BEST BOOKS OF 2009 (PART TWO)

BEST BOOKS OF 2009 PART TWO

Well, friends, welcome back from the awards show intermission. We hope you had a good stretch. Thank your seat fillers, and settle in for the second part of our 2009 ceremony. It will be an exciting time, without commercial breaks. We think you will enjoy it. Thanks for joining us for the remainder of our celebration. Let's bring on the dignitaries, and break out the award medals. Figuratively speaking, that is.

THE "WORDS, WORDS, WORDS" AWARD

Every year there are many good books on books on writing, on words, and on the meaning of language. This year, there were three that stood out, one a sure-fire award winner, and two honorable mentions.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (Eerdmans) $18.00 Talk about a wonderful, elegant book! This is beautifully written, very inspiring, truly thought-provoking, deeply faithful to the Christian tradition, and yet readable by nearly anyone with an eye for good writing and decent values. Yes, she frets about things: "Like any life-sustaining resource," she writes, "language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants." And she is wise and right to remind us of the dangers of the mis-use of words, speech, language. This isn't a jeremiad, but rather a lovely rumination, especially on the written word. What else would you expect from a renowned Christian poet? One of the best books of this or any year.

The Power of Words and the Wonder of God John Piper, Justin Taylor, editors (Crossway) $15.99 Yes, there is a dramatic cover with an allusion to the blood of Christ, and they do make the firmly evangelical connection between our speech and the glory of an exalted God who is savior and redeemer. Yet, this is more than a call to be clear about faith, to proclaim with grace and wonder the good mercies of God. This book includes wise counsel about communication with others (Ted Tripp) about the glory of stories (Daniel Taylor, in a truly wonderful essay), words that we sing (reflections on hymnody by Bob Kauffman), stuff on cutting words (Mark Driscoll), and an interesting panel discussion with some give and take between the preachers, poets, and writers. Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson's solid exegesis of James 3:1-12 illustrates that these folks mean business relating Biblical teaching to this matter of our speech.

In The Beginning Was the Word: Language, A God-Centered Approach Vern Poythress (Crossway) $25.00 Is it fair to give an honorable mention to a book I neither finished nor fully understood? Oh yes it is and here's why: I know enough to know that this is absolutely brilliant. In my college years, as a speech and language therapy major, I followed some of the debates arising over the seminal work of the linguist, Noam Chomsky, now more known for his left-wing politics, but still a professor of linguistics at Harvard. Asking how the human brain works, where language comes from, how a theistic worldview affects our presuppositions about deep and thorny topics in disciplines like linguistics--these are the very kinds of research questions every academic discipline needs. For a conservative Calvinist thinker to engage this topic with such seriousness is a gift indeed. It seems to me that this is a fascinating inter-disciplinary work, not just a study of linguistics, but a theological and Biblical study as well. Some reviewers have suggested that understanding this will enable us to more deeply understand the Triune God of the Bible. In a world where even the possibility of meaningful communication is derided, this work is a blessing.

THE GOLD MEDAL AWARD FOR THE MOST HISTORIC BOOK OF THE YEAR

Rouault, Fujimura: Soliloquies Thomas S. Hibbes, Makoto Fujimura (Square Halo Books) $19.99

I admit that I am not well aware of the biggest things happening in our world. Although I am a moderately interested observer, I will quickly admit I'm pretty ill informed about the most important occurrences in the world of serious high art. I'm sure there were modern art exhibits in London and treasures uncovered in Vienna and extraordinary new installations in Santa Fe that I know nothing about. Still, I want to celebrate that we were the first bookstore to acquire a book that coincided with one of the truly great art exhibits of 2010. I know enough to be confident of this event's importance.

Our friends at the ever-resourceful Square Halo Books published a beautiful little paperback with artwork of the famed French impressionist, George Rouault, and the contemporary New York abstract painter, Makoto Fujimura. A troubled Catholic and a serene Calvinist; early 20th century European and early 21st century New Yorker; the differences between these two painters are evident. But what is extraordinary is their similarities, their over-lapping influences and common visions. As we described at BookNotes when Soliloquies was released, the book includes a smart piece by Fujimura, and an extended essay by art critic Thomas Hibbes. Most delightfully, Soliloquies includes some previously unshown work of Rouault, and some new work, inspired by Rouault, by Mr. Fujimura. This beautifully designed book is the text that accompanied the historic showing at The Dillon Gallery in New York last fall. We celebrated it then, reviewed in carefully (http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/booknotes/rouault_fujimura_soliloquies/), and now remind you that our shop is one of the very few places to get it, a service we are thrilled to provide, worldwide. This was, indeed, a successful exhibition (can you imagine getting rare works from the Rouault estate into New York on a small budget?) This classy project was a labor of love, as the best labor always is. So was the design and publication of the book. I wish we had a true gold medal to award this fine little work. I wish we could have the project heralded far and wide. I wish Square Halo and Mako all the best. Congratulations on our little award, this affirmation that Soliloquies is truly a historic release, one of the most important books of the past year. May critics and patrons more important than us take notice.

THE NOT SO ARCANE HISTORY OF THEOLOGY AWARD

I'm being a bit sneaky, since I awarded a theology Book of the Year previously (in Part One.) I'm calling this category "The History of Theology" showing that it is less about theology, per se, and more about intellectual history. Anyway, how could I not give a proper hat-tip to our man Alister McGrath, one of the smartest guys, and most prolific theological scholars, on the planet? He's a fine gentleman, very British, and you should read his books. Especially this one. It may seem a tad arcane, but it is not. Forthwith:

Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth Alister McGrath (HarperOne) $24.99 This was released late in the year, allowing it to be added to our late-in-coming awards list. Of course, he doesn't need our puny publicity; he is, as we've noted, an esteemed and prolific writer. He does what we think is just fabulous: a very solid thinker, who has written laudably for the guild, translates his or her academic work into ordinary prose that any interested reader can appreciate. And, further, when an evangelical thinker who stands firmly within historic Christian orthodoxy is utterly fluent and friendly to everyone across the theological spectrum, that, too, is a beauty to behold. In this fascinating work, Dr. McGrath (he has degrees in both science and theology) surveys the meaning of the notion of heresy, and gives a helpful and interesting overview of the major controversies throughout church history. Some have studied theology in this way, and it is a great way to both appreciate church history and a way to learn what doctrines are essential and what orthodoxy means.

Justo Gonzalez (the author of the excellent two volume The Story of Christianity and the briefer Essential Guide to Church History) says, "Not only a riveting story of ancient controversies, but also a much-needed and timely correction to the commonly-held notion that heretics were mostly free thinkers who challenged a narrow and closed orthodoxy." Another feature of this fine work is the spiritual reflection on the very attraction we have to heresy, to the nature of the human soul that too often craves invention and illusion, over truth. Dallas Willard applauds it for just this: "...helps us understand what heresy is and why it exercises a powerful attraction upon the human mind...full of illuminating insights into the motivations that lead people to adopt heresy as a style of life and a personal demeanor." Three cheers!

BEST BOOK IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE: THE SETTING THE RECORD (AT LEAST SOMEWHAT) STRAIGHT(ER) AWARD

We are happy to bestow an award for another book of history, a book I have so enjoyed dipping in to, even when I have reason to think some chapters may, themselves, not be the final word on a subject. Of course any contemporary telling of any historical tale is biased, and the worldview and assumptions of the authors color how they see things. And this is part of the fun of this brilliant book. Great intellectual history, offering insights about the faith and science conversation.

Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About Science and Religion edited by Ronald Numbers (Harvard University Press) $27.95 My goodness did I learn a lot by perusing these interesting chapters. Numbers is well known as a historian of the faith and science controversies (having won several prestigious awards, especially for his meticulous history, The Creationists.) I am not so sure that this book settles everything, and it would be fascinating to hear rebuttals to these myth-breakers. Still, we are happy to award a book that offers such balance, and so many authors, writing in ways that are helpful and illuminating. Did the medieval church suppress the growth of science? Did Rene Descartes originate the mind/body distinction? Is it true, as is often reported, that Huxley defeated Wilberforce in their debate over evolution and religion? Or that the church denounced anesthesia in childbirth on Biblical grounds? How about Myth # 16: "That Evolution Destroyed Darwin's Faith in Christianity---Until He Reconverted on His Deathbed." Or, the one about Einstein believing in a personal God? One chapter explores why it is wrong to say that "Modern Science Has Secularized Western Culture." On and on they go, doing their best to expose myths, explain the truth, bring clarity to the conversations, counter dis-information. Interestingly, some of these truth-tellers seem to be frustrated with how some in the conservative faith community have spun things; others are exposing the falsehoods perpetrated as part of a secular party line. In all cases, they are trying to bring insight and clarity and do so with historical explanations and much good writing. Our friend Ed Davis, who does extraordinary work fostering these kinds of healthy and fair conversations here in Central Pennsylvania (and who teaches at Messiah College) has a chapter, too, which is quite an honor for him. The myth he tries to clarify? "That Isaac Newton's Mechanistic Cosmology Eliminated the Need for God."

I'M NOT GOING TO LIE AWARD, BUT I WILL TELL YOU A STORY: THE BEST BUSINESS BOOK OF THE YEAR

All Marketers Tell Stories Seth Godin (Portfolio) $23.95 I really enjoy Seth Godin, even if some of the time I have little idea what he's talking about---purple cows, meatball Sundays, idea viruses. Well, actually, I get that part--be extraordinary, do something memorable, change your world, form networks of friends who believe in what you're doing, go viral, shake it up. When he starts talking about start-ups of high tech services, and prototypes-types and whatzits, and how easy it is to connect with everybody anywhere on line, I roll my eyes. I just don't get out much, I admit. Okay, nonetheless, hipster, upscale iPad-toting business geek or not, this guy is important to follow, and inspiring. I think most H&M fans will appreciate him. And this one is the one of his I've enjoyed the most. It's winner.

There is a bit of a story, too. The short version is that the first edition was called All Marketers Are Liars. That is, they tell stories, and the listeners determine if it is true for them. Serious epistemology aside, we know this is true. If some high-end wine glass manufacturer convinces high-end wine drinkers that their custom-made glass makes the wine taste better, it really will. Those tasters really do have a better experience, and they are passionate about it, so skip the science, and let the folks enjoy their better-tasting wine in the (storied) new glass. The change - a real change, Seth insists - in the experience doesn't come from the data about the glass, it comes from the perception, which comes from a story. Framing details by a meta-narrative is the way to do evangelism - whether for a business, a product, or a movement. He's right, and I'm in.

Well, when the lying line backfired (or was that part of the plan all along, a part of his own story?) the publisher re-launched a new version of the book with the phrase "Are Liars" scribbled out with a Sharpie and "Tell Stories" scribbled overtop. The new preface (about the irony of Seth not telling his story very well, with this unfortunate word choice for the title) is itself really quite fabulous. The heart of the book explores in fun detail this notion that the most successful businesses are those that know, dream, live, are passionate about, and do a good job communicating their story - and this is a lesson for nearly all of us. From small businesses to non-profits, from idea-entrepreneurs to pastors and ministry leaders, duking it out over who is most right (or the cheapest for the mass market) is the way of the not-so-successful past. The way of today, the way of fruitfulness and lasting impact, he insists, is to tell the better story. And to invite people into that story.

Godin reminded me of things Beth and I used to say to each other (and anybody that cared to listen) 30 years ago as we dreamed up this third place of books and friendship, ideas and God, culture and social change, reading Biblically-informed stuff together with friends of all sorts. Our story led us to create this place, and our books are part of the story. Our good staff are part of that story, as is our extended family and our very best friends. Our readers and supporters and network of authors and book-buyers are the heart of it, especially as they/we grow and learn about the reign of God in our lives, and work for social renewal, inspired by the ideas generated by the books we've read. The sales and profits are clearly not the point (what a bland story that would be.) This is stuff we intuited when we chose not to put our inventory on line, but instead invited people to chat with us - old school small-town businessy relationships on line, resisting the false gods of efficiency, speed and the reductionism of the faceless movement of units of product. That's part of our story, but we don't tell it very well. And I spend more time complaining about amazon (even in a note to Mr. Godin, who nicely wrote back a firm reply) than I do saying and showing why we have a storied thing going on here.

So this book got me thinking, oddly, or maybe not so oddly, about another "Book of the Year" selection, Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Days. In it, Miller describes a fabulous guy named Bob Goff who, in ways that are hilarious and crazy and world-changing (uh, like becoming a judge in Uganda in order to expedite justice in that forlorn land), teaches Miller that the point is not just to tell a better story, but to invite people into a better story. This marketing book with the odd title change reminded me of all that.

I think it deserves some little award from our corner of the Internet, celebrating it as one of the year's best books in this genre, in a year where there were oodles of just such stuff. (New Community Rules: Marketing on the Social Web or Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves, etcetera, etcetera.) All Marketers Tell Stories has this on the front cover: "The Underground Classic That Explains How Marketing Really Works - And Why Authenticity is the Best Marketing of All." I'm not sure how authentic the "underground classic" line is, but I trust this straight-shooting genius who is willing to take some risks, and may be one of the most celebrated business speakers of our generation. He's already got an action figure of himself. Now he has an award from Hearts & Minds. What a story!

BEST BOOK OF CURRENT AFFAIRS: BIASED A BIT, BUT A BOOK THAT CAN'T BE BEAT

This is a no-brainer for us, and I will be honest. Beth and I read this massive volume in a pre-pub edition because we were interviewed by the author as he was researching it. It is a major volume, named by lots of prestigious sources (New York Times, Wall Street Journal and so forth) as one of the best books of the Summer of '09. We've followed the author's research, played a small hand in helping him around our town as he was writing a portion of the book here, and the bookstore is mentioned in passing. Of course we were intrigued, and it was fun to see friends' names in print in a prestigious serious hardback. Because of our interest in the topic, we were eager to learn more, and we loved every page of it. However it could have been a flop. I would not award it if it didn't deserve the honor. It deserves much, much more than our feeble applause. And it has gotten, it, too. This is certainly one of our favorite books of the year!

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the China Underworld and the American Dream Patrick Radden Keefe (Random House) $27.50 This was one of the surprisingly much-discussed books in the policy world of think tanks and pundits this year, and it gained a following among all sorts of folks. The brilliant young author deserves all the acclaim he has received. This is a riveting and magisterial work on the Chinese crime underground, the massive web of human smuggling, and the grand human rights efforts offered here in York PA, when a group of Chinese immigrants were detained in York County Prison for years on end in the 1990s. The book chronicles the harrowing journey of Chinese immigrants on the decrepit ship, the Golden Venture, which, after months at sea, finally ran aground in New York. The passengers were arrested and were dispatched to the prison here in York PA. I reviewed this book in the summer when it came out, and we celebrated the book launch with our friends from the Golden Vision support group, and some of the Chinese guys from the GV ship. This is an amazing book, an amazing story and we are honored to know first-hand much of a portion of it. Go back and read our full review, follow the link to the author's video clip, and you will want to pick up this complex and well-written book. It is a page-turner of a read which combines the thrill of true crime, the insight of social and cultural history, the inspiration of an overcoming-the-odds adventure story, and the faith-based advocacy of creating a world of care and justice for all. Wow.

