Top 10 novels read and why (so far!)

TOP 10 NOVELS 

  1. Anna Karenin.   Leo Tolstoy: (1874-6) (Trans. Rosemary Edmonds 1954) 

Extraordinarily powerful account of the doomed love affair between the married Anna Karenin and the playboy aristocratic soldier Vronski played off against the innocence and humility of the courtship, marriage and family of Levin and Kitty and the troubled and forgiving relationship between Stiva and Dolly Oblonsky. This lengthy novel had me spellbound when I read it in 1967 and I have read it twice since as well as enjoying several film versions

2.  Voss.  Patrick White (1957)  Although I much enjoyed Tree of Man this account of a fictional explorer challenging the vast spaces of an Australian outback unknown to white Australians is gruelling, heroic, intense and enthralling. Inspired by the story of Ludwig Leichhardt who died in the Australian desert in 1849 I remember being exhausted by the narrative but totally captivated and unable to put it down. Both of these novels gave me a life-long love for the writing of Patrick White.

3. Women in Love.  (1913-1917) D H Lawrence. I read and badly misunderstood The Rainbow in my first year at Melbourne University as a relatively immature student in the English Faculty. I could not understand a thing about the writing. Reading Women in Love in my 40s i was stunned by Lawrence’s sensitivity to male/female emotions, interactions, misunderstandings and love making. The sophistication, clarity and deep emotion of this writing I will never forget.

4. The Ancestor Game. (1993)  Alex Miller. Alex Miller is my Number 1 modern Australian/English/writer although Geraldine Brooks runs a close second. This complex three generation account of a set of Chinese and Australian relationships mesmerised me and I have now read this novel twice. The use of works of art as a thread and the contrast between the wondrously and fragilely delineated ancient China and the rather less entrancing modern  China as well as the very familiar Australian teaching background and locations held me enthralled. Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing,  loosely based around Sydney Nolan’s life also captivated me as it will anyone who has spent time at Heidi in Bulleen Victoria. In fact Alex Miller has not written a novel I haven’t devoured with deep pleasure.

5. Ulysses. (1922 text edited with an introduction and notes by Jeri Johnson).  James Joyce. Joyce’s account of one day in the Dublin love life of Leopold Bloom and the intellectualising thought life of Stephen Dedalus was a text I deliberately left until I was in my fifties and had spent a few days wandering around in Dublin, drinking my first guiness and visiting the Joyce museum there.  I also did not read it until I found an excellent Oxford notated edition with over 200 pages of carefully edited explanatory notes! The sheer genius and breadth of Joyce’s vast (over 500 on my count)  literary associations, the Shakespearian authorship debate subplot, the Biblical/Hindu/buddhist/Jewish interactions, the philosophic/poetic/literary duels and even the Madame Blavastki spiritualism adventures are all rich sauce on a story of a delightful and thought provoking day in Ireland.  A tough day at the office but an unforgettable experience. (I don’t think I could do it again!)

6. All the Light We Cannot See. (2014)  Anthony Doer. I am not much of a fan of war novels as a rule but this complex and beautifully written World War 2 fictional story set in France involving a young blind girl and her museum curator father and a young German lad growing up and enlisting under Hitler is spell-binding.  In the short time since its publication I have met so many people who talk about this book as one they cannot forget. This novel grips you by the throat and does not let you go until the very end, then stays in your mind as a heart-warming and redeeming experience emerging from the most atrocious horror of war.

7. Middlemarch. (1871-2)  George Eliot.  This is again a novel I have read twice and watched as a  movie.  Maybe it is  because I see something of myself in the desiccated scholar and pedant Casaubon and his creative, luminous and deeply understanding wife Dorothea that I enjoy this novel so much. The ultimately doomed Dr Lydgate and his spendthrift wife Rosamond is a wonderful subplot but above all this is a deeply thoughtful novel which engages both emotion and mind to a very significant depth indeed. This is a book that adds something to the texture of a reader’s life forever.

