The heavy and the light: 2020 books roundup

Favourite books of 2020: Piranesi, Small Island, The Fifth Season, Trent's Last Case, One Two Three Four, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Life in God, Lifting Hearts to the Lord

I’ve been posting the books I’ve read this year at quarterly intervals (Jan-Mar | Apr-Jun | Jul-Sep | Oct-Dec), and now the time has come to sum up the year and identify my favourite books from the past twelve months.

As in previous years, I’ve divided fiction into two categories, to reflect its dominance of my reading (51 books out of 94). This year, I’ve divided it between “literary fiction” and “popular and genre fiction”: an awful division to impose in many ways – the ghost of Ursula K. Le Guin is shaking her head at me in despair – but one which honours the role played by “light” reading in keeping me sane over the “heavy” months of lockdown. I’ve then identified two “winners” from each category, plus some others that were “commended by the judges” – and then a “most recommendable” option, the book which I think would appeal to the widest audience.

Literary fiction

Winners

  • Piranesi (Susanna Clarke)
  • Small Island (Andrea Levy)

The first of these was one of the easiest winners to decide this year. I loved Piranesi, for reasons it is hard to articulate. It’s magical realism – rather than the parallel history fantasy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – but with a genuine emotional warmth rather than the tricksiness into which some magical realism can fall. As I advised before, don’t read the reviews (the Guardian review in particular is very spoilery), but do read the blurb, which captures the spirit of the book without giving anything away.

Deciding on second winner proved trickier, with pretty much a three-way tie between Small Island, The Remains of the Day and the first three volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. In the end, I went with Small Island, because even having read it longer ago than the others, it still has an atmosphere and characters that resonate in my memory.

Commended

  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
  • A Question of Upbringing / A Buyer’s Market / The Acceptance World (Anthony Powell)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
  • Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
  • The Towers of Trebizond (Rose Macaulay)
  • The Girls of Slender Means (Muriel Spark)

As I mentioned above, the first two on this list could easily have been picked as winners. I also loved Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, which I read way back in the Before Times (January). A contrasting trio of novels by early/mid-20th century British women then complete the set, The Girls of Slender Means qualifying partly because the passage about “the Englishly rendered intentions of the sweet singer of Israel” persuaded me to resume use of the Book of Common Prayer, and in particular its cycle of psalms, for my personal devotions.

Most recommendable: Piranesi’s whimsy isn’t going to be for everyone, so my “most recommendable” book from the list above is The Remains of the Day. 31 years after it won the Booker, it remains an exceptional novel, with its layers of narratorial self-deception.

Popular/genre fiction

Winners

  • The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)
  • Trent’s Last Case (E.C. Bentley)

As mentioned above, “popular/genre fiction” gets a separate category this year because of the role played by “light reading”. The first winner, though, is far from light: N.K. Jemisin’s brilliantly-rendered vision of a far-future Earth, which has become a hostile and seismologically unstable world for humanity, in which centuries of relative calm are punctuated by horrifying “Seasons” as “Father Earth” takes his revenge on those living on his surface. It’s the first of a trilogy which I hope to complete in 2021.

Another theme in my reading this year was “golden age detective fiction”, kicked off by reading Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law. E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, written in 1913, is widely regarded as having created the “modern” detective novel – featuring, as it does, a gentleman amateur solving a murder at an English country home populated by an ensemble cast of suspicious characters – but at the same time takes the genre in a unique direction that wasn’t (indeed couldn’t be) fully imitated by its successors.

Commended

  • Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • The Player of Games (Iain M. Banks)
  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Becky Chambers)
  • GBH (Ted Lewis)
  • Three Hours (Rosamund Lupton)

A mixed bag of “commendeds”, here. Tragedy at Law is regarded by many as Cyril Hare’s finest book: its most appealing feature (apart from Hare’s trademark legal nerdery) is the social history it presents of the now-forgotten world of the “courts of assize”, in which judges would tour the towns of England dispending justice in an atmosphere of (by 1940) incongruous ceremonial.

Back in the science fiction corner, Red Mars is the first and best of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: I’m glad to have read Green Mars and (nearly at the end of) Blue Mars, but they are harder going than the first. Becky Chambers’ novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, was an enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of “space exploration” sci fi, in which the usual themes of colonialism and conquest (very much on display in KSR’s epic of terraforming) are replaced by a vision of crowdfunded exploration that seeks to “leave only footprints”, and in which humans “somaform” themselves to each planet’s conditions rather than forcing the planets to change.

Most recommendable: Rosamund Lupton’s intense account of an English secondary school under armed siege, Three Hours, is a gripping thriller full of human sympathy, and also has some interesting thoughts on Macbeth as a study in radicalisation.

Nonfiction

Winners

  • One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Craig Brown)
  • Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Daniel M. Lavery)

This was the easiest category of all to decide on. While I read plenty of good nonfiction (rather more than in 2019), I loved both these books to bits. What they each have in common is the deployment of a nonlinear whimsy in the service of a clear vision, a story that each author is burning to tell. In Daniel Lavery’s case, it’s the story of his gender transition as an adult (and, indeed, as a widely loved feminist writer). Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four tells the story of the Beatles, not in the usual plodding journey from Quarrymen to Let It Be, but through the lens of the Beatles’ various hangers-on during their careers and the obsessive passion of fans to this day.

Commended

  • Trans Like Me (CN Lester)
  • The Northumbrians (Dan Jackson)
  • From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Shaye J.D. Cohen)
  • Black and British (David Olusoga)
  • Invisible Women (Caroline Criado Perez)
  • Deadliest Enemy (Mark Olshaker and Michael Osterholm)

The Northumbrians is distinguished by being the only book whose author I met this year: Dan Jackson and I have been following one another on Twitter for years, so it was great to get a guided tour of Tynemouth from him while holidaying in the north east during the summer. His book is a passionate and illuminating love-letter to the people of the north-east England, their history and their culture.

Shaye J.D. Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah was recommended as a definitive history of early Judaism from the Second Temple to the early rabbinic period, and didn’t disappoint. The final chapter focuses in particular on “the parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians in the second century CE.

Three books that fitted ongoing themes in 2020: David Olusoga’s Black and British provides valuable historical background to the #BlackLivesMatter and #RhodesMustFall movements in the UK; Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women is a meticulously researched, data-driven protest against “the default male” and his dominance of society from the size of phones to the safety of cars; and Mark Olshaker and Michael Osterholm’s Deadliest Enemy, published in 2017, was a prophetic account of our society’s vulnerability to contagious pathogens.

