This year I started using Goodreads for the first time to keep track of things I’ve read. I also set myself the target of reading 50 books this year. It’s satisfying to say I just managed it! (Finished the last one yesterday). I’d recommend it for setting goals and also for the plentiful, thoughtful reader reviews – it’s now the first place I go to when I’m thinking of reading or buying a book. Anyway, here are the fiction books I most enjoyed reading this year, and the reasons why (kept spoiler free). Feel free to borrow if you see me around. A non-fiction post will follow too.
The Pacific – Mark Helprin
‘Stunned by the beauty of all this, Paulette and Lee were intent upon remembering, because they wanted what they saw to give them strength, and because they knew that should things not turn out the way they wanted, this would have to have been enough.’
This is a collection of short stories I picked up on the recommendation of this stunning blog post by culture writer Andy Crouch. (Helprin’s work is generally very cheap on Amazon Marketplace!) I gave it 5 stars, despite some misgivings. I can just about see why some people on Goodreads dislike it: the stories aren’t all even in quality (of course!) and many of the characters seem somewhat similar particularly within genders, with a few notable exceptions. But. I absolutely loved the first five stories, as well as ‘Perfection’, ‘Jacob Bayer and the Telephone’, ‘Charlotte of the Utrechtseweg’, and ‘The Pacific’: they are some of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. His depictions of sacrifice, courage, regret, honour, loss, and hope – sometimes over the course of the entire story, sometimes in a throwaway line – are always affecting, whether he’s giving you a sudden sucker punch of sadness, or burrowing into your mind and gut for weeks on end, or slicing through the dark settings with rays of hope and glory. His descriptions of water are as striking and varied as water itself – gorgeous to enjoy when you aren’t in a hurry.
‘I mean by remembrance only my utterly clear recollection of the light on the surface of the sea, the color of the sky, the way the waves rolled in, between parcels of the sweetest silence, and how the entire sea moved, surging and falling back without breaks or whitecaps, in transparent contours that rose and fell like the chest of someone who is asleep.’
Another controversial aspect of Helprin’s stories lies in their implicit small-c conservatism (in his non-fiction writings, Helprin is a very conservative commentator). This backdrop rubbed up some readers in the wrong way: these two critical Goodreads reviews exemplify this feeling:
an old-time conservative’s wet dream: honor-obsessed (masculine) men and (unconventionally beautiful) women uncorrupted by the softening influence of civilization, struggling against incredible odds and attaining their own private glory in the face of (modernized, industrialized, cynical, cosmopolitan) society’s scorn. [link]
All of the above is bad enough, but he is so beholden to a pre-war-era sensibility that he is unable to write a convincing woman, or a man who is more complex than a bundle of virtues lashed together by sanctimonious observations of the light, the sea, the duress of combat, ad nauseam. [link]
As I mentioned above, I can understand the criticism about the gender stereotypes. But then on the other hand, other reviewers (myself included) love these stories. Helprin’s characters seem real – just from an out-of-fashion value system. Actions speak louder than words. Duties and obligations are taken seriously. Honour means something. The characters believe in the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and those things influence their lives. I think that’s where the first criticism above goes askew. Clearly, it’s written by someone who doesn’t share such a conservative perspective, but her own perspective means she fails to see that these aren’t stories primarily about people attaining ‘private glory’; they’re stories about people who become glorious because they do what is right – even when it’s difficult. I see characters fighting for the truth, fighting against the shallowness they see around them, fighting for a vision of beauty that is worth preserving. I see them fighting not against society per se, but against forgetting, against ingratitude, against professionalism, formalism, cynicism, selfish comfort, misplaced ideals.
‘He was now close enough to the end to sense the all-forgiving grace in which enemies no longer exist… Growing more and more content, he felt himself – and all else – slipping, but he felt something new and great, a comforting presence. How was it that, bleeding and cold, with perhaps only minutes of life left, he was painless, calm, and enfolded in an all-embracing love?
And yet he did not want to die.’
As for the second criticism, if the characters do not seem real – but instead sanctimonious, virtuous, unrealistic – perhaps it is because characters of virtue, dignity and honour are not easily found, and not easily explained. These are characters who have survived trials of various kinds, who have real and often decent histories, but who are more interested in pursuing what’s right than in exploring their motivations and pains and indulging in navel-gazing. The motivations come out, but obliquely. Sometimes it feels like the characters are preaching to us – whether literally or figuratively.
“Yes, it is a sin. Ceaseless, feverish, desperate activity for fear of not having what someone else has, is a sin. Pride in one’s creations is a sin. The conviction that one has mastered the elements of the universe, or soon will, is a sin. Why? They are sins because they are a turning away from what is true. Your span here is less than the brief flash of a spark, and if, after multiplying all you do by that infinitesimal fraction, you still do not understand the requirement of humility, your wishes and deeds will be monstrous, your affections corrupt, your love false.”
“What does this have to do with the telephone?” the simpleton asked again, painfully.
If any of the above sounds tempting, find a few of the stories I’ve mentioned above online (here’s Jacob Bayer and the Telephone), and see if they’re to your taste. Highly recommended – at the very least, the stories I mentioned by name above.
I’ll finish with words from Andy Crouch’s review:
In the short stories collected in The Pacific, originally published over several decades in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other outlets, Helprin constructs pristine portraits of tragic and brave moments of decision. Some of his characters are absurdly accomplished in a New York Athletic Club way—a world-class solo sailor, a gorgeous operatic soprano, the owner and builder of a multi-million-dollar home on the Atlantic coast. Others are more ordinary—a young wife separated from her husband during the Second World War, a clerk working in a forgotten corner of a vast office building. But all of them confront the bottomless depth of tragedy that comes with every human life, even the most privileged, and the moral challenges that come from deciding whether to face that tragedy or turn away from it.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?”
