2007 was a "down" year for my reading list - only 20 books read, and quite a few of those were rather short (last year at this time I had finished 35 books). My friend A.M.Correa did this "bite-size" review thing on her blog earlier this year, and I thought it was a great idea, and so per her suggestion, here are a few of my favorites from the past year:
Mystery and Manners - Flannery O'Conner - Possibly my favorite book on the art of writing, which for me is ultimately a guide to being a better reader, understanding what good books and good authors should and should not do.
(Also The Complete Stories - a motley cast of characters who are either in the process of being saved, being damned, or being used by God to effect one or the other in some unsuspecting and probably unwilling "victim of divine intervention". A grandfather bashes his granddaughter's head into a rock, killing her, and the only proper response to this is to empathize, and pray as Peter might have as he started to sink in the water, "Lord, help thou my unbelief")
Exclusion and Embrace - Miroslav Volf - Started my year with this, got through the first half, put it down, and am now finishing my year up with it. Simply the best book on the subject of Forgiveness and Reconciliation that I could ever imagine reading. The idea that without the Will to Embrace the Other, true forgiveness, peace, and reconcilliation is impossible...that without wanting to fully embrace the other but rather simply live in "tolerance", where you go your way and I'll go mine, true peace is not possible, but rather the oppressed or wronged in any given situation will, if given the chance, want to become the oppressors rather than simply live in peace. It is a power struggle rather than a desire for peace. Embrace cannot happen until injustice has been addressed, but injustice cannot be addressed truthfully if the desire for Embrace is not there. If I hadn't read Flannery O'Conner this year as well, this would be my favorite book of the year. Highly recommended.
The Death of Ivan Illych - Leo Tolstoy (with introduction by Robert Bly) - A book about a man's slow and unexpected decent into death at a fairly young age, filled with his thoughts and fears and various states of sanity (including a 3-day non-stop scream at the thought of what was coming) as the moment of his death approached. The introduction is worth the read alone, and the book reflects the stuff that I think about most often. A book about our experience with our own death. death death death. What more could you ask for in a hundred-page classic?
The Gospel According to America - David Dark - Simply the best book I have read on the way we talk to each other. David contrasts the "Us-vs-Them" mentality of much "American" discourse with the humble mindset that enters a discussion "hell-bent on discovering where we are wrong, and where the other person is right" (as opposed to the "hell bent on proving where the other person is wrong" mentallity we most often see in public debate). Some will find David to be a difficult read, some a challange to sharper, deeper thought, and some will simply find a breath of fresh air in the recognition that "the way things are and have always been" isn't the way things always have to be. There is a different way to engage in conversation, public or private, than the media presents as normal, and it is a way that has deep roots in the very fabric of American history.
Woody Allen and Philosophy - I just like Woody Allen (in fact, he is easily my favorite film-writer and director), and this book was a fun guide through some of the deeper strains of philosophy so abundant in just about all of his films.
Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller - About 10 years ago I read On The Road by Jack Kerouac and thought it was an absolutely pointless account of his travels through America. He just had nothing to say about it all. I'm pretty sure I missed something key to the enjoyment of the book (it is, after all, a classic, and something of a holy book to the Beat Generation). Henry Miller writes a similar sort of account in Tropic of Cancer about his time in Paris, and yet his book was filled with wisdom and poetry and a rich literary experience richly conveyed. Miller's lust for life comes through on every page and is infectious. NOT for the morally squeamish who must discard and discredit a book that contains profanity and vulgarity.
And It Was Good - Madeleine L'Engle - Her death a few months ago prompted me to finally take the Genesis Trilogy down and dig into her meditations on the first few chapters of Genesis. L'Engle's thoughts and meditations on the spiritual life have always been a source of deep and provocative wisdom for me, and this first book of the trilogy was as good as any. I regret never having met her in person.
The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - Speaking of death, here is a deeply heartwrenching book written in the wake of the sudden death of the author's husband. Those who criticize this as a cold unfeeling book of random facts simply don't know what it means to empathize with another, to read with compassion, to put themselves in someone else's place. This book has the power to wake you up to those you love around you, to make you aware of the brevety of life and the suddenness with which it can end for anyone around you.
Writings in the Dust - Rowan Williams - A short but excellent meditation on 9/11 and our collective and individual response to those we hold responsible for the tragedy itself, as well as the tragedy of foreign and domestic policy that ensued afterwards in the name of "safety" and "freedom". Reminded me in it's approach of David Dark's book.
a few classics that have been sitting on my shelves, unread, for years, that I finally got around to reading this year:
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky - Dostoevsky takes the reader deep inside the mind of a murderer as he daily struggles to live with what he has done and come to grips with what it means to be this kind of a person. From the outside, in theory, murder can seem an academic exercise, merely a matter of getting all the details right, but after the fact (from the other side of the act), one's tortured thoughts and conscience prove to be increasingly overwhelming, and the murderer becomes his own worst enemy as the million little unforseen details unravel his very existence.
I liked The Brothers Karamazov a great deal more, but this is a much easier(?), less complicated read.
The Sound and The Fury - William Faulkner - The first chapter is "a tale told by an idiot" (a line borrowed from Shakespear), and is probably one of the most difficult chapters in all of American literature. I thought I was doing pretty well with it, until I read the Cliffnotes afterwards and realized I didn't catch a goddam thing! Benji's emotions and thoughts are tangled up and laid bare, and Faulkner takes us inside that mind and those emotions and does what only great literature can do: elicits and awakens compassion in the reader, not by way of sentimental pity, but by skillfully putting us inside Benjy's experience. The use of time in this chapter alone is utterly fascinating, approximating a true understanding of a mind that does not comprehend time or its passing, where all that happens is in a way a part of that ever-present "Now" of eternity. The idiot is probably closer to the reality of eternity that we are. (at the very least, you have to feel for a guy whose overwhelming love for his sister and deep grief over her absence results in his nuts getting chopped off...)
Benjy is, in a weird sort of way, closest in kind to his brother Jason, who is one of the meanest characters ever created in American literature. The similarity of the brothers who are, for all observation, nearly exact opposites in every way, lies in their utter self-centeredness. Indeed, the entire Compson family, in one way or another, seems plagued with this malady, and the outworkings of these narcissistic entanglements are most often tragic in nature. A difficult book to read (one that gets progressively - exponentially? - easier with each successive chapter), one that would greatly benefit from an almost mandatory re-reading or two, which I just unfortunately don't have the time nor patience to enjoy.
Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut - a book whose(?) use of time is oddly similar to that of Faulkner's "Benjy" chapter. The idea that one can go back (or forward) on one's time/life line to "relive" was oddly appealing to me. The thought of pining away for some lost moments in one's past would be an unthinkable waste of time, leading one to make the most of every moment, for it will always be there for you to experience the way you experienced it. Except that this book definitely does not believe in the foreign concept of "Free Will". A story of war and it's effects upon the mind. that's my take anyway...