Monday, December 29, 2014

Top Books of 2014

It's that time again. The Best Of Lists, which dominate your social media page with hyperbole and self-congratulation. However, all of these other lists are infinitely inferior to this list, which is, indeed, the best of all Best Of Lists, mine. It's selected from the 53 books I read this year, and is in no particular order.

Last year's list.

No list would be complete without a Chesterton title. Like The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is another prescient political tale with an ending that seems to cut the ground out from under from the rest of the story. Nevertheless, it's intriguing. It's 1984, and England has settled into a sort of benevolent dictatorship. Rulers are chosen by lottery. But one day, a man whose philosophy is to live life like a medieval adventure is elected king. He puts his whimsical theories to work by forcing all the civil servants to dress up in medieval costumes and appointing neighborhoods as small, independent states. The problem starts when a young man turns up who takes the king's ideas completely seriously. His name is Adam Wayne, and he will defend Notting Hill from any foe.

Graham Greene was the biographer of every sinner, and never more so than in this book about saints. The Power and the Glory is the tale of an alcoholic priest who would give anything to abandon his post. He's a fugitive in Mexico of the 1930's, a time when the socialist government was attempting to root out the Catholic church. He flees from village to village, performing the eucharist for the poor, fleeing from his own commission, fleeing from grace, a Jonah who is dragged back day after day to Ninevah by the terrible force of his own conscience. What is a saint? A perfect man? Or merely a sinner? I may disagree with Catholics about what honors should be given to them, but the definition which Greene presents is one which places the focus where it should be: with grace, not works.

This is the only entry on this list that I class completely in the guilty pleasure category. Ruth Dudley Edwards' The Anglo-Irish Murders is a devastatingly funny satire about British politics. The ninth book in the Robert Amiss (Ay-miss) series, which pairs a mild-mannered civil servant, Amiss, with a hard-drinking, pipe-smoking, foul-mouthed bisexual baroness named Ida "Jack" Troutbeck. Edwards uses Jack's utter lack of inhibitions to pillory professional victimhood. While social conservatism doesn't get a pass either, it's refreshing to hear an indictment of the seemingly benign ideological despotism that is political correctness. If you do check it out, make sure to get the audiobook, read by Bill Wallis (a Poirot veteran.)

Paul Scofield, playing More on stage
A Man for All Seasons, the play, was first introduced to me through the superb movie adaptation starring Paul Scofield. But the play is nonetheless fascinating, for though the film is mostly faithful to the script, telling the story of Sir Thomas More's beliefs, rise, and fall, it excises one of my favorite characters, the narrator known as the Common Man. An ordinary, infinitely corruptible person, he perfectly illustrates the play's point about how law curbs the fickleness of humanity.

The late P.D. James was at the height of her powers when she wrote Innocent Blood, a backwards-murder-mystery. It tells the tale of 18-year-old Phillipa Palfrey, who discovers, not only that she was adopted, but that her birth parents were murderers.

After the initial shock, she sets out to meet her birth mother, Mary Ducton, who is just about to be released from prison. In a parallel story, the father of the girl the Ductons murdered is also interested in meeting Phillipa's mother, but for a very different reason. As always, the most important part of James's plot are her characters. They completely drew me into the story, and despite her inability to stint on anyone's vocabulary (not everyone's had an Oxbridge education), evoked moments of genuine emotion. An interesting variation from James's usual fare.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is the latest Important Novel to dominate the literary scene. A bildungsroman tale, its protagonist is Theodore Decker, a kid whose mother is killed in a bomb blast at an art museum. In the rubble, Theo sticks a small painting into his hand-bag and carries it out of the building. This action forms the secret lodestone to the rest of Theo's colorful life.

His friendship with a Russian named Boris recalls Brideshead Revisited, and many characters have a Dickensian flair. Tartt's prose is gorgeous, but her plotting can be hit and miss. She builds a beautiful, despairing world, but the conclusion to Theo's problem feels anticlimactic, and some of the answers she offers are surprisingly pat. Still, it's an interesting novel, and worth the time. Here's a good article about it.

On my commute back and forth to school, I like to listen to audiobooks. The best one I've listened to so far is Gilead, a leisurely tale narrated by an elderly pastor named John Ames. Tim Jerome reads with a barely suppressed chuckle, and the rambling narrative lends itself perfectly to his easy style. In a way, I could imagine this bear of a man sitting in the passenger seat and telling me stories (it's written in second-person, to his son) about his childhood, his grandfather's vivid past, and the sleepy town of Gilead. Among the book's charms are its excellent, nuanced portrayal of a man who lives and breathes scripture (a rare thing in modern lit), and lovely, eccentrically-worded prose.


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