8.  Wolf Hall. (2010)  Hilary Mantel. I have to put this novel into my top ten because for the first time in my life I simply could not stop turning the pages of this novel. It is the ultimate page turner. We were in Canberra with a big day ahead but I stayed up I think until 3.00am reading this beautifully written factional account of the life and influence of Thomas Cromwell during the early years of the Protestant reforms begun by Henry VIII’s all consuming desire for a divorce from his Catholic wife Catherine of Aragon. Mantel is a fine historian but more so a fiendishly clever novelists who traps readers into personal relationships with her characters to the extent that we simply have to keep reading to find out what happens to them. A not before time? reassessment of the role of Thomas More during the frantic years of the English Reformation.  I consider the sequel Bring Up the Bodies as part 11 of the same novel and equally fine.

9.  Wuthering Heights. (1847)   Emily Brontë  I took this novel which I regarded at university as the greatest love story of all time on my honeymoon and did not get very far reading it to my wife! We left it under the bed and remarkably a mate of mine from Melbourne University hired the same holiday unit, found the book with my name in it  (what was he doing under the bed?) and returned it to me! I still think the spiritual and physical bond between Heathcliff and Catherine which overcame physical death is the ultimate statement of passionate love. I have since visited the beautiful village of Haworth with its vicarage high on a hill and right next door to the parish graveyard…fertile ground for deep emotional writing. I am still moved by this novel and I think I would be a different person if I had not read it.

10. The Songlines. (1987)  Bruce Chatwin     The enigmatic Bruce Chatwin has made more sense of indigenous Australian culture for me than anything else I have ever read. The unique nomadic relationship Aboriginal communities and individuals have had with the landscape of the great South Land is complex and spiritually alien to white Australians. This beautifully written tale  of actual encounters with real people, complex notebook gleanings from cultures all around the world and all periods of history. Chatwin’s creativity and research has left an indelible mark on me. (His novel On the Black Hill is also a thoughtful and powerful read!)

N T Wright:The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’Crucifixion.

I just read this book and here is my review:

N T Wright: The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, Harper One/SPCK, San Francisco/London, 2016.

Tom Wright’s latest blockbuster is  a big sprawling book clearly based on a lecture series and therefore could have done with some judicious editing. (416 pages).  Nevertheless it makes a powerful impact because in this significant study Wright attempts to overturn many current and traditional theological understandings of the crucifixion of Jesus. The book will engender vigorous discussion and has already encountered substantial online opposition from Wright’s normal opponents both conservative and liberal. This noise should not deter readers from making the effort to stay the distance because Wright’s argument is Biblical, cogent, eventually compelling and in his final two chapters of application to today’s church I believe his analysis can only be ignored at the church’s peril especially the first world church,

In Part 1, the first three chapters, the opening question is “why did Jesus die”? Of course there are historical and theological answers but Wright’s two questions are first, “what was Jesus thinking when he chose to go to the cross? and secondly what did the earliest Christian writers mean by saying the reason for his death had resulted in “the forgiveness of sins.”? This is especially surprising given that Jesus’s own preaching had been based around the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. Wright addresses directly the issue that Jesus preached the kingdom and the early church preached Jesus.

Wright answers his own questions with  he reality that, with the resurrection, Jesus’s followers became immediately aware that arguably the most momentous revolution in human history had begun. Jesus’s followers especially Paul believed it involved the defeat of the powers of the cosmos and in particular the power and fear of death. As his followers wrestled with the Cross an understanding of its universal significance began to dawn. Wright provides some difficult to read detail of the scandalous horror and unglamorous torture involved in Roman crucifixion to prove that only a life changing purpose could have made early believers make such a horrific death central to their understanding of God’s action in the world. Wright provides a cook’s tour of two thousand years of interpretation of the meaning of the cross, concentrating on Reformation responses and then demonstrates at length an equally varied response to the crucifixion in first century Roman and Jewish/Christian understanding.