Most recommendable: CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is the book I’d recommend to anyone wanting to understand the existence and rights of trans people in the UK, both of which have proved strangely controversial in 2020.

Theology

Winners

  • Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Matthew Myer Boulton)
  • Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Karin Maag)

These might seem surprising choices for a Lutheran, but they reflect my growing interest in the French humanist scholar and theologian Jean Cauvin – as he is called by Marilynne Robinson, who has done more than anyone else to make me reappraise him and his legacy.

Both books are concerned, not so much with Calvin’s theology (not that that can be separated from anything else about him) as with his vision for the Christian life: a vision in which the monastic disciplines of scripture reading, prayer, psalm singing, godly labour and so on were not so much abolished as democratised and made the basis for the life of all Christians. For Matthew Myer Boulton, Calvin’s Institutio is not a systematic theology (“Institutes of the Christian Religion”) but a book aimed at (and more properly translated) “Formation in Christian Piety”. Karin Maag then backs this up with an eclectic mixture of source materials from 16th century Geneva.

Commended

  • Transforming (Austen Hartke)
  • Trans-Gender (Justin Sabia-Tanis)
  • Dazzling Darkness (Rachel Mann)
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol I (John Calvin)
  • God in Himself (Steven J. Duby)
  • Essays on the Trinity (ed. Lincoln Harvey)

I described in my last post how the first three books above helped me reorient myself following some surprising family news. The final three books are obviously more solidly “doctrinal” in content (although see my comments above on misreading the Institutes as merely a book of academic theology), and the last two in particular challenged and stretched my understanding of God himself – always a healthy thing to undergo.

Most recommendable: just as CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is my go-to book for people to orient themselves with the issues affecting trans people in a general “secular” context, Austen Hartke’s Transforming is where I’d recommend people start in understanding an affirming Christian perspective on trans people.

Running the numbers

I try not to get too obsessive these days about the number of books I read, but I did tot up some figures in my notebook at the end of the year:

  • 94 books finished
  • 51 fiction, 21 nonfiction, 22 theology (up from a derisory three in 2019)
  • 32 books by women, 3 by trans men, 2 by nonbinary people – so, yes, a majority still by cis men, but less of a majority than previous years, at a guess
  • 42 books read on Kindle – which is one reason my to-read shelves remain a disaster area. The main reasons are (a) resorting to all that “light reading”, and (b) acquiring both an iPad and a new Kindle during the year, both of which made reading e-books a more attractive option.

Champion of Champions

I don’t normally pick one single overall favourite book of the year. Usually I’d find it impossible to do so, but this year there are two books that have stood out as particular favourites: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery.

It’s not easy to decide between them, but on balance the book this year that caused me the most delight, combined with depth of insight and emotional weight, is Lavery’s.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You | Book by Daniel M. Lavery |  Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster

Looking ahead

Books on my to-read shelf in January 2021

As usual, my purported aim is to “make real inroads into my to-read shelves – and this year I mean it.” Well, we’ll see.

I am trying to avoid taking on fresh commitments, though, so will focus on finishing the main series I’ve been reading in 2020: N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, KSR’s Red/Green/Blue Mars, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead sequence (which I’ve been rereading en route to reading Jack). I also plan to make further inroads into the Forsyte Saga, having read A Man of Property earlier this year, and eagle-eyed inspection of the photograph above will reveal a copy of Olivia Manning’s Balkans Trilogy waiting for me.

One book I conspicuously didn’t read in 2020, despite the title of this post possibly looking like an allusion to it, is Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I suppose I should give it a go in 2021, though the consensus seems to be (and my wife’s opinion certainly is) that it’s at least 200 pages too long, suggesting that Mantel rather lost control of her material in concluding the trilogy.

I’ve also set myself the ambitious target of finishing Calvin’s Institutes. 20 pages a week should do it…

So, that’s the outline of a plan. But if there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s to be humble in making plans for the year ahead. So let’s see how we go.

Quarterly books roundup (October to December 2020)

Favourite books of Q4 2020: Piranesi, The Remains of the Day, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Trans Like Me, Trans-Gender, Dazzling Darkness

Here’s the final quarterly update on the books I read during 2020. “There’s been quite a lot going on” was my excuse for reading a lot of “light fiction” over the summer; however, despite a more eventful autumn than I could have anticipated (and in a couple of categories, as we’ll see, because of it), I managed to read at least some books that were a little more demanding than earlier in the year.

Fiction

A satisfying mix, with a little more “lit fic” than I’ve managed in other periods of the year. Ali Smith’s Summer brought her seasonal quartet to a strong conclusion, tying together the earlier books in a way that revealed a more coherent plan to the project than might have been apparent earlier.

After watching the TV adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time earlier in the year, I’d read the first volume (A Question of Upbringing) back in June, but it was only in December that I returned to the series, reading A Buyer’s Market and The Acceptance World. I now feel I’m fully into the series, and have bought volumes 4 and 5 – plus, to prove just how far down the rabbit hole I’ve gone, Hilary Spurling’s companion to the series, Invitation to the Dance.

On the “popular fiction” side, Ben Aaronovitch continued his Rivers of London series (which I’d thought he’d finished, but I’m not complaining) with the enjoyable False Value. N.K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season presented a magnificently-realised far-future Earth, and I’m looking forward to completing the trilogy in 2021. I continued to mine the 2020 “golden age detective fic” seam: Cyril Hare, Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C.R. Lorac and (best of all) E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, a remarkable book that both invented the “golden age” detective novel and subverted its conventions. Ben Schott’s latest Jeeves pastiche isn’t that far away from the “tec fic” theme, either.

For my top two for the quarter, though, I return to the world of literary fiction: Susanna Clark’s Piranesi is a strong contender for my book of the year, though that’s for another post. Do read it; don’t read the Guardian review first (it gives the whole thing away). I was also delighted finally to read The Remains of the Day, a book I’ve been vaguely meaning to get around to since it won the Booker in 1989.