YOU SAY THAT AS IF IT'S A BAD THING: THE 'DOOMED TO REPEAT IT' AWARD FOR BEST BOOKS IN HISTORY

Ignore history and you're doomed to repeat it. We've all heard the statement, but it hasn't compelled our customers to buy many history books, which is a shame. History is important. Nearly all of the best intellects, leaders, and preachers I know recommend dipping into the past and they regularly cite history books. There are so many good ones (and, around here, near Gettysburg, there is a solid cottage industry of books about that infamous battle and about Abraham Lincoln, many of which earn prestigious awards. We should be proud. Avoiding Lincoln, though, here are a few we feel deserve some accolades. I will name a few that I have not read fully, but that I know deserve mention---there have been some truly exceptional works published this year. Hang on 'til the bottom of this section, and we'll announce the most popular among our customers, in that sense, truly the best of the year.

The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West Tom Holland (Doubleday) $30.00 I think I discovered Holland late, when I was preparing for a book display not long ago about Greco-Roman culture, and learned about his altogether excellent, exciting, important, Rubicon. I realized he is highly regarded as a very trustworthy scholar (with degrees from Cambridge and Oxford) and yet writes with verve and panache. Here he explores the meaning of the 11th century: yes, the year 1000. As the British Evening Standard put it, Forge of Christendom is "a superb, fascinating, and erudite medieval banquet of slaughter, sanctity, and sex, filled with emperors, whores, and monks." And people don't want to read this stuff? Upon being awarded a scholarly prize in England, the Daily Mail wrote "In the year 1000, Western Europe was no more than a primitive and fearful region in the shadow of Byzsantium and Islam. Yet as Tom Holland demonstrates in this fascinating history it was also the crucible of the creation of the Europe we know today." Another reviewer writes,

As if in defiance of all those humanists who condemn or, worse, patronize the early Middle Ages, Tom Holland shows a humble and humbling insight into the agonies and complexities of that time...As a stirring, vivid, and formidably learned analysis of the events surrounding the millennium, this will hardly be equaled. Extraordinary insights and lapidary phrases abound.

And I don't even know what lapidary phrases are. Still, we want to honor them.

Five Cities That Ruled the World: How Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and New York Shaped Global History Douglas Wilson (Nelson) $14.99 What a great idea this is, and how very useful! This offers for the lay reader a long chapter overview of each of five main cities in the history of the West, and what each contributed to the unfolding of our civilization. I am not astute enough to know if I agreed with all of these grand claims, and the author himself admits that such a project is an interpretative leap; no one city can be so pigeon-holed, of course, so his method may be madness. Still, I loved it, learned a bit, was thrilled with the way the author did make a good case for each strength offered by each good city. As for his angle, it is wonderful to see an obvious Christian doing thoughtful history, celebrating the good, the bad, and the ugly, knowing God desires us to attend to the realities of the real world. Nothing super-spiritual or sanctimonious about this at all.

Here is a summary, from the back jacket:

You'll discover the significance of

  • Jerusalem's complex history and its deep-rooted character as the city of freedom, where people found their spiritual liberty.
  • Athens's intellectual influence as the city of reason and the birthplace of democracy.
  • Rome's evolution as the city of law and justice and the freedoms and limitations that come with liberty.
  • London's place in the world's history as the city of literature where man's literary imagination found its wings.
  • New York's rise to global fame as the city of commerce and how it triggered unmatched wealth, industry, and trade throughout the world.

Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 Gordon Wood (Oxford University Press) $35.00 At 750+ pages, this magisterial text is considered, by those in the know, to be one of the finest such works ever done. The series of which it is a part, "The Oxford History of the United States," is unsurpassed. Publisher's Weekly, in a starred review of Empire... declared, it to be "A triumph of the historian's art." Another reviewer noted that Wood's "pitch perfect erudition is legendary." There is little doubt that Professor Wood is the preeminent scholar of the American founding for our day and perhaps of all time. This is one of his luminous, crowing achievements.

The American Future: A History Simon Schama (Ecco) $29.99 Schama has earned many awards, not the least of which is the National Book Critics Circle Award for Rough Crossings. I happened upon the PBS documentary he did on art and immediately rushed to order the book for our shop---it is a large-sized companion to the DVD, but a rich, insightful, fascinating study of art works and what they tell us about history. I knew, then, that he is a master storyteller, and promised I would become more familiar with his work. This new release is a bit of popular analysis of the modern culture wars and, as the dust jacket says rather glibly, "Schama looks back to see more clearly into the future." By "looking back" he offers visions and voices to help us with four multiple crises besetting the United States, musing on "how these problems look in the mirror of time." He explores the matters of war, religion, race (and immigration) and the relationship between natural resources and prosperity.

This blurb from The Financial Times may not endear all BookNotes readers to Mr. Schama, but it is fun to quote:

Only now...has Kerouac found a worthy heir. Yet this road trip is also an inspiring and illuminating work of history, a reflection on the essence of America with a bedrock of deep knowledge behind the bebop prose...The author's genius lies in the way he uses micro-historical, human-scale narratives to make his big analytical points. I hope Obama will have this book on his bedside table. A more inspiring evocation of the spirit of liberal America---past, present, and future---does not exist.

Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin Bill Kauffman (ISI Books) $25.00 Sometimes I say I will read anything by a given author of whom I'm fond, and Bill Kauffman has been on that short list. He's something like a "crunchy con" and as an anti-war conservative and "front-porch radical" he seems part Wendell Berry and part Dorothy Day, a bit of a hell-raiser, with down-home values of care and earnest patriotism of the sort that wants big government (and big anything) out of his beloved neighborhood. Whether it is his book about coaching little league, or his anthology of like-minded localist anarchists, I truly recommend his work. I so love this guy's wild prose with an attitude, and think he's nearly right. So when a new book came along - about one of the more colorful voices in the drafting of the Articles of the Confederation, and the Constitutional debates, a guy I never heard of (thank you very much - I was, shall we say, under-committed and less than thrilled. Yet, I have said I will read all Bill's books, so by golly, read it I did. What a weird and interesting and somehow important little story, this verbose, Maryland prophet against big government. If you've watched the outstanding John Adams DVDs (or, better, read the big book) you may have had a glimpse of the Jeffersonian angst against big money aligned with big power. Brother Kauffman loves the Anti-Federalist tradition, and tells us all about one of America's biggest losers, Luther Martin, and his futile work against the Philadelphia Constitution. Wow. I don't know how to honor this, with what sort of award. "Best book about an unknown drunk who had a peculiar name and even more peculiar political philosophy, told by a modern-day character himself who shows that the gracious curmudgeon was maybe almost right?" "Best Book You Most Likely Never Heard Of Award?" How about "A Solid Thank You to Clever Writer and Regular Guy Bill Kauffman for Once Again Bring Sanity to This Power-Crazy World Through a Detailed Work of Mostly Untold History"? Yeah.

