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)

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)

Books! (April to June 2019)

Book covers: All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West), The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe), The Crucifixion (Fleming Rutledge)

I had this great idea earlier in the year that, in place of my usual annual round-up of books read (2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018), I’d post quarterly round-ups instead. Well, I managed the first quarter, but have since fallen behind rather ignominiously.

So anyway, a mere six months late, here is my round-up for the second quarter of 2019.

Fiction

It’s interesting posting this so late after the event, as it enables me to see which books have stayed with me in the succeeding months and which have fallen down the memory hole.

For example, I devoured Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere within a 24-hour period, and recall enjoying it hugely, but don’t remember much about it beyond that. By contrast, books like Rogue Male, Spring and Normal People have left a stronger trace in my memory; even if, in the case of a book like Elmet, it’s the book’s atmosphere that survives more than anything else.

From what is a pretty mixed bag of books, the one I’d single out though is Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent: a glorious portrait of a widow discovering a quiet freedom, to the dismay of her appalling offspring, after a lifetime of suppressing her own desires and ambitions:

“I had nothing to complain of – nothing.”

“Except that you were defrauded of the one thing that mattered.”

  • The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
  • Elmet (Fiona Mozley)
  • All Passion Spent (Vita Sackville-West)
  • The Beginning of Spring (Penelope Fitzgerald)
  • Rogue Male (Geoffrey Household)
  • Death’s End (Cixin Liu)
  • Spring (Ali Smith)
  • Summer Lightning (P.G. Wodehouse)
  • Normal People (Sally Rooney)
  • Tales from the Loop (Simon Stålenhag)
  • The Friends of Harry Perkins (Chris Mullin)
  • Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)
  • The White Book (Han Kang)
  • Good Omens* (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman)
  • The Vegetarian (Han Kang)
  • Laurus (Eugene Vodolazkin)

Non-fiction

Really only one to choose from this quarter: Tom Wolfe’s classic account of the early US crewed space programme, from the machismo of navy test pilots (who “would rather crash and burn”, literally, than admit they’d encountered a problem they couldn’t handle) through to the heroics of the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts: “The era of America’s first single-combat warriors”.

  • The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe)
  • Fifty Watches that Changed the World (Alex Newson) `

Theology

Two books that will stick with me from this quarter: Fleming Rutledge’s magisterial 600-page study of The Crucifixion and Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith. What the two books have in common is their emphasis on apocalyptic as the framework within which Christianity was born and is best understood: the gospel not as the “inevitable final stage in an orderly process” of revelation, but as a dramatic confrontation as God enters his world to confront the powers of evil.

Rutledge’s aim in her book is “to highlight the whole cluster of images surrounding the death of Christ, within the overarching apocalyptic drama.” It’s within this framework that the “forensic motif” is to be understood. For Rutledge, the forensic motif of “substitutionary atonement” and the apocalyptic worldview of “Christus Victor” are “not mutually exclusive. They can be allowed to enrich one another”; but it’s the apocalyptic framework that must take precedence.

Jenkins’ book then recounts the history of how apocalyptic developed during the period between the Babylonian exile and the birth of Christ: a period when the suffering of the Jewish people led many to look to a more fundamental confrontation between the forces of good and evil than had been envisaged by earlier prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Jenkins argues persuasively that it is this apocalyptic tradition that bridges that gap in worldviews between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and that the latter is incomprehensible without understanding that tradition.

  • The Poems and Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (S.E. Gillingham)
  • The Seven Last Words from the Cross* (Fleming Rutledge)
  • The Justification of the Ungodly (Jonathan F. Grothe)
  • Reflecting the Glory (Tom Wright)
  • The Crucifixion (Fleming Rutledge)
  • Crucible of Faith (Philip Jenkins)
  • God Here and Now (Karl Barth)

Books! (January to March 2019)

I’m experimenting with moving from an annual books round-up to a quarterly one – partly to make each post a more manageable length, partly to make this blog look slightly less moribund.

Anyway, this is a good quarter to choose, as it’s the quarter when I decided to try not to acquire any books, so as to work on my backlog of unread books. The effect of this on my “physical” backlog (I also read ten Kindle books over the three months) can be seen in the “before and after” shots of my to-read shelves, above.

So how did I get on? Well, the books I read are listed below. As for avoiding acquisitions: the only exceptions I made were Tom Wright’s Reflecting the Glory (bought on Kindle as a book for my wife and I to read during Lent) and, well, The Stone Table (which I could scarcely refuse…). The 25 books read break down as 16 novels, 5 theology, 4 other nonfiction (confirming the pattern I noted in my previous post); 15 physical books, 10 on Kindle.

