By John Wilson
Mr. Wilson's Bookshelf
Our sound track this week is "Wrapped Up and Tangled Up In Jesus" from God's Got It, a CD featuring the Rev Charlie Jackson of Louisiana. These recordings, which were made in the 1970s, are rough—the masters were lost—but precious. The CD was released in 2003 by CaseQuarter. For many years Wendy and I have played this song (on vinyl, from an old anthology album) on special occasions such as Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, and at other times when we need to shout for one reason or another.
As for the books highlighted below, they are NOT the best books of the year or the most important. In saying so, I intend no fake humility, no above-the-fray superiority to lists that appear under such headings, including the just-released list from the editors of the New York Times Book Review offering their account of The 10 Best Books of 2006. Yes, I prefer my taste to theirs (though at least our lists have one book in common), and yes, we all understand that these end-of-the-year reckonings are a game of sorts. Still, it's worth saying that these are simply the titles that came most readily and insistently to mind over the last couple of weeks as I thought about the books I've read this year. If I had finished Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, it might have been included. (As of this writing, I'm early in the book.) If I did this list a month from now, it would no doubt be at least slightly different.
Please note that no quota system was used. Many subjects in which I'm interested are not even represented. There's only one novel on the list, although as usual I made my way through a lot of fiction in 2006. And so on.
I should also note that in several cases I have some connection with authors whose books are recognized here. Bruce Kuklick—whom I haven't met in person, though I trust our paths will someday cross—is a regular contributor to Books & Culture, as is Ed Ericson (my professor decades ago, and a longtime friend) and Tim Larsen (a friend of recent vintage). I don't think these ties have led me to overestimate the value of their books, about which I hope you'll form your own opinion in any case, but you can factor in that information as you will.
Enough throat-clearing. Here are the Top Ten (listed alphabetically by title), followed by the Book of the Year.
Atchafayala Houseboat: My Years in the Louisiana Swamp, by Gwen Roland, with photographs by C. C. Lockwood (LSU Press). What first drew my eye to this little book was the 1970s photo of the author standing in a bathrobe on the deck of a houseboat and combing her long straight hair against a misty backdrop. Inspired by old French movies and Wendell Berry's wonderful book about Harlan Hubbard, among other sources, Wendy and I used to idly talk about living on a houseboat. In fact, although she might well have been game, I would never have proceeded beyond conversation. But here was the firsthand story of someone who did. Roland's account is so well-crafted, economically conveying not only her own experience but the spirit of a certain time and place, it seems quite logical when we learn at the end that this intrepid woman became an editor and writer for a university-based program in sustainable agriculture. She also tells us that sometime after she left the swamp, she became a Christian (good news that did take me by surprise). At a time when regions such as Roland describes are threatened in more ways than one, she gives us a clear picture of what we are in danger of losing.
Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger, by Bruce Kuklick (Princeton Univ. Press). Kuklick is a historian with an uncommon range, taking up subjects as various as American philosophy and the social history of baseball in Philadelphia. His new book, the best I've read this year on U.S. foreign policy and one of the most enjoyable books of the year in any category, focuses on efforts in the postwar era to bring foreign policy into the domain of scientific analysis. Coolly ironic, studded with intellectual biographies-in-miniature of a fascinating cast of characters, Blind Oracles is perhaps too impartial to win the wide acclaim it deserves.
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis (Norton). As readers of Moneyball know well, no one writes more entertainingly and informatively on sports than Michael Lewis, who is the heir to Tom Wolfe in his flair for mastering a subject and describing it with pungent wit and an uncanny eye for trends that seem obvious once he's pointed them out. His new book will delight football fans; it's also a slice of life (young African American is adopted by affluent evangelicals and finds unexpected success on the gridiron) that might seem to spring from a novelist's imagination, so neatly does it manage to gather in one narrative a cluster of contemporary conundrums.
Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, by Robert Irwin (Viking). This book by a British Arabist will rightly be hailed as the definitive rebuttal to Edward Said's Orientalism, but it is not primarily concerned with polemics; rather, Irwin sets out to recount the history of scholarship devoted to the Middle East, which Said had characterized in such a tendentious fashion. Irwin "is a superb writer: lucid, witty, fair-minded, with a wicked sense of irony," or so I say in my review of his book in the January issue of Christianity Today. A sequel is promised, to be entitled The Arts of Orientalism.
