Yale University Press, 2008
320 pp., $40.00
Flood Editions, 2008
112 pp., $13.95
Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret ... With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
Roy Blount Jr.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
384 pp., $25.00
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English
256 pp., $22.50
The Butt: A Novel
Bloomsbury USA, 2008
368 pp., $26.00
The General of the Dead Army
Arcade Pub, 2018
272 pp., $44.73
The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism
Riverhead Hardcover, 2008
288 pp., $24.95
The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-and How It Died
John Philip Jenkins
336 pp., $26.99
Original Sin: A Cultural History
304 pp., $24.95
The Private Patient (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries)
352 pp., $25.95
Zong! (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
M. NourbeSe Philip
224 pp., $24.95
The Consolation of Philosophy
Harvard University Press, 2008
208 pp., $21.00
De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things): A Poetic Translation
University of California Press, 2008
320 pp., $29.95
by John Wilson
Favorite Books of 2008
Original Sin: A Cultural History. Alan Jacobs. HarperOne. Jacobs is a superb writer whose work is beginning to get the wider notice it has long deserved. He is also a good friend. (While working on this list, I was listening to a couple of samplers of music Alan put together for me.) So let me turn to a third party, Matt Jenson, a theologian teaching great books in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and the author of The Gravity of Sin (T&T Clark). In his review of Original Sin in the July/August issue of Books & Culture, Jenson describes it as "a book endeavoring to help us say and do something about the sin which so easily ensnares (even if we aren't sure it really exists). Jacobs' is not an easy task. Part apologist, part peddler of cultural curiosities, part champion of the doctrinal underdog, he aims to win another hearing for original sin. Moving back and forth in history, he details commendations and dismissals of the doctrine, beginning—where else?—with Augustine, its most influential expositor. Haven't we all, with Augustine, experienced what Jacobs nicely dubs a 'forking and branching' of the will?"
The Private Patient. P. D. James. Knopf. This isn't the best or among the best of the many novels James has written about police detective and poet Adam Dalgliesh and his associates (so I think, anyway), but it gave me a great deal of pleasure nonetheless. There is the pleasure of James' sinewy intelligence, of reacquaintance with familiar characters and the meeting of new ones, of the sometimes playful if also grave employment of motifs and devices from the long history of the genre (James has an encyclopedic knowledge of the literature of crime). There is interest in seeing how James' rather reticent Anglican faith will inform the moral universe of her tale. And, always, there is the experience of a new setting (in this case a rather remote private medical clinic), for James is masterly in evoking the atmosphere of a place (of an institution, for instance, and of a particular locale that reveals distinctive facets of England and Englishness).
Zong! M. NourbeSe Philip. As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng. Wesleyan University Press. In his foreword to the 1981 University of California edition of Prepositions: The Complete Critical Essays of Louis Zukofsky, Hugh Kenner writes, "Anything you can write is somehow already immanent in the language, a baffling fact that has various ways of affecting those who discern it." I thought of that sentence while reading M. NourbeSe Philip's extraordinary "hauntological" book, which takes as its point of departure a 1783 legal decision, Gregson v. Gilbert. The case was occasioned by the voyage of a slave ship, the Zong, which left the west coast of Africa in 1781 bound for Jamaica with a cargo of 470 slaves. Due to navigational errors, the voyage took much longer than it should have. Some of the slaves died from thirst, but roughly 150 were cast overboard, the captain believing that "if they were thrown alive in the sea, it would be the loss of the underwriters." The insurers disagreed. Meditating on this case—she felt that the ancestors were speaking through her—and reflecting that this "story that cannot be told must not-tell itself in a language already contaminated, possibly irrevocably and fatally," Philip was led to take the text of the legal decision itself (included here in two large pages of small type) as her source, fragmenting and dismembering it. First entire words of the text, then fragments of words, are juxtaposed and recombined to make the poem that is this book.
Books of the Year:
The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Harvard University Press.
De Rerum Natura / The Nature of Things. Lucretius. Translated by David R. Slavitt. University of California Press.
Is everything already written? Was it laid down even before the poet, novelist, essayist, and translator David Slavitt was born in 1935 that in his old age he would translate masterpieces by Lucretius and Boethius? What a pair. Lucretius, that arch-materialist of the first century before Christ, and the Christian philosopher and man of letters Boethius (c. 480-524), who loved Greek and Latin learning and whose faith permitted him to write with serenity while under a sentence of death. And was it laid down also that the two translations should appear in the same year?
I'll be writing more about this odd couple in the pages of Books & Culture. I think you'll find as I did that these translations will repay the time you give to them.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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