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Normal Books for Mammals: 2020 Year’s Best

Normal Books for Mammals: 2020 Year’s Best December 30, 2020

Nonfiction top 10:

10. Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre, eds. Sticking It to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 – 1980. “A 2003 article describes the Goree Girls, a country-western ensemble made up of inmates at a Texas women’s prison, performing at the Texas Prison Rodeo for an audience of male convicts—grifters, cattle rustlers, murderers—as well as free visitors: ‘It was like something out of a dime novel,’ the warden’s daughter said. And she was right—because ‘dime novels’ were more likely than dollar ones to reflect the extremes of life experienced by women in prison.”

9. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close. Review forthcoming, but for now I’ll say that this is the rare contemporary, secular book on friendship which emphasizes its sacrifices. There’s a depth of love which can only grow through bearing one another’s burdens. It may not be unrelated to say that it’s also the rare book about friendship that talks about the stresses of interracial friendship specifically. Echt millennial, also, which is sometimes a plus and sometimes some other mathematical symbol.

8. Steve Dublanica, Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip–Confessions of a Cynical Waiter. An early breakout from the blog world. There’s a rough-edged gentleness, if I can say that, to these essays about front-of-house life, which makes it unsurprising when you learn Dublanica is an ex-seminarian. There is indeed some #catholiccontent here and there but there’s also something deeper. From the welter of drinking bouts, shattered dishware, and terrible bosses, an ethic emerges of service and seeking to extend to others the forgiveness you know you yourself need. (Also an ethic of, sometimes, flipping off your boss.)

7. Cat Marnell, How to Murder Your Life. “Sample phrase from Murder: ‘applied NARS Cruella to my lips and dabbed a little Laura Mercier Secret Concealer on my crusty forehead wound.'”

6. James Goodman, But Where Is the Lamb?: Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac. “At first, when I finished the book, I wished he’d talked more about the experience of being changed by the story, being interpreted by the Bible, rather than staying himself while interpreting it. And I do think he falls too far on the postmodern ‘all texts are nothing but mirrors’ side of things. But really if he’d talked too much about how this passage changed him the book might have had (more than it does already) the character of a treatise, a mere attempt to persuade us to his interpretation, rather than feeling more like something between tour and contemplation.”

5. Katherine Ludwig Jansen, Peace and Penance in Late Medieval Italy. Essay forthcoming in the New Year but for now I’ll say that there’s a lot here that resonates with, and sometimes corrects, contemporary efforts at restorative justice and violence interruption.

4. Liane de Pougy, My Blue Notebooks. “One of the best spiritual books I’ve read this year is mostly gossip.” Liane de Pougy was a courtesan, sapphist, fashion victim, princess… and, in the end, a lay Dominican, buried in her habit. Her diary is the story of a woman remaining and becoming herself.

3. James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “We’re always telling ourselves that theology needs to emerge from liturgy and the communal life of the Church. This book is one of the best examples of that–and one of the most vivid. It’s full of the life of Cone’s communities: not only the spirituals and gospel songs, but the juke joints, the black newspapers, the preachers and the protesters.”

2. St. Gertrude the Great, The Herald of Divine Love. An ardent heart with a deep theological education, and a desire to convey, above all, the tenderness of God’s embrace. That tender love is for you.

1. Ursula de Jesus, tr. and ed. Nancy E. van Deusen, The Souls of Purgatory: The Spiritual Diary of a 17th-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic, Ursula de Jesus. “This is one of the hardest tasks for Catholics who have been harmed in the Church, oppressed or abused in the name of Jesus: discerning what in our own piety is gift and what is temptation. (When her ‘voices’ spoke of God’s mercy, Ursula said, ‘I greatly resisted that vision.‘)”

Also notable: Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, Poor Relief in England: 1350 – 1600; Raniero Cantalamessa, Obedience: The Authority of the Word; Susan Crawford Sullivan, Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty.

And this was a good book in itself, but I may as well say that the most 2020 book I read in 2020 was Pieter Judson’s The Habsburg Empire: A New History. Judson has various intriguing axes to grind, most of which I have no way of assessing. But many times in the months after I read this I found myself thinking about his claim that it wasn’t nationalism that broke up the world of the Dual Monarchy, but the Habsburg state’s failure to provide basic services to hungry people. If you’re wondering when the post office will deliver your package, why vaccines are at risk of expiring on the shelves, how you will ever get through the unemployment bureaucracy without killing somebody, why you’re being charged an unpayable sum for a medical procedure you were told was covered by your insurance… this book’s end will feel gnawingly familiar.

I also read and highly recommend Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, ed. David L. Ulin, which includes both fiction and nonfiction. Also gosh that’s a good cover.

Fiction/real books top 10:

10. Edouard Louis, History of Violence: A Novel, tr. Stein. A somewhat metafictiony story about a rape and its aftermath, told through multiple narrative layers and suffused with the rage and judgment which are so often born of suffering. Not an easy read but I didn’t ask it to be.

9. Tove Jansson, The Summer Book. “I loved it and it’s a perfect read for a summer which will, I think, be memorable for many of us as a kind of shadow season, a time carved out from normal life and defined by the absence of normality.”

