December 2, 2020

Looking For A Few Good Books

It’s the silly season here at the iMonastery. We’re still cleaning up from Christmas, and waiting for the calendar to turn. As I look forward to the new year (it can’t be any harder than 2012 has been, can it?), I’m looking at my bookshelves and not seeing anything that jumps out at me to read. Oh, I still have two or three Robert Capon books given me by Denise Spencer that I haven’t read yet. And there are the books on the Apollo space mission I promised myself I would read, but haven’t … yet. But I will. Just not now.

So, what to read next? I’ve been reading some Nero Wolfe mysteries (written by Rex Stout) again lately. They are like good friends, and always fun to revisit. I’d like to find another author like Stout I could follow all the way through a series. And I’ve read all of the Brother Cadfael’s two or three times. I like a good mystery, but I don’t want a bunch of garbage (i.e., a ton of profanity or gratuitous sex) in it. John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People are among my favorite books of all time, but his others are really dark and devoid of hope.

And I like non-fiction about history, such as Timothy Eagan’s wonderful The Worst Hard Time. I never truly understood the dust bowl era until I read that. I’m looking for a used copy of The Peace To End All Peace, but haven’t found one yet. (I love to buy used books. Makes me feel all thrifty inside.) I also enjoy books on the history of flight and the space program, though I have a lot on my shelves yet to be read, as I mentioned.

Science fiction comes and goes with me. I love Douglas Adams, but he’s still dead and not writing much these days.

Baseball books are always great this time of year, as I count the days until Spring Training. I love stories from the days when baseball was baseball and hot dogs were hot dogs. I don’t really care about the business end of baseball, but I do love to read about the strategies and about the crazy things done on the field.

I should read more of the classics than I do, but I know I won’t. My favorite work of fiction ever is Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, who may or may not ever release another novel. Until then, what do I read?

Ok, iMonks, I’m open to your suggestions. Lay it on me. I’m not saying I’ll read them all, or any, but I am looking, and I have a Kindle that I’m not afraid to use. And I have a mailbox if you have a book you want to send me. My reading light is on. Now, what should I read?


  1. Re: detective series, I like the Poirot stories by Agatha Christie and the Spenser novels by the late Robert Parker (don’t like Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall, his later series ‘tecs, though). There is sex’n’violence in the Spenser ones, so you’d have to make up your mind on those (not a heap of sexy sex and gory violence, but some, yeah).

    I’m catching up on my own reading – still haven’t read Eamonn Duffy’s “Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations”, even though I’ve been meaning to do so for at least two months.

    What I did enjoy, because it is so tongue-in-cheek and beautifully written in a flawless pastiche of late 19th century style, is The Crimes of Galahad by Dr. H. Albertus Boli of Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine. If you care to read the adventures of a young man who determines to live a life of vice and self-interest under the mask of virtue, and how he lives happily ever after, this is the tale for you!

  2. This is a fascinating book:

    I’ve been reading a little at a time. I read the chapter on plate tectonics last night.

  3. If you’re looking for a great history read, “Team of RIvals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin is hard to beat. If you want to have a go at a classic, “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is my all-time fave (and I think a lot of Dostoyevsky’s works are available for free on the Kindle… not sure about that one specifically though).

    • David Cornwell says

      Ryan, you picked two good ones. “Team of Rivals” will stand the test of time and should be must reading for those concerned with the history of the USA. I read “The Brothers…” many years ago and still think of it on occasion when life acts out the book.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Go with Ryan M., Jeff., especially regarding “Team of Rivals.” Goodwin strips away the legend of Lincoln and leaves you with his humanity. It’s a serious read (at 750 pages, I won’t be done until New Year’s Eve), but it’s worth it.

      Also, Kevin Roos’ “The Unlikely Disciple” is worth a read. It was written by a 22-year-old agnostic about his experience as a 20-year-old at Liberty University, but Roos’ narrative occasionally transcends his immaturity and reveals aspects of himself as a non-evangelical, as well as an ultra-conservative evangelical community, that will blow your mind.

