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John Wilson


Favorite Books of 2010

And Books & Culture's Book of the Year

A recurring theme among many people I respect is the harm done by lusting after novelty, especially in the arts and the realm of ideas. I take their point, but I wish a few of them would work for a while on the delights of newness and surprise, exploring the good that we see in a distorted form in the cults of novelty.

Certainly part of what gives pleasure in looking back on the year in books—and ahead to the year to come—is a sense of newness joined to the familiar. In 2009, I celebrated a new translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel In the First Circle , my favorite among his books, including material Solzhenitsyn had cut when (in the 1960s) he was still hoping to publish the book in his native Russia. This year I was very glad to have a new translation of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago , by the husband-and-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Taking the two books together, in a world much changed from the time of their first appearance and the stir they created—Pasternak's novel in the late 1950s, Solzhenitsyn's in the late '60s—would make for a splendid class or, more plausibly (are there any classes like that?), a reading group.

If you are involved in the business of publishing, in one way or another, you will be keeping track of books by friends. In that respect, 2010 was an exceptionally rich year. I would be remiss not to mention some of them here, though I can't begin to take note of them all. (Apologies, friends, for those not here.) You can note that my judgment may be addled by my affection for the authors—why not simply check out these books and make your own judgment? I'm confident that Stan Guthrie's All That Jesus Asked: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us , Richard Kauffman's An American in Persia: A Pilgrimage to Iran , Rob Moll's The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come , Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy , Lauren Winner's A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia , Luci Shaw's Harvesting Fog , Susan Wise Bauer's The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade , and Philip Yancey's What Good Is God? In Search of a Faith That Matters will repay your attention.

In the next couple of weeks we'll post some additional reports on the year in books. Here are my favorites from 2010. In the ritual formulation introducing this annual reckoning, I emphasize that these are not the "best" books of the year, however those might be determined, but rather the books that come most readily and insistently to mind as I think back. My recollections are unsystematic, and a list done next week might be different from today's. Even though the year is almost over, there are a number of books I'm waiting to catch up with. And then there are all those books of 2010 I don't even know about—I might stumble on a terrific one tomorrow.

The titles are listed in alphabetical order, more or less (the logic of departures from that will be clear). And at the end you'll find Books & Culture's Book of the Year. I'd love to hear from you about this list, and especially about the books of 2010 that stand out in your own reading.

The Divine Comedy . Dante Alighieri. Translated from the Italian by Burton Raffel. Northwestern University Press. And La Vita Nuova . Dante Alighieri. Translated from the Italian by David Slavitt. Harvard University Press. When the year began, I had no idea that I would be re-reading Dante. Two translators I admire enticed me to do so, and I didn't regret it. Both books, by the way, are well-made for use and not only for standing on a shelf. Raffel's Divine Comedy is a large book but not unwieldy, accommodating Henry Carrigan's extensive and helpful notes, and the page layout is generous, friendly to the eye. Slavitt's Vita Nuova is a small book, gorgeously designed, similar in format to his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy, published by Harvard a couple of years ago.

The Identity Man . Andrew Klavan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And Zero History . William Gibson. Putnam. Two novelists, so different from each other in style and sensibility and outlook that they seem to be writing about two different worlds: Planet Klavan and Planet Gibson. It would be a mistake to dismiss either one. Klavan shows how the Way Things Are can be systematically obfuscated, and in response he cuts through evasions; Gibson shows how what appears to be simple or straightforward is neither, and he teases out unexpected connections. Stan Guthrie and I discussed these books in podcasts on November 22 (Klavan) and September 27 (Gibson).

The Irrationalist . Suzanne Buffam. Canarium Books. And Lovely, Raspberry . Aaron Belz. Persea. And The Stranger Manual . Catie Rosemurgy. Graywolf Press. Each of these volumes by a youngish poet is a second book. All three are written from the perspective of a stranger in a strange land, but their voices are sharply individual. If you're of a mind to, you can find podcasts on Buffam (May 3) and Belz (September 13). And keep an eye out for Brett Foster's piece on The Stranger Manual in the January/February issue of B&C, which mails next week.

The Lives of the Poets . Samuel Johnson. Edited by John H. Middendorf. Three vols. Yale University Press. Yes, a lot scholarship is narrow, but how impressive it can be when informed by a lifetime of learning and brought to bear on a worthy subject. A case in point is this magnificent three-volume edition of Lives of the Poets, Volumes 21-23 in the Yale Works of Samuel Johnson. John Middendorf, who was both the general editor of the Works and the editor of these three volumes, worked on the Lives for thirty years. He was able to see the first two volumes through copyediting before his death in 2007, after which his colleague James Gray completed the task. The exacting work of Middendorf, Gray, and others who contributed to this project was not wasted: they have given us a treasure. The formidable voice of Dr. Johnson, alive in these pages, has beguiled me for many a night.

The Oxford Book of Parodies . Edited by John Gross. Oxford University Press. No significant literary subject is so little studied as parody, which hardly even figures in the curriculum. Crazy. You can't understand the history of literature without it. But never mind. Parody is at once a source of great delight and an irritant, inducing anxiety. Its effectiveness tends to be sharply timebound, and some of the specimens gathered in this volume by John Gross, bookman of the first order, will be appreciated by a mere handful of readers. That's no fault of his, and there's plenty here to savor.

