The heavy and the light: 2020 books roundup

Favourite books of 2020: Piranesi, Small Island, The Fifth Season, Trent's Last Case, One Two Three Four, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Life in God, Lifting Hearts to the Lord

I’ve been posting the books I’ve read this year at quarterly intervals (Jan-Mar | Apr-Jun | Jul-Sep | Oct-Dec), and now the time has come to sum up the year and identify my favourite books from the past twelve months.

As in previous years, I’ve divided fiction into two categories, to reflect its dominance of my reading (51 books out of 94). This year, I’ve divided it between “literary fiction” and “popular and genre fiction”: an awful division to impose in many ways – the ghost of Ursula K. Le Guin is shaking her head at me in despair – but one which honours the role played by “light” reading in keeping me sane over the “heavy” months of lockdown. I’ve then identified two “winners” from each category, plus some others that were “commended by the judges” – and then a “most recommendable” option, the book which I think would appeal to the widest audience.

Literary fiction

Winners

  • Piranesi (Susanna Clarke)
  • Small Island (Andrea Levy)

The first of these was one of the easiest winners to decide this year. I loved Piranesi, for reasons it is hard to articulate. It’s magical realism – rather than the parallel history fantasy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – but with a genuine emotional warmth rather than the tricksiness into which some magical realism can fall. As I advised before, don’t read the reviews (the Guardian review in particular is very spoilery), but do read the blurb, which captures the spirit of the book without giving anything away.

Deciding on second winner proved trickier, with pretty much a three-way tie between Small Island, The Remains of the Day and the first three volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time. In the end, I went with Small Island, because even having read it longer ago than the others, it still has an atmosphere and characters that resonate in my memory.

Commended

  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
  • A Question of Upbringing / A Buyer’s Market / The Acceptance World (Anthony Powell)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)
  • Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
  • The Towers of Trebizond (Rose Macaulay)
  • The Girls of Slender Means (Muriel Spark)

As I mentioned above, the first two on this list could easily have been picked as winners. I also loved Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, which I read way back in the Before Times (January). A contrasting trio of novels by early/mid-20th century British women then complete the set, The Girls of Slender Means qualifying partly because the passage about “the Englishly rendered intentions of the sweet singer of Israel” persuaded me to resume use of the Book of Common Prayer, and in particular its cycle of psalms, for my personal devotions.

Most recommendable: Piranesi’s whimsy isn’t going to be for everyone, so my “most recommendable” book from the list above is The Remains of the Day. 31 years after it won the Booker, it remains an exceptional novel, with its layers of narratorial self-deception.

Popular/genre fiction

Winners

  • The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)
  • Trent’s Last Case (E.C. Bentley)

As mentioned above, “popular/genre fiction” gets a separate category this year because of the role played by “light reading”. The first winner, though, is far from light: N.K. Jemisin’s brilliantly-rendered vision of a far-future Earth, which has become a hostile and seismologically unstable world for humanity, in which centuries of relative calm are punctuated by horrifying “Seasons” as “Father Earth” takes his revenge on those living on his surface. It’s the first of a trilogy which I hope to complete in 2021.

Another theme in my reading this year was “golden age detective fiction”, kicked off by reading Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law. E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, written in 1913, is widely regarded as having created the “modern” detective novel – featuring, as it does, a gentleman amateur solving a murder at an English country home populated by an ensemble cast of suspicious characters – but at the same time takes the genre in a unique direction that wasn’t (indeed couldn’t be) fully imitated by its successors.

Commended

  • Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • The Player of Games (Iain M. Banks)
  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Becky Chambers)
  • GBH (Ted Lewis)
  • Three Hours (Rosamund Lupton)

A mixed bag of “commendeds”, here. Tragedy at Law is regarded by many as Cyril Hare’s finest book: its most appealing feature (apart from Hare’s trademark legal nerdery) is the social history it presents of the now-forgotten world of the “courts of assize”, in which judges would tour the towns of England dispending justice in an atmosphere of (by 1940) incongruous ceremonial.

