Saturday, December 03, 2005

New York Times: The 10 Best Books of 2005


By Haruki Murakami.
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95.
This graceful and dreamily cerebral novel, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, tells two stories - that of a boy fleeing an Oedipal prophecy, and that of a witless old man who can talk to cats - and is the work of a powerfully confident writer.

By Zadie Smith.
Penguin Press, $25.95.
In her vibrant new book, a cultural-politics novel set in a place like Harvard, the author of ''White Teeth'' brings everything to the table: a crisp intellect, a lovely wit and enormous sympathy for the men, women and children who populate her story.

By Curtis Sittenfeld.
Random House, $21.95. Paper, $13.95.
This calm and memorably incisive first novel, about a scholarship girl who heads east to attend an elite prep school, casts an unshakable spell and has plenty to say about class, sex and character.

By Ian McEwan.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26.
As bracing and as carefully constructed as anything McEwan has written, this astringent novel traces a day in the life of an English neurosurgeon who comes face to face with senseless violence.

By Mary Gaitskill.
Pantheon Books, $23.
This mesmerizingly dark novel from the author of ''Bad Behavior'' and ''Two Girls, Fat and Thin'' is narrated by a former Paris model who is now sick and poor; her ruminations on beauty and cruelty have clarity and an uncanny bite.


America in Iraq
By George Packer.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.
A comprehensive look at the largest foreign policy gamble in a generation, by a New Yorker reporter who traces the full arc of the war, from the pre-invasion debate through the action on the ground.

An American Master
By Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.
Alfred A. Knopf, $35.
A sweeping biography, impressively researched and absorbingly written, of the charismatic immigrant who stood at the vortex of mid-20th-century American art.

By Jonathan Harr.
Random House, $24.95.
This gripping narrative, populated by a beguiling cast of scholars, historians, art restorers and aging nobles, records the search for Caravaggio's ''Taking of Christ,'' painted in 1602 and rediscovered in 1990.

A History of Europe Since 1945
By Tony Judt.
The Penguin Press, $39.95.
Judt's massive, learned, brilliantly detailed account of Europe's recovery from the wreckage of World War II presents a whole continent in panorama even as it sets off detonations of insight on almost every page.

By Joan Didion.
Alfred A. Knopf, $23.95.
A prose master's harrowing yet exhilarating memoir of a year riven by sudden death (her husband's) and mortal illness (their only child's).

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chick lit for Christians

For young Christian women, these often steamy books that combine spunk with spirituality have become hot sellers.
Columbia News Service

It's called chick lit -- tales of bed-hopping alcoholics and foul-mouthed fashionistas made popular by such best-selling novels as "Bridget Jones's Diary."

At lunch one day, Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt, two single career women in their mid-20s, joked that there should be chick lit for Christians like them, whose faith might be strong but whose single-girl imperfections loom just as large.

"Everyone thought it was a hilarious idea," Dayton said. "Chick lit is about sex and dating and shopping, and Christians don't do those things." (Well, one of those things.)

Six months later, the two church-going women (a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian), both living and working in New York, started to write "Emily Ever After." It's the story of a small-town single girl struggling to balance her religious values with her big-city life.

It's also the biblical story of Esther, but with designer handbags and cocktails. And it was one of the first Christian chick lit books to ignite a hot market of similar big sellers.

For young practicing Christian women, these tales are a welcome dose of 21st-century attitude. But with their PG-rated flirtations, and heroines who combine spunk with spirituality, the books aren't just selling in Christian bookstores. They're titillating the heathens who shop at Target, too.

"I think a lot of non-Christians assume Christian chick lit is just full of preachy messages," said Rebecca Fong, 43, a stay-at-home mom and secular reader from Loomis, Calif.

"I'm finding that most of it is just straightforward storytelling and writing that doesn't contain any shocking lifestyles or deviant politics."

Not surprisingly, young Christian women are the books' biggest fans. Alicia Manley Lawver, 29, a stay-at-home mom in Tacoma, Wash., and a Lutheran, was a huge fan of mainstream chick lit. Then she discovered her first Christian version, a novel with a provocative cover image of a pair of women's legs shod in hot pink slippers. Now she's hooked.

