Tuesday 27 December 2011

Best books (films, music, TV, websites) of 2011

OK folks, it must be time for a round-up of some highlights from the past year – mainly books, but also music, TV, films, and websites:
  • Denys Turner, Julian of Norwich, Theologian (Yale University Press). An exciting theological reading of Julian of Norwich, collapsing the divide between mysticism and systematic theology.
  • Lewis Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity (Cambridge University Press). A deep reading and thoroughgoing reevaluation of Augustine's De Trinitate.
  • Ralph Wood, Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God (Baylor University Press). An exploration of the darker side of Chesterton's religious imagination.
  • Geoffrey Rees, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (Cascade Books). A sort of meta-critique of the contemporary sexuality debates, and a retrieval of the good old Augustinian doctrine of original sin.
Theological memoir: 
  • Margaret Miles, Augustine and the Fundamentalist's Daughter (Cascade Books). One of my all-round favourites of the past year – a delightful autobiographical narrative that follows the structure of the 13 books of Augustine's Confessions. More than an autobiography, it's really an autobiographical commentary on the Confessions. I read this on the way home from San Francisco after AAR, and it reminded me why theology matters.
  • Eberhard Busch, Meine Zeit mit Karl Barth: Tagebuch 1965-1968 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht). Eberhard Busch's diaries from the last years of Barth's life are crammed full with insight and incident. An enormous contribution to Barth studies.
  • Eugene Peterson The Pastor: A Memoir (HarperOne). I'm awarding this one preemptively, since I haven't actually read it yet. I've dipped into it, and it looks like a beautiful memoir – I hope to get to it soon.
Theology translations: 
  • Erik Peterson, Theological Tractates, translated by Michael Hollerich (Stanford University Press). A very important contribution to English-language theology. This collection includes some of Peterson's most brilliant and influential essays.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education Underground, 1937-1940, translated by Victoria Barnett (Fortress Press). Letters, journal entries, sermons, and lecture notes from Bonhoeffer's time in the Finkenwalde seminary. As the young folks say: epic.
  • Sergius Bulgakov, Relics and Miracles: Two Theological Essays, translated by Boris Jakim (Eerdmans). This sounds like a quirky topic – but actually, this little book offers penetrating reflection on the doctrine of creation, the theology of the body, and a theology of transcendence and materiality. Definitely one of the most profound pieces of doctrinal writing that I read all year. Light-years ahead of most of the tosh that gets written about the doctrine of creation.
Edited collections:
Popular theology:
  • Rob Bell, Love Wins (HarperOne). I've recommended this book to several people, and I've talked to people who found it enormously helpful. In spite of all the kerfuffle surrounding it, it's really an excellent little book. Even my wife read it – twice! No theologian could ask for more.
  • N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus (HarperOne). I haven't read this yet – but again, it looks like just the kind of book to recommend to people. It's a shame we don't have more theologians who can write in this kind of attractive plain speech.
Reference work:
  • Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Knopf). A tender, hurtful meditation on time and memory.
  • Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife (Random House). A spell-binding first novel from this young Serbian writer. It's a delightful story, told in gorgeous prose. First sentence: "In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers."
  • José Saramago, Cain (Houghton Mifflin). Translated posthumously, this is Saramago's irreverent and funny re-telling of the Pentateuch. It's not one of his best books, but it's – well, its Saramago.
Children's novel (chosen by my daughter):
  • Clare Vanderpool, Moon Over Manifest (Yearling). My daughter loved this book so much that I've started reading it too. Here's a few lines from the first chapter: "The seven-forty-five evening train was going to be right on time.... Being a paying customer this time, with a full-fledged ticket, I didn't have to jump off, and I knew that the preacher would be waiting for me. But as anyone worth his salt knows, it's best to get a look at a place before it gets a look at you."
  • Francis Webb, Francis Webb: Collected Poems (UNSW Press). A major publishing event, collecting the luminous work of this tragic, strangely neglected religious poet. Read it, and you'll understand why Sir Herbert Read called Webb "one of the most unjustly neglected poets of the century."
  • Kevin Hart, Morning Knowledge (University of Notre Dame Press). Poems of grief, loss, faith, and love, surrounding the death of a father.
Literary criticism:
  • Harold Bloom, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale University Press). I'll be the first to admit that Bloom can be more than a little annoying. But his great virtue is his enormous – really, his megalomaniacal – love of reading. And that infectious love comes booming through in this boisterous swansong about a life lived through literature.
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? (Viking). Quirky, concise, lucid, brimming with energy and personality – and it's all about Moby-Dick. What more could you want?
Best fine edition:
  • Oscar Wilde, Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act, illustrated by Barry Moser (University of Virginia Press). A lavishly produced book, with Barry Moser's wonderfully dark and vivid engravings.
Art book:
Best new book series:
  • Princeton University Press's Lives of Great Religious Books. What a great concept for a book series! So far I've only read Garry Wills' biography of Augustine's Confessions – and it was a real treat, especially the opening chapter on the practice of writing in antiquity.
Best older books I read this year:
  • Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948; Mariner). It's true – somehow I'd never got around to reading this before. What a book! What a writer! What a life! Not so much a life as a one-man Broadway show, a runaway steam train, a carnival of sin and grace. Absolutely tremendous.
  • Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (1939; New York Review Books Classics). One of the most beautiful, precise, elegantly crafted pieces of literary criticism I've ever read.
  • Tom Waits, Bad As Me. Nobody is as bad as Tom Waits. Or as good.
  • PJ Harvey, Let England Shake. A blistering, rich, eloquent, disturbing provocation about warfare and the violence underlying contemporary society.
  • Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues. Fleet Foxes: enough said.
  • We Are Augustines, Rise Ye Sunken Ships. A pretty compelling rock debut. I discovered them by accident because I thought it had something to do with Saint Augustine. But I kept on listening long after I realised my mistake.
  • Australian: Cloudstreet (Showcase). Wonderful mini-series about two working-class families sharing a house in Perth. It's a poignant family drama punctuated by moments of magic realism. Geoff Morrell's Lester Lamb is one of the grandest TV characters I've seen in years – a character of Dickensian proportions. (Honourable mention: ABC's The Slap, another excellent Aussie series.)
  • American: Boardwalk Empire (HBO). Only halfway through this at the moment, but I'm loving it – a smart, classy series about organised crime during 1920s Prohibition.
  • British: The Hour (BBC). Utterly gripping edge-of-your-sofa suspense about a 1950s current affairs show. Ben Whishaw is captivating as the slovenly genius Freddie Lyons.
  • Australian: Brendan Fletcher, Mad Bastards. A raw piece of storytelling about three generations of indigenous Australians. The film used non-professional actors from indigenous communities, and the result feels gritty and confrontingly authentic.
  • American: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life. This beautifully filmed cosmic/domestic epic is a sort of visual commentary on the Book of Job, a cinematic theodicy in answer to the dark Manichean theology of Lars von Trier's Antichrist.
  • European: Lars von Trier, Melancholia. The end of the world has never been lovelier.
  • Religion site: ABC Religion & Ethics. Scott Stephens' work on this site has catapulted public discourse about theology and religion to completely new levels of depth and sophistication.  
  • Innovative site: Bibledex. A video for every book of the Bible. Why didn't someone think of it sooner?
  • Blogs: Women in Theology and An und für sich. These team-blogs have produced some of the most fruitful and sustained discussions about theology in the past year. I've learned so many interesting new things from these discussions. When I only have time to lurk at a couple of blogs, those tend to be the ones I go to – and then I head over to Jason's relentlessly productive Per Crucem ad Lucem.


