New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Password:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:
 
 
Reviews

Books of the year

by Third Way's family & friends

It's the time of year when Third Way invites its friends & family  to announce the best book of 2011.  Once again I'm afraid they've entirely failed to reach a consensus, so we're going to have to leave it up to you to read them all an arbitrate. Do let us know the result.

RAmong.jpg

Among Others
Jo Walton
Tor 

The most thought-provoking and delightful book I can remember reading this year (since I finished it only a week ago) is Jo Walton's novel Among Others. It's an extraordinary blend of fantasy and social comedy, rather like an optimistic Alan Garner. It's also a much better book about growing up unusual than Catcher in the Rye. Anyone who took refuge in books in adolescence will recognise and remember themselves in the heroine. Anyone who read a lot of science fiction then will wonder how Jo Walton stole the diaries we kept in our heads. She has also managed to write entirely original fairies who hover in exactly the right way at the edge of vision, and of credibility. Completely wonderful. Andrew Brown

R40rules.jpg

The Forty Rules of Love 
Elif Shafak
Viking

If you are a fan of Rumi, the Sufi poet and mystic, then you will love this amazing novel, that reveals through the lives of different people how he came to be a poet. Interwoven with that story is the unfolding tale of Ella Rubenstein, a contemporary US woman, who works as a reader for a literary agency.

When she is asked to read Sweet Blasphemy a book  about Rumi and his teacher, Shams of Tabriz, Ella begins to learn about love, and about faith, in new ways: by entering into a correspondence with the author, and through the rules of love that Shams teaches in the book she is reading. What she learns has profound consequences for her. I found this book to be exquisitely written, extraordinarily perceptive and deeply moving. Christina Rees

RNemesis.jpg

Nemesis
Philip Roth
Vintage

Never believe middling reviews of Roth's novels: they are all great. Nemesis is a vivid glimpse of 1940s America, and the young male psyche, idealistic and proud. By contrast I found Franzen's Freedom fun to read but two-dimensional; its trite message seems to be that one is defined by the success or failure of one's love-life. Not true: I am happily married but still full of angst!  Theo Hobson

RGods-Biologist.jpg

God's Biologist: A life of Alister Hardy
David Hay
Darton Longman Todd

Hardy (1896-1985) was one of the most distinguished marine biologists of the 20th century. The Continuous Plankton Recorder which he invented continues to provide information about the small animals of the ocean, marking seemingly inexorable changes in climate. In 1914 Hardy vowed to  devote his life to 'bringing about a reconciliation between evolution theory and the spiritual awareness of man'. His tactic was to achieve eminence in science so that he would not be written off as a religious nutcase. He achieved his aim: Oxford Professor of Zoology, Fellow of the Royal Society and a knighthood. In a series of Gifford Lectures and through a 'Religious Experience Research Unit' which he set up in Oxford (but which only achieved financial viability when Hardy became the first scientist to win the Templeton Prize), he sought to fulfil his religious vow. David Hay - himself a zoologist - served for a time as Director of the Unit. He tells the story well. Hardy's ambition was excellent; his theology somewhat flaky. There remains a challenge for all of us to finish the task he set himself. RJ Berry

Rpemberley.jpg

Death Comes to Pemberley 
PD James
Faber & Faber

I can't think of a more delicious literary combination than Jane Austen and PD James. That's what you get with Death Comes to Pemberley, James's eagerly-awaited sequel to Pride and Prejudice.  The world is littered with Austen sequels, most of which are best ignored, but James, herself a lifelong admirer, has succeeded beautifully in recreating Austen's wit, perception and immaculate plotting. She gives us a bloody murder to solve too, the victim being the feckless Wickham, reluctant husband of Lizzie's wayward sister Lydia. Both Janeites and Jamesites will be satisfied with the outcome as in the best Austen tradition, peace, order and harmony are restored once again to Pemberley. Judith Elliott 

RWolfHall.jpg

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate

Preferring these days, to read weighty tomes of intellectual history that make me look and feel clever, I had to be bullied into reading a 550 page novel. What foolishness! Wolf Hall is every bit as good as Booker Prize judges said: vivid (painfully so in places), lyrical, precise, disturbing. It is difficult - do not expect to romp through it - written in a voice that demands attention. But the attention is worth it. Put down that 850 page history of German thought since Frederick the Great and spend a fortnight in the early Reformation. You will not regret it. Nick Spencer

godlostandfound.jpg

God, Lost and Found
John Pritchard 
SPCK

This is not a book for people who want to brush doubt under the carpet, nor for those who respond to fears and unbelief with pious, orthodox 'an-swers'. Bishop John Pritchard wrestles alongside those who are struggling, articulating their case, entering their pain and anguish, and is unsurprised at doubt. In fact, he gives us dozens more reasons why we might not believe. But his own response is itself orthodox:, not glib, not easy, but Christian - full of honest compassion, wry gentle humour, quiet imagination and solid hope. Elaine Storkey

