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Book reviews: My favourite book of 2023

by
24 November 2023

We invited a handful of figures from the Anglican world to tell us what they most enjoyed reading during the year

Ian Marchant

The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt (New Directions, £12.99 (£11.69); 978-0-8112-3007-0)

A BOOK by Helen DeWitt is an event; this is only her fourth in 23 years. It’s 62 pages short, and is designed to be read in one sitting. The hardback edition is itself an object of high quality, and this seems appropriate, because the story concerns quality, and its relationship with virtue. It is very funny: it’s about a clever girl of 17 who gets the better of those who value something other than her virtuous qualities. A bright jewel of a book, to light up an afternoon.

Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster. His latest book is One Fine Day: A journey through English Time (September Publishing, 2023).

 

Richard Sewell 

Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A new biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller (Profile Books, £10.99 (£9.89); 978-1-78816-919-6)

 THIS book is unlike any other that you will have read about this most written-about city. It is the story of the people who inhabit the narrow, winding streets of the Old City. The author knows this place and its people very well. Although I thought I did, too, I learned so much. Teller places the people within their communities and in the historical context that brought them to the Holy City. By the time you have finished the book, you’ll feel you know these people, too. It’s a gem of a book.

 The Very Revd Richard Sewell is Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem, and an Hon. Canon of Southwark Cathedral.

 

Alan Smith

Bazball: The inside story of a Test Cricket revolution by Lawrence Booth and Nick Hoult (Bloomsbury £22 (£19.80); 978-1-5266-7208-7)

BAZBALL is about the radical transformation of the England Test Cricket team by its new coach, the New Zealander Brendan “Baz” McCullum. McCullum championed a new style of cricket that gives players permission to take risks and embrace failure — previously unheard of in England cricket. And it worked: the team went from winning one game in 17, to winning 13 in 18 (Comment, 21 July). A much-maligned English institution transforming itself to become innovative, exciting, and world-leading? Bazball may have a thing or two to teach the Church of England!

Alan Smith is the First Church Estates Commissioner.

 

Claire Gilbert

Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan (Faber & Faber, £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-571-23307-6)

MY BOOK to recommend is Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields: her second collection of short stories. It is hard to believe that it’s only her second. Her writing has the mature skill of one who has been writing for decades. Her sentences are simple, economical, and also lyrical. She writes of individuals and families who wrestle with their pasts, and live on into their futures. She offers detail and also remains porous to possibilities, activating the imaginations of her readers on their behalf, because we really care about them.

Claire Gilbert is the founding director of the Westminster Abbey Institute. Her latest book is I, Julian: The fictional autobiography of Julian of Norwich (Hodder & Stoughton, 2023).

 

Alison Webster

Rememberings by Sinéad O’Connor (Penguin Books, £10.99 (£9.89); 978-1-84488-542-8)

AS A young queer woman in the late 1980s, I loved Sinéad O’Connor: her music, artistry, boldness, and the burning passionate anger that characterised her stage presence. I sensed that she was mystical and prophetic. I am devastated that it was her tragic early death that brought this memoir to my attention. Rememberings opens up her discography — far more extensive and diverse than I ever knew — and her spiritual journey, which is deep, intelligent, and eclectic, with echoes of Kempe, Julian, and Weil. Although the book is short, its significance for survivor theologies of all kinds is massive.

Alison Webster is General Secretary of Modern Church.

 

Fergus Butler-Gallie 

Portable Magic: A history of books and their readers by Emma Smith (Penguin Books, £10.99 (£9.89); 978-0-14-199193-1)

IN THE 1960s, Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell spent rainy afternoons defacing books in the Islington Public Library. Specifically, they swapped dust jackets and blurbs around, resulting in a tome of Betjeman’s poems having its author photo replaced with a picture of a man in his pants. I suspect one could have enormous fun at the Church House Bookshop doing something similar*. Orton and Halliwell’s mischief is one of the many glorious anecdotes in Emma Smith’s sublime Portable Magic: A history of books and their readers. It is a wonder in and of itself — a book about books — and it caused me to reflect deeply about the nature of the written word and the Living one, as well.

