In January of 2009, I stated that I was looking forward to two new publications: Jonathan Stroud’s Heroes of the Valley and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. Stroud’s book was something of a disappointment, and I’ve barely started reading the Tolkien volume (perhaps I’ll finish it before 2009 is over, but not before writing this post). Among the 2008 books I was planning to catch up on in 2009, I had a similar track record: Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates was okay, but I haven’t even opened the cover of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (except to see that the margins are disappointingly large).
So we’ll call 2009 the year of unexpected pleasures in reading. Here are three books published in 2009 that took me by surprise and left a lasting impression:
1. The Magicians, Lev Grossman
I reviewed Grossman’s fantasy novel a couple of months ago, and while the novel certainly has its flaws, it remains the most emotionally affecting book I read in 2009. As I wrote in my review, “For those of us who, like The Magicians’ protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, always dreamed of finding that one closet whose back wall would disappear and usher us into Narnia, Grossman’s novel is agonizing: I can honestly say that it’s one of the most painful books I’ve ever read. And that’s a compliment—mostly.” The Magicians is also, I think, culturally significant because it crosses the lines between the sometimes enemy camps of “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” (sci-fi-, fantasy, mystery, Western, etc.). I’d love to see more crossovers in the future.
2. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K. A. Smith
Smith (no relation) is a philosophy professor at Calvin College. I first became aware of his work a little over a year ago, when he published a fascinating piece in Christianity Today about being a “Pentecostal Calvinist.” His new book, Desiring the Kingdom, is ostensibly about Christian higher education (which is why I read it), but it certainly has applications for Christians figuring out their relationship to pop culture as well. The central question Smith asks is, “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” Desire is a deep-seated part of our human identity, Smith says, and malls and movies have done a better job of recognizing this than churches and Christian universities have. The solution is not some sort of dumbing-down of church or the Christian intellectual tradition, but rather an acknowledgment that, as desiring, embodied human beings, liturgy (not necessarily a “high-church” liturgy) speaks to us as “whole persons.”
3. The House at Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper
I’m cheating a bit with this one, since it was first published in September 2008—it did first appear in paperback in 2009! A fellow church member recommended Cooper’s memoir to me, since it deals with the history of Liberia (our pastor is from Liberia, and our church has participated in missions trips to the West African country, which is still recovering from years of civil war). Cooper, who has been a foreign affairs correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, was born to a privileged family in Liberia. She relates her gradual realization of the injustice upon which that privilege was based, but she does so without wallowing in guilt. Since Liberia was colonized by freed African Americans in the 19th century, it’s a part of American history as well as world history, and we would do well to learn more about it.
I also have high hopes for two other 2009 publications that I haven’t yet read: Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall and Carlos Eire’s A Brief History of Eternity. Given my previous predictions, though, I make no promises.
2009 has been the year in which I’ve had very few firm opinions about music, except that Taylor Swift can’t sing. Before I pull a Kanye, though, and go off on that topic, let me focus on what I’ve listened to and enjoyed.
1. U2, No Line on the Horizon
This was my one pick for 2009 at the beginning of the year. I bought the album and have enjoyed listening to it, but, contrary to most critical opinion, I think I liked U2’s previous album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, better. Aside from the music itself, it was fun to watch the massive internet frenzy when Amazon offered the album download for $3.99.
2. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown
Maybe I felt the need to counteract No Line on the Horizon’s “love and community” optimism, but Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown has actually been more satisfying for me this year. Like American Idiot, it’s also a “punk rock opera” with distinct movements and characters. Though I don’t love all of the songs on the album (in “East Jesus Nowhere,” for example, the critique of religion seems more fashionable posing than heartfelt challenge), many of them genuinely speak to Generation X angst. I really like the 60s folk-song vibe of the vocals on “21 Guns.” Some of the songs from 21st Century Breakdown are included in this year’s stage-musical version of American Idiot. Having listened to a sample, I’m not sure Broadway-style singing lends itself well to the oeuvre of Green Day, but there are probably a lot of Glee fans who will disagree with me there. (The American Idiot musical played in Berkeley this fall, but the dates for its Broadway debut aren’t yet set.)
3. The Swell Season, Strict Joy
Yes, they’re the cute couple from Once—only they’re no longer a couple. None of the songs on Strict Joy are quite as compelling as “Falling Slowly,” but they’re a nice, mellow listen.