I started reading this only because it was free with my new Kindle, and I wanted to test it out. Five days later I had finished it and loved it throughout. All this enjoyment led me feel just how Mr Darcy felt towards Lizzy – it was against my natural choice (I’ve never attempted any historical fiction whatsoever, out of a complete absence of desire), against my reason (I can’t think of anything that disinclines me more hearing something is a romantic period drama), against my character (I’m a Chinese male PPE and maths geek! This type of book isn’t for me! Take me back to big-ideas future-of-humanity alien-cultures science-fiction…). All this is simply to say – I’m sorry I judged it so quickly, and what a great life lesson – the same that Darcy learned:
“The recollection of what I then said — of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it — is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘Had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.’ Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me; though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice….
You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled…. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to [enjoy a book] worthy of being [enjoyed].”
My wife (whose favourite book is Emma) feels very smug at this, though still isn’t entirely convinced I mean it.
The Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) – C.S. Lewis
“But he, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now-now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes-and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name.”
Moving on from Pride and Prejudice, here’s the big-idea, future-of-humanity, alien-cultures, philosophical read that is right up my street! Especially as it’s C.S. Lewis, who is one of my absolute favourite authors, because of both Narnia and his extensive non-fiction. I regularly re-read Narnia, to great delight and edification, every few years. Yet very few people (myself included) seem to know of, or feel attracted by, his Space Trilogy – C.S. Lewis’ imagination meeting science fiction.
I had the best possible introduction to the trilogy. (This is really three books, and all three are recommended – particularly the latter two, though you should obviously read the first one first too!) Why? This year I also re-read C.S. Lewis’ essay collection Fernseed and Elephants, which includes the essay ‘Rocketry and Religion’, in which he discusses how the discovery of alien life would disprove or affect the truth of Christianity. It’s a fascinating and speculative few pages (read it in 5 minutes online!), filled with ideas on the possibility of different intelligent life in relation to Christian doctrine and humanity. If the essay intrigues you, you’ll fall in love with the trilogy – it feels like Lewis took this speculation, realized he’d just come up with a bagful of interesting premises, and turned them into fully fleshed out stories.
The writing style is not Lewis’ finest; aimed at adults, the trilogy doesn’t have the same knowing grandatherly narration of Narnia. It feels like Lewis’ didn’t quite find a consistent writing voice for adult fiction, because the sentences often feel more suited to his non-fiction.
That aside, I devoured these reads both for the ideas, the plot, the settings, and the characterization; on nearly every level I was absolutely blown away.
The settings: without wanting to give too much away, each book is located in a totally different world, and the range is vast: one book starts with the Senior Common Room intrigues of academia in a sleepy University town; another with rambling in the English countryside; and then they end up on (literally) different worlds. Yet Lewis’ brings every setting to vivid life.
The ideas: Just as Narnia explored what God, atonement, the battle between good and evil looked like in an alternate world, the trilogy explores these same themes in the context of a heavily populated Solar System. But Lewis also goes further than that, and is able to, since this book isn’t written for children. In one book Lewis clearly has a great time exploring how contemporary philosophies of scientism, logical positivism, materialism, ethical non-realism, etc. play out against this backdrop:
‘It is incredible how little this knowledge moved him. It could not, because he had long ceased to believe in knowledge itself. What had been in his far-off youth a merely aesthetic repugnance to realities that were crude or vulgar, had deepened and darkened, year after year, into a fixed refusal of everything that was in any degree other than himself. He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void. The indicative mood now corresponded to no thought that his mind could entertain. He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him.’
In another, Lewis explores creation, temptation, original sin:
“I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that?”
In another, Lewis explores an alternate vision of intelligent cultures in a very different world:
“When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it, what will it be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then – that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?”
The characterisation is also delightful. Lewis is perhaps unique in his skill of understanding and navigating the bewildering variety of what makes us human, from our pettiest grudges to the noblest loves. I think his ability to dissect the layers of the human heart is part of what makes all his writing so resonant across the decades. Who hasn’t met someone like Eustace Scrubb from Narnia, for instance? This skill is evident in full force across the trilogy. We see totally believable transformations of characters – both for good and ill. We see pride and folly, sacrifice and love, humility and vainglory. Not only that – we see officious bores, decent men, and good friendships. I especially enjoyed Lewis’ application of his wonderful essay “The Inner Ring” to describe the subtle corruption of an average man into evil. It’s a delight to get to know his characters.
“Don’t you like a rather foggy a in a wood in autumn? You’ll find we shall be perfectly warm sitting in the car.”
Jane said she’d never heard of anyone liking fogs before but she didn’t mind trying. All three got in.
“That’s why Camilla and I got married, “said Denniston as they drove off. “We both like Weather. Not this or that kind of weather, but just Weather. It’s a useful taste if one lives in England.”
“How ever did you learn to do that, Mr. Denniston?” said Jane. “I don’t think I should ever learn to like rain and snow.”
“It’s the other way round,” said Denniston. “Everyone begins as a child by liking Weather. You learn the art of disliking it as you grow up. Noticed it on a snowy day? The grown-ups are all going about with long faces, but look at the children – and the dogs? They know what snow’s made for.”
“I’m sure I hated wet days as a child,” said Jane.
“That’s because the grown-ups kept you in,” said Camilla. “Any child loves rain if it’s allowed to go out and paddle about in it.”
What’s an especial joy is that through all of these books, Lewis’ theology, politics, sociology, and general philosophy of life are applied to wonderful stories. In reading the trilogy there’s a satisfying sense of harmony as we see Lewis’ non-fiction insights applied so skillfully to wonderful stories.
Again, read Rocketry and Religion, see if you find it interesting – and if so, highly recommended.
Non-fiction round-up to come.