Saturday, 1 January 2011

2010 in 10 Books

Subtitle: Because I'm a Huge Nerd Like That

[Once I posted the first bit I realized that this post will be enormous when it's done. This is going to rival some of Jon's stuff.]

I don't usually get too worked up about New Year's Eve; the arbitrariness of it prevents my taking it seriously. That being said, many people treat it as a point of reflection on the last secular calendar year and since I love collective actions--especially on the Interwebs--I shall indulge in a bit of the same. Thus I shall do a review of the year in books. (I couldn't really think of any other topic and, anyway, I'm a huge nerd.) I will note that I recommend all of these books to everyone, provided you are a critical reader and not a mindlessly absorptive one. (I'm pretty sure you're the former.)

1. Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

This was likely the first book I read in 2010. Leacock gives us an episodic account of life in a small Ontario town shortly after Confederation. The genre is emphatically a comedy. I loved it. It reminded me of my own country-boy roots and with my increasingly urban living conditions this is something I like. Perhaps the removal from the rural space was necessary for me to fully appreciate this book. The epilogue after all makes it quite clear that it is written for an audience that is removed from the small town but nonetheless remembers that life. I don't know how well this registers with people who have lived their whole lives in urban culture (though Cait likes it, maybe she can tell us why); for me, the sharp and almost accusatory nostalgia of the book's final pages forced me to become aware of my own urban position.

I can no longer orient myself as being in the country, in the small town. Fort McMurray--where I lived reading the book, where I am writing this--is not a small town. It's not a metropolis like Toronto or Vancouver and I know lots of people from metropolises (metropoles?) see anything smaller than Edmonton as a small town, but compared to most communities Fort McMurray is large. It's just isolated and lacks certain amenities. Kingston, the city in which I had most recently built a full life when I was reading this book, is no small town, either. Recognizing that I am more urbanite than hick was an odd thing for me and is something with which I am still coming to terms. I prefered thinking of myself as a hick than as an urbanite largely because I like thinking of myself as having an outsider's perspective.

The second lesson I got from this book is that one can mix idyll and irony. The narrator treats the characters--and perhaps himself--with a gentle mockery which makes you like them more, not less. This is important: we can still care for the characters in spite of, maybe because of, their faults. This book is built on this blend more than anything else. Humanity is flawed right through, but we're nonetheless likeable. What's important is that the narrator could have presented the characters as flawed and unlikeable, but instead chose to gently, caringly point out these flaws. That specific chosen perspective is an important one.

2. Wade Davis' The Wayfinders

The emotion of the posts that this book spawned should indicate its importance to my 2010. The import of this book comes on two levels.

First, the premise of this book is eye-opening and perhaps liberating: Davis thinks of non-Western civilizations as ones that have the same creative intellectual resources that we have but invested those resources not into the Enlightenment project but into other endeavours entirely. Most of his book explores different endangered cultures which exemplify his premise. I think this is a very important idea, not only in countering the ideas of liberal progress that run rampant through our culture, but also in giving us ways of re-imagining what our society could be like if we started doing things differently. In this respect Davis' book is one of hope, that hope that things can be different.

Unfortunately, opening one's eyes can be a painful experience. The reason Davis' book is hopeful, not complacent, is that there are a lot of things wrong with the world today. As a result, this book sent me into a week-long bout of hopelessness, nigh on despair, with the state of the world. The aftershocks are on-going. This book then marked the beginning of my rocky relationship with the entire idea of hope. I am still working on what kinds of hope are productive and what kinds of hope are deadly.

3. Madeleine L'Engle's A Ring of Endless Light

If The Wayfinders sent me into despair, A Ring of Endless Light helped me get back out of it. This is a young adult novel about a girl named Vicky dealing with death: the recent death of a family friend, the impending death of her grandfather, the deaths of animals (birds, dolphins), the death-seeking of a potential lover. The book is therefore also about love, the full spectrum of friendly, familial, and romantic. Vicky has three potential lovers, and so it triggered one of my theoretical interests (polyamory), but this was not the most fulfilling part of the book. The novel's treatment of love and death coalesce into an exploration into the role hope plays in a dark world.

It is this interest in hope that made the book important to me. I read it following The Wayfinders and this book was part of what pulled me out of that slump. Others will tell you that it's a beautiful book but to me in particular, at that moment, it was necessary. It has also been part of the context in which I have worked through ideas of hope. This is an on-going project, one I can date as beginning in 2010 but cannot date as ending there, as it has not yet ended.

