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Favorite Books of 2009

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Nine Dragons. Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. And Talking About Detective Fiction. P.D. James. Knopf. Here is a podcast about Michael Connelly's latest Harry Bosch novel. And during the week of Monday the 14th, if you are visiting this site, you'll be able to access a podcast in which Stan Guthrie and I take up P.D. James' personal history of detective fiction.

The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Janet Soskice. Knopf. And Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage. Elizabeth Siegel. Yale University Press. More than ten years ago, I was having dinner with Jon Pott of Eerdmans, who has been a great source of counsel over the years (owing not least to his many years as editor of the Reformed Journal). Jon directed my attention to a writer he admired, Janet Martin Soskice, who currently has this wonderful title (I quote from the jacket flap): Reader in Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge (she is also a Fellow of Jesus College). She has written books that follow from her academic role, but her new book (while undergirded by her scholarly work) is something different: an utterly delightful, fantastical-yet-true romp, a story funny enough to make me laugh out loud a few times but with a lasting resonance as well. It begins in Scotland with twin sisters, and takes us to a "dark closet" at St. Catherine's monastery in Sinai, where Syriac manuscripts are jumbled in two chests. For companion reading (and viewing), turn to Playing with Pictures. Here's a mini-review from CT: "If your Christmas gift list includes someone who relishes the Victorian Era in all its contradictions, you might consider this handsomely produced volume, which accompanies an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (October 10, 2009-January 3, 2010, then traveling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Drawn from photocollage albums of the 1860s and 1870s, these images will especially interest fans of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Why, by the way, was this a golden age of Nonsense?"

The Spartacus War. Barry Strauss. Simon & Schuster. Here is a mini-review from CT: "Yes, that Spartacus, the one played by Kirk Douglas in a memorable movie almost 50 years ago, the gladiator who led a daring slave rebellion in Roman Italy between 73 and 71 BC. Barry Strauss, a historian who writes superbly for the general reader, tells the story in a fast-paced narrative that is deeply informed by scholarship but that never loses its momentum. Christian readers will be provoked to think about Spartacus in the light of another rebel, one of a very different kind, who won victory by submitting to crucifixion." And you can find a longer review here. Finally, here is Don Yerxa's interview with Barry Strauss from the pages of Books & Culture.

Book of the Year:

Val/Orson. Marly Youmans. PS Publishing. I quote from Catherynne Valente's excellent introduction to this novella: "It is Shakespearean in its sensibility, with its enchanted wood, its twins, its doubling and quadrupling of couples and families, its fairy brood. It is difficult to say that it is a fantasy novel, and difficult to say it isn't." The word "magical" has been overused and misused to such an extent that it has perhaps lost its potency, but this tale, set among the redwoods of Northern California, is truly magical. I'm sorry it is not as easily obtained as the others on this list, but I can attest—having ordered it from the UK myself—that it is by no means inaccessible. And you will be amply rewarded. More than any other book I read in 2009, this one insistently came to mind.

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