Here’s a brief rundown of my favourite books from 2021: essentially those I awarded 5* on my Goodreads page. But just to be clear, it’s been an abnormally intense reading year because of my DMin research (in the area of theology and the arts), which, for sanity’s sake, I always need to offset with fiction and other reading!
Fiction (no particular order)
I’ve said it numerous times but Francis Spufford is incapable of writing a dull word. after the sublime Light Perpetual is a rather wonderful, quirky counter-factual historical novel, his 2nd work of fiction. It doesn’t quite scale the heights of his 1st (the sublime Golden Hill) but it’s not far off.
I read these 5 semi-autobiographical novels by Edward St Aubyn (here in one combined volume) in under 2 weeks. They’re dark. But sparklingly brilliant and deeply humane. The eponymous protagonist was abused by his father, a wealthy transatlantic cocaine addict in his 20s and deeply troubled in middle-age. But my affection and concern for Patrick were overwhelming.
I’d never heard of Ulrich Boschwitz but that’s hardly surprising seeing as this novel, The Passenger, written in Nazi Germany in the weeks after Kristallnacht was only translated into English in 2021. It’s gripping but chilling, powerfully evoking the claustrophobia of a Jewish businessman trying, vainly, to flee the Nazi scourge.
I can’t for the life of me remember why I picked this novella by A. G. Mojtabai up, but I’m so glad I did. The focus of Thirst is a lapsed catholic, Lena, who is asked to assist her ordained cousin in his final days. This is beautifully subtle writing and deeply moving, as Lena is forced to reflect on her own life decisions and beliefs.
The Slovak journalist Ladislav Mňačko was an outsider, despite initially being a strong communist supporter post- 2nd World War. The Taste of Power was translated into English as soon as it came out in 1967 and tells the story of a photographer who is also a childhood friend of the country’s leader. He witnesses how power corrodes both his friendship and his friend.
I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel for young people about Roman Britain when a kid – and loved it. So when a friend and I walked Hadrian’s Wall over the summer, I had to reread The Eagle of the Ninth. It didn’t disappoint and was superbly evocative. As we walked through some of the more desolate areas where the wall is at its highest, I easily imagined scouring the horizon for Marcus and his British freedman, Esca.
Now for some light-hearted fun. Loch Down Abbey is a ripping yarn that was the perfect lockdown/quarantine antidote. All the classic Agatha Christie country-manor-death tropes are securely in place with some nifty Covid-era variations.
There were some very amusing moments here and even the odd genuine LOL moment. Great work. (Full disclosure I don’t know Beth but her husband is an old friend. That fact didn’t influence my review one jot, naturally)
The great Russian writers are rather intimidating. I’ve tried and been found wanting too often. But The Sinner and the Saint is the first of two books that opened the world to me this year: a superb, insightful and helpful introduction to the background of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment. Couldn’t put this down.
Even those with no time for a place like Eton have found this a quirky pageturner. I remember being intimidated by Michael Kidson but then was never taught by him – a scarily acerbic historian with no time for the ignorant. But those who did have him knew him as a brilliant and beloved educator. This compilation of memories from countless Etonians (I’m selling it well, aren’t I) is at times laugh-out-loud hilarious, but at other times incredibly poignant.
One from a pile of 10p books in a second-hand bookshop, this was a lovely find. I’d not heard of Richard Cobb, but he was evidently a brilliant historian and Francophile. This memoir, A Classical Education, recounting his early years was darkly hilarious – particularly because of his beguiling but odd friend who, it later transpired, murdered his own mother.
Giles Fraser is a compelling commentator, unfailingly interesting and as right as often as he’s wrong! He was embroiled in the horlicks that was Occupy London when a senior clergyman at St Paul’s Cathedral. Chosen more or less picks up from his resignation from his dream job, which prompted his life to fall apart and his unexpectedly exploration of his Jewish roots. A fascinating and honest book.
An Aussie friend put me onto Metanoia by the actress Anna McGahan. Couldn’t put it down. She was a successful free-spirit, living the dream of sexual liberation and self-fulfilment. But a Gideon Bible stopped her in her tracks, confronting her with the Christian gospel and the God who made her. Extraordinary things happen to and through her, but she has great charm and a winning turn of phrase that manages to avoid being preachy.
I should declare an interest in that Andrew is a good friend and so naturally I’m biased. But this lovely book, God of the Garden, is a warm sequence of memories arranged around significant trees in his life (that might sound rather an arbitrary way of doing things, but rest assured, it makes perfect sense once you start reading). It is full of spiritual wisdom and honest reflection, gained from years of working in the garden.
The life of Ivor Gurney is one of the great artistic tragedies of 20th Century Britain. A brilliant poet and a gifted composer (who graduated from The Royal College of Music), there were signs of mental illness early on. But his experiences in the trenches of Passchendaele and the Somme were devastating. Consequently, his final years were spent in an asylum until his early death at 47 in 1937. Kate Kennedy‘s biography, Dweller in Shadows, is the perfect combination of meticulous research, background scene-setting, literary / musical interpretation, as well as deeply humane psychological insight. Very powerful indeed.
Theology & Arts
This is rather niche, and will not be everybody’s cup of tea. But because Kutter Callaway focused on the relationship between composition and ideas of transcendence it was on the money for my research. What made Scoring Transcendence unique in my reading was the focus on cinema music – and it had many Wow and Aha moments.
This book by the recently late George Steiner is a classic for good reason. Real Presences is dense and sometimes quite hard going for the philosophical novice like me. But it is so dense with brilliance that I found myself underlining and Aha-ing on almost every page. The famous (even notorious) conclusion is that for language to have any stability and meaning, we need to at least place a wager on the existence of God!
Many will know Malcolm Guite from his poetry, perhaps because of my fairly regular inclusion of it on this blog. Lifting the Veil is a more accessible and brief explanation of his superb Faith, Hope and Poetry. In both he unpacks the vital importance of the imagination for understanding the world and God, drawing especially on the insights of Coleridge and Blake.
I’ve previously read one book and a few articles by the art historian T. J. Clark, and they’ve been unfailingly good. But none has fascinated me as much as Heaven on Earth. He has a real knack for the spotting the telling and transformative detail in a familiar painting that brings it to life, as well as grappling with wider, historical context. But as a self-confessed atheist, it’s so interesting to see what he makes of artistic explorations of the transcendent and hereafter.
The scandal of recent evangelical leadership abuses has prompted scores of books (as well as numerous posts on here), many of which (by the likes of Diane Langberg, Wade Mullen, and Chuck de Groat) are important must-reads. But this, A Church called Tov, by Scot McKnight and his daughter Laura Barringer, is one of the best, simply because it dedicates the second half to positive articulations of how things should be. It gives something to aspire to, to hope for, to pray for. There’s so much work to do, but here are rare grounds for a degree of optimism.