It’s easy, this time of year, to find articles discussing the best books published over the last twelve months. (Here’s an example.) I can’t write those articles, since my reading tends to hone in on certain subjects, and in any event more than a year is often needed for a title to make its way to the top of my queue. So although the following aren’t necessarily new, these are significant literary works that I was glad to read in 2013. If you discern a common thread running through these summaries, it’s not accidental. (My previous year-end lists are here and here.)
As a Child: God’s Call to Littleness, by Phil Steer
This is a very comfortable, conversational presentation of an idea that doesn’t get enough attention, i.e., the admonition by Jesus that a believer’s proper relationship toward God is that of a child toward a loving parent. The chapters are short and easily digested, which seems appropriate. A scholarly or theological treatise would hardly fit with the theme, although the author does remain closely grounded via a multitude of references to Scripture. Pulling off what he has done is quite an accomplishment, I think. Steer insists that the call to be childlike does not mean abandoning the things we must do. He explains that using the parable of the talents, which had always been obscure to me. As I understand it now, the message is that, when given a challenge, we should try. Not trying, for fear of failure, would be worse than failure itself. There’s no escaping some degree of failure, just as a child learning to walk cannot avoid tumbles. But children don’t give up. Children take chances. We should, too.
The Man in the Empty Boat, by Mark Salzman
Salzman is a writer whom I would particularly enjoy meeting and getting to know. Perhaps that’s because, as he mentions in this memoir, his characters, real and fictional alike, are “tormented by the gap between who they actually are and who they had hoped to become.” It’s likely that everybody in the modern age experiences that disconnect to some degree. I certainly do. In this book he shows explicitly that it’s true of himself. His achievements, while pretty darned impressive from where I sit, do not impress him. To some extent, that’s due to having set rather lofty goals. He says, regarding his adolescent ambition of attaining true enlightenment: “Wise people adjust their expectations. They stop comparing themselves to Buddha or Batman and trust themselves to achieve their personal best. Not me; I was not going to capitulate … I was not going to be a quitter.” That is precisely the way I felt about the campaign I waged for several years to rescue my little boy from a mysterious developmental disability. Didn’t matter how difficult the task became, or how many discouraging comments I heard. I intended for us to reach our objective! Popular culture encourages that kind of thinking, through all the familiar stories about the underdog who finally prevails against overwhelming odds. And I’m not prepared to say that’s a bad thing. We should hitch our wagon to a star. But somehow we also need to find a perspective that allows us to survive reality without coming unglued. I think that challenge is what Salzman’s writing is mostly about.
The Beach Beneath the Pavement, by Roland Denning
Bernard Hawks is “the journalist famous for not believing in anything”–other than, perhaps, that “only mad and dangerous people believe in anything.” Since he himself believes nothing, it’s of no consequence to him if his readers fail to take his writing seriously. Therefore, his style (when he bothers to write at all) is to be intentionally outrageous and offensive. But at the beginning of this delightful novel, there’s an explosion–presumably a bomb. It goes off in an ad agency, and by chance Bernard’s latest column had said something to the effect that ad agencies should be bombed. This naturally leads to the first of several uncomfortable visits from a slimy police detective, who’s sure that if Bernard is not a culprit he at least knows the responsible party. The delivery is rather amusing. I chuckled all the way through. But it’s also (I think) a serious inquiry into the nature of reality as it’s experienced in modern civilization. “How do you operate in a world where there is no longer any belief?” Or where the only belief is modeled on a faulty cause-and-effect narrative. This is really good stuff, in my view, the product of considerable thought and cleverness. It deserves to be read.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
I found my way to this novel via a profile on the author that appeared in The New Yorker. Shriver’s reported focus on unmet expectations/thwarted possibility sounded very much in sync with one of my own preoccupations, i.e., the problem is not merely whatever bad thing has happened, but also the good things that might have happened in a banished parallel life, that in fact did not. Although I plan to read more of her work, I started with this story in which a mother is looking back over the chain of events that led to her son becoming an unrepentant mass murderer. It’s a horror story–the most articulate, thoughtful, and convincing horror story you could ever want to read–in that it proceeds with an implacable inevitability to the known conclusion. Obviously, the parents–highly educated, self-aware and sensitive–wanted something much different. Now, in letters to an absent husband, the mother is carefully parsing events and her own motives and actions in relating to Kevin as he grew up. She mentions (unnecessarily) that “the last thing I’ve wanted is to whitewash my own part in this terrible story,” and because of her honesty some readers see the mother as being despicable. I see a yearning to pursue the truth no matter where it leads. (And by the way, as a memoirist I’m sympathetic to that.)
