Most publications, when they promise you a year-end Top 10 list, give you just 10 books. But here at RELEVANT, we’d like to think you’ve come to expect a bit more. We asked our friends over at the Burnside Writers Collective to help us compile the following list, which includes, um, 11 of the year’s best books, as well as four worthy honorable mentions. These are the books that thrilled, transported, challenged and inspired us. The books that broke our hearts and made us see the world in fresh ways. It was, all-in-all, a great year to be a book lover. Which is why we needed all 15 slots to accommodate our Top 10 list. Here they are, in no particular order:
To the End of the Land, by David Grossman
Like the land in which it is set, the lives depicted in To The End Of The Land are fraught with competing claims and old wounds. David Grossman’s novel follows the story of Ora, a Jerusalem woman whose youngest son, Ofer, has reenlisted with the army for an operation into the Territories. Ora is terrified of the knock on her door that will come when Ofer has been killed, and in desperation she makes a cosmic bargain that if the officials cannot find Ora to notify her, then Ofer will be safe. So she flees to Galilee with her estranged lover (and Ofer’s biological father), to hike through a land where she cannot be found.
David Grossman has been called the conscience of his country, a difficult job description for anyone, but for an Israeli writer it seems a nearly an impossible task: to write stories that acknowledge both the existential threat to the Jewish people and the violence used in response. But Grossman quietly accomplishes this with a seamless and extraordinarily beautiful narrative, telling of relationships too intertwined to unravel here. You will ache every time you pick up this book—and every time you have to put it down.
David Johnson writes frequently about books for RELEVANT Magazine. He lives with his wife and cat in Silverton, Oregon.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas
I only first heard about Dietrich Bonhoeffer a few years ago, but I was
immediately hooked: a theologian who participated in the plot to
assassinate Hitler and was killed at the hand of the Nazis just months
before the allied victory. When I saw that Eric Metaxas, who wrote the
stellar 2007 biography of William Wilberforce, was tackling a biography
on Bonhoeffer, I grabbed a copy as soon as it hit the shelves. The 500+
page tome did not disappoint. Metaxas meticulously describes
Bonhoeffer’s life, paying special consideration to Bonhoeffer’s early
family life and influences that swayed his theology of discipleship
that would lead to his involvement in the Hitler assassination attempts
and, eventually, to Bonhoeffer’s own death. Bonhoeffer is a model for 21st-century Christians, and Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor,
Martyr, Prophet, Spy is a modern-day classic that should be on “best
of” lists for the decade, not just 2010.
Sara Sterley is Deputy Editor of the Burnside Writers Collective and a regular contributor to RELEVANT Magazine.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
dream of any halfway decent writer is to find a story that hasn’t been
told, to uncover a tale that tells us something about ourselves or the
world around us. Rebecca Skloot spent 10 years pulling together
details about the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black
woman who died in 1951, but who lives on forever through cells taken
from her tumor that are used in medical research around the world,
including cloning, in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. The story
is both a miracle and a tragedy of how one woman changed the world, but
how her family was not only left in the dark about how her cells were
used, but also left outside of the health industry her cells are an
integral part of.
Dan Gibson co-authored a book called Besides
the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian
Culture. He also captains an amateur soccer team, Sparklemotion.
The Passage, by Justin Cronin
It feels unfair to categorize The Passage as genre fiction. Despite the monsters and the apocalypse and tense, spooky moments, the word that best describes the book is “epic.” Cronin spreads the story over a hundred years and 784 pages, keeping a tight rein on the plot the whole time. Unlike Stephen King’s The Stand, the book never takes a wrong turn down any long, gratuitous alleys. Cronin keeps his eye on the ball and only gets graphic when warranted. Though the plot will keep you up reading late, the characters and themes will keep you coming back. Cronin makes us know and care about the people in this nightmare scenario. He even conjures empathy for the bad guys, showing us that the divide between humanity and monstrosity is small. Cronin’s taut, apocalyptic road story asks us over and over whether American values are more about survival or morality.
Stephen Simpson is a psychologist, writer and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Assaulted by Joy: The Redemption of a Cynic (Zondervan) and What Women Wish You Knew about Dating (Baker Books).
The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris
An unnamed disease compels Tim the lawyer to walk for miles at a time until he falls asleep. As you’d expect, these unpredictable bouts wreak havoc on his career and family life. In his second novel, The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris plunders this premise to explore the ad-hoc ways we face illness—desperately, with determination and foolish reasoning and gallows humor that’s laugh-out-loud funny. For all the story’s compelling dread, it’s Ferris’ tender portrayal of Tim’s marriage that haunts you—the intense joy of love lingers, even as Tim is driven farther and farther away.
Josh Langhoff is a church musician whose writing has appeared in the Village Voice, PopMatters, The Singles Jukebox, his church newsletter and joshlanghoff.blogspot.com. He is the music editor of the Burnside Writers Collective.
A Landscape Manifesto, by Diana Balmori
For too long, churches have followed the call of Manifest Destiny and marched onward in Western culture’s habitual abandoning of places. Instead of being ambassadors of God’s reconciliation of all creation, we regularly join with the world’s powers in raping the land and moving on to new places. Although Diana Balmori’s new book, A Landscape Manifesto, is not intentionally written for churches, it stokes our imaginations with a vision of remembering and revitalizing our places in which churches should hear bold echoes of the scriptural story in which we dwell. This handsome volume features the barebones manifesto (available online here), fleshed out with essays on each of the manifesto’s 25 points, and illustrated with pertinent works from Balmori and other noted landscape architects. A Landscape Manifesto leaves one with a deep sense of the possibility that the harmonious shalom of God might one day emerge in the city.
