Sunday, January 6, 2013

First Cup—Arthur’s Top Ten (more or less) Books of 2012

Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel. A sequel to Wolf Hall (also a wonderful novel); Mantel continues the story of Cromwell, chief adviser, procurer (some might say “pimp”), to Henry VII. Historically well done, great characterization, good story, strong morality tale—can really feel the tension of living under the gaze and “protection” of a difficult and nearly omnipotent leader.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusack. How to capture this amazing and unusual book? The terrible power of love, the seductive power of books, the dangerous power of promises, the strange power of friendship and love—in a wonderfully written, brilliantly crafted narrative set in the Nazi era but set in a small town where everyone knows everyone.

Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel. I think if I put any book at the top of the list, it would be this one. This book is worth reading simply because of the language: sheer beautiful writing! I’m tempted to use the word exquisite. But the story of this man and his wonderful daughter is one of the greatest I’ve ever read. I finished a biography on Leonardo da Vinci just before I started this; when I was done with “daughter,” I thought, “Why do we think Leonardo matters so much? Galileo is the one who changed the world—my world, our world—and redirected the whole future of humanity!” If you want to understand the world better, if you want to read nearly perfect writing, if you want to experience one of history’s true “hinge” points—this is the book.

Sacré Bleu, A Comedy d'Art, Christopher Moore. Ever since I read Lamb, I’ve watched for Moore’s novels. They never disappoint. They often delight—with a sort of naughty delight: should I be reading this? Yet, they challenge—like a roller coaster in the middle of a midway; you have to hold on tight and pay attention; you may want to close your eyes, but you know you’d better not. Inventive and playfully serious, this novel takes you on an amazing murder mystery ride (who killed Van Gogh?) into the art world of late 19th century Paris, guided in part by Lautrec.

The Hare With The Amber Eyes, A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, Edmund de Waal. I think this might be #2 on my list. Like Galileo’s Daughter, this is nearly a perfect book. It is a memoir that captures a horrendous and wonderful epoch in European history by tracing the history of a collection of netsuke owned by the family Ephrussi—one of Europe’s richest families. It is the story of the art world and the story of a family finally trapped by Hitler’s holocaust. Beautifully written and difficult to put down and, finally, satisfying.

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson. I’m not sure, but this might be #2. (Actually, I think I’ll quit that ranking business. All of these books are powerful.) Robinson, however, is on my list of authors I always check on, like Doig, Enger, Leavitt, Chabon; well, that list could go on forever. (Housekeeping, by the way, is considered one of the 100 greatest novels of all time; her Gilead, well, is simply priceless.) Robinson’s novel, Home, would have been on my top 10 list if I’d written one last year. It’s a re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son that picks up after the son comes home. Very powerful story as well. Housekeeping is the story of women in a family, trying to hold it all together. It is not only a story about keeping house but also a story about keeping a spiritual house—in the face of abandonments and lost relationships.

Bird by Bird, Some Instructions On Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. It just occurred to me that this list could be titled “Books People Gave Me to Read.” (Even the idea of this list was suggested by Patrick Nachtigall’s own list.) The Book Thief was loaned to me by Mike and Miffy Davis; Galileo’s Daughter by Cole Dawson; The Hare With The Amber Eyes and Railsea were given to me by Joel; Bird By Bird was recommended by Bill Dobrenen. Thank you, friends!

What can I say about Anne Lamott? I’m a sucker for autobiographical reflection and Lamott is one of the best. My list here includes Madeleine L’Engle, Kathryn Norris, Ann Dillard, Don Miller, and Frederick Buechner; oh, and Wendell Berry—these have never failed me! Bird by Bird is a collection of essays on writing. Anyone interested in how to write well will find significant and enjoyable help in these essays. This book contains two of my favorite admonitions: “Listen to your broccoli” and write “shitty first drafts.”

When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome by Richard Rubenstein. After the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, perhaps the most crucial development in the history of Christianity is the question of the divinity of Jesus—the famous battle over one letter: Homoousian or Homoiousian? Was Jesus of the same or similar essence with the Father? This book describes the history—the often nasty and brutal history—of this battle, which in many ways is still with us. This well-written account will be helpful for anyone interested in the history of that famous time when Christianity became “respectable; for anyone wanting to understand the significance of the question; and for anyone who is still trying to work “the problem of Jesus” out on their own.

Railsea by China Miéville. If you like dystopia; if you like innovative and startling rewordings of great stories (Moby Dick and Treasure Island); if you like inventive language; if you like a complete new world with astonishing verisimilitude; if you like great character development…oh heck: if you like a rollicking good story—read this novel! An inventive and never slavish retelling of two (or three) great novels set in a dark future in which trains (not boats) go in hunt of giant moles (not whales) and where the quest for treasure takes you to where the tracks end.

Well, either this is one short or one long. The next two are really textbooks. (Where were texts like these when I was in college?!) These also come to me via recommendation, sort of: both were texts named by Cassie Trentaz for inclusion in the course we teach at WPC titled Rel 320: Spirituality, Character, and Service.

Hearing the Call Across Traditions, Readings on Faith and Service; Adam Davis, editor. :Hearing the Call" is a rich collection of essays, poems, religious texts, sermons, a variety of literary genres, philosophy, and history—in the context of the themes service and social justice. I have found it challenging and enlightening and enjoyable. If you, like me, are minimally informed about how the great religions of the world teach us to live in our world with our amazing and strange and wonderful neighbors, you will be informed and enlightened by this text.

On Our way, Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life; Dorothy C. Bass and Susan R. Briehl, editors. There’s a great deal of discussion going on in Christian circles about discipleship, which boils down to the question, “How then shall we live?” This is a wonderful collection of essays that does a fine job of providing answers to that question through the exploration of Christian practices—historical ways of living faithfully in the world: study, discernment, community, friendship, singing, creation care, making a living, honoring the body, knowing and loving our neighbors of other faiths, peacemaking, justice, and living in the God’s presence. My students and I find these practices to be challenging, demanding, and, often, liberating.

So, I close this (more or less) top ten list with deep appreciation for writers and books—may they live long and prosper—and for friends who love books so much that they can’t stand to keep them to themselves. In that spirit, I pass this on to any who stumble upon it. May these help you to see more clearly and to love more dearly. They are about the abundant life, which, for me, is a life with books.

Happy New Year!

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