Fiction

After a light Agatha Christie as an amuse-bouche, this was a strong quarter for fiction. I’d started The Goldfinch at the end of 2018 and finished it in the first week of the year. As I put it on Twitter, it’s “preposterous, yes, but gripping, and with characters who, if not ‘realistic’ as such, have a life to them that lifts them off the page as you read.” As Sam Leith said of The Secret History, if only “all literary fiction could be this gripping, and if all popular fiction could be this well written.”

My wife, E, gave me a curated reading list for Christmas, the “Marital Review of Books”. I read five of the 22 books during this quarter: The Warden, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Golden Hill. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were the first books I’ve read by the Brontës, and they were both an intense experience. It certainly came as a shock to realise that Kate Bush toned down Emily’s novel for her song.

I’m also loving Liu Cixin’s science fiction trilogy, The Three Body Problem, having read the first two books during the quarter. I don’t think I’ve ever read two books with such an exhilarating range and intensity of ideas. The countdown in The Three Body Problem is one of the most terrifying sequences I’ve read in a novel (even if the explanation turns out to be a little silly); but it’s possibly eclipsed by the climax to The Dark Forest. You’ll never look at humanity’s attempts to contact alien civilisations in the same way again. Interesting, also, to read science fiction written from a Chinese (PRC) perspective.

  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie)
  • The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  • The Warden (Anthony Trollope)
  • The Three Body Problem (Cixin Liu)
  • Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
  • Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Melmoth (Sarah Perry)
  • Golden Hill (Francis Spufford)
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)
  • The Dark Forest (Cixin Liu)
  • Judgment on Deltchev (Eric Ambler)
  • Solaris (Stanislaw Lem)
  • The Tiger in the Smoke (Margery Allingham)
  • The Rings of Saturn (W.G. Sebald)
  • The Stone Table (Francis Spufford)
  • Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)

Nonfiction

As I noted in my post in January, my book-buying habits have, for a long time, been based on what turns out to be a largely delusional idea of how much nonfiction I actually read. “About one book a month” was my average last year, and that’s pretty much where things have pitched up between January and March.

Barnabas Calder’s Raw Concrete is a glorious and intelligent celebration of brutalist architecture as a unique and unrepeatable moment in architectural history: the brief period when architects were free able to exploit the fresh technical possibilities of modern building materials and seemingly limitless cheap energy; a period brought to an end by the backlash against brutalist architecture in the 1970s and 1980s, and made impossible to return to by 21st century concerns about energy efficiency.

Anne Stott’s memoir of Hannah More is a book I keep going back to as a reference point. More lived during a fascinating period of English history, encompassing the literary world of the mid-18th century, the Evangelical revival of the later 1700s, and then the growth of what would become the Victorian sensibility in the early 19th century. More’s life provides a window both into the world of the upper-class and gentry, and the often overlooked world of the poor working-classes and rural poor among whom More laboured to establish Sunday Schools to provide education. Stott is excellent on the contradictions of More: above all the tension between her antifeminist convictions and her life spent both exemplifying and enabling the opportunities available to women beyond their traditional roles. Stott rescues More from the oblivion to which history had consigned her, while avoiding hagiography.

  • Raw Concrete: The Beauty of Brutalism (Barnabas Calder)
  • The Death of Adam (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Hannah More: The First Victorian (Anne Stott)
  • A Field Guide to the English Clergy (Fergus Butler-Gallie)

Theology

Alert readers will notice a theme here: I’m focusing on books about Romans for the first part of this year, with Tom Wright’s biography of Paul providing some stimulating (if not always entirely convincing) background material. I’m currently reading Jonathan Grothe’s commentary on Romans, The Justification of the Ungodly – a book which deserves a better fate than the “self-published on Lulu” obscurity to which LCMS politics consigned it – and Fleming Rutledge’s monumental study, The Crucifixion.

  • Paul: A Biography (Tom Wright)
  • Your Confirmation (John Stott)*
  • Discovering Romans (Anthony Thiselton)
  • When in Romans (Beverly Roberts Gaventa)
  • The Message of Acts (John Stott)

(An asterisk indicates a book I’ve read before.)


So, a good start to the year. I’m looking forward to the third Liu Cixin volume, as well as (more immediately) reading the final volume in Becky Chambers’ enjoyable Wayfarers trilogy, Record of a Spaceborn Few. I’ll also be wanting to keep pace with the Marital Review of Books, especially with behemoths like Middlemarch and War and Peace waiting for me on that list. Perhaps something a little lighter first, though.