Back in the science fiction corner, Red Mars is the first and best of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: I’m glad to have read Green Mars and (nearly at the end of) Blue Mars, but they are harder going than the first. Becky Chambers’ novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, was an enjoyable and thought-provoking piece of “space exploration” sci fi, in which the usual themes of colonialism and conquest (very much on display in KSR’s epic of terraforming) are replaced by a vision of crowdfunded exploration that seeks to “leave only footprints”, and in which humans “somaform” themselves to each planet’s conditions rather than forcing the planets to change.

Most recommendable: Rosamund Lupton’s intense account of an English secondary school under armed siege, Three Hours, is a gripping thriller full of human sympathy, and also has some interesting thoughts on Macbeth as a study in radicalisation.

Nonfiction

Winners

  • One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Craig Brown)
  • Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Daniel M. Lavery)

This was the easiest category of all to decide on. While I read plenty of good nonfiction (rather more than in 2019), I loved both these books to bits. What they each have in common is the deployment of a nonlinear whimsy in the service of a clear vision, a story that each author is burning to tell. In Daniel Lavery’s case, it’s the story of his gender transition as an adult (and, indeed, as a widely loved feminist writer). Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four tells the story of the Beatles, not in the usual plodding journey from Quarrymen to Let It Be, but through the lens of the Beatles’ various hangers-on during their careers and the obsessive passion of fans to this day.

Commended

  • Trans Like Me (CN Lester)
  • The Northumbrians (Dan Jackson)
  • From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Shaye J.D. Cohen)
  • Black and British (David Olusoga)
  • Invisible Women (Caroline Criado Perez)
  • Deadliest Enemy (Mark Olshaker and Michael Osterholm)

The Northumbrians is distinguished by being the only book whose author I met this year: Dan Jackson and I have been following one another on Twitter for years, so it was great to get a guided tour of Tynemouth from him while holidaying in the north east during the summer. His book is a passionate and illuminating love-letter to the people of the north-east England, their history and their culture.

Shaye J.D. Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah was recommended as a definitive history of early Judaism from the Second Temple to the early rabbinic period, and didn’t disappoint. The final chapter focuses in particular on “the parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians in the second century CE.

Three books that fitted ongoing themes in 2020: David Olusoga’s Black and British provides valuable historical background to the #BlackLivesMatter and #RhodesMustFall movements in the UK; Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women is a meticulously researched, data-driven protest against “the default male” and his dominance of society from the size of phones to the safety of cars; and Mark Olshaker and Michael Osterholm’s Deadliest Enemy, published in 2017, was a prophetic account of our society’s vulnerability to contagious pathogens.

Most recommendable: CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is the book I’d recommend to anyone wanting to understand the existence and rights of trans people in the UK, both of which have proved strangely controversial in 2020.

Theology

Winners

  • Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology (Matthew Myer Boulton)
  • Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Karin Maag)

These might seem surprising choices for a Lutheran, but they reflect my growing interest in the French humanist scholar and theologian Jean Cauvin – as he is called by Marilynne Robinson, who has done more than anyone else to make me reappraise him and his legacy.

Both books are concerned, not so much with Calvin’s theology (not that that can be separated from anything else about him) as with his vision for the Christian life: a vision in which the monastic disciplines of scripture reading, prayer, psalm singing, godly labour and so on were not so much abolished as democratised and made the basis for the life of all Christians. For Matthew Myer Boulton, Calvin’s Institutio is not a systematic theology (“Institutes of the Christian Religion”) but a book aimed at (and more properly translated) “Formation in Christian Piety”. Karin Maag then backs this up with an eclectic mixture of source materials from 16th century Geneva.

Commended

  • Transforming (Austen Hartke)
  • Trans-Gender (Justin Sabia-Tanis)
  • Dazzling Darkness (Rachel Mann)
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol I (John Calvin)
  • God in Himself (Steven J. Duby)
  • Essays on the Trinity (ed. Lincoln Harvey)

I described in my last post how the first three books above helped me reorient myself following some surprising family news. The final three books are obviously more solidly “doctrinal” in content (although see my comments above on misreading the Institutes as merely a book of academic theology), and the last two in particular challenged and stretched my understanding of God himself – always a healthy thing to undergo.

Most recommendable: just as CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is my go-to book for people to orient themselves with the issues affecting trans people in a general “secular” context, Austen Hartke’s Transforming is where I’d recommend people start in understanding an affirming Christian perspective on trans people.