  4. If you like mysteries have you tried Christie, Ngaio Marsh or G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Also Erle Stanley Gardiner’s Perry Mason mysteries have some titillation but are very mild by modern standards.

  5. Jessica Marie says

    The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
    Tales Before Tolkien – Douglas Anderson

    would type more, but new baby takes all hands

  6. David Cornwell says

    Last week I finished reading two books by Hilary Mantel, the first being “Wolf Hall” and the second “Bring Up the Bodies.” To me these are some of the best of historical fiction. And they are the first two of the “Thomas Cromwell” trilogy, the last of the three now being written.

    Some are turned off by Mantel’s writing style, but if you let yourself be drawn into it, you enter another age, traveling back in time to visit our long ago ancestors as they cope with the King and his desires, worries, and sexual neurosis.

    So– read, and find yourself cheering for Cromwell as he finds a way to behead the next victim. And someday….

  7. Novels by Susan Howatch, particularly her “Starbridge” or Church of England series of six novels. I’m re-reading the sixth one right now (having read them all about three times) and I get more out of them each time. It’s sort of like Upstairs Downstairs, following three clergy families in the Church of England from the 1930s through the 1960s. Interlocking relationships from volume to volume, almost as if an omniscient mind had written them all beforehand yet released them one at a time. Also chronicles the trendy theologies of each period. I suppose if I were to read only one I’d start with volume #4, Scandalous Risks (I’m crazy about the protagonist Venetia Flaxton), but probably it’s better to start with #1, Glittering Images. But 4-5-6 would be a good order too.

    Howatch also wrote about the banking industry, pre-1929 crash into the 1960s, chronicling several families there too. I re-read the first volume, The Rich Are Different, during the crash of 2008 and it’s remarkable the similarities in the attitudes and language used. Sins of the Fathers is the sequel. Interestingly, The Rich Are Different is also a parallel of Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony, Cleopatra and Augustus–only with banks in London and New York instead of rivalries across the Mediterranean.

    Her final “St. Benet” trilogy, involving some of her earlier Anglican Church characters, is to be avoided until having read her earlier Church of England series. The St Benet trilogy is pretty hard-core psychological thriller with some pretty hard-core Christian themes (although some would object and say, “Wait a minute!”) and all of the nasty temptations that could possibly get thrown a person’s way. Nothing in these 3 volumes could be approved by the Christian Booksellers Association.

    Sadly, she has gone into retirement but I’m dying to find out how Venetia turned out in her later years.

    • Just finished Glittering Images as it was on a recommended list from a link on Scott McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, about ten novels every pastor needs to read. Howatch knows the Church of England well, and her spiritual director in this one is top-notch.

      I am now reading Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth (also on the link from Jesus Creed) that has a scene on a pastoral call that every pastor needs to read. In effect, the Baptist pastor did not help the word to become flesh in his fumbling efforts; and it’s not just Baptists who do this.

      I also recommend the works of Walker Percy, especially Love in the Ruins. I like medieval English mysteries by Paul Doherty, Susanna Gregory, Bernard Knight, Ellis Peters, C. J. Sansome, Michael Jenks, and others–all contain something about the church of the time.

      • Randy Thompson says

        “A Place on Earth” is one of the best books I ever read. For that matter, I’d say the same about another Wendell Berry novel, “Jayber Crow,” which I liked even more than “A Place on Earth.” Anything (!!) written by Wendell Berry is worth reading.

  8. If you like historical non-fiction I would suggest 1861: The Civil War Awakening. A great read on the year leading up to the US Civil War. – To me it is one of the best historical books I have read.

  9. “Who Is This Man?” by John Ortberg (Great book, see John Frye’s review at Jesus Creed, loved it).
    “Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard (One of the best history books I’ve ever read, and I read a lot them).