I’ve also assembled something of a hit-list of books to check out now my purchasing fast is over – especially having received a bunch of book tokens for my birthday. High on the list is Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, recommended by (among others) Rowan Williams. I may also splurge a chunk of my book tokens on Jason Lutes’ Berlin and Simon Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop.

Back through the wardrobe

Content warning: smugness, limited-availability swag.

Well, I’m not supposed to be acquiring new books till the end of March, “but for you I would make an exception.” 

E and I went to see Francis Spufford interview Andrew Miller at Daunt Books last night. During the Q&A, E stuck her hand up and asked Spufford if he could give an update on publication of The Stone Table

The what? Well, it all starts with a recent Tumblr post by Megan Whalen Turner in which she describes receiving a mystery package in the mail after her friend Francis Spufford asked if she’d like to see something he’d been working on:

Fun fact: N.W. Clark was also used as a pseudonym by a certain C.S. Lewis.

Anyway, E asked Spufford about The Stone Table, and he confirmed that at present he couldn’t say much about it, “but if you’d like to ask me afterwards, please come up and do so.”

Well, we weren’t going to take an invitation like that lying down, and we spoke to him for a couple of minutes about the, um, potential difficulties in getting the book published this side of the year 2033 (let the reader understand). Then, as we turned away, Spufford suddenly asked me, “Do you, by any chance, blog as John the Lutheran?”

When I confirmed I did, he opened his satchel, fished inside, and pulled out… this:

It turns out that Megan Whalen Turner had emailed Spufford to let him know about a couple of comments I’d left on her post:

As a result, he’d brought along a copy for us: number 39 out of 50 in the “second batch” he’s had privately printed. He even signed it for us. No pleading required!

For obvious copyright reasons I can’t post any more of the text than I have already, but I’ve shared the table of contents below just to tease/torture you all even more than I have already.

You’ll see that, for the second printing, Spufford has “come out” as the author of the book. I hope this is a sign that he’s making progress in overcoming those “copyright difficulties”, and that the book will see the light of day for everyone else sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, all I can do is say my astonished thanks to both Spufford and Turner, and apologise to the rest of you for the torment…

2018 books round-up

Time to blow the dust off this ol’ blog and post my annual round-up of books I’ve read during the past year. As in previous years (2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017), I’ve categorised them as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before, and my two favourite books in each category are highlighted in bold.

One difference is that, during the year, I decided I didn’t actually owe the world reviews of every book I read, so stopped posting these on Tumblr. So if you are especially curious to know what I thought of any book I’ve not singled out in this post, please ask me in the comments or on Twitter

Fiction

This year continued the trend, over several years, of reading increasing amounts of fiction. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 2013 I only read 11 novels (and described that as “a pretty good year by my standards”), and only 10 (or arguably 13) in 2014.

Science fiction and fantasy was one theme this year: among others, I read the entire Earthsea cycle by Ursula Le Guin, several Terry Pratchett Discworld books and the Ancillary Justice trilogy by Ann Leckie. Of the Earthsea books, I especially enjoyed The Tombs of Atuan: dark, sombre but also redemptive. Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things was an intriguing and enjoyable novel about a Christian evangelist sent to an alien world, whose inhabitants long to hear more about “the technique of Jesus” that they have learned from “the Book of strange New Things” (aka the Bible). More on Faber below.

A theme I’d set myself – and had partially set for me, through a gift for Christmas 2017 – was to read more postcolonial literature. Being a somewhat undisciplined reader, I didn’t make as much headway into this as I might, but books I enjoyed in this category included Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s evocative portrayal of rural and urban Kenya, Dust; the first volume of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, which makes an interesting pairing with E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; Brian Chikwava’s eye-opening account of life as an illegal immigrant in London, Harare North; and two great books by J.G. Farrell, Troubles (set in Ireland in 1921-22) and The Singapore Grip (set in Singapore shortly before the Japanese invasion in 1942). These last two completed my reading of Farrell’s “Empire Trilogy”, which I’d commenced a mere 30 years earlier with The Siege of Krishnapur. Like I said: undisciplined…

It was also a strong year for more general fiction. Toni Morrison’s The Song of Solomon deserves its status as a modern classic (and I’m told I should get round to reading Beloved this year). No, you were reduced to sobbing uncontrollably in an aeroplane toilet by Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (look, you know what it’s like on long-distance flights: it’s airless, you’re tired, they keep handing you gin and tonics…). Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep has been saddled with the “uplit” label but is more interesting (with its Girardian depiction of mob dynamics and its numinous closing chapters) than that makes it sound. Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall were also particular favourites. Michel Faber’s astonishing Victorian saga, The Crimson Petal and the White, narrowly misses out on a top-two slot.