  • False Value (Ben Aaronovitch)
  • Summer (Ali Smith)
  • The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)
  • An English Murder (Cyril Hare)
  • Piranesi (Susanna Clarke)
  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Becky Chambers)
  • Strong Poison (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  • A Buyer’s Market (Anthony Powell)
  • Jeeves and the Leap of Faith (Ben Schott)
  • Murder in the Mill-Race (E.C.R. Lorac)
  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
  • The Acceptance World (Anthony Powell)
  • Trent’s Last Case (E.C. Bentley)

Non-fiction

I alluded above to the autumn being a dramatic period in our lives, and this is reflected in my nonfiction reading. Our middle daughter (who had been assigned male at birth) came out to us as transgender, and several of the books on the list, including the two highlighted, reflect the steep learning curve we all had to ascend as a result.

CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is probably the most “recommendable” on the list: if you want a straightforward but impassioned account of the current social and legal position for trans people in UK society, this is a great introduction. Lester themself is nonbinary, which also gives this book a different perspective from those written by trans men or women.

Daniel M. Lavery’s Something That May Shock and Discredit You was a very different book. Very much in the style of Lavery’s freewheeling writing for The Toast (such as his Women Listening to Men in Western Art History), it’s an oblique and surreal “memoir” of his gender transition: an early “interlude” lists the chapter titles from the “po-faced transmasculine memoir” he was fighting hard not to write, and instead we get meditations on Columbo’s “competent, empathetic male peacefulness”, rewrites of Byron and of Gawain and the Green Knight, and dialogues in which the goddess Athena tries to talk Lavery out of transitioning by assuring him that “she used to be a real tomboy, too”. It also provides the richest reflections on scripture from a transgender perspective that I’ve come across.

  • The Rap Year Book (Shea Serrano)
  • Trans Like Me (CN Lester)
  • Trans Power (Juno Roche)
  • Invisible Women (Caroline Criado-Perez)
  • Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Daniel M. Lavery)
  • Transgender Health (Ben Vincent)

Theology

Our family news also prompted theological reflection, with my reading in this category being similarly dominated by books on transgender people and their experiences, what the Bible has to say, and how the church can minister more effectively to trans people.

Austen Hartke’s Transforming is the theological equivalent of CN Lester’s Trans Like Me: an overview for newcomers, rooted in (but not wholly dependent upon) the personal experiences of the author. The book I’d recommend as a place to start: it includes a chapter on the main biblical texts which have a bearing on the specific experiences of trans people.

As a rare unrecommendation: Vaughan Roberts’ Transgender. I read this with some trepidation: Roberts’ conservative evangelical milieu is the one in which I returned to faith as a young adult, so I was aware this is a book likely to be read by our friends within that world. Roberts’ book is at least free from the hostility and hatred which, sadly, can be seen in some “conservative” circles – for example, he is clear that trans people’s choices of names and pronouns should be respected – but in the end, as I summarised it to a friend, it’s “transphobia with a smile”: we should be kind to trans people, but we should make it very clear that they ought to be trying to live according to the gender they were assigned at birth. Ultimately a deeply damaging message, in a book that has virtually no engagement with what any trans Christians have to say.

Back to more positive matters: Justin Sabia-Tanis’s book, Trans-Gender, though now relatively old (2003), is widely regarded as the best overview of transgender issues from a theological and pastoral perspective, and is a great book to read after an introductory volume like Hartke’s.

Also in this quarter’s highlights: Dazzling Darkness (2nd ed.), Rachel Mann’s account of seeking “the Living God”, the God who is hidden in “dazzling darkness”, as a transgender woman, Church of England priest, and as someone living with long-term chronic illness. Dr Mann is gently emphatic that you should read the second edition, published in 2020.

  • Expository Thoughts on John, Vol. 1 (J.C. Ryle)
  • Transforming (Austen Hartke)
  • Transgender (Vaughan Roberts)
  • Dazzling Darkness (2nd ed.) (Rachel Mann)
  • God in Himself (Steven J. Duby)
  • The Gender Agenda (Steve Chalke)
  • Trans-Gender (Justin Sabia-Tanis)
  • Transfaith (Chris Dowd and Christina Beardsley, with Justin Sabia-Tanis)

Quarterly books roundup (July to September 2020)

A rather belated third-quarter update. What can I say? There’s been quite a lot going on, which has meant my reading has continued to be a rather haphazard: even more dominated by “light fiction” comfort-reading than the previous three months.

Fiction

When I came to type out the list of novels I read during Q3, I commented to my wife that it was not exactly the most highbrow list of fiction ever presented to the public.

Admittedly, any period of time that includes reading Andrea Levy’s superb depiction of life for black immigrants during and after the second world war, Small Island, can’t be considered a total write-off. I also enjoyed the first volume of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, The Man of Property, and re-read Home by Marilynne Robinson. Completing the “lit fic” for the quarter, I suppose, is Philip Roth’s readable but rather silly parallel history of a fascist government coming to power in the US during the second world war, The Plot Against America.

Otherwise, I was taking refuge (during the semi-lockdown life of summer 2020) in a mixture of midcentury crime (Christie, Gilbert, Hammett, plus Sophie Hannah’s Christie pastiche) and bumpy-lettering spy thrillers (Charles Cumming’s Thomas Kell trilogy – they passed the time, but he’s no John Le Carré).

I loved the lone SF novel of the quarter, though: The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks’ second Culture novel, and one that caught hold of me much more than Consider Phlebas. As so often happens, it’s once the world has been established in the first book that things can really take flight in the second.

  • And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
  • Three Hours (Rosamund Lupton)
  • Small Island (Andrea Levy)
  • Smallbone Deceased (Michael Gilbert)
  • Closed Casket (Sophie Hannah)
  • The Man of Property (John Galsworthy)
  • The Plot Against America (Philip Roth)
  • The Queen of Attolia (Megan Whalen Turner)
  • The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett)
  • The Player of Games (Iain M. Banks)
  • A Foreign Country (Charles Cumming)
  • Home* (Marilynne Robinson)
  • A Colder War (Charles Cumming)
  • A Divided Spy (Charles Cumming)

Nonfiction

General nonfiction was thin on the ground this quarter, but both these books were excellent. David Olusoga’s Black and British is a great overview of an aspect of British history that, while increasingly covered by specialists, is less familiar to laypeople such as myself. Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox is a moving memoir of growing up in (and ultimately leaving) a Hasidic community in New York; apparently the Netflix series is only very loosely based on it. What it reminded me of most was Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, which, though a novel rather than a memoir, is based on Toews’ experience of growing up in a Mennonite community in Canada.

