By John Wilson
Books, Books, Books!
Hard to believe it's already time again for our annual roundup of noteworthy books. As always, there's far more to cover than we have time or space for (not to mention all the good books I simply don't know about). But over the next weeks you'll hear about some of the titles that stand out among the enormous numbers that have arrived in the office in 2003. Two weeks from now we'll feature the Top Ten for the year, and the week after that we'll conclude the bookish year by looking ahead to some titles forthcoming in 2004.
The subject this week is old wine in new bottles. Some of the most interesting titles each year are old books reissued, freshly translated, newly packaged, or otherwise made new.
Our first title is a paperback of a book that was published for the first time just a year ago, Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season (Skylight Paths), edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch, with illustrations by Barry Moser. Seasonal anthologies like this rarely attract my interest—they tend toward the saccharine and the predictable—and when a review copy came in last year, the only reason it didn't immediately go into the giveaway bin was that I have considerable respect for the editors, both of whom teach at Calvin College. Nevertheless the book was quickly buried in my office, and only several months later—when winter was almost over—did I really take a look at it. It turns out to be a superb collection, mostly prose but with some poetry as well, including not only familiar figures but also some wonderful surprises. I took the book home, and my wife, Wendy, and I read it in bed each night until spring had decisively come to Wheaton. Get a copy for your bedside table and another two or three for the Christmas stockings of the readers you know best.
Many readers of Books & Culture will be familiar with Walter Wangerin, Jr., but even those who have enjoyed his wonderfully wide-ranging work may have missed The Crying for a Vision, a novel first published in 1994 by Simon & Schuster as a Young Adult book (a category that includes a lot of junk but also some excellent yet hard-to-categorize books that publishers end up sticking there). Set among the Lakota, the novel—in Wangerin's words—presents them as "that common people in whom all peoples see themselves." Now Paraclete Press has reissued the novel in a beautifully designed new edition that includes a long and fascinating afterword recalling the Sun Dance to which Wangerin was invited at the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
When I entered high school in the early 1960s, Dylan Thomas was a name to conjure with (hence Robert Zimmerman's earlier metamorphosis into Bob Dylan). If you were a certain sort of person, you would —at a minimum—have read a few of his best-known poems; you might very well have read a lot of them. Just a few years later that was no longer true, and my sense now is that he's read very little. On those rare occasions when I hear some literary type mention Thomas, it's almost always with condescension. If you haven't ever read him—or haven't read him since the '60s—take a look at The Poems of Dylan Thomas (New Directions), reissued with a CD of Thomas reading. What an astonishing gift he had. (And yes, our family will be reading A Child's Christmas in Wales aloud together again this year.)
One of the joys of the past couple of years for Wendy and me has been a reading group we're part of with three other couples. We meet once a month (with summers off), taking turns choosing books. One of our selections this year was a little book with a new translation of two stories by Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illich and Master and Man (Modern Library). The translator, Ann Pasternak Slater (whose mother was Boris Pasternak's sister), also provides an introduction and notes. "The Death of Ivan Illich" is regularly assigned in college lit classes and not infrequently in high school (or used to be—I'm not sure if that's still true). "Master and Man" is not at all obscure but isn't as widely known, either. Both stories deserve to be read for another 100 years, but "Master and Man," I think, is an absolute masterpiece—as profoundly Christian and as magically artful a story as you're likely to find anywhere.
Speaking of Russian masters, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have produced a series of new translations of Tolsoy's great contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Their latest is The Adolescent (Everyman), the only one of Dostoevsky's novels I hadn't read previously. You may have seen it in translation as A Raw Youth; it came between two great books, The Possessed (or The Demons) and The Brothers Karamazov. When I was younger, I devoured his books; now it is harder for me to read him even as I revere him. This is a twisty, talky book, with stories-within-the-story; despite struggling at times, I am glad to have read it at last.
Another recovery from the 19th century is The Wrong Side of Paris (Modern Library), the last volume in Honore de Balzac's extraordinarily ambitious unfinished series of novels, The Human Comedy. This again was a book new to me (the translator, Jordan Stump, notes that it has appeared previously in English under various titles). The story concerns a mysterious group called the Order of the Brotherhood of Consolation. . . . It's a short novel, fast-moving, best read in one all-night sitting (fueled, of course, by several cups of French Roast).
If you're looking for something astringent—having heard too many muzak Christmas carols, perhaps—try The Ghost Stories of Muriel Spark (New Directions). I wonder if Spark's ghost stories are so convincing in part because she takes the supernatural for granted. Earlier this year, New Directions reissued Robinson, Spark's second novel and one of her best (which is saying a great deal), first published in 1958. The point of reference is Robinson Crusoe.
Finally, from Vintage—bless them!—several more Philip K. Dick reissues have emerged this year. The two most recent—The Cosmic Puppets and Deus Irae, the latter written with Roger Zelazny—are not books to give anyone you hope to convert to PKD, but completists will not complain. There's time to zip through these as a warmup for the latest movie adaptation, Paycheck, scheduled to open on Christmas Day the last I heard.
Next week: more good reading, and some Picture Books.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also posted today: Is "Sensual Orthodoxy" a Contradiction in Terms?
Books & Culture Corner appears every Monday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
Urban Eden | In City: Urbanism and Its End, a new history of New Haven, Connecticut, the city (in its late 19th-century form) is an ambiguous heaven-and the suburbs that relentlessly followed are hell. Which leaves us where, exactly? (Dec. 01, 2003)
Cool Drink of Water | A poet's voice in the evangelical wilderness.
Faith, Hope, and Charity in North Carolina | New novels by Michael Morris—whose first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, was a word-of-mouth hit— and Jan Karon, who continues her beloved Mitford saga. (Nov. 17, 2003)
Remember Afghanistan? | Two inside reports. (Nov. 10, 2003)
The Troubled Conscience of a Founding Father | An Imperfect God examines George Washington and slavery. (Oct. 27, 2003)
The Year of the Fish | The 2003 baseball season concludes with a bang—and 2004 is just around the corner. (Oct. 27, 2003)
I Shop, Therefore I Am | Critics of "consumer culture" are all wet, Virginia Postrel says. The riot of choices available to us resonates with our deepest aesthetic instincts (Oct. 20, 2003)
Back to the Future | A sprawling new novel by the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon goes to the 17th century to investigate the birth of the modern world. (You won't be surprised to learn that the Puritans are among the Bad Guys.) (Oct. 13, 2003)
Poetry, Prayer, and Parable | The playful provocations of Scott Cairns (Oct. 06, 2003)
Terrorists on Trial | How the nation responded to an earlier attack. (Sept. 29, 2003)
The Contemplative Christian | Eugene Peterson calls believers to a life lived with "wholeness, honesty, without contrivance"-against the grain of much that's currently driving the church in America. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Recalling California | Want to understand what's going on in the Golden State? Toss your newsmagazines and pick up Joan Didion's new book (Sept. 22, 2003)
The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On | How Christians can make a difference in the upside-down world of graduate school (Sept. 15, 2003)
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 8, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Looking for the 'I' | What happens to the self when the brain is injured or malformed? (Aug. 4, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)
One-Hit Wonder | The long swansong of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. (July 7, 2003)
Divinely Decreed? | Re-fighting the Battle of Gettysburg. (June 27, 2003)