Last year I quickly threw together a list of the five best-in-my-opinion books I read in 2013, each with its own little write-up. This year I’ve expanded it to ten and put a little more thought into both the selection and my impressions of them. Again, these books were not published this past year, I just read them for the first time this past year.
10) ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1967)
Bit of a frontrunner’s choice, isn’t it? But now I understand why nearly fifty years after its original publication the book has lodged itself into a firm position in the pantheon of twentieth century literature. It’s a memorable array of indelible characters, lingering images, and raw emotion. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE is the epitome of magical realism and, having finally read it, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the style’s strengths. It often reads like Aesop, and I think Marquez embraced the conventions of fabulism for the same reason Tolkien embraced the conventions of mythology. Both relied on the fantastic to cope with the most horrific realities of modernity. Marquez fictionalizes the cycle of violence enacted by institutionalized injustice, resisted with open bloodletting, and perpetuated by the oppressed becoming the oppressors. Subsequent generations are miraculously conceived and born, only to end their lives in pieces or consumed by mania. Matriarchs live a metahuman lifespan of ceaseless tragedy, and patriarchs descend into the madness of thwarted ambition. Daughters escape on heavenly currents of manna, and sons live and die by the sword. It’s a miracle the solitude lasts as long as it does.
9) THE THIEF AND THE DOGS (Naguib Mahfouz, 1961)
Naguib Mahfouz’s career spanned the bulk of the twentieth century. In story after story, style after style, he wrote for and to the Egyptian people. In THE THIEF AND THE DOGS he is simultaneously their advocate and their conscience. Said Mahran has been released from a prison sentence that is both just and unjust. He wants to resume his life, but he also wants revenge. He entertains the possibility of hope, but embraces the satisfaction of wrath. He is a righteous sinner, a sadistic victim. Mahfouz fills every sentence with an accompanying dichotomy of pity and doom. We know we’re watching the undoing of a man. Said deserves his tragedy, but we root for him. We want him to achieve his victory, but we know he doesn’t deserve it. And as we wrestle with these paradoxes, Mahfouz becomes our advocate and conscience. He makes us empathize with Said but challenges us to hold him to a higher standard. He dares us to justify our own indignation and implores us to strive for righteousness. This is a wonderful book and a powerful object lesson in that old chestnut of sagacity from Marcus Aurelius: “How much greater are the consequences of anger than the causes of it?”
8) THE BLIND ASSASSIN (Margaret Atwood, 2000)
Writers love to set rules, to outline what constitutes good and bad writing, but the best writers figure out how to ignore the rules and please their readers in the process. Margaret Atwood did that in her most famous novel, which is very much a mystery of character rather than story. You see, you’re supposed to set up the characters, make the reader understand where they’re coming from, and show their progression. But in THE BLIND ASSASSIN Atwood connects the progression of the story to the slowly unfurling picture of Iris Chase Griffin and Laura Chase, two sisters whose lives grow darker and more foreboding as the sun-colored horizons of their youth are clouded over by the steel-gray of adulthood and the looming darkness of inconsequential mortality. Each episode is a piece of the women’s lives that falls into place and runs a shiver along our spines, as is the science-fiction novel The Blind Assassin within our novel THE BLIND ASSASSIN. The final result is a haunting story of spiritual renewal that ends up adhering beautifully to one rule: whether your ending is happy or tragic, it has to be earned. And Atwood’s ending will make you jump for joy with tears in your eyes.
7) THE CLOSING OF THE WESTERN MIND (Charles Freeman, 2002)
Here’s the best non-fiction book I read in 2014, and it’s kind of a marvel. It’s a fascinating, elucidating, infuriating account of why the great minds of the Enlightenment came to disparage the millennium before the Renaissance as the Dark Ages, a time when the fires of human thought and curiosity were nearly extinguished. In THE CLOSING OF THE WESTERN MIND Charles Freeman takes us to the foundation of Western philosophy in Greece and its commitment to the ceaseless questioning of the order of the universe. He follows the endless search for truth through Alexander the Great’s Hellenizing conquests, and how the Romans used the Greeks’ foundation to construct the strongest and most resilient nation-state in human history. But things turn ugly as Freeman tells the tale of how Paul, Ambrose, and the other early leaders of Christianity first twisted the Greek tradition to empower the Church, then used that power to drive personal reflection and intellectual curiosity into the ground. History is a story, and Charles Freeman with wit, acuity, and verve tells the story of how one mode of human thought was replaced by another but miraculously survived. You should read this book if you’re interested in antiquity or Church history. But if you want to learn how we got to where we are now, you must read it.