However, when it comes to picking two favourites from the year, I’m going with The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt and Milkman by Anna Burns. I can’t describe The Last Samurai better than the Guardian review of its reissue last year: “bizarre, bold, brilliant … original both in content and form” – though I’d also add that it’s hilarious and moving in its portrayal of a woman struggling to raise her prodigy of a son, and then her son’s search for his father (or, failing that, a father). I bought the book after picking it up in a bookshop, idly flicking through a few pages and finding myself hooked. The account of the one-night stand in which Ludo is conceived (“the Drunken Medley”), and then Sibylla’s attempt to escape before daybreak by leaving a note (“I could not say thank you for a lovely evening because you can’t”), was one of my comic highlights of 2018. It’s one you have to read in print, incidentally: the typography is crucial, particularly in the first half.

Milkman, of course, won the Booker Prize this year, and had been a “controversial choice” due to its being regarded as “difficult”: mostly because neither the narrator nor any of the other characters is given a name. I was delighted to see that the public agrees with the Booker judges rather than the press, and the book has now sold over 300,000 copies (several times more than bought last year’s winner, Lincoln in the Bardo). Yes, you have to concentrate while you’re reading, but it’s worth it for its unique narrative voice, its depiction of a working-class Republican community in Belfast, its sense of claustrophobia and its humour. It’s also an easy book to recommend to people: just read the first page. If you’re not enjoying it by then, you never will; if you are enjoying it, I expect you’ll love the rest of the book. So give it a go!

Anyway, here’s the full list of fiction books read last year:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea* (Ursula Le Guin)
  • The Tombs of Atuan (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper)
  • The Farthest Shore (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Tehanu (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Planet of Exile (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Dust (Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor)
  • The Jewel in the Crown (Paul Scott)
  • The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Alan Garner)
  • Men at Arms (Terry Pratchett)
  • Call Me By Your Name (André Aciman)
  • Harare North (Brian Chikwava)
  • Troubles (J.G. Farrell)
  • The Last Samurai (Helen DeWitt)
  • The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (Joanna Cannon)
  • A Closed and Common Orbit (Becky Chambers)
  • Winter (Ali Smith)
  • Up at the Villa (W. Somerset Maugham)
  • Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison)
  • Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton)
  • A Passage to India (E.M. Forster)
  • My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout)
  • The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)
  • Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)
  • Thank You, Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse)
  • The Crimson Petal and the White (Michel Faber)
  • Feet of Clay (Terry Pratchett)
  • The Seeing Stone (Kevin Crossley-Holland)
  • Ancillary Sword (Ann Leckie)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)
  • Mort* (Terry Pratchett)
  • The 2020 Commission Report (Jeffrey Lewis)
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)
  • House of Cards (Michael Dobbs)
  • Ancillary Mercy (Ann Leckie)
  • Embers (Sandor Marai)
  • Persuasion (Jane Austen)
  • The Other Wind (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Milkman (Anna Burns)
  • Mortal Engines (Philip Reeve)
  • In This House of Brede (Rumer Godden)
  • Greenmantle (John Buchan)
  • The Singapore Grip (J.G. Farrell)
  • Lies Sleeping (Ben Aaronovitch)
  • Fox 8 (George Saunders)
  • Disobedience (Naomi Alderman)
  • Arthur at the Crossing Places (Kevin Crossley-Holland)
  • Ghost Wall (Sarah Moss)
  • The Word for World is Forest (Ursula Le Guin)
  • Something Fresh (P.G. Wodehouse)

Nonfiction

The usual mixed bag. Our eldest son’s application to study mathematics at university rekindled my own interest in maths: books in this category including Masha Gessen’s Perfect Rigour (the story of Grigori Perelman, the reclusive Russian mathematician who turned down a million-dollar prize for proving the Poincaré Conjecture), Eugenia Cheng’s charming mathematical memoir (and recipe book) How to Bake Pi and Edward Frenkel’s Love and Math.

A theme of both Gessen’s and Frenkel’s books was antisemitism in the Soviet Union. I’d known about this in vague terms, but hadn’t realised how all-pervading and sinister this was, right up to the collapse of the USSR. Both Perelman and Frenkel ran up against this from the very start of their mathematical educations and careers, denied the places they deserved at Moscow’s top mathematical university and then unable to pursue their postgraduate careers in a straightforward way. Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews shows how deep into history such prejudice goes, especially in his portrayal of the hideous anti-Jewish rhetoric found in the early church, and then the cruelty of persecution and expulsion in medieval England and Spain. (The book’s endpoint is 1492, not because that’s the year of Columbus’s voyage to America, but because that’s the year the Jews were expelled from Spain.)

