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My book of the year

by
29 November 2013

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

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Richard Harries

The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell (OUP, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-19-997195-4).

I believe that there can often be a right time to read a book. Sometimes you buy a book, knowing you will want to read it at some point, but for the time being it goes on the shelf. With the anniversary of the start of the First World War coming up, now seemed the time for The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell, first published in 1975 by OUP.

It shows in brilliant fashion that not only do we remember the First World War through the well-known poems of people such as Wilfred Owen and the literary memoirs of people such as Siegfried Sassoon, but that those who wrote home did so in language and images drawn from the literature by which they themselves had been shaped. For example, letters from the trenches often mentioned the glorious sunsets over the battlefields.

Fussell points out that people started to write about sunsets only in the late 19th century, having had their eyes opened to them by Ruskin, who was widely read at the time. Fussell's thesis seems to be that the war was such an obscene, grotesque experience for those in the trenches that it was beyond the range of everyday speech.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King's College, London.

 

Jennie Hogan

Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway (Canongate, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-85786-074-3).

I admit to scepticism when I was given this book as a preaching gift. I had never read Hollo­way, despite his massive output. Surely this memoir counts as the quintessence of his life's work. Here, Hollo­way is frank in his admis­sion of self-deception; honest as he traces failure and vulnerability; shameless in his exploration of doubt and death.

Moving descriptions of his life in working-class Glasgow contrast with his enchantment with the Church. The clash between harsh realities and glorious ideals is, indeed, per­vasive. Elegant in style but candid in content, it is an account of defeat and disappointment. Despite its well-made attempts to avert senti­ment­ality, I shed a tear as he left Edinburgh and "headed for the hills".

The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain of Good­enough College, London.

 

Simon Jones

Train Dreams  by Denis Johnson (Granta Books, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-1-84708-662-4).

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson's Pulitzer-listed novella, is an epic of just 116 pages. Robert Grain­ier lives by hacking down trees for the railroad - "It was only when you left it alone that a tree might treat you as a friend. After the blade bit in, you had yourself a war" - and covers that time when the American pioneering spirit bumped hard into industrialisation.

Although full of tenderness and wonder,Train Dreamsconstantly tests this new world, in search of its true costs.

Simon Jones is editor of Third Way magazine.


A. N. Wilson

Hunters in the Snow by Daisy Hildyard (Jonathan Cape, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-224-09744-4).

Hunters in the Snow is a hauntingly brilliant first novel about how we re­­spond to the past. Readers of this newspaper will enjoy the reflections

on York Minster, and the thunderbolt that struck it after the consecration of the modern­ist Bishop David Jenkins. But there is much else, including evocations of the Wars of

the Roses, the slave-memoirs of Olaudah Equiano, and the mysterious death of Lord Kitchener. I envied, as well as admired, this author's literary command. A star is born.

A. N. Wilson is a writer and newspaper columnist. He is the author of The Potter's Hand (Atlantic Books, 2012).

 

Tom Wright

Lustrum by Robert Harris (Arrow Books, £7.99 (£7.20); 978-0-09-940632-7).

Cicero could be boring. But Robert Harris's Lus­trum, the second volume of his Cicero Trilogy, is anything but. First-century Rome bristled with ambition, jealousy, class-consciousness, plotting, and the toxic mixture (strange to us, normal to them) of religion and politics. Harris brings it all scarily to life.

We meet, and recognise: Cato, the self-righteous Stoic; Pompey, disappearing up his own magnificence; the ruthless and amoral Julius Caesar; and - my favourite, because she reminds me of someone I know - Cicero's loyal but sharp-tongued wife, Terentia. A crash course on the dangerous world into which Christianity was born.

The Rt Revd Dr Tom Wright is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews.

 

Salley Vickers

Round the Square and Up the Tower: Clifford Chambers, Warwickshire nby Sarah Hoskins (Hosking Houses Trust, £9; 978-0-95731422-1).

The Hosking Houses Trust has produced an utterly charming book about its church, St Helen's, in The Square, in Clifford Chambers, a tiny village just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, and I think it is this year's favourite read. The book is beautifully produced, and contains an eclectic (and often eccentric) mix of history, sociology, art, poetry (the poet Michael Dray­ton lived here), and theology. The well-known poet Felix Dennis, the ac­­claimed church his­torian Stephen Prickett, and a number of other grandees have pieces here.

I read it while engaged in some tough writing in one of the 17th-century cottages in The Square, and it was a kind of spiritual counterpart to the physical haven.

Salley Vickers is a novelist. Her latest book is The Cleaner of Chartres (Penguin, 2012).


Esther de Waal

New Selected Poems by Denise Levertov (Bloodaxe Books, £9.95 (£8.94); (978-1-85224-653-2).

The biography of Denise Levertov written earlier this year by Dana Greene led me to rediscover this extra­ordinary poet. Her mother was Welsh, and her father was a Jewish Russian immigrant, who became an Anglican priest. The grittiness of her life taught her to bring joy out of suffer­ing. The Hasidic sense of wonder gave her the ability to "see the sparks of God everywhere". Her imagination taught her how to live with a "door open to transcendence". Despite much personal sorrow, her later poems are lumi­nous as she embraced faith, and became a Roman Catholic.

Esther de Waal is the author of Seeking Life (Canterbury Press, 2009), and other books.


James Walters

A Keeper of the Word: Selected writings of William Stringfellow, edited by Bill Wylie Kellermann (Eerdmans, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-8028-0726-7).

Not all LSE graduates be­­come politicians and bankers. This year, I have been reading the theological work of an Ameri­­can alumnus from the 1950s, William String­fellow. Stringfellow spent most of his life working as a lawyer representing poor and disadvantaged people. But he was also a theo­logian, described by Karl Barth as "the man America should listen to", and whose work is only just starting to receive the recognition it deserves.

A Keeper of the Wordis an edited selection of his writings, reflecting Stringfellow's un­­usual combination of autobiography, theo­logy, social critique, and his occasionally ex­­coriating wit.

The Revd Dr James Walters is Chaplain to the London School of Economics.
 
 

Martyn Percy

Into the Silent Land  by Martin Laird (DLT, £10.95 (£9.86); 978-0-232-52640-0); A Sunlit Absence by Martin Laird (OUP, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-19-537872-6).

My favourite read of 2013? These two books by Martin Laird. For me - as something of a novice in the contemplative practice known as "mind­fulness", pioneered by my friend and colleague Mark Williams - Laird's work has really opened up the rich meditative methods and traditions found with­in contemplative prayer. His work is centred on the part played by breath and awareness in the spiritual life, which, although often asso­ciated with Budd­hism, is also an ancient prac­tice rooted in early Christian thinkers.

Laird's great genius is to bring together scholarship, pastoral practice, and personal experience. Both books are beautifully writ­ten, and quite exquisite.

Canon Martyn Percy is the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

 

Mark Oakley

What W. H. Auden Can Do For You  by Alexander McCall Smith (Princeton University Press, £13.95 (£12.56); 978-0-69-114473-3).

A poet I turn back to again and again is W. H. Auden. It is the mixture of his forgiving humanity with the affecting precision of his language which draws me. He dispels illusions without becoming dis­illusioned. There are many great guides to help us understand Auden - John Fuller and Edward Mendelson spring to mind - but Alexander McCall Smith's What W. H. Auden Can Do For You is a graceful and per­sonal response of gratitude for Auden, celebrating the resonance, reverence, and rebellion of the man who believed "truth is catholic, but the search for it is protestant."

The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral.

 

 

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