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…

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