Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christopher's Top Ten of 2015

Christopher's Top Ten of 2015

Merry Christmas, everyone, and happy new year!  I'm working my way through Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, which, unless my train back to New York derails, means I'll reach fifty books for the eighth time in the past nine years (!!!!!).  As always, I read some great books, some good ones, and a couple of real stinkers.  Here's the top ten books I read this year, not including re-reads, like Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, which remains one of my very favorites.

10.) Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed - I almost put a number of other books in this slot, including the two excellent short story collections by Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, and Stanislaw Lem.  But I chose Reed's Mumbo Jumbo because it's just so unlike anything else I've ever read.  Cobbled together from from history books, jazz lyrics, and Voodoo legends, Mumbo Jumbo merrily skewers the sacred cows of Western (that is, white) culture, contrasted by the Jes Grew, a dance craze that springs up amid black America and which is half social movement and half contagious epidemic.

9.) The Second Coming by Walker Percy - Like The Moviegoer, The Second Coming is about two broken, mentally ill people who find comfort and belonging in each other's love.  Both novels begin with cosmic searches--the protagonist of The Second Coming, Will Barrett, traps himself in a cave to see if God will save him--and end in a human embrace.  Percy is often obscure but always profound, and the North Carolina setting struck a chord with me that The Moviegoer wasn't able to.

8.) Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban - As much as I love the consonance in Percy's books, I have a great admiration for a guy like Hoban, who never writes the same book, or even a book in the same stratosphere, twice.  This one is about two strangers who come independently to the same conclusion: two sea turtles in the London Zoo must be stolen and set free.  The set up is a meet-cute, but the book is not--the protagonists never fall in love, and by helping these animals reach their instinctual and ancestral home, they only find themselves a brief respite from what Lukacs calls our "transcendental homelessness."

7.) Swann's Way by Marcel Proust - Okay, I admit that to some extent Swann's Way's inclusion here is out of admiration and respect, rather than love.  Is it possible to love In Search of Lost Time?  The effect of looking in on the complex tapestry of someone's memory and consciousness seems alienating, rather than intimate.  Proust's narrator is so thoroughly made that he gets beyond me, and Proust, and defeats any attempt to really know him.  But Proust understands the shape of the human mind better than any other writer, and this novel is an achievement unlike anything else.

6.) Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion - This book contains my favorite sentence of the year: "Taco Bells jumped out at her."  I described it in my review as a cross between The Bell Jar and Day of the Locust, which is kind of like that old Reese's commercial where the chocolate gets in the peanut butter (making it awesome).  It's a blistering, dust-swept condemnation of Hollywood, and of American masculinity as a whole.

5.) Under the Net by Iris Murdoch - Didion and Murdoch are my two favorite new writers of the year: authors I had heard of, but never actually read.  Now I'm excited to read the rest of their stuff.  Under the Net is (literally) a shaggy dog tale, involving a mysterious mime play and a movie star dog named the Marvelous Mister Mars, among other things.  But it's also somehow a meditation on Wittgenstein and the nature of language, as thought-provoking as it is amusing.

4.) The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick - Dick always manages to find away to surprise me.  I always expect his novels to be clever, profound, and bonkers.  I know they always manage to add one more crazy detail than it seems like they can withstand.  But I've never read a novel from Dick as deeply, heart-breakingly human as this one, the story of a strong, kind man whose search of religious truth kills him and brings death and ruin to everyone around him.  Dick believed some pretty insane things, but he was always unflinchingly honest and unsparing about belief itself.  It's possible that this is his very best novel.

3.)  Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald - An almost perfectly realized novel.  The main characters--a brash Roman doctor and a naive Tuscan countess--fall in love despite themselves, and endure a rocky courtship.  Salvatore and Chiara are vivid, robust characters, but everyone in the novel is: Fitzgerald's principle gift, I think, is knowing how to populate a book with people that feel at once both real and interesting.  There are only two more of Fitzgerald's books out there left for me to read, a fact which makes me pretty depressed.  There really was no one like her.

2.) Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty - So I'm reading Go Set a Watchman, which partly exists to elaborate on the half-imaginary town of Maycomb, Alabama that Harper Lee clearly loves, for all its well-publicized transgressions.  But it's Welty's Mississippi that manages to elevate the small town of the Delta into a place worthy of great literature, something vast, dreamlike, nearly mythological.  Even Faulkner, whose The Unvanquished I'm going to review shortly, couldn't do what Welty did for the Delta.  This story, about a family that comes together for the wedding of their oldest daughter Dabney, demands a slow and careful attention that I'm not used to.  And Welty's prose is probably the most beautiful of any author on this list.

1.) Lila by Marilynne Robinson - ...except for maybe Marilynne Robinson, whose 2015 novel Lila picks up the threads of her previous novels Gilead and Home.  I was really bored by Home, but Lila really recaptures what was so breathtaking about Gilead: the homespun prose, thrilling in its subtleties, the profound, yet humble meditation on what it means to actually live a life of faith.  Robinson writes in her new collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, that the legacy of the Reformation is the idea that faith ought to take its promise to the poorest, most marginalized people, and Lila, the homeless, half-wild woman who is taken into the home of the Reverend Ames and becomes his wife, is the epitome of this idea.  This novel cemented my belief that Robinson is the best writer we have in the English language today, and I think the President might agree.

That's a wrap!  If you'd like to join us next year, shoot me an e-mail at misterchilton-at-gmail-dot-com.  It's the best New Year's resolution you could make!

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