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)

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