Books in 2015

Decided to set myself a goal this year of finishing 3 books a month — 3 that I wouldn’t be ashamed to list out (I read a lot of fluffy romance too), that is. I’m really not sure how possible this will continue to be, especially if I start work in the later part of the year, but here goes (: For each book I manage to complete, I’ll add it to this list, with quote(s) and 1 comment. Each category is arranged in order of preference, not chronology. Also, I read 2-3 books at once, so that explains dates that are very close.

Fiction

1. Lila, Marilynne Robinson (fin. 11/01) 

He was going on about baptism. A birth and a death and a marriage, he said. A touch of water and these children are given the whole of life.

This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognised for what it is… So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.

She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilty. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them, too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.

— Fell in love with Lila, John Ames, Gilead and Marilynne Robinson’s prose; of the many kinds of loneliness, the beauty and depth of each, especially as they collide.

2. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (fin. 01/06)

— A ex-paparazzo-turned-paramedic, a child actress, an aging actor with three ex-wives and a lonely child, a flu that wipes out 99.99% of the planet, an art graduate drawing space-themed comics, a love of Shakespeare and symphonies in a world without electricity but with too many memories… how do these come together? Somehow, the writer makes it work. Right before this I tried to pick up Kate Atkinson’s highly-rated Life After Life and just couldn’t get it nor get into it; this book struck me as being quite the opposite in how smoothly it weaves multiple characters and multiple timelines together — the back-and-forthness didn’t feel like a device, or an attempt to make the book more mysterious and award-worthy. Instead, it felt right, like there is no better way to unfold the story. A highly enjoyable book.

3. Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis (fin. 04/04) 

‘Are the gods not just?’
‘Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were? But come and see.’
— Apparently, this book was C. S. Lewis’ favourite of his works. It is a retelling of the story of Eros and Psyche, from Psyche’s sister (named Orual here)’s viewpoint, but also much more than that. It is wonderful, yet terrible — terrible not because it is bad, but terrible because it is true. If we understand the impact of Orual seeing reality, and if it really reflects Lewis’ seeing of Christian truth, i.e. the terrifying seeing of 2 Corinthians 3:18 (where the title of the book presumably comes from), there are huge, huge, consequences for all of us.

4. Glimmerglass, Marly Youmans (fin. 16/05)

— I don’t think I’m a very good fiction appreciator (I always fear I’m not understanding it), or maybe fiction preferences are more varied. This novel and this author has the recommendation of some online folks I listen to, so I was surprisingly underwhelmed by it. I cannot fault the writing style at all — it’s lovely. But I thought the first half of the novel much stronger than the second (maybe I’m not *getting* it), and wished it had gone on that way.

5. The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro (fin. 17/03)

Boatman, I’ve spoken honestly to you, and I hope it doesn’t cast your earlier judgement of us in doubt. For I suppose there’s some would hear my words and think our love flawed and broken. But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.

— As with Ishiguro, this book is so hard to categorise: It’s set as medieval fantasy, but the genre is merely a tool, and as sufficient to describe the novel as ‘science-fiction’ would be to describe Never Let Me Go. Something about the intrigue makes you want to flip forward, and yet the pace is leisurely (like the other three books of Ishiguro’s I’ve read and loved). It’s a bit messy, though, and maybe tries to do too much.

6. The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield (fin. 22/01)

‘I shall start at the beginning. Though of course the beginning is never where you think it is. Our lives are so important to us that we tend to think the story of them begins with our birth. First there was nothing, then I was born… Yet that is not so. Human lives are not pieces of string that can be separated out from a knot of others and laid out straight. Families are webs. Impossible to touch one part of it without setting the rest vibrating. Impossible to understand one part without having a sense of the whole.’

— It’s suspense, so it’s intriguing, and draws you in. Personally I wasn’t comfortable with certain elements (spoiler: incest), and I didn’t particularly enjoy Setterfield’s writing style.

Non-Fiction, General

1. In the Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides (fin. 10/03)

— If only all non-fiction (and a good deal of fiction) were written so masterfully! The story was gripping, but the narration was even more beautiful, and getting to know the people made it especially heartbreaking. I’ve a longer recommendation here.

2. H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (fin. 16/04)

— I’m not one for memoirs, always questioning if they should instead be placed in some murky grey category in between fiction and non-fiction. I’m also not one for nature and animals. So it surprised me when this book gripped me right off the bat and I finished it within 2-3 days (in which I was supposed to be very occupied with exams). I have a full review here, which is mostly a composition of quotes. On the whole, very worth-reading, even though sometimes her short jerky style of writing made me turn the page a little faster than I should’ve.

3. A Brief History of Thought, Luc Ferry (fin. 16/03)

I will say that the cross of materialism is that it never quite succeeds in believing what it preaches, in thinking its own thought. This may sound complicated, but is in fact simple: the materialist says, for example, that we are not free, though he is convinced, of course, that he asserts this freely, that no one is forcing him to state this view of the matter — neither parents, not social milieu, nor biological inheritance. He says that we are wholly determined by our history, but he never stops urging us to free ourselves, to change our destiny, to revolt where possible! He says that we must love the world as it is, turning our backs on past and future so as to live in the present, but he never stops trying, like you or me, when the present weighs upon us, to change it in hope of a better world. In brief, the materialist sets forth philosophical these that are profound, but always for you and me, never for himself. Always, he reintroduces transcendence — liberty, a vision for society, the ideal — because in truth he cannot not believe himself to be free, and therefore answerable to values higher than nature and history.

