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Essay: The twelve best books of 2018

 

 

Here are the twelve best books that I read in 2018:

These aren’t the best books published in 2018.  In fact, only two of the books hit bookshelves during the year.  The rest are older, in some cases, a lot older.

I find it interesting that two of the book titles have to do with “The Art of…”  Two, with power, from different yet, perhaps, complementary perspectives.  Five are novels.  Two are book-long meditations on subjects that are far from run-of-the-mill.  Five have to do with religion in some way.  There’s a great Chicago novel, and a great Lincoln book.

Presented below are the twelve books, in alphabetical order, with the opening paragraphs of my reviews of them:

Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dyingby Sallie Tisdale

Over the years, I’ve read a fair number of books about death, but I found Sallie Tisdale’s Advice for Future Corpses so rich and powerful that, by the time I got through the first couple chapters, I’d ordered a copy for my wife.

I wanted her to read the book so, together, we could think about the questions and issues that Tisdale raises.  And I wanted her to have her own copy so she’d have it handy when needed.

Note, I didn’t say “if and when.”  Death is a “when” for me and for you and for all of us.

Tisdale doesn’t let the reader forget this. When it comes to the process of dying, she doesn’t flinch from talking about pain and intrusive friends and loose bowels and fear and burial and denial and coercive family members and cremation.  Consider this paragraph:

Despite many costs, for a grieving person cremation can have a kind of stark beauty.  George Bernard Shaw watched his mother’s body enter the crematorium, feet-first: ‘The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like pentacostal tongues,” he wrote, “and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over; and my mother became a beautiful fire.’ If you pay attention, burning has a blunt impact that is hard to deny.”

That last sentence, I think, carries the message of Tisdale’s book:  Pay attention!  Be prepared!  Think about death well before you’re dying!  Think about death as you’re dying!…

Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope

 Barchester Towers, like the other five novels in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barset, is characterized by psychological nuance and an affection for humanity in all its waywardness.

There are novels written by authors who don’t like their characters — not a one of them.  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom comes to mind.  Most writers like at least some of the people who populate their stories.

Trollope likes all of his characters, even the bossy bully Mrs. Proudie who takes up a lot of pages of Barchester Towers, and Mr. Slope, the oily, conniving liar who takes up even more.

When I say “likes,” I mean “understands.”  Trollope understands the weak bishop’s wife and the weak bishop’s chaplain as fully rounded, many-layered human beings.  They do a lot of bad and mean things, but none of Trollope’s characters is all bad.

It’s a measure of the author’s affection for the human race that he can tell of the depredations of these two with more of a touch of humane forbearance, as if to say, “Aren’t people just so curious? And, at the same time, loveable?”

Mean-spirited or gentle-minded, Trollope’s people can’t help but get themselves into trouble, can’t help but look silly, by jumping to conclusions or refusing to recognize their limitations or huffing and puffing for one reason or another….

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Among the many distinctive characters in David Copperfield, I have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Murdstone.

Actually, that’s wrong.  It’s not so much a soft spot for her.  It’s for the way Charles Dickens makes it clear who this woman is.

David is still a very young boy.  His mother Clara has just remarried.  His stepfather — one might as well say “evil stepfather” — Edward Murdstone has Clara under his thumb.  Even so, he calls in his spinster sister as a reinforcement:

It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.

 She was brought into the parlour with many tokens of welcome, and there formally recognized my mother as a new and near relation. Then she looked at me, and said:

 ‘Is that your boy, sister-in-law?’

 My mother acknowledged me.

 ‘Generally speaking,’ said Miss Murdstone, ‘I don’t like boys. How d’ye do, boy?’

 Under these encouraging circumstances, I replied that I was very well, and that I hoped she was the same; with such an indifferent grace, that Miss Murdstone disposed of me in two words:

 ‘Wants manner!’

 Having uttered which, with great distinctness, she begged the favour of being shown to her room, which became to me from that time forth a place of awe and dread, wherein the two black boxes were never seen open or known to be left unlocked, and where (for I peeped in once or twice when she was out) numerous little steel fetters and rivets, with which Miss Murdstone embellished herself when she was dressed, generally hung upon the looking-glass in formidable array.

OK, where to start?

Well, first, of course, Dickens makes it clear that Jane Murdstone is the antithesis of what a woman of his era is expected to be — bright, warm and pretty.  Instead, she’s “gloomy-looking” and “dark” and resembles her brother in appearance.  Sounds like him, too…

Golden Hillby Francis Spufford

There are many pleasures to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, and the greatest is its sheer unexpectedness.