The primary downside to this book is that, like most of L'Engle's books, it made me self-conscious about my own lack of life experiences. Having hit fewer 'maturity markers' than a teenage protagonist is a bit depressing. I hope that my earstwhile readers will not have similar experiences reading it.

4. Walter Truett Anderson's The Truth About the Truth

I picked this up used in a Goodwill; I realized that I didn't really know what postmodernism was and thought remedying that would be a good idea. As it turned out I had been trained in postmodernism for four years at university and just hadn't encountered it as a coherent, labeled theoretical framework. That story is here, here, and here. I am not a postmodernist--I believe in truth, for instance--but I recognize that many of the insights that postmodernism has produced are relevant and important. Postmodernism has significantly changed how I view human identity and has been important upon returning to an English Department. This book not only helped me understand in retrospect exactly what it was I did in much of my undergrad, but it helped me understand the culture in which I will be studying and working for the next few years (at least).

I am not done with postmodernism yet; while I do not agree with the whole package, it has importantly impacted by ongoing thinking. Expect future posts clarifying this.

5. John Milton's Paradise Lost

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. (I'm classifying it as a book, even though that designation doesn't quite work.) I was supposed to have finished reading it a long time ago and decided that it was time. Theologically it's iffy but poetically it works fairly well. I am still confused about the number of pro-Satan readings I hear people produce; having read it straight through now I agree that Satan is a charismatic and understandable villain, but he is nonetheless a villain. What is fascinating is Milton's ability to remain ambiguous about the Ptolemaic versus Copernican universes while elaborately describing the world. Beyond which it's beautiful poetry.

I include PL not only because I finished and enjoyed it, but because I recognize it as one of the touchstones of our current culture. Its vision of the Christian universe has had a lasting impact on societal and cultural understanding of religion (which is ironic, considering it's theological iffiness), and its images have been revisited and revised in subsequent literature. If anything, it has reminded me that drawing on the ideas and images of predecessors is an honourable, perhaps necessary, literary enterprise. Whether or not it has all been said before, it can still be said again, differently. There is still room for poetry.

6. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

If you ever thought reading fiction is unimportant, you may want to read this book. It is non-fiction about how reading fiction is important, especially when the going gets tough. In these memoirs, Azar Nafisi recounts her time as a professor of English in post-revolutionary Iran teaching students, including and particularly a group of young women, how to read the classics: how to read them critically, yes, but also how to learn from them. Thus the novel is divided into four sections called "Lolita," "Gatsby," "James," and "Austen." She deals with the intersections of the attempt to control others' dreams and censorship, the intersections between the refusal to accept uncertainty in fiction and the refusal to accept uncertainty in personal beliefs, and the intersections between the failure to understand characters and the failure to empathize with real people. Nafisi's life, the other characters' lives, and her observations on Iran are captivating enough to make an interesting book, but the moral strength of the book earns it a place on this list.

If you have read some of my past posts about fantasy or the suspension of disbelief, you will recognize some similar themes. This book has impacted my thinking and has rekindled my faith in the power of and study of literature. In case you were unaware, it is all but a professional requirement that students of literature agonize over their own relevance. Reading Lolita in Tehran has convinced me all over again that reading fiction matters.

7. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics

When you move from a high style or theme to a low style or theme, it is called bathos. That is what's happening with Book #7. Where Nafisi's book was inspirational, McCloud's book is fun, interesting, at best instructive.

McCloud's Understanding Comics explores sequential art, the technical term McCloud gives for comics and graphic novels. His interest is not in superheroes, though; his interest is in the form itself. What happens in the gutter (the space between panels)? Is there a difference between realistically-rendered characters and cartoon ones? How does sequential art relate to other forms of art?

McCloud's Reinventing Comics digs into much more technical elements of drawing, panelling, inking, etc., but even in this he is often very theoretical and many of his concerns apply to all artistic production. Thus if Understanding Comics is more interesting to people who are interested in comics (or the rare duck like me who is interested in genres generally (haha! PUN!)), Reinventing Comics has something to offer anyone involved in the production of narrative art. It is in this book that he also unveils an idea about artistic motivations, which he calls campfire. I began exploring that idea and, to those interested in that exploration, I do intend to finish it sometime. Maybe.

8. The Book of Alternative Services

I borrowed this from St. Thomas' in Fort McMurray. I may have taken it with me to Vancouver. If I did not intend to return it this might bear some resemblance to theft. Which would be ironic, right? (There's a scene in M*A*S*H where Father Mulcahy discovers Klinger has been selling him stolen Bibles. I tried to find it on YouTube but no luck. Sorry, folks.)

