Fiction (no particular order)
I’ve always loved Chaim Potok’s (1928-2006) My Name is Asher Lev, so had been keen to read more. The Chosen is a brilliantly observed and poignant account of two boys growing up in opposing factions in New York’s orthodox Jewish community. I couldn’t put it down and learned a lot.
The shenanigans within an English Anglican convent isn’t the most intuitive setting for a Watergate conspiracy satire, but that’s precisely what Muriel Spark (1918-2006) uses in The Abbess of Crewe. Hilarious absurdity.
I’d not read any of the Italian Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) before but picked this up after a profile in some magazine. The Dry Heart is dark but compelling: a marriage collapse culminates in the husband’s shooting. Ginzburg’s writing is spare and precise and leaves a strong impression long after it’s finished.
This book is nuts but ingenious, a post-Brexit sci-fi-ish satire. Time Shelter revolves around a ‘clinic for the past’ created to help Alzheimer’s patients return to familiar past eras. But soon, healthy people want to use it too, and as a result the Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov offers a provocative take on the nostalgia of nationalism.
Still don’t quite know what to make of this one – and it’s definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. But After Sappho is a unique, episodic blurring of cultural history and fiction, with a cast of trailblazing women from early 20thC Europe, like Virginia Woolf, Sarah Bernhard, Josephine Baker and Romaine Brooks.
Having read After Sappho, I felt I ought to read some Woolf at last. It’s obvious why Orlando is regarded as a classic. It is mind-boggling but compelling, a marvellous blend of historical fiction, whimsy and wit, and I felt in awe of Woolf’s ingenuity.
Speaking of historical novels, Imprimatur is set in a plague-ridden Rome of 1683 by a husband and wife writing team Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. The Ottoman Empire looms large as Christian Europe anxiously awaits the outcome of the Siege of Vienna. A guesthouse with residents from all over the continent is placed on strict lockdown because of the death of one guest while the others try to establish the cause. It’s involved and complex (650 pages!) but fascinating (not least because of the controversies it caused in Italy).
Nick Cave doesn’t like interviews much it seems – so Faith, Hope & Carnage is the account of a series of lockdown conversations with journalist Seán O’Hagan. And it’s stunning. Heartfelt and heartbreaking, full of insight, pathos and humanity (even if you don’t know the music; though if you do, it’s great).
Not far from Brideshead is a quite the niche history but even for those who are not Oxford classicists (!), Daisy Dunn’s account of the rivalries to become Regius Professor opens a window into the real world behind the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Max Beerbohm. Fascinating.
Katherine Rundell has written my favourite biography in years. Super-Infinite is a sublime tribute to an extraordinary poet, John Donne, bringing insight and love to the life and verse of a genius. Cannot recommend this highly enough!
Q followers will be unsurprised to find Surrender: 40 songs one story here. I’m obviously a U2 super-fan, but I did approach this with a degree of trepidation in case it didn’t cut the mustard. I’m needn’t have worried. Bono is self-deprecatingly funny, honest, and generous, not least to the scores of people to whom he owes his incredible success and serendipities. His Christian faith and creative restlessness are clear on every page.
Arts & Culture
Christopher Neve has written an unusual book of British art history. Unquiet Landscape is a tour de force that draws threads from all kinds of cultural sources, as it helps the reader to view the art of the first half of the 20th Century with all their hidden depths and richness. Was utterly gripped.
James Attlee lives in East Oxford but his Oxford is in a different universe from that of Daisy Dunn (above). He puts the art and learning of a great travel writer to good use in Isolarion by simply walking the length of his local high street, Cowley Road. Regardless of whether or not you know the area, Attlee is an inspiring guide to looking closely at the mundane to see the wonders that have always been right in front your nose.
Beethoven’s Late String Quartets are renowned for their difficult profundity, the work of an isolated, deaf genius. Beethoven for a Later Age is the memoir of an English violinist recruited to the long-established, celebrated Takacs Quartet and is an account of getting used to the life of a quartet and these extraordinary pieces. Dusinberre is witty, insightful and consistently fascinating.