It is fresh in startling ways. It is idiosyncratic storytelling that’s robustly accessible, a literary experiment that melds a variety of novel-writing approaches ranging from the early 1700s up to our present minute — and, yet, always clear and present and eye-opening.  And, from start to finish, it has its own language and voice, a vibrantly individual work of fiction.

I describe Golden Hill, published in 2016, as an experiment because Spufford had never written a novel before and because it is one of a kind.

You could call it historical fiction since it does cover a 45-day period at the end of 1746 in New York City, but this is no fancy-dress tale.  It has no hackneyed plot, nor is it an effort to explain what happened behind the scenes of some major event.

You could call it a love story since it does involve a very awkward but ardent courtship — as if involving two porcupines — between Richard Smith, a surprise visitor from London, and Tabitha Lovell, the shrewishly sharp-tongued and emotionally fragile daughter of a prominent New York businessman.  But in how many love stories is the catalyzing moment of the relationship marked by a drowning look, a desperate grin and a scream?

You could call it a mystery of sorts since Smith arrives in New York with a note for a thousand pounds sterling (or 1,738 pounds in New York money) that he expects Tabitha’s father to redeem, even though the colonial economy is chronically short of cash and even though he refuses to tell Mr. Lovell how he plans to use the funds and even though this will put quite a dent into the financial stability of Lovell’s business.

There are shocks aplenty in the novel, particularly in its final pages, but, by the time they start arriving, Smith’s secret has become part of the story’s landscape, in a manner of speaking — always there, but not terribly prominent.  Until the final pages….

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills

Make no mistake:  Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a refounding of the United States.

A redefinition of the nation — a revolution, if you will.

It was the substitution of the Declaration of Independence with its clear, direct, unequivocal statement that “all men are created equal” as the country’s central document, in place of the U.S. Constitution with its acceptance of slavery and, in consequence, a lesser ideal.

It was a clear commitment to the principle of equality after a half century of intellectual muddiness.

And, as Garry Wills explains in his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg, it was a revolution that was carried out in the space of three minutes and in the speaking of 272 words.

A revolution carried out, peacefully, through logic, political genius and language that has resonated ever since through American history and culture — a revolution in thought and spirit, conveyed in what were billed simply as “remarks” at the dedication of the new cemetery for the Union dead from the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point of a fiercely fought civil war in which body counts reached into the hundreds of thousands on both sides….

Native Sonby Richard Wright

For 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, life in Chicago in early 1939 is one of fear and anger.

On this day, he has just beaten up his friend Gus for no apparent reason — except that it meant that he and Gus and two of their friends would have to drop their plan to rob a white storeowner.  This is early in Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Wright notes:

His confused emotions had made him feel instinctively that it would be better to fight Gus and spoil the plan of the robbery than to confront a white man with a gun. 

But he kept this knowledge of his fear thrust firmly down in him; his courage to live depended upon how successfully his fear was hidden from his consciousness…

This was the way he lived; he passed his days trying to defeat or gratify impulses in a world he feared.

Bigger Thomas lives in Chicago’s South Side Black Belt, the largest of two African-American ghettos in the city.  (A much smaller one is on the Near West Side.)

He fears his world because, everywhere he turns, he is told in the words and actions of American society that he and other blacks like him aren’t accepted.  That he and they aren’t good enough.  That there are strict limits to what he can hope to do in his life — strict limits to what he can hope for.

And that there will be hell to pay if he ignores these realities — such as if he and his friends are foolhardy enough to rob a white man….

The Art of Biblical Narrativeby Robert Alter

The writers of the Hebrew Bible, when they’re telling a story, they’re like Homer with the Iliad — they’re omniscient.  They know the story as if they’ve watched it unfold from some vantage point above and around and inside the action.

However, unlike Homer, the biblical storyteller doesn’t make the characters and their motives clear to the reader.

Instead, the storyteller is selective, as Robert Alter explains in his groundbreaking 1981 study The Art of the Biblical Narrative:

He may on occasion choose to privilege us with the knowledge of what God thinks of a particular character or action — omniscient narration can go no higher — but as a rule, because of his understanding of the nature of his human subjects, he leads us through varying darknesses which are lit up by intense but narrow beams, phantasmal glimmerings, sudden strobic flashes.

