2016 has been a rough year for many of us; the election in the United States of an incompetent and misogynistic shag carpet beloved of white nationalists, and the intimidation and violence which followed it, loom large in any list of the year’s misfortunes, but I’m sure we can each add our own. Personally, thinking I might die in a fire was one of them. (The Beaverton‘s recent joke, then, hit close to home.) That said, for me 2016 has also been a very good year for books.
In reverse of order of how much I enjoyed them…
10. Robertson Davies: Man of Myth, by Judith Skelton Grant
I have lately come to quite appreciate Robertson Davies’s novels (though the only one I read this year, the very CanLit Murther and Walking Spirits, won’t make this list), so when I saw this biography in Fort McMurray’s only used bookstore, I bought it. Two particular aspects of this book were particularly interesting to me: first, I am always interested in seeing how an artist’s skills and preoccupations develop over time, and when that artist is himself interested in the development of personality and artistic skill particularly, the topic begins to reflect on itself; second, I was fascinated by the depiction of arts and culture—and the relative lack of them—in the rural Ontario of a particular time. Perhaps my own biography made me enjoy the book more than I otherwise would have done: I had just moved to Fort McMurray from Stratford/Toronto and I saw myself more than a little in Davies’s sense of exile from artistic community.
9. Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone
To be frank, I far preferred Gladstone’s first novel in the Craft sequence, Three Parts Dead. Still, Two Serpents Rise is an enjoyable book if you like the general idea behind the Craft sequence: a legal thriller set in vaguely steampunk world in which magic and miracles are a) commonplace and b) structured much like modern high finance. In Two Serpents Rise, Caleb Altemoc, risk manager for the warlock cadre Red King Consolidated, tries to discover the source of a shadow demon infestation in Dresediel Lex’s water reservoirs; he also follows a cliff runner (think magic-enhanced parkour) named Mal who is ambiguously involved in the plot and tries to deal with his father, the last priest to the city’s old gods and a wanted terrorist. I found the characters less appealing and the religions less interesting than those in either Three Parts Dead or Full Fathom Five, but Caleb’s attempt to develop a working moral system that took honest stock of both the old religion and the new craft, was engaging.
8. Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted, by Richard Beck
(I already mentioned Reviving in a review of a different book.) I was expecting to like this book more, but unlike much of Beck’s work it lacked the grounding effect of peer-reviewed psychological research. It was a more colloquial book than, say, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality or The Slavery of Death; it was also more personal, framed as it was by his encounters with the more charismatic spirituality among the attendees of his prison bible ministry. Reviving Old Scratch mostly shares the moral impulses of progressive Christianity (that subset of Christianity which shares many priorities with social justice and leftist movements) and attempts to argue that progressive Christianity would be strengthened with a much greater focus on Satan and the demonic. As usual, Beck’s blogging-influenced style includes a tendency to repeat his points in various forms and an abundance of analogies and (mostly dated) pop culture references; he shows a real concern that the reader can grapple with a somewhat unfamiliar set of ideas, but if you are relatively quick on the uptake or are already aware of some of his argument, it can get frustrating. His stories about prison ministry are the best part.
7. Fort Chipewyan and the Shaping of Canadian History, 1788-1920s: ‘We like to be free in this country’ by Patricia A. McCormack
You might be able to tell from the book’s title that McCormack is an academic. As books of academic history go, I found it quite readable… but my gauge for readability is likely misaligned. As a history of Fort Chipewyan, the topic may seem too niche to be of general interest, yet I found it has informed my understanding of more than just Athabasca region history: the chapter on the fur trade mode of production helped add some nuance to my understanding of “modes of production” generally, while the chapter on the signing of Treaty 8 taught me a lot more about the Treaty process in Canada generally, mostly by contrast. Furthermore, it is an interesting case study in the creation and maintenance of national sovereignty: Canada’s attempt to claim and tame its frontiers differs from the American story we might be more familiar with, but I think you’ll find McCormack will challenge your assumptions about Canadian nationhood as well (if you have any). It is part one of two; the second, taking us from the 1920s to the present, is not yet released.
6. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
Lila is the third of three companion novels covering a small domestic drama between two neighbouring families in Gilead, Iowa, USA. Gilead is introduced in Gilead by Reverend John Ames, writing a letter to his son; Home is an uneasy re-writing of the parable of the prodigal son set in the Boughton’s house, next to the Ames’s. Lila provides earth-tone shading between Gilead’s ecstatic greens and reds and Home’s sombre blues and despairing greys. It tells us the story of Ames’s quiet wife Lila, a perpetual stranger and faltering convert (she tries, for instance, to wash her baptism off), and her inability to trust not just the world around her but also her own constancy. In my opinion, the last three pages are among the most incandescent and theologically acute passages in the Gilead trilogy, and this is saying something. Although the books can in theory be read in any order, I would highly recommend publication order.
5. Islam in the World, by Malise Ruthven
I have already written a reaction to Islam in the World here. I have little more to say except that I deeply appreciate it.
