Ever since I was a small boy and first grasped the concept of a "year," the marking of time has retained a mysterious quality for me, and calendars especially seem to be potent with elusive meaning. That a year "ends" on a certain day and a new one "begins" … that every day in that new year is already laid out in advance on the pages of the calendar … there is a fascination to all this, a sense of forces only dimly understood.
I'm particularly conscious of this in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, a week which has long been special for me, set aside in a way, to think back and to look ahead. So it's fitting that this week we are concluding our annual roundup of books, including a few that are coming in 2004.
I've been re-reading John Gardner, one of my favorite writers, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1982 at the age of forty-nine. At the time of his death, he was—love him or hate him—a ubiquitous presence in American writing. Since then, in the last decade especially, he has slipped from view. I hope that Barry Silesky's biography, John Gardner: Literary Outlaw (Algonquin), coming in January, will prompt many readers to discover or rediscover Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues and other marvelous books. As biographies go, Silesky's is very much in the journeyman's category, but it points in the right direction.
One of the books I'm most looking forward to is the second volume of Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (Ignatius Press), due any day now. The first volume, published in 1996, was a treasured bedside companion for months. (I hope we don't have to wait so long for volume 3!).
Technically a 2003 title but published right at the end of the year is the first volume in an important new series, The Church's Bible (Eerdmans), under the general editorship of Robert Wilken. This series, which promises to be a superb complement to InterVarsity Press's invaluable Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, presents Scripture "as it was understood during the first millennia of Christian History." Drawing primarily on ancient commentaries and sermons on specific books of the Bible, the series will feature (in general) longer, more sustained exposition than one finds in the excerpts gathered in the ACCS. Richard A. Norris, Jr., is the editor and translator of the first volume in the Church's Bible, devoted to the Song of Songs. Get a copy for yourself, one for your pastor, and one for that niece or nephew in seminary.
Earlier in this roundup I mentioned the series of reprints of Muriel Spark's novels coming from New Directions. In April 2004, Everyman's Library will publish an omnibus volume containing four of Spark's novels: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, The Driver's Seat, and The Only Problem (Knopf). The last of these deals with the Book of Job and the problem of evil.
For years now it has been fashionable for scholars to condescend to Marshall McLuhan even as they grudgingly acknowledge his prescient vision. Not that McLuhan is above criticism—hardly!—but what a world of difference between his energizing intelligence and the inturned discourse of these condescenders. A promising antidote, coming in March from MIT Press, is Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines, with a foreword by Tom Wolfe.
In the precincts of The New York Times and other citadels of enlightenment, "we" hardly know anyone who believes any of that old religious stuff. But what about the world outside? Alister McGrath proposes an answer in The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday), coming in June. It's a safe bet that this title won't make the Times' list of "best books" for 2004. But you might want to go out on a limb and read it anyway.
Jonathan Sarna is an outstanding scholar, and his American Judaism: A History (Yale Univ. Press), due in April, should be one of the highlights of the year. Also noteworthy from Yale is Jaroslav Pelikan'sInterpreting the Bible and the Constitution, scheduled for May. Also in the don't-miss file is Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (Simon & Schuster), by Allen Guelzo, a frequent contributor to Books & Culture, due in February.
Anne Godoff, formerly of Random House, is now head of a new Penguin Group imprint, the Penguin Press. She has brought some of her big authors with her and recruited some new ones. The impressive first list, scheduled for this spring, includes titles by Niall Ferguson, Lawrence Lessig, Ken Auletta, Richard Evans, Ron Chernow, and the late Michael Kelly, among others, but the one I'm most looking forward to is Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, coming in March.
If you have a gift card from a bookseller and don't know what to spend it on, I have a suggestion. Thanks to a recommendation by our son, Andrew, Wendy and I—like a host of other readers—have become acquainted with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor), the first book in McCall Smith's series set in Botswana and centered on the resourceful Mma Precious Ramotswe. Wendy and I are just ready to begin the second book in the series, Tears of the Giraffe. For those who are well ahead of us and itching for another installment, the fifth book in the series, The Full Cupboard of Life, is scheduled to be published in April by Pantheon. I should add that, on the basis of the first book, at least, McCall Smith has a rather dismissive attitude toward the Church. That was not at all a major theme in the book, but it was present, alas. You might read a few pages in the bookstore to see if you find Mma Precious Ramotswe as appealing as we did.
Another discovery this past year in the mystery genre was the Swedish writer Henning Mankell's series of novels featuring the police detective Kurt Wallander, published in hardback in the U.S. by the New Press and in paperback by Vintage/Black Lizard. Two books in the Wallander series, The Dogs of Riga and The Fifth Woman, will be released by Vintage in April.