We are compelled to get at character and motive, as in impressionistic writers like Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, through a process of inference from fragmentary data, often with crucial pieces of narrative exposition strategically withheld, and this leads to multiple and sometimes even wavering perspectives on characters.

There is, in other words, an abiding mystery in character as the biblical writers conceive it, which they embody in their typical methods of presentation.

This is a rich insight about the Hebrew Bible — what Christians call the Old Testament.

In the Iliad, Achilles is a fairly simple character in that, when he’s angry, he knows he’s angry and knows why he’s angry, and so does the reader (or, originally, the listener).  When he’s grieving, he knows he’s grieving and knows why he’s grieving, and so does the reader.

By contrast, David or Jacob or Joseph are much more mysterious — to the reader and to themselves.  The typical biblical character comes across as a mess of contradictions, doing good and doing bad, frequently from one moment to the next; having an agenda, often hidden from others and sometimes, it appears, from themselves; living in a fog of confusion, even when getting direct communication from God.

In other words, they’re people moving about in “varying darknesses which are lit up by intense but narrow beams, phantasmal glimmerings, sudden strobic flashes.”…

The Art of the Wasted Dayby Patricia Hampl

A child of her age, born in 1946, Patricia Hampl did her share of protesting in the streets as a young adult, against war, for human rights, and, through it all, she was proud of her nation’s founding document the Declaration of Independence and its words: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

What other country, she asks in The Art of a Wasted Day, is founded on happiness?

Crazy.  Good crazy…. We address happiness individually, conceive of it as an intensely personal project, each of us busy about our own bliss.  Loved that, love it still.

And, yet — as she came to realize later in her life, the Declaration guarantees life and liberty but not happiness, only its pursuit.

Happiness in the American credo is a job.

No wonder that Hampl, like a lot of Americans, found herself with a to-do list that seemed a mile long.  No wonder, too, that, in her fifties, she found herself the victim of panic attacks.

No wonder that, in the face of such stress and distress, she decided to embrace daydreaming and redefine happiness as “looking out the window and taking things in — not pursuing them.  Taking in whatever is out there, seeing how it beckons.  And letting it go.  On and on, out of range, a cloud passing, changing shape but still a cloud still moving.”….

The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography” by Alan Jacobs

The Book of Common Prayer was created in the 16th century as the prayer book of the Church of England.

Originally, that institution had been part of the Roman Catholic Church, but it was separated from Rome by King Henry VIII and became a national church, constitutionally established by the state with the monarch as its supreme governor.

Thus, The Book of Common Prayer, created to replace the Catholic prayers in religious services, was, in effect, a government publication.

This led to complexities for the prayer book in England that it wouldn’t have in other nations, such as the United States, where the Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican Communion, is just one of many organized religions rather than under the sponsorship of the state.

For instance, as Alan Jacobs writes in his energetic look at creation and history of the prayer book The “Book of Common Prayer”:  A Biography, there have been times over the past five hundred years when the book was seen not just as an expression of religious faith but also as a stand-in for the nation in some way….

The Christ of the Miracle Stories: Portrait through Encounter by Wendy Cotter CSJ

Twice in her 2010 book The Christ of the Miracle Stories, Wendy Cotter tells this story about the Roman emperor Hadrian:

He was on a journey, and a woman on the roadside asked him to speak to him.

“I haven’t time,” he said, brushing her off.

“Cease, then, being emperor!” she cried out with sharp sarcasm.

He stopped, went back and talked with her.

This, Cotter says, is an example of the virtue of epieikeia, the willingness to hear — really hear — the words of someone else, even someone considered by society inferior in some way, and to recognize the wisdom in the person’s words.

As the leader of the Roman empire in the early 100s, Hadrian was the most powerful man on earth.  Yet, in this and other incidents, he showed an open-mindedness in dealing with other people, a readiness to take in opinions and ideas that were different from those he held.

It may seem odd to start off a review of a book about Jesus with an anecdote about a Roman emperor.  Yet, this story is an example of the way that Cotter has mined the documents of the first and second centuries A.D. get a better sense of the cultural context of those who saw Jesus firsthand as well as the earliest Christians.

For example, what were the social expectations and reactions when a beggar shouted at Jesus from the side of the road?  (Pretty much the same as today when a homeless guy yells loudly at passersby.)  How did people expect a Roman centurion to treat someone like Jesus?  (In a brusque domineering manner, very much different from the respectful and self-effacing attitude of the one who came to ask for a cure for someone in his retinue.)