Carl Gregg said...

Thanks for this list. The item that most flagged my attention for immediate purchase was the new Fleet Foxes. I am only vaguely familiar with them, but your enthusiasm combined with the description of the new album piqued my interest -- combined with the fact that I have time to listen to the album on my drive home from the holidays. The deal was sealed when I saw that Amazon has the mp3 album for $5: http://amzn.to/rxLymw. Looking forward to listening!

Casper Denck said...

Thanks for the recommendations; The Agamben book is now duly purchased.

Bobby Grow said...

Hi Ben,

I thought you weren't all that impressed (early on) with Ayre's book on Augustine; at least that is what I recall from your survey of Augustine resources in your Youtube video series awhile back. Am I recollecting wrong?

Ben Myers said...

Yeah, it felt a bit rushed (compared to his great book on Nicaea), and I wished it had gone a bit further — e.g. there's nothing on Book 15 of De Trin. But for all that, I'd still say it's one of the year's most important theology books.

Ben Myers said...

You'll never regret it, Carl. And if you like it, make sure you get your hands on their first album — it's a tour de force.

Bobby Grow said...

Thanks, Ben. I'm excited to give it a read, yet; and more so given both yours and Myk's endorsement :-). Happy New Year!

Jason Goroncy said...

Speaking of lists of bests, check out John Crace's latest piece: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/dec/28/truth-behind-best-books-lists

Jason Goroncy said...

Speaking of lists of bests, check out John Crace's latest piece: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/dec/28/truth-behind-best-books-lists

Joshua said...

let me add
Homeland for TV Shows

and the Art of Fielding
for Novels

William said...

David Graeber's Debt and David Foster Wallace' The Pale King were a couple of my favorites.

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