The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith
Oxford University Press, 2014
272 pp., $45.00
Favorite Books of 2014
The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany. Donald E. Westlake. Edited by Levi Stahl. Because he mostly wrote crime fiction (some of it under the name “Richard Stark”), and—even worse, from the standpoint of the guardians of our literature—a lot of it very funny, Donald Westlake (1933-2008) is almost never mentioned in canonical accounts of contemporary fiction. But that hasn’t prevented countless readers from savoring his sentences. This nonfiction miscellany, lovingly edited by Levi Stahl, will give those readers a clearer sense of the man behind the books while providing a good deal of instruction and delight.
The Girl Next Door. Ruth Rendell. Here I’ll quote from my review in Printers Row: “Rendell is 84. Her first novel, From Doon With Death, was published 50 years ago. Since then, she has written more than 60 novels (14 of them under the pen name Barbara Vine) and several collections of stories. Like her contemporary P.D. James, she is one of the finest writers of her time.
“In The Girl Next Door, Rendell is not only writing from the perspective of old age; she’s writing explicitly about old age — about the way diverse individuals experience it, and the way it’s perceived by people who haven’t yet reached that stage in life. (Her wit, always mordant, has never been sharper than when she skewers patronizing assumptions about the ‘elderly.’)”
Glimmerglass. Marly Youmans. And here I’ll quote from my review on the website of Books & Culture: “Some years ago, I described the novelist and poet Marly Youmans as ‘the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.’ That's still true today (so I think), and if you haven’t tried Youmans yet, her new novel, Glimmerglass, is a very good place to start.
“There’s a long tradition of stories and novels that have an imaginary painting (sometimes paintings, plural) at their heart: Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece,” Henry James’ “The Real Thing,” Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ross Macdonald’s The Blue Hammer (his last novel), Andrew Klavan’s The Uncanny, and many more—you could make your own list. Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure, one of the most interesting novels of 2014, centers on a lost painting.
“Glimmerglass also centers on a painting. If the title sounds familiar but you can’t quite place it, you must have been a reader of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales sometime in your youth. Glimmerglass was Cooper’s fictional name for Ostego Lake, near the present-day village of Cooperstown—‘Cooper Patent,’ in Youmans’ novel, another allusion.”
By the way, having mentioned (in connection with Peter Mendelsund) the pleasures of beautifully designed and made books, I should note here (as I did in the review) that Glimmerglass is gorgeous.
The Leaning Girl. Benoit Peeters and Francois Schuiten. Photography by Marie-Francois Plissart. Translated by Stephen D. Smith. This is one of my favorite “graphic novels” (or whatever you want to call them) from the last decade. It is connected in my mind both with Glimmerglass and with Station Eleven (see below). In a note to readers of this English translation, Benoit Peeters writes that it may be precisely “because The Obscure Cities”—the Schuiten-Peeters series in which this volume belongs—“is fundamentally so full of holes and destined to remain incomplete that it invites so much outside participation from our readers.” I can attest to that, since I came to this installment without any context—and was drawn deeply into it.
Love and Treasure. Ayelet Waldman. This novel is Waldman’s best book to date (or so I think), a triptych in three times: at the end of World War II in Europe; in the US and Europe (with excursions to Israel) in the present; and early in the 20th century in Europe; a prologue is set in the US in the present. At the heart of the story is a (fictitious) painting, powerfully enigmatic. One way to describe the book is to say that it wrestles with disillusionment and hope. How can we live honestly, not deceiving ourselves yet not giving way to cynicism or despair?
Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science. Daniel P. Todes. It turns out that most of what people think they know about Pavlov is wrong. This massive biography (855 pages, counting the notes and the index) sets the record straight. But why should anyone want to read it, outside a small circle of specialists? In part because the story of a determinedly “materialist” account of life and of human beings in particular did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In part because Todes gives us another chapter in the re-writing of 20th-century Russian intellectual history that is being carried on independently by scholars in a number of fields coming from very different angles (including a new understanding of the fate of science in the Soviet era). And in part simply because Pavlov was a fascinating man.