As far as I can recall, I have only read eight books published in the last twelve months, so I can’t say with any authority what the best books from the year were. But I can at least say which books I most enjoyed reading last year. Before naming the top ten, I will give an honourable mention to To Change the World by James Davison Hunter, which would certainly have ranked near the top had the promise of its excellent early chapters been maintained, as well as Home and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Delighting in the Trinity and You Can Change by Tim Chester and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But here are the top ten:
10. Wendell Berry – Standing on Earth: Selected Essays (Golgonooza Press, 1991)
As discussed in a previous post, I have great respect for Wendell Berry, not only as a writer but also a man. His wisdom and genuine care for people and the world are equally apparent in his fiction and his essays. These essays, mostly concerned with ecology and agriculture, have a sense of alarm, but also of careful and measured contemplation.
9. Jack McLaren – My Crowded Solitude (1926)
See earlier post. Reading this memoir of an Australia drifter sojourning amongst Aboriginal tribes in Cape York I was struck by how far attitudes towards indigenous Australians have come. Written long before political correctness or the notion of indigenous human rights, the writer has no shame in belittling Aboriginals as childlike creatures. Yet it is a fascinating story, told with beauty and profundity.
8. Tim Chester – Good News to the Poor: Sharing the Gospel through Social Involvement (IVP, 2004)
Chester gives an astute, passionate and practical discussion of the issue of Christian engagement in social justice. Having just read What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert – a much poorer response to many of the same questions – I was struck by Chester’s ability to speak with balance and sensitivity to contemporary situations. He has remarkable clarity in seeing the strengths and weakness of evangelicalism and various approaches to poverty alleviation and social involvement and he shows a deep compassion for the poor (which, sadly, is rarely apparent in DeYoung and Gilbert).
7. Anna Funder – All That I Am (Viking, 2012)
See earlier post. As Nazism grows, left-wing dissidents are finding themselves pressed into increasingly small corners. Funder takes us inside their lives to experience the fragility that existed behind the façade of vigour and greatness. As Funder’s first novel, this is a great achievement.
6. Alain de Botton – Status Anxiety (Vintage, 2005)
De Botton offers a captivating exploration of our soul-destroying preoccupation with status. He examines the causes of our anxiety and also considers how it might be abated, through philosophy, art, politics, religion or bohemia. The book is written with deftness and humour and draws skillfully on history, philosophy and literature to give rich and thought-provoking insight.
5. L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between (1953)
I was led to read The Go-Between when I heard it had been the inspiration for Michael Frayn’s novel Spies (which was among my favourite books last year). In it, the protagonist Leo remembers an episode from his childhood when spending a summer at the estate of a wealthy friend. Naïvely trying to negotiate his place in this community of adults, he is easily taken advantage of, becoming a messenger for surreptitious and forbidden communications. Although not always believable, it is a moving tale of childhood and loss of innocence.
4. Cormac McCarthy – All the Pretty Horses (Knopf, 1992)
Cormac McCarthy is one of the finest living novelists. He creates works of stark, masculine beauty, suited to the barren landscapes of the American West. While All the Pretty Horses may perhaps leave less of a mark on me than other McCarthy novels I’ve read recently (The Road and Blood Meridian), I enjoyed it more simply because it isn’t so permeated by violence and despair. It follows a restless young cowboy, riding across of Texas and Mexico searching for something he can’t name.
=2. G. K. Chesterton – On Tremendous Trifles (Hesperus Press, 2010)
I can’t recall ever coming across someone who writes with the agility and vivacity of Chesterton. This collection, selected from columns written for the Daily News between 1902 and 1909, illuminates the brilliance in ordinary life and the wonders that can be appreciated when simply walking down the street or even lying in bed. Chesterton is a great observer of life and an extraordinarily funny writer.
=2. P. G. Wodehouse – What ho!: The Best of P.G. Wodehouse (Arrow, 2000)
See earlier post. Perhaps the only writer who can best Chesterton for wit and lively use of words is P. G. Wodehouse. I can imagine no more fitting a cure to the downcast mind than to spend some time reading these short stories about various aristocratic fools.
1. Stephen Crane – An Experiment in Misery: Stories (Harper Perennial, 2009)
It was some four years ago that I first read Crane’s novella The Red Badge of Courage, which has since ranked among my favourite works of fiction. From the first page of this collection I regretted waiting so long to return to Crane’s prose. These gripping short stories are filled with an amazing depth of insight into the fallibility of human character. In particular, ‘The Monster’ – the story of a young man who is disfigured and retarded after heroically rescuing a young boy from fire – I found to be one of the most artful and haunting short stories I have ever read.