Books of 2016

My annual round-up of (mostly non-ministry-related) reading is below! Did you read any of these? What were the books you read this year that you loved, loathed, or couldn’t care less about?

1. Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Another fab number from the woman I want to be when I grow up,  pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. She writes like she actually believes all this Jesus stuff, and reminds me why I do, too.

2. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Want to know a place where it was nigh on impossible to be a lesbian and not get killed? Nigeria in the late 20th century. Ijeoma, the protagonist of this book, grows up hiding the shame of a romance with a young woman and her journey towards authentic sexuality is harrowingly recounted. The book utilises some of the structure and rhythm of classic Nigerian folk tales and so has almost a storybook quality, but its depiction of war, hunger, manipulation, and abuse are not light topics at all. I found this book to be both encouraging in how it seeks to put the stories of LGBTQ Africans ‘on the map’ and also deeply saddening, as with every page I was reminded of the struggles of queer people to just survive, especially in parts of Africa.

3. I am Radar by Reif Larsen

This book was a chance find that I picked up when in Berlin I found myself suddenly novel-less (a horrible state to be in, to be sure!). At the mecca of Berlin’s English bookshops on Friedrichstraße, Dussman Das KulturKaufhaus, I found this little gem — although it was more like a microchip than a gem. On one level it’s a story about Radar, a black child born to white American and Serbian parents; on another, it’s about a global network of performance-artists-cum-experimental-physicists; on another, it’s about the cyclical nature of history, human violence, and entanglement of destinies, and the unknowable-ness of death. I thoroughly enjoyed it although it felt like it stopped too abruptly; maybe 50 pages more could have tied things up better? Larsen continues his trend of including lots of extra tidbits in his text: diagrams, figures, some footnotes, and so on — less than was in his debut novel, but still pleasing.

4. Russian Disco by Wladimir Kaminer

This is, hands down, the best book I read all year. Kaminer is a Russian who immigrated to Berlin just after the Wall came down, and this is a collection of short writings of his about the lives of Berliners: old ones, new ones, German ones, Russian ones, and many others. It is hilarious. I read most of it out loud with my partner, or entertained myself in moments when I was supposed to be monastically silent at theological college. Ever so sadly, it is the only one of Kaminer’s several books that has been translated into English so far. Yet another reason to amp up my German language skills.

5. The Byzantine Tarot by Cilla Conway/John Matthews

Some readers of this blog will be familiar with my recent fascination with the language and imagery of tarot and its similarity to other therapeutic and pastoral language. The Byzantine tarot is a description of some of the convergences between classic tarot and the byzantine world, particularly its Christian-historical aspects, and their similarities and conflicts when it comes to talking of the inner life and of social life, determinism and freedom.

6. The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Steampunk / futuristic / magical London & Oxford. Thoroughly enjoyable. Well thought out. Much more interesting & complex characters than Harry Potter & less predictable plot structure. A bit of Stockholm Syndrome.

7. The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

Sequel to the above. It’s a world that takes a bit to submerge into, but once you’re there, you love it. This one only takes place in London, but delves deeply into the criminal underworld that exists in Scion (what London is called) and I love the part where Paige (the protagonist) et al try to write a Penny Dreadful as an act of political resistance!

8. Unseen Things Above by Catherine Fox

The ever-witty Catherine Fox adds yet another novel to her Lindchester Chronicles. I’d describe the Lindchester novels as a mash-up of Anthony Trollope, Joanna Trollope, and Charles Dickens: ecclesiastical, essentially about relationships of different kinds, and written originally as a blog/serial. Fox is currently blogging the third instalment of the Lindchester series here but I shall wait until the whole novel is up before devouring it, as I’ve done with these last two.

9. The Singing Bowl by Malcolm Guite

I’m a fan of Guite’s poetry, though I do feel about him a bit like I feel about C. S. Lewis: Christians get stuck on him (Guite) as ‘a poet they understand and like’ just like they get stuck on C. S. Lewis as ‘a theologian they can read and be fine with’. There is SO MUCH MORE good poetry out there besides Guite! But I am writing about Guite right now, and about The Singing Bowl which was a good collection of poems indeed. I read it on my pre-ordination-to-the-diaconate retreat, and it was just the sort of crunchy but nourishing stuff I needed whilst contemplating such a big life change.

10. Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

A part of the ‘Austen Project’, this contemporary re-write of Austen’s original called to me in a thrift shop on Portobello road. It didn’t hurt that it has a bright, hunter-orange cover, suitably Hallowe’en-ish. McDermid managed to recreate some of the over-the-top daydreaming of Austen’s protagonist but locate it in the Edinburgh Festival instead of Regency era Bath (well done!). The adolescent obsession with paranormal romance novels is a fitting contemporary parallel to the gothic novel fantasies of which Austen was writing a parody.

11. Tiny Churches  by Dixé Wills

I am a little bit biased on this one, being a friend of the author and present on at least one of the fact-finding missions for this delightful travel book. 60 of Britain’s tiniest places of Christian worship are documented in all their tiny, unique glory, with excellent pictures. Less laugh-out-loud funny than other books in the ‘Tiny’ series by the same author, this book nevertheless delivers a massive amount of religious and cultural history, intrigue, and fascinating minutiae of the ecclesiastical sort. A chapter or five of an evening before bedtime is a perfect dose.

12. Vita Brevis by Jostein Gaardner.

A bit niche this one, but highly satisfying. For anyone who has ever admired the work of St Augustine but had significant reservations about his thoughts on women, sex, and bodies: this is a book you might like. Gaardner suggests that he has found this manuscript in an antique shop which purports to be a letter from Augustine’s discarded lover: the mother of their son and one smart and angry woman.

13. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.

I wanted to like this more than I did. A quiet and lush book, mostly based around a little girl and her friendship with her grandma on a small Swedish island. Sometimes the sections are more like chapters, other times like interlocking short stories. I was surprised by the humour of the writing, and appreciated it. Honestly, I felt I was a bit immature for this book — I expect I’ll return to it and treasure it much more in a couple decades.

14. Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch.

As happened with other books in this series last year , I could scarcely put this book down. Policeman / wizard Peter Grant continues his attempts at not dying whilst policing the very contemporary London demimonde. Much epic standoff. Very magic-cop-show. And funny! This particular instalment has him investigating a suspicious death which may or may not be linked to to the daughter of Lady Tyburn AKA the goddess of the River Tyburn, tributary of the Thames.

15. How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis.

Revisiting the novels — and their women protagonists — who have shaped her own history, Ellis canters through the stories of the best-loved and -hated women in literature, sprinkling fascinating and human details along the way. Part memoir, part lit-crit-light, part excuse to investigate how age works on our memories of novels and what they teach us at different times of life.

16. John the Pupil by David Flusfeder.

MEDIEVAL MONKS TAKE A ROAD TRIP TO THE POPE. Yes please.

17. Names by Marilyn Hacker.

I found in this in the inimitable SKOOB Books in London and was happily reminded what a brilliantly talented poet Hacker is. I learnt about a new form from this collection — the ghazal — and loved her precise, generous work. Political and pointedly elegiac.

18. Going Forth by Bill Kirkpatrick.

Distilled wisdom of years spent caring for the dying an bereaved, especially those dying of HIV/AIDS. Readings, reflections, resources. Difficult but important.

19. The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch.

Another new one! Whoop whoop! Peter Grant is back in London, chasing down some illegal drugs and even more illegal magical artefacts. The best thing about this book was in the introduction of some awesome non-establishment magical women who may or may not be long-term allies to the Folly, one of whom can definitely fly. Oh, and also Peter swearing a formal vendetta against the Faceless Man. Dun dun dun…

20. The Wine of Angels  by Phil Rickman

So earlier this year on the BBC there was a drama called ‘Midwinter of the Spirit’. It was based on the second book in this series featuring Merrily Watkins, priest in charge of a sleepy Hereford village which (I guess?) experiences lots of creepy/mysterious/paranormal stuff. I loved the TV show, and thoroughly enjoyed this novel.  Best bits: the question about the supernatural stuff being ‘real or imaginary’, the struggles of being a single mom and a female vicar, the olde-England mythology. If this book could be summed up in a single sentence, it would be what one character, the old and wise Lucy Devenish, says to Merrily’s daughter, Jane, in trying to explain local lore: ‘Nothing is ordinary! Read Traherne.’