  • Black and British (David Olusoga)
  • Unorthodox (Deborah Feldman)

Theology

An element of cheating here, counting each book of the Institutes separately. But otherwise it would mean the book went unrecorded until 2022 at the earliest, the way things are going. More positively, Book I, “The Knowledge of God the Creator”, stands out for its presentation of the themes of what it is to know God and to know ourselves.

Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone had been accompanying me on my reading of Luke’s Gospel during the middle of the year, and The Valley of Vision, a collection of prayers based on Puritan writings, had also been part of my devotional life for much of the year. Completing the Puritan/Calvinist theme was Dale S. Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly, a warming depiction of the gentleness and lowliness of Christ, as taught both in Scripture and in the Puritan writers quoted by Ortlund throughout the book.

However, the standout book of the quarter for me in this category was Shaye J.D. Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, an illuminating and pugnacious history of Second Temple Judaism (with a coda on “the parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians from 100 to 150 CE) that was recommended to me by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Highly recommended.

  • Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book I)* (John Calvin)
  • From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Shaye J.D. Cohen)
  • Gentle and Lowly (Dale S. Ortlund)
  • Luke for Everyone (Tom Wright)
  • The Valley of Vision (Arthur G. Bennett)

Quarterly books roundup (April to June 2020)

The second quarter of 2020 will not be quickly forgotten by any of us, as the world around us shut down for most of the three months due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Things were only gradually opening up even by the end of June.

From a reading point of view, this had a mixed effect. You might have thought a lockdown would mean more time for reading, and to some extent it did – not like I was going out anywhere, after all – but this was counterbalanced by being extremely busy working from home and losing commuting time for reading each day. My appetite for “challenging” reading, at least when it came to fiction, remained intermittent at best.

The result is a slightly fragmented picture, though with plenty of good stuff to report.

Fiction

The story of my fiction reading this quarter was one of gradually building up my strength for reading Proper Books again, after my retreat to comfort reading at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. So, by the time I’d read a couple of science fiction books, I felt up to rereading Gilead – which I enjoyed even more this time around, now that I have a better idea of what Marilynne Robinson is up to.

I followed this with Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, a portrait of a group of young English women living in a hostel “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years” as the Second World War draws to a close in 1945. One unexpected effect of reading this was being prompted to restart praying morning and evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, after reading Spark’s description of reciting the psalms, “from Day 1 to Day 31 of the months, morning and evening, in peace and war … uttering as it seemed to the empty pews, but by faith to the congregations of angels, the Englishly rendered intentions of the sweet singer of Israel.”

E has been recommending Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger to me since before we were married – and I’m glad I finally hearkened unto the voice of my wife on this one. I followed this with a couple of thrillers and a whodunnit before tackling the most challenging novel of the quarter, Mrs Dalloway (another recommendation from E).

I also embarked on Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence, after E and I watched the (superb) TV adaptation. So far I’ve only read the first book, A Question of Upbringing, but I’m looking forward to moving on to the second shortly. I’ll do so with a fresh appreciation for how likeable Anthony Powell’s characters are compared with those in Edward St Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first of his Patrick Melrose series of novels…

A special mention also for Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Green Mars, the first two books in his Mars trilogy. I’m hoping to complete this series in the next few weeks by reading Blue Mars.

  • Consider Phlebas (Iain M. Banks)
  • An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin (Robin Kriwoczek)
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • Gilead* (Marilynne Robinson)
  • The Girls of Slender Means (Muriel Spark)
  • Moon Tiger (Penelope Lively)
  • With a Bare Bodkin (Cyril Hare)
  • GBH (Ted Lewis)
  • Get Carter (Ted Lewis)
  • Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
  • Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • A Question of Upbringing (Anthony Powell)
  • The Truants (Kate Weinberg)
  • Never Mind (Edward St Aubyn)

Nonfiction

My two favourite general nonfiction books from this quarter were both, in their own way, perfect lockdown reading. Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four – part gossipy Beatles biography, part waspish observation of the modern Beatles industry, but mostly (as with Brown’s Ma’am Darling) an oblique social history of postwar Britain – was stimulating and undemanding (in the best sense of the word); while Michael T. Osterholm’s prescient 2017 book on the threat from global pandemics, Deadliest Enemy, provided some deep insights into how very non-unexpected All This ought to be to us.

  • One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Craig Brown)
  • Deadliest Enemy (Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker)
  • Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (Melissa Harrison)
  • How to Be in Opposition (ed. Nigel Fletcher)

Theology

My favourite theological book this quarter was Karin Maag’s Lifting Hearts to the Lord, a “documentary case study” of worship in 17th century Geneva, combining essays and primary sources on the revolution in Christian worship and practice wrought by Calvin and his colleagues, and the responses of ordinary people as they variously embraced and resisted the changes.

There’s been something of a Calvinist theme to my reading this year: Matthew Myer Boulton’s Life in God was one of my favourite books last quarter, and I’ve even started reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (though it’ll be a while before this appears in a list of books I’ve completed). Much of this is the fruit of reading Marilynne Robinson’s essays and fiction, both of which have encouraged me to take a second look at the “Renaissance humanist” she likes to call “Jean Cauvin” (to counteract people’s preconceptions about him).

I also greatly enjoyed and benefited from the essays on the Trinity collected by Lincoln Harvey in his book of that title. Highlights included Jeremy Begbie’s exploration of “aural space” as a better source of analogies for understanding the Trinity than “visual space”; Chris Tilling’s insistence that Paul has to be seen as a Trinitarian, albeit within a different theological idiom from that of later Nicene orthodoxy; and Claire Louise Wright’s tour de force on Gregory of Nazianzus and the knowledge of God.

  • The Seven Last Words from the Cross* (Fleming Rutledge)
  • Great God of Wonders (Maurice Roberts)
  • Lifting Hearts to the Lord (Karin Maag)
  • Confess Your Sins (John Stott)
  • Essays on the Trinity (ed. Lincoln Harvey)
  • The Letters of John (John Stott)

Lift up your hearts with John Calvin

Calvin’s pulpit in Geneva, © Yann Forget / Wikimedia

I’m currently reading a fascinating book called Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva. It’s part of a series of books, The Church at Worship, which combine essays, illustrations and extracts from primary materials in order to give readers an insight into Christian worship in a particular place and time. The Kindle edition is also currently available at a knockdown price (£1.93, versus an RRP of £18.99), so I heartily recommend grabbing it while you can.

One of the texts provided is a selection of excerpts from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 9, delivered as a public lecture for trainee pastors. Here are a few points that particularly struck me.

