Dave's Faves: 2017
Backhouse's biography of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is a delightful and accessible read, presenting Kierkegaard's critique of Danish Christendom with great nuance, demonstrating both the quixotic and the prescient aspects of Kierkegaard's life and work. It is appended with a wonderful introduction and summary to each of the major works in Kierkegaard's authorship, an invaluable aide to newcomers to Kierkegaard.
Ward's fiction takes us into families and neighborhoods in the deep south where African-American youth and young adults live below the poverty level. I love her work because it takes us into the gulf of east Louisiana and south Mississippi–places that are familiar to me–and helps me to see how unfamiliar I am with the lives of most of the people who live there. This particular novel takes us into a bi-racial family in south Mississippi struggling to come to terms with a shared history of racial violence, poverty, absent parents, drug addiction, and the like.
This work came out a few years ago, but I finally got around to looking at it this fall. It is a wonderful memoir of Bryan Stevenson's career defending death row inmates in Georgia and Alabama. The work itself balances personal stories with sociological data and capital legal procedure, in order to immerse the reader in the daily ongoings of death row inmates, their loved ones, and their advocates. As we walk with Stevenson through his memory of a number of clients–many of whom have been executed–one cannot help but feel a deep sense of disappointment with our criminal justice system. Stevenson's clients are a mix of clients who committed the crime for which they are accused and those who probably did not. Stevenson represents all of them in order to insure that they receive adequate representation. At points, he is stifled by inflexible legal procedure; sometimes by prejudicial law enforcement; and sometimes, by outright racism.
A lot of great theological texts have been published in the last few years. Among those I read this year, I loved Jenson's Theology in Outline for its brevity and clarity. Jenson, who died this last year, gave these lectures at Princeton University a few years back and they are transcribed here. All of the main themes of Jenson's theological career are here, but perhaps none more so than the theological significance of Israel.
Martin McDonagh's dark comedy Three Billboards announces its intentions in one of the first scenes of the movie, when protagonist Mildred Hayes walks into ad man Red Welby's office and interrupts him while he is reading Flannery O'Connor. McDonagh draws on the southern gothic tradition with well-developed characters who epitomize grotesque. Then, in an O'Connor-like fashion, he begins to slowly bring each character to their own moment of grace and redemption.
2017 was a good year in television. A strong season of Better Call Saul and the introductory season of Handmaiden's Tale made this a difficult choice. At the end of the day, I chose HBO's mini-series Big Little Lies. Because it is a mini-series, it is likely to be a one-and-done. Two things that I particularly enjoyed with this show are (1) the all-around very strong acting and (2) the use of light and shadow to heighten the dramatic tension. The theme song is also catchy. The best part of the show, however, is the manner in which it makes ordinary life recognizably dramatic and tragic. The way it treats the "hidden in plain sight" nature of domestic violence is very powerful.
This year, I finally caved in and started listening to podcasts. My favorite is Up and Vanished, a podcast devoted to finding what happened to Tara Grinstead, a 30 year old teacher who disappeared one night in 2005 in south Georgia. Podcaster Payne Lindsey of Atlanta travels to Ocilla, Georgia, to pick up the trail. At first a cold-case, the case picks up steam shortly after Payne's arrival and leads to a surprising arrest. I never knew you could "binge listen" to something until I came across this podcast.