December 29, 2017

Books I Enjoyed in 2017

Category: Literature :: Permalink

The books I enjoyed the most this year were:

* Edoardo Albert. Oswiu: King of Kings. The third in Albert’s trilogy about the Christian kings of Northumberland.

* Lloyd Alexander. The High King. An excellent conclusion to a great series.

* Michael Bond. A Bear Called Paddington. The first in the series; the one book I’ve read more than any other. This was the first time my third child got to hear it.

* Nicholas Carr. Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations. A collection of essays and blog posts, mainly about technology and computers and how they affect us.  Some of the essays are hilarious; almost all of them are thought-provoking.

* Blaine Charette. Restoring Presence: The Spirit in Matthew’s Gospel. Very helpful. Even when he says things I already know, he puts them extremely well. You might think the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say much about the Holy Spirit; you would be mistaken.

* Mark Dallow. The Heir of Charlecote. Great novel for kids, set in Shakespearean (and Elizabethan) England.  I read it aloud to the kids.

* August Derleth. Wind Over Wisconsin. Known primarily for preserving H. P. Lovecraft’s legacy through his publishing house, Arkham Press, or perhaps for his Sherlock Holmes pastiches starring Solar Pons, Derleth was primarily a regional writer, devoted to telling stories about the area of Wisconsin he called Sac Prairie. This is a long, slow novel about the settlers’ change from hunting and trapping to farming and about the passing of the Indians.

* Elizabeth Enright. The Saturdays; The Four-Story Mistake; Then There Were Five. The original three books about the Melendy family. I hadn’t read these since I was a boy, but my kids were reading them and so I picked them up too.

* C. S. Forester. Payment Deferred. Forester is the author of the Hornblower novels, but this was his first novel, a particularly gripping crime novel.

* Tim Gallant. Feed My Lambs: Why the Lord’s Table Should Be Restored to Covenant Children. This was the second time I had read this book. Read it this time in preparation for Sunday School. Excellent.

* Ted Gioia. How to Listen to Jazz. Basic, but quite helpful. I’d love to have seen more structural analysis of popular jazz songs, but what Gioia provided was eye-opening.

* Harold Lamb. Swords from the West. A collection of several of Lamb’s stories about Crusaders after the Crusades, wandering around the Middle East and getting into various adventures. Lamb wrote well and researched thoroughly.

* John Masefield. The Midnight Folk. Bizarre but engaging story. Read to kiddos.

* A. E. W. Mason. The Four Feathers. Engaging story, though I have to admit that I have no sympathy for the sort of patriotism / militarism that undergirds the whole story, such that resigning from the military could ever be seen as cowardice.

* Charles McCarry. The Tears of Autumn. Originally presented as an unpublished non-fiction book, this is McCarry’s spy novel based on what he thought — and may still think — is the true story behind JFK’s assassination, and it’s probably not a theory you’ve heard elsewhere.

* Cal Newport. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Very helpful.

* Margaret Oliphant. Salem Chapel. Very enjoyable Victorian novel … except for the last couple of pages.

* Margery Sharp. The Rescuers. The first of the series. Read aloud to the kiddos. We loved it.

* Sherwood Smith. Wren to the Rescue. The first in a fantasy trilogy aimed at young adults; quite well done.

* Angela Thirkell. Three Houses. A memoir tied especially to the houses in which Thirkell grew up.

* Douwe van Dijk. My Path to Liberation: Reflections on My Life in the Ministry of the Word of God.  A memoir by a pastor of a Reformed church in the Netherlands, most of which deals with the events surrounding the Liberation in 1944.

* Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little House on the Prairie. Read to the kiddos.

* P. G. Wodehouse. The Girl on the Boat. Fun.

The worst book I read this year was Geoffrey Trease’s Bows Against the Barons. In his defense, it was Trease’s first novel and he was strongly Marxist at the time he wrote it. It’s full of things like “Everyone is equal; there should be no leaders, no rulers.” I was disturbed by the casual violence—lots of innocent people killed even by the “good guys,” in a novel aimed at children, no less—and irritated by several elements of the plot. I could not bring myself to suspend my disbelief in a secret network of caves under all of Nottingham, known only by the humble shopkeepers who are on Robin Hood’s side, a Robin Hood (by the way) entirely different from any you’ve ever met before. Again and again, there were extra “suspenseful” moments thrown in for good measure (e.g., an escape wasn’t enough; there had to be quicksand, too, from which the protagonist is also quickly rescued). And then there was the episode in which the main character somehow smuggled longbows into a castle in a pack on his back. Longbows. Hidden. In a pack on his back.

The book I had the most fun with this year may well have been Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Riddle of the Traveling Skull. Of Keeler, Neil Gaiman writes: “He may have been the greatest bad writer America has ever produced. Or perhaps the worst great writer. I do not know.”

Otto Penzler, on the other hand, writes:

Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health. He makes the J.D. Robb novels seem as if they were written by Shakespeare. Given the choice of reading three Keeler novels back to back or being imprisoned in an Iranian jail,you’d need to think about it.

But this is the novel that contains, in the opening chapter, as an explanation for why the narrator didn’t pay much attention to the Chinese man who spoke to him briefly on the street near his apartment, this fascinating sentence:

For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s “Barr-Bag,” which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2,163 pearl buttons; nor of — in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel — or Suing Sophie!

The whole novel is just as strange. Which is why the New York Times once wrote: “We are drawn to the inescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.”

[Update, December 31, 2017: In his comment, Alastair Roberts alerted me to the fact that, however bad Trease’s novel might be, there really are underground caves in Nottingham.]

Posted by John Barach @ 10:03 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “Books I Enjoyed in 2017”

  1. Alastair Roberts Says:

    Trease’s book sounds bad, but you really should read online about Nottingham’s extensive system of man-made caves before dismissing that particular plot point.

  2. John Barach Says:

    Thanks, Alastair.

    I had no idea these caves actually existed! They appeared so conveniently to help the characters escape without the officials knowing anything about it, and I took them to be complete fantasy. But I guess I was wrong about that.

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