Philip Ball is a brilliant writer more usually focused on the world of the sciences. In The Modern Myths, he analyses the cultural currency of contemporary fables, from Robinson Crusoe to Batman, via Frankenstein, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and War of the Worlds. He’s strongest when exploring how these stories shape our responses to science and technology. But Ball is perceptive and widely read, so always stimulating.
September 1, 1939 is a book about one of W H Auden’s most famous poems but it was one he despised. But this book by Ian Sansom is unusual in that it gives a deep dive into just one poem, rather than Auden’s entire oeuvre, a snapshot of an extraordinary historical moment in New York just as European civilisation was imperilled by a Nazi-driven war. He is a witty and interesting writer, self-deprecating about his inability to get beyond this one poem.
Dina Nayeri fled Iran aged 9, with her brother and mother. They found themselves housed in a decrepit hotel in Italy before eventually getting asylum in America. She weaves her own story throughout The Ungrateful Refugee as she explores the experiences and realities of today’s refugees. It is seeking and important reading.
I watched Catherine Belton’s testimony to a UK Parliamentary committee just after she won the oligarch lawsuit that tried to prevent publication of this book. If even half of Putin’s People is true, (and there’s little reason to doubt the probity of the former FT Moscow correspondent) the reality of modern Russia is chilling indeed. It puts the horrors of the Ukraine invasion into dark perspective.
I read this on the recommendation of a friend researching US Christian nationalism, and I’m so glad I did. We the Fallen People analyses the grounds for very things that buttress democracy, the checks and balances so famously introduced into the US constitution. The founding fathers, whether deist or not, were convinced of humanity’s fallenness. Lose that, and the whole thing will crumble…
I’ve read a lot of books on the church and race in the last few years. It is a vital and urgent issue. In Healing the Divides, Jason Roach and Jessamin Birdsall have written one of the best. Accessible, careful and constructive, they help the reader to understand how to approach the problems and, more unusually (sadly), how to do something about it. It is realistic without either despairing or naive.
As it happens, I wrote a blurb for Rembrandt is in the Wind: ‘Russ Ramsey doesn’t just see some of the wonders seen and painted by great artists of the past, but even more wonderfully, he helps us see them too. Yet it is full of surprises. What he offers is never a matter of beauty for its own sake, although we are drawn into a glorious journey of beauty down the ages; nor is it one of artistic skills and accomplishments, although every one of the artists he focuses on could easily claim to have mastered their art; nor even can this book be distilled into a mere, fascinating overview of five centuries of human creativity (even though the story told provides a superb entry-point to the novice keen to learn more). The greatest joy of this book, however, is that the accumulative effect of these nine artists has helped me glimpse something of the world and of humanity as God our Creator sees us. And what a gift that is!’
C S Lewis’ Abolition of Man is a complex book based on ethics lectures given during the Second World War, but some regard it as one of his most prophetic and urgent. Michael Ward has become the premier Lewis scholar of his generation since his ingenious Narnia Code. In After Humanity, he does a brilliant job of explaining what Lewis was seeking to do and why it has never been more relevant. Lewis dissected the dangers of moral subjectivism and this is crucial for our post-truth era.
I remember being gripped by Frank Peretti’s spiritual warfare potboilers as a young Christian but didn’t get them much further thought. However in Reading Evangelicals, Daniel Silliman looks at how these, as well as other fictional hits (like the Left Behind series, The Shack and others), did more than simply entertain Christians. They shaped their theology and even their politics, with consequences that the rest of the world has been witnessing with varying degrees of horror in the last few years. A helpful way into understanding a subculture that for some of us outside the USA is similar and yet very alien.
This is quite niche, and read it for my DMin thesis. But I loved Shakespeare, Theology and the Unstaged God. It is sometimes observed that the Bard’s plays rarely do more than give lipservice to the divine, and this is claimed as evidence for budding secularism. However, Baker rejects this assumption, with God as a constant in the action, with plots often dependent on a hidden ‘supernatural’ actor.