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Best books of 2019

The best books of 2019

  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

  2. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

  3. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

  4. The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. DuBois

  5. Job: A New Translation by Edward L. Greenstein

  6. The Book of Exodus: A Biography by Joel S. Baden

  7. The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R. Crumb

  8. Being Dead by Jim Crace

  9. As a City on a Hill by Daniel T. Rodgers

  10. The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age by Christopher Hibbert

  11. The Cold Way Home by Julia Keller

  12. All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860 by Sidney Blumenthal

  13. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

  14. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

  15. Walls of Prophecy & Protest: William Walker & the Roots of a Revolutionary Public Art Movement by Jeff W. Huebner

 

This past year — 2019 — was one in which I became closely acquainted with and greatly enriched by some extraordinary writers and books.

What can I say about Moby Dick except that I found it so rich with literary meat and vision that I could see re-reading it once a year, every year, from now on?  And thank the Lord for Toni Morrison who I’d never read before 2019.  And for Hanna Arendt — what a brave and poetic thinker!

It was also a year in which I revisited some deeply satisfying works — The Souls of Black Folks, Being Dead and The Virgin Queen.  And enjoyed new (or new to me) books by favorite authors — Julia Keller, Christopher Moore and Terry Pratchett.

And found several thoroughly rewarding books on religious themes that impact the secular world, including a courageous new translation of Job, an R. Crumb illustrated edition of The Book of Genesis, an examination of the idea of “a city on a hill” and a biography of the Book of Exodus.

Sidney Blumenthal’s book about Lincoln surprised me in its deft writing and deep thinking, and Jeff W. Huebner’s book about the mural art of William Walker was an important work that touched me because I knew and liked Walker and his art.

These are the best books among the 70 or so that I read in 2019.  (They’re not the best books published in that year.  That’s for other people and other lists.)

Here they are with excerpts:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville: “Moby Dick is an epic piece of literature on a par with Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s King Lear and the Bible’s Job.  It is densely rich in language and structure, in character and story. Its account of a man against a whale is a story that had never been told before with such grandeur.  Yet, it parallels other efforts by master storytellers down the centuries to portray humans confronting the unanswerable questions of existence.”

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison: “Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon is…like a complex piece of music — like a Beethoven symphony or a Bach cantata — that brings great pleasure in a single hearing.  But, even as it ends, the listener wants to hear it again, soon, to be able to pay better attention to its subtleties, its themes, its relationships, the way this section talks with that section, the way one section sets the stage for another.”

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt: “Early in Eichmann in Jerusalem, her insightful, sober and controversial 1964 book, Hannah Arendt notes that Adolf Eichmann — tried, convicted and executed in Jerusalem for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity during the Holocaust — was a joiner. As a result, she writes that ‘May 8, 1945, the official date of Germany’s defeat, was significant for him mainly because it then dawned upon him that thenceforward he would have to live without being a member of something or other.’  Indeed, as Eichmann said: ‘I sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult – in brief, a life never known before lay before me.’ ”

The Souls of Black Folks by W. E. B. Du Bois: “Published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folks by W. E. B. Du Bois is an important book of American literature, a significant work in the development of the field of sociology and a foundational text for the study of race relations in the United States. Yet, for me, the heart of the book is far from the objective, analytical, theoretical world of social science. For me, the heart of the book is Du Bois’s cry from the soul that is Chapter 11.  Its title is ‘Of the Passing of the First-Born,’ and it is his account of the death of his 18-month-old son, Burghardt Gomer Du Bois.”

Job: A New Translation by Edward L. Greenstein: “I know the title of Edward L. Greenstein’s Job, just published by Yale University Press, indicates that it’s a new translation of the biblical book composed about 2,600 years ago. But it’s not just ‘a’ new translation.  Not by a long shot. Greenstein’s Job is a bold, highly original challenge to centuries, if not millenniums, of scholarship and theology.  It is a no-holds-barred assertion of a new way of looking at Job, the honest, upright gentile who, in the biblical book, is afflicted with waves of misery from God and asks the Deity: Why me?”

The Book of Exodus: A Biography by Joel S. Baden:Baden packs a lot into the 215 pages of his text, recognizing, for instance, that the Exodus story existed long before it was stitched together in the Hebrew Bible from four sources, none of which tells the whole story.  The laws, including the Ten Commandments, that God gave the Israelites on Mount Sinai were central to Jewish thought and practice.  Christians, however, saw those laws as being brought to fulfillment in Jesus, and influential leaders castigated Judaism for failing to accept the Messiah, using words and theories that fed anti-Semitism. Over the centuries, the Exodus story has been embedded into Western culture as the key image in scores of social, political and religious campaigns in which one group seeks to get out from under another.  For instance, during the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther equated the Pope with the Pharaoh of Exodus, and John Calvin saw himself as Moses, even in his failings.”

The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R. Crumb: “It’s not for nothing that the front cover of The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R. Crumb carries this warning: ADULT SUPERVISION RECOMMENDED FOR MINORS. And this note: THE FIRST BOOK OF THE BIBLE GRAPHICALLY DEPICTED! NOTHING LEFT OUT! The illustrator of this 2009 book, after all, is R. Crumb, he of Fritz the Cat and a host of other scandalously in-your-face underground comix of the 1960s and later…That warning on the cover is needed because Crumb doesn’t pull any punches as he draws the entire book of Genesis, using for the most part the highly praised translation by Robert Alter and a bit of the King James Version. On the other hand, he does so respectfully.  He didn’t do this book as an exercise in campiness or as a way of making fun of religious faith.  Indeed, in his way, Crumb has striven to be true to the text, more than other drawn versions have been.”

