The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith
Oxford University Press, 2014
272 pp., 48.95
Favorite Books of 2014
Once again I feel like a character from Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait for Last Year. Did someone slip JJ-180 into my buttermilk? At least I know that in this particular time-stream, I’m supposed to be listing my Favorite Books of 2014.
As usual, this list makes no pretensions to identify the “best” books, nor even to include all of those that dazzled me in the course of a year of reading. But these ARE the ones that came most readily to mind when I entered the requisite trance and began writing semi-automatically on the back of an envelope—in this case, one I’ve not opened, from the Social Security Adminstration (#theagingbrain).
I should add that—also as usual—it was a good year for Books & Culture writers. It seems churlish to mention only a handful of their books here, but let these stand for a much larger number: David Skeel’s True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World; Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Like of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist; David Martin’s Religion and Power: No Logos Without Mythos (excellent to read alongside Andy Crouch’s 2013 book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power); Tiffany Kriner’s The Future of the Word: An Eschatology of Reading; Daniel Taylor’s novel Death Comes for the Deconstructionist; Scott Cairns’ Idiot Psalms; and Glitter Bomb by Aaron Belz.
So, here’s the list. The titles are mostly in alphabetical order (and the logic of departures from that will be clear), followed at the end by the Book of the Year. For additional thoughts on the Books of 2014, keep an eye out for a piece I’m doing for First Things (assuming it passes muster there).
America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of the Nation. Grant Wacker. My only objection to this superb book—even David Hollinger, who positively loathes Graham, calls it far and away the best thing ever written on its subject—is its faintly grandiose subtitle, which can be overlooked as a convention of the trade. I’ve been waiting for years for Grant Wacker to finish it, and the wait was worth it.
Arts & Entertainments. Christopher Beha. Enough of the handwringing over the long-gone heyday of “the Catholic novel,” whenever that Golden Age is supposed to have been. (And let it be noted that Walker Percy, whom I revere, was very much hit-and-miss as a novelist.) I hope that reading this novel—Beha’s second—will send you on to his first, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which I was directed to by the late D. G. Myers.
Back Channel. Stephen Carter. Set around the Cuban Missile Crisis, Back Channel (as I wrote in my review) “is a spy novel, a Washington novel, a JFK novel; and the latest installment in Carter's fictional history of ‘the darker nation.’ . . . Carter's uncompromising lucidity is tonic, but Back Channel is also simply a delight to read. (How odd that a book which soberly considers the threat of nuclear annihilation should also be so funny! But we are strange creatures, aren’t we?)”
Breathturn to Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry. Paul Celan. Translated and with commentary by Pierre Joris. The greatest writers can survive even the hyperbole of their fawning admirers. Put this massive bilingual volume in a stack by your bed and read it throughout the New Year.
Cover. Peter Mendelsund. + What We See When We Read. Peter Mendelsund. Books—the old-fashioned kind, with paper and binding and such—are dinosaurs, headed for extinction. Or so we’re told. Who knows. Meanwhile, handsome books continue to appear, and some of the most seductive feature covers by Peter Mendelsund, who is not only an endlessly inventive designer but also an exceptionally perceptive reader of the books he designs and of books more generally. (Maybe there’s a connection.)
From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story. Mark Noll. + A Patterned Life: Faith, History, and David Bebbington. Eileen Bebbington. Mark Noll and David Bebbington are two of the finest living historians. Almost exact contemporaries, they are both deeply evangelical (they’ve done more than their share to form the evangelical mind), and they are good friends as well. It’s a treat to have these two books appearing in the same year: an unusually personal narrative by Mark, and a witty and affectionate account of David’s life and work by his wife, Eileen. (Not to be missed: the photo of David “in secondhand bookshop, Eastbourne, Sussex, 1983.”)
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.
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Hermione Lee. One of my favorite novelists, written about by one of the best biographers now at work. I was so eager for this one, I read the British edition when it was published a year ago. Keep an eye out for my review forthcoming in Commonweal.
The Second Sex. Michael Robbins. For my money, Michael Robbins is the most interesting new American poet in a long time. His 2012 debut Alien vs. Predator put him on the literary map in spectacular fashion, though I had the sense that many of the people buzzing about that book had misread it—a judgment confirmed by the response to The Second Sex, which doesn’t fit in any of the boxes with which Enlightened Opinion c. 2014 sorts things out. There are 36 poems in this new collection, and not a wasted word. “You’ll never understand. / You’ll never undersea. / I feel like a natural woman / is just too real for me.”
Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel. Forget the emphasis on “dystopia” and “genre fiction” which has muddled many accounts of this book (including some that have been quite appreciative). Yes, the premise is a pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population and leaves the survivors without all the stuff that we take for granted. But this is really a book about imagination and art and how we find order and meaning in our lives. We follow a doughty band of performers on their circuit from one tiny settlement to another in the upper Midwest, performing Shakespeare and music. The title alludes to a fictitious comic or “graphic novel,” and here I’ll quote something I said about Glimmerglass: “The notion of a painting—an imaginary painting [or an imaginary comic]—described in a work of fiction may seem rather odd. You can't google it—you can't view the image anywhere. And yet the very fact that it exists only in the shared imagination of the writer and reader seems crucial to its power.”
BOOK OF THE YEAR
The Slain God: Anthropologists & the Christian Faith. Timothy Larsen. For the first time, we have a repeat winner. Timothy Larsen’s Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England was Books & Culture’s 2006 Book of the Year. Like Crisis of Doubt, which provided a counternarrative to the familiar story, according to which virtually every thinking person in late-Victorian England either lost his faith or maintained a pale simulacrum of genuine belief, Larsen’s new book, The Slain God, counters a staple of received opinion: the notion that just as surely as geology, say, undermines Young Earth Creationism, so anthropology fatally discredits the claims of orthodox Christianity. Larsen tells the stories of a half-dozen highly influential figures in the history of British anthropology, several of whom were themselves practicing Christians (while also showing how dubious were the conclusions of some anthropologists who thought they were indeed refuting Christian beliefs). Witty, penetrating, following the evidence where it leads, this book is a great delight.