  10. I have appreciated Henning Mankell’s Wallender series – got mine at the local library.

  11. Richard Hershberger says

    “I’m looking for a used copy of The Peace To End All Peace, but haven’t found one yet. (I love to buy used books. Makes me feel all thrifty inside.)”

    Are you familiar with If not, take a look, and remember to thank me afterwards. If the book you are looking for is the one on the fall of the Ottoman Empire, they have numerous copies for essentially the cost of shipping.

    “Baseball books are always great this time of year, as I count the days until Spring Training.”

    A assume you have read “The Glory of Their Times”, edited by Lawrence Ritter. If not, drop everything else right now and get it. It is arguably the greatest baseball book ever. It is a collection of oral histories taken from deadball era players. After Ty Cobb died in 1861, Ritter realized that generation wasn’t going to last long. He set out with a portable tape recorder and tracked these guys down, which was a non-trivial task back then. He caught lightning in a bottle. All sports oral histories are attempts at replicating what Ritter did.

    “I don’t really care about the business end of baseball, but I do love to read about the strategies and about the crazy things done on the field.”

    Try “A Game of Inches” by Peter Morris. It superficially is just another “baseball firsts” book, but it actually is a well researched collection of mini-essays on the origins and development of innumerable aspects of baseball. It is both a very respectable source to cite and a terrific read.

    If you are willing to stretch yourself a bit, take a look at “Beyond a Boundary” by C.L.R. James. It superficially is a book about cricket. I know: your eyes are glazing over at the mere mention of cricket. This happens with all American sports fans. But keep in mind that (a) everything you think you know about cricket is wrong, (b) cricket is a major worldwide sport, even if virtually unknown in America, (c) it is the sport most closely related to baseball, (d) it has a body of literature second only to baseball’s, and (e) the James book is at or near the top of any list of cricket books. Also, it isn’t really about cricket, or at least not only about cricket. It is really a book about racial politics in early 20th century colonial West Indies, written by an educated black man who grew up in that environment. And it’s about cricket. Informed observers routinely place it as one of the best sports books of all time. There is a legitimate barrier for American sports fans, as we have to work a bit to make sense of the cricket discussion, but if you are looking for a work of genuine substance, it is worth the effort.

    • This american is tired of baseball and has been (through espn3) watching some cricket (never a whole match) and has a decent grasp of how it’s played. This year’s ICC T20 World Cup was actually pretty interesting. T20 is a shorter (3hr) version of cricket. If you don’t read the book check out the T20 someday.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        I’m not in a position to take the purist stance and harumph at T20. Quite the opposite, it is clearly a better spectator sport, if only because you can plausibly watch the whole thing. But the purists are right that it is, strategically, a very different game.

        The broader point is that Americans have this notion that cricket is impossibly opaque. This is nonsense. You need to be wiling to put a bit of effort into it, but the same is true of a cricket fan figuring out baseball. The key to understanding it is that in baseball outs are cheap and runs are precious, while in cricket it is the other way around.

  12. In honor of Martha, how about ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization’ by Cahill. 🙂 If it’s a mystery you want, I”m sure my oldest would highly recommend any of the Dorothy Sayer books.

  13. George Bernanos: “Monsieur Ouine”, “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Dialogues of the Carmelites”.
    Thomas Pynchon: “Gravity’s Rainbow”.
    Herman Melville: “Moby Dick”.
    Jack Kerouac: “Visions of Girard”.
    Don DeLillo: “Falling Man”.

  14. Anyone mind if I am completely self-serving here and recommend my own book? It’s gotten five stars by all reviewers, including Mockingbird and God and Science ministries. It’s called Rise of the Tme Lords: A Geek’s Guide to Christianity.

    Offbeat, accessible, easy read that I think anyone on IM would find thought provoking.

  15. G K Chesterton: ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’.

  16. For some baseball mysteries from the early 20th century, look at Troy Soos. The background color of the times is great. For some wacky church mysteries, look at books by Mark Schweizer. The police chief is the church organist and murder and other strange-itys occur.