It Happened in Italy Elizabeth Bettina (Nelson) $24.99 When a new author with a degree from Smith shows up, telling moving stories of how untold numbers of good folks in Italy defied the horrors of the holocaust, resisting Hitler by saving Jews, one ought to pay attention. Kudos to Nelson for publishing this admittedly obscure bit of 1940s research. Some of you no doubt adore what is one of my all time favorite books, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: Le Chabon and How Goodness Happened There, and if so, this is a similar sort of book. Granted, it would be a rare work that matched Lest Innocent Blood... for sheer beauty and narrative force; this book, though, has merit in its simple clarity, in the tale Ms Bettina tells as she uncovers these untold stories from her home town. One can dip in to this at nearly any point and be immediately intrigued and surely moved. From sleuthing down the narrow cobblestone streets of Campagna, Italy, to her Park Avenue private audience with Pope Benedict, this story unfolds in breezy fashion, almost belying the horrific background of her discoveries.

This surely deserves acclaim not only for her own dogged exploration, but for bringing to light resistance to oppression in a part of the world that we often do not associate with Nazi repression. May she be blessed.

1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance Gavin Menzies (William Morrow) $26.95 I don't know if this is award-winning caliber, but it deserves a Hearts & Minds honor because it is surely one of the books we talked about most this past year. Beth read his previous 1421 this summer and truly could not put it down. She would exclaim something remarkable every few moments for days as she zoomed through this story of Chinese navigation. Menzies makes it undeniably clear that the Chinese visited both the East and West coasts of North America long before any Europeans did--as early as 1423, when the great Chinese navigator Admiral Zheng He circumnavigated the globe. (The Chinese had discovered longitude and latitude, and had accurate clocks, enabling them to map most of the world; their excessive flotillas sent to the seven seas recorded copious notes, and their interaction with indigenous peoples in Africa, South and North America are very well documented. They arrived in Florence and met with Pope Eugenius IV, leaving behind a mass of knowledge, including maps, astronomy, mathematics, art, architecture, and printing!) Because it was brand new to us, 1421 was, admittedly, more exciting, but 1434 has its payload of surprises, too. (Did you know that in 1490 Leonardo da Vinci studied a series of Florentine drawings of machines and engineering that may have been copied from the "Nung Shu" which was a Chinese treatise printed in 1313? And that Columbus himself had been given (in the 1480s) a map of the Americas by Paolo Toscanelli, who admitted that it had been gleaned from the "great men of learning" who had come to Florence from China in 1934? World maps appeared, says Menzies, including geography that no European had ever seen (like the Strait of Magellan), in the early 1500s. Yep, they got 'em from the Chinese back in 1434. This good sequel to a fantastic previous book deserves mention. Award for most provocative, most fun, most discussed history book in our household in years. Thanks for reminding us of the joy of learning, the thrill of discovery.

The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer That Changed the World Stephen Mansfield (Nelson) $24.99 This started out on a whim, as historian Stephen Mansfield was tired and frustrated after being hammered for having done two consecutive biographies, one called The Faith of George W. Bush and another called The Faith of Barack Obama. As former pastor and Bible teacher, this trained historian and journalist had been doing political research for years, and wanted to refresh himself with a quirky, small project. Little did he know just how amazing the legendary Arthur Guinness and family is, and how remarkable the Guinness corporation. From impeccable manufacturing of quality products to serious involvement in creative philanthrophy, from generous commitments to workers to generous investment in world missions, this rare brew of a book tells it all, very, very nicely. As one reviewer noted, "Mansfield makes a quietly serious case for the essential role that faith has played not only in the Guinnessses' success but also in the evolution of democratic capitalism." Eric Metaxes (author of a definitive book on Wilberforce, and a forthcoming book which will surely be definitive on Bonhoeffer) writes that it is "frothy, delicious, intoxicating, and nutritious!...an absolute inspiration."

Yes, you guessed it---a clink of the steins and a "bottoms up" to you if you did. This is our winner for most popular history book, in our store this year. In deed, maybe in 20 years. God. Guinness. It's a winner in any category. Congratulations to Mr. Mansfield, and kudos to Thomas Nelson for braving the criticism in religious publishing for daring to do a book on beer.

SPIRITUAL FORMATION: THE BEST OF THE BEST

My, my, what a complicated topic, what a rich field from which to choose, and what a subject matter, finding books that deserve special accolades because they are sure to deepen nearly any reader's soul. We have many to celebrate, and we review them here with some regularity. After much prayer and discernment (I'm joking) I have concluded that we need to honor a few very special books this year. Serious writers about Godly spirituality wouldn't be proud, though, so they really don't care. The rest of us should.

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion Richard Foster & Gayle Beebe (IVP) $25.00 This may not glow in warm prose the way the writing of some writers of the inner life does, but it is solid, helpful, important. There are few resources that bring together such a nicely wide diverse group of mature Christian writers, and here, Foster and Beebe share the stories of many guides and pilgrims who have come before us. Each of the seven paths is illustrated by the brief bibliographies of key writers or thinkers who have much to teach us about that path. So, for instance, we learn about Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux and Pascal in a conversation about the right ordering of our love for God. On recovering true knowledge of God (in a fallen world) we hear from Aquinas, Luther, Calvin. Some authors are less known (Benedict of Nursia, Gregory the Great) and others most have heard of, but perhaps never read (Julian of Norwhich, George Fox, Thomas a Kempis.) With chapters on our experiences of God, the relationship of action and contemplation, and intimacy with Jesus Christ, and more, there is enough good stuff here to last a year. One can learn about great saints of the past, learn about the rise and history of various ways of devotion and discipleship, and--their ultimate reason for writing--can learn from these practices to come to know God more deeply (and serve Christ more faithfully.) Take up and read.

Picturing the Face of Jesus: Encountering Christ Through Art Beth Booram (Abingdon) $14.00 This is a quiet little book, brief, plain, released without any big roll out or PR campaign. I was immediately drawn to the simple idea - using classic reproductions of 8 artists who have painted their imaginations of Jesus - and using this as a devotional guide. Many have loved (and we are glad there is a paperback re-issue) Frederick Buechner's Faces of Jesus, although his is a theological, writerly rumination. Booram's book is truly a handbook for one's devotions, a touching book to draw you closer to the Master (complete with verses to look up, journal questions, and such.) Of course there are full color plates of the paintings she uses. Carol Kent notes that it is "unlike any book you have read on Christ. Through the poignant use of imagery, biblical storytelling, and visionary prayer, Beth Booram brings the character of the Savior into clear focus." I liked her earlier book, The Wide-Open Spaces of God which tells of using various geographic settings for spiritual reflection. She actually sets up these "places" in the workshops and retreats she does, inviting people into these different holy grounds. Here, she uses art to point us to Jesus, and we want to honor her with our little affirmation. Well done, good and faithful servant.

The Sacred Meal Nora Gallagher (Nelson) $24.95 This was an autumn release in the ongoing "Ancient Practices" series. We have read them all, and speak highly of each, each in its own way. This, however, is the best yet, and deserves to be considered one of the standard books in the field, a lovely and touching and insightful work. Here is what the always-astute Lauren Winner says: "Nora Gallagher is a writer I'd follow anywhere, but is a particular thrill to follow her to the Lord's table. I know of no contemporary writer whose insights about the Eucharist match hers." Rousingly endorsed by wordsmith and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, it is clear that this is a book about which you should know, a book we should be enjoying, discussing, and from which we should be learning. We are happy to honor it as one of the best religious books of the year.