Alex von Tunzelman’s Indian Summer is a highly readable account of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and of the intertwining personal relationships of those involved (Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhi). John Preston’s A Very English Scandal is as entertaining as the BBC drama series based on it. I’d recommend Tony Connelly’s Brexit and Ireland, except we’ll all be living the dream this year anyway, alas.

I was uncertain whether to categorise Stuart Kelly’s The Minister and the Murderer as theology or as general nonfiction. Either way it only narrowly misses out on a top-two place. It’s an eccentric, self-absorbed but insightful book which intertwine’s Kelly’s own story of faith lost and refound with the story of James Nelson, who was ordained in the Church of Scotland in the 1980s having murdered his mother as a young man. Was Nelson genuinely penitent? What does the Bible have to say about murder generally and matricide in particular? What does it mean to speak of “forgiveness”?

My two top choices for nonfiction, though, are O Sing Unto the Lord by Andrew Gant and Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown. O Sing Unto the Lord is a fascinating account of English church music from the middle ages to modern times. Among the many things I learned from it: the popularity, which I’d never guessed at, of metrical psalms in the Church of England from the 16th to 18th centuries. Only in the 19th century did hymn-singing (and the use of “Anglican chant”) supplant the use of metrical psalms. The book will have you scurrying back to Spotify time and again to check out the forgotten classics of church music that Gant recommends along the way.

Ma’am Darling is Craig Brown’s not-quite-biography (“99 glimpses”) of Princess Margaret. Its subject is only partly Margaret herself: it’s as much a portrayal of a certain segment of mid-20th century British society where the old glamour of royalty and its upper-class (and would-be upper-class) hangers-on met the new glamour of celebrity: hairdressers! photographers! pop stars! – both of which combined to cause untold damage to the hapless “spare” princess at their intersection. No one could claim that Princess Margaret comes out of this book well, but she comes out looking better than most of the people around her.

  • The Diet Myth (Tim Spector)
  • Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (Robert J.C. Young)
  • The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000 BCE – 1492) (Simon Schama)
  • Are Your Lights On? (Gerald M. Weinberg, Donald C. Gause)
  • I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, James Baldwin)
  • What is Populism? (Jan-Werner Müller)
  • Perfect Rigour (Masha Gessen)
  • The Minister and the Murderer (Stuart Kelly)
  • O Sing Unto the Lord (Andrew Gant)
  • Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension (Rudolf von Bitter Rucker)
  • Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction (Christopher Goto-Jones)
  • How Do We Look / The Eye of Faith (Mary Beard)
  • How to Bake Pi (Eugenia Cheng)
  • Indian Summer (Alex von Tunzelman)
  • The Indian Ideology (Perry Anderson)
  • Love and Math (Edward Frenkel)
  • Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Craig Brown)
  • A Very English Scandal (John Preston)
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Jon Ronson)
  • Kingdoms of Faith (Brian A. Catlos)
  • The U.S. Constitution: A Very Short Introduction (David J. Bodenhamer)
  • Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson)
  • Brexit & Ireland (Tony Connelly)
  • The Bowkers: A Moravian Family (Susan Stonehewer)
  • A Line in the Sand (James Barr)
  • The Isles: A History (Norman Davies)
  • Introducing Game Theory: A Graphic Guide (Ivan and Tuvana Pastine)

Theology

No particularly strong or clear themes this year, though last year’s reading of Alec Ryrie’s Protestants may be partly responsible for the resurgence in evangelical authors, including John Stott, N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, J.C. Ryle and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Re-reading Mere Christianity and The Bible According to Peanuts took me back to the days of my return to faith at university, and Knowing God by J.I. Packer – a book no young evangelical’s bookshelves were complete without, back in the day – was a similar blast from the past.

“Books about the Bible” is an ongoing theme over the past couple of years, and I have enjoyed the “Discovering [x]: Content, Interpretation, Reception” format of what you might call meta-commentaries, providing an overview of how different books are read and interpreted. I read Ian Boxall’s volume on Matthew and Ruth Edwards’ on Luke this year, and have Anthony Twiselton’s Discovering Romans lined up for this year. Pheme Perkins’ Reading the New Testament: An Introduction was solid and helpful.