  17. A couple of my favorite reads this year were Bee Wilson’s “Consider the Fork” a fascinating history of how cooking technology has changed and how it effects what we decide to have for dinner. Really interesting, for example, in medieval Europe cooking was a man’s job. This was because cooking over an open pit fire was hot, dirty work. Most castle cooks cooked almost naked. It wasn’t until the invention of the buck fireplace that women started to take ove in the kitchen.

    I would also recommend “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo. A book about life in a slum in Mumbai. I think about it almost every time I throw something into the trash. (one of the people who she writes about is a young boy who makes a living sorting trash to be sold to different recycling companies. It is how he makes his living.) Anyway, just couple books that really made me think this year.

  18. Bonhoeffer – Metaxas
    The Brendan Voyage – Severin
    Island of the World – O’Brien
    The Control of Nature – McPhee

  19. I’ve read a number of memoirs lately. Craig Ferguson’s American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot was an interesting read and The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls was good and also her Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel was worth reading.

  20. Randy Thompson says

    I am currently reading and enjoying (a lot) Neil Gaiman and terry Pratchett’s “Good Omens.” The subtitle: “The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.” Think of it as an apocalypse written by Douglas Adams. I have no idea where the book is going, but it’s a very funny ride so far. The book is dedicated to the memory of G.K. Chesterton, which went a long way in recommending it to me. (Any friend of G.K. Chesterton is a friend of mine.)

    Also: The is my first experience reading a book on Kindle, and not as weird as I’d thought it would be.

    • philosophymom says

      Huge second for Terry Pratchett (haven’t read any Gaiman, though a copy of “Good Omens” is sitting on my TBR shelf). Hard to go wrong with anything Discworld, but I especially recommend the “Death” books: “Mort,” “Reaper Man,” “Soul Music,” “Hogfather,” and “Thief of Time.” “Reaper Man” is in my top five– three?– books of all time, fiction or non-fiction.

  21. What, any book at all?!! Okay, then.


    David Gregory Roberts, Shantaram. Looong novel about an Australian fugitive from justice who settles in a Bombay slum, then joins the Afghan muhajjadin. Loosely based on the life of the author.


    Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, Edgar Cayce: An American Prophet. The author spent seven years driving around the USA visiting surviving people who knew Cayce (d. 1945) for this meticulously detailed, historically grounded account. Think what you will of the man, but their stories will challenge, inspire, and amuse you.

  22. Connie Willis writes great science fiction, often with a historical bent (time travel, etc) and a subtle but very present Christian undercurrent. Her book _To Say Nothing of the Dog_ is a fun read, and combines aspects of sci fi and mystery and comedy of manners. _Passage_ is much more serious but a very worthwhile read, and _Blackout_ and _All Clear_ are some of the most meticulously detailed and researched WWII fiction I’ve ever read (she spent 8 years writing them).

  23. Here’s a few non-fiction recommends:
    American Nations: The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North American
    Growing Up Amish (memoir)
    23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism
    Stormfront: The Good News of God

  24. philosophymom says

    I generally recommend these (beware– it’s mostly old books):

    Catholic fiction (I’m not Catholic, but all the religion-themed fiction I like seems to be):
    — Giovanni Guareschi, “The Little World of Don Camillo” (1950) and its sequels: sweet and humorous tales of a parish priest’s friendly rivalry with his town’s Communist mayor in post-War Italy
    — Graham Greene, “Monsignor Quixote” (1982): sweet and humorous story of a parish priest’s adventures with his friend, the town’s Communist ex-Mayor, in post-Franco Spain … hey, wait a minute…
    — Bruce Marshall, any of the priest books — “Father Malachy’s Miracle” (1931), “The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith” (1944), “Father Hilary’s Holiday” (1965) — or, okay, anything he wrote

    Spec. fic./Fantasy:
    — Terry Pratchett, “Reaper Man” (1991): this best of the Discworld “Death” books is humorous, poetic, and exquisitely on-point re. the human condition.
    — Walter Miller Jr., “A Canticle for Leibowitz” (1960): Church, state, and the cycle of history in a post-apocalyptic future. One of the best opening sequences ever.
    — Robert Heinlein, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” (1966): a lunar colony revolts against Earth. Unputdownable, and this from someone who’s no libertarian and often finds Heinlein to be, well, ick.

