Every year since 1996 I’ve made a list of my favorite ten books I’ve read over the year. These books aren’t necessarily published in 2006, just books I read in 2006.
In the order I read them:
Love — Toni Morrison
It’s been a while since I’ve read a Toni Morrison novel, and at least this one is more accessible than Paradise which I started twice and was unable to finish. So the story here takes place in a coastal town where a vacation resort for black Americans blossomed from the 30’s to the 60’s. All the women in the book have a relationship with the dapper but shady Bill Cosey who ran the hotel whether it be romantic, family or employee. The main focus is on Heed and Christine, two women who live together in Cosey’s house even though they seem to hate one another (the intention of Cosey’s will being a main item of contention). I felt like a dope because I could not figure out how they were related to one another, until on page 131 Morrison made my jaw drop. Turns out Christine was Cosey’s granddaughter and when she was 12, Cosey married her best friend, the 11-year-old Heed. All is revealed in the pages that follow and brilliantly what occurred earlier in the book falls into place. The story ends with redemption as Heed and Christine rediscover the love for one another that was torn from them as children.
“Hate does that. Burns off everything but itself, so whatever you grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.” – p. 33
“’A woman is an important somebody and sometimes you win the triple crown: good food, good sex, and good talk. Most men settle for any one, happy as a clam if they get two. But listen, let me tell you something. A good man is a good thing, but there is nothing in the world better than a good good woman. She can be your mother, your wife, your girlfriend, your sister, or somebody you work next to. Don’t matter. You find one, stay there. You see a scary one, make tracks.” Sandler, p. 155
Lincoln’s Melancholy — Joshua Wolf Shenk
This is an important book, really the first contribution to the much-needed heroes for depressives’ canon. Abraham Lincoln, consider by most to be the greatest American president, suffered to major depressive episodes as a young adult and chronic depression throughout his life. Shenk traces Lincoln’s mental history and defends his thesis that the challenges Lincoln faced from depression actually fueled his greatness. The author examines modern psychological understandings of depression as well as the view of melancholy from Lincoln’s time (generally more favorable than today). I can’t say enough about how great this book was for understanding Lincoln as well as my own struggles with depression.
“It is common sense that some situations call for pessimism, but as a culture Americans have strangely decided to endow optomism with unqualified favor. Politicians today compete to be the most optimistic, and accuse their opponent of pessimism, as if it were a defect. This trend is visible in psychology as well. Whereas ‘melancholy’ in Lincoln’s time was understood to be a multifaceted phenomenon that conferred potential advantages along with grave dangers, today we tend to discount its complexities. Psychiatrists see only a biological brain disease. Psychologists see only errors in thinking. That is, if you don’t like yourself, or you feel hopeless, or you see life as fundamentally dissatisfying, you’ve fallen victim to what researchers call ‘learned helplessness.’” – p. 134
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning — Jonathan Mahler
Mahler revisits the tumultuous year of 1977 in New York City focusing on the clashes between Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo in the race for mayor, and Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson for dominance over the New York Yankees. In addition to this Mahler captures the essence of the city in politics, SoHo art galleries, punk rock, Studio 54, and the Son of Sam murders. The book moves along in illuminating if episodic chapters until the devastating central section where in clipped, police report style prose Mahler recreates the horror of the blackout of 1977 and the looting and arson that erupted in Bushwick and other neighborhoods. 1977 is a transformative year in New York history (and its hard to believe all of this happened in the same year), and definitely the moment when New York hit rock bottom. I found myself oddly nostalgic reading this book. Not that I miss the widespread violence and hopelessness of the time, but the names and places remind me of the old New York of my childhood and the good things that were lost in the yuppification of 80’s and 90’s. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a long while.
The Grand Complication — Allen Kurzweil
This fun novel is about a librarian at New York Public Library who becomes estranged from his artistic French wife and ends up working with an eccentric old man to solve the mystery of an 18th century display case full of oddities. The mystery plot is kind of a dud but the characters are great and I especially enjoy the library parts, including the guy who can tell you call numbers for books off the top of his head.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own — Paul Elie
This quadruple biography intertwines the lives of four Catholic American writers: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. There’s an excellent review of this book by Kimberly Burges in Sojourners.