What the Hadrian story tells us is that the willingness to listen to others from a different social level or even simply with different ideas was an unusual quality in those early times (just as it is today).  The idea that someone as important as the emperor would pay attention to a nobody like this woman was so striking that commentators and biographers noted it.

The Hadrian story is one of many such non-Christian writings that Cotter brings to bear in her analysis of the miracle stories of Jesus in order to provide a framework in which to better understand what’s going on.

But the Hadrian story is also an example of what happens to Jesus in many of these stories.  He is confronted by people who just won’t follow the social conventions — by petitioners who, Cotter writes, are “spunky, noisy, pushy and outrageous.”  She also describes them as bold and brash and rude.  Three of them, in fact, cut a hole in the roof of a home in the hopes that, by lowering their paralyzed friend down into the room where Jesus is, he’ll get a cure.

These people, asking for themselves or others, know that, by breaking social bounds, they are certain to be castigated by the “better” people around them.  Yet, they accept that in order to get Jesus to hear them.

And he does.

But not always right away.

Cotter’s book is wonderfully energetic, clear and direct, a surprisingly nimble-footed work of biblical investigation that is accessible to non-experts and scholars alike…

The Path to Powerby Robert A. Caro

After 768 pages of text and more than 350,000 words, the reader of Robert A. Caro’s The Path to Power might easily come away wondering:

“Well, who was Lyndon B. Johnson?”

In this book — the first of what is now expected to be five volumes in a series titled The Years of Lyndon Johnson — Caro writes deeply about many aspects of LBJ’s personality.

About Johnson’s flattery of older, powerful men, a latter-day Uriah Heep.  About Johnson’s physical and emotional restlessness. About Johnson’s need to be the center of attention.

About Johnson’s ability to attract men of strong skills but weak personalities and his cold use of them, regardless their desires, for his own purposes for decades at a time.  About Johnson’s convoluted relationship with his father, the man in whose footsteps he followed, the man whose mannerisms he copied, the man he once idolized and then came to disdain.

About Johnson’s compassion in teaching, for a year, a classroom of Mexican-American children in Cotulla in South Texas near the Mexican border and in obtaining for the isolated farms and towns of the Hill Country, then living a medieval existence, the miracles of electricity.

About Johnson’s ability to brilliantly spot how to accomplish a job that others thought impossible and his willingness, indeed, inner drive, to do that job in every detail, even the most minute, with grueling, unsparing energy over weeks and months — and to lead others to devote themselves heart and soul to that accomplishment.  About Johnson’s readiness to stuff ballot boxes and to subvert election machinery and to buy votes with cash money.

About Johnson’s desperation to escape poverty.  About Johnson’s ferocious hunger for power.  And about Johnson’s talk from early in his life about becoming President of the United States, a goal that framed nearly everything he did as an adult, a relentless, unswerving, devious, intense focus to his life and relationships.

“Well, who was Lyndon B. Johnson?”

He was all of this, and more.  The Path to Power only covers the initial 33 years of Johnson’s life (1908-1941), and it ends with, first, his defeat in an election for the U.S. Senate from Texas, one he had been certain to win, and, then, with the derailing of all his plans by World War II…

The Power and the Gloryby Graham Greene

He is a priest who has been on the run for eight years in a state in Mexico where authorities have leveled all churches in an effort to root out Catholicism.  Religious books are banned, and even well-to-do women find themselves in jail if they’re found with one.

It is the middle of the 20th century, and the new Socialist government wants to stamp out superstition.  Some priests have fled.  Some have stayed and, under duress, have gotten married.  Others, like this one, have gone into hiding.

When caught, a fugitive priest is shot for treason.

As Graham Greene’s 1940 novel The Power and the Glory, opens, this priest is the last one at large, offering the sacraments — baptism, confession, the Mass — to believers where he can find them and when they feel it’s safe to be with him.

Most of the time, it’s not safe.

Over the past year, he has celebrated Mass just four times and had heard maybe a hundred confessions.

Now, a fervently anticlerical Army lieutenant is on his trail, and, when the officer finds that a village has been visited by the priest, he takes a hostage.  He holds the hostages in a jail in the main city of the state, and, when he wants to retaliate against the priest, he shoots a hostage….

 

Patrick T. Reardon

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