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)

Join the Conversation

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. Surreal and oblique can be good, so may now read Daniel Lavery’s ‘Something That May Shock and Discredit You’ at some point, following this recommendation. I have enjoyed and valued Juliet Jacques’ ‘Trans: A Memoir’ which isn’t especially surreal, oblique, written from a faith perspective OR given to swimming in the sea of the collective unconscious (and is none the worse for any of those things; though would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets etc).

    https://www.versobooks.com/books/2158-trans

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