Running the numbers

I try not to get too obsessive these days about the number of books I read, but I did tot up some figures in my notebook at the end of the year:

  • 94 books finished
  • 51 fiction, 21 nonfiction, 22 theology (up from a derisory three in 2019)
  • 32 books by women, 3 by trans men, 2 by nonbinary people – so, yes, a majority still by cis men, but less of a majority than previous years, at a guess
  • 42 books read on Kindle – which is one reason my to-read shelves remain a disaster area. The main reasons are (a) resorting to all that “light reading”, and (b) acquiring both an iPad and a new Kindle during the year, both of which made reading e-books a more attractive option.

Champion of Champions

I don’t normally pick one single overall favourite book of the year. Usually I’d find it impossible to do so, but this year there are two books that have stood out as particular favourites: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery.

It’s not easy to decide between them, but on balance the book this year that caused me the most delight, combined with depth of insight and emotional weight, is Lavery’s.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You | Book by Daniel M. Lavery |  Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster

Looking ahead

Books on my to-read shelf in January 2021

As usual, my purported aim is to “make real inroads into my to-read shelves – and this year I mean it.” Well, we’ll see.

I am trying to avoid taking on fresh commitments, though, so will focus on finishing the main series I’ve been reading in 2020: N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, KSR’s Red/Green/Blue Mars, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead sequence (which I’ve been rereading en route to reading Jack). I also plan to make further inroads into the Forsyte Saga, having read A Man of Property earlier this year, and eagle-eyed inspection of the photograph above will reveal a copy of Olivia Manning’s Balkans Trilogy waiting for me.

One book I conspicuously didn’t read in 2020, despite the title of this post possibly looking like an allusion to it, is Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. I suppose I should give it a go in 2021, though the consensus seems to be (and my wife’s opinion certainly is) that it’s at least 200 pages too long, suggesting that Mantel rather lost control of her material in concluding the trilogy.

I’ve also set myself the ambitious target of finishing Calvin’s Institutes. 20 pages a week should do it…

So, that’s the outline of a plan. But if there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s to be humble in making plans for the year ahead. So let’s see how we go.

Quarterly books roundup (October to December 2020)

Favourite books of Q4 2020: Piranesi, The Remains of the Day, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Trans Like Me, Trans-Gender, Dazzling Darkness

Here’s the final quarterly update on the books I read during 2020. “There’s been quite a lot going on” was my excuse for reading a lot of “light fiction” over the summer; however, despite a more eventful autumn than I could have anticipated (and in a couple of categories, as we’ll see, because of it), I managed to read at least some books that were a little more demanding than earlier in the year.

Fiction

A satisfying mix, with a little more “lit fic” than I’ve managed in other periods of the year. Ali Smith’s Summer brought her seasonal quartet to a strong conclusion, tying together the earlier books in a way that revealed a more coherent plan to the project than might have been apparent earlier.

After watching the TV adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time earlier in the year, I’d read the first volume (A Question of Upbringing) back in June, but it was only in December that I returned to the series, reading A Buyer’s Market and The Acceptance World. I now feel I’m fully into the series, and have bought volumes 4 and 5 – plus, to prove just how far down the rabbit hole I’ve gone, Hilary Spurling’s companion to the series, Invitation to the Dance.

On the “popular fiction” side, Ben Aaronovitch continued his Rivers of London series (which I’d thought he’d finished, but I’m not complaining) with the enjoyable False Value. N.K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season presented a magnificently-realised far-future Earth, and I’m looking forward to completing the trilogy in 2021. I continued to mine the 2020 “golden age detective fic” seam: Cyril Hare, Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C.R. Lorac and (best of all) E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, a remarkable book that both invented the “golden age” detective novel and subverted its conventions. Ben Schott’s latest Jeeves pastiche isn’t that far away from the “tec fic” theme, either.

For my top two for the quarter, though, I return to the world of literary fiction: Susanna Clark’s Piranesi is a strong contender for my book of the year, though that’s for another post. Do read it; don’t read the Guardian review first (it gives the whole thing away). I was also delighted finally to read The Remains of the Day, a book I’ve been vaguely meaning to get around to since it won the Booker in 1989.