In Part 11  headed “in Accordance with the Bible”  Wright engages in a surprisingly detailed analysis of the narrative of the Old Testament focussing deliberately and directly down on to the five themes of the universal covenant promises to Abraham; the narratives of exodus and exile; the prophetic call to God’s people to be “the light to the nations” and the suffering servant narrative of later Isaiah. Readers familiar with Wright’s major commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume X will recognise this approach. Thus Wright prepares the way for his “Israel centred” understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion in Part 111.

Part 111 is the most theologically controversial section of the book in which Wright analyses first the Gospels in some detail especially John, followed by “Paul and the Cross apart from Romans” and finally two chapters centred on Romans. All the “big-name models” of atonement are there including penal substitution, justification, propitiation (ἱλαστηριον), expiation, reconciliation, redemption, punishment, the wrath of God and the righteousness of God. These themes are reinterpreted in a broader understanding of God’s ongoing revolution lead by God’s people resuming the task of being light and salt in the world and playing their part of being the suffering body of Christ in the world as we await its transformation with the return of Christ.

In part this Old Testament story of God’s action in the world is Wright’s reaction to such “slimmed down” evangelistic models as “the Romans Road” (see gotquestions.org) in which the meaning of the crucifixion tends to be limited to the forgiveness of personal sin so that a person can “go to heaven when they die”.  Wright’s response is to underline Israel’s responsibility to be a light to the nations which, in spite of their return to Jerusalem, had stalled through their continuing “exile” under Roman rule in the first century. Wright sees Christ’s victory over the powers of the world on the cross as reigniting the establishment of the kingdom of God in a “this world time/space”, not escaping from the world into some disembodied heavenly existence. In this regard Wright gives Biblical expression to philosopher Roger Scruton’s recent powerful call to a spiritual life and 3an afterlife in time, [belonging] within the causal envelope, in the space-time continuum which is the world of nature. [The Soul of the World, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2014 p198]  In relation to “the powers” Wright interprets them as three “old gods”..Mammon, Ares and Aphrodite i.e. wealth, war and sex!

Part IV of the book contains two chapters of a clarion call to living the Christian life within the victory of the crucifixion. It is hard-hitting, dynamic and potentially life-changing as well as threatening. Do not proceed if you do not want your spiritual equilibrium disturbed! Consider these zingers for example:

Many churches have colluded in the privatisation and spiritualisation of ‘salvation.” (p.394); Forgiveness of sins is not a tolerance of ‘anything goes’. (p396); Challenging political agendas does not absolve us from the need for personal holiness. (p403) We cannot assume that we are now mandated to live the Christian version of a modern Western “good life”. (p404) How easily the Western church embraces self-discovery, self-fulfilment and self-realization as if they were at the heart of the Gospel. (p410) “..for every word of Jesus against sins of the body there are a dozen against sins of the bankbook. (p410). So, finally, when the New Testament tells us the meaning of the cross, it gives us not a system, but a story; not a theory, but a meal and an act of humble service; not a celestial mechanism for punishing sin and taking people to heaven, but an earthly story of a human Messiah who embodies and incarnates Israel’s God and who unveils his glory in bringing his kingdom to earth as in heaven. (p415)

The Revolution began on that first Good Friday and continues in the faithful and suffering lives of God’s people around the world as they work with joyful politically challenging courage and holiness as the body of Christ to continue to create God’s kingdom of love, beauty and justice in the world, patiently awaiting its transformation at Christ’s return. May it be so in the churches to which we belong.