Holy Available and Pure Pleasure Gary Thomas (Zondervan) $14.99 each The first is a reprint of an earlier book I adored, The Beautiful Fight, which is all about becoming holy, allowing God's character to be formed in us. The other one Gary released this year is about exactly what it sounds like--pleasure. It asks on the cover, as a sub-title, "Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good?" Between these two books, Thomas has used his joyful stories, his deep knowledge of the literature of spiritual formation, and his evangelical passion to help ordinary people become deeper, truer, more Christ-like and, finally, more human. A double-decker award for him, an honor that, were he to ever hear about it, we hope would give him some holy pleasure.

Great Prayers of the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $16.95 It seems to me that any spirituality that claims to be Christian must, among other things, attend to two important matters. Christian spirituality must be Biblical (that is, grounded in the details of the text) and it must be earthy. That is, it cannot be Gnostic, merely internal, private, super-spiritual, or overly subjective. Other than the Biblical text, Christians have no inside knowledge of the holy, but all can experience God as He is revealed in the pages of Holy Scripture. Yes, the living Christ and the Holy Spirit abides, but our understanding of this must be mediated by the Bible. And that Scripture is, oddly, messy, complex, down-to-earth, and tells of pray-ers that were very, very real. And so, we award a Hearts & Minds best book in the category of spirituality to the esteemed Old Testament scholar Walt Brueggemann, who I once heard preach up a storm from Isaiah on the holiness of God and end with a moving excerpt from Grapes of Wrath. Bible and life, just like that. By studying some of the prayers of particular chosen people, we can, today, come to grips with a similar faithful encounter with God. Does it surprise you that he includes laments, prayers that may seem untoward, and in the discussion questions, invites us to similar authenticity as we reach towards what he calls "Holy Mystery and Holy Ultimacy."? Brueggemann on prayer. Thanks be to God.

 

THE BEST 2009 BOOK ON CHRISTIAN DISCIPLESHIP

Wow. Again, we are putting ourselves out there, trying to name one book that stands out. Of course, there are many good ones and no one book alone can lead anyone into pure and effective Christian living. Quite a few deserve special commendation, but we are just listing one. Take a deep breath, offer a drum roll, and get a little wild.

ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch (Hendrickson) $19.95 If you follow religious publishing at all, you have heard of these two, known as leaders in the missional movement. Like Aussie Blues Brothers, they are on A Mission From God, and it may cause some mayhem. They've written a few books together, and they've each done a solo project. They are back together again--imagine if Lennon and McCarthy did a joint project in '74, at the top of their games. This is about the missional conversation, and about Jesus, and about the Kingdom, and about social trends and big risks, and serving the world in Christ-like ways. It is about how to (and, because it needs to be said, why) "reinstate Jesus as the central focus of our spiritual lives - both as individual disciples and as communities of His people." They expose distortion and misrepresentation, they offer a Christ-centered view of the Biblical narrative, and they call us (theologically, and practically) to be clear about the mission of God in Christ. One of the great pleasures of this text is that it has some crazy-wild illustrations, it has a few side-bars explaining folks they think we should know about (from Jean Vanier to William Wilberforce to Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and there are even a few full-color pictures to enjoy and ponder. (Spoiler alert: they criticize a few famous depictions of Jesus, calling one a "bearded lady" Jesus.) There are just a few too many charts for my taste, but some readers will love that they are citing poets and using art and history, and then kick in to some teacherly outlines and very clear summaries of their major points. This is a great book, and it could make a big difference for anyone willing to rethink the nature of a whole-life discipleship. It is worth having, worth being open to, worth talking about. I am not sure how you say "hip hip hooray" in Australian, but these guys deserve more than a goofy H&M Award. They deserve to be taken seriously, so Christ can be exalted, not by pious talk, but by creating authentic communities that bear not only His name and His image, but His very way of being.

 

A CIVIL SOCIETY AWARD FOR BEST CONTRIBUTION TO FAITH IN PUBLIC LIFE

Well, this is one of our bookstore's strong suits, a category that is way too broad, and with too many extraordinary winners. We have blogged long and hard about social justice resources, about books that offer insight about the trends of our time, about globalization and public theology. We hope that at the start of a new year and a new decade, you might browse through our humble suggestions of months past, and find resources that help you live lives of Christian service "in, but not of" the world around us. Best book? Even the thought is a joke. We're glad that so many recent books are calling folks to action, to serve a broken world. We rejoice in the great books, only wishing they'd supplant the best-selling nonsense, the mean ones, the shallow ones. Please, stop complaining about the diatribes (on Fox News or CNN or on Christian broadcasting) and get some good books into local book groups. We can change the conversation, I think, by sharing the better books, rather than complaining about the bad ones.

And so, an honorable mention or two, great titles to affirm with great gusto.

Christian America and the Kingdom of God Richard Hughes (Illinois University Press) $29.95 I wish this were on a more popular publishing house, but this is a prestigious one within the small world of academia. And I wish it were not so expensive. Still, this is one of the best books of the year, a remarkable study of this vexing matter of church and state, of Christ and culture, of the uniquely American ways we've too often confused God and country. No lesser scholar than sociologist Robert Bellah writes of it, "A powerful call for truth in the muddled world that confuses Christianity and American nationalism." As Brian McLaren says in the forward, after describing his love for our land, and his choking up singing about it, sometimes, "It's easy to demonize, and easy to lionize. In between comes the hard work of sober judgement, and Richard Hughes is one of the best people alive to help us in this national task." As Dr. Hughes - a dear man if ever there was one - patiently develops, the Kingdom of God means very certain things in the Bible, and it has been applied in history in very peculiar ways. As a historian, he carefully explores all this---I kept thinking of a famous book called The City of God that asks similar questions - in ways that are trenchant and informative. Martin Marty says that it "is to be located in the fist rank of the many newer debates regarding the nexus between religion and politics."

And, while I'm celebrating this fine work, how about another little award? I think this has about the best back jacket blurbs, certainly from the widest array of scholars. He's got raves from the late Howard Zinn, the evangelical historian Mark Noll, mainline churchman Martin Marty, and the recently acclaimed journalist and blogger, Diana Butler Bass.

Love Is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community Andrew Marin (IVP) $15.00 While at a very well known, conservative and respected evangelical institution of higher learning, Marin had several good friends come out of the closet, sharing with him that they had concluded they were irrevocably homosexual. This rocked his conservative culture and theology, and, as you can imagine, caused no little discomfort. Alas, to make a very long and tenderly told story short, Marin started to do some research on the gay, lesbian, and transgendered community, eventually creating what may be the best research to date on religion in that community. More importantly, perhaps, he and his wife moved into a predominantly GLBT neighborhood, learning to become friends with those many consider outcasts from the church. As one reviewer put it (David Roberts, of Ex-Gay Watch) Love Is an Orientation "is a book unlike any other on the debate about homosexuality in the church. Marin establishes a new starting place for us all - a definite must read." We applaud how he has attempted to elevate the conversation from "genetics to gospel" and builds a bridge between evangelicals and GLBT communities. There are those who are convinced that Christian faith puts them squarely on one side or another of this controversy. I know we risk alienating both gay and straight customers and friends by celebrating this book. Its heart, though, is clear: we must love, we must talk, we must accept one another, despite deep and abiding differences in what we believe faith demands. Most urgently, we must talk about the good news of Christ Jesus. As Shane Claiborne puts it, this is "a fresh, gracious, innovative voice in the dialogue."

Here is an excerpt from the forward, which illustrates why we want to honor it on our "best of the year" list.

