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My Top Fourteen Books of 2016

Last year, it was my top eleven. This year, it’s the top fourteen. Why?

I could tell you that I’d already left a lot of good books off this list. And I could tell you that I would cheerfully, joyfully, delightedly recommend any of these books to any reader.

Really, though, it’s because these fourteen. among all those I read in 2016, touched deepest me in some way. Some, such as The House on Mango Street and The Long Season, are books that I’ve read before. A good number are ostensibly books on religious topics, but I’d argue that their subject matter was the human condition.

They’re ranked first to fourteenth, but, really, on another day, the list would probably be shuffled a bit, or a lot.

So, here they are along with a portion of my review and a link to that review:

“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr.

In his novel, Miller has created a captivating story in which the future world echoes what happened in the past.

Just as Western civilization took hundreds of years to rebuild itself after the fall of Rome, Miller’s post-apocalyptic Earth goes through a Dark Ages (the first section), then a Renaissance (the second) and finally a return to the pre-Flame Deluge age when the nations of the earth are again armed with nuclear weapons.

It’s clever, too, for Miller to envision the Catholic Church playing a similar role in this future darkness that it played in the earlier one. As a writer, though, he doesn’t need to continue in the second and third parts to focus on the Leibowitzian monastery. He could explore the parallels to the past in other, perhaps more worldly ways.

His decision to continue to center his story on the monastery is a signal that his intent has less to do with providing a gee-whiz adventure story than with digging into the profound questions of human life.

“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros

There is a universal quality to Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and also something very specific.

This is the story of Esperanza Cordero, and, at its heart, it is the story of every child who has gone through the very difficult transformation into becoming a teenager with all its excitement, fear, challenge and risk. No wonder it’s read in so many high school classes.

At the same time, the book’s strength as literature is that it tells the story of a unique girl in a unique place — a Mexican-American girl in the neighborhoods of Chicago whose life is focused not only on the changes in her body but also on her need to figure out how to maneuver in the broader world.

Esperanza lives in a community that is made up of newly arrived immigrants from Mexico and first-generation Americans, but also includes black and white people from such places as Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Puerto Rico.

There’s even Ruthie, an emotionally fragile woman, who wears a babushka, the colorful traditional Russian headscarf that, in mid-twentieth century Chicago, was ubiquitous as a means of protecting the hair of women of many backgrounds from the wind.

Ruthie, tall skinny lady with red lipstick and blue babushka, one blue sock and one green because she forgot, is the only grown-up we know who likes to play…She is Edna’s daughter, the lady who owns the big building next door, three apartments front and back.

Another neighbor whom Esperanza meets shortly after arriving at the family’s new house on Mango Street is Cathy, Queen of Cats, who lives with her father in a home he built.

You want a friend, she says. Okay, I’ll be your friend. But only till next Tuesday. That’s when we move away. Got to. Then as if she forgot I just moved in, she says the neighborhood is getting bad…. [They’ll] move a little farther north from Mango Street, a little farther away every time people like us keep moving in.

 “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a sad, bleak book about a man who finds near the end of his life that he has wasted it.

On the second to the last page of this 1989 novel, Stevens, an English butler who, during an auto trip through the countryside, is musing about events in his life, decides that he needs to stop thinking so much about his past.

“I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day.”

His solution is that he will work even harder at learning the skill of bantering.

“Fool” by Christopher Moore

Pocket is a randy fool.

That’s not a comment on his intelligence. It’s his job. Well, the fool part is. He’s a court jester.

But not just any court jester. He’s the fool for King Lear, and Christopher Moore’s Fool is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

But with laughs.

There are certainly a lot of laughs in Fool which is not to say that the blood, gore, betrayal, eye-gouging, storm-raging and all those delightful aspects of the Bard’s play that you know and love are missing.

Not at all. They’re there all right, as well as a violent backstory that Moore has developed that involves rape and rape — those royals have something of a one-track mind — and the walling-up of an inconvenient relative.

Oh, and a goodly number of bastards.

And the witches from Macbeth, and lines from The Merchant of Venice and other sacred Shakespeare works.

