my favorite books of 2013

Not all of these books were published in 2013, but each of them found its way to me this year, and isn't so much of the magic of a book finding the right book at the right time?

In no particular order:

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
A fun, smart novel, this is the story of 15 year old Bee Branch’s attempt to understand what happened when her misanthropic mother disappeared without warning on the day before they were set to leave for an Antarctic vacation. Compulsively readable. (Full review here.)

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher
Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, and part hagiography, journalist Dreher’s book is the story of his saintly younger sister’s untimely death, his return to his small hometown in Louisiana, and his struggle to understand what it means to live a Good Life. (Full review here.)

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Remember in highschool how you felt like you were different from everyone, and then you found that group of kids at summer camp who were interesting? Artistic, unconventional, gifted, "on-fire," aspirational, rich - whatever?  Remember how for the rest of your life you were trying to make sure you fit into that group, even at the expense of your own happiness? That's basically what this novel is about.

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
This two-part graphic novel tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion in China, first from a peasant's perspective, and then from a missionary's perspective. So moving and disturbing I had trouble sleeping and then bad dreams after reading it.  Always the sign of a good book, right?

Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves
I had always thought first of God as Creator, but this book convinced me to see him first as Father, or as self-giving Love.  I read this with the Taylor freshman in Foundations of the Christian Liberal Arts, and it truly deepened my understanding of the Trinity's importance.

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr
This was the first of several of Sara Zarr's YA novels that I tore through this year. If you, like me, love good realistic YA with strong female characters and spiritual themes, you need to check her out.  Beautifully written.

The Cuckoo's Calling by J.K. Rowling or whatever her pen-name was
I'm a sucker for a good British mystery novel, and this was certainly that.

Booked to Die by John Dunning
The other best mystery novel I read this year.  A former cop turns used-bookseller but still gets embroiled in murder investigations.

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton
Doubtless this book would not have affected me so much if I hadn't been house-hunting while reading it.  Some lovely thoughts about the ways that architecture can shape our identities. (I wrote quite a bit about it here.)

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate by Justin Lee
Regardless of which side of this debate you find yourself on, you should read this book.   It clears up a lot of misconceptions about homosexuality that are common in Christian circles, and does so winsomely, with grace.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Greene
I think everybody already knows about this book, which is being made into a movie, but if you don't, you should read it!  Unless you don't like to read about kids and cancer. Then maybe skip it.

Previously: my favorite movies of 2013 
and my favorite albums of 2013 
and my favorite tv shows of 2013

my favorite tv shows of 2013

Confession: television is my opiate of choice. So I had five favorite albums, five favorite movies, and... ten favorite shows, plus three more.

But television is really coming into its own as an art form, it's practically the new Charles Dickens serial novel, and netflix and hulu making their own shows, and blah blah blah 


It's just that after a day of teaching and grading and writing and talking to little people and potty training little people and cooking and cleaning, I have very little energy, mental or otherwise, to do more after 7:30 pm. (Or that's what I tell myself.)

So, yeah, tv.

Seriously, there is no better show on television right now, and Sidse Babet Knudsen has overtaken Connie Britton as my main girl crush. Let one of my favorite critics, Willa Paskin, convince you:

“Borgen” stars the amazing Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg, who begins the series as the head of the lefty Moderate party, a mother of two, and one half of the sexiest, most functional TV marriages this side of Eric and Tami Taylor. (This is not an exaggeration. If I had led with that, you’d probably already be watching.) In the Danish parliamentary system, eight political parties align in various ways to form coalition governments. In the first episode of the series, through various political missteps, the largest liberal and conservative parties rough each other up, giving Nyborg’s Moderates a huge boost and herself the unexpected opportunity to head up a liberal coalition as prime minister.

Though “Borgen” was influenced by “The West Wing” (Nyborg, like Josiah Bartlet, has a knack for giving the honest speech),  it makes “The West Wing” look sentimental, and not because “Borgen” has some ultra-dark view of politics. (In a great New Yorker piece about DR, the broadcaster who makes all these Danish masterpieces, Lauren Collins quoted DR as saying it wanted its series to have messages. “Borgen’s” is, “Can you be in power and remain yourself?” and for the answer, they “want to say yes.”) Rather, compared to American political dramas — “West Wing,” “Scandal,” “Homeland,” “House of Cards” — “Borgen” feels grounded. It is not puffed up with an American sense of grandiosity and world historical import. Each episode contains intricate twists and turns, but is focused on the human-size, psychological aspects of politics, of how Nyborg learns to be effective and at what cost.