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time . Sarah Ruden. Pantheon Books. Sarah Ruden is a translator of Greek and Latin (see for example her splendid version of The Aeneid, published by Yale University Press in 2008) and a poet. A comment in a Bible study (she is a Quaker) prompted Ruden to begin reading the Apostle Paul alongside the literary texts that are her bread and butter. The result was this wonderfully refreshing book. You may want to check out Natalia Marandiuc's interview with Ruden in the September/October issue of B&C, if you haven't already; also, I interviewed Ruden for the September issue of Christianity Today.

Thereby Hangs a Tale and To Fetch a Thief . Spencer Quinn. Atria Books. Here I'll quote from a mini-review I did for the B&C website: "In January 2009, Atria Books published a novel by Spencer Quinn, Dog on It, that took the familiar noirish conventions of the private-eye novel and gave them a twist: the narrator is a dog. Gimmicky? Cloying? Terminally cute? It could have been all of these, but it wasn't. The voice of Chet the dog is winsome, funny, and somehow—by the alchemy of fiction—utterly persuasive. So who was this unknown author, Spencer Quinn? The bio on the jacket flap was skimpy. No wonder. 'Spencer Quinn,' it turned out, is none other than Peter Abrahams, 'my favorite American suspense novelist,' Stephen King has said (and one of my favorites too). He followed with Thereby Hangs a Tail in January 2010 and now, in time for Christmas gifts, To Fetch a Thief, the third installment in the adventures of Chet and his partner Bernie Little of the Little Detective Agency. Like its predecessors, this new story is based in 'the Valley,' somewhere in the American Southwest, ranging out from there (in this instance, across the border). The case involves a missing circus elephant, Peanut, for starters, but soon ramifies."

Tree of Codes . Jonathan Safran Foer. Visual Editions. I haven't been a fan of Jonathan Safran Foer (on the contrary), but his new book (which I've only had in hand for several days) is fascinating. It's an erasure project, like Ronald Johnson's Radi Os, which takes as its base text Milton's Paradise Lost, but much more complex as an artifact. The base text is Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles. Rather than try to describe the look of the pages in Tree of Codes, with their die-cut gaps, I suggest you go to the web, where you can see some of the pages (and the expressions of people turning them). I'll be writing more about this book after I've had a chance to take it in.

The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s . Princeton University Press. Richard Wolin. I wrote about this book for the B&C website in July. Here's a slightly condensed version: " 'Is the life of the mind a history of interesting mistakes?' So Hugh Kenner asked in The Pound Era. More particularly, he wondered, 'is the surest way to a fructive western idea the misunderstanding of an eastern one?' Something like Kenner's sense of historical irony informs Richard Wolin's interesting and curious new book. Wolin centers his attention on the Maoism that animated one influential faction of French students in the turmoil of May 1968 and gained sympathizers among leading intellectuals of the day. He freely acknowledges that the 'China' these would-be revolutionaries celebrated with their paeans to Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution existed only in their heads; the reality was considerably more grim. And yet, he says, the long-term effects of this infatuation were clearly beneficent: 'what began as an exercise in revolutionary dogmatism was transformed into a Dionysian celebration of cultural pluralism and the right to difference. At issue was a political learning process via which French youth cured itself of its infantile revolutionary longings in order to focus on more circumscribed tasks pertaining to the transformation of everyday life and the regeneration of civil society.'… Disagreements and exasperations aside, I found this book compulsively readable. The history of the Sixties is a long way from being exhausted."

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini . Frances Stonor Saunders. Metropolitan Books. In the introduction to our weekly e-newsletter for June 8, I mentioned the podcast that had been posted the day before, the subject of which, I said, "is a book sure to turn up on my list of favorites at the end of the year: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, by Frances Stonor Saunders …. (You can readily find a brief video, two minutes or so, in which she is talking about an earlier book, a copy of which I just acquired. It's an interesting voice to have in your head as you read. And she has wonderful eyebrows.)" Flash forward to December: Yes, an exceptionally good book, shifting between the heart-breaking story of Violet Gibson (the woman of the title) and Italy under Mussolini, between the mental instability of a devout Catholic woman (whose "madness" made a kind of sense), abandoned by her family, and the megalomania of Il Duce, long indulged.

The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation . Edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto. Norton. I wrote about this book for Commonweal's Christmas Critics feature (in the December 3 issue), from which I'll quote briefly: it is "a superb anthology that should turn up under many Christmas trees this December. Old-English originals appear facing the translations. Many of the more than seventy contemporary poets who are represented here—they include many prominent figures—do not know Old English. They worked with co-editor Matto or with other experts. The results are wide-ranging, both in the variety of original poems and in the distinctive voices of the translators. The useful supplementary material includes a foreword by Seamus Heaney and comments on translation by ten of the contemporary poets. And there are links to sites where you can hear Old English poems read aloud …. The Word Exchange invites us to a great feast."

Books and Culture's Book of the Year:

The Flower Seeker: An Epic Poem of William Bartram . Philip Lee Williams. Mercer University Press. On a podcast earlier this week, Stan Guthrie and I talked about this book. The podcast was almost twice as long as usual, but we could have easily continued for another fifteen minutes. That's how rich a work it is. Extracts from Bartram's Travels, reworked by Williams (as Ezra Pound reworked the sources for his Cantos), are the underlying strata of this work, which pays homage to the epic tradition in a distinctively American way. Curiosity and delight, beauty and sadness, loss and yearning, and all the "fragrant disorder of this world" are mingled here in a narrative that suggests the gratuitous abundance of Creation itself. And the physical book has been crafted with an expansive generosity that catches the spirit of the poem. Carve out time for it if you can.


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