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Favourite books

23 November 2012

A number of people were asked to name the book they have most enjoyed this year


Rose Hudson-Wilkin

The Year of Living Biblically: One man's humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible by A. J. Jacobs (Arrow, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-09-950979-0).

My favourite book has got to be this book by A. J. Jacobs, a non-practising Jew, who decided to follow the Bible for a whole year. His journey takes him through both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He is presented as someone who is genuinely seeking to engage with the journey he was on. He wrestled with some of the more obscure laws, even walking around with his own seat to prevent his coming into contact with menstruating women; and stoned a "deserving" member of the public (using a pebble, of course).

Jacobs, by patiently addressing a variety of issues, challenges biblical fundamentalism and all those who behave as though they have a hotline to God. Although it is handled in a reverent manner, I was in stitches (even while sitting on public transport) throughout. This is a great read for anyone who may be exploring faith. I simply loved it. It is a must-read.

The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin is the Vicar of Holy Trinity with St Philip, Dalston, and All Saints', Haggerston, in the London diocese, and is the Speaker's Chaplain.


Diarmaid MacCulloch

The Wine of Angels (Merrily Watkins Mystery) by Phil Rickman (Atlantic, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-85789-009-2).

I am astonished that I have taken until now to discover Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins novels, since the first was published as long ago as 1999; it took an agnostic ex-Baptist Welshman to alert me. They combine mystery, detection, magic, and a remarkably accurate knowledge of the Church of England.

Watkins is Priest-in-Charge of a Herefordshire parish, and, after a rocky start, justifies her country ministry enough to become diocesan Deliverance Consultant - synodspeak for "Exorcist". It is an ingenious way of spreading the murders around a diocesan-sized area, so that fictional Ledwardine does not single-handedly reach Midsomer Murders levels of carnage. Read the first one, The Wine of Angels, first, for background.

The Revd Dr Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford.


Raymond Chapman

Betjeman by A. N. Wilson (Arrow, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-09-949837-7).

A. N. Wilson's Betjeman records a life of public esteem and personal distress. Betjeman, the most popular poet of his time, honoured as Poet Laureate, was racked by self-doubt and relationship problems, liable to depression, and yet capable of exuberant pleasure. His Christian faith, fulfilled through Anglo-Catholicism in its great years, was often disturbed, but never left him. His poetry lives, a record of simple life made memorable, of religious fervour seen with humour.

A good biography connects the reader with another person, however different. I finished the book grateful for being reminded that every life is a struggle with contradictions.

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.


Elaine Storkey

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Penguin, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-0-141-03928-2).

I love this novel's insights, poignancy, and humour, and the way in which it exposes attitudes and relationships to offer hope. Set in Missisippi in 1962, Skeeter returns home after graduation. Missing her beloved maid, Constantine, who has myst- eriously gone, she turns to Aibileen, a wise, dignified, black maid who is raising her 17th - and much-loved - white child.

Drawn into their relationship is Minnie, a brilliant black cook who loses many jobs through "insubordination", and the three women come together for a radical project. Opposing the ideologies and structures that define them, their brave and surprising strategies challenge their culture, and bring change.

Dr Elaine Storkey is a Christian academic and broadcaster.


Martin Warner

Winter King: The dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn (Penguin, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-141-04053-0).

Thomas Penn's Winter King explores the life of Henry VII, the shadowy and ruthless founder of the Tudor monarchy. This is first-rate historical scholarship, as readable as the best historical novel. Fragile dynastic claims play out against a national backdrop of ruin and death, through battle, plague, or institutionalised crime. Woven into this is the power of the Church, and the hold of Christianity on the imagination.

Read this book to understand the Reformation as a constitutional accident waiting to happen, coinciding with intellectual and economic upheavals that posed many of the challenges that we face today.

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.


Richard Holloway

The Untouchable by John Banville (Picador, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-330-33932-2).

I have been going back this year to books that I read some time ago, but wanted to experience again, and the best of them was definitely John Banville's 1997 novel The Untouchable. It is a novel about Anthony Blunt and the Cambridge spies, but it is a mistake to read it as history rather than art.

In his retelling of the story, Banville conflates Blunt and Louis MacNeice into a single character. MacNeice, one of my favourite poets, was the son of a Church of Ireland bishop, and I particularly enjoy the way in which the author weaves elements of the religious back story into the psychology of the protagonist.

No one is better than Banville at portraying loss, and the failure of ideals. I was moved to read it again, and I might even give it another go some time.

The Rt Revd Richard Holloway is a former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.


John Hall

The World my Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (used copies available from some online bookshops; 978-0-86068340-7).

After a friend had drawn me back to Rose Macaulay as the last publicly recognised Anglican intellectual, I found her penultimate novel, The World my Wilderness (1950). It tells a dark tale of neglectful and immoral parenting in Collioure and London, and young people drawn into a wilderness world of deserters and spivs in City of London bomb-sites. There is a kind of redemption, but what struck me above all was the challenge to my inherited view of the post-war world as one of restraint and decency. Perhaps, I wondered, every generation sees its time as the very end.

The Very Revd John Hall is the Dean of Westminster.



Robert Beaken

Samuel Johnson: A Life by David Nokes (Faber and Faber, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-571-22636-8).

Samuel Johnson was born in 1709, in Lichfield. He struggled throughout his life with ill health, eye problems, and poverty. Despite this, Johnson possessed a rich sense of humour, and I frequently found myself laughing as I read this excellent book.

The other thing that comes across is Johnson's essential kindliness. He detested the slave trade, and, when a nobleman gave him a young black servant, Francis Barber, Johnson sent him to school, treated him as a son, and bequeathed his estate to him. Johnson was a devout High Church Anglican, and is thought to have been sympathetic to the Jacobite cause, but this did not prevent his taking a pension from George III.

Nokes provides a full treatment of Johnson's literary output, including his famous dictionary, and suggests that Johnson was not as fond of James Boswell, or of the Highlands, as Boswell later suggested. There are many books about Dr Johnson: this one is un-put-downable.

The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Great Bardfield, and St Katharine's, Little Bardfield.


Nick Spencer

The Swerve: How the Renaissance began by Stephen Greenblatt (Vintage, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-09957244-2).

The Swerve is a book-lover's book. It tells the story of how a Renaissance bibliophile tracked down Lucretius's long-missing poem "On the Nature of Things", and manages to combine scholarship and wit. The book's line on the charges read against Antipope John XXIII at the Council of Constance is worth its cover price alone: "Fearing their effect on public opinion, the council decided to suppress the sixteen most scandalous charges - never subsequently revealed - and accused the pontiff of simony, sodomy, rape, incest, torture, and murder."

Nick Spencer is the director of studies at the think tank Theos. He is the author of Freedom and Order (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).


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