Chris Smith is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community on the near-eastside of Indianapolis, the editor of the Englewood Review of Books; he enjoys coordinating Englewood’s kids in various adventures in urban naturalism.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson
Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is the third and final book of
Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s trilogy. Larsson’s books take place
entirely in Sweden and are filled with cultural, social and
geographical references that most readers do not understand; yet they
are so intoxicating that fans can easily overlook the cultural
disconnect and instead focus on the guarded, hostile, heavily tattooed,
pierced, angry yet mysteriously likable title character, Lisbeth
Salander. The intricate web of mystery and conspiracy surrounding
Lisbeth that Larsson started to weave in The Girl With the Dragon
Tattoo is brought (mostly) to a close in Hornet’s Nest, as Lisbeth
commits to fight the people who dedicated their lives to ensuring she
never escaped her government-created persecution. The book starts with
Lisbeth recovering in the hospital after being shot in the head by her
father, and doesn’t end until the reader sees just what exactly has
caused Lisbeth to become the contentious women she is. It’s predictably
action packed, but also surprisingly emotionally evocative, which sets
it apart and gives it a depth that other crime/mystery novels too often
Emily Timbol is a writer, an avid reader, a cynic and someone who
spends way too much time on the Internet. You can find more of her work
at her blog.
The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible, by Sean Gladding
Christians are “people of the book,” whether we care to be or not. Too bad the book is so … big. And so bewildering. And with so many verses and chapters and books. We lose sight of the fact that it’s actually one story, that it was lived and heard and told before it was written and read.
The Story of God, the Story of Us by Sean Gladding takes the reader through the whole Bible from three vantage points: a communal fire in a village of Israelite exiles, a post-resurrection ekklesia, and a secret upper room during the persecution of the church. Gladding’s book is at times illuminating, at times provocative, but throughout refreshing. I left it with not only a fresh appreciation of the Bible as it was being lived, but a new curiosity about how God’s story is being written in our midst today.
David Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and author of Deliver Us from Me-Ville (David C. Cook) and the forthcoming The Parable of the Unexpected Guest.
Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, by David Platt
In his first book, pastor David Platt addresses what it means for Christians to be in America but not of America. Platt argues that mainstream Christianity has become a slightly holier version of the American dream with ideals like individualism and self-sufficiency being elevated to the status of beatitudes. By adopting cultural values, the Church, Platt warns, is in danger of becoming nothing more than a faith-based corporation whose members are spiritual consumers taking in programs and entertainment.
Refreshingly, Platt’s book is not political, and his concern for the Church is earnest. He calls the Church to emulate the Kingdom of God and not the American dream. Radical marks the arrival of a new type of evangelical, one who is globally aware, who is passionate about serving the outcasts and whose preferred church model empowers all of its members to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.
Benjamin Dolson is a writer from Michigan. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his lovely wife.
Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
If change were easy we’d all have tight abs and fat book deals. But
change is more difficult than summoning willpower or trying harder.
The Heath brothers reveal to effect change we must appeal to two
different operating systems within us; one built for comfort, the other
achievement. Switch offers a nuanced strategy for appealing to our
emotive and rational selves and getting them to play well together.
This book is firmly rooted in current brain research without becoming a
stuffy or dense read. Switch won’t make change any easier, but you’ll
understand the battle better.
Larry Shallenberger is a pastor and the author of Divine Intention (David C. Cook). Visit him at www.larryshallenberger.com
The Wisdom of Stability, by Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove
The writer Wallace Stegner found it helpful to distinguish between two American archetypes: the “boomer” and the “sticker.” From gold strikes to flipping houses, boomers live in perpetual motion, always looking for the next big killing. Meanwhile, stickers quietly go about the business of staying put, rooting themselves in a place and a community for the long haul. Society tends to praise boomers and ignore or mock stickers. But something essential is lost in our mobile culture, Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove writes in The Wisdom of Stability: “[We] are able to best discern the call of God … when we are rooted in the life-giving wisdom of stability.” Stability—“a shared life with particular people in a specific place”—is an ancient Christian idea, and Wilson-Hartgrove draws from the deep well of monastic tradition, as well as his own experiences as the co-founder of an intentional community, to unpack it for a modern audience. Stickers may not end up in the history books, but a rooted faith is nothing short of radical (the word “radical” is derived from a Latin word meaning “root”). That makes The Wisdom of Stability not just the right book at the right time, but one of the truly essential Christian book of the year.
The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr: Surfing the Web rewires our brains to function in a permanent state of distraction, one that allows us to quickly find new information but that impedes our ability to evaluate this information or think deeply about it. Nicholas Carr’s fascinating book will change your understanding of the Internet’s ubiquitous presence in modern life.
The Whale: The Whale is a loving meditation on whales and their environment. But it is also a memoir and a travelogue and a literary biography. Whales are mysterious and otherworldly creatures, and Hoare writes with a poetic sensibility that is worthy of his great subject.
The Tenth Parallel, by Eliza Griswold: Poet and journalist Eliza Griswold travels along the tenth parallel to report on the collision there of two swelling faiths, Christianity and Islam. She witnesses firsthand the messy confluence of faith and foreign policy, and talks with followers of both religions, only some of whom are content with coexistence.
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan: Egan’s new novel is set against the backdrop of the music industry. Written from multiple perspectives, and including what must be literary fiction’s first PowerPoint short story, Egan is interested in those moments of passage that alter the inner landscape forever, even as time marches on.
Honorable Mentions are compiled by John Pattison and David Johnson. John Pattison is the deputy editor of the Burnside Writers Collective, a frequent contributor to RELEVANT magazine and co-author of the newly released Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture. He blogs at BesidesTheBible.com.