School is out! Naturally I celebrate with another top ten list, this time of books I read in 2014. Most of these books were not actually published in 2014, so if you were expecting a list of fine reading right off the press, well…too bad. The list is in no particular order, and I make no distinctions between genre.
1. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree Jr.
This posthumous collection of short stories served as my introduction to the SF writer. And these are mostly gems – very dark gems exploring Nietzschean situations where humans confront an indifferent and/or outright hostile universe, where free will and the authenticity of our perceptions is called into question, where the very framework of what it means to be human seems to be fading away. The closest analogue I can think of is Phillip K. Dick. But whereas Dick’s suspicions are ultimately driven by a sort of gnostic mysticism, Tiptree is more heir to those murky continental philosophers you studied during your undergrad.
2. A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay
Speaking of Gnostic mysticism, in this novel, an oddly named man takes a trip to the planet Tormance where he goes on a spiritual quest explaining how the phenomenal world is ultimately a malevolent illusion. Not much is going on here in the way of plot or characterization, but the sheer imagination that Lindsay pours into describing Tormance and its denizens is worth the price of admission alone.
3. A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
In the 1930s a young Fermor found himself kicked out of school. He reacted to the situation as any young man would: by taking a walk from Holland all the way to Istanbul. A few decades later, he began work on a trilogy which would chronicle his walk. This is the first volume, following him to the edge of Hungary. I loved his elegant prose style, the fusion of scholarly erudition and adventurousness. And the haunting portrait of a Europe which was soon to be swept away is unforgettable. The second volume is just as good.
4. The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K Le Guin
The second book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series. This is an elegant example of how to write fantasy without rambling on forever, how to have a ‘message’ without brow-beating your reader, etc. But the real heart of the story is in the tombs themselves. The setting has an ambiance suggesting that things far older than humanity really are hanging around.
5. Gay and Catholic, by Eve Tushnet
I already have two posts worth of thoughts on this book (with a third one pending) so I will keep it brief: a lot of ink is spilled over either defending the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality, or critiquing it. Less attention is paid to the question of how, if you happen to fall into the category described by the title, you can live a life that is both faithful to what the Church teaches and that is fruitful and full of love. Whatever its faults, Tushnet’s book is commendable for trying to tackle the question.
6. Apollo’s Angels, by Jennifer Homans
This is simply a well-done history of ballet. For the most part, Homans (an ex-ballerina herself) strikes a good balance between tracking the artform from both a social/cultural perspective and an aesthetic one.
7. An Introduction to the Trinity, by Declan Marmion and Rik Van Nieuwenhove
This was used as a textbook for one of my classes. Again, I have little to say except that it does a good job of introducing this most inscrutable of Christian doctrines and what a lot of important thinkers over the millenia had to say about it.
8. Count to a Trillion, by John C. Wright
In the future, a Texan gunslinger who is also a math wiz joins a deep space expedition to investigate some alien artifacts. Then he experimentally transforms himself into a post-human and things sort of escalate from there. Expect lots of hard SF talk about mathematics, gun duels, and over-the-top accents.
9. A Certain Justice, by P.D. James
It occurs to me that one of the things I really like James for is how she focuses on people who are intensely passionate about their careers in very old, somewhat insular, tradition minded institutions. In this case we have the London legal courts. This is a curious detective novel in that the solution to the mystery doesn’t lead to the sort of catharsis you’d expect. But it’s all the more effective in how it ties into the story’s ambivalent themes.
10. Suldrun’s Garden, by Jack Vance
I’m cheating a bit by including a book I’m still reading. Still, unless the remaining third is utter crap, it belongs here. A dark, surrealistic take on the world of Arthurian myth by one of the genre’s most imaginative worldbuilders.
11 (whoops). Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber
I may not see eye-to-eye with Bolz-Weber’s liberally minded Lutheran theology, but I otherwise found a lot to relate to in this memoir about a misfit who unexpectedly discovers God. A lot more, uh, salty than your average Christian memoir.