I’m not sure how many books I read this year, but there are some that stand out when I look back. A few that didn’t make the top ten, but are worthy of mention are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture by Stephen Lutz, and How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish. But here are the top ten:
10. The Joined-Up Life: A Christian Account of How Ethics Works by Andrew Cameron (IVP, 2011)
Forty-seven short chapters (around five pages each) each giving a self-contained look at some aspect of what ethics is, the Christian worldview, or a particular ethical issues. The real achievement here is that depth is not sacrificed in making the chapters short and accessible. It does not cover any issue comprehensively, but for each issue recommends further reading which does do so. Written so it can be read out of sequence, but it still makes more sense to move through from start to finish.
9. A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammad Hanif (Knopf, 2008)
A fictionalised historical novel looking at the 1988 plane crash that killed General Zia ul-Haq, president of Pakistan and the country’s comically flawed political system. It runs with many concurrent story lines which constantly overlap and reframe each other. Very reminiscent of Salman Rushdie and, in my opinion, better.
8. Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (Chatto & Windus, 1993)
Castaway in northern Queensland, at an area still unsettled by Europeans, the 13-year-old Gemmy must find a place amongst the local Aboriginals. When opportunity finally comes to rejoin his compatriots he finds that his experiences have placed him beyond the pale. Malouf is probably the best Australian writer I have encountered, and this is one of the best Australian novels I have ever read.
7. Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (HarperOne, 2008)
This is quite an unusual book. It looks at the doctrine of original sin through a historical lens rather through systematic theology. Jacobs has an amazing array of illustrations from ancient history, modern history and literature and I can’t imagine the process by which he researched it. It’s an entertaining read, but has great depth.
6. Essays by George Orwell (Penguin, 1984)
Between 1931 and 1949, when these essays were written, Orwell experienced poverty and war, anonymity and fame. He was a soldier of the Empire in Burma and fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He also worked in a second-hand bookstore. Most of the essays are political commentary or literary criticism, but there is also a wide assortment of essays on the curious and the mundane. Orwell writes with humour, confidence, passion, and subtlety. He is simply a master of the medium.
5. Spies by Michael Frayn (Faber, 2002)
Stephen and Keith live on a little cul-de-sac during World War II. Their games are full of suspicion and intrigue as they imagine what secrets are being hidden from view in their street. Spies has the feel of a mystery as the reader is slowly let in on pieces of a great puzzle. At the age of seventy, Frayn has produced a fascinating and wonderfully crafted novel about childhood, friendship, coercion and life on the home front.
4. The Ode Less Travelled by Steven Fry (Arrow Books, 2005)
On writing poetry, see my previous post.
3. Total Church: A radical reshaping around gospel and community by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis (IVP/Crossway, 2007/2009)
No other book as made me think so long and hard about how we do church. Chester and Timmis are part of The Crowded House, a church planting network in Sheffield, UK which establishes ‘gospel communities’ that meet in homes. The main thrust of the book is that church needs to based upon two central principles: gospel and community. Chester and Timmis have great and often surprising things to say when they trace how gospel-centeredness and community-centeredness affect the church’s practise in relation to evangelism, social involvement, church planting, world mission, discipleship and training, pastoral care, spirituality, theology, apologetics, children and young people and success. You have to choose between IVP’s ugly edition, or Crossway’s American spelling.
2. Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses by Theodore Dalrymple (Ivan R. Dee, 2005)
I am currently reading my fourth book this year by Dalrymple, and this was the first and the best. It is a collection of essays on topics ranging from art and literature to poverty and criminology, calling for our culture to look at the grim reality and learn from history. Dalrymple’s insights and writing style are strikingly brilliant.
1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Virago, 2004)
The first-person narrator of this novel is the elderly Congregationalist pastor, John Ames. Increasingly aware of his mortality he decides to write an extended letter for his young son. It is affecting and thought-provoking, delving into issues of faith, friendship, family and growing old. Slow-paced, but incredibly powerful.