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Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis SpuffordSummary: When New York City was young, a mysterious stranger comes to town with money.

Francis Spufford is an author that authors that I love, love. Alan Jacobs yet again yesterday expressed his admiration for Spufford. And this novel in particular has been talked about for a couple of years. (It was published in the UK in 2016 and Jacobs had an advanced copy of it.) Wesley Hill, John Wilson and others I follow on twitter have also lavished praise on it. It was also on a number of best of 2017 lists (NPR, WSJ, Washington Post, Kurkus, Library Journal, etc).

Because it is on sale on Amazon for the month of January 2018 for only $1.99, I immediately picked it up and it was the first book I finished this year.

Golden Hill is set in 1746 New York City. A mysterious young man comes to New York with a letter of credit (as would be common at the time so that a traveler would not have to carry a lot of cash) for an extraordinarily large amount of money but a resistance to telling anyone what he was interested in doing with the money. The book follows his story for several months. I won’t really give much more detail about the plot other than that.

It has been several days since I finished Golden Hill because I was not sure how to write a review. The longer I wait the more I like it. Spufford has a way with words. One of the things that is most impressive is that the book, especially the letters within the book, are written to mimic the 18th century, but it is still quite readable for a modern reader.

Notable Books Read in 2018

It is the time of the year when everyone is posting their ‘Best of’ lists. This is not going to be a ‘Best of 2018’ because less than half of these were published in 2018. And I think that is a good thing. Books should have a life of longer than a year, and even longer than five or ten years.

I154x237xNewImage 3 png pagespeed ic 6a8NtE0wHF jpg have taken a number of different approaches to my end of year lists, reposting over a week or so the reviews of the books I loved the most. Or posting separate lists of best fiction and non-fiction. This year I am going to approach it thematically.

There are too many books here, but I do not really know how to pair them down beyond this and I am already not including a number of books that were excellent, but I think most people will probably already not read though the number I have here.


I have been happy about the fact that the idea of reading to expand our view of the world and gain empathy for others has been on the ascendant. That is not the only reason to read, but it one reason. Death Comes for a Deconstructionist, was partially a satire against deconstructive literary theory that had no use for reading for self improvement, enjoyment or understanding. Grace Lin has a TED talk about the importance of having books as both mirrors (to see yourself in the characters) and windows (to see the world differently). This grouping are books that mostly gave me a window.

I159x250xNewImage 8 png pagespeed ic E14TJW3sX3 jpg think fiction is particularly good at building empathy and it is one of the reasons I keep wanting to increase my reading of fiction. But this section is not only fiction. Most naturally in this section is Children of God by Mary Doria Russell. This is the sequel to The Sparrow. It is a science fiction book, which naturally expands the idea of how to be empathetic by explained what it means to be human.

19529073 45E2 4725 8A42 ED841F46DB22Golden Hill by Francis Spufford was the first book I read this year. The plot twists, especially in the last few pages play into the empathy building. The characters change in perspective and the reader suddenly has to re-evaluate everything that has previously happened.

One of the most consistently good series of books I have read has been the Inspector Gamache series of mystery books. This year’s book, Kingdom of the Blind, continues with the big question of the past several books, ‘when it is acceptable to do morally and ethically questionable things, for a greater good.’ There are no simple answers. Many people would make different decisions. But by the end, you understand why the characters have made the decisions they have and you have insight you likely did not have previously.

NewImage 8Memoir and biography/autobiography can be empathy building. But I think I mostly read them for knowledge or inspiration. And while many of these books could easily be in two or more categories, these two were particularly helpful at building empathy. James H Cone finished his second memoir immediately before he passed away and it was not published for several months after his death. But both Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian, and his earlier My Soul Looks Back, really communicated they why of his life and work. Many disagree with aspects of his theology, and I certainly do, but it seems to me to be missing the point if the focus is on the theology and not on the why of his theology.