Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2018)

It was yet another year of (too) many books. While some people need to set goals to encourage them to read anything at all, I think I need to set goals to read fewer books (with more attention). Or, maybe I should just spend less time reading. The blog has been dormant lately as I’m trying to figure out what to do with it (let it drift off into the digital ether?), and in that spirit, this year’s list is presented with minimal comment (although a number of these have short reviews/notes on my Goodreads account). As usual, these are just the books that stick out when I think back over the year of reading – no grand claims for eternal, objective greatness. It’s in no particular order, other than fiction is at the top, everything else following:

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (my favorite novel this year)

F – Daniel Kehlmann (a Karamazov Brothers redux … sort of)

Anathem -Neal Stephenson (sent me on a science reading kick – see bottom of list)

John Henry Days – Colson Whitehead (the adjective “virtuosic” applies)

Powers – Ursula Le Guin

Transit – Rachel Cusk (the best of the three in the “Outline” trilogy)

We Begin Our Ascent – Joe Mungo Reed

Ethics (Works, # 6) – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (reread – a cornerstone in my personal canon)

Entering into Rest (Ethics as Theology #3) – Oliver O’Donovan

Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life – Alan Jacobs

An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic – Daniel Mendelsohn (surprised me)

The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War – Andrew Delbanco (searing)

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom – David Blight

The Knox Brothers – Penelope Fitzgerald (delightful)

The Gene: An Intimate History – Siddhartha Mukherjee (I read this in January and while it wasn’t necessarily the most enjoyable book, I found myself thinking back to it again and again throughout the year)

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman – James Gleick

Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters – Freeman Dyson

When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought – Jim Holt (like a dinner party with a collection of scientists, mathematicians and philosophers – organized by a witty and engaging host in Holt)

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World – Tracy Kidder (currently reading, but can tell it’s a good one)

 

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Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2017)

A collection of short, brilliant, tragi-comic novels, written by a grandmother who started publishing fiction in her 60s, were the books that I enjoyed most over the past year. Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald felt like being inducted into a secret literary club I didn’t know existed. Fitzgerald isn’t exactly an unknown author – she won and was a finalist for major literary  prizes, and she was the subject of a big biography by Hermione Lee a couple of years ago (its rave reviews being how I first heard of Fitzgerald, I think – I also read the biography this year, and it deserves all the praise it received). But, she isn’t necessarily the first name that springs to mind when making a list of the best post-war English novelists (although perhaps she should be). Part of the reason for this gap is that she may be something of an acquired taste. As Lee says in her biography: “Her writing is unsettling, and elusive; her style is plain, compact and subtle. She never shows off. She leaves much unsaid. There is often a sense of something withheld in her novels. She did not like to explain too much: she felt it insulted her readers. She likes to exercise her wit, and she likes her readers to have their wits about them.” Her books are short, understated, demanding – thematically they return again and again to questions of failure and the ways in which “life will not conform.”  If I had encountered her novels say, five years ago, I don’t think I would have taken to them the way I did this year. Perhaps one needs a little seasoning in failure and frustration to appreciate Fitzgerald’s art. She also, I think, offers a model for “Christian fiction” (whatever that term is supposed to refer to) that contrasts helpfully with Flannery O’Connor’s “shouting to the deaf” (to paraphrase O’Connor’s famous line regarding the duties of a “novelist with Christian concerns”). Fitzgerald, when describing her work in an interview said, “I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?” If funny, challenging, enigmatic novels about lost causes sound like they might be what the doctor ordered, I highly recommend her work. My favorite of her books is The Beginning of Spring, although The Blue Flower may be the most accomplished (and Offshore may cut closest to the bone).

Some other highlights from my reading year (with apologies to all the other very fine books I’ve forgotten entirely, despite the hours I spent turning their pages – I’ve posted notes/reviews of some others elsewhere on the blog):

The Pickwick Papers – The best debut I read this year. Comic Dickens is always the best Dickens – such a lively, energetic, enjoyable book.

The Wild Places – Macfarlane was one of my favorite new discoveries this year. I read this while trapped in the house with a cranky infant, so the appeal of some vicarious wandering and wildness was, perhaps, obvious.

The Essex Serpent – Appealing, clever – a book about friendship and its complications (and also, just how complicated everything can be). Its plot stumbles, but some great characters and characterization of the late Victorian period.

The Karamazov Brothers (reread) – I only reread a couple of books this year, but the one book I did reread was this personal ur-text, which maybe explains why I didn’t feel the need (or possess the necessary energy) to revisit other past literary haunts.

The Crucifixion, Theology as Discipleship, The Myths We Live By – In a year when I struggled to get through much formal (i.e. academic) theology and philosophy these three books stood out.

Seveneves – If you sometimes just want pages and pages describing the technical details of orbital mechanics and spacesuits … then this is book you have been waiting for (not usually me, I confess, but I liked it when I read it).

The Elegance of the Hedgehog -Sometimes philosophical novels about the meaning of life are massive international bestsellers for a reason.

Although of Course you End up Becoming Yourself and Lost in the Cosmos – Read them together, like I did. Some enterprising graduate student somewhere is surely at work on a comparative study of David Foster Wallace and Walker Percy.