6) THE PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC (Mark Twain, 1896)
Speaking of miracles, we come to the fictionalized account of an illiterate French girl who witnessed them, who brought them about, who became nothing less than a miracle herself. Being a novel from the nineteenth century JOAN OF ARC often runs counter to what we now consider good storytelling. There’s no real suspense until Joan’s trial in the last third of the book, and the preceding two thirds are a litany of deus ex machina. But then you remember how Twain began the book. The first sentence of his preface is, “To arrive at a just estimate of a renowned man’s character one must judge it by the standards of his time, not ours.” It’s not only the most oft-ignored imperative of scholarship, it’s a foreshadowing of the tragedy that is to come. Joan is a young girl of deeply held faith and goodness in a world of corrupt and venal old men. No matter her martial success, no matter her piety and patriotism, her doom was as pre-ordained as Christ’s. Joan was also trying to redeem her world, and she was destroyed for her efforts. But Twain, a secular humanist with a jaundiced eye, a man who put god under the microscope of critical thinking and judged him to be, “a malign thug,” saw the spark of the divine in Joan. Her story does not parallel Jesus’ by accident. Twain presents us with a glimmering example of the best that mankind can aspire to be. Just be aware of what awaits your aspirations.
5) THE NOTHING MAN (Jim Thompson, 1954)
Oh, Jim Thompson, how do you do it? How do you ferry us into the most depraved waters of the human mind and make us want to jump out of the boat, let the raging current rush down our throat? How do you make us giddy as the darkness swallows us whole? THE NOTHING MAN’s plot is typical hardboiled fiction. A man commits the imperfect crime, then commits more to cover it up. But it’s why he kills, why he keeps killing, why the book is called THE NOTHING MAN that gives it its blood-curdling psychology and urgency. One fateful attempt to be the man he was supposed to be made him a man he couldn’t accept. As far as he’s concerned, he’s now nothing, and deeming himself to be nothing, his rage and depression is free to make a charnel house of his world. But Thompson’s talent is so formidable, he makes us judge that rage and depression as we rut in it. His prose is a litany of incendiary devices. You can practically see the venom dripping from his characters’ jaws. He brings us eye-to-eye with man’s brittle soul that we can see ours reflected back, to warn us of what lies within, how easily we can allow it to poison us, and how quick we can be to unleash it on others.
4) THE PEARL (John Steinbeck, 1947)
John Steinbeck is a giant of American letters who I’ve woefully neglected. I don’t even have a good reason. I read OF MICE AND MEN when I was sixteen, and it destroyed me, but it took me nearly twenty years to read anything else by him. I’m sorry I waited so long. THE PEARL is a featherweight volume that carries the totality of human desperation on its wisp of a spine. Conceived and birthed by a world that feeds on the powerless with predatory zeal, desperation lays dormant until chance dangles before the powerless a carrot, an inconceivable object of hope. And just like that Steinbeck’s protagonists have taken their first steps onto a field of play on which they don’t stand a chance. The rule of the game is — cheat, and their opponents are far more experienced than they are. Before we’re five pages into the book we know this isn’t going to end well, but Steinbeck crafts an ending bloody with irony so tragic, it would’ve painted O. Henry green. And as much as it hurts us, we close the book, satisfied that there was no other way it could’ve ended.
3) THE GREAT GATSBY (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)
And speaking of the colossi of American literature, I reappraised a lot of Fitzgerald this past year. Like every high school kid, I was assigned to read GATSBY, and like almost all of them I resorted to the Cliff Notes. Some works you’re not ready for on first impression, but after reading and loving several of Fitzgerald’s short stories, it was time for a second. I don’t know what I can write about THE GREAT GATSBY that hasn’t already been written or said. It deserves its place on the short list of contenders for Great American Novel, as arbitrary and ridiculous as that distinction is, and you could easily scour the internet and find dozens of essays that discuss the novel with far greater probity than I could in this brief write-up. But it occurs to me that modern writers who publish novels too shallow for their page counts should look to books like GATSBY and a number of the other books I’ve written about here for a lesson or two. GATSBY is filled with complex people we recognize and come to better understand, it tells a story we don’t want to end, it has proven to be an indelible evocation and criticism of its time and place, and it sheds a little more light on this quixotic phenomenon called the human species. And it does all that in less than two hundred pages.
