John Wilson

Favorite Books of 2013

Plus the Book of the Year

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A Killer in the Wind. Andrew Klavan. Here's an excerpt from my B&C review: A Killer in the Wind is "dark, violent, seasoned with wit and fueled by anger. (What kind of anger? Read the Psalms.) Like many of Klavan's earlier books, it explores the consequences of evading unpleasant realities (not least, the communal evasion that permits a lot of people to pretend that they don't know what's going on: That's awful! We had no idea!) … . And like a number of Klavan's earlier books, A Killer in the Wind deals in the uncanny. (Klavan's faithful readers will be reminded especially of his early novel The Scarred Man, published under the pseudonym Keith Peterson.) You see something that seems impossible. What do you do? Tell yourself you didn't see it? Make an appointment with a psychiatrist? Or do you say, all right, that happened, even though I can't explain it. What does it tell me? What does it mean?"

No Man's Nightingale. Ruth Rendell. I had never read Ruth Rendell, despite the acclaim she's received. But for some reason, I was drawn immediately into an e-galley of this novel, the latest installment in her Wexford series. It prompted me to go back and read all the books in the series, starting with Rendell's first novel, From Doon with Death, published in 1964. Then I read all the standalone novels published under her own name. Finally I started one of the novels she wrote as "Barbara Vine," at which point I bogged down. (I may come back someday to the Barbara Vine books and the several volumes of short stories; I may not.) How many writers can sustain a reader's rapt attention over the course of more than 50 novels written in a span of 50 years but devoured in roughly three months? No Man's Nightingale is far from being her best book, and in some respects it irritated me, but I feel a special affection for it anyway, since it brought me into her world. If you have never read Rendell, try the standalone novel The Lake of Darkness, which is (so I think) one of her best and which gives a sense of her distinctive qualities.

Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Andy Crouch. If this book hadn't been by Andy Crouch, I wouldn't have read it. A book on power? No thanks. But a book on power by Andy Crouch? Yes, I'll give it a try, maybe a bit reluctantly. Glad I did. (So much so that I started over immediately and read it a second time.) Here's a video conversation in which Andy and I talk about the book. And here's Tyler Wigg-Stevenson's review of Playing God for B&C.

The Poetry of Victorian Scientists: Style, Science and Nonsense. Daniel Brown. I wish some of my friends at Wheaton College would schedule an interdisciplinary seminar on this book—and allow me to sit in. For a taste of its delights, here is the very last paragraph (which quotes the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who was also a devout Christian; Maxwell plays a prominent role in Brown's narrative): "Supremely disdainful of the canons of causality, the deterministic enslavement that materialism wishes to subject them to, Maxwell's molecules are, 'like the planets,' akin to Venus and the atoms that Lucretius models, and indeed the figure of the scientist as a child blowing bubbles: 'They must therefore," he concludes, 'enjoy a perpetuity of the highest and most unmixed pleasure.' With his entropic signature and metaphysical wit, Maxwell both celebrates and satirises the free play enshrined in nonsense, by which Victorian science discovers and amuses itself."

Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy. Mark P. Witton. I wrote about this in my Bookmarks column for CT: "Speaking of evolution, I've been smitten with pterosaurs ever since my younger brother and I saw (and heard) ads on TV, around 1957, for the movie Rodan. And then there was Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World. If you share a more-than-casual fascination with what Mark Witton describes as 'the diversity and sheer awesomeness of everyone's favorite leathery winged reptile,' I have the book for you. Beautifully laid out, clearly written, loaded with handsome illustrations, Witton's book invites you to dip in for delicious tidbits or hunker down for the equivalent of a superb lecture series."

The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki. Donald Keene. One of my favorite poets, illumined by the great critic Donald Keene. Decades ago, Keene was one of my first guides to Japanese lit (as he has been for so many). Amazingly, all these years later, he is still offering instruction and delight, for which I am grateful. Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) lived during the first period of Japan's encounter with modernity, and his work is at once intimately personal and a response to that immense change.

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