For this category, I’m singling out two books on the Bible: Reading the Bible with Martin Luther by Timothy Wengert and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch by John Webster. Wengert argues that Luther provides a model for how to interpret the Bible in a way that avoids the errors of both fundamentalism and liberalism: in particular Luther’s emphasis on the question of “Was Christum treibet?”, “what drives Christ?”: a dynamic view of scripture, not as a static book of doctrines but as “God’s Word that kills and makes alive”.

Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch has some similarities with Wengert’s, in particular the emphasis on God’s living Word in proclamation as being both prior to and founded upon the written Word of scripture. Webster argues that it is more useful to think of scripture as a “sanctified” word, a word whose use by God in our salvation does not override its humanness. “It is as – not despite – the creaturely realities that [these texts] are to serve God” (p.28). More conventional categories such as “authority” and “inspiration” need to be understood in that dynamic context rather than as static properties of the text. Similarly, to ask whether it is the church that created scripture or scripture the church is to miss the point: both church and scripture are products of the living Word as employed by the Holy Spirit.

  • Discovering Matthew: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Ian Boxall)
  • Naming the Powers (Walter Wink)
  • The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (James VanderKam and Peter Flint)
  • Readings for Holy Week (Moravian Church)
  • The Radical Disciple (John Stott)
  • Lent for Everyone (N.T. Wright)
  • Paul: Fresh Perspectives (N.T. Wright)
  • Reading the Bible with Martin Luther (Timothy Wengert)
  • God, Sexuality and the Self (Sarah Coakley)
  • The Bible According to Peanuts* (Robert L. Short)
  • Spiritual Depression (Martyn Lloyd-Jones)
  • You Are What You Love (James K.A. Smith)
  • The Lord and His Prayer (Tom Wright)
  • The Catholic Faith (W.H. Griffith-Thomas)
  • On Being a Theologian of the Cross* (Gerhard Forde)
  • Discovering John: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Ruth B. Edwards)
  • Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (John Webster)
  • Echoes of Exodus (Alastair J. Robert and Andrew Wilson)
  • Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans)
  • Who Wrote the Bible? (Richard Elliott Friedman)
  • Knowing God* (J.I. Packer)
  • Reading the New Testament: An Introduction (Pheme Perkins)
  • Mere Christianity* (C.S. Lewis)
  • Expository Thoughts on John’s Gospel* (J.C. Ryle)
  • Quakerism of the Future (John Yungblut)
  • Geneva Catechism (1545) (John Calvin)
  • Advent for Everyone: A Journey Through Lent (Tom Wright)
  • Moravian Daily Texts 2018 (Moravian Church)

Other

Only one book of poetry completed this year: Inside the Wave, Helen Dunmore’s final collection of poetry, published posthumously.

Comic books and graphic novels were similarly thin on the ground, though I continued working through the Saga series, and also enjoyed Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (which was longlisted for the Booker Prize).

  • Inside the Wave (Helen Dunmore)
  • Saga: Volume 7* (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
  • Saga: Volume 8 (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
  • Sabrina (Nick Drnaso)
  • Saga: Volume 9 (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)

Looking ahead

For 2019, my most immediate plans are to get to grips with my backlog of books, by imposing a moratorium on acquiring new books during the first three months of 2019. Beyond that, I’m planning to continue reading more fiction and for my book buying to fall more closely into line with the reality that I now read mostly fiction rather than nonfiction.

More specifically, for Christmas my wife gave me a curated reading list of (mostly) fiction, which I hope to work through during the year. I’m currently reading The Warden, by Anthony Trollope, from this list. On the nonfiction and theology side of things, I have a few books lined up on St Paul’s letter to the Romans. I dare say though that, as in every other year, I’ll end up being drawn down all sorts of tempting byways…

2017 books round-up

Covers of favourite books from 2017: Protestants (Alec Ryrie), The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver), Albion's Seed (David Hackett Fischer), Always Coming Home (Ursula Le Guin), The Experience of Defeat (Christopher Hill), An Introduction to the Old Testament (Walter Brueggemann)

Time for my annual round-up of books I’ve read during the year. As in previous years (2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016), I’ve categorised them as fiction, non-fiction (excluding theology), theology, and “other” (mostly graphic novels and comic books). Asterisks indicate books I’ve read before, and my two favourite books in each category are highlighted in bold. Each title links to my review on Tumblr.

Fiction

It’s safe to say I’ve read more fiction this year than in any previous year of my life. Many, many highlights: A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré is a strong contender for his best book, I loved The Bell by Iris Murdoch and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. The Essex Serpent narrowly missed the cut for my top 2. Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow divides opinion, as does the sequel, Children of God, but I enjoyed both. Just one anti-recommendation: Conclave, by Robert Harris (whom I normally like) was dismaying tosh.