And even reference to that great work Green Eggs and Hamlet.

“The Long Season” by Jim Brosnan

Jim Brosnan’s books about two years in his life as a baseball player — The Long Season, published in 1960) and Pennant Race (1962) — were the first and last of their kind.

The books were the first time an active player wrote about what it was like to go through a baseball season — and off-season. Brosnan, a right-handed pitcher, took readers inside the clubhouse, the dugout and the bullpen and allowed them to listen in as he and his teammates grouse, kibbitz, strategize, scheme and ponder the greater and lesser questions of life.

They opened the door for many other books including the Ball Four by Jim Bouton, a scandalous tome for many baseball traditionalists, and for generations of ex-players who went into the broadcast booth to tell listeners and viewers what was really happening on the field and in the minds of the ballplayers and managers.

Yet, none of those books and none of those color commentators have come anywhere close to being as achingly honest about what it’s like to play professional baseball as Brosnan.

These books, covering the 1959 and 1961 seasons, are love letters to baseball. And also forthright, unguarded descriptions of the physical and, even more significant, psychological pains, joys, frustrations, strains and wonderment of trying to compete at the highest level of a sport.

“The Book of ‘Job’: A Biography” by Mark Larrimore

The book of Job is a great work of world literature, and its greatness lies in its open-eyed inquiry into the problem of the suffering of the innocent and the existence of evil.

It is distinctive in its willingness to present a full panoply of arguments and perspectives about these problems, and, most of all, it is ever-challenging in its refusal to provide a resolution.

Through the words of Job and others, including God, the book raises questions that are not answered. They have no answer, really, although, over the past two and a half millennia, interpreters have tried to find one. According to Mark Larrimore, a religious studies professor:

In its jarring polyphony and in its silences, the book of Job speaks to and for the broken. In its protagonist’s persistence, it speaks of hope even in the depths of despair. In its unfinalizability, it offers a shared project for sufferers and witnesses, and an outline of a community of care.

Larrimore’s 2013 work The Book of Job: A Biography is an energetic and accessibly erudite examination of the many ways this ancient text has been analyzed and comprehended down the centuries. It’s a journey that hears from some of the greatest theologians and thinkers throughout that time — from the great 12th century Jewish teacher Maimonides to St. Thomas Aquinas, from Calvin to Chaucer, from Kafka to Petrarch, from Kant to Luther.

Prior to the Enlightenment, those attempting to tease out the meanings in Job existed in a world in which belief in God was as real and omnipresent (and undeniable) as air. This limited the latitude that readers of the book had in evaluating the man Job and the way he reacts in the face of God’s actions or non-actions. Larrimore writes:

“[Twentieth-century philosopher] Simone Weil, one of the profoundest articulators of the depth of premodern understandings, put it well. Job is not a free agent but ‘struggles like a butterfly pinned alive in an album.’ Being ‘nailed down to the spot, only free to choose which way we look,’ may, however, teach us about our ultimate situation. We may find that we are ‘nailed to the center of the universe.’ ”

In 1714, Alexander Pope addressed Job and the question of innocent suffering in a long poem in which, Larrimore writes, he included lines that were “a kind of shooting the moon in answer to the problem of evil.” Those lines were:

“And, spite of Pride and erring Reason’s spite,

One truth is, ‘Whatever IS, is RIGHT.”

Forty-five years later, Voltaire wasn’t buying such optimism. The characters in his novel Candide go through great sufferings, and it’s up to an ill-tempered Muslim ascetic to provide the closest thing to an answer:

“What difference does it make…if there is good or evil? When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry about whether or not the mice are comfortable on board?”

“The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium” by Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal’s book-long meditation on how poets around the world and over the centuries have encountered Jesus — The Poets’ Jesus: Representations at the End of a Millennium — was published in 2000.

Yet, it shouldn’t be thought of as a retrospective. The attitudes toward Jesus, by believing and unbelieving poets, that Rosenthal carefully, lovingly set before the reader can be found today among humans, no matter their faith or lack of faith.

They don’t just exist in time. They exist, all of them, in the here and now.