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Jeanette Winterson
Jonathan Cape
Anyone familiar with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, will remember the bold landmarks of Jeanette Winterson's thinly-disguised autobiography: the terrifying adoptive mother, the gospel tent, the collision of lesbianism with fundamentalism. 
  What's shocking about her memoir, 25 years later, is that the unvarnished truth turns out to have been much bleaker. Routinely beaten, often hungry and left all night on the doorstep, Winterson was told by her depressive mother that she picked the wrong crib when she adopted her. 
  Yet Why be Happy When you Could be Normal? (the title was her mother's  question as she evicted her at 16 for being a lesbian, previous attempts at exorcism having failed) is singularly free of the anti-religious bitterness one might expect. Indeed, as Winterson recounts her nervous breakdown, suicide attempt and quest to find her birth mother, what emerge are grace, humour, compassion and a spirituality based on the power of love. 
  "There are three kinds of big endings," she writes. "Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness… Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future." A courageous, moving and ultimately redemptive book. Nick Thorpe
Wolf: The lives of Jack London
James L Haley
Basic
London's biography is as fascinating as his fiction (he is most remembered here for White Fang and Call of the Wild. Before the age of 20, he had lived a tough, impoverished existence  as the family 'work beast' in Oakland, California, an oyster pirate, a fake able seaman and seal hunter, tramp, and student.  By 1903, and not yet 30, he had usurped Mark Twain as the USA's favourite author.
Even if you've never read any of London's books, Haley's is gripping. He paints a vivid picture of the exploitation and hardship of the USA's 'Gilded Age' of laissez-faire capitalism. His experiences made London a life-long socialist with a fascination for Jesus' teaching that he called 'the sociology of Christ' but he was horrified at how religion maintained society's injustices. Catherine von Ruhland 
Between Naivety and Hostility   Uncovering the best Christian responses to Islam in Britain. 
Eds. Steve Bell and Colin Chapman
Authentic
This book addresses the reality of Britain today where large Muslim communities form a significant part of many cities. The 20 contributors are all Christians with personal knowledge and experience of the multiple facets of Islam. They stress the need for Christians to be aware of the complexities of the different Islamic viewpoints. This means taking a stand against media stereotypes and being prepared to be involved in dialogue and bridge building.. Hard issues such as the place of women and 'jihad' are not sidestepped but many other faces of Islam are explored and the broader horizons of Islamic teaching are opened up. This is an encouraging and instructive series of essays. Caroline Berry
Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, 
Robert Bellah
Belknap Harvard
The currently dominate evolutionary theory of religion can seem doubly offensive to believers. On the one hand, it likens faith to a cognitive mistake, akin to seeing a UFO where there is really a circular cloud. On the other hand, the description of faith it draws on - essentially, a set of propositional convictions - seems little like the multifaceted engagement with life that most believers would recognise. Robert Bellah's book might do much to challenge that. He is a big shot sociologist of religion, who understands it as it is, and also suggests that evolution might not only make good sense of religion but might even deepen religious people's sense of what they are about. Drawing on powerful theories about the role of ritual, performance and play in the search for meaning and understanding, he looks particularly at the shifts in the history of religions that occurred during the axial period. It's a long book and heartily to be recommended for those interested in the interface between science and religion. Mark Vernon
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot
Macmillan
This is a remarkable book. Ostensibly, it is the story of HeLa cells, well known to all experimental biologists as a cancer cell culture used in labs all over the world. But it is also the story of a poor black American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who 'donated', without her knowledge, a chunk of her ultimately fatal cervical cancer from which the cell culture was established. It is the story of Lacks' family, at the time of her death and through later generations. And it is the story of their reactions of as they slowly came to understand the history and significance of HeLa cells. The whole saga is beautifully related, gripping, emotive, challenging, thought-provoking and above all true. Although its basis is science, it is completely accessible to non-scientists (just ask my wife's book group). I enjoyed this book so much that I was sorry when I reached the end. John Bryant
Ready Player One
Ernest Cline
Century
Cline's novel is set in 2044, 30 years into a depression so bad that the late 20th century looks like a golden age. The novel has a thriller plot, but what fascinates me is the book's reflection on internet culture and online worlds. Social conditions are so dire that most people escape by immersing themselves in the OASIS, a virtual universe of cosmic dimensions which provides them with education, entertainment and relationships. In this sense, the novel is a credible imagining of how the virtual world might develop.
It has been improbably hailed as a worthy successor to William Gibsons's Neuromancer, which introduced the term 'cyber-space', but it is worth reading in its own right, both for sheer entertainment and thinking about the state of cyberculture. Simon Jenkins

Rwhybehappy.jpg

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Jeanette Winterson
Jonathan Cape

