In contrast to most years and the reassuring ebb and flow of good fortune and ill—never too good, never too ill—that attends them, this year produced some honest-to-God awfulness like no other in memory. My life, at least, had a definable low point: The day I got lost in the neighborhood I’ve lived in for the better part of two decades.
I’d been out of the hospital following (let’s call it) treatment for COVID-19 about a month. My hospital ward of 50 patients had one oxygen concentrator. Despite my blood-oxygen saturation levels of 90%, that device wasn’t coming my way anytime soon. I checked myself out and went home.
God is good: I got better.
Anyway, I’d been out about a month and had just read a short interview with the Minister of Health where he claimed that Ukrainian hospitals had only enough supplemental oxygen for 38% of all hospitalized Covid patients. (We can argue about this [you will lose], but I maintain there is no more entertaining or original fiction than that produced by Ministers quoting statistics.) Rage sufficiently fueled I went out for a walk.
At some point on that walk things went foggy. I found myself standing on a street I didn’t recognize, shopping in my right hand, on my left a small boy with an oddly familiar face. We found a bench and sat, the boy singing the line “do you know the way to San Jose, I’ve been away so long…” over and over. I dug through the shopping bag. Two bath towels. Half a kilo of dates and three packages of spices—cumin, berberis, and fennel. A prescription for eyeglasses. A kilogram of black beans. “Black beans won’t aggravate your arthritic knee,” said a voice and the fog lifted. My five-year-old and I walked home.
The fugue state held no fear, no sense of urgency that I had to be somewhere other than where I was right at that moment. Since then, however, things have turned a little shaky. I’ve gotten lost twice more—streets I’ve walked ten-thousand times rendered into foreign territory—yet it is difficult to recall other junctures in my life where I had felt that peaceful. Gone were a head filled with obligations and shattered deadlines. However, just as gone were a slew of forgotten, crisply imagined paragraphs generated on long walks, along with all frustration at the weather, the government, the maskless.
Not gone is a kind of fuzzy certainty that I read a lot of good books this year. My neurologist assures me that I will, in time, remember them.
That’s the long way around to saying that I can only recommend, with any confidence seven books that I (re)read this year. I read more, certainly. The signs are there: Dog-eared pages; old book festival bookmarks; marginalia in my handwriting, these occasionally in the opaque-to-outsiders and comforting familiarity of a dead language I’ve battled with for 40-plus years. The signs are there. It’s the books and any substantive recollection of what is in most of them them that are obscured.
But the titles below stuck somehow. Others should be on this list but brainfog (as a friend from back home describes it) prevents their inclusion. It would be dishonest to say that as I write these paragraphs that I know why I had thought to recommend them. There is good news: I get to read them again.
I look forward to that.
The Omni-Americans by Albert Murray – Murray, I have learned, took a lot of heat for this collection of essays first published in 1970. It should take the perceptive reader no more than the length of the first essay to discover why. But if you, like me, are befuddled if not worn down by the “more heat than light” tone of the American socio-cultural dialog and desire some clarity of both thought and prose on the matter, this is your book.
Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen – If Masha Gessen is not on some prohibitive list of leading American public intellectuals then there must not be any such list. Drawing on Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar’s concept of the “Mafia State” to describe post-Communist regimes, Gessen has given us in this brief volume an essential primer for effective civic engagement in the 2020s. Their critique of western institutions is sharp, their credentials to issue it indisputable, and wow, can they write. Clear, crisp prose from a mind that we should all be glad is on our side. A sample:
In the Trump era, there is no past and no future, no history and no vision—only the anxious present. There can be no hopes, dreams, and ideals where there is no shared reality; and there is no political community where there is only the self-obsessed and endlessly self-referential president.
Missionaries by Phil Klay – They say that organized religion has a lot in common with making war— plodding, chaotic enterprises led by egomaniacs and driven in equal measure by true belief and opportunism. In Missionaries, Klay draws on that characterization and freshens it up with personal insight into the particular and abstract motives that fuel the urge to make war or to be just close enough to it to profit from the carnage. One take: this is a story about war and geopolitics in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Venezuela. Another take: This is a hard look at human nature and its attempts at establishing political order—a phenomenon long marked by graphic violence, personal betrayal, and pathetic frailty. Concocted of wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, the Old Testament, 21st-century geopolitics, and Rage Against the Machine, Missionaries is that rare kind of muscular fiction that manages to heal even as it wounds.
To Remain Nameless by Brad Fox – This debut novel beautifully navigates the difficulty of telling a thoroughly modern story built on an ancient conceptual superstructure—that of hope, grace, and the urge to do the right thing. Fox’s characters circle the earth in pursuit of a righteous objective whose elusiveness can never supplant its desirability—precisely, the ache to accomplish something meaningful with the time given us. Tess and Laura have seen the world, perhaps too much of it, and have now entered a period of reflection, of reassessment, and of labor pains coming two minutes apart. (There’s nothing quite like the arrival of a baby to help recast the grandest of abstract global ambitions down to the particular.) Told with casual authority and a smart, tension-building economy, Fox has given us a novel for our age: a world of hurt, crushing need all around, and no work more vital than that of keeping hope alive. Thanks to Rescue Press for recognizing the need, and finding the place, for storytelling like this.
Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman – The concept of faith gets a bad shake in contemporary culture. In Europe, they’ve replaced it with naïve empiricism. In the east, it’s buried in self-mystification or impenetrable ritual. In America, they’ve sugared it up and rendered it in soft focus. Inevitabilities, one and all. The good thing is that this has created a place in the world for the verse of Christian Wiman—poetry where spiritual, non-empirical conviction, aka ‘faith’, comes out swinging, raging off the page and reinforcing the homely dignity of just being alive, created in God’s image, and not about to go out without a fight. Not for the faint of heart. One couplet:
O God / Make of my anguish / more than I can make.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – For a collection that “the philosopher king” never wrote as such, in a format he never intended, the marginalia and aphorisms of Marcus Aurelius have stood the test of time. These snippets—their generosity, their foresight, their maturity, their grace—have carried me through Covid recovery. Meditations should be required reading for any person who seeks public office or, really, any sphere of human agency.
Isaiah by Isaiah – When I was a child, my pastor sussed out some ability in me for memorization and began assigning me big chunks of the Old Book. Whole chapters of the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms for recitation. That was 47 years ago. This October, COVID hit me particularly hard and I was shuttled off to a Ukrainian triage hospital for treatment in conditions I wouldn’t subject a rabid dog to. In the place I was assigned to there was no prospect of receiving timely medical care, but there was no alternative—no other available beds anywhere. I was in a room with four more sick, hacking men, all of us over 50. There were no plastic barriers, masks, or other precautions taken. Just lie there, (try to) breathe each other’s air, eat your cornmeal in the a.m. But Isaiah—poetry of nearly three millennia past of a rigor and beauty that is incomparable—was in my head and on my lips. Its recollection, its recitation, was essential to my return home. Prove me wrong. Better yet, find it in the Authorized Version in English, aka “The King James Bible,” and prove yourself wrong.
+RIP John le Carré, aka David Cornwell+
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