    — Josephine Tey, “Brat Farrar” (1949): forget “The Daughter of Time”; this lovely, evocative how-dunnit is Tey’s best.
    — Ngaio Marsh, any of the Roderick Alleyn books (written between 1934 & 1982), but the theatre-related ones are particularly good.
    — Umberto Eco, “Foucault’s Pendulum” (1988): it’s long and full of allusions, and you have to be able to stand occult-themed stories, but it is so worth the trouble (don’t listen to the reverse snobs – yes, it’s a smart book, full of meta and irony, but it’s a good read, as well).
    — Graham Moore, “The Sherlockian” (2011): oh, look, a rent book! It’s two mysteries, and Holmes is the detective in neither (but Arthur Conan Doyle is).

    — P.G. Wodehouse, just about anything.

    Historical fiction:
    — R.H. Delderfield, just about anything.

    — G.H. Hardy, “A Mathematician’s Apology” w/Intro. by C.P. Snow (1940): lovely, melancholy glimpse into the mind of a mathematician (don’t skip the introductory piece by Snow).

  25. “Fathers and Son” by Ivan Turgenev. Excellent read.

  26. Almost anything by Paolo Coelho but especially his classic, “The Alchemist”. Short, quick read & packed with meaning & beauty.
    Anything by Jonathon Sacks but especially his most recent called “The Great Partnership – Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning”.

    I’m one of your newer subscribers having been introduced in the past 4 months. Really appreciate IMonk – Leadership & variety of viewpoints. Thanks for all you do!

  27. In recent years I’ve enjoyed mysteries-as-traveloges, first in the US, and then overseas. There’s a good series set in Seville, written by Robert Wilson. There are only four and it looks like no more Javier Falcon books. They all start as police procedurals but move to his personal life and surprising developments that go beyond expectations and assumptions. His references to 9-11 in one book were a total red herring to this ignorant, insulated American, for example. Read them in order would be best.

  28. Oh, right, you said “baseball.” This is a good article from April, 2012. I’m sure the selections are just as valid now.

    “Reading Suggestions for Baseball’s Opening Week”

  29. This is a reminder to me of how well read the i-Monk audience is, which is just another reason I enjoy coming here to learn.

    I don’t know that I could recommend any books I’ve read that those here probably haven’t. So instead, I’ll give you the list of books I hope to be able to read in the coming year. I’m just finishing up “Broken” by Fisk, which is outstanding, and I’m still only halfway through Capon. My excuse is that I work mostly 65+ hour weeks, so I’ve only really finished a two books in the last year and a half.

    Anyways, in the next year I hope to read Luther’s “Bondage of the Will,” torture myself again with a bunch of non-fiction theology, hopefully finish the Lutheran confessions, read a few scholarly texts on the liturgy and plainchant, and with some luck, actually enjoy the first fiction book in a decade. I will definitely be referring to the recommendations above. Thanks y’all!

  30. Long time reader, first time poster….and a book geek of the highest order, so I feel compelled to give my two pennies…
    I third the Terry Pratchett recommendation. Would also recommend Jasper Fforde Nursery Crime Division series (with DI Jack Spratt—yes, that Jack Spratt) for mystery with light humor. Flavia deLuce series by Alan Bradley—-precocious 11 year old science whiz & sleuth. Always a fan of Lee Child, however there is some sex in most of his Jack Reacher novels-good amount of violence too, they don’t call it revenge fantasy for nothin'(and please don’t DARE judge the series by the Tom Cruise knock off!). Andy Carpenter series by David Rosenfelt is light mystery, too. Elizabeth George is good as well with her Lynley & Havers series.
    Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak series is good.
    Oh so many to choose from!
    Happy reading!