Paradise Alley — Kevin Baker
Kevin Baker and I have many common interests in the history of New York City and their potential for dramatization as evidenced by his previous novel Dreamland. In this novel Baker takes the things I love to learn about – Irish emigration during the famine, free blacks in the the City, tenement life, Tammany Hall politics, firefighting and gangs, and the Draft Riots – and spins it into a very personal story of seven iconic New Yorkers
Ruth Dove – survived the famine and emigrated to New York only by tagging along with Johnny Dolan. She endures his abuse until seeing Billy Dove in Seneca Village (now Central Park) and falling in love. She plots to have Johnny shanghaied and then marries Billy. They raise several children in their tenement off Paradise Alley. She has to hold her family together during the riots and Billy’s absence and dies tragically of injuries incurred trying to protect her son Milton from Johnny.
Billy Dove – learned the art of shipbuilding as a slave and escaped on board a ship while on errand for his master. Having gained his freedom, he sadly is unable to practice his craft in New York where the shipyards hire white only. Instead he reluctantly works at the Colored Orphans Asylum. On the day of the riot he is trapped at the orphanage while trying to pick up his wages and is forced by duty to help the orphans to safety while all the time plotting to return to his family. Suffering unbelievable injuries from the mobs he works his way downtown arriving too late to save Ruth. Later he joins New York’s black regiment and vanishes at Cold Harbor.
Dangerous Johnny Dolan – An evil character that Baker tries hard – and sometimes succeeds – to make look sympathetic. His big secret is that he let his brother die in the famine to save his own life turning into a monster in the process. He also has an obsession with a cabinet of curiosities stolen from a gypsy in Ireland that I can’t quite make sense of literally or symbolically. His return to New York bent on revenge sets off the course of events in the novel and somehow he gets involved in the mob spearheading some of their greatest atrocities. Ruth forces him to make the tragic realization of his crimes and he wanders off only to get himself shanghaied again in a bar.
Deirdre Dolan O’Kane – The symbol of pride in this novel, she aspires to raise herself and her family to the level of American Protestants. She blames Ruth for Johnny’s degradation and though she helps the conspiracy to get rid of Johnny she shuts out Ruth and her family. She also forces Tom to join the Union Army. Her realization of what her pride hath wrought is a turning point of the novel and she’s the main hero of rescuing the families from the attack of the riotous mobs.
Tom O’Kane – He likes the company of men so he says and participates in all matter of fraternal organizations for Irish New Yorkers including the Black Joke fire company. The appeal of Deirdre’s aspirations convinces him to give up his street life and try on respectability. At times a seeming puppet for Deirdre, he is also a kind and gentle character who helps Ruth’s family with housing and money and spends time drinking with Billy. He comes to hate his wife and their reconciliation over the course of the war is an important subplot to the novel. He gives a good soldier’s eye view of the war and the reasons they fight – not for country, not for ideology, but for each other.
Maddy Boyle – The wild child, a girl prostitute who becomes the object of Herbert Willis Robinson’s obsessions. She is put up in a fine house with clothing and fine possessions by Robinson, but deliberately acts the brazen prostitute when she realizes that Robinson will never love her. She never develops much as a character herself but plays an important part in the perceptions of the other characters.
Herbert Willis Robinson – a hack journalist for Greeley’s Tribune, he is the only character to tell his story in first person. Robinson presents most of the narrative of the riot (and cleverly seeing a young Theodore Roosevelt at Lincoln’s funeral procession) seeing pretty much all of the other characters in the course of the novel while only interacting with Maddy. He has a conscience but tragically fails to follow it and ends up an unredeemed character.
Overall this was an enjoyable novel, albeit heavy on melodrama and could use some judicious editing to trim down repetition of belabored points. Also, there are times when the progress of the main narrative would be better served by not being interrupted by yet another flashback. The climax is unsatisfying and relies too much on unlikely coincidence to bring all the characters together at the same time. Still I liked the book and look forward to reading Strivers Row.
Conclave – Roberto Pazzi
The Italian novelist Roberto Pazzi’s narrative joins the present day conclave of the College of Cardinals in progress shortly after the death of the pope. His novel documents what will be the longest, most cursed, and funniest conclave in church history. First creatures plague the conclave devouring religious art (but just the saints, not Christ and the Holy Mother). Rats, scorpions, and bats plague the Vatican to be met by opposing forces of alley cats, free range chickens, and owls perched on the beams of the Sistine Chapel. Controversy plagues the conclave as well as cardinals construct a Turkish bath, young prelates lust after the hens, the American cardinals try to escape and the African contingent work magic that cause the entire conclave to dance all night and laugh uncontrollably. Of course, the politics of the matter is a major theme as cardinals from Italy, Africa, Latin America and Palestine all jockey for one of their own to bear the papal scepter. And finally there is a great critique of the church as the practices weighed down by dogma and dated tradition must be freed by an angelic vision. And yet this is not a harsh or insulting critique, but a gentle nudge to the Bride of Christ who has lost her way.