Being Dead by Jim Crace:  “Just before the first page of Jim Crace’s 1999 novel Being Dead, Joseph and Celice, zoologists married to each other, have been murdered in a clumsy, random robbery….For a novel of only 196 pages, Being Dead has a great deal going on.  It is, in a minor way, a mystery, first, about how these two met their deaths, and, second, about whether the much-delayed search for them would ever find them. It is also a literary tour-de-force in which Crace dazzles the reader with his clear-eyed description of such aspects of human life as the inner workings of a daughter’s thoughts and emotions, the mastications of the insect and mammal world on the flesh of the two zoologists and the intricate interweaving birth, breath, sex and death.”

As a City on a Hill by Daniel T. Rodgers: “In As a City on a Hill, Princeton University scholar Daniel T. Rodgers, an expert on the history of social ideas, writes that the story of Winthrop’s words ‘has been celebrated not only for its elements of drama — dangerous ocean passage, inspired words, and exalted sense of purpose — but as the origin story of the nation that the United States was to become.’ Indeed, the first sentence of that quotation became the touchstone of the Ronald Reagan presidency, and has been trumpeted in patriotic speeches, Republican and Democrat, ever since. However, as Rodgers notes, “It is an uplifting story and a haunting one.  And it is at least half wrong.”

The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age by Christopher Hibbert: “Elizabeth I dominated England as its queen for the entire second half of the 16th century, a time that came to be called the Elizabethan Age. She was intelligent, strong-willed, devious, vain, affectionate and enigmatic, holding her throne for more than four decades during an era when women weren’t supposed to wield such power. She was also a human being, and that’s the Elizabeth who is the subject of Christopher Hibbert’s 1991 biography The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. She was a vital presence, writes Hibbert, one of the most popular and accessible historians of British and European history.  For all her aches and pains, she ‘needed little sleep; she spent hours standing up; she continued to walk with energy and to ride with astonishing vigor.’ Even so, she wasn’t the easiest person to spend time with, especially for anyone who was her inferior — which, after her coronation, was everyone, except her fellow monarchs. Hibbert points out: ‘The Queen was what nowadays would be called exceptionally highly strung.’ ”

The Cold Way Home by Julia Keller:  “The Cold Way Home is a novel about pain and oppression, about twisted loyalties and dead-end addictions, about commission and confession, about easily snuffed-out passion and enduring friendship, about the grind of making ends meet and the sap and the decay of roots. It is also a mystery involving two murders that are solved by former county prosecutor Belfa Elkins and her fellow investigators, mysteries involving a long-leveled state hospital for women who, in their homes, didn’t fit in and who suffered from the hands of the hospital staff.  A mystery that ends with a showdown in a forest between Bell and the killer. It is, as all of Keller’s Acker’s Gap novels are, about small-town West Virginia, beaten down by predatory mining companies and drug firms, by loss of jobs and exploitation and malevolent neglect.  Acker’s Gap, the county seat, doesn’t have even enough money to keep the street lights on at night. Above all, though, The Cold Way Home is a novel about the courage of hope.”

All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. III, 1856-1860 by Sidney Blumenthal: “Some readers of All the Powers of Earth may find themselves uncomfortable that Lincoln seems to play such a relatively small role in this third volume of his biography.  Yet, this is a book like one of those huge religious or history paintings with a cast of thousands swarming over the canvas.  Despite the seeming crowds and chaos, there is always one figure who brings everything into focus. All the many characters in Blumenthal’s book, and all their speeches, and all their conniving and violence, all their political chess-play form the essential background against which to understand who Lincoln was at this moment in his life, what he did and why it was important.”

Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore: “There’s more than a bit of raunchiness in Fluke involving people in some cases and creatures in others — such as whales (including two big whale guys [whom, Moore informs us, are each endowed with testes weighing about a ton each and a 10-foot penis] who mistakenly think a Zodiac inflatable boat containing two female (human) scientists is the object of their common affection and, well, act upon that assumption, if you get my drift. The two female (human) scientists are in the Zodiac because Fluke is a novel about a bunch of marine biologists and other experts who are in the waters off the Hawaiian island of Maui to study whales.  That’s why the women get so up-close-and-personal with those two big fellas in the previous paragraph.  But the Zodiac-riders aren’t the main characters in Fluke although the play their parts in this comedy of mammals.”

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett: “Two dead men. Long ago, the first tried to kill the second with a horrible torture but was killed by an act of a god. The second lived a long, fruitful and productive live and, then, in the normal course of things, died. Now, the second finds the first at the edge of the black desert that must be crossed to Judgement.  For decades, the first has been at this spot, curled up inside himself, as he had been in life, unable to move. Now, the second sees him, takes pity and picks him up to carry (once again, as he had in life) through the desert, no longer alone. A god, like an idea If that sounds like a religious parable, well, yeah. Although not exactly what a Discworld reader expects from Terry Pratchett who tells this story in his 1992 novel Small Gods.”

Walls of Prophecy & Protest: William Walker & the Roots of a Revolutionary Public Art Movement by Jeff W. Huebner: “Bill Walker was once described by a top art historian as the most accomplished contemporary artist working in the classical mural tradition, spanning from Giotto in 14th century Italy to Diego Rivera in 20th century Mexico. His work was compared to that of the highly esteemed artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, both African-American, like him. His Black Love mural in the often-violent Cabrini-Green public housing development (1971) was described by one art expert as “an Afro-American Parthenon frieze.” And his All of Mankind: Unity of the Human Race, a series of interior and exterior murals in and on a small Catholic church nestled in development (1971-73), was compared to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Not only that, but Walker was the father of what Studs Terkel described as “the wildest, most exciting street art movement in the country,” a movement that has resulted in artworks covering blank walls in neighborhoods, particularly ethnic and low-income communities, from one end of the nation to the other.”

 

Patrick T. Reardon

12.30.19

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