First, on verse 1 (“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds”
), Calvin writes:

When he says “with all my heart,” he means with a pure and whole heart, rather than in a duplicitous way. And therefore he not only makes a distinction between himself and those heavy hypocrites who praise God only with their lips, leaving their hearts stone cold, but he also acknowledges that everything praiseworthy he has done so far stems entirely from the pure grace of God.

This underlines what I’ve long believed: that one thing the psalms teach us is that our feelings matter. They are not the be-all and the end-all – it is “the pure grace of God” that matters above all, not our feelings about it – but the idea of a “faith without feelings” is unknown to the psalmist. I am to give thanks “with my whole heart”; we are not to “praise God only with [our] lips, leaving [our] hearts stone cold”.

Next, Calvin turns to verse 11, “Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion.
Declare his deeds among the peoples”
:

Indeed, it is not enough to honor and venerate some vague divine force, but instead to know how to recognize the one and only true God, whom one should serve appropriately and according to his commands.

As Luther put it: “There is no other God than the one God who is called Jesus Christ.” The God we worship is not “some vague divine force”, but “the one and only true God”, who has revealed himself to us in “his doings”.

Also on verse 11, God is called “the one who dwells in Zion”, but this wasn’t to tie him to one place; on the contrary, we are to “declare his deeds among the peoples”. Calvin draws a lesson from this about the sacraments:

It is very true that God had given genuine signs of his presence in this visible Sanctuary, but the goal was not to bind people’s senses to earthly elements. Instead, he wanted these external signs to serve as ladders to draw the faithful to Heaven. For right from the start God had the same goal for the Sacraments and all other outward practices of the faith, namely, to accommodate the weakness and minimal capacity of his people. Therefore yet today their true purpose is to help us seek God spiritually in his heavenly glory, and not to keep us in this world or distract us with the vanities of the flesh.

As the editor of the volume, Karin Maag, observes in a side note:

This image of the ladder is one of Calvin’s favorite ways of explaining how God uses the elements of this world to draw believers to a deeper and more spiritual understanding of their faith.

And this, I feel, is where I find myself disagreeing with Calvin. While Calvin sees the sacraments as means by which God draws us up spiritually to heaven, Luther sees them as a means by which God comes down to us and assures us that he is with us here on earth.

This is an important distinction, but perhaps we should not force it too much. Perhaps instead we should see it like St Paul’s description of the second coming of Christ in his first letter to the Thessalonians, where we rise to meet the Lord in the air as he descends to us from heaven…

Quarterly books roundup (January to March 2020)

Here’s the first of this year’s quarterly summaries of books I’ve been reading.

With the current coronavirus epidemic, many people have been writing or tweeting about what a fantastic opportunity the lockdown provides for reading lots of books. Well, if that’s you, then that’s great. For me, the combination of an exceptionally busy time at work, loss of time spent commuting, and (above all) the sheer mental and emotional exhaustion caused by The Whole Situation meant that my reading hit something of a buffer during March. Things have improved a little since then, but let’s see how the year has been going overall.

Fiction

Looking at my list of books read in January and February (everything up to and including the Priestley), they look like a list from about 2009. Was it really this year when I read those? Feels like an age ago. Which is a shame, as I’m sure several of them were pretty good, if I could remember anything about them.

Funnily enough, the one that leaves the clearest imprint on my memory now is one that seemed like the slightest at the time: J.L. Carr’s entertaining account of a fictional amateur football club’s glory trail to victory in the F.A. Cup. But it’s the books completed in March, though fewer in number, that have held up best for me so far.

Once I got into it, I loved Susanna Clarke’s massive Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (and am now watching the TV adaptation, also excellent). Vying with it for my favourite novel of the quarter is Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, which my wife, E, compared to “Muriel Spark writing a novel by Graham Greene”. Its combination of an eccentric feminism, whimsical humour and spiritual profundity won’t be for everyone – I described it at one point as “Weird Anglican Twitter, the novelisation” – but those to whom it does appeal are likely to love it.

The distractions caused by the coronavirus epidemic meant I took rather longer to stagger to the end of The Towers of Trebizond than might otherwise be the case, and once I’d completed it I needed something lighter. Cyril Hare’s legal whodunnit, Tragedy at Law, proved to be just the ticket. A fascinating slice of social history (following an Assize court around wartime England), very funny, and a plot that appealed immensely to my inner Law Nerd.

  • Barchester Towers (Anthony Trollope)
  • The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford)
  • A Division of the Spoils (Paul Scott)
  • How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup (J.L. Carr)
  • The Little Drummer Girl (John Le Carré)
  • Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
  • An Inspector Calls* (J.B. Priestley)
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
  • The Towers of Trebizond (Rose Macaulay)
  • Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

Nonfiction

My pre-distraction nonfiction reading has fared rather better in my memory than was the case for fiction. That may be because there is no post-distraction nonfiction reading. Looking at the list, I remain very fond of Dan Jackson’s warm and informative history of northeast England, The Northumbrians, and look forward to this being a guide when we take our family holiday in Northumberland in August (which I’m still hoping will happen!). Leo Damrosch’s Eternity’s Sunrise is a must-read for any fans of William Blake.

I also particularly enjoyed Deborah Levy’s post-divorce memoir, The Cost of Living, and Mary Midgley’s What Is Philosophy For?, which turned out to be mostly an analysis of the weakness of claims made for artificial intelligence by those who (in Midgley’s view) have too naively scientistic and unphilosophical an understanding of what “minds” are in the first place. Meanwhile, I finally completed reading Orwell’s collected essays, which I’d begun some time in 2017.

  • The Northumbrians (Dan Jackson)
  • Essays (George Orwell)
  • Eternity’s Sunrise (Leo Damrosch)
  • The Cost of Living (Deborah Levy)
  • What Is Philosophy For? (Mary Midgley)
  • Things I Don’t Want to Know (Deborah Levy)
  • Nothing: A Very Short Introduction (Frank Close)
  • This Is Not Propaganda (Peter Pomerantsev)

Theology

The standout book for me in this category was Matthew Myer Boulton’s Life in God, an assessment of the continuing value of John Calvin’s work from the point of view of practical theology. Boulton argues that Calvin’s aim was not so much to formulate a theology as to form a people: making the monastic disciplines of scriptural study, daily prayer, psalm singing and so on the backbone of Christian life for ordinary believers. It’s this emphasis on practical formation, Boulton argues, that holds most promise for Christian theology (and Christian living) today.