Richard Prideaux, Senior Chaplain, Newhaven College, Victoria, Australia

RECENTLY READ BOOKS

BOOKS READ RECENTLY

P T Forsyth:  Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, New Creations Publications, Spotswood SA, 1993 (1907)   (read and carefully analysed 2013-2016) ..detailed notes elsewhere; certainly the best book on preaching I have ever read.  J K Mozley: Perhaps English Christianity’s most powerful theologian in the sphere of dogmatics. 5 stars

Phillip Henderson: William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967  ( read December 2016)   amazing life and work of one of the world’s most amazing creative geniuses;  Yates: the most loved man in England!   5 stars

Rob Bell: Velvet Elvis, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2005. (Read December 2016;) unique style aimed at mega church attendees; Clarion call for common sense theology for the C21st in so many areas; all the key ideas are there but referred to almost tangentially;   3 stars

Kent Haruf: Our Souls at Night, Picador, London, 2015. (Read December 2016 )(Book club) Two single old folk who get together late at night for companionship. Heartwarming, passionate, cruel in its depiction of family stresses. 3 stars.

Roger Scruton: The Soul of the World, Princeton and Oxford. Princeton University Press, 2014.  (read December 2016.)  English philosopher arguing against reductionist conclusions in evolutionary psychology, cognitive dualism and neuroscience as well as nothing buttery and  reductionism in aesthetics, personal identity and relationships, music, art and religion.  Difficult read but a wealth of supporting data beautifully argued including deep analysis of opponents. Moves toward the the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition but not enough for many Christians and way too far for many secularist atheists.   4 stars

Aristotle, trans. J A K Thompon (1953) Ethics: with intro by Jonathan Barnes & notes by Hugh Tredennick and Preface by A C Grayling, The Folio Society, London, 2003.  (Read term 3 2016 ) Difficult read in defence of virtue ethics but full of wisdom, wit, common sense and pre-Christian “Christian values” regarding the human pursuit of happiness. p121:All teaching starts by what is known; p201: A good man, if necessary, dies for his friends. p224 We ought, so far as in us lies, to put on immortality. p227: A man’s life will be happy if he acts in accordance with virtue.  4 stars

Peter Goldsworthy: Maestro, Melbourne, Angus & Robertson, 2010. (Read term 4 2016 Newhaven. ) Australian angry young man story with holocaust link. Very thin! …1 star.

Julian Barnes:  A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters,  (Read term 3 2016 Newhaven).  Clever,  annoying book with a water/Biblical/art/terrorism theme including an excursus on love and another on heaven.  (his father is Jonathan Barnes ..Oxford Classics and Philosophy genius)   3 stars

Daniel Varè: The Maker of Heavenly Trousers, Penguin Books Aust, Camberwell, 2011 (1935) ( Read December 2016 ) Curious story of an Italian diplomat in China during the period before and after WW1..mixture of romance, fantasy, poetry, philosophy,Chinese and Buddhist culture…3 stars.

Michelle De Kretser: Questions of Travel,  Crows Nest Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2012 ( Read December 2016); Fiction based around two characters..footloose traveller and travel writer Laura Fraser and Sri Lankan refugee to Australia, Ravi Menises. Large book, interesting reflections on travel, striking ending, 3 stars.

Richard Holloway: Leaving Alexandria, Edinburgh, Canongate,2010. (Read January 2017.) Extraordinarily honest, annoying and searching book by renegade priest, prolific author and former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church before he was encouraged to quit by a significant section of his clergy. Widely read he gives a fascinating portrait of clerical life in the C20th from within an Anglo-Catholic perspective although one senses he would like to be a “liberal charismatic evangelical”.  In many ways a Christian atheist! Not a book for the faint-hearted but a useful read if only for the poetry and writers he quotes! 3 stars.

Bruno Vincent: Five Give up the Booze, London, Quercus (Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups, 2016.  (Read January 2017) Quirky adult story written in Enid Blyton style with Enid Blyton presentation and illustrations.  Quite funny and clever and even thoughtful in places   3 stars

Manning Clark: The Puzzles of Childhood: His Early Life, Ringwood Aust, Penguin Books, 1990 (1989). (Read January 2017)  Intensely written account of his early life and family history including his complex working class clergyman father, upper class mother and brother Peter. Includes his time at Kempsey, Phillip Island, Belgrave and Melbourne Grammar as a student.  Engaging, complex and funny in parts.   4 stars.