When you come to the last page, Andrew won't ask you to agree with his opinions about the gay orientation or lifestyle. In fact, he won't indulge in a lot of opinion polemics. Instead, he will try to help you understand what he has learned by listening with an open and compassionate heart to gay women and men. And he will try to help you respond to gay people in your world in a more mature and compassionate way, too. And in the end, he'll ask you to agree with him on one main thing: that the orientation and lifestyle of love is the right and only way for true followers of Jesus.

"RED AND YELLOW, BLACK AND WHITE..." MULTI-CULTURAL AWARD FOR BEST BOOK ON ETHNIC DIVERSITY AND RACIAL RECONCILIATION

Once again, there are several really, really fine books on race relations, on faith-based work towards reconciliation and ethnic tensions. We have a large selection, and read in this field pretty regularly. There are others we could celebrate, but we want to affirm one for its groundbreaking insights and solid, Christian perspective.

The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity Soong-Chan Rah (IVP) $15.00 This stimulating and broad work expands and builds upon the vital contributions about global Christianity coming from the likes of Philip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, or the recent scholarly release of Mark Noll. This author stands firmly among the evangelicals who have done such good work on issues of racial reconciliation. IVP is to be applauded for its long-standing efforts to publish such work. Still, unlike those who are documenting the rise of faith in the global South and Far East, and the good books about the multi-ethnic call of the gospel, this book seems aimed at those of us in the white status quo of the American church, and it asks some rigorous questions. Rah insists that the future is now. Just as global Christianity is shifting away from the West to the South and East, so too is the North American church diversifying in terms of race, ethnicity, and culture. How has globalization's shift to increased mobility and immigration affected local churches in North America? How can we resist the cultural captivity that keeps us from being able to change around issues of culture, class, and race? African American leader John Perkins says it is "powerful, prophetic." Harvey Cox of Harvard Divinity School asserts that it is "the best and most balanced treatment of the subject now available."

I like Scot McKnight's colorful endorsement: "The Next Evangelicalism reminds me of July 4: there's plenty to celebrate and there are fireworks going off in all directions! Sit down, open this book, and get ready to duck." For this very reason - its celebration and it's fireworks - we wish we could send up some fireworks ourselves, celebrating God's work in our midst, illustrated by scholar-activists like this.

Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story and Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community Martin Luther King (Beacon) $14.00 each Sadly, and quite oddly, this first book of Rev. King, Stride Toward Freedom, has long been out of print. It is a riveting read about the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, King's rise to leadership in the church and the movement, and remains one of my all time favorite books. His struggle with the philosophy of non-violence, and the training of these early civil rights protesters, makes for very instructive reading. It is a vital part of American history, a grand moment in the history of the church, and a great example for anyone wondering about how the church might involve itself in movements of social change. The new introduction is by Clayborne Carson (who edited the famous multi-volume collection of King's papers). Happily, Beacon has also reissued the last book written by King, again, one that is as urgent and vital as when it was written in 1967. The brief forward that Coretta wrote - the book was published shortly after his murder - remains, but this new edition has a moving, poetic tribute by Vincent Harding, and has been released with a uniform cover to match Stride... These may be marked "African American Studies" in the category listing on the back, but they are much more than that. If you have not read King, these two are excellent introductions to his work.

 

A PAIR OF HOT AWARDS FOR THE BEST BOOKS ON SEX

Seems to be a perennial topic, and there are many good ones from a variety of authors, for all ages.

There are two that came out, from the same publisher, about the same time. Both are deeply thoughtful, very much worth reading. Funny, these don't sound all that titillating, but for serious Christian ethics, they are very highly recommended.

The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life Dennis Hollinger (Baker Academic) $19.99 I think this is an excellent book, carefully considered, Biblical, wise, and rooted in conversations about a Christian worldview, a way of being in the world that is faithful, and, as Richard Mouw puts it, "a rare combination of theological-philosophical expertise, cultural savvy, and pastoral sensitivity." Our pal Walt Mueller of the Center for Parent and Youth Understanding (CPYU) says, "I'll be recommending it as a must-read for all pastors, parents, youth worker, and young adults." I might not expect everyone to work through such a thoughtful study, but I do hope at least some heed Walt's call. We need to clarify "the meaning of sex" if we are going to go beyond some of the debates and controversies. Highly recommended.

Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationships Beyond an Age of Individualism Dale Kuehne (Baker Academic) $19.99 When University of Chicago political science Prof. (and historian, and film buff) Jean Bethke Elshtain does a forward to a book, you know it will be wise, serious, and important. We are thrilled at the interdisciplinary, ecumenical - and, finally, very, very useful - nature of this wide-ranging book. James W. Skillen, retired from his lifetime as director of the Center for Public Justice writes, "Kuehne has done a remarkable thing in this book. His concern is with human love, marriage, family, the care of children, the unfolding generations, the quality of society and political community, and the character of the church. Considered in a broad historical framework and with sensitive Christian understanding, homosexuality and other hotly disputed issues of our day become clearly illuminated. Take the time you need to read and reflect on this book. The payback will be tremendous." Ron Sider (of Evangelicals for Social Action) says that it is a "very important book - clarifying complex issues, jolting us out of complacency, and demanding action." Stanton Jones of Wheaton College declares that it is "a superb accomplishment." I suppose finally this is a book about the very nature of the human person - and the ways in which our individualistic culture (can anybody say John Locke?) has deformed our understandings and our practices. We live, sadly, in an iWorld of autonomy and contracts. Kuehne boldly and freshly asks us to think more deeply and live more radically, into a rWorld (relationship world) of mutuality and covenant. This is slow sledding at times, but hardly anything could be more urgent.

AN OH SO CARING AWARD TO SHARE FOR BEST BOOKS ABOUT PSYCHOLOGY AND SELF-HELP

Oh my, psychology majors, pay attention. Also, anybody who smirks at the phrase "self help" as I usually do. We are happy to honor these authors for some of the very best titles this year. These really are interesting, and we wish we could award them in person, like a real award show would. I'd love to hear their lovely acceptance speeches, caring folk that they surely must be to write this kind of good stuff.

Under Construction: Reframing Men's Spirituality Gareth Brandt (Herald Press) $13.99 Don't let the fact that this is a Mennonite theology prof. and spiritual director, publishing on a Mennonite publishing house, dissuade you. Menno-friendly or not, this is great, great, stuff, and we want to shout out how glad we are to find a resource like this. Forget the Wild at Heart macho stuff. This author is a poet, yet grew up with fairly ordinary men, rural farmer guys who didn't worry about what their masculinity meant. He argues here that the warrior imagery is not useful as a Christian metaphor for men's spirituality - especially in a time of increased global and local violence. From jihadists to religiously motivated domestic violence, it seems to me that we have to get to new ways of thinking about masculinity and violence and power. Without being weird or deep, this plainspoken guy lays it out for us. By using the Joseph stories of Genesis, he roots his understanding of gender in the Biblical narrative. There is some poetry, some good pop culture stuff, and he is conversant many good writers, from Eldridge to the Promise Keepers gang, through Richard Rohr, Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, and Donald Miller's book To Own a Dragon. I like that in the forward, Arthur Paul Boers cites Bruce Cockburn, and Brandt himself quotes the Lost Dogs tune, "Real Men Don't Cry." Yeee, ha! This book deserves an award, and I'd backslap him if I could.

