Most books have some measure of relevance, but the “greats” – the resonant ones – reflect a lifetime. One has to read heavily and strenuously in both classics and contemporaries in order to find the gold.
Like Madame Bovary haunted by the crippled idiot, and Anna Karenina spooked by the vision of the railroad worker’s death, I remember under duress my totem-like deep images. Most carry the Hydra’s head of past and present family, and are meaningless to others. However, the rest comprise the rich tissue of my imagination. Writers – and patient readers – live for such moments and take long narrative trips to reach them. As Homer said, the journey’s the thing.
Here are some recent tidbits:
“God Against The Gods” by Jonathan Kirsch – One of the more recent blockbusters of religious history by the masterful Kirsch and his best so far. It has astonishing sections illuminating the history of monotheism.
“Beyond Belief” by Elaine Pagels – Similarly, the great ‘Gnostic Gospels’ scholar delves deeply into early Christian mythology and faith. Her discussion of Satan is especially striking.
“Incidents of Travels in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan” by John L. Stephens – The two volume set is required reading for anyone interested in tropical America and the early 19th century explorers. Engagingly written, “Travels” has many magical passages and extraordinary adventures. Stephens discovered Mayan ruins in the late 1830s. Avoid abridged version.
“Native Realm” by Czeslaw Milosz – One of the most poignant works of literature in the 20th century. Milosz comes close to perfection in all his books, but this has a uniquely delicate tone. His collection of early essays, ‘Legends of Modernity’ is also excellent, as is his poetry which earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.
“The Night Manager” by John Le Carre – His best novel, with a thrilling plot and vivid portraits of people and places, especially Switzerland and – most unusual – French Quebec.
“The Europeans” by Luigi Barzini, Jr. – His range is extraordinary and his quality of prose is Old World without feeling dated. They don’t make reporters like him anymore. If you want to know what makes Europeans tick, this is a starting point. Also contains a chapter on “The Baffling Americans”, that remains timely.
“Crisis In Bethlehem” by John Strohmeyer – The greatest dissection of the fate of heavy industry in the US in the late 20th century. Sounds boring, perhaps, but it’s quite the opposite in Strohmeyer’s hands. A born writer, he edited the local daily newspaper, while society collapsed around him. As a child, he saw his millworker father hang himself in the front yard, so his descriptions of our epic struggle with ourselves – writ large in steel – are moving as well as pitch perfect. Hard to find.