The Tech-Wise Family and How to Think – The books I have recommended and given most frequently to others over the past few months. Both feel essential for the current moment in their clarity, charity, and wisdom.

Some Favorites from my Year in Books (Toddler Edition)

If I’m perfectly honest, I’m not sure if I read anything this past year with as much intensity and care as my toddler son read the rotating stack of books we got from the library every couple of weeks. Reading to my son is one of the great pleasures of parenting – even when it’s the same book over, and over, and over again. Below are a few (the list could be much longer) of the books we both enjoyed over the course of the year (my list of grown-up favorites is here) Also, it should be mentioned that anything including Thomas the Tankengine is basically Tolstoy according to my son, and he registers a strong protest at the absence of the friendly blue engine’s oeuvre from this list.

  • Owl Babies (popular on nights when mom was at work)

owl-babies

 

Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2016)

This past year in reading was a year of many books. Too many, probably, given the way they all seem to be bleeding into each other in my memory. And yet, there remains a stack of books I intended to read this year (and never did), along with a number of extremely witty/insightful/brilliant essays I intended to write (and never did). But, while my failure to write is a perpetual source of frustration (not so worried about the stack of “to-reads” – there’s always next year, after all), in a world dominated by a new baby with a powerful set of tiny lungs I was pleased I could still find time to read now and then while rocking her in the dark (with the help of my workhorse Kindle). Anyway, here’s a list of books that stood out from the past year (not necessarily published this year) in no particular order (a brief “toddler edition” can be found here).

2016 was the year I entered the world of P.G. Wodehouse, primarily through his stories about Bertie Wooster and his “gentleman’s personal gentleman,” the inimitable Jeeves. It’s a cliché to point out that Wodehouse is pure escapism, but sometimes you need a little escape, and he reliably made me laugh out loud a number of times during a year when I needed a few laughs. He also happens to be one of the most skilled prose stylists of the 20th century (click on my Wodehouse tag for some quotes I’ve pulled out over the year). Wodehouse has an amazing grasp of the English language, and while I am a little dubious of Bertie’s claims to have won a scripture knowledge prize while at school, Wodehouse clearly knew his Authorized Version and spotting the various scriptural allusions and quotations is a fun little side game for the amateur theologian. If you’re looking for a place to start, fire up the two-seater and ramble through Right Ho, Jeeves.

I also fell deep down a Diana Wynne Jones hole this year after discovering her work last Christmas. Think: a little bit like J.K. Rowling, with a bit more mischief, irony, nuance and humor (although, a real problem with endings). I liked the  Chrestomanci series, and Charmed Life is the place to start there.

For sheer literary geekery it is hard to beat Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies. It is an impressively wide-ranging look at the interaction between literature, art and climate. The book is packed with interesting details (e.g. “‘Spring’ was used as a verb  (‘spray beginneth to springe’), but it did not become the name of a defined season until the 1500s. ‘Lencten’ served well enough to denote the period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, and ‘Somer’ encompassed both our spring and summer.“) while managing to tell a comprehensive narrative across centuries. One of the most enjoyable books I read this year.

Two of my favorite novels were Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. Somehow I managed to get a copy of Golden Hill on Kindle before it had an American publisher and I devoured it in a couple of long, satisfying gulps, having enjoyed Spufford’s previous work in Red PlentyUnapologetic etc. They are both terrific historical (er, sort of, in the case of Lavinia) novels that play some clever tricks with narrative framing while also offering a study in contrasts for how to tell a compelling story: Golden Hill is packed with incident and stylistic fireworks while Le Guin’s prose is understated and lets the meditative reflections of her narrator on marriage, motherhood etc. elbow the battle scenes to one side.

Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself is, according to the acknowledgements, an “atheist’s argument for belief in God,” via Kant and science fiction. I (still) hope to write some more about this challenging (on multiple levels) and fascinating book when I have a chance. 

In theology, Robert Jenson’s A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? is a book that that achieves what it sets out to do: provide a “taste” of theology, as Jenson puts it in the foreword. It is an energetic, enthusiastic book, packed full of gems in an accessible style (the book is based in an introductory undergraduate theology class Jenson taught at Princeton). For a taste, here’s Jenson on the image of God:

So to be made in the image of God is to have a role, and that role is to be in a relationship and a discourse with God and to occupy a place in the story that God has and lives with his people. And that story is not random, but has a plot. And the plot is given to it by the presence in the story of its author. What is really there within each of us, instead of what the Greeks call a physis, is rather something in which each of us participates—an ongoing drama with a plot.

My appreciation for Oliver O’Donovan’s latest (and much more opaque), Finding and Seeking, can be found here.  

Duncan Hamilton’s biography of Eric Liddell, For the Glory (I would like to write more about this one as well), and Stephen Backhouse’s  Kierkegaard: A Single Life were both lively, well-written accounts of fascinating figures who have loomed large in my own life in differing ways. For a contemporary memoir, I enjoyed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, which I wrote about here. In the memoirish vein, I wrestled with J.M. Coetzee’s “fictionalized memoirs” (really though, if fiction is included in the mix, it is just fiction), and I enjoyed, or rather “enjoyed,” (Coetzee is perhaps the opposite of Wodehouse) Summertime the most. I wrote a brief note after finishing the first two volumes here where I described the project as A Portrait of the Artist as the Underground Man.