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a priest and a writer.

*though one would get caught, as they were. Editor

 

Eve Poole 

Lydia by Paula Gooder is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-4447-9205-8)

MY FAVOURITE book this year was a Christmas present from my sister. It’s Paula Gooder’s second novel, Lydia. Jesus knew that we learned better through stories, which is why he told them. And now Paula is turning her formidable theological arsenal towards fiction. I learned so much from this gem of a book. It’s set in the Philippi we know from the epistles, where Lydia sells purple cloth. It’s the perfect mix: a winsome story, rigorous and illuminating scholarship, with spiritual insight and depth. It had me thinking, crying, and rejoicing. I highly recommend it.

Dr Eve Poole writes on theology, economics, and leadership. Her latest book is Robot Souls: Programming in humanity (Routledge, 2023).

 

Chine McDonald 

Women and the Gender of God by Amy Peeler (Eerdmans, £19.99 (£17.99); 978-0-8028-7909-7)

THERE were several mic-drop moments for me in this theological tour de force. For Peeler, the issue of rethinking God’s gender is not a one-dimensional requirement of political correctness. It is not merely an appeal to change the male pronouns that we use for God, lest it might offend. Instead, she argues — through careful analysis of biblical text — that the assumption that God is male is just plain false, and arises out of centuries of patriarchal readings of scripture. At times terrifying in its deconstruction, this book rebuilt my hope in a God who transcends our human faults and assumptions.

Chine McDonald is the director of Theos. Her book God is Not a White Man: And other revelations (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021) has been longlisted for the Michael Ramsey Prize. 

 

Keith Ward 

Magisteria: The entangled histories of science and religion by Nicholas Spencer (Oneworld, £25 (£22.50); 978-0-86154-461-5)

MAGISTERIA, by Nicholas Spencer, is a book about the relations of religion and science, called two magisteria by the scientist Stephen Gould. It is very readable (no equations!), and covers just about all the conversations, the arguments, and the agreements between scientists and religious believers throughout Western history. Galileo, Darwin, Newton, Einstein — they are all there. It is a must-read for anyone interested in this vital topic, and outstanding for its destruction of old myths about “the war between religion and science”, and for showing how complex, and various, and often positive relations have actually been.

Canon Keith Ward is Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

 

Richard Harries 

Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within by Rory Stewart (Jonathan Cape, £22 (£19.80); 978-1-78733-271-3)

IF YOU think that politics has been dysfunctional in recent years, reading this book reveals it to have been even worse than you imagined in your most critical moods. Few books on politics are worth reading, but this is riveting. Beautifully written, with a highly personal, deeply felt slant, it really does make one want to turn over the page. The central frustration behind the book is that Rory Stewart actually did want to get things done and make a difference. Sadly, he found too many interested only in their own careers and how they would play in the press.

Read a review here, and an interview with Rory Stewart here.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is Majesty: Reflections on the Life of Christ with Queen Elizabeth II (SPCK, 2023).

He reviews Robert Alter’s Amos Oz: Writer, activist, icon here.

 

Jessica Martin

Immanuel by Matthew McNaught (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99 (£11.69); 978-1-910695-67-8)

THIS perceptive, elegantly written, and humane memoir tells the author’s story of his growing up in a Charismatic Restorationist church in the 1990s, its deepening entanglement with a manipulative Nigerian Pentecostalist sect, and his slow and painful emergence from Christian faith, which left behind it a longing both for community and collective worship. Honest and beautiful, it is as clear-sighted about secular idols as about sacred ones, and succinctly analyses the entanglement of authentic faith with misused power. It has a personal dimension for me, because his Winchester church was the direct inheritor of the Restorationist Charismatics who influenced my own faith when I was growing up. But you don’t need to have that particular history to find this a wonderful book.

The Revd Dr Jessica Martin is a Residentiary Canon of Ely Cathedral.

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