As Rosenthal recounts, there have been waves of theological and poetic fashion that have heightened various images of Jesus down all the many years.

Still, I come away from this deeply spiritual work with the sense that, in some transcendent way, each Jesus identified by these poets does live, even those who contradict each other.

When it comes to understanding God, there is no recourse but to acknowledge our blindness.

We make stabs in the dark at trying to put into words our ideas, feelings and experiences of God and know how feeble those words are. And know, on top of that, how feeble, weak and bumbling are those ideas, feelings and experiences that we are trying to communicate.

“Sorrow Road” by Julia Keller

It’s clear from Sorrow Road and the earlier installments in the series that Keller is staking out a very particular literary territory.

Her Acker’s Gap books are shaped as crime novels, but they’re more transgressive than any genre fiction has a right to be. For her, plots and subplots are there to provide a framework within which to display the real focus of her writing.

She is, in fact, the bard of the overlooked, the marginalized and the forsaken.

Connie Dollar and Marcy Coates have no place in what passes for literary fiction today. They’re old enough to be retirement age but need to keep working in dead-end jobs. They’re overweight and single, and, well, come on, they live in West Virginia.

The novels that get the book world’s attention today don’t have characters like Connie and Marcy.

Instead, they feature mothers who, in a mid-life crisis, take the kids and flee a boring husband — with enough money to end up in Arizona or Alaska. Or they tell the stories of the young and hip, say, maybe graduate students trying to find their way in the cutthroat world of Manhattan. Or they’ll get inside the head of a college professor or computer nerd or a suburban family or an architect. Or — here’s a stretch — a writer.

“Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin” by Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin is a monumental, heavily detailed, ground-breaking and deeply humane look at the political murder of 14 million people by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany from 1932 through 1945.

Published in 2010, it is a bludgeon of a book, brutally direct and honest and unflinching.

It is also a keening elegy for the dead whose tragedy it was to find themselves inside a portion of Europe that was occupied by invaders from the Soviet Union or Germany or, worse case, both.

It is an elegy for the millions of men, women and children who were starved to death so food could be exported to boost the Soviet balance of trade or to feed German soldiers, and shot to death as they stood at the edge of body-filled pits, and gassed to death in one of the five death factories, or killed in a multitude of other ways for a multitude of policy reasons.

Killed for the sin of being where they were. and being Jewish or Polish or Ukrainian or a prisoner of war or a farmer or just handy to serve as a target for a reprisal for a resistance attack.

This was mass murder on a scale that the world had never before seen, carried out individually and together by two states that had built into their politics a belief that killing was an acceptable administrative strategy to achieve administrative goals.

Those who lived in this section of Europe that Snyder calls the bloodlands found out what it meant to be under the thumb or one or the other or both of these totalitarian systems. Some areas were invaded by the Soviets, then invaded by the Germans, and then “liberated” by the Soviets. As one Polish partisan wrote about the second approach of the Soviet army:

We await you, red plague,

To deliver us from the black death.

“The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Many reviewers were flummoxed last year when they tried to come to grips with Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh novel The Buried Giant. A lot of readers are likely to have the same reaction.

That seems to be Ishiguro’s goal — the creation of a story and a world where logic and clarity exist only in pieces, like shards of a stained-glass window fallen to the ground.

This novel is set in post-Roman, post-King Arthur England, on a landscape populated by Britons, Saxons and Picts, as well as ogres, pixies and one greatly feared she-dragon Querig. Of course, there’s also that buried giant of the title.

Yet, The Buried Giant is no historical fantasy. There is nothing quaint and picturesque about the novel. No cute sidekicks, no noble quests.

Neither does it truck in horror. The humans in this story are fearful of Querig and the other mythical creatures who share the same patch of geography, but they take them in stride, as a modern American would recognize the possibility of an armed robbery in certain places and take sensible precautions.

 

“How to Read the Bible” by Harvey Cox

In How to Read the Bible, influential Protestant theologian Harvey Cox tells about a Biblical scholar who was teaching a course in the books of Exodus and Joshua.