In the reread department, I somehow stumbled into a bunch of Kipling this year, starting with rereading his Jungle Books (I also read Kim for the first time this year, and at some point I would like to write something about Mowgli and young Mr. O’Hara). Rereading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World was an unexpected delight as I found myself revisiting a number of childhood favorites.

Finally, the book that seems to have stuck with me the most this year is Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (I quote it extensively here). It’s a book I have thought about a lot, but have little to add to at the moment (other than please read it if you are at all interested in theology done “in public”). I describe it as sobering in that earlier post, although I have found depressing to be a more accurate adjective as the year has worn on. It is a book that describes a catastrophic failure of theological reasoning and discourse in the public square and looking around I find little reason for hope in the contemporary context. Although, perhaps that is just the wintercearig, an old English word for “winter cares” or “winter in my heart” (a Weatherland discovery) talking as the days grow shorter and my evening commute grows increasingly gloomy. And in the end the cold chill of winter does not have the last word. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” makes for an excellent lullaby,  for those of you in need of such of things, while also warming the wintry heart with some embers of hope.

Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2015)

‘Tis the season for year-end lists, so if you have a bookworm on your Christmas list, or have some gift cards tucked in your own coat pocket, here are some of my favorite books from the past year (note: books I read in the past year, not necessarily books published in 2015).

In terms of unexpected discoveries, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose was a surprising page turner. From my earlier Goodreads review:

This is a fascinating book, crammed full of quotes and anecdotes: maids dreaming of becoming novelists and Welsh miners quoting long passages of poetry in the darkness of the pit. Rose lets the “working classes” speak for themselves via a vast amount of research collected from published and unpublished memoirs of self-educated workers. I suppose I enjoyed the book so much partly because I recognized members of my own tribe – people who, once they discovered reading, were transformed by it (and sometimes became a little obsessed).

The most popular author (according to surveys, sales, and library borrowing records) among the British working classes was usually Charles Dickens. I read Bleak House for the first time this year and it was fantastic. I read or re-read a number of other “great books” over the past twelve months (Anna Karenina, Silas Marner), but Bleak House was by far the most satisfying novel I read this year. Funny, formally inventive, fierce – it is (at least for the moment) my favorite Dickens.

Two recent books that lived up to the hype surrounding them were Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory, and Helen Macdonald’s difficult to classify H is for Hawk. Marsh’s book is a well-written (and not just relative to his fellow theologians) life of Bonhoeffer that provides the most “human” Bonhoeffer among existing biographies (my Goodreads review). I think the book accomplished what it set out to do, but is probably most profitably read in combination with one of the other existing biographies, or (better) Bonhoeffer’s own writings (I felt that Marsh’s tendency to highlight some of Bonhoeffer’s idiosyncrasies sometimes obscured as much it revealed – perhaps more so if a reader is not already familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story). H is for Hawk is an astonishing book that intertwines grief memoir, notes on how-to-train-your-hawk, stunning nature writing, reflections on gender/class/Englishness, and biography of T.H. White (among other things) – I hope to write a longer post on the book, so I’ll leave it at that for now, other than to say that the many awards and accolades it has earned seem (to me) well-deserved.

In terms of straight theology, it was a bit of a slow year. I re-read some things that have been important to me in the past and tried to work my way through some Augustine (with limited success). I enjoyed Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading even if it was not quite what I expected – more concerned with “how” we read than “what” reading is theologically (there’s a “what” implied by the “how” – but I thought it should have been more explicit – I need to chew it over more and will perhaps post something here if I come up with anything useful). Steve Holmes’ Quest for the Trinity and Ian McFarland’s From Nothing also provided plenty of grist for the theological mill (I found myself cheering and booing at different points in both books – which is about my level of theological sophistication these days: cheers and boos). While not theology, a book that will exert influence over all my critical thinking and writing (even if primarily as a source of pithy quotes) was Auden’s collection of essays, The Dyer’s Hand.

For contemporary fiction I thought Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia ,was brilliant – it is sharp and funny and it does clever things with narrative time that probably only a play can do. I have also been enjoying Urusula Le Guin’s work after reading her books for the first time last year. A Wizard of Earthsea (David Mitchell’s introduction to a recent edition) remains my favorite, but I read her classic The Left Hand of Darkness this year and enjoyed it. Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman was exuberant, angry fun and Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins was a sneaky good middle-grader read. Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev satisfied a literary craving for a portrait of cross-pressured belief in the modern world, and I’m still pretty ambivalent about Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, but do think it is worth reading.

For next year … while I do keep a “possible to-read” list, I don’t plan out my reading in advance (unless I have a project I hope to complete), so who knows what 2016 holds. I do hope I have something interesting in my stocking come Christmas morning and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a 900+ page brick of a 19th century novel in yours (or one of the other books on this list that won’t require such a workout when you try to read it on the beach).