— I’ve never taken Philo 101, and have only tried to read one other intro-to-philosophy book, so I think this small book is a great way to get a quick glimpse of Western philosophy through history. Ferry starts with a huge hypothesis/assumption, that philosophy is about salvation, and he explains each chapter later around this theme. Interestingly (and I think quite rare to see), he’s sympathetic to Christianity, and says it would be a superior philosophy if he could accept the resurrection. I enjoyed his critiques of the various other streams though, such as this one of ‘amor fati’ (Nietzsche).

4. Infinitesimal, Amir Alexander (fin. 13/02)

— The subtitle of the book is ‘How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World’, and is really a picture of how the theory of infinitesimals, which ironically are small indivisibles, caused big fusses and problems in the 16th – 18th century. It’s history, mixed in with a fair bit of speculation and exaggeration, but I still really enjoyed the writing style, puzzling out some of the math along the way (it’s fascinating, seriously) and learning about the politics of the time. A fun read (:

5. Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson (fin. 05/01) 

Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.

— Heartbreaking insights into systems that are meant to implement justice; a reminder that sin and brokenness has pervaded not just individuals, but institutions too. The chapter at the end where Stevenson waxes (on mercy, and true justice) has many strong quotes, but feels a little disjointed from the rest of the text.

6. After the Music Stopped, Alan S. Blinder (fin. 21/01)

— Really detailed and interesting take on the U.S. 2008 financial crisis, and Blinder does an admirable job explaining financial jargon, the ‘alphabet soup’ of U.S. government agencies+programmes (my head’s still spinning), how central banks work, etc, such that a layman can understand the impact of something even if not its mechanics. His non-liking for Republicans is quite obvious though, and in my view, sometimes distracting. The last third of the book is also not quite as tightly-written or engaging as the rest.

7. How Not to be Wrong, Jordan Eilenberg (fin. 10/02)

— A fun read on mathematics and statistics, and how the decisions we make based on (what we think are) solid results and methods may not necessarily be the best ones.

Christian

1. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs (fin. 20/03) 

I cannot say enough about how wonderful this book was, but I am now deeply determined to read far more of the Puritans. Here’s my book review that is mostly quotes. Read it, read it, read it.

2. Prayer, Timothy Keller (fin. 20/01)

The first thing we learn in attempting to pray is our spiritual emptiness — and this lesson is crucial. We are so used to being empty that we do not recognise the emptiness as such until we start to try to pray. We don’t feel it until we begin to read what the Bible and others have said about the greatness and promise of prayer. Then we finally begin to feel lonely and hungry. It’s an important first step to fellowship with God, but it is a disorienting one.

— This quote comes early in the book and is not the thing that stuck with me most (see this post or this post for 2 extended quotes), but is such a true reflection of my prayer life, that I just had to continue reading. Keller doesn’t disappoint, and every time he publishes a new book I need to reconsider my ‘Top 3 Keller Books’ list — this is a book that shows the best of Keller: his immersion in Scripture, his learning from old (dead) theologians, his awareness of culture, his ability to translate difficult concepts into clear analogies, all while balancing the philosophical and practical.

3. What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality, Kevin DeYoung (fin. 26/05) 

God is love, but this is quite different from affirming that our culture’s idea of love must be God.

— DeYoung is one of my favourite pastors and writers: His books are short, logical, Biblical and practical; he doesn’t delve into theological controversies; he’s pastoral and to-the-point. Unsurprisingly, this book covers the Biblical ground well (for the average churchgoer like me!), and tackles many of the common questions or objections that I hear. I definitely recommend it.

4. Wesley on the Christian Life, Fred Sanders (fin. 29/03) 

Thus, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” when considered as a commandment, is a branch of the law; when regarded as a promise, is an essential part of the gospel; — the gospel being no other than the commands of the law, proposed by way of promise.

— Still a Calvinist and Presbyterian after finishing this (: But with a great deal more knowledge of, and appreciation for, John Wesley’s theology. Fred Sanders is a really good writer, with occasional random comments like this (context: 1 John was Wesley’s favourite book) —

Many of the Wesley children died in infancy; in fact, John was the third child to be given that name, the previous two Johns having perished early. So he was not the first John, though nobody ever called him Third John as far as I know.

Some things I appreciate about Wesley and his theology: (1) His framework of working from the base of 1 John to Paul made him uniquely able to counter the antinomians of his day, and probably the ‘hyper-grace’ movement of ours; (2) His ability to preach a simple gospel to simple people — that his chief legacy was sermons and his brother’s, hymns, are clear evidence of that; (3) His focus on Christian unity and catholicity. Also, Charles Wesley is just amazing (the book weaves the brothers’ theology together sometimes) — his brain functions in rhyme, I think. Rhyme and Scripture.

5. The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis (fin. 02/06)

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.

— Lewis never disappoints. Here, by creating a fictional heaven and hell and considering the characters that might dwell in either place, he actually considers sin in its many forms, why people reject Christianity, how to respond to some objections, and so on. It is very much a book of apologetics, really, but written beautifully. The quote I shared above was one that struck me a while back, and here’s a great song by Sean Carter that is based on it.

6. Counter Culture, David Platt (fin. 04/02) 

‘Are you really saying there’s only one way to God?’ people immediately ask. Yet even as we ask the question, we reveal the problem. If there were 1,000 ways to God, we would want 1,001. The issue is not how many ways lead to God; the issue is our autonomy before God. We want to make our own way.

— I am thankful that Platt uses the gospel to winsomely, Biblically respond to the contentious social concerns he raises — homosexuality, abortion, sex slavery, racism, etc. It would probably be far more relevant if I live in the States, but even then, much of it was convicting and will require deeper reflection (and action).

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