  • False Value (Ben Aaronovitch)
  • Summer (Ali Smith)
  • The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)
  • An English Murder (Cyril Hare)
  • Piranesi (Susanna Clarke)
  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Becky Chambers)
  • Strong Poison (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  • A Buyer’s Market (Anthony Powell)
  • Jeeves and the Leap of Faith (Ben Schott)
  • Murder in the Mill-Race (E.C.R. Lorac)
  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
  • The Acceptance World (Anthony Powell)
  • Trent’s Last Case (E.C. Bentley)

Non-fiction

I alluded above to the autumn being a dramatic period in our lives, and this is reflected in my nonfiction reading. Our middle daughter (who had been assigned male at birth) came out to us as transgender, and several of the books on the list, including the two highlighted, reflect the steep learning curve we all had to ascend as a result.

CN Lester’s Trans Like Me is probably the most “recommendable” on the list: if you want a straightforward but impassioned account of the current social and legal position for trans people in UK society, this is a great introduction. Lester themself is nonbinary, which also gives this book a different perspective from those written by trans men or women.

Daniel M. Lavery’s Something That May Shock and Discredit You was a very different book. Very much in the style of Lavery’s freewheeling writing for The Toast (such as his Women Listening to Men in Western Art History), it’s an oblique and surreal “memoir” of his gender transition: an early “interlude” lists the chapter titles from the “po-faced transmasculine memoir” he was fighting hard not to write, and instead we get meditations on Columbo’s “competent, empathetic male peacefulness”, rewrites of Byron and of Gawain and the Green Knight, and dialogues in which the goddess Athena tries to talk Lavery out of transitioning by assuring him that “she used to be a real tomboy, too”. It also provides the richest reflections on scripture from a transgender perspective that I’ve come across.

  • The Rap Year Book (Shea Serrano)
  • Trans Like Me (CN Lester)
  • Trans Power (Juno Roche)
  • Invisible Women (Caroline Criado-Perez)
  • Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Daniel M. Lavery)
  • Transgender Health (Ben Vincent)

Theology

Our family news also prompted theological reflection, with my reading in this category being similarly dominated by books on transgender people and their experiences, what the Bible has to say, and how the church can minister more effectively to trans people.

Austen Hartke’s Transforming is the theological equivalent of CN Lester’s Trans Like Me: an overview for newcomers, rooted in (but not wholly dependent upon) the personal experiences of the author. The book I’d recommend as a place to start: it includes a chapter on the main biblical texts which have a bearing on the specific experiences of trans people.

As a rare unrecommendation: Vaughan Roberts’ Transgender. I read this with some trepidation: Roberts’ conservative evangelical milieu is the one in which I returned to faith as a young adult, so I was aware this is a book likely to be read by our friends within that world. Roberts’ book is at least free from the hostility and hatred which, sadly, can be seen in some “conservative” circles – for example, he is clear that trans people’s choices of names and pronouns should be respected – but in the end, as I summarised it to a friend, it’s “transphobia with a smile”: we should be kind to trans people, but we should make it very clear that they ought to be trying to live according to the gender they were assigned at birth. Ultimately a deeply damaging message, in a book that has virtually no engagement with what any trans Christians have to say.

Back to more positive matters: Justin Sabia-Tanis’s book, Trans-Gender, though now relatively old (2003), is widely regarded as the best overview of transgender issues from a theological and pastoral perspective, and is a great book to read after an introductory volume like Hartke’s.

Also in this quarter’s highlights: Dazzling Darkness (2nd ed.), Rachel Mann’s account of seeking “the Living God”, the God who is hidden in “dazzling darkness”, as a transgender woman, Church of England priest, and as someone living with long-term chronic illness. Dr Mann is gently emphatic that you should read the second edition, published in 2020.

  • Expository Thoughts on John, Vol. 1 (J.C. Ryle)
  • Transforming (Austen Hartke)
  • Transgender (Vaughan Roberts)
  • Dazzling Darkness (2nd ed.) (Rachel Mann)
  • God in Himself (Steven J. Duby)
  • The Gender Agenda (Steve Chalke)
  • Trans-Gender (Justin Sabia-Tanis)
  • Transfaith (Chris Dowd and Christina Beardsley, with Justin Sabia-Tanis)

Quarterly books roundup (July to September 2020)

A rather belated third-quarter update. What can I say? There’s been quite a lot going on, which has meant my reading has continued to be a rather haphazard: even more dominated by “light fiction” comfort-reading than the previous three months.