21. Byssus by Jen Hadfield.

Picked this collection of poetry up in a delightful tiny bookshop in Whitby this spring. Hadfield channels the language and lore of the Hebrides, the islands’ and islanders’ ways of living through the seasons. Short, punchy, eloquent. Great wee poems.

22. Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier.

Despite my occasionally gothic preferences, as of earlier this year I had never read any du Maurier. This March when I accompanied a friend to Cornwall, not ten miles from the actual Jamaica Inn itself, I felt it was high time to read this classic, especially since the BBC had also produced an adaptation of it earlier this year with Lady Sibyl (the best of the young ladies Grantham from Downton Abbey, IMHO) as the protagonist. Despite the awful cold I had at the time, I read chapters and chapters aloud to my friend — it’s best that way, building up the doom a paragraph at a time. In the end I finished it and left it in Cornwall: the bookshelf where we stayed didn’t have a copy, and I found that pretty unacceptable. Next up – Rebecca?

23. Snakes Ropes by Jess Richards.

Ooh this one was really good. ‘Grabs you and won’t let go’ good.  What time does it take place in — the future or the past? Is it a social realist novel or a fairy tale? Are there mysterious forces at work in the island, or are the women of the matriarchy just making it all up? It was hard to believe that this was Richards’ debut novel, it was that tight. I look forward to reading Richards’ next one, Cooking with Bones.

24. Readings for Funerals compiled by Mark Oakley.

OK, so this a compilation and I can’t really comment on the quality of most of the selections, as they are from holy scriptures or classic literature. But I will say that Oakley does what he does best — that is, compile and lightly comment — here, preparing a very good resource for priests, pastors, and nonreligious funeral officiants. Especially those of us who have experienced the more ‘drivellous’ of funeral poems.

25. Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson

This book has possibly The Worst Title Ever. It is also what might be termed a ‘Self-Help Book’: not a genre I spend very much time in. But I stumbled upon it when discussing with my partner what we should read in the run up to our impending nuptials. In searching for good books about long-term relationships and/or marriages that would educate, challenge, and encourage us, I came across a lot of indefensible bullshit which (a) harmfully perpetuated the patriarchy in many ways or (b) was really hopeless in outlook or (c) unhelpfully spiritualised all the problems couples might encounter or (d) were frustratingly heteronormative. (Yes, I have probably too high of standards. Deal with it.) Anyhow, this book, while not perfect, was full of good insight — if slightly too many acronyms for my taste. The author is an experienced therapist who has developed what is a fairly widely practiced therapeutic technique, ‘Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy’ and it’s common sense stuff, well founded in psychological research, presented for laypeople clearly. I’m already considering how I might use some of its insights with future couples who come to me for marriage preparation.

 

Books that, at the end of 2016, I still have on the go…

The Tzar of Love & Techno by Anthony Marra. Short stories. Layers of meaning, of politics and history, of sad Russian-ness. A little spectacular. Interwoven short stories reading almost more like a novel. Apocalyptic but a little hopeful.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters. QUEER DEMIMONDE of the turn of the 19th-into-the-20th century. Such fun! Like a queerer, better version of that Edith Piaf film, La Vie En Rose. 

Iraq + 100 edited by Hassam Blasim. So far: Wow. These are searing, fascinating science/speculative fiction stories. Iraqi writers imagine a world post-western-invasion, in 2103. http://commapress.co.uk/books/iraq-100

The Storyteller by Walter Benjamin. Oracular. Poetic. Dark. Dreamy. Is probably better in the original German. To be devoured slowly, in small doses.

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. A re-relase for dark times. A litany of ways humans are making the world a better place; coming together, listening to each other, standing in solidarity, resisting soulless utilitarianism. For when courage is needed.

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