Books that deserve revived interest
Each year around Christmas time, many publications ask contributors to name the best new books they have read that year. I find those lists helpful; invariably I add a few books to my own reading list, and gain a few thoughts about Christmas presents for friends.
But what about books that are not new this year? I am always anxious to hear about the books that came out a few years ago—or maybe more than a few years ago—that for one reason or another I have missed? As Easter approaches and our thoughts turn to revival, I would love to hear from other avid readers about the books that never received the attention they deserve. To start off the conversation, here are a few of my own favorites:
The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, by A. J. Conyers. In a very important critique of contemporary Western society, Conyers points out that until fairly recently, “tolerance” was seen as a failing, not a virtue. Respect for opposing opinions is healthy. But our culture expects more of us: it expects us to tolerate vice. Why? Toward what end do we desensitize our consciences and muzzle cries of outrage? Conyers makes a persuasive argument that tolerance has been raised almost to the level of a cardinal virtue because of an implicit understanding that the real purpose of life is commerce. “The chief business of the American people is business,” and we set aside discussions about the fundamental purposes of life—discussions that tend to become contentious—so that we can concentrate on making ourselves more comfortable.
Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger. When I tell my friends that this is the Great American Novel, I mean it quite sincerely. All the elements are there: the clash between innocence and evil, the lure of the frontier, the tension between independence and community, even the westward journey and the chase. Enger has a winsome prose style, and the plot provides page-turning excitement. But this is not just another thriller. The themes are subtly woven into the story, but they are perennials: redemption and, ultimately, the role of the Church in salvation. I recommend this book constantly to my friends; not one has failed to love it.
The Red Horse, by Eugenio Corti. A runaway best-seller in Italy when it first appeared there, this epic novel remains mostly undiscovered by Americans. That’s a shame, because Corti infuses a sweeping historic saga with a delightful and distinctively Catholic sensibility. He follows the fortunes of several young Italians through the rise of Mussolini, the ravages of World War II (with unforgettable passages of action on the Russian front, and glimpses into the evil of the Soviet regime), and the confusion of the postwar era. In scope (and in length) The Red Horse is comparable to War and Peace; in its description of the death of a social order it is like The Leopard. In literary value it belongs in the same class as those great novels.
The Last Hurrah, by Edwin O’Connor. The other books on this list are relatively recent; all were published after 2000. The Last Hurrah, on the other hand, first appeared in 1956, and enjoyed the critical acclaim that it deserved. But I include it here because it is something a bit more than a novel. If you are interested in the life of James Michael Curley, the legendary political boss of Boston in the mid-20th century, you can choose between two popular books: his autobiography, I’d Do It Again; or Jack Beatty’s critical work, The Rascal King. Both are—to put it mildly—highly colored accounts. O’Connor’s fictional portrayal is closer to the truth.
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