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…
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)
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)
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)
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)
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…