8. Sakaya Murata, Convenience Store Woman. Review forthcoming! For now I’ll just say that this is a brisk little novel about a woman who has never truly fit in until she discovers the structured, smiling world of the convenience store. At last she has a home! Will the normal people let her keep it? All the blurbs on the back say stuff like “Heartwarming, but somehow unsettling,” which is a lot to live up to but I was not disappointed.

7. Mark Salzman, Lying Awake. “In a weird way Lying Awake reminded me of Lawrence Wechsler’s essay, ‘L.A. Glows,’ which I read around the same time [in Writing Los Angeles!]–the mystical quality of the haze could be smog, or it could be a vision of life in communion, or it could be smog that shows you something true even while it damages your lungs. Wechsler writes about a lot of perspective shifts, including the shift to see the light itself instead of what it illuminates.”

6. David Foster Wallace, The Pale King. “It’s a flamboyant move, self-parodically extreme: ‘You’ve got to read David Foster Wallace’s unfinished epic about the IRS! I’ll never forget the chapter about sweating.'”

5. Bahaa Taher, Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery. “Opens with a sweet, haunting encounter between a Muslim boy and a Christian who has more than a touch of the holy fool. Then plunges into tumultuous adventures full of beys and bandits, devotion and betrayal; life is full of hairpin turns and nobody can predict how people will change.”

4. Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote. I bought this because it was billed as “Graham Greene’s last religious novel,” but I had never heard of it so I sort of assumed it was bad. Instead it’s a small treasure. Father Quixote becomes a monsignor against his will, and goes on an epic quest across a very small patch of post-Franco Spain, in imitation of his famous DEFINITELY NOT FICTIONAL ancestor and in the company of his tiny town’s Communist ex-mayor. The Communist loves the Catholic, and this love is the gentlest thing about a man who’s a lot gentler than he wants to appear. The sheltered Father Quixote discovers condoms and the cinema, and the religious devotion of Karl Marx; we get what I am certain is Graham Greene’s own commonplace book, all his distressingly pointed sentences from de Caussade and de Sales. It’s funny and the friendship of these two ambivalent diehards is just so sweet.

There are various English sentimentalities about drink and sex, and some very very Catholic sentimentality about violent crime, and I’m down for all of that, of course. There’s also a recurring argument about the goodness of doubt. On the one hand I don’t buy this. I’m not “against” doubt–what, you want I should be against the weather next? But it seems perverse to be for it. Is it better to doubt that you are loved? That your life is a creation of Love Eternal and that Love will open to you no matter what you’ve done? That life is worth living? A priest calls out to a man standing on the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge: “Well, hmm, who can say?”

But on the other hand this question is mostly treated here with nuance and charm (there are a couple preachy passages, mostly in the back stretch, but they’re brief), and it made me reflect on what we think we’re doing when we doubt, or defend doubt, or assail it. What is important to us in those moments?

And this theme of doubts, lacunae, hope, uncertainty, fact vs. fiction all comes together in a truly strange and layered and moving climactic scene, which you hope is a Mass and also hope isn’t one.

3. Dunstan Thompson, ed. Gregory Wolfe, Here at Last Is Love: Selected Poems. I read these gay, Catholic poems because they’re gay, they’re Catholic, and they’re poems. So I was pleasantly surprised when they turned out to also be terrific! Thompson moves from romantic misery to confident and gentle portrayals of a Heaven made of friendship. To efface self and run toward love–that’s the romance in this poetry.

2. S.Y. Agnon, The Parable and Its Lesson. One story from an epic story cycle about Agnon’s hometown of Buczacz, and now I pretty much have to read the rest. A rabbi’s loyal assistant describes to a synagogue court, and a dismayed community, the terrifying journey he took through the underworld, in which he learned how important it is not to talk when they’re reading out the Torah. There are absurdities, disproportions, narrative layers, contradictions galore, there’s irony for all to eat. There’s surreal horror and bookish or gossipy digression. Learned, witty men receive learned, witty mockery. And yet there is also a ferociously serious and sublime claim being made about the role of the Jews in the life of G-d.

This is also a novella about the generational trauma of persecution. As the essay following the novella notes, this is a “Holocaust story” in which the Holocaust is never portrayed, and all the events take place three hundred years before the first swastika flew in Berlin. Or all the events, I mean, except the telling of the story–and the reason it has to be retold.

1. Plautus, Captivi. The funniest thing you’ll ever read about the noises slaves make when you hit them. I read the Christenson translation.

Also notable: Phil Klay, Redeployment; Lillian Lee, Farewell My Concubine; Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life and Others; Stephen King, Hearts in Atlantis; Charles W. Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition; Lynda Barry, Cruddy; Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth; Barbara Hambly, Fever Season; Stephen Graham Jones, The Only Good Indians; Andrei Platonov, The Foundation Pit (review forthcoming unless you want to Patreon them).

And so we attack another year! Onward into 2021 (review forthcoming).

Cat reading book via Wikimedia Commons for some reason.


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