  31. Have you considered “Your Best Life Now: 7 steps to living at your full potential” by Joel Osteen?

    Now you have cleaned your coffee off your shirt… Looking forward to a great next year with Internet Monk.

  32. I haven’t read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but plan to. i’m kind a sci-fi/fantasy buff, but I try to stay away from the all too common junk in the genre. I’ll give you my recent reco’s: I’ve just discovered a series called the Lyonesse trilogy by Jack Vance. It’s really remarkable that more people don’t know about this guy- great and classic books, if you ask me. If you like Douglas Adams, have you read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett? A must read, I have to say, for any Adams fan. Also, if you’re ever inclined to a Middle-Earth state of mind and haven’t yet read it- the Silmarillion should be required reading, especially if you have a Biblical worldview. Amazing. Astounding. A big investment, I’ll admit, and difficult to get through, but try to think of it as the “Old Testament” of Middle Earth; it contains supreme treasures to be unlocked for the persistent.

    There’s my 2 cents.

  33. Embracing Obscurity was the book of the year for me. If you’re looking for a book that gives glory to God, and put us in the proper perspective, this the book. Yes it is a Christian book, but its the kind of book many Christians need to read. Anything by Henri Nouwen is always worth your time and attention.

  34. I just picked up a hard-back copy of “Strange & Norrell” for 75 cents at a used bookstore. Definitely looking forward to digging in to it.

    I would suggest anything by Mark Helprin. Start with “Winter’s Tale” or “A Soldier of the Great War”.

    The original Dune series by Frank Herbert is a great read if you’ve never read that.

  35. If you liked Brother Cadfael, you will probably enjoy Margaret Frazer’s two series: Dame Frevisse (17 books, starting with The Novice’s Tale) and Joliffe the Player (7 so far, starting with A Play of Isaac). Both are set in a very well realized England just before the Wars of the Roses (mid 1400s).

    Also good in the history line are Sharan Newman’s Catherine LeVendeur series (starting with Death Comes as Epiphany — I must say that the first nine of this series are splendid and the tenth and last is very weird — and Pat McIntosh’s Gill Cunningham series (9 so far, starting with The Harper’s Quine). Catherine is in 12th century France, and starts out as a novice in the Paraclete, the convent run by Héloise (of Abelard and Héloise fame). Gil Cunnngham is a Scot in late 1400s Edinburgh, and in the first book he meets his future wife and detective partner Alys Mason.

    All of these except Sharan Newman’s are murder mysteries, and as someone with a medieval history background, I can say that these are exceptionally good from a history viewpoint. All the main characters are fictional, and where they intersect with real historical figures, these figures are used with great care toward what little is actually known about them. All authors must invent some things because we don’t know everything about these time periods, but these authors do not move events forward or back decades in time or randomly invent modern motives or sexual relationships for historical figures.

    And all of them feature main characters who are sincere Christians — Roman Catholic Christians, of course, considering when they are set. Only in Dame Frevisse’s case is religion their “profession” (she’s a Benedictine nun) but she is one of the most believable nun characters I’ve ever met, with a love do God and of prayer that shines through the page. (And a dry wit and keen mind, as well.) Catherine LeVendeur’s family features Jewish cousins and a convert father who late in life reverts to Judaism.

    One more series I find fascinating — murder mysteries again — is Caroline Roe’s Isaac of Girona series (8 books starting with Remedy for Treason). A few more liberties seem to be taken with history here, but Isaac of Girona is a well realized Jewish physician negotiating the boundaries between Jewish and Christian communites — and again is a sincerely religious character. I wish there were more of these; the series more or less tapers off rather than ending.