What was the best book you read?
Reading time was significantly abbreviated this year, but here are a few that stuck out.
In the category of "Kicking Myself for not Reading These Women Before My 30th Year on Earth":
Alice Munro's Runaway
Really. When Jonathan Franzen says someone has "a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America," I will be an obedient disciple of the cultural age and pay plenty of money for her words. Worth it, a thousand times over. Bare prose exposes her characters in such fascinating ways that they are still living with me months after I read these stories - living with me in ways where a single moment of hers will arrive fully formed in the course of day to day conversation and pull me away from reality and back into a train car or a Canadian cabin. Her new collection - and, she says, her best - is on my nightstand now.
Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres
I heard recommendations of Jane Smiley from no fewer than three separate and disparate sources. One of those was in a reading Lauren Winner gave last fall in Roanoke - and who could resist that? A Thousand Acres was enchantment. A novel about family dynamics and the romance and sadness of being bound to a particular place and a particular people. I loved it.
In the category of "Exercising the Atrophying Theological Mind Muscles":
James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation
I read DTK explicitly in order to keep up with my NuDunker colleagues. Having already written plenty, I'll just say: worth the workout.
In the category of "Good God, Give Me More of That Consuming Narrative!":
Karen Russell's Swamplandia
A young girl grows up on a down-on-its luck Gator Adventure tourist trap in Florida. Her deceased mother was a goddess of an alligator charmer, her dad now grieving and distant. There's a plot element to the story that's like a bad car accident - you know what's coming and just can't look away. The way Russell gets to the tragic is exquisitely and beautifully painful - the mind of an adolescent girl: intuition, hope, chutzpa and naivete outlined to perfection. Plus, the whole crumbling-tourist-attraction-and-family-whose-forturne-depends-upon-it offers a really nice little apocalyptic parable of living among the ruins.
In the category of "Books I Label "Spirituality" So As To Make Myself Less Embarassed When Indulging My Love of Good Memoir in the Insipidly Titled (and, usually, stocked) "Christian Inspiration" Section":
Lauren Winner's Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis
Arthur Boers' Living Into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distraction
Oh, suburban living is for the birds, y'all. Boers is in a different demographic than I in terms of internet usage and social media attending, but his use of "focal practices" to explain a life well lived made me yearn for a lifestyle far away from the tyranny of overscheduling and constant connectedness. Working on better self-discipline in those regards, still waiting for the day when I can live in a place farther away from highways, train tracks, and microprocessing factories.
Rachel Held Evans' Year of Biblical Womanhood
This one has spurred at least a dozen conversations in real life (several dozen online) these last few weeks - conversations about gender, theology and practice that wouldn't have happened otherwise. I already reviewed the book, both here and here, so I'll just add a confession: some of the best discussions I have had - in Sunday school, seminary classrooms, and casual conversation - have started with books that I condescendingly considered trite, ill-informed, or dumb. I don't think any of those things about Rachel Held Evans' book, but lots of people apparently do. Contrary to my own elitist point of view, sometimes things become popular (NYTimes Bestsellers, etc.) because they address real questions of real people. Being a pastoral presence necessarily means hearing those questions and making place to talk about them. So, I say to myself and others: quit your condescension and let go of that nasty elitism. People are hungry for thoughtful theology, engaged in ways that make sense to them. Let's celebrate all the ways that can happen.