Another year has come and gone, and with it, so has another New Year’s resolution. In our holiday podcast last winter, I resolved to read more new books this year. I started out on course, then I read some mediocre stuff, then I read some real babytown frolics, and eventually I returned to my own long-running list of books I wanted to read with little regard for their publication date.
So here’s my list, some newer, some older, but all books I enjoyed a great deal in 2013, and which I’m happy to recommend to you for a good 2014 to come.
Van Booy’s writing has won me over wholly with its sincerity. His stories are large and open-hearted, and his prose is direct, honest, and evocative.
The Illusion of Separateness weaves its story from the lives of half a dozen apparent strangers, charting a course through a series of tangential connections to a chance encounter in Nazi-occupied France. For all its emotional and thematic weight, the book moves deftly in time and perspective, reading more like a good adventure than a work of philosophy. But that’s really what it is, a work of philosophy arguing its central premise with an artistic proof that no one, anywhere, is really alone.
A friend of mine who lives in the middle of nowhere has a tendency to mail me books out of the blue. I’d never even heard of Ravelstein before it arrived at my door, but Saul Bellow’s last novel quickly won me over once I started reading. It’s an extended character sketch of an eccentric University of Chicago professor of political philosophy and his ideas on the good life and death. I can’t think of anyone anywhere who can rant quite like Bellow can, and when he really gets on a tear no one is funnier, more cutting, or a more insightful culture critic.
The title character in Ravelstein is based on Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy and Bellow’s longtime friend. The Closing of the American Mind is Bloom’s most well known book. I can’t actually say I loved it, in fact a lot of what I read there made me angry, but it gave me a lot to think about. Bloom’s perspective cuts across the political spectrum as we understand it in 2013. He’s an academically conservative atheist traditionalist who sees liberal democracy as the greatest threat to its own best promises. If nothing else, I found The Closing of the American Mind refreshing, without analogue in contemporary political discourse.
A book-length poem in three parts, The One Day takes the measure of possible lives in a collage of voices. Obsessed with antiquity, destruction, loss, and renewal, it’s a modernist work that spurns modernity in preference for timeless acts of creation, whether artistic, agricultural or biological. The beginning of the third section, “To Build a House,” contains my new favorite passage about work:
… To seize the hour, I must cast myself
into work that I love, as the keeper hurls
horsemeat to the lion: –I am meat, lion, and keeper.
Not much to say about this one that Nico and the National Book Foundation haven’t already covered, but after reading it this summer I can’t resist adding my own voice to the chorus singing its praises. Gorgeously written, exhaustively researched, and deeply experienced, Behind the Beautiful Forevers deserves every accolade it received and then some. If you haven’t read it yet, you might make it a New Year’s resolution. That’s one that you’ll definitely want to keep.