Simon Garfield: The Error World, London, Faber & Faber,2008. (Read January 2017 ) Funny, clever and engaging book about collecting. Focuses mainly on stamp collecting but many other interesting insights. Also a kind of autobiography of a writer who has ranged widely in non-fiction with books on music, time, war and history.   3 stars.

Manning Clark: The Quest for Grace, Ringwood Au, Viking, 1990.( Read January 2017) An autobiographical follow up to The Puzzle of Childhood. Stunningly honest and scarifying account of Manning’s desire for Christian grace alongside his biting and witty dismissal of his father’s stuffy Anglicanism, the smugness of the bourgeois, the attractions of sex and alcohol, his genuine love affair with socialism and a new world order and his final acceptance of the uniqueness of Australian culture against the dying European order set against the chaos of the build up and chaos of WW11; it is also the account of the birth and 25 year production of the six volume History of Australia and an amazing account of the significant students he taught and staff he taught and learned with at Geelong Grammar, Oxford, Melbourne Uni and ANU  as well as the writers, art, music and travel which influenced him.  According to his biographers, not always totally reliable. e.g. arriving in Germany the morning after kristallnacht.   5 stars.

Jean Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Ed., John T McNeil; trans. Ford Lewis Battles,  2 volumes (Volumes 20 and 21 in “The Library of Christian Classics”),  Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1960. Latin title reads: The Institute of the Christian Religion, Containing almost the Whole Sum of Piety and Whatever It is Necessary to Know in the Doctrine of Salvation. A Work Very Well Worth Reading by All Persons Zealous for Piety, and Lately Published. A Preface to the Most Christian King of France, in Which this Book is Presented to Him as a Confession of Faith. Author, John Calvin, of Noyon, Basel, MDXXXVI.  (Read 2014 (complete)  and Book 3 again January 2017;)   A big read! (1784 pages);  Written initially in Latin, then in French over eight editions between 1536 and 1559. In this translation quite readable; outstanding notes and clarifications by John T McNeill. A remarkable window into the Reformation fight with the mediaeval church Councils and Papal rulings on Biblical interpretation and doctrine (including Jerome’s Vulgate) paying particular and detailed attention constantly to the failure of the doctrine of salvation by merit as well as substantial criticism of ‘The Schoolmen’ i.e. mediaeval scholars such as  Aquinas, Cochleaus, Servetus, Fisher, Duns Scotus, Bonaventura, Lombard, Abelard and hundreds of other scholars,  and many disputes with Luther, Erasmus and Melanchthon also. Relies heavily on Augustine, Chrysostom, Ambrose  and Bernard of St Clair. A clear statement of all the major Christian doctrines with detailed rebuttal of opposing arguments of the day. Calvin’s deep Renaissance knowledge of classical philosophy is evident especially Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Cicero, Seneca, Homer, Euripides, Plutarch amongst others. Wonderful treatment of prayer in Book 3.  The lengthy chapters on predestination and double predestination to Hell in Book 3 in which the latter is simply treated as a mystery into which it is unprofitable and dangerous to look will not be helpful to C21st readers with the exception of those committed to a stern Reformed theology. (4 stars)

J Ross Wagner: Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul in Concert in the Letter to the Romans, Boston/Leiden, Brill Academic, 2002( Read February 2017.)  Outstanding analysis of the quotations from Isaiah in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. A book for scholars and students of Paul and Isaiah..not for beginners.  Particularly interesting in relation to: (i) the importance of the Septuagint in Paul’s writing; (ii)reading and writing in the First Century of the Christian era;(iii)  the audacity of Paul’s treatment of Isianic prophecies about Israel being turned into prophecies about the salvation of Gentiles; Significant debt to the work of N T Wright, Richard Hays and E P Sanders but Wagner maintains his own position with trenchant and careful argument and does not slavishly follow any of these authors. Very useful bibliography and detailed footnotes; also very helpful charts of the Isaiah quotations and allusions. ( or “echoes”..Hays)  4 stars.