I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life Gregg A. Ten Elshof (Eerdmans) $15.00 Eerdmans as a publisher is increasingly known for groundbreaking (and, sometimes, budget-breaking) tomes that make significant contributions to the worlds of Biblical studies or theology. They don't do little self-help books often, but when they do, they are nearly always outstanding - rich, thoughtful, beautifully written, mature. I was drawn to this by the exceptionally impressive forward by Dallas Willard, but was happy to see, when the book arrived, it has extraordinary quotes by my friends James K.A. Smith and David Naugle, both who write wisely and deeply about the interface of faith, worldview, character and culture. Smith says I Told Me So is "a wonderful example of philosophy serving spiritual discipline." Naugle exclaims that it is wise and well crafted, and "To tell me the truth, I'm glad I read this book. You will be too--I promise." I think Willard is correct that small groups and congregations should grapple with it, but I suspect that most will read it quietly, carefully, allowing its erudite prose to search our own deceptive hearts. This is good, meaty stuff, beautifully done, urgent, even. After a quick skim, I intend to work with it very slowly.

A Peaceable Psychology: Christian Therapy in a World of Many Cultures Alvin Dueck & Kevin Reimer (Brazos) $24.99 This is a big, serious work and it deserves more accolades than I can bestow. This is a broad moral critique of Western culture, a thoughtful engagement with the ideas that have shaped us, and a truly innovative contribution to reframing things. It is asking, to put it simply, what the implications might be for Isaiah's vision of a peaceable Kingdom for those who work in psychology, counseling, therapy, or mental health work. Donald Capps from Princeton Theological Seminary notes that these authors "challenge the empire mentality of Western psychology through learned but accessible discussions of the inevitable conflicts between object science and indigenous religious traditions." This is iconoclastic, radically Christian scholarship seeking a renewal of the very foundations of the discipline. Dueck is a professor at Fuller, and Reimer is a professor at Azusa Pacific, and their knowledge is remarkable. Their vision is audacious. This book is extraordinary. Hauerwas calls it "landmark." It is thick, in more ways than one.

A FEW NOVELS: NOMINATED, SUGGESTED, CELEBRATED, ENJOYED

The best? Come on, we ain't no Pulitzer Prize committee here. And we already told you how much we loved Michael Perry's Coop, his blue-collar rural memoir about "pigs, poultry, and parenting" and that's about the best story we've read all year, even if it is mostly true. Still, we want to offer some sort of incentive for publishers to send us a few free books, so we'll name a couple of my favs this year. Of course there is a new Barbara Kingsolver, which I'm sad to say I haven't opened yet. Everybody talked about Olive Kitteridge and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and The Help. The American Book Award winner was Let The Great World Spin, a fictional account of that tightrope walker between the old WTC towers; we adored the documentary made about him (Man on Wire). Our friend Daniel Nayeri released an awesomely mind-blowing juvenile fiction story Another Faust. Our "one community one book" choice this year was People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, a novel about the Sarajavo Haggadah--a book about a book! Beth liked The Time Traveler's Wife, read after a sweet customer returned it due to the course language and nudity. Beth usually hates such stuff, but found the book hard to put down. We both agree the best novel we've read in years, was The Story of Edgar Sawtell, the mystical novel about a mute boy and his well-trained dogs. A remarkable, powerful piece of serious fiction! For a lovely story, our staff loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Here are a few you may not have considered.

June Bug Chris Fabry (Tyndale) $13.99 Okay, I admit I haven't read this yet. I really want to. I loved his book Dogwood (and the fact that a Jackson Browne concert figured into the plot just clinched it for me.) This is, amazingly, a retelling of Les Miserables, and the hard-to-please Publisher's Weekly declared it "a stunning success." June Bug and her daddy travel around in a RV and often sleep in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. One day, as she walks past the greeter, her eyes are drawn to the pictures of missing children...Charles Martin has won the coveted Christy Award (he wrote Where the River Ends) and says it is "masterful." You know, I wanted to read an award-winning novel this week, so maybe I'll start this one.

Clutching Dust and Stars: A Novel Laryn Kragt Bakker (*cino) $16.00 Rob and Natalie are expertly drawn hipster young adults, twenty-somethings who have been out of school for a few years and are "charting various paths of downward mobility." This is set in Bellingham, Washington, in the early years of 2000s, where Natalie's art studio behind the thrift shop is her place of canvas and paint. I can tell you ten things I liked about this well-written drama, and while not every reader will love every moment, this is a first novel by a very thoughtful Christian writer, published by an indie company that we are close to. I don't award the book because of that, but thought you may know their e-zine (catapult) and may have seen it serialized there. We're pretty excited to carry this book, with its allusive title drawn from The Kabbalah, despite its raw tale and deep struggles about faith and justice...no, it is because of this that we so affirm it. As the author puts it, "the story follows the tensions between various poles: dust and stars, apathy and idealism, love and sadness, disbelief and faith, graffiti and art, Rob and Natalie." Best first novel, 2009!

The Passion of Mary-Margaret Lisa Samson (Nelson) $14.99 I know, I know, this is really chick-lit, but I found it very hard to put down. Perhaps it is because I respect the talents of Ms Samson - and her commitments to live in an missional community in a rough part of their city - or perhaps it is because it is set on a fictional island in the Chesapeake Bay, not that far from us, with references to Baltimore and other mid-Atlantic spots. Or maybe it is the way an evangelical writer, on a largely Protestant publishing house, has drawn a very believable novel set in a Catholic retreat house, with most of the characters (who we meet in a series of flashbacks based on found letters) are nuns. This is a very moving story about forgiveness, the relationship between past and present, and the longing for reconciliation and love. I know theses are the themes of many contemporary novels. This one weaves faith throughout in poignant and reasonable ways, touching down in the art world, local sewing, the seamy world of burlesque, mission work in Africa and, oh - Ocean City. That deserves an honor itself, no? Yes!

Bo's Café John Lynch, Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol (Windblown) $13.99 I want to give this book an award for being - for better or for worse - this year's The Shack. Minus the big sales and hoopla and controversy, that is... It is not sophisticated fiction, and the authors don't fancy themselves called to do major literature. I've met them and like them a lot. (They wrote an extraordinary book on leadership, and TrueFaced, a very, very good book on honest and caring relationships. They are solid Bible teachers and passionate about their efforts to help church folks experience genuine community.) Bo's Café, like The Shack, seems to me to be a parable; it clearly has a message and it's written as a story in order to communicate that message. The moral to the story? Grace. Community. Care. Authenicity. Real relationships. Gerry Breshears (a Ph.D. and serious writer) says, "If you are blinded by success or weighed down by life, the place to linger, learn, and live, is Bo's Café." Dan Haseltine, the lead singer of Jars of Clay, calls it a "signpost directing men and women to a place of freedom through community and honest relationships. It is the story of what happens when we lay our defenses down and embrace the fullness of grace in the face of our secrets and pain." Many solid counselors and writers about relationships (like Les and Lesley Parrot) have moving tributes to this lovely little story. It is quite a ride, a lovely place, caring, and safe, to work through some of the deepest issues in our lives. Kudos to the guys for taking their non-fiction work, and telling a tender, colorful story.

KUDOS TO THE BIG Z: A SPECIAL AWARD FOR NEW EVANGELICAL COMMITMENT TO SOCIAL JUSTICE AND WHOLISTIC MINISTRY AND FOR TAKING GOOD RISKS IN FAITHFUL PUBLISHING

It is no new news that the Zondervan Corporation has been a premier book and Bible company, dating back to their travelling Bible sales around Grand Rapids over 100 years ago. Theologically conservative, culturally middle class, primarily white and evangelical and Republican, this publisher has done fine work representing the fairly traditional end of evangelical publishing. They have done their share of truly bad books in past decades, and their books speculating about the end times soared in the 70s along with other loony stuff from the Jesus people days. As the Christian Right heated up, they did their share of weird stuff there, too, and yet there have been important books, great writers (Phil Yancey comes to mind, as does Walter Wangerin) and very, very moving stories. They never did much in racial justice issues (even the conservative Moody Bible publisher has an African American imprint) although they did a devastatingly important book by Bill Pannell in the 80's. It didn't stay in print very long.

