Because the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was released this year, the book got a lot of publicity. Thankfully I read it before going to see the film. It is desolate and terrifying. A world reduced by an unnamed but all too imaginable horror. Only Psalm 88 matches it for bleak wretchedness. Yet the compelling father-and-son relationship at the heart of the book offers other parallels and possibilities. At the very end, glimmers of new life stir in the hidden depths of a dead earth. It is a book that takes your breath away.
The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelmsford.
Sacred Journey by Mike Riddell (SPCK, new edition, 2010, £10.99 (£9.90); 978-0-281-06279-9)
Mike Riddell has a knack for spine-shivering phrases. He also has a great stock of insightful stories and the ability to use personal reflections and experiences to clarify universal issues. Sacred Journey: Spiritual wisdom for times of transition explores some of the everyday struggles and profound questions that characterise human living, perhaps particularly in middle age, but actually in most phases of our life. Whether he is writing about disappointment, creativity, “the blade of the moment”, or age, Riddell reassures and challenges in equal measure. I found this book humorous and touching, but, above all, tremendously encouraging.
The Revd Rosemary Lain-Priestley is Dean of Women’s Ministry for the Two Cities area in the diocese of London, and a contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.
Fludd by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, reissue, 2010, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-0-00-717289-4)
I so loved Wolf Hall that, to fill in the time while waiting for the next instalment, I’ve been reading anything else that I can find by Mantel. Fludd is a darkly humorous exploration of good and evil, and how difficult it can sometimes be to tell them apart. It is set in a gloriously depressed and stunted northern village, centred round the church and the convent. When Father Fludd appears in Fetherhoughton, people begin to see themselves and each other in new ways. But is Father Fludd an angel, a demon, or just the bishop’s spy? Unsentimental, affectionate, insightful, and beautifully written, the book is a treat.
Dr Jane Williams teaches Christian Doctrine at St Mellitus College, London and Chelmsford.
Weeds: How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation and changed the way we think about nature by Richard Mabey (Profile Books, 2010, £15.99 (£14.40); 978-1-84668-076-2)
Richard Mabey’s Weeds is my favourite book this year. This is not merely a book for gardeners. It is full of fascinating byways and learned rambles, with informative historical, geographical, and anthropological asides. Unlike many gardeners, Mabey is not a zealot. He is indulgent to his weeds and likens their rampant opportunism to our own. Most pleasing of all to another writer, he writes beautiful prose: lucid, unpretentious, flexible, and funny. Why, oh why don’t they teach people to write like that any more? I blame the Creative Writing schools. Mabey should be compulsory reading to encourage the weeding out of the needlessly florid.
Salley Vickers is the author of Aphrodite’s Hat (Fourth Estate, 2010).
Them and Us: Changing Britain — why we need a fair society by Will Hutton (Little, Brown, 2010, £20 (£18); 978-1-4087-0151-5)
Will Hutton writes once more on society from a strong moral base. He doesn’t pull his punches on either the Thatcher or the Blair years — banking boom, credit crunch, and all. “The inattention to what constitutes fairness at both the top and the bottom of our society is beginning to yield an ominous harvest” sums up his message. He digs deep into religious, philosophical, and social thinking about what fairness means, how people are “programmed” towards it in their attitudes, and — with an incisive rejection of pessimism — insists that this is the only way out of the current mess we’re in, and the anxiety of the coming generation. A prophetic book, indeed.
Dr Kenneth Stevenson is a former Bishop of Portsmouth.
Richard Harries The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France he saved
by Jonathan Fenby (Simon & Schuster, 2010, £30 (£27); 978-1-84737-392-2)
General de Gaulle was a towering figure in the 20th century, and this is an excellent new biography of him by Jonathan Fenby. De Gaulle arrived in England in 1940 with no official status, claiming that he, and he alone, spoke for France. Then, in the light of victory, this apparently hubristic claim to personify France was indeed validated. Later in his career, by sheer political cunning, he saved France itself from civil war over Algeria. What this book brings out is not only the amazing person and career of de Gaulle, but the ravages suffered by the French nation, ones that we have been largely spared.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.
Stations of the Cross by Sarah Maitland and Chris Gollon (Continuum, 2009, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-8264-0568-5)
This is the book I always wanted to write. The prose is vivid, arresting, sharp, tender, harrowing. It follows that world-famous, life-changing route taken by the once and future king and brings it heartbreakingly into life. When I led 115 Oxford pilgrims on that narrow way last month, it was these experiences I hoped we would inhabit. There are fresh angles on every station and new corners of thought in which to rummage. Chris Gollon’s stark paintings complement the prose excellently and ask fierce questions. I intend to read this book every Holy Week from now on.
The Rt Revd John Pritchard is the Bishop of Oxford.
Information is Beautiful by David McCandless (Collins, 2010, £20 (£18); 978-0-00-729466-4)
This book describes itself as “A series of experiments in making information approachable and beautiful”. Facts and statistics are presented in unusual ways using a diverse selection of graphs, charts, and maps. Some of the diagrams are sobering (most endangered species, the remaining supplies of non-renewable materials). Others range from informative (relationships between countries in the Middle East, how psychotherapy works) to the more trivial (internet virals, salad-dressing proportions). A book to make you think about a wide range of subjects and provoke wider exploration.
Dave Walker’s cartoons appear each week in the Church Times. He is also its Web Editor.
Inventing Ireland: The literature of the modern nation by Declan Kiberd (Vintage, 1996, £11.99 (£10.80); 978-0-9958221-2)
Where other cities might erect statues to warriors or politicians, Dublin honours its writers. Such monuments support Declan Kiberd’s thesis that modern Irish nationalism was forged through literature; a thesis also reopening the debate about what nationalism might be.
This fluent and learned survey of the “Irish Renaissance”, from Oscar Wilde to Brian Friel, with a prelude in the colonial 16th century and a postscript in post-colonialism, therefore introduces another discussion, about how writing and reading compose identity. In England, and the Church of England, both conscious of exilic uncertainty, this book becomes both guide and consolation.
Dr Martyn Halsall is communications adviser to the Blackburn diocese, and poetry editor of Third Way magazine.
The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle by Albert Schweitzer (The Johns Hopkins University Press, new edition, 1998, £15.24; 978-0-80186098-0)
Being asked to choose my favourite book is a near-impossible task — I have too many favourites; so the only thing to do is to fall back on the book that has had the greatest impact on my own thinking and spiritual life. This is Albert Schweitzer’s magisterial book The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, which manages to combine profound insights about Paul’s theology with a dynamic reflection on the Christian experience of a mystical union with Christ. It is both thought-provoking and soul-enhancing, stressing the equal importance of both thought and experience for the Christian journey of faith.
Dr Paula Gooder is a writer and lecturer in Biblical Studies, and is Canon Theologian of Birmingham Cathedral.