Another theme was reading to our ten-year old: Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy earlier in the year, followed by Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence.

Picking two favourites from such a list was not easy. I’d read A Handmaid’s Tale before, or that would easily have come out top (it’s among my favourite novels ever). Setting that aside, though, there was a clear winner for me: The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver’s enthralling epic about a Southern Baptist missionary family disintegrating in late colonial and early independent Congo. Alongside that, I’ll place Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, a sprawling, non-linear anthropological study of a society that “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.”

Non-fiction

This is always something of a mixed bag, though a clearer focus this year on history and politics, including (as usual) some excellent Very Short Introductions. Tom Holland’s Millennium was up to his usual high standards, as was his short biography of Athelstan. I also greatly enjoyed Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity. I didn’t read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, because a reviewer recommended reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land instead. I have seen no cause to regret this decision.

In the end, though, there are two clear favourites for the year: Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer’s magisterial account of the four British migrations whose “folkways”, Fischer argues, came to have a disproportionate influence on American culture; and Christopher Hill’s The Experience of Defeat, a thrilling account of how various radical groups (ranging from the Ranters to the Quakers) came to terms with the disappointments of the English Commonwealth and the even more thoroughgoing reversal of the Restoration.

As we’ll see, these books also had a significant influence on my theological reading this year.

Theology

One of my aims this year (well, starting from September 2016) was to read more books about the Bible. For various reasons this seems to have fizzled out a little in the second half of the year, but not before I’d appreciated Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament: one of my two picks for the year from this category. Either of the Gerhard Forde books I read could have been contenders, too.

In the second half of the year, I read several books on some of the “minority reports” of the Reformation and post-Reformation Protestantism, in particular the Quakers and the Moravians. This area of interest was spurred, among other things, by my two favourite nonfiction books of the year, Albion’s Seed and The Experience of Defeat. In both of these, the Quakers feature prominently, and The Experience of Defeat also takes in the other Protestant sects that emerged in England during the 1640s and 1650s.

The other major influence in this area was my other pick from this category: Protestants, by Alec Ryrie. This superb book – my single favourite nonfiction book of the year – might perhaps sit more comfortably under the general nonfiction category, but I included it under theology because a large part of the impact it had on me was in Ryrie’s description of the “love affair” that lies at the heart of Protestantism. As I said in my review at the time, the picture Ryrie paints is of a dysfunctional family, but its unquestionably my family: and Ryrie has made me feel more at home in it than for a long time.

Other

Otherwise known as the “poetry and comic books” section. I managed to read more poetry than in previous years, mostly thanks to resolving to read a poem each day before bed – a resolution that survived reasonably well until I got rather bogged down in a volume of Rilke. I’ll attempt a reboot in 2018.

The Scott Pilgrim series is sweet: much better than the film (which I also enjoyed). I felt that the Saga series is either losing its way a little, or I’m losing my interest in it. I’ll see if I can pick up Volume Eight once it’s in the library.

Ian Martin’s Epic Space is neither a comic book nor poetry. What it is a hilarious satire on modern architecture. Plus, my name’s in the back. 🙂

Running the numbers

In total, I read 112 books this year, an increase from 89 in 2016. The breakdown by category can be seen here, showing the dominance of fiction:

chart (2)

I used the library less this year, with most of the books being my own physical or electronic copy:

chart (1)

Looking ahead

My reading plans for 2018 include:

I also have some interesting books on early Jewish history lined up: I’m currently reading Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews, and have a couple of books on the intertestamental period and the Dead Sea Scrolls on the shelves. I also hope to pick up Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion once I’ve made some room for it.

Let’s see how things work out in practice…

Book review: Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery

shakespeare

Are cartoons too violent for children? Most people would say “No, of course not, what kind of stupid question is that?” but one woman says yes, and she’s here with us tonight…

— Kent Brockman, The Simpsons: Itchy & Scratchy & Marge

Did Shakespeare write Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version of the Bible, and did he signal this to future generations by concealing his name within the text? Most people would say “No, of course not…”, but it has proved to be a surprisingly persistent myth in some corners of evangelical Christianity.

Jem Bloomfield’s new book, Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery, takes a look at this myth. Jem is very clear that the myth is (almost certainly) Not True, but he argues that it provides an insight into how English-speaking people have engaged with both Shakespeare and the Bible over the past four centuries.

