The Best Books of 2009 ... So Far
By john pattison
August 13, 2009
Editor's note: This list is the second installment in RELEVANT's coverage of the best
of progressive culture in 2009—so far. Check out our list of best movies and check back tomorrow to see our albums of the year.
We here at RELEVANT read constantly but not necessarily widely. Even unabashed book nerds tend to stick to the subjects, styles and genres we like best. So we asked a few of our writer friends to write about some of their own recent favorites. Here, then, in a completely debatable order, is a collaborative list of the Best Books of 2009 … so far:
10. George Sprott (1894-1975): A Picture Novella, by Seth
The subject of the latest picture novella from the cartoonist Seth—which was originally serialized in 25 installments in the Sunday New York Times Magazine—is George Sprott, a fictional Canadian TV personality whose show, Northern Hi-lights, is built around Sprott’s own adventures in the Canadian Arctic. Once the flagship of the CKCK television station (“Channel 10 on Your Dial”), Northern Hi-lights has grown old and tired, like its host. George Sprott (1894-1975) depicts the show’s final broadcast and the last three hours of Sprott’s life. Seth utilizes multiple perspectives—short vignettes and documentary-style interviews during which the interviewees sometimes look directly into the frame—to illuminate his main character. Sepia-toned flashbacks reveal formative moments from Sprott’s childhood, his time in seminary and his early adventures in the Far North. Sprott himself offers his thoughts on everything from food to women to heaven and hell. The result is a funny, melancholic and beautifully rendered study of legacy and memory—and how the work of a lifetime can “melt and leave little trace” if that life is lived essentially alone.
—John Pattison, a Portland-based freelance writer, is the Deputy Editor of the Burnside Writers Collective, and wrote the Summer Reading Guide for the May/June 2009 issue of RELEVANT.
9. Endpoint and Other Poems and My Father’s Tears: Stories, by John Updike
When John Updike died earlier this year at the age of 76, after a
career that spanned more than five decades, he left behind a huge body
of work, some 50 books—including novels, an autobiography, and
collections of short stories, poetry, art criticism and literary
essays. Two more books were released posthumously in 2009. Endpoint is a collection of poems written during the last seven years of Updike’s life and finalized just weeks before his death. My Father’s Tears
is Updike’s first collection of short fiction since 2000. Both books
explore the wide range of physical and emotional territories you expect
from Updike—from the Pennsylvania of his childhood, to the suburban New
England of his adult life, to exotic locales like Morocco, Spain and
India. Updike’s thoughtful meditations on illness, old age and love
reflect the enduring playfulness of the author’s imagination. These
books are a welcome coda from an author eulogized in The New York Times
as our Trollope and our Proust, “America’s last true man of letters, an
all-purpose writer and a custodian of literary culture.”
8. Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir, by Susan E. Isaacs
Susan Isaacs had a bad year in 2003: her father died, her mother had
a stroke; her acting career tanked while four best friends got their
big break; she broke up with her almost-fiancée as other friends got
married, and then she saw that same almost-fiancée French-kissing
another girl in Central Park. Feeling abandoned by God, and hearing a
friend describe faith as a love story, Isaacs decides to take God to
couples counseling, “because we’re not getting along.”
The dialogue between Isaacs and God (with a counselor named Rudy
moderating) is raw, real and laugh-out-loud funny. A conversation
Isaacs expected to go like this—
Susan: What the ____, God? Are you trying to kill me?
God: Shut the _____ up or I will!
—becomes a therapeutic journey through conflicts of faith, family
and art. Isaacs’ honesty and disarming humor about darkness, church
and issues around alcohol, eating disorders and sex, pull the reader
deeper into her story. Isaacs is transformed when the “God” in her mind
is replaced by the real God of love, and she rediscovers grace.
—Tim McGeary is a writer and library technologist. He lives in Bethlehem, PA.
7. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford
A philosopher/mechanic, Michael Crawford explores the benefits, both
for the individual and for the community, of the manual trades in Shop
Class as Soulcraft. Drawing on his own experience as an electrician
and a motorcycle mechanic, as well as the experiences of other
craftsmen he encounters, Crawford challenges the prevalent assumption
that college is for everyone and articulates the difference between the
“knowing how” required of the trades and the “knowing what” stressed in
the modern American education system. “Practical know-how,” Crawford
argues convincingly, “is always tied to the experience of a particular
person. It can’t be downloaded, it can only be lived.” Shop Class as
Soulcraft is an especially salient read in today’s economic environment
and calls us to reconsider how good work is defined in 21st
—Sara Sterley lives near Indianapolis, IN and regularly contributes book reviews to RELEVANT.
6. Pocket Guide to the Afterlife: Heaven, Hell, and Other Ultimate Destinations, by Jason Boyett
In Pocket Guide to the Afterlife, Jason Boyett applies his
tried and tested formula of equal parts knowledge, snark and
authenticity to create another winner in his enjoyable line of
pocket-sized books. While his guides to th
e Bible and the Apocalypse
are entertaining reads, the format is never stronger than it is in Afterlife.
The reason for the success, no doubt, is the vast array of religious
traditions and zany historical anecdotes that Boyett had to d
in crafting the book. And while the strength of the guide lies in its
captivating subject material, it's the author's signature blend of
humor and intelligence that keep you laughing while turning one page
after another. Whether you come for the knowledge or the laughs, you're
guaranteed to walk away from the book with ample doses of both. Is Pocket Guide to the Afterlife
worthy of a spot in your casket when you die? Maybe not. But is it
worthy of a spot on your Must Read List for 2009? You bet your
—Bryan Allain is a writer, engineer and father of two who tries to get people in trouble for laughing every day at bryanallain.com/blog.
