Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Picks (2013)

Part of the reason I enjoy social media is all the good book recommendations I discover. On a blog I follow, the writer has posted a long list of cheap, good books on Kindle. On Facebook, an old college friend has listed the books she most (and least!) enjoyed this year. For most of my life, I read books faster than I could find recommendations for new ones, so book recommendations are a goldmine for me.

It's time to return the favour. In this post I want to describe the two best books I read in 2013, one fiction and one non-fiction. I read a lot of good books, books that I enjoy during the reading and books from which I learn something. The truly good books, however, stick with me: I find myself talking about them weeks and months later, bringing them up again (and sometimes again and again) in conversations with friends; such books touch, and may even change, my life. What I want to do in this post is try to capture what I found so thought-provoking about each of these books. 

At the bottom of the post, I'll list a few honourable mentions from the last year

. Feel free to chime in in the comments, or via email: Per my confession, I love hearing what you are reading!

Science fiction is a genre, a grouping of similar books, in the same way that apples is a classification, a grouping of similar fruit. There are many different kinds of apples - some you like, some you don't. There are also many different kinds of science fiction - some don't work for you, some do. I cannot get invested in Isaac Asmiov's novels, nor am I interested by the pop science fiction with the bodice-ripper covers. Thankfully, The Sparrow is neither of those: it belongs to that rare class of novels: religious, contemplative science fiction. 

The Sparrow is about a doomed Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, the first that humanity makes contact with. Out of the perhaps eight people who leave Earth for Rakhat, only one returns. The mission is drawn to Rakhat when the planet's piercingly beautiful music is picked up by SETI equipment. Two Jesuit priests and several non-religious scientists, they go to Rakhat wanting not to colonize, not to exploit, but only, as the dust jacket notes, "to know and love God's other children". This, unfortunately, is not what happens. 

What touched me most deeply about The Sparrow was its gentle but unflinching honesty. At its heart the novel is a religious exploration of suffering, how the loving God of Jews and Christians can not only let suffering happen but lead us directly to it, as into a trap. The question of suffering is one of the thorniest in all our faith, and so the temptation is to hurry past it with easy platitudes.

The Sparrow does not do that. Its answer is longer, many-sided, cloaked in the complexities of narrative form; whether there is an answer at all I leave for you to decide. I, however, remember the graciousness with which the novel handles the question, acknowledging both the undeniable truth of God's care and also the equally undeniable truth of real suffering:

"There's an old Jewish story that says that in the beginning God was everything and everywhere, a totality. But to make Creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the creation, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists." 
"So God just leaves?"
"No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering." 
"Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it." 
"But the sparrow still falls."

Sometimes we believers use God's care for the sparrow to gloss over real hurt by reminding the suffering soul that God is caring for them. Absolutely God cares for us. Yet His care doesn't, or at least it doesn't always, make us feel better; our suffering is real. This is The Sparrow's genius: In its narrative of suffering, the storyteller tells both sides of the story, the pain and trouble of real suffering, and the unending goodness and sovereignty of God. 

Besides this, The Sparrow is simply a well-written novel. Its characters are expertly drawn, with several rounded characters; there are rich descriptions of food, smells, and scenery. The plot is very tightly woven: Though some readers (not me) find it slow in the middle, nearly everything in the plot has a purpose; there are no loose threads. 

Cautions: Some graphic description towards the end. (There's a bit of a plot twist, which I won't spoil for you, but be aware that it's a dark twist.)

Best Non-Fiction: Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss

Non-fiction is a newer pleasure for me. Unfortunately, Moss's book spoiled a great deal of lesser non-fiction. Salt Sugar Fat is a gem: thoroughly researched and descriptive, carefully organized, and most important of all, thoughtful and well balanced.

Salt Sugar Fat is about exactly what it says: the enormous quantities of added salt and sugar and fat which make processed food possible. Yet it's also about the way that food is marketed, with public attention diverted from the additives so that consumers can purchase more, and still more, of a particular product. Moss's point is not that readers should give up processed foods altogether. No, what Moss does is akin to what happens at the end of Wizard of Oz: Pulling back the curtain, he exposes and therefore weakens the magic of the food processing and marketing system.

When I was a child, I was fascinated when school related directly to my personal experience. I learned one day how the bones in the arm twist over each other when I turn my hand palm-up, and since then, I find it interesting to turn my hand palm-up, and then palm-down, and then palm-up again, thinking about how, underneath my skin, my arm bones keep crossing each other. I find Salt Sugar Fat memorable for exactly the same reason: Every one of us buys food from supermarket shelves, so the book is personal for every one of us. In some sense, it is about every one of us.

Take one example: Line extensions. Line extensions, Moss explains, are specialized versions of a particular product: cherry Coke or mint Oreos. When line extensions are available, people are not only more likely to purchase the specialty product, they're also more likely to purchase the original. Now, I see line extensions everywhere. I pick up candy-cane flavoured Hershey Kisses for a recipe I'm making, and I think about line extensions, about more money lining the pockets of Hershey executives.

Take another example: Cheese. In America, we add cheese to things: to a chicken dinner, to pasta, to a salad, even to dessert. In Paris they eat it plain, after dinner, in place of dessert. Turns out, there's a reason for why Americans eat cheese the way they do, and it has nothing to do with cheese tasting good. When Americans began to prefer low-fat to high-fat milk, the dairies had a lot of extra milk fat on their hands. They turned it into cheese, and then they had a lot of extra cheese on their hands. So they started a marketing campaign designed to get people to eat cheese. That's right: the American taste for cheese is manufactured. Savvy advertising, not the great taste of cheese, convinced us to eat as much cheese as we do. See how well Moss's book relates to real life? And are you still sure you need cheese in your salad, especially if you can't taste it among all the various vegetables?

You may still eat the same things when you finish Moss's book (I still like cheese, for instance), but you will think differently when you purchase them. Or you will eat them in different ways (I rarely add cheese to my salad anymore.) Salt Sugar Fat, in other words, will change how you think about food.

Cautions: None

Honourable Mentions: I would be up all night blogging if I described every single good book I read in the last year, and there's no way you would make it through the book-length post. I did want to list some of the books I enjoyed besides these, however:

  • Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Butterfield. An agnostic lesbian professor converts to Christianity. Describes how she came to accept the Christian faith, and also describes how believers can learn from the GLBT community.
  • Real Sex, Lauren Winner. A defense of chastity as a crucial part of faith for non-married believers. Based on what we learn about Christ from chastity, and a good alternative to the courtship drivel a la Josh Harris
  • Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. Describes and defends the habits of thought and assumptions that make orthodoxy possible. Extraordinarily witty. 
  • Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg. Practical advice for how women can become more prominent and happier in the workplace.
What about you? What have you read in the last year? What will you read next year?

1 comment:

  1. Orthodoxy! Great book...I'll have to look into the others as well!