By John Wilson
Books of the Year
`Tis the season for list-making. Like all such selections, mine should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, one of my choices last year was Michael Bellesiles's Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, a book that has become an academic scandal. (I'll report on the controversy in the next issue of Books & Culture.)
The books that follow may not be the best of the year—many others are equally worthy, I'm sure—but they are the ones that come most readily to mind among the several thousand that have crossed my desk in the past 12 months. The list is alphabetical by title. That it begins with three novels in a row, by three British women with Catholic or Anglo-Catholic affiliations, surprised me, too, when I sorted out the titles. (We'll be on holiday next week, but on December 31 we'll return with some of the other noteworthy books of 2001.)
1. According to Queeney, by Beryl Bainbridge (Carroll & Graf). The British novelist Beryl Bainbridge can't exactly be called neglected—notoriously, she's been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times without winning. Still, in talking about current fiction with undergraduates and grad students hither and yon, I almost never find any familiarity with her books. She isn't fashionable; she doesn't fit any prefabricated category. She simply writes books that couldn't be written by anyone else. Her latest novel centers on Samuel Johnson, and in particular on his friendship with the Thrales, with whom he frequently stayed during the later years of his life. There's a type of bad novel, the intellectual equivalent of celebrity fiction, that tries to cash in on the aura of genius and falls ludicrously short—in recent years we've had inadvertently comic versions of Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin, among many others, and we wait in dread for the first novel based on the life of Richard Feynman (or has one already appeared?). But Bainbridge is equal to the task. Her Johnson is persuasively real precisely because she doesn't fetishize his genius and his celebrated quirks. She gives us the man and his age in all their pity and magnificent strangeness—for all of which, being human, we are his contemporaries. (For a marvelous interview with Bainbridge, see The Paris Review, No. 157, Winter 2000-2001).
2. Aiding and Abetting, by Muriel Spark (Doubleday). Now in her eighties, Dame Muriel Spark has produced yet another brilliant novel to put on the shelf alongside Memento Mori, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and many others. Aiding and Abetting is based on the actual case of "Lucky" Lucan, the seventh Earl of Lucan, who in 1974 killed his children's nanny—beat her to death in the dark, intending to murder his wife. Having realized his mistake, he almost succeeded in killing his wife, too. Lucan escaped and has never been found. Many believe he is dead, but periodically rumors of sightings have surfaced. Spark imagines Lucan still alive and on the run. Like all of her best books, Aiding and Abetting is a meditation on the reality of evil and its ultimate defeat, a story with a strong whiff of the uncanny and astringently funny. (Also not to be missed: All the Stories of Muriel Spark, from New Directions; with four new stories, this volume supersedes the earlier collected stories.)
3. Death in Holy Orders, by P.D. James (Knopf). If you are already a fan of P.D. James and her signature protagonist, Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, by now you are likely to have skipped to the next entry: you devoured this novel when it appeared last spring, and you don't need to be persuaded. And if you haven't already read this book, very likely you simply have no taste for mysteries, or for James. So why bother even to mention it here? Because it is such a rich, wonderful book, it demands to be celebrated. Like all of James's novels, it is anchored in a particular place—in this instance, a small Anglican theological college perched on the windswept coast of East Anglia. There is a mystery, yes, involving several murders before it is resolved, and the satisfactions of that are not to be deprecated. But in the course of her expert telling, James layers in a different order of mystery. This is the mystery of her beloved England, of how it has changed for better and for worse, and interwoven with that the destiny of her beloved Church of England: what sort of church should it be in the England of the twenty-first century? Evangelical readers may wince at the character who represents the evangelical option here, and one can't help but wonder to what degree he embodies the author's perception of evangelicalism in general, but the questions James raises transcend any party allegiance. Indeed, the debate she stages between a High Anglican churchman and a "Bible evangelical" is playing out right now, with slight variations, within American evangelicalism.