Their Biblical scholarship grew to be very interesting, and I've stood up for their integrity and seriousness among more mainline folks who don't yet trust them, thinking that they somehow were akin to Tammy Faye or Pat Robertson types. Still into the new century, as the Spirit shaped them and new editors became involved and times changed, they began to show signs of willingness to publish less safely traditional material. Voices like Miroslov Volf, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne appeared, and I some days did cartwheels celebrating the oddities of our times: authors with footnotes from radical pacifists and Catholic Workers and scholars like Jacque Ellul end up in books with the Zondervan logo. I didn't even agree with all of Jesus for President, but was overjoyed to see a book like this appear and be discussed within mostly evangelical circles. This year they did a new book by the brilliant David Dark (with a blurb on the inside by yours truly) called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. It's remarkable, fluid, careening off into fascinating ruminations, deconstructing safe idols and risking asking the biggest questions. The footnotes themselves are an education - and it seems to me to be an example of the fresh winds blowing through evangelical publishing, winds that are good and faithful, reliable and orthodox, but creative and open-hearted. Greg Boyd recently wrote the provocative Myth of the Christian Religion, a follow-up to his critique of nationalism. Zondervan has also released DVDs of Andy Crouch and thoughtful Reformed folks like Timothy Keller who encourage us towards not only solid theology, but a care for our urban areas. Of course they do the Nooma DVDs of Rob Bell, and his last great book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians is a Biblically-rich call to resist Empire, and allow Christ to shape us to see His redemptive hand in the world. A book like that simply wouldn't have been published by an evangelical press twenty-five years ago (trust me, I know this.) It wouldn't have been published by Zondervan five years ago.

As a younger generation of readers and missionally-minded folks grew interested in social justice, creation-care, and fair trade, perhaps because of the work of Shane and Bell and others (especially IJMs Gary Haugen, whose work against sexual trafficking put human rights concerns on the map for young evangelicals), Zondervan ponied up and published some great resources. Three this year stand out, and they deserve our respect, admiration and gratitude. I am thankful to God for whoever is behind this stuff. Thanks to all the Z staff who have the courage to do these fine publications. We honor them for a variety of books - and there are quite a good handful - but celebrate these few from 2009. You have given me much hope and made my book selling job that much more joyful. Thanks.

The Poor Will Be Glad: Joining the Revolution to Lift the World Out of Poverty Peter Greer & Phil Smith (Zondervan) $19.99 I did a nice announcement of this when it arrived this fall, and celebrated not only the excellent writing, but the moving photography. It seems to me that somebody in headquarters chose to get behind this, giving it an extra bit of class, investing in a risky publishing venture - a full color hard back about micro-financing, with a blurb by Rob Bell. Good on them, as they say, as this is righteous stuff, Biblically based and truly effective - it a book that deserves to be honored. More, the vision and work of HOPE International should be known and supported. Thanks to Zondervan for getting the word out in such a lovely, powerful manner.

Zealous Love: A Practical Guide to Social Justice Mike and Danae Yankoski (Zondervan) $16.99 At least two other evangelical publishers have released very useful handbooks to social activism, and they each have a built-in market, connections with kids who care. Zondervan, with its formerly stuffy image and relatively conservative clientele, may not naturally know how to market a book for young activists. Still, they forged ahead, creating a top-notch guide book for anyone who wants to take next steps in the hard work of ministering to the whole person, doing cultural reformation, social protest, and political initiatives around causes such as creation-care, HIV/AIDS, clean water or sexual trafficking. This is not only a useful guidebook, a wonderful and up-to-date, relevant resource text, it is inspiring and - get this! - fun. It is witty and sharp, and designed with a full color appeal, using little icons, and sidebars, perfect for a generation raised on Facebook and edgy magazines. This must have been a large undertaking, and, again, those behind it deserve our prayers, support, and gratitude. Somebody's life will be better because of this, and evangelicals with a clear sense of the glory of God seen through the cross of Christ need to be encouraged to live out their gospel lifestyle with these kinds of next steps for justice and peacemaking. Spread the word!

Start: Becoming a Good Samaritan DVD hosted by John Ortberg (Zondervan) $24.99 I have said in an earlier blog, and at several clergy and campus ministry retreats this fall, that this is the very best video curriculum I have ever seen. From the classy production, the pace, the caliber of the interviews, and the aesthetic richness, this is easy to watch, interesting to study, and inspires viewers to further action. I did not find it guilt producing, but stimulating. With a cast of characters as diverse as Philip Yancey, Joni Eareckson, Brenda Salter McNeil, Jim Cymbala, Shane Claiborne, and Chuck Colson, this really does cover a lot of ground. Hear Jim Wallis or Eugene Peterson or Kay Warren, all on deeply Christian ways to respond to this beloved Bible teaching of Rabbi Jesus. Co-produced by World Vision, I cannot tell you how appreciative we are to be able to stock such a fine resource. Look for the book, too, coming later this year. Thanks, Zondervan.

AND, FINALLY: THE BLURB-AWARD, AN ACCOLADE FOR A GREAT ACCOLADE

I actually only have my tongue half in cheek for this. As one who does these kinds of fairly brief, pithy, passionate, blurbs, I realize it is difficult to be interesting, say something of worth, and be honest about things. How to say that a book has fabulous content, but maybe drags a bit? How to push a title that is gloriously written but has a chapter or two that are just off-base? Can we encourage you to take interest in something that is important, without coming on too strongly? More difficult, how to truly exclaim with enthusiasm and gusto without just gushing? Ahh, it is a challenge, to do this well.

And, this year, there were a few truly thrilling back cover blurbs. Barbara Brown Taylor said something very lovely about Nora Gallagher's Sacred Meal book, but I loved Lauren Winner's endorsement (that I cited above.) Lauren also helped us sell a few copies of This Odd and Wondrous Calling by Lillian Daniel & Marty Copenhaven, a book I earnestly honored in Part One of this award list, when she said that "my dictionary does not have enough adjectives to tell you how much I adore this book." Now that is a killer quote.

But for our winning exclamation, we choose the always eloquent and truly insightful undertaker and poet, Thomas Lynch (whose new collection of short stories and poems, by the way, should be out shortly.) About Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral by Thomas Long (WJK; $24.95) the good man wrote:

To a culture accustomed to 'obsequies-lite,' Dr. Long prescribes a full-bodied liturgical and community theatre - funerals equipped for the heavy lifting of Christianity - acting out our faith and humanity, bearing our dead to the brink of real and eternal life. Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral is an indispensable and luminous guide for clergy, families, funeral directors - all home-going pilgrims - on how we ought to cope with death by dealing with our dead. I think it will be the text of record on this subject for the next fifty years.

And that is how it's done. Quiet applause for this fine art, so well done here by Lynch. And, importantly, I believe he is probably right. But suppose he is wrong by half, making this the "text of record" for only the next twenty-five years? I think if you have any reason to be involved in funeral planning or leading in the next decade you may need this resource. Studying that rich blurb, though, gets you part-way there.