"I can live vicariously through these characters," Lawver said. "And it's stuff I can actually share with my mother."

What makes it Christian?

More than anything else, it's the heroines' cardinal rule: "Everything in a secular book is in a Christian book, just in a different order," said Judy Baer, author of "The Whitney Chronicles," a popular example of the form.

"In secular books characters meet, have sex, then try and be friends. In Christian books, they meet, become friends, get married, then have sex."

Christian romance novels have been around since the 1970s, most of them historical "prairie" epics of rural or small-town life. Books like "Emily Ever After," on the other hand, are thick with modern-day chick lit dramas -- dating perils, shoe yearnings, big-city independence -- all recounted in a witty voice that makes the reader feel as if she's chatting with her best friend.

More than 3 million Christian fiction books were sold in 2004, a 9 percent jump from 2003, according to the Evangelical Christian Booksellers Association.

Sales of Christian romance novels, including Christian chick lit, have doubled since 1995. In part that's because these books are sidling up next to mainstream secular chick lit in Barnes & Noble and other mass-market stores.

The popularity of the books in Wichita stores varies, according to managers.

"The whole religious fiction section is just sort of exploding right now," said Brad Purkey, manager of the Barnes & Noble on North Rock Road. "We just keep expanding and expanding and expanding."

In that expansion, Purkey said he's noticed more of the Christian chick lit books coming into the store -- so the demand is there. And over the past three or four months, he said, he's noticed a few people coming in asking for the books.

Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books & Cafe, 4701 E. Douglas, said the bookstore doesn't carry the books, but workers are ordering them maybe twice a week at customers' requests.

"That's not something we were doing two years ago," she said.

Richard Wilson, manager of Family Christian Stores at 21st and Maize Road, said he hasn't noticed a great demand for the books, though the store carries some of them, including "Emily Ever After."

"We just don't have a big following for that," he said.

Not everything goes

Just because the books have been liberated from religious bookstores, however, does not mean that anything goes.

Bridget Jones counts "units" of alcohol consumption, profanity and sexual conquests like an unholy trinity. Christian heroines generally don't drink or curse. They may, however, be born again or have had premarital sex. Many also admit to feelings of desire.

"Colorful pasts are OK," said Joan Marlow Golan, senior editor for Harlequin's Christian fiction line. But a heroine of faith "struggles with living up to her Christian values."

Some evangelical Christian booksellers and publishers have been slow to embrace the genre. The author of the 2005 novel "Dreaming in Black and White" is Laura Jensen Walker, a nondenominational Christian.

When she first tried to get her book published, she heard criticism of Phoebe, her protagonist. Phoebe obsesses about her weight, dabbles in online dating and pokes fun at Christian singles groups in a slightly wicked tone that is more like "The Devil Wears Prada" than "Song of Solomon." One of Walker's prospective publishers said Phoebe wasn't a proper role model for young religious girls.

And Walker agreed. "Come on. There's not a deep message here," she said. "It's fiction. It's chick lit. It's supposed to be fun."

Walker believes many people have a stereotype of observant Christians that's one-dimensional.

"Christians are not all judgmental. We're real, we struggle, just like anyone else. And we're funny."

"Emily Ever After" authors Dayton and Vanderbilt received some angry reviews, too, for their heroine's "unChristian-like" behavior when, in the book, Emily drank too much and vomited.

In "What a Girl Wants," Kristin Billerbeck's 1999 novel, her heroine shopped for thong underwear with a married friend. That sparked a heated letter-writing campaign from outraged readers.

Changing attitudes

Attitudes have changed to at least some degree since then, said Ami McConnell, acquisitions and development editor for Westbow, Billerbeck's publisher. "Now there are a lot less 'We can'ts' and a lot more 'We cans,' " she said.

Dayton and Vanderbilt are getting ready to promote their second book, "Consider Lily." It's a modern retelling of Samson and Delilah set in San Francisco. With the book, the authors are edging closer to the mainstream, particularly in a bikini scene that may raise a few eyebrows.

"Lily has the proverbial angel on one shoulder and devil on the other," Vanderbilt said. "She has to decide whether to wear the bikini or not. And it's hard, because God gave her a hot body."

Contributing: Joe Rodriguez of The Eagle.

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