The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Like all of Powers' novels, this latest—which won the National Book Award—is a muscular wrestling with big questions, here centering on (but not limited to) what the far reaches of neuroscience might have to tell us about who we are, how we construct and maintain a sense of our identity. (One key character in the novel is based to some degree on Oliver Sacks.) All this is fleshed out in a story set in motion when a young man rolls his truck on a freezing February night in Nebraska. The sandhill cranes have alighted en masse for their annual visit, and with no forcing Powers weaves questions about their fate into the story. Finally the book is a kind of wrestling with God, not exactly the God of the Bible (and there are glimpses of fundamentalists, one very angry, others rather befuddled, to drive home that point) yet akin.
The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, by Tomas Transtromer, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions). Transtromer is Swedish, which usually means a dearth of translations, but not in his case. Robert Bly is only one of a number of poets who have been attracted over the years by the challenge of bringing Transtromer into English. Robin Fulton is another—he's been at it for decades—and this is his latest effort. Transtromer's output has always been spare, and a severe stroke a few years ago made him even more laconic. This collection translates all the published poems, including some we haven't seen before, and a brief memoir of childhood. The volume takes its title from Transtromer's very slim 2004 collection, which concludes with a striking sequence of haiku. Here is one of them: "Something has happened. / The moon filled the room with light. / God knew about it."
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright (Knopf). If you are a reader of The New Yorker, you may remember a remarkable profile of al-Qaeda's second-in-command, the Egyptian Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, which appeared in the magazine about a year after 9/11. At the time I read it with a sense that this was the best account I had seen of al-Qaeda's ideological foundations and formative history. That profile and much more—including a persuasive portrait of Osama bin Laden—makes The Looming Tower must reading. There are some flaws in the book—Wright's account of American efforts to counteract the Islamist threat is too narrowly focused, and he seems not really to understand religion, for all his careful study—but this is a magnificent feat of reporting and storytelling, for which we are in Wright's debt.
Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth, by Alessandro Scafi (Univ. of Chicago Press). My good friend Jody Bottum, the editor of First Things, drew my attention to this book, which is deftly described by its title and subtitle. Scafi combines dazzling erudition with good common sense—a rare conjunction—as he traces the efforts of theologians, mapmakers, and other interested parties to locate the site of the Garden of Eden. The volume is lavishly illustrated. A cautionary tale with special relevance for evangelicals and their fundamentalist cousins, funny and melancholy and poignant. (Question: how and why did Luther and Calvin differ in their approach to the feasibility of locating the former site of Eden? Scafi has the answer.)
The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land, by John Benedict Buescher (Univ. of Notre Dame Press). The January/February issue of Books & Culture will feature a long essay-review by Jason Byassee on Spiritualism. If that article arouses your curiosity and you want to read more, you might consider this book, which will also appeal to fans of Charles Portis, whose fiction is populated by cranks of all kinds. John Murray Spear, a Universalist minister, campaigned for more humane treatment of prisoners, opposed the death penalty, and supported the abolition of slavery, for which courageous stand he suffered a brutal beating that almost killed him. In time, however, his devotion to Spirtualism—prompted, he said, by messages from the spirits—eclipsed all other commitments, including his ties to his wife and children (though not to the woman with whom he experienced true affinity). The retro dust jacket of this book gives a hint of the wild ride that is to come. John Benedict Buescher has written a marvelous life of a subject whose resistance to any conventional narrative—not to mention his sheer bad taste—would have daunted a lesser biographer.
The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005, edited by Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and Daniel Mahoney (ISI Books). This handsomely produced volume—with a dust jacket designed by Books & Culture contributor Sam Torode—includes a judicious selection from the great Russian writer's works and a handy gathering of essays and speeches. Moreover, it includes some previously untranslated material, which—we may hope—should spur those who are responsible for getting The Red Wheel fully Englished to get a move on. The introduction by editors Ericson and Mahoney is not a perfunctory bit of business but rather a clear-headed assessment of Solzhenitsyn's standing today and a penetrating summary of his outlook.
And now to the Book of the Year: Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, by Timothy Larsen (Oxford Univ. Press). You know 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. While Timothy Larsen acknowledges that there were of course plenty of instances of deconversion, in his new book he draws attention to a counternarrative that has been widely overlooked, embodied in the experience of men and women who moved from doubt or resolute skepticism to Christian faith. In chapter after chapter of brilliantly condensed biography, he tells the stories of individuals whose lives followed this second course. This is a book that will force honest scholars to reconsider what they thought they knew.
Coming soon in this space: The Year in Books.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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