4. The Year of Lear: 1606, by James Shapiro
Man of Myth, above, was one book I read situating the artist’s work in a historical context. The Year of Lear was the other. It is in a sense the sequel to Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. In 1599, though, Shakespeare was just coming into his own as a playwright and a poet; in 1606, Shakespeare was a mature writer remaining relevant in a milieu which was starting to consider him passé. Therefore 1606 does not examine the genre-breaking (and –defining) struggle which Shapiro depicts in the 1599. However, what 1606 offers is a political and cultural environment surprisingly like our own: persecutions of religious minorities, arguments about the definition of torture, fear of politically-motivated attacks on heads of state and symbols of power, cults of nostalgia, and the threat of pandemics define London in the year Lear was written. Some of Shapiro’s claims seem a stretch or less certain than he makes out, but overall he is an astute critic who reads Shakespeare well and makes connections between the Bard’s images and his surrounding culture without rendering Shakespeare a mere political allegorist.
3. Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans
Like Reviving Old Scratch, Searching for Sunday is partly a plea for progressive Christians to go back to church. It is, however, far more personal. Evans is a memoirist more than anything, and here she offers her initial enchantment with evangelical Christianity, her difficult departure from it, and her well-researched and very public attempt to find a church that worked for her. It is also more than a memoir: each chapter offers a historical background on one of the Christian sacraments, a poetic explication of it, and various quoted material in addition to some portion of her memoir. Because her journey took place in conjunction with her popular blog and involved meeting quite a lot of people, it is also a thoroughly social book; Evans’s acute awareness of the effects spirituality can have on other people in the world means her own religious journey involves many interactions with strangers, friends, and whatever you’d call the people you know on the Internet, and many of those are recorded in the book. This book spoke to me in a way few books do.
2. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A recent blathering article about Hamilton and the purported liberal elite called Between the World and Me something to the effect of “that book by Ta-Nehisi Coates which you bought but didn’t read.” If you have purchased this book but haven’t read it yet, I insist that you fix this situation immediately. Perhaps you are not interested in its piercing insight into American whiteness (insights that are applicable north of the 49th, too); perhaps you do not care to learn what it is like to grow up black in Chicago; perhaps you do not want to appreciate the varieties and the extraordinary creativity of that American blackness; perhaps you do not wish to unlearn the middle-class illusions about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers which I know I held; perhaps you prefer to remain untouched by the story of Prince Jones; even so, you should read this book for its remarkable structure and remarkable prose. This is a glorious example of the art of creative non-fiction; this should be on creative writing syllabi as well as all bookshelves. Read this book.
(That said, read this review of it, too. Also, Between the World and Me is a strong clear example of a World 2 person trying to understand other Worlds, World 1 especially, failing to understand, and knowing he fails to understand.)
1. Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold
I read this book for the first time and for the second time this year. It is the sequel to The Curse of Chalion, which my friend Muir Pangolin gave to me as a “theological fantasy.” I remain ever grateful; Bujold’s Five Gods books, in the fantasy of manners genre, explore what an honest, struggling religious life would be like if a polytheistic fantasy religion were indisputably true. Curse is very good; I enjoyed Paladin of Souls much more. Ista dy Chalion—Dowager Roya of Chalion, middle-aged widow, former saint, and recovering madwoman—is a more delightful protagonist than I expected, and most of the supporting characters—the plump dy Cabon, a priest of the Bastard; the quick Liss, a courier girl; the dy Gura brothers, votaries of the Daughter; the sly Lord Illvin, sick abed—complement her well. Blogger ozymandias commented that Bujold is an expert at making protagonists likable, and this book is no exception. Furthermore, it develops the fantastic themes that began in Curse: where the first book explored the divine in this world, Paladin explores the demonic in a way that both gratifies curiosity and leaves enough unexplained that it remains evocative. The third book, The Hallowed Hunt, explores the shamanic, and while I liked that book I did not love it to absolute pieces, as I did this book. Altogether, though, the Five Gods books depict a very engaging theological fantasy world.
(I will also note that all of these books contain a romantic plot tightly woven into the main plot, and Paladin in particular is thick with a particular kind of heterosexual female desire. I don’t know if that’s a selling point or a detraction for you, but either way I figured I should mention it.)
0: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
I am adding this book not because I first read it in 2016, but because I re-read it at the very beginning of the year. Therefore it is the zeroth in the list. It is the sort of book I might pick up and read a random chapter out of during an idle moment. It was recommended to me by Melissa and it was well-recommended. Goblin follows Maia, a young half-elf half-goblin man who unexpectedly inherits the imperial throne of the Elflands after the rest of the royal family is killed. The novel follows his attempts to learn court politics and aristocratic etiquette, despite the racial and religious prejudices against him and the intrigues into which he has been thrown, while remaining true to what he thinks makes a good person and good leader. Goblin also has strong themes of social isolation and recovering from physical and psychological abuse. If you want to read fantasy but you don’t because so much of it is either a) straight male wish-fulfillment or b) straight teenage girl wish-fulfillment, then I strongly suggest you read this book.