In the Shape of a Man, by Paul Clayton
This novel portrays a problem that plays out in two neighboring homes in a modest San Francisco suburb. In one, Allen Collins feels tired from working long hours at a meaningless job and uneasy about indications that his wife has begun rejecting (hopefully not abusing!) their adopted son Reynaldo. Allen tries to tell himself that they have a good life together, but he knows something is very wrong. He knows there will be no improvement if he does not take steps. On the other hand, every course of action available to him has unattractive costs. And so the steps he takes lead only to a nearby bar. Down the street, a young adult named Rad is brimming with energy but has no good outlet for it. He could be a great professional skateboarder, if only he could get a sponsor. Failing in that, he turns his focus to community activism, and then to a seductive girl. Meanwhile, Tawny, the woman with whom he has been living, has missed her period. All these people are exposed to others who appear to have more stable and satisfying lives, and who offer points of reference, if not actual guidance. But outsiders can do very little. The choices each of us faces are ours alone. In the Shape of a Man is a story about ambivalence, about finding distractions and dodging responsibility because nobody sees a clear reason for doing otherwise.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
In the hands of a gifted writer, even dry philosophical debates from bygone centuries can make delightful drama. This is a case in point. The drama here is in the life of Cass Seltzer, formerly a pre-med student who changed course in pursuit of a more authentic life, becoming over the next two decades practically the only academic specializing in “the psychology of religion” and ultimately authoring a book on the subject. Its publication happens to coincide with a renewed public interest in a debate that had supposedly been settled 300 years earlier, and consequently he has become a minor celebrity, much to the dismay of colleagues who view the very question with contempt. Cass is a good-hearted, earnest seeker after truth and peace, astonishingly resilient in the face of disgracefully mean-spirited and pretentious professors, colleagues and even lovers. He never feels anger on his own behalf. He’s simply in love with life, with existence, with being here, and I had absolutely no trouble seeing everything through his eyes.
The Uncanny, by Andrew Klavan
This is the fourth Klavan title I’ve read, and it helps clarify his focus. Previously I’d thought Klavan was motivated mainly by politics. His Empire of Lies has a celebrity figure, coddled by the media and academe, who spews cultural poison. The Identity Man has a despicable demagogue en route to high office. And having seen a few of Klavan’s short written and video efforts, I knew that he attacks the same phenomena in real life. But, fairly early in The Uncanny, one of the characters comments that the problem goes way beyond politics. The real adversary is naked evil, recognizable by what it does to us (i.e., never mind good intentions, if something causes genuine harm then it’s evil). Klavan’s other novels provide glimpses of the kind of evil that makes you recoil in horror or disgust, but here it takes center stage. Life is very much an imperfect proposition, which we see in the conclusion of this one: The heroine’s father has just died, and the man she now realizes she loves is dying as well. But at some point there is danger in attempting to improve on or overcome basic realities.
A Few Good Men, by Sarah A. Hoyt
Our current world structure has long since crumbled (presumably because the population split into groups who nurtured grievances with one another), and what has risen in its place is a worldwide feudal system under the not-so-benevolent rule of about 50 elite “Good Men” (hence the book’s title), each in charge of his own domain, and all of them more or less in league to continue the exploitation of everyone else. The story is told from the point of view of Lucius, the heir of one of those despots–who is also essentially an outsider, learning the true lay of the land along with the reader because he has spent the last 15 years in prison. Lucius has always known about the existence of a generally despised network of people who cherish long-dead ideals (along the lines of individuals having innate rights, as opposed to existing to support their betters). But then it turns out that his father’s retainers are closet members. Having just ascended to power, he isn’t predisposed to accept their point of view. Sound interesting? It’s sci-fi but also the best overtly political work I’ve read this year.