January 3, 2007

Books I Enjoyed in 2006

Category: Literature :: Permalink

As is my custom on this blog, here’s a list of the books I particularly enjoyed this past year.  The list is in alphabetical order.

* Douglas Bell, Mojo and the Pickle Jar.  Not quite as good as some of the rest I read, and perhaps not as good as Jim Jordan’s Amazon review or Gene Wolfe’s praise of it might have led me to believe.  Not everything in the book worked for me.  But it’s still a lot of fun.  I particularly like the way Bell would suddenly stop the story in places to provide side-comment insights into a character.  For instance:

This about Raymundo Castillo: He was the sort of man who would kill you for a dollar and leave a tip.  His voice may have been as mellow as a TV game show host’s; his face may have been as open and warm as a rich uncle’s; his smile may have glowed as comfortingly as a night-light in a five-year-old’s bedroom; but his eyes were as hard and cold as black ice on an overpass at four in the morning (pp. 97-98).

Good stuff.

* John Buchan, Mr. Standfast.  I’ve read this one three times now.  It’s the third in Buchan’s series of books about Richard Hannay, and it’s as good as all the rest.  Which reminds me: I need to read some more Buchan this year!

* Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep.  This is the first of Chandler’s novels about the private detective Philip Marlowe.

* Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.  I’ve read this one three times, too.  Didn’t enjoy it so much the second time, but this time I absolutely loved it.  I’d forgotten how fun Dickens is to read.  I’ve heard that some people think Dickens is too sentimental, not a good role model for Christian writers, but I don’t buy it.  For one thing, the same charge could be leveled against Wodehouse.  For another, this novel, Dickens’ first, while it’s funny throughout and sentimental sometimes, also presents the dark reality of sin.

I’ve heard people say that Dickens writes characters and situations, not novels.  Chesterton makes a crack like that somewhere, if I remember correctly, saying that the only truly plot-driven novel Dickens wrote, and the only one where he played his cards close to his chest so that the reader couldn’t tell how the plot was going to end up, was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Dickens died before he got very far into it.

Well, there’s some truth to that.  But surely The Pickwick Papers must be regarded as one of the most episodic of all of Dickens’ novels.  Looked at one way, it’s just a bunch of people going around from place to place and getting into various situations.  But you’d be wrong to think that it’s just a disjointed collection of episodes.  There’s a definite plot here and the whole story holds together. 

In fact, the book is not only coherent, it’s also coherent in its symbolism.  Robert Patten, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition I read, points out that the various stories which characters tell from time to time in the novel aren’t simply filler, as some people thought.  (And by the way, Dickens didn’t get paid by the word.)  And they aren’t just stuck in at random.  They are where they are for a reason and they are what they are for a reason.  Again and again, the stories (like most of Sam’s witticisms) are dark: they’re cautionary stories, often warning Mr. Pickwick and his friends against certain dangers, warning them in particular that the path they’re on could end up badly, and describing various sorts of responses to adversity and betrayal and hardship.  They belong to the story.

It would be interesting, too, to trace (as Patten does) the theme of the Fall through this novel.  Again and again, there are scenes where people enter a garden, sometimes as serpents and sometimes to do good.  I wish I had more time to flesh this out.

* Susan Howatch, Mystical Paths.  Another of Howatch’s Starbridge novels, this one focusing on Nicholas, the son of Jon Darrow, who appears in one way or another in all the novels in this series.  Once more, Howatch focuses on the dangers of spiritual pride and immaturity.

* Susan Howatch, Absolute Truths.  The last of Howatch’s novels about the imaginary city of Starbridge and its cathedral (the last, that is, before the related series about Nicholas Darrow), this novel traces the dangers that befall a man who thinks his worst temptations and sins are behind him.

* James B. Jordan, Creation in Six Days: A Defense of the Traditional Reading of Genesis One.  A response to various writers who do not believe Genesis 1 presents a literal six-day creation.  But there’s a lot more here than that.  I usually make my own indexes at the back of non-fiction books so that I can find stuff that jumped out at me fairly easily.  My index at the back of this book is several pages long.  That’s how many exegetical and theological insights are here.

* James B. Jordan, Theses on Worship: Notes Toward the Reformation of Worship.  Great (and provocative) stuff on liturgy.  Someday I’ll probably blog some of it.  It’s well worth reading.

* Meredith Kline, Images of the Spirit.  While there’s a lot here I don’t find persuasive.  But there are so many insights that I have to include it as one of the best books I’ve read this year.  Again, my index in this one is more than a page long.

* Bret Lott, The Man Who Owned Vermont.  I’ve blogged about this one.

* C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.  Some junk here, most notably the evolutionistic stuff in the middle of the book, but some great insights, too, a few of which I’ve been blogging recently and at least one more of which I’ll blog soon.

* Jeffrey J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship.  I read this one in a spiral-bound edition years ago, but this edition is expanded and even better.  The best book on Reformed liturgy I’ve read.  Probably the best one out there.  Period.