Benjamin Dueholm’s Sacred Signposts makes a similar point from a Lutheran perspective, the “signposts” of the title being the seven “possessions of the church” identified by Luther as the common heritage of all Christians: the Word; baptism; the Lord’s Supper; confession and absolution; the ministry; prayer, praise and worship; and suffering and the cross.

  • What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Philip Yancey)
  • Image of the Invisible (Amy Scott Robinson)
  • Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Matthew Myer Boulton)
  • Sacred Signposts (Benjamin J. Dueholm)

The sacrament that coronavirus can't take away

View of a part of the balustrade/parapet of the northern gallery in the Amanduskirche in Beihingen, a district of Freiberg am Neckar (Germany), seen from the southern gallery. The paintings by Hans Stiegler (18th century) show the baptism of Christ and Martin Luther as reformator. (source)
© Roman Eisele / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 & GFDL ≥ 1.2

As with pretty much all churches in the UK, our congregation has suspended services until further notice in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic. Last week we also omitted the Sacrament of the Altar due to concerns over our ability to administer it safely.

This situation leaves Christians in the distressing position of being deprived of the Sacrament of the Altar – the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass – at a time when we might feel most in need of it and of its promised benefits of forgiveness, life and salvation. Many of us have become used to a weekly (or even more frequent) celebration of this sacrament.

For many of us, the suspension of public worship also deprives us of the comfort of the weekly general absolution pronounced by the pastor: “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins…”

Last night, though, I came across the following comment on Facebook, which brought home that there is one sacrament that has not been taken away from us at this time:

I’m always stunned and encouraged in such moments by Luther’s appeal to, “I am baptized”. Baptism is the most powerful sacrament in this way, but most forgotten as to its actual power today. It of necessity sustains YOU and me even when the other two, absolution and the supper, are unavailable.

Luther famously emphasised the value of baptism in our assurance as Christians, our confidence in the face of temptation and doubt:

The only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian.’

This is reflected in the Small Catechism, where Luther sees the significance of baptism as lying, not in its status as a mere “initiation rite”, but as the basis for our daily repentance, as something to which we return daily in order to die to sin and rise to new life:

What does such baptising with water signify?

It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily remorse and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new person should daily come forth and arise, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Small Catechism, Holy Baptism, question 4

Hence our daily prayers should always begin with the sign of the cross and the invocation of the Trinity, in recollection of our baptism:

In the morning, when you get up, bless yourself with the holy cross and say:

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Small Catechism, Daily Prayers

One “Luther” quotation which does the rounds on the internet – “When you wash your face, remember your baptism” – appears to be misattributed. But Luther would probably agree with it (once he’d got his head round 21st century hygiene standards – “Washing your face? Every day?”), and at the moment it’s easy to extend it: “When you wash your hands, remember your baptism (for at least 20 seconds).”

We’re facing a difficult Lent, and perhaps an even more difficult Easter, separated in so many ways from our fellow Christians and from the regular ministry of word and sacrament which we have previously taken for granted. The daily recollection of our baptism, however, can be one source of comfort and encouragement.

Baptizatus sum! I am baptised!

2019 books: rounding ’em up

Book covers: Middlemarch, Day of the Scorpion, Bonfire of the Vanities, The Power, The Stone Table, I Am I Am I Am, Shake Hands with the Devil, The Crucifixion

I’ve now completed my review of books read during 2019 (Jan to Mar | Apr to Jun | Jul to Sep | Oct to Dec). In this post I’ll take a look at the year as a whole and single out some of my overall favourites.

This is not an objective measure of “the best books” I’ve read: rather, these are the books which, looking back, have left the strongest continuing impression on me.

Fiction (classic)

I’ve split fiction into two categories for this, as there were so many great novels I read this year, both “contemporary” and “classic” (roughly, and egotistically, classified according to whether they were published before or during my lifetime). The list of favourites for each category could easily have been half as long again.

The classics themselves can be split into two subcategories: pre- and post-1900, and that’s the order I’ve put them below. The three pre-1900 books on the list are, of course, among the mightiest works of literature in the English language, and it seems invidious to start ranking them like Olympic sprinters, but if push comes to shove, it’s probably Middlemarch that takes the laurels.

The 20th century novels are an eclectic mixture. Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke – nominally a detective story, though really a psychological/spiritual thriller to which the detective himself, Campion, makes only the most incidental contribution – is memorable most of all for its evocation of the atmosphere of postwar London, how Victorian the city still was.

Perhaps the single most memorable character from the four novels I’ve mentioned is “Miss Jean Brodie in her prime”, though Paul Scott’s Sarah Layton runs her a very, very close second: I find her as mesmerising and vivid as Anna Karenina (wait, did I say that out loud?). And it’s Scott’s The Day of the Scorpion (pipping its sequel, The Towers of Silence, to the post) that wins the overall prize from this subcategory.

  • Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
  • Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
  • Middlemarch (George Eliot)
  • The Tiger in the Smoke (Margery Allingham)
  • All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West)
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)
  • The Day of the Scorpion (Paul Scott)

Fiction (contemporary)

Again, I’m going to split this into two subcategories, very roughly divided between “literary” and “SF/other”.

Looking back at January to March, it was an astonishingly strong start to the year: not only reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the “classic” section, but Donna Tartt’s highly entertaining The Goldfinch (glad I avoided the film, though), Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping all being among my favourite books of the year.

Indeed, while I loved Circe, The Porpoise and The Friend, it’s from those first four that I’d need to pick a winner. And in the end, much as I loved the Robinson and the Spufford in particular, I think it has to be The Bonfire of the Vanities.

In the SF/other camp, I loved Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Most obviously influenced by The Handmaid’s Tale, what makes it most effective are the way Alderman uses the structure of her book to ramp up the tension: the chapters count down to a cataclysm whose impact is made apparent by the increasing age of the archaeological artifacts pictured between each chapter. This element of “imagined anthropology” is clearly influenced by Ursula Le Guin, especially Always Coming Home.

I’ve written in previous posts about how fun Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage is. Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest have some of the most powerful and thrilling ideas I’ve ever encountered in science fiction (the concept of “the dark forest”, in particular, is unforgettable and chilling). The third book in the trilogy, Death’s End, was also good, but not quite at the level of the first two.

Right up to typing the last two paragraphs, I thought I was going to give this one to Liu Cixin, but on reflection it’s Naomi Alderman’s The Power that wins: for that structure and use of non-narrative elements, but also because it’s just such a terrific concept.

