Sunday, March 17, 2013

2012 – A Year in Books: Part 1 - Fiction

Note:  So my thesis is in to my readers and I my preaching/speaking commitments have slowed a bit, so the blog is back.  I realize it is absurd to do a year end list in March…but here it is.  This is the fiction I “read”[1] this year, nonfiction will follow…

Notation key:
(A) - Audio – I listened to this book
(N) – I have a word document of notes and quotes from this book[1]
(!) – I really liked this book
(X%) – I didn’t finish this book – I either ran out of time to commit or felt like I got the gist - this is the percentage I read

Breakfast of Champions – (A) Kurt Vonnegut

“Let others bring order to chaos.  I would bring chaos to order.  If all writers would do that then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos.”

This is my second year in a row with a Vonnegut novel on the list, and the second year in a row I forgot I had read it.  I’m just not that into KV.  I know I’d be cooler if I was, but he strikes me as just trying way too hard.  Maybe his novels need to be appreciated as period pieces.  KV was deconstructing and being ironic before it became our life style.  We are better at it now, but have had much more practice.  In that sense, KV is like the old school basket ball players in really short shorts who could never play in the modern league but the modern league owes them a debt.  But still the only real memorable moment of this (audio) book was the time I pulled up to a Wendy’s drive through widow just about the time KV thought I needed to know the exact dimensions of every male character’s penis.

Catching Fire/Mocking Jay (A) – Suzanne Collins

"when you're in the just remember who the enemy is."

The sequel to the Hunger Games was mildly engaging, while the concluding book was mystifying.  Mocking Jay was almost a complete disappointment until the postscript[2]…which I liked.[3]

Geektastic - Various

This is a fun little collection of short stories about relationships in the context of just about every geeky obsession you could imagine.  I have always been more of a nerd than a geek (though, if a geek is someone who is characterized by obsession, a nerd could be considered a meta-geek, obsessed with understanding reality), but I felt a lot of solidarity with the characters in these crisp little narratives and enjoyed the book.

When you are Engulfed in Flames (50%)  (A) – David Sedaris

I have enjoyed a lot of Sederis’ work.  But this book was not interesting, insightful or fun.  I think part of this is the weakness of the memoir genre.  Your first memoir is great because you harvest the most memorable, hilarious, and poignant anecdotes from the fields of your experiences.  But by your third memoir, those fields are thin.[4][5] 

Gilliad (A) - Marilynne Robinson

“I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”

This is how I started my mini-Pulitzer kick…unwittingly.  After enjoying ‘Home’ a couple years ago, I picked up Gilliad without knowing it had received the award.   A couple remarkable things about Robinson:

1.      She has written just three books and two of them have been nominated for the Pulitzer[6]

2.      Both books tell the SAME story from two different perspectives.

Gilliad tells precisely the same story as Home, but from the genial perspective of the Reverend Aims (who had seemed standoffish and cantankerous in Home).   It takes the form of a series of letters that Ames (who married a much younger woman and who’s heart trouble makes it unlikely that he will live to see his 5 yr old son into adolescence) writes for his son to read after he dies.  It has a surprising amount of theological insight.[7]  But the thing I liked best about Gilliad was the thing I liked best about the other Pulizer winner I read (Angle of Repose – see next).  Both written by ailing, aging narrators who are looking back two generations to be able to tell a story of their life to the next generation.

They are stories of men between generations.  And I am a sucker for fiction that upscales my temporal perspective.  I live my life on the daily, hourly, and sub-hourly time scale…but I live my life for the generational time scale.  I find fiction that holds this reality in front of me to be enobling and engaging.  And entering into the mental and symbolic world of an aging narrator, whether that narrator is mostly full of gratitude (Gilliad) or regret (Angle of Repose) is a healthy framework for taking on the details and decision that I will eventually look back on with a mixture of gratitude and regret.

Angle of Repose (A) - Wallace Stegner

“It took a woman, he said, to see the aesthetic possibilities of the Silurian”[8]

So emboldened by Gilliad I decided to pick up a second Pulitzer.[9]  I am afraid I still read fiction more for story than the artful arrangement of words.  So there were times when this book dragged for me, despite the artistry.  And ***spoiler alert*** it took a disturbingly dark turn in the final pages that seemed to change the tone and nature of the book.***.

 But there were 3 things I loved about it that made the investment worth it:

1.      One of the major characters is a geological/hydraulic engineer.  His work creates the canvas upon which the marriage at the center of the book is painted upon.  Which leads to:

2.      At one point, the author[10] realizes (out loud) that it is a book about a marriage”

“ I'm writing about something else.  A marriage I think....what interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together[11]…What held them together for more than sixty years?  Passion? Integrity? Culture? Convention? Inviolability of contract?  notions of possession?...the first dozen years they knew each other they were more apart than together.  These days that marriage wouldn't have lasted...what made that union of opposites hold them?”

