I made this (more or less chronological and not hierarchical) list and immediately bemoaned two facts: too much fiction, too few women. Nonetheless, it stands as is, and I'll resolve to read more widely next year.
1. Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
I'm on a decade-long search for something that perfectly balances the hurt of the world with just the right modicum of hope. Wells Tower does it as well as anyone I've come across - but he leans a tad too far toward the hurt for my liking. I've already written plenty about these stories, but seriously: vikings, rotting moose meat and primal screaming urges. What's not to like?
2. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
If you hadn't figured by now, my "best of" lists are far from being confined to things created or disseminated during the preceding calendar year. They're more like chronicles of what I encountered during these months. Obviously, Hugo's masterpiece is long lived, but I hadn't ever read it. Of course, I also hadn't ever been to Paris. These two things happily coincided this spring, and I got to read the classic tale of resurrection and redemption on french trains and in Parisian gardens. Accompanied by one of my favorite boys and quite mindful of another, the various incarnations of Jean Valjean were pretty darn applicable, heart-rending, and hopeful. Would that those transformations would keep on happening in real life, real time.
3. Christopher Moore, Lamb
Another oldie (though this one is more middle-aged than classic) but goodie. My reading of this book was accompanied by outright, shameless guffaws. Hilarious and - some might say -heretical, Moore's vision of the gospel according to Christ's childhood friend Biff fills in the copious gaps in the canonical gospels, proffers an earthy possibility, and riffs on everything you never knew but wished you had. How is it that Jesus never actually sinned? What, exactly, did he do during those lost years from 13-30? And seriously, y'all, what's the story with Mary Magdalene? Hook up? True Love? Sisterly affection?
4. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgorve, The Wisdom of Stability
If I'm honest, I have something of a celebrity monk crush on this guy. Unfortunately and according to every possible source, Wilson-Hartgrove is as unassuming and non-celebrity as you can get. Also, who ever heard of a celebrity monk? Thomas Merton, sure, but beyond that...well, suffice it to say I'm just geeky that way. He's written several other books of late (Common Prayer is keeping my mornings ordered), but this one takes the cake. Whether it's because of my incredibly transient existence or because it brushed up against some deeper sort of truth, the wisdom of stability made immediate and bone-deep sense to me. Drawing on the writings of the desert mothers and fathers as well as his own experience living in intentional Christian community, Wilson-Hartgrove makes a case for staying put. I buy it: hook, line, sinker. Heck, I'd swallow the daggone pole if I could. I long for roots and people.
5. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
Too many others have lauded Franzen's virtues for me to add anything original. I'll only say that I identified with every character, read the giant tome in 3 days, and that I cannot think about birdwatching without getting an uncomfortable, nagging feeling and urge to re-examine my priorities and the things to which I'm paying my attention.
6. Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs
Oh, Lorrie Moore. The opening scene of a young girl in a college town for her first autumn filled with academia hit a nerve and threw me right back to Williamsburg, fall 2000. The ensuing drama is much crazier than anything my college years contained, but that initial awe and wonderment at how large the world could be combined with the subsequent collapse of every thing you thought you knew captures something of the recurring cycle of what life is like: certainty, violent dismantling thereof, new and tentative surety, another violent dismantling. Again and again and again. Moore is another one of those authors who comes thisclose to harnessing that delicate balance of hurt and hope, and I'll keep reading her writings until she achieves it.
7. Mary Karr, Lit
Memoirs are my literary comfort food, and I can't rightly say why. My best guess is that listening to the stories of how other people made it through assures me that it's possible. But I'm also a complete (though discerning and trustworthy!) busybody who likes to know what's going on and why and where and with whom. I cannot keep myself from peering inside the warmly lit front windows of houses as I drive by, I eavesdrop in public places, and even - on occasion - do a little snooping. Mary Karr opens the doors wide, tells her story plainly and beautifully, and details what amounts to a dramatically evangelical conversion experience in language so even and cynical that she could easily be one of the inmates I chaplained at Metro State Women's Prison in Atlanta.
8. Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
Oh, look! Some theology makes the list! Way down here at number 8, of course, but I think it might still qualify for lifelong learning credit. Nevermind that this book was required reading for a course I'm taking at Duke - it's meaty and delightful and true. Plus, the good people at Leadership @ Duke Divinity let us practice the concepts with drama and story telling and jazz. Wells is what the distinguished Duke cats call a "second-generation" anabaptist theologian, but I have quite a few qualms with that tag. He is, at best, third generation after Hauerwas and Yoder, and in reality something closer to fourteenth generation after centuries of practicing Anabaptists. The creative possibility of a third way isn't just for nonviolence training, says Wells, it's a tactical theory that can hold in all aspects of life: leadership, ethics, Christian practice in general. MacIntyre says we live among the ruins? Wells says let's improv our way out.
9. Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed
Having just finished this one last night, a coherent review or reason for being on this list has yet to be formed and formulated. But its place is duly earned with Ferris' deft combination of an action-adventure epic and a gentle probing of illness and love, doubt and delusion, fidelity and faith. Plus, in the middle of the horrors of mental illness lies this paragraph that made me weep over my lunch plate. That certainly doesn't happen every day.