This week we look at coming attractions. But before we get to the main event, some unfinished business: The Worst Book of the Year. That dubious honor goes to Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago, by Alex Kotlowitz (Crown). This is a volume in the Crown Journeys series, an offbeat venture in which writers as various as Christopher Buckley, Chuck Palahniuk, and Ishmael Reed write about a city (or a battlefield—there's a volume on Gettysburg—or some other kind of place) pretty much as they please. The resulting books are all over the map, so to speak: some quite good, some bad, some simply strange.

Kotlowitz, best known for There Are No Children Here, is a substantial writer, and I was looking forward to his take on Chicago, a city I'm still getting to know after more than ten years in the area. This book inverts the formula of many city chronicles from past eras, in which only celebrities of one kind or another figure in the story. Kotlowitz's Chicagoans are labor activists, African Americans from the projects, rattle-the system defense attorneys, and so on, with a pimp or two occasionally strolling by. If you invert a formula, you get another formula, the more unpalatable in this instance because it's served up with smug self-satisfaction. "This is a skewed and incomplete view of the city," Kotlowitz says at the outset. "I won't pretend otherwise." How virtuous of him! What that confession really amounts to, of course, is something like this: I'm telling the real story of the city, and it's the story of outsiders who never appear in the Official Story.

That word "real" reminds me that while for the most part he inverts the old formula, Kotlowitz unaccountably retains the kitschy sentiment that encrusts so much City Writing. Never A City So Real? Is his irony-detector permanently disabled? Our first exemplary Chicagoan—Kotlowitz's father-in-law, it happens—"personified the city, a place eternally in transition, always finding yet another way to think of itself, a city never satisfied." (That sound you hear in the background is John Kass, vomiting.)

But it gets worse, as when we're given a glimpse inside the city's Criminal Courts Building, where

a defendant accused of rape appeared in a black leather jacket with PIMPING AIN'T EASY embroidered on the back. A private investigator who spends much of his time at 26th Street told me, "They're making a statement: 'I don't respect this setting enough to pull out my best outfit.' "
Article continues below

Really? So that's what "they" are saying? I'm making a statement too: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Worst Book of the Year.

Now to the coming attractions. Some of these are in fact already here, hitting the bookstores in January: Martin Marty's When Faiths Collide, a volume in the Blackwell Manifestos series; American Ghosts (Beacon Press), a memoir by the novelist David Plante, long estranged from but still haunted by the God of the French-speaking Catholics in Rhode Island who were his people, the world he left behind; A Year with Thomas Merton (HarperSanFrancisco), with daily selections from Merton's journals accompanied by his drawings.

Anne Lamott is a writer who, though utterly different from Merton, plays a role in the lives of many readers much like his decades ago—an "outsider," to use Kotlowitz's word, inside the church, who says if there's room for me there must be room for you, too, room for anybody. Lamott's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith is due in March from Riverhead. Also due in March, from Harvard University Press, is Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World, by Jon F. Sensbach: the story of unwilling outsiders finding a home in the gospel story.

Sensbach's book will be reviewed in the May/June issue of B&C, if all goes according to schedule, while Mark Noll will review Jaroslav Pelikan's latest, Whose Bible Is It? (Viking), in the March/April issue. Another book not to be missed is George Weigel's The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (Basic Books), which will be reviewed everywhere; ditto David McCullough's 1776 (Simon & Schuster), due in May and must reading for those who haven't overdosed on the Founding.

On the literary front, there's K. (Knopf), Roberto Calasso's uncanny reading of Kafka, coming any day now (the galleys are at the top of a pile by my bed). A collection of essays by the late W. G. Sebald, Campo Santo (Random House), is due in March. I think Wendy and I will read aloud in bed at night from Donald Hall's memoir The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon (Houghton Mifflin), due in May. Before that, we will be drawing straws to see who gets first dibs on the next installment in Alexander McCall Smith's series, the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (Pantheon), coming in April. I don't think Wendy will have any interest in Europe Central (Viking), the latest fiction from the prodigious William Vollmann, but I can count on my son Andrew devouring it soon after it appears in April, so we can compare notes.

Article continues below

We continue to get special orders for the November/December issue of B&C, with Bono on the cover. No doubt serious Bono-watchers have already ordered an advance copy of Bono: A Self-Portrait in Conversation, by Michka Assayas (Riverhead), due in April. And perhaps Michael Stevens' annual baseball preview on our website will touch on Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter's Box (Open Court), edited by Eric Bronson and coming in March. (I admit that the steroid story, on top of various other unsavory elements of the game, has left me in a funk; I wasn't able to summon the joie de vivre for the post-Series retrospective, despite the improbable triumph of the Red Sox.)

And then … but I could go on like this for hours, and it's time to stop. Good reading in 2005.

John Wilsonis editor of Books & Culture.

Related Elsewhere:

Books mentioned above are available from,, and other book retailers.

More Books & Culture year-end reviews include:

From the Big Bang to my Office | More books to note from 2004. (Jan. 11, 2005)
The Top Ten Books of 2004 | And a warning about the risks of reading. (Dec. 28, 2004)

For more books, see Christianity Today's 2004 book awards and our collection of articles, interviews, and reviews from all the CT book awards through 2000, including the books of the century.

Books & Culture Corner appears every Tuesday. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week include:

From the Big Bang to my Office | More books to note from 2004. (Jan. 11, 2005)
The Top Ten Books of 2004 | And a warning about the risks of reading. (Dec. 28, 2004)
Modern, All Too Modern | Tom Wolfe's new novel, largely reviewed as a satiric report on the sexual mores of today's college students, is fundamentally about the nature of the human will. (Dec. 14, 2004)
Unfashionably Good | A savory collections of essays by Alan Jacobs. (Dec. 07, 2004)
Communicating Communication | A roundup from the National Communication Association's annual convention. (Nov. 30, 2004)
"Summer's Ebullient Finale" | A richly varied anthology offers a "spiritual biography" of autumn. (Nov. 15, 2004)
Article continues below
Autumn Books | Some that stand out in this season's plenty. (Nov. 15, 2004)
Reaching the Light | A review of On Broken Legs: A Shattered Life, a Search for God, a Miracle That Met Me in a Cave in Assisi. (Nov. 09, 2004)
The Prayers of a Self-Governing People | A psalm for Election Day. (Nov. 02, 2004)
In Memoriam: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) | Remembering a philosopher who never forgot about death. (Oct. 19, 2004)
Whose Independence? | All the Founding Fathers of America celebrated "independence," but what the word meant depended on who was speaking. (Oct. 12, 2004)
Darkness Visible | An unsparing new memoir by the author of Slackjaw. (Oct. 05, 2004)
After Worldview? | A lively conference offers a state-of-the-art assessment of the concept of "worldview," with both advocates and dissenters represented. (Sept. 28, 2004)
A Forgotten Founder's Fatherhood | Race, nature, and patriarchy meet in Rhys Isaac's biography of early American diarist Landon Carter. (Sept. 21, 2004)