Fiction

When I came to type out the list of novels I read during Q3, I commented to my wife that it was not exactly the most highbrow list of fiction ever presented to the public.

Admittedly, any period of time that includes reading Andrea Levy’s superb depiction of life for black immigrants during and after the second world war, Small Island, can’t be considered a total write-off. I also enjoyed the first volume of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, The Man of Property, and re-read Home by Marilynne Robinson. Completing the “lit fic” for the quarter, I suppose, is Philip Roth’s readable but rather silly parallel history of a fascist government coming to power in the US during the second world war, The Plot Against America.

Otherwise, I was taking refuge (during the semi-lockdown life of summer 2020) in a mixture of midcentury crime (Christie, Gilbert, Hammett, plus Sophie Hannah’s Christie pastiche) and bumpy-lettering spy thrillers (Charles Cumming’s Thomas Kell trilogy – they passed the time, but he’s no John Le Carré).

I loved the lone SF novel of the quarter, though: The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks’ second Culture novel, and one that caught hold of me much more than Consider Phlebas. As so often happens, it’s once the world has been established in the first book that things can really take flight in the second.

  • And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie)
  • Three Hours (Rosamund Lupton)
  • Small Island (Andrea Levy)
  • Smallbone Deceased (Michael Gilbert)
  • Closed Casket (Sophie Hannah)
  • The Man of Property (John Galsworthy)
  • The Plot Against America (Philip Roth)
  • The Queen of Attolia (Megan Whalen Turner)
  • The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett)
  • The Player of Games (Iain M. Banks)
  • A Foreign Country (Charles Cumming)
  • Home* (Marilynne Robinson)
  • A Colder War (Charles Cumming)
  • A Divided Spy (Charles Cumming)

Nonfiction

General nonfiction was thin on the ground this quarter, but both these books were excellent. David Olusoga’s Black and British is a great overview of an aspect of British history that, while increasingly covered by specialists, is less familiar to laypeople such as myself. Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox is a moving memoir of growing up in (and ultimately leaving) a Hasidic community in New York; apparently the Netflix series is only very loosely based on it. What it reminded me of most was Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, which, though a novel rather than a memoir, is based on Toews’ experience of growing up in a Mennonite community in Canada.

  • Black and British (David Olusoga)
  • Unorthodox (Deborah Feldman)

Theology

An element of cheating here, counting each book of the Institutes separately. But otherwise it would mean the book went unrecorded until 2022 at the earliest, the way things are going. More positively, Book I, “The Knowledge of God the Creator”, stands out for its presentation of the themes of what it is to know God and to know ourselves.

Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone had been accompanying me on my reading of Luke’s Gospel during the middle of the year, and The Valley of Vision, a collection of prayers based on Puritan writings, had also been part of my devotional life for much of the year. Completing the Puritan/Calvinist theme was Dale S. Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly, a warming depiction of the gentleness and lowliness of Christ, as taught both in Scripture and in the Puritan writers quoted by Ortlund throughout the book.

However, the standout book of the quarter for me in this category was Shaye J.D. Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, an illuminating and pugnacious history of Second Temple Judaism (with a coda on “the parting of the ways” between Jews and Christians from 100 to 150 CE) that was recommended to me by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Highly recommended.

  • Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book I)* (John Calvin)
  • From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (Shaye J.D. Cohen)
  • Gentle and Lowly (Dale S. Ortlund)
  • Luke for Everyone (Tom Wright)
  • The Valley of Vision (Arthur G. Bennett)

Quarterly books roundup (April to June 2020)

The second quarter of 2020 will not be quickly forgotten by any of us, as the world around us shut down for most of the three months due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Things were only gradually opening up even by the end of June.

From a reading point of view, this had a mixed effect. You might have thought a lockdown would mean more time for reading, and to some extent it did – not like I was going out anywhere, after all – but this was counterbalanced by being extremely busy working from home and losing commuting time for reading each day. My appetite for “challenging” reading, at least when it came to fiction, remained intermittent at best.

The result is a slightly fragmented picture, though with plenty of good stuff to report.

