Quarterly books roundup (January to March 2021)

Book covers: The Argonauts; Conundrum; Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead; An Insular Possession; Strangers and Friends; Discipleship

The first quarter of 2021 saw the start of the UK’s third and, in many ways, grimmest lockdown: a three-month (and counting), dark, cold, winter lockdown, with none of the lighter moments that made the spring lockdown more bearable (dolphins in city rivers, viral videos of families dancing around their sourdough starters while clapping for the NHS, etc). The one (admittedly considerable) light on the horizon being the startlingly successful vaccine rollout.

However, while the original lockdown left me unable to manage anything more taxing than Light Fiction, the last three months saw me tackling a more typical mixture of books. Unusually, my firm favourites for the quarter were in the nonfiction category: I’m not convinced I’ve yet read any novel that’s going to feature highly in my favourites for the year.

Fiction

As hinted in my introduction, this was a slightly disappointing quarter for fiction. I enjoyed finishing Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, but in the end Red Mars is easily the best of the three. I was keen to read Christopher Buckley’s broad and rather silly Trump satire, Make Russia Great Again, while the 45th president was still in office, and what a distant time that now seems.

The Obelisk Gate was a solid follow-up to The Fifth Season, and I look forward to concluding the trilogy. Another trilogy(ish) continuation was John Galsworthy’s In Chancery: while Galsworthy wrote many novels and short stories around the Forsyte family, it is apparently the first three novels (and their interludes) that are properly regarded as The Forsyte Saga. Again, I’m looking forward to concluding this trilogy (though I’m not sure I’ll need ot go any further).

Ali Smith’s Artful is an intriguing blend of fiction and lecture (it was originally delivered as four lectures at St Anne’s College). Have His Carcase (another mid-series book) can be read as a parody of Golden Age “locked room” mysteries: enjoyable when Harriet Vane is in the foreground, a little more humdrum when the attention turns to Lord Peter Wimsey (with whom Sayers herself was apparently bored by this stage) and pages of cipher-solving, and with a ludicrous solution at the end. However, it sets the scene for Gaudy Night, which is why I was reading it in the first place.

My favourite novels of the quarter, though, were Timothy Mo’s solid, very-1980s-Booker-Prize account of the founding of Hong Kong, An Insular Possession, and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: superficially another murder-mystery, but really a sly satire on Poland’s drift into a macho conservative authoritarianism (“We’re all Catholics by culture, whether we like it or not,” explains the local headteacher as she pleads with the narrator to attend the consecration of a new school chapel).

  • Blue Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • Make Russia Great Again (Christopher Buckley)
  • An Insular Possession (Timothy Mo)
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Olga Tokarczuk)
  • The Obelisk Gate (N.K. Jemisin)
  • In Chancery (John Galsworthy)
  • Artful (Ali Smith)
  • Have His Carcase (Dorothy L. Sayers)

Nonfiction

Easily my favourite books of the quarter were the two highlighted here. Conundrum is Jan Morris’s classic 1974 account of her gender transition, and of her life leading up to it – starting with her earliest memory, of realising (aged 3, sitting under the family piano while her mother played) that she was really a girl; her time at public school (“I was not really unhappy there, but I was habitually frightened”), leaving to join the army (“like one of those unconvincing heroines of fiction…”) towards the end of the second world war, before starting her career as a journalist. Her account of running down from Everest to break the news of Hillary and Norgay’s conquest of the mountain is the single best passage of prose I’ve read this year.

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is another LGBTQ memoir: Nelson’s account of her relationship with her husband, Harry Dodge; Harry’s hormonal and surgical transition, which freed him from his growing dysphoria (“We knew something, maybe everything, was about to give. We hoped it wouldn’t be us.”); and of the birth of their son. It’s a raw and candid account – the deeply private Harry compares being with Maggie to being “like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist” – but also beautifully written and intellectually rigorous. The Guardian’s description, “luminous and exacting”, summarises it perfectly.

These two books just edged out a third LGBTQ memoir: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic novel centred on Bechdel’s father, who died (by suicide, Bechdel believes) shortly before her twentieth birthday, who often showed more affection for his home-improvement projects than for his children (“my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture”), and who only revealed his affairs with male students to Bechdel after she came out as a lesbian. Again, this might sound unpromising material, but Bechdel tells her story with humour and warmth.

  • Venice (Jan Morris)
  • Sister Outsider (Audre Lorde)
  • Conundrum (Jan Morris)
  • The Argonauts (Maggie Nelson)
  • Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)

Theology

One of my projects for the year is to complete Calvin’s Institutes. If I’m honest, I’m a little behind the curve on this, though I hope to complete the first volume before the end of June. Another Reformation text was much shorter: Katherine Parr’s The Lamentation of a Sinner, the first book published in English by a woman under her own name. It’s interesting to see the clear correspondences (both literary and theological) between Parr’s writing and the contemporaneous work of Thomas Cranmer.

The most substantial book I completed during the quarter was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship – better known under its title for the original English edition, The Cost of Discipleship. It’s a demanding classic, and if I’m honest I still need to go through my notes to clarify my thoughts on it. But the call to see the Christian life as one of following Christ is one I needed to hear.

Michael Vasey’s Strangers and Friends was written in 1995, and is a call for the Church of England (in particular) to rethink its teaching and practices on (to use Vasey’s own word) homosexuality – published shortly before Vasey’s death, in an atmosphere which was still dominated by the impact of Section 28. In many ways the book shows its age: Vasey admits he is writing very specifically about male homosexuality, so the book has little to say on lesbians or transgender people, for example. But there is a lot in his book which remains useful, especially on the cultural context of same-sex relationships in history, the concept of “nature” (which Vasey sees, in St Paul’s use of the term, as “not a simple reference to an acultural, biological order but … an explicit construct of biology and culture”) and, presciently, the likely damage to the church’s mission from holding to teachings that have lost credibility, and even moral acceptability, for growing numbers of people.

  • Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II (John Calvin)
  • Being Disciples (Rowan Williams)
  • Strangers and Friends (Michael Vasey)
  • The Lamentation of a Sinner (Katherine Parr)
  • Radical Love (Patrick Cheng)
  • Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
  • Alongside (Henry Martin)

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