Realized everybody’s doing best-of-books in time for Christmas buying. I’ll do a complete best-of post at the end of the year, but I’ll be spending the rest of December gnawing through Alan Moore’s vast, fascinating Jerusalem (review forthcoming), so I can be pretty sure this is my best-books list for the year. Fiction and lesser kinds of book mix here freely. Counting down, basically in order of how much they affected me personally:
10. Charles Williams, Descent into Hell.
9. Jessica Mitford, Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business. This was pitched as, “Remember how much you got from Discipline and Punish? A Mitford sister did all that stuff earlier and better than Foucault.” This isn’t true at all; Foucault’s vision is much more complex, wry, and generous, his tone of voice much less performatively-shocked, and his biases much less stereotypically ’70s. (Most obvious in the passage about how violent sex offenders rarely reoffend. Ask your local parish!) On the other hand, K&UP gives you a more comprehensive look at the failures of prison reform. And because it’s a newsier book about America, it brings in a host of issues that will be painfully familiar, from police brutality to prison labor. I ended up grateful to Mitford for helping shape my thinking on prisons (more on this in the new year btw) even though I was also quite sure I wouldn’t want to sit next to her at a party.
8. Evelyn Waugh, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Self-lacerating and unusually phantasmagoric Waugh. I’m super always down for self-lacerating phantasmagoria, #myaesthetic and all that, also always into novels where people have the symptoms of long-term alcoholism. There’s a sweetness to this book which suggests something about, at least, Waugh’s aspirations.
(I’m not counting PJ O’Rourke’s Modern Manners because I’d read it before, but if I were, it would go here-ish or a bit closer to the top.)
7. Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means. Cheating because I don’t think this actually affected me emotionally as much as Pinfold but it is a better book.
6. Sarah Schulman, Rat Bohemia. That great drowned Atlantis, the 1990s…. Also boy, it sure is weird how many of my reviews this year were about our inability to honor or acknowledge the shame and suffering of people we view as political or demographic “others.”
Also-also, I note that only TAC would pay me to write 1200 words for a conservative audience about a mid-’90s satire of lesbian activism. You can donate here, my friends, if you are the tiny target audience of that.
5. Saul Bellow, Ravelstein.
4. The English Way: Studies in English Sanctity from Bede to Newman, ed. Maisie Ward. Review forthcoming, but the short version is that this is a volume of capsule hagiographies first printed in the ’30s and reissued this year. It’s explicitly an argument for an English style of Christianity–a chaos-wracked, love-drunk style, relatively unconcerned with moral theology or systematizing. Implicitly it’s an argument against the C of E view of English history: a polemic for the proposition that a despised religious minority is the true haven of the English church. The pieces vary in quality, although the ones on Thomas a Becket and John Newman are the only ones I thought were not good, possibly because they’re the most polemic and embattled. The chapters on William Langland and Mary Ward are by themselves worth the price of admission, and those on Bede, Wulstan of Worcester, and Edmund Campion are also standouts. Inspiring and rich.
2. Mary C. Mansfield, The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in 13th-Century France. I’ve been surprised at how much I have thought about this book since I read it.
And for the #1 slot I am going to fully cheat and just tell you about Hans Fallada. Wolf Among Wolves is the best book I read in 2016. It’s a panoramic portrayal of Weimar life, from the gambling dens of Berlin to the poacher’s paths on a country estate. It’s a book about people seeking escape from themselves, and being forced to reckon with their circumstances: about who rises to the occasion and who doesn’t. Art theft, promiscuous poultry maids of justice, heart-pounding accountancy action (I am not kidding), political alienation, and the abject terror of inflation.
But a) it’s pretty huge and I get that people don’t necessarily want their first Fallada to be his longest. And b) you really only get the full Fallada effect if you read a bunch of his stuff. Fortunately that’s totally worth it.
My basic take on Fallada is, “What if someone had the life experience of Jean Genet and the moral outlook of Ward Cleaver–but also, the Nazis are coming to power?” and if you want an introduction to that, the best places to start are Little Man, What Now? and A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary. The former is a novel about the semi-rise and complete fall of a lower middle-class family; by the end the family is sheltering in a kind of homeless encampment in which all their neighbors are either Communists or Nazis. The latter does what it says on the tin: It records, originally in code, Fallada’s impressions of World War II, from his vantage point in a Nazi criminal asylum. (For shooting off a gun around his ex-wife, I mean, don’t get the impression he was a dissident or anything.) Both books give you Fallada’s sudden tonal shifts, realism to satire to nightmarish horror to escapist fantasy. The career of the nudist in Little Man is grimly hilarious, and the dream of the underground bunker in Stranger is painfully touching. …You could also start with Every Man Dies Alone, which gives you the sharpest contrast between Fallada’s moral world, centered on children and duty, and the nightmare of Nazi Germany.
I’d recommend literally everything by Fallada except the short stories (which I haven’t read yet) and A Small Circus/Farmers, Functionaries and Fireworks, which to me was baffling Weimar political inside-baseball without Fallada’s usual genre-shifting, criminal-bourgeois perspective.
Everybody’s coming up with books you should read because of our political climate and sure, I’ll say it, you should read Hans Fallada because of our political climate. I was struck by this scathing article‘s contrast between solidarity and empathy. I don’t fully agree with that piece’s framework–solidarity without empathy is often unforgiving, for example, and then really I think we’re all saying “empathy,” which is creepily focused on our emotions, when what we should be saying is “humility.” But Fallada offers both sides: a shipwrecked solidarity and a humiliated, complicit empathy.