Fiction

The story of my fiction reading this quarter was one of gradually building up my strength for reading Proper Books again, after my retreat to comfort reading at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. So, by the time I’d read a couple of science fiction books, I felt up to rereading Gilead – which I enjoyed even more this time around, now that I have a better idea of what Marilynne Robinson is up to.

I followed this with Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, a portrait of a group of young English women living in a hostel “for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years” as the Second World War draws to a close in 1945. One unexpected effect of reading this was being prompted to restart praying morning and evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, after reading Spark’s description of reciting the psalms, “from Day 1 to Day 31 of the months, morning and evening, in peace and war … uttering as it seemed to the empty pews, but by faith to the congregations of angels, the Englishly rendered intentions of the sweet singer of Israel.”

E has been recommending Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger to me since before we were married – and I’m glad I finally hearkened unto the voice of my wife on this one. I followed this with a couple of thrillers and a whodunnit before tackling the most challenging novel of the quarter, Mrs Dalloway (another recommendation from E).

I also embarked on Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence, after E and I watched the (superb) TV adaptation. So far I’ve only read the first book, A Question of Upbringing, but I’m looking forward to moving on to the second shortly. I’ll do so with a fresh appreciation for how likeable Anthony Powell’s characters are compared with those in Edward St Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first of his Patrick Melrose series of novels…

A special mention also for Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Green Mars, the first two books in his Mars trilogy. I’m hoping to complete this series in the next few weeks by reading Blue Mars.

  • Consider Phlebas (Iain M. Banks)
  • An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin (Robin Kriwoczek)
  • Red Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • Gilead* (Marilynne Robinson)
  • The Girls of Slender Means (Muriel Spark)
  • Moon Tiger (Penelope Lively)
  • With a Bare Bodkin (Cyril Hare)
  • GBH (Ted Lewis)
  • Get Carter (Ted Lewis)
  • Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)
  • Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)
  • A Question of Upbringing (Anthony Powell)
  • The Truants (Kate Weinberg)
  • Never Mind (Edward St Aubyn)

Nonfiction

My two favourite general nonfiction books from this quarter were both, in their own way, perfect lockdown reading. Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four – part gossipy Beatles biography, part waspish observation of the modern Beatles industry, but mostly (as with Brown’s Ma’am Darling) an oblique social history of postwar Britain – was stimulating and undemanding (in the best sense of the word); while Michael T. Osterholm’s prescient 2017 book on the threat from global pandemics, Deadliest Enemy, provided some deep insights into how very non-unexpected All This ought to be to us.

  • One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time (Craig Brown)
  • Deadliest Enemy (Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker)
  • Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (Melissa Harrison)
  • How to Be in Opposition (ed. Nigel Fletcher)

Theology

My favourite theological book this quarter was Karin Maag’s Lifting Hearts to the Lord, a “documentary case study” of worship in 17th century Geneva, combining essays and primary sources on the revolution in Christian worship and practice wrought by Calvin and his colleagues, and the responses of ordinary people as they variously embraced and resisted the changes.

There’s been something of a Calvinist theme to my reading this year: Matthew Myer Boulton’s Life in God was one of my favourite books last quarter, and I’ve even started reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (though it’ll be a while before this appears in a list of books I’ve completed). Much of this is the fruit of reading Marilynne Robinson’s essays and fiction, both of which have encouraged me to take a second look at the “Renaissance humanist” she likes to call “Jean Cauvin” (to counteract people’s preconceptions about him).

I also greatly enjoyed and benefited from the essays on the Trinity collected by Lincoln Harvey in his book of that title. Highlights included Jeremy Begbie’s exploration of “aural space” as a better source of analogies for understanding the Trinity than “visual space”; Chris Tilling’s insistence that Paul has to be seen as a Trinitarian, albeit within a different theological idiom from that of later Nicene orthodoxy; and Claire Louise Wright’s tour de force on Gregory of Nazianzus and the knowledge of God.

  • The Seven Last Words from the Cross* (Fleming Rutledge)
  • Great God of Wonders (Maurice Roberts)
  • Lifting Hearts to the Lord (Karin Maag)
  • Confess Your Sins (John Stott)
  • Essays on the Trinity (ed. Lincoln Harvey)
  • The Letters of John (John Stott)

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)