The cost ends up being high. Nyborg is decent, well-meaning, sexy, funny, steely. (I dare you to watch her and not develop a crush.) She belongs on any political fantasy team alongside Shepherd, Bartlet and “Battlestar Galactica’s” Laura Roslin. But over the course of “Borgen’s” first two seasons —  the third and final season has aired in Denmark, but won’t air in America until October — Nyborg learns how to navigate and wield her power, an experience that is taxing, isolating and difficult. As time passes, she becomes savvier and more decisive, increasingly comfortable making decisions, an authoritarian knack she starts to take home with her. Knudsen has an infectious, crinkly-nosed smile, but Nyborg has less and less occasion to use it. As she becomes better at her job, her personal life falls apart. (“Borgen” does some heartbreaking things to her adorable marriage it’s hard to imagine any American show daring.) (Read the rest at Salon.)

2. Top of the Lake
A beautiful, haunting story that shows how sexual abuse harms generations of women. Elizabeth Moss - just nominated for a golden globe for her performance - is fantastic.

3. House of Cards
An addictive parable about power and the ubermensch.  (Full review here.)

4. Bunheads
The quirky, fast-talking ballerinas of Amy Sherman Palladino deserved more than just one season. (Full review here.) 

5. Parks and Rec
Yes, this is the third show about government to make my list, and I don't even like politics. It had some ups and downs this season, but I always looked forward to it.
6. The Mindy Project.
Danny Castellano is the new Luke Danes.  Usually funny, sweet, and satisfying, The Mindy Project is like When Harry Met Sally as a sitcom.

7. Switched at Birth
Emily Nussbaum, another of my favorite tv critics, kept singing this show's praises on twitter, and that's how I ended up watching my first ABCFamily show.  Hokey premise, great execution.  I love the way this show deals with class, ethnicity, and deafness (or, as I should probably say, being hard of hearing). Really well-executed and fun to watch.

8. Orphan Black
Tatiana Maslany.  That is all.  That is enough.

9. Orange is the New Black...or maybe Nashville

10. Mad Men... or maybe Parenthood

Non-current shows I loved this year:

Foyle’s War S1-7 (full review here)
Detective Chief Superintendent (or DCS) Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), a policeman in the quaint village of Hastings, England during World War 2, solves the cases, small and large, in his coastal town.
The show explores the question of why petty crimes are worth investigating during a time of great crisis. Who cares that your sheep were stolen when the Nazis are dropping bombs on all of us? Foyle shows us that if justice and the rule of law are meaningful in peaceful times, they are equally meaningful in times of war. 

Veronica Mars S1-3 
We re-watched this in preparation for the movie (!) and enjoyed them just as much as the first time around, which is to say, immensely. 

Mary Tyler Moore S1-2 
Just classic. The pilot episode is perfect in every way. I re-watched this around the same time as I read  Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer Armstrong.  Lots of fun.

Previously: my favorite movies of 2013 
and my favorite albums of 2013

my favorite albums of 2013

photo credit
Last night Jack and I drove to Chicago to see Andrew Bird's Gezelligheid concert. Gezelligheid is a Dutch word for cozy. Wikipedia says it can also connote "belonging, time spent with loved ones, the fact of seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness."

After Vietnamese food, we got cozy in the beautiful in 4th Presbyterian Church on Michigan, and I couldn't help but get nostalgic about the first time Jack and I were in Chicago together, eight and a half years ago. We saw Andrew Bird then, too, remarkably enough, at the first ever Pitchfork music festival (then called the Intonation music festival).

Jack and I both love music, but his love is far more informed. The guy listens to easily five times as much music as I do, and he listens methodically, like a few years ago when he made a spreadsheet of albums released in the year of his birth, and systematically listened to them all over twelve months. He's read extensively on music history, and he's also an amazing songwriter.

All this to say: I always feel a little silly talking about my favorite albums because I feel so unqualified to have favorite albums. Jack's very democratic about it all though, and says I shouldn't feel silly. And actually this year our top three albums are the same!

1. Modern Vampires of the City - Vampire Weekend
This album is amazing- full of catchy, poppy, songs that display a range of musical ability and influence yet make a cohesive whole. Thematically centered on religious faith, identity, and mortality, it's the most poignant wrestling with God through song that I've heard in a long time. (Full review here.)