Finally, a special category award for Francis Spufford’s Narnia continuation, The Stone Table, which I posted on in more detail earlier this year. Sadly, it seems that the copyright issues which had prevented its wider publication have not been resolved, and we’ll have to wait until 2034 at the earliest for the book to see the light of day beyond the limited circulation it’s had to date.

  • The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)
  • Golden Hill (Francis Spufford)
  • Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Circe (Madeline Miller)
  • The Porpoise (Mark Haddon)
  • The Friend (Sigrid Nunez)
  • The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest (Cixin Liu)
  • The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Sydney Padua)
  • The Power (Naomi Alderman)
  • The Stone Table (Francis Spufford)

Non-fiction

In some ways, the most “important” of the books on this list is Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With the Devil, simply because I suspect most of us know too little about the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Dallaire was the Canadian general given the task of leading the United Nations forces in Rwanda, and he is unsparing in his description both of the horrors of the genocide and of the shocking complicity of the great powers, who left the tiny UN force starved of the troops and resources that, Dallaire still believes, could have halted the killing. It’s not the best written of the books I’ve read this year, but it certainly has an unforgettable impact.

Barnabas Calder’s love letter to brutalist architecture gave me a great deal of pleasure earlier in the year, as did Tom Wolfe’s vivid and vigorous account of the early US space programme, The Right Stuff. But my other winner is I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, a beautifully-written memoir that celebrates life through the medium of near-death experiences.

  • Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (Barnabas Calder)
  • The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe)
  • I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (Maggie O’Farrell)
  • Making Sense of the Troubles (David McKittrick and David McVea)
  • Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Katherine Rundell)
  • Shake Hands With the Devil (Roméo Dallaire)

Theology

This was a rather thin year for reading theology, to the extent that I could almost be tempted to fold it into the general nonfiction category. That said, I do read the books in this category for a different purpose than other non-fiction, so it makes sense to treat them separately.

Anyway, there can only be one winner in this category for 2019: Fleming Rutledge’s superb study of The Crucifixion, a book I hope will have a lasting impact both on me and on the church as a whole; especially Rutledge’s emphasis on an “apocalyptic” understanding of the cross as the framework within which to understand and embrace the other biblical motifs (including “substitutionary atonement”).

  • The Crucifixion (Fleming Rutledge)
  • For All the Saints? (Tom Wright)
  • Paul: A Biography (Tom Wright)

Looking ahead…

As for what I plan to read in 2020, my to-read shelf (see below) is the usual horror-show, so should remain my priority (“and this year I mean it!”). I am planning to repeat last year’s freeze on book purchases for January to March, so as to encourage me to make inroads into the existing stock.

After several years in which my reading of fiction has gradually overtaken nonfiction, I suspect the pendulum could now afford to swing back a little in the direction of nonfiction (both general and theological), especially when I look at the books I have lined up to read in that category.

I also have several books remaining from the “Marital Review of Books”: the recommendations that my wife gave me for Christmas 2018. I managed just under half of them this year, but I’m looking forward to tackling the rest of the list. Some of the authors that would be “new to me” (a shocking confession of my ignorance coming up here): Gabriel García Márquez, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Andrea Levy and John Steinbeck. And then there’s the next Big One for me to use as an alibi for not reading other long books: War and Peace. Let’s see how I get on…

Books! (October to December 2019)

Book covers: Middlemarch (George Eliot); The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark); Why You Should Read Children's Books (Katherine Rundell)

Here’s how I finished my year’s reading, covering October to December. The previous posts cover Jan to Mar | Apr to Jun | Jul to Sep.

Slightly fewer books than previous quarters, but some heavyhitters in the fiction category, and rather more nonfiction than earlier in the year. I should also point out that, in these posts, an asterisk next to a book name indicates a book I’ve read before.

Fiction

Well, this was the year I finally ticked off another of The Big Ones: Middlemarch. For some years this has been my go-to alibi for getting out of reading other long books: “how can I read Cryptonomicon when I haven’t even read Middlemarch yet?”; I now need another alibi (probably War and Peace). As for what I thought of Middlemarch: well, as I said on Twitter, “it turns out that Middlemarch isn’t a ‘classic’ in an ‘eat yer greens’ way, but in a ‘you’ll be increasingly absorbed until you end up reading the last 100 pages before getting up for breakfast’ way.” I loved it.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a much shorter book, but another which richly deserves its status as a classic. Rather topical, too, given Miss Brodie’s (<ahem>) “alt-right” tendencies. I also enjoyed Spark’s curious Watergate-meets-Vatican-2 satire, The Abbess: perhaps helped by the fact that the Abbess herself went to my college: “I read classics for a year at Lady Margaret Hall before switching to Eng. Lit.”

I was also pleased to discover I share an alma mater (modulo a parallel universe or two) with Lyra Silvertongue, star of The Secret Commonwealth, the second book in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy. The Secret Commonwealth was a huge improvement on its predecessor, La Belle Sauvage: I’m looking forward to the third volume. It’s become clear that one of Pullman’s key motivations in writing the new trilogy is to distance himself from the “New Atheists” with whom he has tended to be lumped: the main theme of the book is the importance of imagination over rationality. I find this a much more congenial hobby-horse for him to be riding than “ReLiGiOn iS t3h eViL”.

I also resumed Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, reading both The Day of the Scorpion and The Towers of Silence, having read The Jewel in the Crown last year. Scott is a master of the set piece (one chapter in The Day of the Scorpion is an eighty-page interrogation scene), and in Sarah Layton and Ronald Merrick he has created one of the most compelling heroines, and one of the most vivid monsters, in modern fiction. I’m greatly looking forward to reading the concluding volume, A Division of the Spoils, in the new year. He almost wins book title(s) of the year, too.

  • Middlemarch (George Eliot)
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark)
  • The Day of the Scorpion (Paul Scott)
  • Jeeves and the King of Clubs (Ben Schott)
  • The Power (Naomi Alderman)
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Harrison)
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Other Stories (Truman Capote)
  • The Abbess (Muriel Spark)
  • The Secret Commonwealth (Philip Pullman)
  • The Towers of Silence (Paul Scott)
  • Waiting for the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee)
  • The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)

Non-fiction

Perhaps it’s as things got serious in real life that I felt I had to read some equally serious nonfiction: McKittrick and McVea’s informative history of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Roméo Dallaire’s gruelling account of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and, after Labour’s calamitous election defeat, re-reading Nick Cohen’s What’s Left, which predicted the disaster the Left was leading itself into over a decade ago.