The stories of the Israelites rising up out of slavery in Egypt and finding themselves a home in the Promised Land, she told the class, are celebrations of freedom and liberation.

“Yes,” said one of her students, “but what about the Canaanites?”

Ah, yes, those pesky Canaanites, the people who had been living on the land before the Israelites showed up and took it. And killed them.

They were the Bible’s version of Native Americans.

This is an example of the complexity of the Bible, a theme that the Harvard-based Cox emphasizes on virtually every page of his 2015 book. The book of Genesis, for instance, is very different from, say, the Psalms or the Acts of the Apostles. Some books, such as the Song of Songs, are poetry. Others, such as St. Paul’s Epistles, instruct the reader in how to live a good life.

That’s not at all the point of the Book of Joshua which is an attempt by the Jewish people to understand their special covenant with God in their own time and in earlier times. It ain’t the Beatitudes.

We also have to bear in mind while reading Joshua [notes Cox] that we should not be looking for ethical models or moral norms. From that perspective the book is a horror. Joshua is about the “conquest” of an area later called Palestine and Israel…This is a conquest of attrition and slaughter. And it is a holy war.

“A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and a Family’s Secrets” by Eunice Lipton

In the jagged, inscrutable ways of families, Eunice Lipton’s A Distant Heartbeat is a love story.

It is a love story that encompasses affection, loss, flight, innocence, competition, anger, sex, idealism, arrogance, fear, courage, longing, martyrdom and betrayal.

It centers on Lipton’s uncle Dave who, in 1938, at the age of 22, snuck away from his Jewish family’s New York City life to volunteer to serve with other American Communists in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Three months after arriving to fight for the Republic against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco, he was dead.

I was checking our position at the front

when Dave walked over toward me asking if he could return to his regular squad. Just as I yelled to him to get down, he was struck by a sniper’s bullet sinking slowly to the ground in front of me.

“Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911” by Denis Boyles

Everything Explained That Is Explainable is NOT a book about the creation of a reference work.

I mean: Of course, it is. But that’s not really what Boyles is writing about.

His book is a delightfully knowing and sympathetic look at a moment in time that is both foreign and familiar to anyone living at the dawn of the 21st century — the world of intellectual Britain and commercial America a century ago.

It’s a story of characters, from both sides of the Atlantic, who seem to have stepped directly out of an undiscovered upper-class Dickens novel. It’s the tale of an age when science and scientific thinking seemed to be reforming life into something more rational and more perfect. And it is a celebration of a spirit that was full of hope, certainty and a rock-bottom belief in progress.

“C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography” by George M. Marsden

Three years ago, during the annual NCAA basketball March Madness, there was a parallel online tournament in which participants voted for the best Christian book of all time.

The brackets, overseen by the Emerging Scholars Network of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an interdenominational evangelical campus ministry, featured 68 works by such spiritual heavyweights as Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Aquinas, Rick Warren, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Calvin, Flannery O’Connor and Dante.

The winner in the final showdown was Confessions by Augustine, not a great surprise since it has been one of the foundational texts of Christianity for more than 1,700 years.

In second place, though, was a book that had been written just 61 years earlier by a self-described amateur theologian named Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis with the unprepossessing title Mere Christianity….

As historian George M. Marsden writes in C.S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’: A Biography, it is a book with humble beginnings as a series of short radio addresses that Lewis gave over the BBC to an embattled Britain, suffering under the blitz of German bombs and fearing invasion during World War II.

Each of three groups of talks was published as a small pamphlet, and, in 1952, Lewis collected and expanded these into a single volume.

Indeed, its publication, Marsden notes, was something of an afterthought. Yet, over the past six decades, Mere Christianity has grown in popularity worldwide to the point that, since 2001, it has sold more than 3.5 million copies.

Lewis, according to a speaker at a 1998 meeting at Wheaton College, is

“every man’s preacher, every woman’s exegete. He is the thinking Christian’s supreme apologist.”

One Christian publisher has even gone so far as to say,

“Outside the Scriptures themselves, Lewis is probably the greatest authority and example of a thoughtful Christian faith.”

 

Patrick T. Reardon

1.3.17

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