Now, ***Spoiler Alert**** this turns out to be a much darker story about a marriage than it seems like it will be for most of the book.  It turns out that the marriage in question is something the author eventually has to look to not by example but by counter example. *** But it is a story about a marriage none the less, and I am constantly going on about the disproportionate amount of ‘art’ that is about forming a romantic relationship compared to the actual interesting part of making one work.

3.      The main thematic question it presses is the value of history, tradition, and ancient wisdom in the modern world…or at least the poverty of a modernity that refuses to be informed by the wisdom of generations.[12] 

Peace Like of A River (A) – Leif Enger

“Sometimes heroism is nothing more than patience, curiosity, and the refusal to panic.”

This book won a bunch of awards when it came out.  I liked it.  It has interesting themes, likeable interesting characters, and satisfying resolution.  And it helped me articulate a theology of miracles, which have the annoying tendency of seldom addressing the most pressing need in a given situation.[13]  As I read this book while I studied the book of John…it generated the thought world that led (at least in part) to this talk.

Paper Towns – John Green  (A)

“we were in the business of mutual amusement and we were reasonably prosperous”

“The meek are going to do some earth inheriting.”

“I always felt like you had to be important to have I'm Luxembourg.”

“I never found boredom very boring. “

I banged out a couple more John Green books this year.  As the quote section suggests, Green is best when he is penetrating the experience of unremarkable adolescence with clever one-liners.  But I really like Green as a YA author.  I imagine a fair amount of the genre is self serving and narcissistic [14] 

 ***SPOILER ALERT: And the title is the best part about this book.  Green wove multiple referents of the ‘paper town’ metaphor throughout the narrative connecting with the major themes.  The final referent of ‘paper towns’ is a town that doesn’t exist that a cartographer adds to a map to identify plagiarism.
And it turns out, I have a kind of Paper Town.  My friend Kevin used to be a map maker.  So I knew about the phenomenon of adding unique landmarks in order to prove a map had been plagiarized.  So apparently the beaver pond on our property is named after us.****

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

“What do I fear?  I fear oblivion.”

“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world but you have some say in who hurts you.”

“Grief does not change you, it reveals you.”

“The world is not a wish granting factory.”

“Cancer is a civil war with a pre-determined winner”

“I owed a debt to the universe that only my attention could repay”

This is the book I knew the John Green was capable of.

Green has a couple big ideas.  But his novels mainly seem interested in how to find meaning in life despite the impending oblivion.[15]  You can feel him wrestling with the utility of what he does in the midst of personal and public[16] loss (“Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable or is the only value in passing the time as comfortable as possible.  What should a story seek to emulate…a morphine drip?")

 And in this little story, he handles that theme with the nuance and care it deserves even in the strictures of the YA context.

Anyway, enjoying his novels encouraged me to take a couple of his recommendations.[17]

And came away with The Book Thief, and The Art of Fielding[18]

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak (A)

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things about beauty and brutality….I wanted to tell her that I am constantly over estimating and underestimating the human race, that rarely do I ever simply estimate it.  I wanted to ask her the how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious and its word and stories so damning and brilliant....I am haunted by humans" -Death

I listened to the vast majority of this while driving around Mississippi.  The characters are well realized and attractive and the themes are positively Chestertonian.  It is a book set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death (a narrative device that sounds like it could be heavy and forced…but surprisingly totally works) that ends up being about the paradoxical beauty and horror of the human condition. 

The Art of Fielding (A) - Chad Harbach

"You could say that young people are desired because they had smooth bodies and excellent reproductive chances but you'd mostly be missing the point.  It is something much sadder than that.  Something like, constant regret.  Something like your whole life was an error, a mistake that you are desperate to undo."

"(As he looked at her) she felt for a moment as if her soul were being evaluated in some unusually profound way.  Then, he glanced down at her breasts."

This book was well written and the characters were well realized.  But the most likable character spent too long descending and wallowing in a pit of narcissistic self loathing that I found dull and not particularly believable.  And I really only have tolerance for novels about 19th century Russians destroying their lives with bad decisions.  So, in the end, I didn't really care for it.

But then, I read a second book in which baseball is a character…

Brothers K (!) – David James Duncan

"The respite, the inner recess, may be the only real difference between vocation and obsession."[19]

"And so it goes.  Christian cuisine is not a culinary art.  It's the art of taxidermy practiced on the living." -Evertt

This was the best book I read in 2012, fiction or non.

Despite repeated recommendations I avoided this book because I didn’t have a lot of interest in dedicating 600 pages to a modernization of my favorite novel.  I did not feel the Karamazov brothers needed a contemporary window dressing.  But Duncan’s Brother’s K only derives slight and oblique inspiration from Dostoyevsky.[20]   We read it in my reading group, and I cannot remember enjoying a work of fiction more.  The writing was so good, the themes were engaging, there was some hilarious, knowing deconstruction of church culture, and I cried in no fewer than 5 separate public places while reading this book.  The ending was underwhelming, but this book was not really about the plot.  When the book ended I wasn’t sad that I had run out of story…but that I had run out of words and time with the characters.