2. Denison Witmer - Denison Witmer
Songs about what it means to grow up comprise this haunting, lyrical album. (Full review here.)

3. Southeastern - Jason Isbell
Serious and sad, this album by former Drive By Trucker Jason Isbell doesn't shy away from sexual abuse, suicide! and heartbreak. But it's beautiful and I love it.
Try this track: Relatively Easy

4. Desire Like Dynamite - Sandra McCracken
This album, largely inspired by Wendell Berry's writings on interdependence and sustainability, is lovely. (McCracken wrote about her visit with Berry for Art House America.)

5. Songs by the Nashville Cast

Just gotta be honest. Listening to some of these songs gives me the same pure pleasure that watching the soapy show itself does. And they've had some great songwriters write for them - Gillian Welch, John Paul White, and Elvis Costello, among others. The link above will take you to a playlist of my favorite songs from the show's first two seasons.

Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Mitchell's The Sounding Joy is a collection of folk carols drawn mainly from Ruth Crawford Seeger's classic songbook American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953). This joins Sufjan and Rosie on my list of Christmas albums I love to listen to.

Other albums I want to listen to more: The National's Trouble Will Find Me; Mark Kozalek & Desertshore; Mark Kozalek and Jimmy LaValle's Perils from the Sea; Arcade Fire's Reflektor; The Handsome Family's Wilderness

Previously: my favorite movies of 2013

my favorite movies of 2013

Every year I try to follow in my father's footsteps and create a family Christmas newsletter that not only details the events of our lives from the previous year, but also preaches a little, gets gushy about books and pop culture, and makes cute jokes only insiders get.  We do it less for our friends' benefit and more for our own, believing (hoping) that ten and twenty years from now, we'll read back over these newsletters with warm nostalgia for things we'd nearly forgotten.

And hopefully this year I'll get to that.

But first.

All I really want to do is make an annotated list of movies, books, tv shows, and albums that I really loved this year.  I guess I've caught the end-of-year-list-making bug that all the magazines and websites have. As if the woefully uneducated and non-professional opinion of a mother of two preschoolers who rarely gets to go to the movies is worth your time.

Truth be told, though, I love reading these kinds of posts on my friends blogs.  So maybe you'll like mine.  And leave your favorites from the year in the comments, ok?

My favorite movies of 2013, best first:

1. Before Midnight (and the entire Before trilogy)
Over the summer, Jack and I re-watched Before Sunrise and Before Sunset with a couple of our best pals who are a full decade younger than we are, and had never seen them.  Then in July the four of us got to see the third installment, Before Midnight, in theaters.  These movies, told in almost real time and comprised mostly of walking and talking conversations between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), are about a relationship, but they're also about what it meant to come of age in Gen X, and what it means to love, and what it means to grow up.  They're gorgeous and even better the second time around. (Jack and I co-reviewed this film for Christ and Pop Culture, too.)

2. Catching Fire
I'm a big fan of the Hunger Games trilogy of books, and this second film adaptation was even better than the first.  Watching Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) struggle to subvert empire truly inspired me to make decisions counter to a culture that values power, fame, luxury, and ease at the expense of the people on the margins.

3. Mud
Real talk: I wanted to see this movie because it was set in south Arkansas and it had Matthew McConaughey in it.  He is more than a pretty face, y'all, and this movie is perfect: a mythic coming of age story, in every way a boy's story, yet I loved it. (Runner up on this note: Kings of Summer. Another gorgeous movie about what it means to be on the cusp of adulthood in summer. All those feelings.)

4. Frozen
After reading sparkling reviews from Christians and feminists and six year old boys on the web, I was set on taking Rosie to see this one.  We had a mommy-daughter date on Saturday, and though halfway through she worried that it was too scary, I couldn't leave (don't worry- by the end she was glad she had stayed).  And I would like to go see it again, please. (P.S. - this guys says it's the best theology rich movie in years.)

5. Safety Not Guaranteed
Jack and I watched this cute indie comedy when it came out on DVD at the beginning of this year. It was surprising and sincere, and Aubrey Plaza was wonderful as always.  (I wrote a bit more about it in this post.)

Runner Up: The Great Gatsby

Have you seen any of these?  What can you recommend I add to my Netflix queue?

(Later this week I'll post books, tv shows, and albums.)