Rob Bell: Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions, London, Collins 2012.  (Read Feb 2017) A powerful follow up to Velvet Elvis (2005, see review above).  This is a clearly written and Biblically researched analysis of the Christian doctrines of Heaven and Hell, the Cross and the Resurrection written in an accessible style for folk who have little or no connection with formal church. I know no better book to give to someone ‘on the edge’ of faith or in opposition to faith. Bell tackles the universalism question straight on and mounts a powerful Biblical argument that, when all the chips are down, love wins. Winning no friends in the Facebook war, (Piper et al)  nevertheless Bell’s book  is a transformative, helpful and deeply thought provoking read. Bell lead the Mars Hill Michigan megachurch for many years and now lives in Los Angeles and is “on the circuit” which has included an appearance on Oprah Winfrey. In his later interviews he opposes the authority of the Bible as a source of ethical authority in the church of today which leaves him stranded for most conservative Christian believers. 5 stars

Martin Ayers: Naked God: The Truth About God Exposed, Kingsford, NSW, Matthiasmedia,2010. (read Feb.2017)  Probably the C21st version of Mere Christianity without the intellectual fireworks.  Simply written for teenagers and young adults with up to date references. Standard solid apologetics with a modern thrust although already strangely outdated e.g. by referencing Obama rather than Trump! (the obvious danger of using dateable examples).  A Useful book to give to someone on the edge but less cut than say Bell or Wright.  3 stars

N T Wright: The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, Harper One/SPCK, San Francisco/London, 2016. (Read February 2017) A big sprawling book clearly based on a lecture series and therefore could have done with some judicious editing. (416 pages).  Nevertheless it makes a powerful impact. Detailed review elsewhere; Notable for its emphasis on the narrative of the Biblical story rather than the Bible being a storehouse from which to dig out a systematic theology. Treats the crucifixion from the context of the Covenant promises to Abraham, the Old Testament narratives of exodus and exile, the prophetic call to a new covenant based on the vocation of God’s people to be the light to the nations, the narrative of the suffering servant in Isaiah, a helpful analysis of the four Gospels and three detailed chapters on Paul Including two chapters based on Romans. The book closes with two dynamic chapters and a call to arms for  the church and the vocation of God’s people. In summary Jesus died and rose again for the forgiveness of sins, demonstrating the  defeat of the dark powers at work in the world personified as Mammon (wealth), Mars (war) and Aphrodite (sex). At six o’clock in the evening on the first Good Friday the world was a different place…the Revolution began and continues in the faithful and suffering lives of God’s people around the world as they work with joyful politically challenging courage and holiness as the body of Christ to continue to create God’s kingdom of love, beauty and justice in the world, patiently awaiting its transformation at Christ’s return. (5 stars).

We cannot assume we are mandated to live the Christian version of a modern Western “good life”. (p 405); how easily the Western church embraces self-discovery, self-fulfilment and self-realization as if they were at the heart of the Gospel (p410)  (4 stars)

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: (translated, Lucia Graves):  The Shadow of the Wind, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2004. (Read December 2016)

Clever, engaging Spanish novel involving books and who has owned and written them, arcane mystery, love, inter-generational relationships, criminality, a hint of an evil muse and a generally complex thematic structure.  The “library of forgotten books” owes a substantial debt to Borges’  “The Library of Babel” in his collection Labyrinths, and there is a debt to Borges also in the labyrinthine turns of the plot.  Hard to put down; a good read!  (3.5 stars).

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness, Ringwood, Penguin, 1979 (1902). Read 1967 and Feb 2017).  Very short, powerful novel of a steamship captain’s recollection of a river journey in the Congo in search of ivory and a mysterious company agent gone native known as Kurtz. Stunning use of language, symbol, imagery, the most appalling sort of colonialism and perhaps a general symbol of the “dark heart” of the human situation at the start of the C20th epitomised by T S Eliot’s reprise of the line Mr Kurtz..he dead as his epigraph to his 1925 poem The Hollow Men. (5 stars)