Anyone familiar with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, will remember the bold landmarks of Jeanette Winterson's thinly-disguised autobiography: the terrifying adoptive mother, the gospel tent, the collision of lesbianism with fundamentalism. What's shocking about her memoir, 25 years later, is that the unvarnished truth turns out to have been much bleaker. Routinely beaten, often hungry and left all night on the doorstep, Winterson was told by her depressive mother that she picked the wrong crib when she adopted her.  Yet Why be Happy When you Could be Normal? (the title was her mother's  question as she evicted her at 16 for being a lesbian, previous attempts at exorcism having failed) is singularly free of the anti-religious bitterness one might expect. Indeed, as Winterson recounts her nervous breakdown, suicide attempt and quest to find her birth mother, what emerge are grace, humour, compassion and a spirituality based on the power of love. "There are three kinds of big endings," she writes. "Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness… Forgiveness redeems the past. Forgiveness unblocks the future." A courageous, moving and ultimately redemptive book. Nick Thorpe

Rlondon.jpg

Wolf: The lives of Jack London
James L Haley
Basic

London's biography is as fascinating as his fiction (he is most remembered here for White Fang and Call of the Wild. Before the age of 20, he had lived a tough, impoverished existence  as the family 'work beast' in Oakland, California, an oyster pirate, a fake able seaman and seal hunter, tramp, and student.  By 1903, and not yet 30, he had usurped Mark Twain as the USA's favourite author. Even if you've never read any of London's books, Haley's is gripping. He paints a vivid picture of the exploitation and hardship of the USA's 'Gilded Age' of laissez-faire capitalism. His experiences made London a life-long socialist with a fascination for Jesus' teaching that he called 'the sociology of Christ' but he was horrified at how religion maintained society's injustices. Catherine von Ruhland 

RBetweenHostility.jpg

Between Naivety and Hostility:
Uncovering the best Christian responses to Islam in Britain. 

Eds. Steve Bell and Colin Chapman
Authentic

This book addresses the reality of Britain today where large Muslim communities form a significant part of many cities. The 20 contributors are all Christians with personal knowledge and experience of the multiple facets of Islam. They stress the need for Christians to be aware of the complexities of the different Islamic viewpoints. This means taking a stand against media stereotypes and being prepared to be involved in dialogue and bridge building. Hard issues such as the place of women and 'jihad' are not sidestepped but many other faces of Islam are explored and the broader horizons of Islamic teaching are opened up. This is an encouraging and instructive series of essays. Caroline Berry

RReligioninevolution.jpg

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, 
Robert Bellah
Belknap Harvard

The currently dominate evolutionary theory of religion can seem doubly offensive to believers. On the one hand, it likens faith to a cognitive mistake, akin to seeing a UFO where there is really a circular cloud. On the other hand, the description of faith it draws on - essentially, a set of propositional convictions - seems little like the multifaceted engagement with life that most believers would recognise. Robert Bellah's book might do much to challenge that. He is a big shot sociologist of religion, who understands it as it is, and also suggests that evolution might not only make good sense of religion but might even deepen religious people's sense of what they are about. Drawing on powerful theories about the role of ritual, performance and play in the search for meaning and understanding, he looks particularly at the shifts in the history of religions that occurred during the axial period. It's a long book and heartily to be recommended for those interested in the interface between science and religion. Mark Vernon

RTheImmortalLifeofHenriettaLacks.jpg

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot
Macmillan

This is a remarkable book. Ostensibly, it is the story of HeLa cells, well known to all experimental biologists as a cancer cell culture used in labs all over the world. But it is also the story of a poor black American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who 'donated', without her knowledge, a chunk of her ultimately fatal cervical cancer from which the cell culture was established. It is the story of Lacks' family, at the time of her death and through later generations. And it is the story of their reactions of as they slowly came to understand the history and significance of HeLa cells. The whole saga is beautifully related, gripping, emotive, challenging, thought-provoking and above all true. Although its basis is science, it is completely accessible to non-scientists (just ask my wife's book group). I enjoyed this book so much that I was sorry when I reached the end. John Bryant

rReady_player_one.jpg

Ready Player One
Ernest Cline
Century

Cline's novel is set in 2044, 30 years into a depression so bad that the late 20th century looks like a golden age. The novel has a thriller plot, but what fascinates me is the book's reflection on internet culture and online worlds. Social conditions are so dire that most people escape by immersing themselves in the OASIS, a virtual universe of cosmic dimensions which provides them with education, entertainment and relationships. In this sense, the novel is a credible imagining of how the virtual world might develop. It has been improbably hailed as a worthy successor to William Gibsons's Neuromancer, which introduced the term 'cyber-space', but it is worth reading in its own right, both for sheer entertainment and thinking about the state of cyberculture. Simon Jenkins

Leave a comment