4. The Fall & Other Poems, by J. Bottum (Saint Augustine's Press). You may know Jody Bottum from his essays and reviews in The Weekly Standard (where he is Books & Arts editor), The Wall Street Journal, First Things, and many other publications, including Books & Culture; he's also the host of a nationally syndicated radio program, Book Talk. And he's a superb poet, as this first collection demonstrates (surely the only book ever to be blurbed by Dana Gioia, Michael Novak, Christopher Hitchens, and David Brooks). Three qualities distinguish his poems: moral passion, musicality, and wit. You will meet at least one of these virtues in a fair number of contemporary poets (musicality is the hardest to find), and some poets give evidence of two out of three, but to find the whole package in a single poet is rare indeed. See for example one of my favorite poems in the book, "Love in Boston," from which I'll quote the opening stanza:
The college girls wore black this spring,
army camouflage and green
and the kind of high-top sneaks
Bob Cousy wore to play the Knicks.
I asked them why they dressed this way,
but Love is dead is all they'd say.
From here the poem moves without a false step to a conclusion in an entirely different register. But you'll have to look that up yourself, along with "Modern Catholic Verse," a devastating review cast in the form of a poem, and much more. (Saint Augustine's Press, based in South Bend, Indiana, is a discerning publisher both of new books and reissues of classic texts, with a special emphasis on philosophy; the Fall 2001 list, for example, includes a collection of early essays by Leszek Kolakowski, translated into English for the first time.)
5. The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850, by Brian Fagan (Little, Brown). Brian Fagan is an archaeologist—editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology—and the author of many popular works of history and archaeology. Don't be misled by the subtitle of his latest book, which must have been dreamed up by an editor with a taste for hype: Fagan is no environmental determinist. But he does argue the eminently reasonable thesis that changes in climate frequently have historical consequences. In doing so he emphasizes a part of the story that was largely neglected in the history I studied in school. The period known as the Little Ice Age was bracketed on one end by the Medieval Warm Period, roughly A.D. 900 to 1300 (during which Greenland was settled), and on the other end by the era of global warming that began in the mid-nineteenth century and that shows no signs of abating. And within each of these periods there were significant and sometimes catastrophic fluctuations in temperature and climate more generally. "Climate change," Fagan observes, "does not come in gentle, easy stages. It comes in sudden shifts from one regime to another—shifts whose causes are unknown to us and whose direction is beyond our control." He adds that this remains true today, despite the enormous increase in our understanding of the natural world.
6. The Mantra of Jabez: Break on Through to the Other Side, by Douglas M. Jones (Canon Press). It was July in Atlanta, site of the annual convention of the Christian publishing industry, and wherever I looked there was Jabez: Jabez mugs and keychains, Jabez neckties, even the Jabez fish (the familiar early Christian symbol, with the name "Jabez" spelled out inside the fish)—not to mention the stacks of official Jabez books and videos and the brazen Jabez knockoffs. Surrounded by this monstrous spawn of Jabezian enterprise, I happened on the booth of Canon Press and The Mantra of Jabez, a blessed parody which I downed in one gulp. I can do no better than repeat what I said about the book last summer: it is a mixture of delightful mimicry, Swiftian-strength theological satire, and inspired silliness in the great Monty Python tradition. Read it and be refreshed.
7. Medieval Children, by Nicholas Orme (Yale University Press). For some time now, beginning in the 1960s, scholars have asserted that the family as commonly understood is in fact a relatively recent cultural development. And along the same lines, we've been told that "childhood" is a construct of the modern era. Such arguments, of course, are ideologically freighted. If family and childhood as conventionally understood are merely transitory cultural constructs, there's no reason to lament their passing, no reason to regard them as normative. But a number of scholars have challenged this consensus. In a series of important studies, Steven Ozment has traced deep continuities between the premodern and the modern family—see for example his book Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe (Harvard University Press), published earlier this year. What Ozment has done for the history of the family Nicholas Orme does for childhood in his wise and learned book, Medieval Children. Their world was in many ways different from ours, and that is part of the reason we are curious to learn about them, but they were also children like our own, and regarded as such by their parents. Contrary to the assertions of historians such as the influential Philippe Aries, who claimed that "in medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist," medieval people, Orme writes, clearly "had concepts of what childhood was, and when it began and ended." He recreates the life of medieval children in rich detail, including their diet, their toys, and their education. His book is a delight to read, and superbly illustrated.