One of the things I loved about this book was its exploration of the complicated relationship between four brothers.  This is one of the reasons I loved the Karamazovs, as well as one of the reasons River Runs Through It is one of the all time great films, and why “Murder in the City” emerged as one of my favorite songs this year.  Like my interest in art about generations (parents, grandparents and children) above, I am also a sucker for a story about brothers.  In some ways, the relationship between brothers is far more interesting and complicated than romance.  But we are obsessed with stories that end in sex, so we get very few really interesting stories about brothers.  But this is one.

I will run part 2 (Non-Fiction) in a couple weeks.

This post was written while listening to The Avett Brothers’ Live Volume 3

[1] I tend to mostly listen to fiction, and read non-fiction.
[2] ***Spoiler Alert*** I mean, Katniss sacrifices nearly everyone who has ever cared about her to her misguided (and ultimately fruitless) mission of vengeance.  As the body count grew I divested. ***
[3] My friend Joel (who inspired these yearend lists) and I seem to have opposite povs on these books.  I felt like the first book was the best one and post script redeemed the last two books.  Joel thought they got progressively better and did not like the postscript.  But that might be because I am not familiar with the ‘source material’ that forms the basis of the common argument that the first book is derivative.
[4] I remember seeing Sedaris on The Daily Show ‘promoting’ this book and he just didn’t seem that into it.
[5] This is also why I felt like Anne Lamott’s later books were weaker…well that and she decided she wanted to nut kick evangelicals who had cared about her.
[6] You might just call her the Daniel Day Lewis of authors.  Selecting projects very carefully and then executing them at a level of excellence even the greatest artists only rarely rise to.
[7] "Bowden says he has more ideas about heaven every day.  He says 'Mainly I just think about the splendors of the world and multiply by 2.  I'd multiply by 10 or 12 if I had the energy but 2 is much more than sufficient for my purposes.  So he's just sitting there multiplying the feel of the wind by 2.  The smell of the field by 2."
[8] I have always thought geologic maps were gorgeous…and I use them to decorate my office and lab (and if I was a bachelor, they would decorate my living room.)
[9] Also, some friends in the Ecology department wanted to read this together.
[10] Who may or may not be a trust worthy guide at this point.
[11] A theme he is exploring in light of the failure of his own marriage.
[12] Spoiler Alert: ***And it concludes that tradition/gentility and cultural autonomy/modernity are both toothless to guide us into living well.  Neither of these things can save us in a word in which our actions and the actions of those we love are devastatingly irreversible…if we don’t have the capacity for forgiveness.  Neither the convention of the Victorians nor the gullibility of the moderns will make relationships survive the long haul.  Only forgiveness.***
[13] Because the purpose of a miracle is not to fix things…that is the point of resurrection.  Miracles are signs that the fix is in.
[14] If the Charlize Theron film by the same name is any indication.  By the way, I can’t remember seeing a movie so dishonestly marketed in a while.  It might have been a good movie.  I don’t know.  Because I was expecting a light coming of age comedy and got a dark – disorienting satire. 
[15] And he is not unwilling to cautiously posit theological answers.  As Augustus Waters like to say: “I believe in Something with a capital S.”
[16] This is one of the things that makes reading him a very different experience.  Because of his vlogs he is a much more public, disclosed, person than most authors.  And we know that in many ways this book was instigated (if not inspired) by his relationship with one of his early fans who died very young.  
Despite John’s recent ‘open letter to authorial intent’ in which he entirely dismisses the recipient, knowing so much about him makes his literature a fundamentally different experience.  (Side note: there are a few things I am a dinosaur about, where I hold outdated positions but just have not heard compelling evidence to the contrary to move me off them.  I am underwhelmed by the fallacious nature of the naturalistic fallacy in the discussion of ethics that holds that humans are naturalistic organisms.  I find the ‘emerging properties’ of the person to be very weak grounds for meaningful discussion of human consciousness.  I think the “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus is absurd to the point of farce.  And I think the recent disdain for the author as a helpful (if not authoritative) guide to meaning of her text to be crassly overstated.) 
[17] And this list actually set my fiction reading agenda for most of the beginning of 2013.
[18] Much of my early 2013 reading was also informed by this.
[19] This is a summary of my actual favorite quote, which has been relegated to the footnotes on account of its length: “If Ruth was the sultan of swat, Maris was the technician of boink.  For the sake of these boinks he had virtually given up the game of baseball, or at least given up the all around game he played better than anyone just the year before.  And the trouble that resulted was, in a sense, the same trouble into which the entire industrial world has fallen.  Obsession works.  Not Beautifully and not without tremendous cost...But that same intensity of focus which made any great quantitative achievement possible might also render it qualitatively bankrupt...Technical obsession is like an unlit, ever-narrowing mine shaft leading straight down through the human mind.”
[20] There is a great moment in the book where one of the brothers is trying to make a Hindu epic an allegory for their life.  There are some undeniable similarities, but the details don’t map.  I feel like that was Duncan telling us “Don’t get too carried away comparing this to the other Brothers, it won’t map.”