I've never been bitten by the Susan Howatch bug, but I know many B&C readers who have. They will pleased to learn—if they don't already know—that Howatch has a new novel coming in May: The Heartbreaker (Knopf). And further down the road, fans of the wide-ranging New Yorker writer, Lawrence Weschler, can look forward to his latest collection of pieces, Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies (Pantheon).
Those are a few titles to keep an eye out for among the many worthy books (and many more unworthy ones) that will appear in the coming months. Already I have teetering stacks of "books to read," not all of which will get read, though I will at least investigate most of them. There are heaps of new books: novels, collections of poems—the most interesting right now is Wild Civility, by David Biespiel (Univ. of Washington Press)—several books about sound and history via "the senses," and so on. Also some "old books": I'm re-reading several books by the poet and translator Ben Belitt, for instance, who died this year.
But my "to-read" department is dominated by a single, insanely ambitious work: Rising Up and Rising Down, by William Vollmann (McSweeney's), a seven-volume study of violence and when it is justified, 20 years in the making. Vollmann, a novelist who has produced some powerful if flawed books (see the four novels in his ongoing Seven Dreams sequence) and some that are flawed, period, has also been a firsthand witness in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and many other sites of violence, and he draws on that experience as well as on prodigious reading. I'm only starting out—the work appeared late in the year—so I can't say how far I will get or what I'll find. I'll make a report in due course.
Best wishes for the New Year.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The books mentioned this week are available from Amazon.com, Christianbook.com, and other book retailers.
Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:
The Top Ten Books of 2003 | Plus: The Worst Book of the Year, more good reading, digital books, and a little Christmas music (Dec. 22, 2003)
Books at Warp Speed | We continue our annual roundup of noteworthy books. (Dec. 15, 2003)
Is "Sensual Orthodoxy" a Contradiction in Terms? | Read this unconventional collection of sermons and judge for yourself. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Books, Books, Books! | We begin our annual roundup. (Dec. 8, 2003)
Urban Eden | In City: Urbanism and Its End, a new history of New Haven, Connecticut, the city (in its late 19th-century form) is an ambiguous heaven-and the suburbs that relentlessly followed are hell. Which leaves us where, exactly? (Dec. 01, 2003)
Cool Drink of Water | A poet's voice in the evangelical wilderness.
Faith, Hope, and Charity in North Carolina | New novels by Michael Morris—whose first novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, was a word-of-mouth hit— and Jan Karon, who continues her beloved Mitford saga. (Nov. 17, 2003)
Remember Afghanistan? | Two inside reports. (Nov. 10, 2003)
The Troubled Conscience of a Founding Father | An Imperfect God examines George Washington and slavery. (Oct. 27, 2003)
The Year of the Fish | The 2003 baseball season concludes with a bang—and 2004 is just around the corner. (Oct. 27, 2003)
I Shop, Therefore I Am | Critics of "consumer culture" are all wet, Virginia Postrel says. The riot of choices available to us resonates with our deepest aesthetic instincts (Oct. 20, 2003)
Back to the Future | A sprawling new novel by the author of Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon goes to the 17th century to investigate the birth of the modern world. (You won't be surprised to learn that the Puritans are among the Bad Guys.) (Oct. 13, 2003)
Poetry, Prayer, and Parable | The playful provocations of Scott Cairns (Oct. 06, 2003)
Terrorists on Trial | How the nation responded to an earlier attack. (Sept. 29, 2003)
The Contemplative Christian | Eugene Peterson calls believers to a life lived with "wholeness, honesty, without contrivance"-against the grain of much that's currently driving the church in America. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Recalling California | Want to understand what's going on in the Golden State? Toss your newsmagazines and pick up Joan Didion's new book (Sept. 22, 2003)
The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On | How Christians can make a difference in the upside-down world of graduate school (Sept. 15, 2003)
The Difference Between Conservatives and Prolifers | William Saletan unspins, and respins, the abortion debate (Sept. 8, 2003)
A New View of Worldview | Some critics want to retire the concept. Not so fast, says David Naugle (Aug. 18, 2003)
'A Golden Age' of Religious Tolerance? | The Ornament of the World analyzes how the intellectual elites of medieval Spain eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in reconciling competing truths. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Looking for the 'I' | What happens to the self when the brain is injured or malformed? (Aug. 4, 2003)
The Terror of the Therapeutic | Margaret Atwood's new novel considers the price we may pay for looking to technology to remedy our ills, personal and social. (July 28, 2003)
The Catholic Church's Regime Change | Would lay power really augur a new epoch of openness and honesty? (July 21, 2003)