Gordon Houser edits The Mennonite and writes book reviews for the magazine–and still enjoys reading good, challenging books so much that, he says, “when my family asks me for gift ideas for Christmas or my birthday, I generally list books I want.” Below, the author of Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality shares some of his current favorites.
Lincoln in the Bardo, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the first novel by George Saunders, the best-selling short story writer. The novel is set in February 1862, following the death of President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie. The grief-stricken president visits his son’s body, which is in the Georgetown cemetery. This creative tale follows Willie and others who have died and are in a kind of purgatory or in-between state called the bardo in the Tibetan tradition. As we learn about these people’s varied lives, we are confronted with our own mortality and what meaning our lives may have.
Exit West is a novel by Mohsin Hamid, who also wrote the novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The novel is set in in an unnamed city where there is political conflict and refugees are growing in number. The narrative mixes fable with social realism. It’s relatively short, and the prose is deceptively simple. Exit West uses magic realism, as his characters travel to various parts of the world through exit doors, to make real the experience of refugees and includes many insightful nuggets. Here’s one: “…when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won this year’s National Book Award for fiction, is a novel by Jesmyn Ward, who won the same award for her earlier novel, Salvage the Bones. Ward sets her fiction in rural Mississippi and employs some magic realism as well. Here she uses the archetypal road novel to explore the lives of Jojo, a 13-year-old boy approaching manhood, and Leonie, his flawed mother, who struggles with drug use while trying to be a better mother. Ward’s lyrical writing glistens from the page: A laugh has no happiness in it, “just dry air and hard red clay where grass won’t grow.”
Now to nonfiction. The best I read is Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann, a rare combination of thorough research and a gripping narrative. Grann explores a piece of history unknown to me, of the murders of members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s who had become wealthy because oil was found on their tribal land. The book reads like a murder mystery, which it is, and it is a page-turner, hard to put down. It’s also infuriating to learn about the injustice perpetrated by greedy men yet encouraging to read about the patient work of FBI agents who eventually solve at least part of the puzzle of who was committing these murders.
Another outstanding book this year is The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison, one of my favorite novelists. This small book is based on the Norton lectures she gave at Harvard University in the spring of 2016. Morrison reflects on how we construct others and why others make us afraid. She delves into her own memories as well as her fiction, including Beloved, Paradise and A Mercy. She also considers the work of such authors as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Camara Laye. She finds hope in narrative fiction, which “provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other.”
In my job as editor of The Mennonite, the monthly magazine of Mennonite Church USA, I read many books for review. One of my favorite, and one particularly relevant to our current state of affairs, is Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor by Liz Theoharis. She addresses Matthew 26:6-13, in which Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” which has been seen as justifying neglect of the poor, that poverty is inevitable. But Theoharis argues that this “is actually one of the strongest statements of the biblical mandate to end poverty.”
Another book I liked is The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture by Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey Floyd-Thomas and Mark G. Toulouse, which explores the religious significance of popular culture. It’s an intriguing look at how North Americans view religion. The authors write: “Though we claim to serve things that are sacred, in actuality we deem sacred those things that serve us.” The book expands our understanding of religion by noting its presence beyond churches or mosques. It shows its presence in areas such as body and sex, big business, entertainment, politics, sports, and science and technology.
I don’t read a lot of poetry, but this year I picked up a book of poems that won a National Book Award in 2013, Incardine by Mary Szybist. The collection of 42 poems are meditations on Mary the mother of Jesus. They approach Mary from a variety of angles, all the while delving into the depths of human experience. In “Holy,” Szybist laments her own mother’s sickness: “Spirit who knows me, I do not feel you / fall so far in me, / do not feel you turn in my dark center.” In “Here, There Are Blueberries,” she ponders her place in nature and finds solace: “I wonder what I am, that anyone should note me. / Here there are blueberries, what should I fear?”
Above, books from Gordon Houser’s library.
If you can get the audio version of “Lincoln at the Bardo”, it’s absolutely worth it. Read by actors, it is like an audio play. David Sedaris and Nick Offerman read two of the main characters, but there are more than 150 characters in the story, and many readers are names you may know. It’s well done.
Oh, what a great idea, Bev! Thanks for the suggestion!