . not as sermons or instructions. But they are also shrouded in mystery, and in this careful reading . . . Lewis helps us begin to reveal their meanings."
We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: stories of Rwanda, Philip Gourevitch. 355 pages.
I couldn't finish this beautifully written book although the prose is some of the best I have ever read. But the topic is so heavy, the commentary on our human potential for cruelty so damning that I had to take a break until there is more sun in the sky. I want to finish this important witness to events that are still not resolved and that should not be cold-shouldered just because they are difficult.
The Irresponsible Self: on laughter and the novel, James Wood. 312 pages.
James Wood is brilliant. How often do you get to sit down over your solitary tuna sandwich or lonely cup of peppermint tea while sharing the thoughts of one of the best literary brains of this day? I got a kick out of reading this concurrently with his own first comic novel (below) to see how he put (or tried to put) into practice his stated ideals of comic writing.
The Book against God, James Wood. 257 pages.
Comic novel focused on a surprisingly sympathetic eccentric who won't bathe, can't hold down a job, won't commit to love, and can't leave God alone. This is a book about the failure of belief and the failure of disbelief, the persistence of love and the absurdity of being human.
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf. 242 pages.
Year after year, I keep re-reading this novel-length poem. Each time it seems deeper and more delicious than the time before. Each time the easy clarity reveals itself as a more structured attainment than I had originally supposed.
Rose in Bloom, Louisa May Alcott. 322 pages. Also Eight Cousins, or Aunt Hill, 236 pages, and An Old-Fashioned Girl, 345 pages.
I read these old childhood books to keep my sanity during wedding-planning and also to keep fresh in my mind the ethos of the family Christmas party that was the inspiration for our bride's vision of her reception. These are sweet books and a little didactic but with characters who are still fresh (and refreshing) for their fervent dedication to balance a life of talent and independence with the claims of family and love.