To those not in the know, The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada is the standard book for Canadian Anglican services. It contains the responsive readings that characterize any Anglican service; the BAS is important in churches that do not use projector screens because this is how the congregation knows how to respond during certain parts of the liturgy. This is especially true of seasonal events and prayers, as congregation members could not possibly be expected to memorize responses they use once a year. You can get a PDF of the full text here.

My first encounter with the BAS was in St. Pauls' Lutheran Church, the swamp church I attended during my elementary school and high school years. After Confirmation (grade 8), however, I stopped attending services upstairs and stayed downstairs to teach Sunday school. In university I went to a non-liturgical church, so it wasn't until I attended St. Thomas' that I encountered liturgical services again. While a child I respected but did not understand or appreciate liturgy. I was afraid of getting things wrong; it seemed like it was all rules for their own sakes. I found that I missed liturgy in university, especially as the sort of church I went to had unspoken expectations (which are even worse, in my opinion, than written ones). It was therefore with great relief that I discovered St. Thomas had responsive readings, albs, acolytes, and coloured vestments. It was like coming home.

At the end of 2009 I began training to be a server, but I did not borrow the BAS until 2010. I borrowed it so that I could better learn my role as a server and I also thought about using my literary analytical skills on it, but instead I have mainly used it like a book of poetry. For some reason I love reading the Penitential Rite (page 46 of the PDF I linked to); I can say it from memory but I still read it from the page, savouring its rhythm. (OK, I'm weird.) Perhaps part of my appreciation of it is that I know it is all true when I saw it; it is a performative truth.

This is not why I include this book in the list, though. I include it because I am finding myself more and more in love with liturgy. It is a complicated love, for sure; I do not know absolutely that it is enough, or that I understand how to use it to approach God as fully as I would like. But it offers a lot. I find narrative, symbol, and structure powerful tools and liturgy uses them well; I find liturgical language is beautiful and can reveal the beauty of God; I find the communitarian elements of corporate speech and act also useful during Communion. (I am using "Communion" over the more typically Anglican "Eucharist" to make a etymological point.) The BAS is the crux of my liturgical experiences both in St. Thomas, Fort McMurray and St. Faith's, Vancouver, and this is why it makes this list.

9. Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan

This play, about the revolution, trial, and death of Joan d'Arc, was assigned to the class for which I was a TA last term. I had never read Shaw's plays before, though I had seen Caesar and Cleopatra at the Festival. I found Saint Joan to be a quick and enjoyable read; it is also substantial enough for an English major like me to have fun with. Given that I was teaching the text to the class, after the professor for the class gave it a lecture, I decided that that's what I would do in discussion: we would have fun with it.

I went in early and arranged the room so that in the midst of the tables was a set, with chairs and tables set up according to the stage directions. When the students came in, I cast them in roles and we played out Joan's trial. It was one of the best classes I had; I had many volunteers to read the parts and there was no problem getting the non-actors to comment on the action. Every so often I would stop the play and we would comment on what just happened, focusing on specific characters and asking them to describe how the stage itself impacts their character's emotional state and so forth.

Saint Joan is a fun, quick, and easy read, but it's substantial enough to hold one's interest (or at least my own). In it Shaw is not interested in the truth of religious claims, but in how religion and politics intersect on the social stage. That in and of itself is an interesting literary choice. Like Shaw, I consistently had to separate the truth of religious claims for how religion operates with texts. This wasn't a challenge insofar as I never want to proselytize but it was a challenge insofar as I was wary of students misreading atheist propaganda into the assigned readings (many students of many backgrounds did this; it seems that to lots of students, whether Christian, atheist, or agnostic, there are unrecognized athiests hiding in the canon). But it's not why I include it on the list. I include it on the list as one success as a TA. It changed the dynamics of the class and it got us on our feet. It was fun and critically detailed. You can't ask for much more than that.

10. Linda Medley's Castle Waiting Vol. 1

With the exception of the largely unplacable Book of Alternative Services, this list has been chronological--until now. If I were to insert Castle Waiting Vol. 1 properly, it would have to precede Paradise Lost, the reading of which I interrupted to read this graphic novel. However, this book may have been the most important and therefore deserving of the capping #10 spot, and its direct influence continues into 2011, which also justifies its placement at the end of the list.

