“What have you read lately that’s interesting?” Since readers of this column sometimes ask me this question, I want to highlight some of the more interesting novels I have read this past year. I will focus on novels (with one exception, a book of essays by a novelist) because most of us look for guidance in the area of contemporary literature which, like contemporary music, is a rich mine-field, full of golden nuggets, but mixed too with a lot of dirt.
Since my undergraduate years, I have always had a good novel within reach and this has been an important complement to my reading in theology and spirituality. There are certain insights into the soul that you only get from good literature. When I was doing my doctoral studies, I was lucky enough to sit in on some classes by Antoine Vergote, the renowned psychologist. Not infrequently, especially when we were examining particularly complex issues to do with obsessions, jealousy, and emotional depression, he would refer us to various novelists and their insights into these issues.
Through the years, I’ve developed a list of contemporary novelists whose books I buy on sight. I try to read a select number of classic and modern-classic writers too, but, as you know, the classics require a bit more concentration, sometimes more than one can muster on an airplane.
My list of favorites is heavily weighted by British women: Iris Murdock, Anne Byatt, Doris Lessing, Anita Brookner, Susan Howatch, to name a few. American and Canadian women feature highly too: Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Dillard, Jane Urquhart, Marilynne Robinson, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary Gordon, Margaret Atwood. The men? Michael Ondaatje, Milan Kundera, John Irving, John Updike, Khaled Hosseini, John MaGahern, Guy Vanderhaeghe, James Carroll, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Chaim Potok, and (yes) Andrew Greeley for his ability to tell a story.
What were my favorite novels this past year? Whether great literature or not, these are the novels that touched me:
• Khaled Hosseini, Kite Runner, touches you deeply with sadness and hope and tells a painful story sensitively, without undue sentimentality. It also gives you some insight into the various factions within the Islamic world.
• Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero, stands out by its writing. The story doesn’t stand out, the writing does. This is art, the best writing I’ve read this year. I was sorry to see last page.
• Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow, is a stunning read, if not always an easy one. A futuristic novel, Russell posits the discovery of a new planet containing self-reflective life and she has the Jesuits send a mission team there. I’m not sure her vision of future space ships will check out, but her insights into love and ecclesiology are extraordinary.
• Annie Dillard, The Maytrees, has little action except that which takes place inside the human heart wherein she highlights the anatomy of forgiveness and redemption. A tough, worthwhile read.
• Kent Haruf, Plainsong and Evensong, two novels with one story. These are wonderfully crafted, warm-hearted, but with enough of a dark side to avoid sentimentality, Haruf reminds me of the Irish novelist, John MaGahern. His characters have the same warmth, become real inside of you in the same way, and become people you would like to meet, not just read about.
• William Young, The Shack, is novel about loss, bitterness, forgiveness, and God. Young may not always and everywhere please people with what he says about religion and the churches, but the concept of God that emerges from this book is both wonderfully healthy and biblical.
• Marilynne Robinson, Home. Robinson won wide acclaim for her previous novels, most recently for Gilead. Critics were less complimentary about this book, but I disagree. This is a story that works at several levels. Among other things, it is the biblical story of prodigal son and the compassionate father, except Robinson’s version is messier and emotionally more complex than the Gospel story. She treats the complexities of faith, love, loneliness, loss, forgiveness, not to mention happiness, with some of the nuances they deserve (and seldom get). It is because of books like this that my psychologist-professor told us to read more novels.
• Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder. Essays rather than a novel, this book helps you to get know Kingsolver, the woman behind the novels. The essays are mostly autobiographical, but they are also sensitive commentaries on terrorism, global warming, living simply, raising kids, handling adulation and hatred, science and religion, family life, and gardening. And Kingsolver’s exceptional writing skills are ever present. This is art rather than journalism.
There is of course always a subjective element in assessing literature and your tastes might not agree with mine. Moreover, and I say this upfront, I tend to read more for essence than for detail so sometimes I don’t pick up on certain details the rub sensitive nerves in other people. So I can’t guarantee you’ll like these books, I can only say that I did.