8. Movie Love in the Fifties, by James Harvey (Knopf). This is the best book on movies I've read since Geoffrey O'Brien's tour de force, The Phantom Empire, in 1993. A self-described disciple of Pauline Kael, James Harvey quotes from an interview with Kael published a year or so before her death earlier this year: "The critic's task should be to help people to see more in the work than they might without him." Harvey does that. When he writes about films you've seen, he astonishes you with what you never noticed. When he writes about films you haven't seen, he makes you yearn for an all-encompassing video library (most of the time, anyway—some of his enthusiasms, notably for Douglas Sirk, leave me cold). Harvey's title, also taken from a Kael interview, is a play on words: his book is first of all about the love that movies inspire ("movie love" in that sense) and secondarily about love as depicted in the movies—specifically, the movies of the 1950s, where he tracks other themes as well. He begins with a virtuoso account of "Noir Heroines," and the pace never flags thereafter. In his general outlook he seems to be a familiar New York Review of Books type: there are observations throughout on the dreadfulness of the repressive spirit of the `50s and so on. Like O'Brien, he finds in movies a quasi-religious experience; religion itself seems mostly to disgust him. But what an eye he has, what a loving knowledge of his subject, what a fresh style, so that late at night you want to call a friend just to read him a sentence or two.
9.New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001, by Czeslaw Milosz (Ecco). The greatest living poet, many would say, and among the greatest of the past century. But such language, though simply accurate, is tainted by the tireless hyperbole of literary flacks. Best to quote the first two stanzas from one of the new poems in this collection. It is called "One and Many":
The Prince of This World governs number.
The singular is the hidden God's dominion.
The Lord of rescues and exception's Father
Who from the start inhabited my errors.
One against the multiplication table.
Particular, free from the general.
Without hands or eyes yet real.
Who is, every day, though unrevealed.
Also published this fall was To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), almost entirely gathered from books by Milosz already published in English translation but including a small number of previously uncollected or untranslated pieces.
10. Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith, by Frederick Buechner (HarperSanFrancisco). Buechner's title is taken from the end of King Lear. It announces his theme: what is gained when, even at great cost, such truth is spoken. At a time when all too many people are ready to speak what they feel at a moment's notice, and maybe whether or not you want to hear, this might seem a book out of season. No—just the contrary, in fact, because what Buechner has in mind is not such self-indulgent speech but the kind of hard-won speaking we find in a certain kind of great writing, which gives voice not only to the depths of the author's heart but to the inarticulate pain and yearning of countless readers. His subjects are provocatively chosen: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, and Shakespeare. The surprising juxtaposition of these four figures, each famous in his own right but rarely if ever held in the mind at the same time, reveals hidden affinities among them and allows us to see them as we never have before. "It is my hope," Buechner writes, "that in listening to these four say so powerfully not what they thought they ought to say, but what they truly felt, we may possibly learn something about how to bear the weight of our own sadness." We may, and we have, for which many thanks.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christianity Today magazine.
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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
"Daddy, What Is the Soul?" | Does the church have an answer? (Dec. 10, 2001)
'We Now Know' | The boast of imperial science. (Dec. 3, 2001)
"24 Cow Clones, All Normal" … | Oh yes, and a few cloned human embryos that died. (Nov. 26, 2001)
"Discovering" Islam: The Intellectual Challenge | There's good reason to believe that there will be staying power to the West's belated "discovery" of Islam. (Nov. 19, 2001)
Disturbing the Peace | Is art always subversive when it's doing its job? (Nov. 12, 2001)
Play Ball | Baseball, leisure, and worship. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Is God a Body-Snatcher? | The restless intelligence of philosopher Peter van Inwagen. (Oct. 30, 2001)
"Science and the Spiritual Quest" | A place at the table for Christians, but at a price. (Oct. 22, 2001)
Beyond Belief? | Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's accounts of Islam presuppose the superiority of modern skepticism. (Oct. 15, 2001)
Covering Islam | Getting beyond the feel-good bromides. (Oct. 8, 2001)
Christian Scholarship … For What? | Academic speakers affirm the value of beholding God's creation. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)