Our Top 10 Books of 2011
By john pattison
December 27, 2011
Maybe the only things better than reading a great book are talking about a great book with someone who has read it too, and recommending a great book to someone you just know will love it. Reading a great book may begin as a solitary experience, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. Here, then, are our picks for the 10 best books of the year, along with five very honorable mentions. Leave a comment to let us know if you agree or disagree. And be sure to give us your recommendations for the year’s best book. There’s always a book-shaped hole to fill in the suitcase we’re taking to grandma’s house for the holidays.
10. You Think That’s Bad, by Jim Shepard
Jim Shepard’s latest collection of stories, You Think That’s Bad, feels like it was written with the research and travel of a dozen Fulbright recipients. Shepard uses the first-person narrator to capture a stunning range of voices: an Englishwoman traveling the Persian mountains, a French peasant boy caught up with an Occultist nobleman, a Dutchman battling rising water levels, an American soldier miserable in the New Guinean jungles of World War II. These are all, somehow, Shepard’s people, and he imparts to them lives so full with reality that the reader is not simply reading about a character but meeting a companion.
Benjamin Dolson writes fiction, essays and book reviews. He lives in Brooklyn.
9. Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love, by Mark Scandrette
In his inspiring and eminently useful book, Practicing the Way of Jesus, Mark Scandrette assumes that Jesus intended for His followers to keep His word—as He clearly did (John 14:23-24)—and that the “way of Jesus … must be practiced to be understood.” Scandrette, the executive director of ReIMAGINE, a center for spiritual transformation in San Francisco, talks about fashioning a “Jesus dojo” ("dojo" means “place of the way” in Japanese) where you wrestle “with how to apply the teachings of Jesus to everyday life” through shared practice and experimentation. Practicing the Way moves beyond theory to action, describing how to begin your own experiments, and so it is a great book to read in the context of community.
John Pattison is the co-author of Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture (Biblica, 2010) and co-author of Slow Church, coming in 2013 from IVP. He blogs at www.slowchurch.com.
8. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
At a thousand pages,1Q84 may be Haruki Murakami’s magnum opus. Originally published in three volumes in his native Japan, 1Q84 is the story of a man and woman—Tengo, a writer, and Aomame, an assassin—searching for each other in Tokyo. But powerful forces are conspiring to keep them apart. Like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the mood of 1Q84 is dark; Murakami tackles the topics of cults and the abuse of women, and he has created a strong and complex female protagonist with a troubled past. But unlike Steig Larsson’s gritty Sweden, Murakami’s Toyko is a surreal playground filled with dual moons in the night sky and a race of leprechaun-like creatures known as the “Little People.” In the end, 1Q84 is a romance where love conquers all, even unreality.
Larry Shallenberger is the author of Lead the Way God Made You and Divine Intentions. He is online at larryshallenberger.com.
7. Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
It's a rare treat to discover an author whose voice moves you, whose thinking challenges you, whose writing taps into a sort of "Yes! That's true!" that causes your inner voice to use exclamation points. David Foster Wallace was that voice for over a decade, but his is not the sort of voice that comes along every day, every month or or even every year. It came along this year. The book was Pulphead and the author was John Jeremiah Sullivan. Just a short way into the opening essay and you begin to have that "supposedly fun" feeling. With subjects ranging from Christian music festivals to the death of Michael Jackson, Sullivan takes a side angle view of familiar subjects and, in doing so, invites the reader to pay closer attention than ever before.
Kester Smith is a former pastor turned bookseller at Texas' largest independent bookstore, Bookpeople. He also keeps a What's Kester Reading? blog.
6. The King Jesus Gospel, by Scot McKnight
Among the reigning gods of modern Western culture are the twins efficiency and reduction. And Christianity has not escaped the imperial sway of these powers. There are a multitude of ways in which the Gospel itself has been reduced: four spiritual laws, get-out-of-hell-free pass, etc. For those who have been wearied by these oversimplified accounts of the Good News, comes Scot McKnight’s excellent book, The King Jesus Gospel, which tackles the question of what the Gospel really is. Arguing that the Gospel is rooted in the full biblical story of Jesus and that the focus should be on making disciples, not getting decisions, McKnight offers hope of a deeper, richer Gospel that might actually be good news for a broken world.
Chris Smith is editor of the Englewood Review of Books and co-author of Slow Church, coming in 2013 from IVP.
5. Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell
Last summer the The New Yorker named Karen Russell one of 20 writers under the age of 40 who “capture the inventiveness and vitality of contemporary American fiction.” Russell proves worthy of her spot on the list with Swamplandia!, the story of young Ava Bigtree and her search for her missing sister in the mangrove swamps of Florida. Ava is guided by the mysterious and creepy Bird Man, a gypsy-like wanderer who is led by the ubiquitous vultures that populate the swamps. Don’t be fooled by the book’s cover: there are dark shadows hidden in the pages of this beautifully written book.
David Johnson writes frequently about books for RELEVANT magazine. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
4. Who Is My Enemy?: Questions American Christians Must Face About Islam—And Themselves, by Lee C. Camp
The starting point for Lee Camp’s stunning new book is that Christians should take Jesus at His word when He said, “Love your enemies.” This requires a commitment to self-examination as well as the practice of empathy—“empathy that may not agree, approve, or necessarily even tolerate, but nonetheless seeks to understand.” Camp suggests taking the question that was on everyone’s lips after the 9/11 attacks (“How could they do this to us?”) as an authentic agenda for understanding: “What in their experience, in their presuppositions, in their vision, could contribute to the deeds or words or actions we find so unjust and horrid?” Reading Who Is My Enemy? reminded me of the growing pains I’d get as a kid, usually at night. It was going to be uncomfortable for a while, but I knew I was going to wake up bigger.
3. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
If there is a central lesson to Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, the co-founder and former CEO of Apple who died last October, it is that Steve Jobs—the "ultimate icon of inventiveness, imagination, and sustained innovation"—was not inevitable. Isaacson follows Jobs from his early childhood (he was given up for adoption at birth) and precociously brilliant teenage years, to the creation of Apple, his fall from the top, the formation of Pixar and his re-ascendance at Apple. Isaacson, who conducted more than 40 interviews over two years with the famously private Jobs, describes the moral, technological and business failures, as well as the "passion for perfection and ferocious drive," that determined the shape of Jobs' success—success that would revolutionize six industries (personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing) and transform the world.
2. Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, by Ian Morgan Cron
I was predisposed to think Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me would be great. I picked up a humidity-soaked copy at the Wild Goose Festival in June on the recommendation of friends, coworkers, a vicar’s wife I met on retreat. Turns out everyone was right. Cron mixes humor and sadness like bread and wine, yielding a conversion narrative that rings true in ways that only emerge from the co-mingling of suffering and faith, of the altar and the AA meeting. Cron’s story of searching for a safe home, a caring father, redemption from a deeply scarred past, is entirely unique and thereby points us to a fundamental truth of the universe: love always stoops, and faith always jumps.
David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press and the author, most recently, of The Parable of the Unexpected Guest.
1. The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht
Téa Obreht’s debut novel is set in the Balkans in a period of calm after decades of intermittent war. The narrator, Natalia, is a young doctor who, while on a goodwill medical mission across the border, learns her grandfather has died. Natalia searches for clues about her grandfather’s life, as well as the enigmatic circumstances of his death, in two stories from his past: the story of a deathless man, and the story of a woman who loved a tiger so much she almost became one herself. The result is a tale so wondrous and wise it belies the author’s age (Obreht is in her mid-20s) and signals the arrival of one of this generation’s brightest voices.
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides: In Eugenides’ eagerly awaited third novel, a young woman is torn between two very different men: the handsome and mysterious scientist she eventually marries, and a would-be mystic who is convinced they are meant to be together.
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach: Fielding a baseball is a mystical experience for Henry Skrimshander, a college shortstop with big-league talent. But after making a single critical error, Henry’s life and the lives of four friends are forever changed. This is the debut novel from one of the co-founders of the journal n+1.
Habibi, by Craig Thompson: In Habibi, the latest graphic novel from the author of Blankets, a runaway slave girl (Dodola) rescues an orphaned 3-year-old boy (Zam) and raises him on a boat in the middle of the desert. Eventually wrenched apart by violence, Dodola and Zam search for each other over decades and across a harrowing Middle Eastern landscape that seems to exist outside time.
Love Wins, by Rob Bell: Bell wrote Love Wins, in part, to engage people in the big questions about “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” It worked. Whether you loved it or hated it, agreed with it or disagreed with it, Love Wins was one of the most talked about books of the year.
Year of Plenty, by Craig Goodwin: Goodwin, a Presbyterian pastor, recounts the year his family lived by four simple but radical rules: buy local, buy used, homegrown, and homemade. As Eugene Peterson writes in his foreword, Year of Plenty is “a convincing witness to the sanctity of the everyday, the ordinary ...”