I’m always on the lookout for new books I can read, and am curious to hear from friends what they think were the best ones they came across recently. Here are five of my favourites from this year. Not all are new publications. Maybe one will catch your eye? Let me know what you would recommend to me for my 2016 reading list!
Best Fiction Book: The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (1971)
I discovered Flannery O’Connor during a week at the beach in South Carolina with our extended family. I wanted to take something “authentically Southern” with me to read while I was there. O’Connor is known as the godmother of Southern Gothic fiction, a genre which blends the unique peculiarities of the region with a darkly humorous take on life. She was the ideal author for seven days in the South.
Flannery O’Connor wrote little but well. She lived only thirty-nine years, never married, and spent the latter period of her life raising peacocks on a farm in Georgia. She was also, unusually for a cultural figure in the Deep South, a practising Roman Catholic. She published just thirty-one short stories and two novels in her lifetime. Her earliest stories are written in a thick local dialect which takes work to penetrate. Later, though, she developed a more accessible style and her A Good Man Is Hard To Find, included in The Complete Stories, is regarded by many as the best piece of short-form fiction ever written. It, like her other tales, ends with a punch which leaves you thinking about it for days afterwards.
If you like the idea of trying something a bit different by immersing yourself in high drama, beautiful prose, hidden corners of 1950s Southern culture, and a subtle undercurrent of theological reflection, then this book will work for you.
Best Biography or Memoir: Wave: Life and Memories after the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
Flannery O’Conner was my reading by the sunny beach. But Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir accompanied me to the snowy Transylvanian mountains when I spent a week there for work. It ended up keeping me awake for an hour or so each night after everyone else had gone to bed. I was in its grip from the very first sentence.
Wave is the true story of how Deraniyagala, a British-based Sri Lankan academic, lost her husband and two young sons in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Most of the book takes place after these horrific events and charts her journey through grief and processing her loss. As a parent I found it an especially heart-rending book. You are plunged into the world of someone who had a loving and lively family unexpectedly snatched from them in a matter of minutes. We all know life is fragile, but this book really brings it home. The difficulty of the subject matter is conveyed through a compellingly honest writing style and clocks in at a little over two-hundred pages. If you like books which raise big questions about life and trigger personal reflection then this is worth a look.
Best Comic Book: The Pixilated Parrot by Carl Barks (2015)
Growing up I subscribed to a weekly Disney magazine full of comic strips about Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. When I left home, though, they were shoved in a box and put in my parents’ attic. Other childhood favourites, such as Asterix and Tintin, travelled with me and still sit on the bookshelf in my living room. I think I just assumed that the Disney comics were a kind of literary pulp which didn’t merit the same level of affection as these more established classics.
Recently, though, I came to learn a little more about Disney comics. Most especially about the writer and illustrator Carl Barks, inventor of Uncle Scrooge McDuck. When he first wrote for Disney, between the 1940s and 1960s, they didn’t even put his name on the stories he created. Disney mandated that all artists and writers remain anonymous. But the quality of his work jumped out to everyone who encountered it. By the 1980s fans had identified him and he began to be recognized as one of the greatest comic book artists and storytellers of the twentieth century.
His complete works are in the process of being republished in beautiful full-colour editions of around two-hundred pages each. Each volume is packed full of very funny adventure stories. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg both acknowledge borrowing from Barks’ work when they created the Indiana Jones movies.
His stories also contain great artwork; sometimes Barks would decide he just wanted to draw something, a circus for example, and then would create an engaging story around the visuals he wanted to use. Most comic book writers of the period would outsource their background art to other less talented individuals. But Barks took pride in crafting detailed frames like this one:
If you are an adult who enjoys classic comic books then this is one of the best. It’s even better if you have kids. I read it with my five year old son on the tram to school every morning over the course of a month and he was enthralled by every page.
Best History Book: The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity by Todd Hartch (2014)
The twentieth century was the greatest period of growth in the history of the Christian church. Only in Europe and patches of North America did Christianity see decline. Elsewhere followers of Jesus were shaking off the cultural trappings of the foreign missionaries who first brought the message of the New Testament to their shores. Fresh indigenous forms of Christianity emerged which, while still theologically orthodox and consistent with the core historic mainstream teachings of the church, took on a local flavour and exploded numerically.
In Latin America there was a renewal of Roman Catholicism centred around both direct personal experience of God (“Charismatic Catholicism”) and activism against structural injustice and inequality (“liberation theology”). The Pentecostal church also spread like wildfire and became a vibrant visible presence in most countries. Stadiums were filled for huge celebratory events and tens of thousands of new congregations were launched around region.
The Rebirth of Latin American Christianity charts the story of this resurgence through a richly detail-packed narrative. Hartch’s work benefits from being academically robust (it’s published by Oxford University Press), sympathetic in tone, and unflinching in describing the ugly as well as beautiful aspects of Latin American Christianity.
Two surprises for those accustomed to understanding Christianity through the USA-centric media portrayals of the church: Most Latin American expressions of Christianity have tended to align with the political left (if they side with anyone) and have a love for the poor, and almost all emphasise the present-day reality of God working miraculously and speaking today.
Best Theology Book: The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity by Richard Shumack (2014)
Islam and Christianity are frequently discussed through a political or cultural frame. Richard Shumack takes a different angle and focuses in on the philosophical differences between the two religions.
It’s a helpful approach as, in my experience as a Christian interacting with Muslims, many Muslims’ most heartfelt criticisms of the Christian faith are philosophical in nature. Questions about the possibility of God lowering himself to become a human being, the intellectual tenability of the Trinity, and why the death of Jesus was necessary for God to enact forgiveness are three such topics which arise frequently. Each are dealt with in this book, along with other matters relating to ethics, politics and the possibility of certainty in our convictions about God.
Shumack is a follower of Jesus and he wants Muslims and Christians to have some robust debate about their areas of difference. He is trying to argue his point. But he does so in a friendly and kindly manner. I found his work helpful for my own understanding of both Christianity and Islam (I became oddly more sympathetic to each of them as I read it) and also especially useful when giving talks or conversing about religious pluralism and the uniqueness of the Christian faith; it helped me better pinpoint and describe why certain aspects of what I believe make sense in light of questions raised by audience members and conversation partners.
If you are a Christian seeking better understanding of Islam’s main criticisms of what you believe, someone looking into the case for Christianity, or just a curious bystander in conversations about world religion and the possibility of God, then I recommend this book to you.
Those, then are five of my favourite books from this year. What have been some of yours which you would recommend to me?