- Bicycle Diaries, by David Byrne
If you have followed the musical and artistic endeavors of former
Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, you should already suspect that
his first foray into the world of the travel book would be something a
little out of the ordinary. There is a rather blasé log line to Bicycle Diaries: A man and his trusted foldable bicycle travel to some of the world's
largest cities. What elevates this book is Byrne, who infuses his
memories of pedaling through Istanbul, San Francisco and beyond with an
abundance of wry social commentary and dry wit. It is a sometimes
exhausting experience trying to keep up with Byrne as he veers from
topic to topic—in one chapter, he moves from the growth of the modern
city to architecture to art history to a discussion of how the brain is
wired—but it’s the kind of fatigue that is immensely rewarding to body
—Robert Ham, a freelance writer from Seattle, interviewed David Bazan for the July/August 2009 issue of RELEVANT.
4. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, by Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose’s book The Unlikely Disciple is an up-close look
at student life at Jerry Falwell’s “Bible Boot Camp,” Liberty
University. Roose decides to spend a semester at Liberty, one of the
most conservative Christian Liberal Arts schools in the country, a
near-polar opposite of his own Brown University. For Roose, whose
family was nominally Quaker but never attended church, the experience
is comparable to traveling in an unfamiliar country: “These days, it
seems like all my college friends talk about is studying abroad … Here,
right in my own time zone, was a culture more foreign to me than any
l, and these foreigners vote in my elections!”
Attempting to bring as few
preconceptions as possible to the
project, Roose vividly and sometimes cleverly depicts life in the
nation’s largest evangelical Christian college. From singing in
Falwell’s church choir, dating Liberty girls and participating in
Bible studies, he immerses himself in the culture and explores the
routines and activities of Liberty students. The Unlikely Disciple,
which also contains Falwell’s final printed interview before his death,
is a thought-provoking and informative read for Christians and
—Brock Pattison is a musician and student at a Christian college in West Palm Beach, FL.
3. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by Dr. David Kessler
The End of Overeating isn't always a pleasant read. After
all, who wants to be told that the food you enjoy was likely designed
in a lab somewhere to maximize your craving and minimize the amount of
time it takes you to eat it. Let's just put it this way: If you enjoy
dining at Chili's, skip this book, especially when Dr. David Kessler
describes how certain dishes at the restaurant are essentially
"pre-chewed" chemically in a factory before making it to your table.
So, why should you pick up this book? Simply, the American food
production industry is robbing you of your ability to enjoy eating and
to feel satisfied afterward. No one's getting healthier eating this
stuff and it's time to re-teach
our brains to enj
oy actual food. Real
stuff, grown somewhere without the intervention of a food scientist
whose primary goal is to make sure the appetizer and entree you just
ordered still leave room for dessert, thousands and thousands of
calories later. Kessler is a gifted writer who turns complicated
information and research into easy-to-understand stories of where our
food went wrong, and what we can do about it.
—Dan Gibson is a writer/researcher living in Tucson, AZ.
2. The End is Now, by Rob Stennett
Rob Stennett’s second novel is not your mother’s apocalyptic
thriller. Perhaps that is a bit unfair, since we most likely do not
know your mother. But does her apocalyptic thriller tell the story of
an ordinary Kansas town that has been chosen as a test market for the
rapture? Does her apocalyptic thriller combine biting satire with the
heartfelt honesty of a believer examining one of the deepest mysteries
of his faith? And does her apocalyptic thriller introduce us to a
family, so dysfunctional, yet so perfectly convincing that we cannot
help but see ourselves in the pages? Didn’t think so. So maybe we
know your mother pretty well after all. Sorry, that sounded terrible. We’re sure your mother is a wonderful lady. As sure as we are that The End is Now is the best novel you’ll ever read about the rapture, even if it doesn’t spawn 15 sequels.
—Zondervan author Chad Gibbs can be found online at www.chadgibbs.com
1. Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith, by Shane Hipps
Hipps is a devotee of Marshall McLuhan, that guy who said,
"The medium is the message." A Mennonite pastor, Hipps shows the impact
of the printing press on religious thought, making a case that
ook the shape it did partly because of innovations in
print media. "How disconcerting," he writes, "to have a faith yoked so
closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life."
The book reads like a sea-change; it is time to stop lamenting the
weathering of old wineskins and to shepherd the Image Era as it teases
out its own message. Hipps helpfully shows that the cliché—media change
but the message remains the same—is not true. What remains the same is
neither media nor message, but the message-giver.
Hipps reads better as a culture critic than as a pastor; his
discussions about media are infinitely more tweetable than his
applications to discipleship. But the books that follow Flickering
Pixels will benefit from the trail Hipps is blazing: a new renaissance
is in the offing, with all the positives and negatives that will
undoubtedly come with it.
—David A. Zimmerman is the author of Deliver Us from Me-Ville (David C. Cook) and Comic Book Character (IVP).
Literary Fiction: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower; Brooklyn, by Colm Tóbín
Narrative Nonfiction from New Yorker Staff Writers: Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, by Dan Baum; The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann
Everything Else: Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation With the Gay Community, by Andrew Marin; Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, by David Plotz.