Surprised by Joy, by CS Lewis (1955): Lewis’s particular flavour of religious faith is one that I sometimes—even, I would say, more often than not—find useful, but which I can’t view without suspicion for its fundamentally unbending nature. His writing was used too often in the church of my adolescence to illustrate points that felt like a “gotcha!” and to promote what felt like a smug, if intellectually able, evangelicalism, for me to feel entirely comfortable with him. That said, Narnia was a crucial part of my childhood which I wouldn’t change for the world, and I have read some of his nonfiction theology (The Four Loves) before now. Surprised by Joy is an autobiography of sorts, though he’s very keen to emphasise that its focus is spiritual and so the biographical details become fainter and thinner as he gets older (his childhood and youth being, in his opinion, more important to describe so that we get a sense of the way his mind and soul were formed). Although I do believe in God, most of what makes Surprised by Joy wonderful for me is this early childhood material. Lewis’s account of the loss of his mother, his and his brother’s increasing (and guilt-ridden) estrangement from a father emotionally ill-equipped to raise them, and his various school experiences are fascinating, both as historical documentation and for the appeal of a frank and confiding narrative voice. (Both of these points are on full display in his extraordinary analysis of the system of sexual patronage at boarding school. He is surprisingly open-minded about gay activity but fails entirely to engage with the problem of the power differential; in fact, understands the power differential as culturally central to the enterprise, but not as a problem per se.)
On War, by Carl von Clausewitz (1832): One of the two most famous and influential books on war of all time (the other being Sun Tzu’s). I’ve become peculiarly fascinated by military strategy, ops and tactics, of late, for reasons that have a lot to do with my fear of an apocalyptic future. People tend to complain about Clausewitz’s style but it isn’t impenetrable; it’s more that he argues vertically instead of horizontally (ie he builds up his case through repetition as much as through progression), so it can get a bit wearying in that sense. I found his analyses of real-world historical examples much the most compelling bits, and they bring his maxims (the strongest form of war being the defensive, to take one of his most famous) to life. His focus is on the continental European wars of the 18th century and the Napoleonic Wars (in which he took part).
The Trees, by Percival Everett (2022): This really begs to be described by comparison, in some ways—think the brisk declarative sentences of Vonnegut crossed with the Southern grotesquerie of John Kennedy Toole and the hardboiled humour of Chester Himes—but that shortchanges Everett’s power and confidence. The Trees has an instantly arresting premise: several white men with historic family connections to lynchings are killed horribly in Money, Missisippi. Their bodies are found castrated and in the company of a dead Black man whose body is damaged just as Emmett Till‘s was. (Link to the Wikipedia article, for those unfamiliar with the case. Be aware that the second photo under the “Funeral and reaction” section shows Till’s body postmortem. His mother asked for an open-casket funeral, to wake the world up to the reality of the South’s lynching culture.) Similar killings start happening across the country, and every time, the white corpses are accompanied by what seems to be the same corpse of a Black man (or, in some parts of the country, a Chinese one; strong resonance here with Four Treasures of the Sky). Initially I wasn’t sure about the portrayal of shit-kicking redneck racist Southerners—it’s not that such people don’t exist, but the characterization all starts to seem a little one-note—until I realized that excess, stereotype and absurdity constitute Everett’s currency here. Everything is disproportionate, ridiculous, blatant, shocking. The novel reads fast, the chapters are short, and the more I think about it, the more it grows on me, a potent blend of horror, dark comedy, and political satire. Jordan Peele should film it.
Tall Bones, by Anna Bailey (2021): Bailey’s debut novel is one of those deeply assured debuts that belies the author’s age; she’s only twenty-seven. Better than solid writing and a focus on character and motive puts her in the just-under-Tana-French tier of crime/mystery authors. Tall Bones is set in a small town in Colorado, Whistling Ridge, and makes much of the power of the Christian right—not to mention the major employers and landlords—in such a community. The disappearance of Abi Blake is investigated by her best friend, Emma Alvarez-Jones, whose Mexican father also vanished when she was a baby and whose mixed heritage has made her the target of bullying ever since. There were moments when I wondered whether Bailey had quite hit the right note, culturally. She’s often very close but, to my ear, slightly reliant on pop-culture ideals of zealotry and bigotry (particularly in the portrayal of the preacher character; it’s hard to get the measure of that attitude, hard not to render these guys mere cackling baddies, and even more so, I think, if you’re not American, which Bailey isn’t). Still, it’s a compelling mystery, with a solution that gives proper weight to the sad, terrible waste of killing.