Jem begins by describing the myth itself. The story is told that, when you look at Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version (a.k.a. the King James Version), the 46th word from the beginning is “shake”, and 46th word from the end is “spear”. What’s more, Shakespeare was 46 in the year when the Authorised Version was being prepared (1610). Depending on which version of the myth you read, this was either the result of Shakespeare himself concealing his name in “his” translation of the psalm, or planted by admirers working on the text as part of the committee of scholars commissioned by King James to produce the new version.

Jem sets out a combination of historical and literary reasons why neither story is at likely to be true: for example, it is unthinkable that a conservative and scholarly project such as the Authorised Version would have involved a disreputable playwright in its activities, or had any members who desired to demonstrate their admiration for such a figure. What’s more, the words “shake” and “spear”, far from being novelties introduced in the new Bible, had already been used in the previous translations on which the Authorised Version was based.

As Jem observes towards the end of the book, it is quite difficult to refute the Psalm 46 myth, because there is literally no evidence for it and hence very little with which to engage in any refutation. Hence the myth itself is of less interest than the very fact of its existence, and it is this with which Jem’s book is mostly concerned. As he writes in his introduction:

The Psalm 46 rumour had always interested me, partly because it was so bizarre, and I enjoyed tracing the various ways in which it could have possibly been true, and marshalling the evidence to prove it was not. The story branched off into questions about the translation of the King James Bible, the theatre industry of Shakespeare’s time, the religious politics of England under James I, the way Early Modern books were printed, and attitudes to the Bible. Though I did not think the story was true, proving it untrue opened up much more interesting issues.

In the opening chapter, Jem contrasts the attitudes towards the theatre in early modern England and our own time. Today, the theatre – especially Shakespeare – is regarded as one of the pinnacles of high culture, to be mentioned in the same breath (and funded out of the same pot) as classical music, opera and art galleries. In Shakespeare’s time, theatre was a branch of popular entertainment, competing for people’s attention with bear-baiting and public executions. Today, the theatre is seen as “good for you”, a respectable activity to which schoolchildren are dragged in the name of educational improvement. Then, church ministers inveighed against the corrupting influence of plays and theatres: indeed, leading members of the Authorised Version’s translation committee had been especially vocal in their attacks on the theatre.

In short, “it is a very modern perspective to look back and see the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare towering over the early 17th century as the two books that mattered”: no one at the time would have seen it that way.

Moving on, Jem looks at how poets of the time did engage with the biblical texts, from Sternhold & Hopkins’ metrical psalter for congregational singing, to the rather more accomplished paraphrases by Lady Mary Sidney. (Having these texts quoted at length is one of the particular pleasures of this book.) Jem’s point is that, had Shakespeare wished to involve himself in translating the psalms, he had more attractive options available to him than tweaking a word here or there in the rather less obviously “poetic” translation of the King James Bible.

So how did such an unlikely myth emerge? Jem traces its origins to the growing cultural status of both Shakespeare and the Authorised Version during the 18th and (especially) 19th centuries. As Shakespeare came to be regarded as a giant of literature – often in terms so enthusiastic as to “sound satirical to modern ears” – and as the Authorised Version established itself as a foundational text of English-speaking culture, so it became increasingly difficult for people to believe that these two monuments could have developed at the same time without any connection between them.

The myth has most recently been repeated in a 2014 Bible commentary published by Eerdmans in the US, where it is described as a “wonderful legendary story.” Thus the commentary, while remaining agnostic as to the truth of the myth, employs it as a sort of “sermon anecdote” to corroborate the literary worth of the Bible: the very existence of this legend shows that the Bible is a serious work of literature, worthy of consideration alongside an undisputed giant such as Shakespeare. This emphasis on the literary value of the Bible has been one strategy employed by evangelicals over the past century in order to demonstrate the Bible’s continuing worth in the face of scholarly assaults upon its literal reliability.

Jem concludes his book as follows:

[T]he Psalm 46 legend fails to do justice both to the texts of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and to the astonishing histories of which they are a part. The political, social, religious and literary worlds which gather around these books are far more puzzling, dramatic and absorbing than this little conspiracy theory claims. It claims to tell a secret, but points us away from the heart of the mystery.

If I have one criticism of this book, it’s that the Psalm 46 myth is so slender a thing that to devote so much time to its refutation can seem almost cruel. However, this is more than outweighed by Jem’s unravelling of the “political, social, religious and literary” threads which surround the myth – and which are indeed “puzzling, dramatic and absorbing.”

The book is well worth the asking price of £8.99 paperback or £3.99 Kindle – and it’s a positive no-brainer if you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

Note: Jem provided me with a pre-publication PDF review copy of this book, but I ended up buying my own copy of the Kindle edition anyway.