On a lighter note, and snatching “book title of the year” from under Paul Scott’s nose, came Katherine Rundell and her essay, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise. Rundell is both a children’s author and a fellow of All Souls’ College, and her book is correspondingly intelligent, illuminating, inspiring, warm and moving:

Children’s books say: the world is huge. They say: hope counts for something. They say: bravery will matter, wit will matter, empathy will matter, love will matter. These things may or may not be true. I do not know. I hope they are. I think it is urgently necessary to hear them and to speak them.

The list also includes the very last book I finished in 2019, on the evening of the 31st: A.E. Stalling’s collection, Olives; the only book of poetry I completed during the year.

  • Making Sense of the Troubles (David McKittrick and David McVea)
  • Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Katherine Rundell)
  • Shake Hands With the Devil (Roméo Dallaire)
  • Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (Perry Anderson)
  • What’s Left?* (Nick Cohen)
  • Olives (A.E. Stallings)

Theology

I’m definitely cheating a little here, including The Actual Bible. But hey: my two-year Bible reading plan came to an end on 31 December, so on the list it goes. One shift that did occur during the two years was switching from the NRSV to the RSV, after reading Fleming Rutledge’s defence of the older translation in her book, The Crucifixion:

From my perspective, the gains in the New Revised Standard Version are outweighed by the loss of literary quality and powerful sentence structure.

It probably helps as well that my copy of the RSV has slightly larger and clearer type than my compact NRSV: old age is clearly creeping up on me…

  • Hebrews for Everyone (Tom Wright)
  • For All the Saints? (Tom Wright)
  • An Introduction to the Catholic Epistles (Darian Lockett)
  • The Screwtape Letters* (C.S. Lewis)
  • The Bible*

So, that concludes the list of 2019’s books. In my final post in this series, I’ll pull together the four posts and choose my favourite books of the year in each category.

Books! (July to September 2019)

Book covers: The Friend (Sigrid Nunez), The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Sydney Padua), I Am I Am I Am (Maggie O'Farrell)

Here’s the next instalment in my review of this year’s reading, covering July to September. Previous posts: Jan to Mar | Apr to Jun.

The summer is usually a peak period for getting through books, as I normally do plenty of reading on holiday. This year I didn’t manage quite so much of this, mostly because our holiday involved more driving and changes of location than usual and hence less time sitting around reading. However, I still managed to get to some good stuff.

Fiction

Highlights in fiction included Madeline Miller’s retelling of the story of Circe and Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise, which reworks Shakespeare’s Pericles in a more modern framing. Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness is an unsparing (though frequently very funny) account of growing up as a teenage girl in a rural Canadian Mennonite community; Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, gives a more sympathetic portrait of a small town community in Colorado.

The most “so hot right now” book on the list is undoubtedly Margaret Atwood’s blockbuster sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I enjoyed The Testaments, but can’t help but see it as Handmaid’s Tale fanfic, and undeserving of its Booker Prize.

My favourite novel of the quarter, though, was Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. It’s a lovely book, characterised by what Nunez’s narrator praises as three hallmarks of good writing: “A lack of sentimentality, a lack of self-pity, and a sense of humor.” The narrator is a writer, whose grief at the suicide of a friend is healed by her care for her late friend’s Great Dane – an animal strictly prohibited under the lease terms for her rent-controlled apartment. As she observes at one point:

There’s a certain kind of person who, having read this far, is anxiously wondering: Does something bad happen to the dog?

Indeed, “Please tell me nothing bad happens to the dog!” has now entered my and my wife’s vocabulary.

Another book I’d single out from this quarter is Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. I was tempted to include this graphic novel under non-fiction: it opens by telling the story of the Victorian computing pioneers Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, before going on to imagine a world in which Babbage succeeds in building his mighty mechanical computer, the Analytical Engine – which he and Lovelace then use, obviously, to Fight Crime; and which Padua uses to provide a whimsical history of Victorian culture (George Eliot) and engineering (Isambard! Kingdom! Brunel!). Tremendous fun.

  • Circe (Madeline Miller)
  • The October Man (Ben Aaronovitch)
  • Plainsong (Kent Haruf)
  • The Friend (Sigrid Nunez)
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (Eric Ambler)
  • The Sky is Yours (Chandler Klang Smith)
  • The Thief (Megan Whalen Turner)
  • Predator’s Gold (Philip Reeve)
  • The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Sydney Padua)
  • The Last (Hanna Jameson)
  • Leave it to Psmith (P.G. Wodehouse)
  • A Complicated Kindness (Miriam Toews)
  • Jingo (Terry Pratchett)
  • Berlin (Jason Lutes)
  • The Testaments (Margaret Atwood)
  • The Porpoise (Mark Haddon)

Non-fiction

Peter Frase’s Four Futures is a stimulating “speculative non-fiction” imagining four possible outcomes for human society: from a post-money, post-scarcity, post-labour life of abundance (not a utopia, but a society able at least “to convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness”) to the ultimate dystopia of “exterminism” in which the hyper-wealthy decide that “mass labour has been rendered superfluous” by technological advance.

But my favourite of the non-fiction books from this quarter (if you exclude Sydney Padua’s Lovelace and Babbage romp mentioned above) is Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, a memoir covering incidents in O’Farrell’s life ranging from narrowly escaping murder as a teenager to being the mother of a child with severe allergies, with two near-drownings and a year of being bedridden as a child thrown in along the way:

When you are a child, no one tells you that you’re going to die. You have to work it out for yourself.

  • I Am I Am I Am (Maggie O’Farrell)
  • Four Futures (Peter Frase)

Theology

An uncharacteristically light quarter. I rather skimmed Walter Wink’s book, if I’m honest. James Dunn’s commentary on Ephesians was the highlight of the Oxford Bible Commentary’s Kindle volume on The Pauline Epistles: the only chapter in the book to provide pastoral warmth alongside the academic analysis. Here’s Dunn on Ephesians 1:22-23:

The church, his body, is (or should be!) the place where God’s presence in and purpose for creation comes to its clearest expression. Would that it were so!

  • The Uncreated Light (Solrunn Nes)
  • The Pauline Epistles (Oxford Bible Commentary)
  • Unmasking the Powers (Walter Wink)

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