* Brian McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix.  There was lots of stuff I questioned or disagreed with here, but there was also a lot that was helpful.  In fact, this was probably the most helpful book on evangelism I’ve read.  McLaren talks about the importance of building relationships with unbelievers so that they hear the “song” that moves us to “dance” and their feet start tapping along and they want to join us.  He writes:

By the way, to be spiritual friends in this way, I think we will find ourselves attending a lot more recitals, soccer games, movies, festivals, parties, and concerts, which will mean we might have to cut back on some of our church activities (p. 89).

Indeed.  As he says a page later,

too many of us Christians are invisible, absent neighbors, no neighbors at all — always running to church, to Bible study, to committee meetings, never having time to play golf or go for a walk or catch a cup of coffee with a neighbor… (p. 90).

The book is structured around a series of e-mails between a non-Christian young woman and McLaren.  Along the way, her e-mails open up a number of issues for discussion.  Above all, they present many of the issues and concerns that people today have. I don’t always agree with McLaren’s approach.  I think he’s wishy-washy on some important stuff.  But this book is still worth reading for anyone who is interested in doing evangelism.

* Patrick O’Brian.  H. M. S. Surprise.  The third of the Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin novels (I’ve read a lot of “third-in-a-series” books this year, it seems!).  As usual, O’Brian writes beautifully.  This is a particularly moving story, largely because of the plot involving Maturin.

* Walker Percy, Lancelot.  Perhaps Percy’s darkest novel.  The point of it is summed up well in the epigram from Dante’s Purgatory at the beginning:

He sank so low that all means
for his salvation were gone,
except showing him the lost people.
For this I visited the region of the dead . . .

Intriguingly the whole story is told by the main character, Lancelot Andrews Lamar, to … someone whom we learn little about, other than that he’s a priest.  Lancelot himself is clearly wrong, but it ends by challenging us to figure out what the right solution is.

* J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  The last book I read this year was one of the best.  This is the fourth (not the third!) of the Harry Potter books, the longest to date when it was published, and perhaps the best so far in the series.  Rowling does a great job of bringing in things from earlier in the series.  I look forward to the rest of the series, which (I see) Rowling is now finishing.  (Seven books in total: how symbolic is that?  And the seventh one is the one that involves final rest.)

I still think James Jordan’s suggestion may be correct: in the end, Harry Potter is going to have to die for the sake of the Muggles … and not just the Muggles: for the sake of the Dursleys, his hateful stepfamily.  Given Mr. Weasley’s love for all things Muggle (which ought to remind us that there’s nothing inherently wrong with Muggleness) and given the wicked characters’ dislike of the Muggles and their emphasis on racial purity, something has to happen by the end of this series to bring about reconciliation.  The dividing wall, to borrow Paul’s term in Ephesians, has to be knocked down.

* Wendy Shalit, A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue.  I blogged about this one earlier this year.

* Charles Williams, The Greater Trumps.  Another great Williams novel about spiritual arrogance and the desire to rule the world, with great stuff about humilty and self-sacrifice.  I loved the passage where one character acted helpless and needy in the storm in order to get her brother, who was just about to give in and die in the storm, to pull himself together in order to “rescue” her.  As always, thomas Howard’s The Novels of Charles Williams provides great insight into this novel.

* Gene Wolfe, The Book of the Short Sun: On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles, and Return to the Whorl.  The follow-up to Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun, this is one of the more challenging Wolfe novels in some ways (because of the unreliability of the narrator, to some degree, and because there’s a lot that isn’t explained) but also one of the wisest novels I’ve read.  If Long Sun is analogous to the Gospels, as in some sense it seems to me to be, Short Sun is analogous to Acts and the rest of church history.  There: that’s unclear enough and yet intriguing enough to encourage you to read it, isn’t it?

* Gene Wolfe, Strange Travelers.  This collection of short stories was some of the first Wolfe I read, several years ago.  Rereading the stories now, I understand a lot more of what’s going on in them and I can see more of the depth.  There are still stories that baffle me (“The Haunted Boardinghouse,” for instance), but even some of the ones I initially disliked are starting to grow on me.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:56 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Books I Enjoyed in 2006”

  1. Once More With Feeling » Blog Archive » Taking the curse on himself Says:

    […] John’s post on his reading is all excellent, but I have to especially comment on his predicting regarding Harry Potter. […]

  2. Elliot Says:

    Hurray for Wolfe!

    I felt much the same way about Mojo and the Pickle Jar – not quite sure what Wolfe saw in it, but fun nonetheless.

    I’ve been planning to read The Pickwick Papers – it sounds pretty great!

  3. mike Says:

    I’ve read the first three of the Aubrey/Maturin series and absolutely love them.

    We checked out the CDs of the 4th to listen on our road trip, but I’ve ended up listening to them on my long commute to work.

    While listening is different from reading, the fourth seems like the quickest moving yet.

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