2) THE ASSISTANT (Bernard Malamud, 1957)
Malamud was yet another writer I’d wanted to sample for years. The party line was that his place on the lists of great postwar novelists and great Jewish-American novelists was beyond reproach. Well, it is. He has a wide body of work I still need to consume, but I don’t know how he’s going to top THE ASSISTANT. It’s a story about the loss of identity within the cauldron of the American melting pot and the opportunity to forge a new one. It’s a story about the weight of guilt, about how it can spur us to find our inner nobility and also crush our capacity for forgiveness. It’s a story about our relationship with the world beyond our front door, about how important it is to leave the door open even as omnipresent dangers snarl from the shadows. It’s a story about redemption, our will to find it, how we come up short, and how important it is to give others the chance to earn it. In December of 2014, this last point may be the most important and difficult argument to make. Two-thirds into the book one of the characters makes a choice I don’t believe most modern readers will forgive. I think Malamud was aware of that, and ends the book with the character struggling to forgive himself. But he’s working on it. He’s atoning. He is putting in the effort and sacrifice necessary for redemption. Today, our sense of empathy so selective, our capacity for forgiveness so conditional, the argument that no one is beyond redemption is a controversial one, and therefore all the more important. THE ASSISTANT is simply one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, and I would call Bernard Malamud my great literary discovery of the year… were it not for…
1) The Deptford Trilogy: FIFTH BUSINESS / THE MANTICORE / WORLD OF WONDERS (Robertson Davies, 1970 / 1972 / 1975)
Years ago I followed online recommendations, as you may do when looking for new, exciting voices you’ve never heard before. Vonnegut leads to Heller leads to Mailer leads to et cetera, so on and so forth. I was asking, “Who do I need to read?” Eventually Robertson Davies’ name crossed my field of vision. A Canadian born around the turn of the century, brought up in a Canada with a closer resemblance to England than the United States, his renown was a quiet one without flashy legend or Gotterdammerung. He seemed to have fallen by the wayside, a once-respected writer who, now dead, simply didn’t exert much posthumous presence. He seemed interesting, and I wanted to read him, but without that posthumous presence goosing me to seek him out, my interest fell by the wayside. Then I went to a book sale at a local library. “Fill a shopping bag for five dollars.” I found a lot of great stuff that day, and scouring the shelves and boxes, I found five old paperbacks of Robertson Davies. At a price that averaged out to less than a quarter a book, why not? I had no idea I was committing highway robbery, that each of those books was worth well over a hundred times that quarter.
The Trilogy tells three interconnected stories originating in a non-descript Canadian village named Deptford. In the first decade of the twentieth century two little boys, friends and rivals, have the same argument little boys have been having for time immemorial. One of them throws a snowball at the other. That other little boy dodges the snowball, which then hits the pregnant wife of the town’s minister. That snowball starts three magnificent novels that seem to encompass the entirety of human emotion, psychology, and experience. FIFTH BUSINESS is about the life of Dunstan Ramsay, the little boy who dodged the snowball that started it all. Plagued by his guilt for his role in the damage that snowball subsequently caused, Ramsay consigns himself to an oblivion supporting player-status to the stars in his life, especially his bête noir Boy Staunton, the boy who threw the snowball and would grow up to become one of Canada’s richest and most powerful industrialists. Having been raised a Lutheran with Lutheran guilt, and having become a scholar who prizes empiricism, Ramsay is obsessed with Catholic saints, the potential for miracles, and the possibility that he may play some small role in the manifestation of the miraculous. THE MANTICORE is the story of David Staunton, Boy Staunton’s son, and his travails through Jungian analysis as he tries to understand his out-of-character behavior immediately following his father’s death. It was an unforeseen explosion brought on by years of lusting for his father’s approval while despising who the man was, of finding companionship with his father’s adversarial figures and retroactively projecting villainy onto them, of hating himself for not being the son of Boy Staunton and simultaneously despising his own self-loathing. WORLD OF WONDERS is the story of Magnus Eisengrim, the world’s greatest magician, the most tragic and triumphant character in the trilogy. Impelled by a miserable childhood largely spent in little more than sexual slavery, Magnus slowly learns the secrets behind sleight-of-hand and the art of illusion. He learns how to give people what they want, to make them feel like the kind of people they want to be, and in the process how to become the person he wants to be. How does he fit into the series? Read.
While the Trilogy’s story doesn’t require you to read the books in order, you should. They build upon one another thematically more than they do narratively. You spend time with the same key characters through the books, but experience them from different perspectives. You come to know everything there is to know about them. You see every nuance of their personalities and how they all come together to form one complex human being, and Davies does that with all of them. And they’re normal people, not characters you only meet in fiction. The prose is simple, unadorned, and proper, which makes the emotional impact of every sentence all the more stunning. It’s a great lesson that you don’t need to fall back on semantic pyrotechnics to rip the readers’ hearts from their chests. And each of the books is only three hundred pages, give or take. They are dense but concise, vast but economical. The more I think about these three books, the more miraculous they seem to me. I want to champion Robertson Davies, to scream his name from the rooftops and demand the arbiters of taste to see the boat they’re missing. The wayside is no place for Robertson Davies. He needs to be front and center with the other titans, the Deptford Trilogy the crown atop his head. If you’re only going to read one thing on this list, read this. Try FIFTH BUSINESS, and follow these immortal characters on their odyssey. It’s one of the greatest, richest, most profound adventures the written word has ever given us.