“One of the greatest tragedies for humankind – and something that produces more victims than war itself – is the slow pace of history. How many men have been killed or condemned or rejected in the name of religion, in deference to laws that were considered absolute, yet were recognized as obsolete with the passing of time? And we, the ministers of the Roman Catholic Church, how wise we have been in making history move as slowly as it can. “ – p. 190
Gregor the Overlander — Suzanne Collins
This delightful book is both imaginative and adventurous. Classified as a children’s book, it tells the story of Gregor an average boy living in a New York City tenement. His family is having trouble making ends meet ever since his father vanished 2 years earlier. One day while doing laundry, his baby sister Boots crawls into a vent and vanishes. Gregor follows and finds they’ve been sucked into the Underland, cities built by an ancient race of humans in cooperation with giant bats. The Underland is also populated by giant cockroaches, spiders and the evil rats with whom the humans are at war. Gregor just wants to go home but learns of a prophecy of an Overlander who may bring peace to the Underland. Furthermore, he discovers his father is still alive and held captive by the rats. Thus begins a quest and a very well thought out adventure at times disarmingly introspective. As you can tell, I really liked this book.
My Life With the Saints — James Martin, SJ
James Martin was a typical American Catholic, not involved in his faith, when after several years in the business world he felt a call to something more and joined the Jesuits. This book is a memoir as well as a collection of histories of the saints. Each chapter tells of Fr. Martin’s encounter with each saint and furthermore how the inspiration of the saint manifested in his own life. The best part is that Fr. Martin has a very contemporary perspective on devotion to the saints, which is something that may otherwise may seem old fashioned.
Joan of Arc – encountered on a post-collegiate trip through France and in a young adult book club.
Therese of Lisieux – Introduced to the little way through the film Therese by Alain Cavalier.
Thomas Merton – A Merton documentary on public TV introduced the notion of religious life to Fr. Martin. Later in life he goes on retreat (from a retreat) to the Abbey of Gethsemani.
Ignatius of Loyola – At seminary, Fr. Martin read numerous books by and about Ignatius. While the saint seems distant, the Spiritual Exercises are inspired.
Pedro Arrupe – The Father General of the Jesuits in the 20th century and a controversial figure who took up the cause of the poor and helpless, while never refusing obedience.
“The longstanding tradition of the church, after all, is of the primacy, dignity, and inviolability of the informed conscience… There is a long list of saints and holy persons who felt duty-bound to speak out about matters concerning the good of their church, even at risk to themselves. Their consciences impelled this.” P. 124
Bernadette Soubirous – Famed subject of The Song of Bernadette, the dramatization of the visitations at Lourdes. Traveled with the Order of Malta on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
Mother Teresa – Never met her, but received a rejection letter from her while writing for America. Worked with the Missionaries of Charity in Jamaica.
“This was a great grace, which would deepen over the course of my novitiate: the understanding that ‘the poor’ and ‘the sick’ and ‘the homeless’ were not categories but individuals.” P. 176
Pope John XXIII – the great pope of the Second Vatican Council is known for his wit, but also an inspiration on chastity.
“The central aim of chastity and celibacy is an increased capacity to love.” – p. 199
Dorothy Day – Fr. Martin read The Long Loneliness unwittingly while living blocks away from the Catholic Worker House.
Peter – The rock of the church teaches humility because Peter is the epitome of the limitations of flawed humanity. Whether suffering through pain in the hands or crises of faith, the poverty of spirit leads to following Christ.
Thomas Aquinas – Philosophy lessons with Sr. French at Loyola opens of the mystical side of the great rational thinker.
Francis of Assisi – Following along with Brother Bill in the projects of Chicago to minister to gang members and help prevent gang violence and taking care of refugees with Sr. Luise in East Africa, just two examples of modern-day fools for Christ.
Joseph – Tells the story of dining with the Little Sisters of Jesus in East Africa, and the hidden life/
The Ugandan Martyrs – Starting small business projects in Nairobi with the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Aloysius Gonzaga – Visiting Gonzaga’s rooms in Il Gesu on a trip through Rome.
Mary – Talking about Mary with women in prison.
The Reluctant Mr. Darwin — David Quammen
An excellent biography of Charles Darwin, the great naturalist who didn’t really want to make a fuss.
“A species wasn’t a Platonic essence or a metaphysical type. A species was a population of differing individuals.” – p. 108
So there they are, ten great books. Happy reading for 2007!