Castle Waiting is about the eponymous castle, in which a number of adventures happen. At first it follows the story of Sleeping Beauty in an extended prologue, but following this the story changes signficantly: Castle Putney is all but abandoned and becomes Castle Waiting, a sanctuary for assorted runaways and misfits. The story travels with Lady Jain, pregnant and battered, as she flees her husband and her reputation to the legendary refuge. Upon her arrival, the story shifts again, becoming a catalogue of the daily adventures and exchanges of the Castle's residents (Rackham the anthropomorphic stork, Simon the large and simple boy, the heartbroken Iron Henry, Sister Peace of the Order Solicitine, the reclusive and perpetually masked Dr. Fell, numerous Poltersprites...), as well as the long biographical tales Sister Peace tells involving bearded women, a travelling circus with gypsies and giantesses and conjoined twins, a woman martyr and her developing hagiography, and a greedy mill owner. It deserves the description on the back of the book: "A set of linked nouveaux fairy tales, this graphic novel extends the story of Sleeping Beauty into a modern, feminist Chaucer."

I was visiting my brother while he worked on his group film when his girlfriend and co-animator lent me her copy of the book to read between scanning for them and going on sushi-and-juice runs. I loved it immediately and the book stayed in my mind thereafter. When I got to Vancouver I decided I wanted to own it and promptly took the opportunity of numerous Chapters to make that happen. I re-read it.

The first reason that this book is significant is that it told me in no uncertain terms that you can have a successful fantasy (in this case more fairy-tale-esque, but the line between the two is indistinct if extant) book without making it an adventure story with wars and monsters. That's not to say that the book is without suspense or risk, but rather its emphases are friendship, community, redemption, sanctuary, and storytelling. This book is a powerful reminder that fantasy can be a lot more than it usually is. Which is to say, Castle Waiting has changed my idea of what sorts of things I would like to write.
The second reason that this book is significant is that I lent it to Melissa. She loved it as much as I did and we spoke about it for some time, speculating what would happen next, what fairytales all of the characters came from, and so forth. I also recommended it to Cait and to Julia, a friend from back home. If I recall correctly, Cait also liked it. (Did I get that right?) And then, just before I returned home for Christmas, I lent it to The Rev'd Paula +, the priest at St. Faith's. (I found out today, Jan 9, that she loved it--as did Owen, who I presume is a child.) I bought my brother's girlfriend Vol. 2, which my brother bought me for Christmas. (Melissa is currently reading my copy of it and has lent me a book she got for Christmas. So it goes into 2011...) This book has become, though repeated recommendations, lendings, and givings, a social nexus connecting me to a large number of people spread over significant geographical distances. The people it has connected me to are also very important to me and it has helped strengthen those bonds. I think, given the themes and mood of the book, that Linda Medley would be pleased.

Honourable Mentions: Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion; Heather O'Neill's lullabies for little criminals; somebody or another's Saturday; Michael Ingham's The Mansions of the Spirit: The Gospel in a Multi-Faith World; Coetzee's The Life & Times of Michael K; Gruen's Water for Elephants; Kostova's The Historian

Some Thoughts on the Decision to Review 2010 by Means of Books

With a few exceptions, reviewing my year through books makes me look like a shut-in who has no friends. I would like to say this is untrue, but I think the specific books chosen makes clear that it was true and stopped being so. I only have three books that relate to my time in Vancouver, and two of those are more related to my time in Fort McMurray. (I have also lent The Wayfinders out, but it has played a far less important social role than Castle Waiting has.) This is directly related to the sorts of books I read in Vancouver: I read assigned material. The syllabus is often interesting and mentally enriching but it does not impact my life in the same way these ten books have. (In fact, the only one that made the Honourable Mentions is Coetzee's.) More importantly, however, books in general have not impacted me as much because people impact me more, and you can see this in the final three books. The first (or eighth) is liturgical and concerns my place within churches; the second (or ninth) was assigned and concerns my role as a TA; the third (or tenth) became a social artifact and concerned my relationship with friends. We thus see a shift from introverted significances to extraverted significances in the books I have chosen, and I think that is reflective of 2010 itself.
Next year, perhaps, I will be able to offer you 2011 in 11 somethings other than books.

Or maybe I'm too much of a bookworm for that to ever be likely.


yolanda said...

i was contemplating a very similar "year in books" post - but am not yet sure if i'll have time in the next month (unless it becomes my way to procrastinate but that wouldn't be ideal either). it does seem like a very good way to reflect on the year.

hopeinbrazil said...

Hello, I love poetry and English lit but have been a bit afraid of Milton's Paradise Lost. Are all versions pretty much the same?

Christian H said...

Yolanda: Yes, procrastination is not ideal.

hopeinbrazil: All should be very similar. Their would be minor editorial differences. What is different between editions is footnotes, prefaces, and so forth. I found Modern Library Classics' annotations and introductions very helpful in understanding Milton's unusual theology.

Christian H said...

*There. Gah. Personal typography fail.

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