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Best Reads of 2019

imageEach year I keep a list of the books I read all the way through, typically with brief notes, as a way of tracking my thoughts and a way to look back on each year and see some of what influenced me. So, in this post I have drawn from that list some of the best books I read this year with slightly edited versions of the notes I jotted down after reading them.

I selected a Top 10 from the books I read this year. These 10 aren’t listed in a particular order, and they made this list for various reasons ranging from sheer enjoyment to level of impact on me. Following the Top 10 are some more books I enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order) as well as some disappointing ones.

Top 10:

  1. Becoming C. S. Lewis (1898-1918): A Biography of Young Jack Lewis, Harry Lee Poe- This is a fascinating account of the early years of C S Lewis pointing out how the key themes of his thought are rooted in his early experiences.I look forward to the follow up volume in 2020 and the final volume of this biography in 2021
  2. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, Tom Schreiner- This new edition is due out next month, but I had the opportunity to read it early in order to write a blurb for it. I loved it! It is a faithful exposition in a conversational tone, not bogged down in what could have been an avalanche of footnotes, though he does point to key works. This is a go to resource for anyone reading Paul- students, pastors, professors.
  3. Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology, Robert W. Yarbrough- A superb treatment of a crucial topic- the divide between biblical scholarship which is rooted in Christian faith and that which instead begins with and prioritizes human wisdom. A must read for anyone involved in academic study of the Bible.
  4. A Little Book for New Historians, Robert Tracy McKenzie- A wonderful treatment of the importance of historical thinking and a primer on how to develop such thinking. Aimed at students, this is a valuable resource for anyone in biblical studies as well (really any discipline). It is well written and engaging.
  5. The Wingfeather Saga, Andrew Peterson- I know I am late to this party, but I listened to this series this year and loved them! They are fun, rich, deep, powerful and profound. So many beautiful portraits, wonderful wordings, and strong concepts. In his make believe world, Peterson helps us face the reality of pain along with the importance of hope.

Here are the books in the series in order:

 On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

North! Or Be Eaten

The Monster in the Hollows

The Warden and the Wolf King

  1. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Jean Twenge & Keith Campbell- This is an important book especially for parents and educators. Not written from an explicitly Christian worldview, these authors point out so many practices that have seeped into typical everyday life that encourage self-absorption. The scary thing is that this book is already 10 years old and these patterns have only increased. Reading this book prompted me to follow up by reading Christopher Lasch’s classic, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, which is full of keen observations.
  2. Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World, William H. McRaven- This is a powerful, little motivational book strong on perseverance. Well-written, punchy and engaging. When I saw Admiral McRaven had a second book, Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations, I had to read it as well, and it I enjoyed it as well.
  3. A Students Guide To Core Curriculum, Mark C. Henrie- The core curriculum at colleges is often overlooked or looked down upon, but Henrie does an excellent job demonstrating the wisdom of a carefully constructed core curriculum. He writes to help students pick classes for a solid core even if their college doesn’t prescribe one. The book is also useful to faculty considering the core at their colleges.
  4. Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, Jim Mattis and Bing West- Part memoir, part leadership book, I found this fascinating. Mattis is well read, serious about education, a believer in empowering the people he leads and a hardnosed realist.
  5. The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, Leland Ryken – I greatly enjoyed reading one of these poems each morning along with my other devotional reading.

Biblical Studies/Theology:

  1. Pauline Language and the Pastoral Epistles: A Study of Linguistic Variation in the Corpus Paulinum, Jermo van Nes- This is a very technical book which breaks new ground in the debate on Pauline authorship of 1-2 Timothy and Titus. My full review can be accessed here.
  2. The Book of Revelation; A Biography, Timothy Beal- I like the approach of this series. Beal is completely skeptical about the veracity of Scripture but provides many interesting insights.
  3. Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, Douglas Campbell- started off more conservative than I expected. Well written so that is reads smoothly. It is warm and engaging. Campbell clearly wants not simply to produce a textbook of facts, but aims to nurture and to shape his readers. However, in the end he totally jumps track. After arguing that careful research requires close attention to the text of the letters (before considering Acts for example), he leaves the text behind to argue philosophically why universalism must be the way. He even acknowledges that Paul doesn’t go here but the overarching philosophy requires it, and it is the proper outworking of Paul’s thought even if Paul could not see it.
  4. Paul in Fresh Perspective, N. T. Wright- He writes so well! Provocative and helpful. Obvious places where I disagree, but I like much as well, especially when he is pointing out the assumptions of higher critical scholarship which has just been taken as a given. He does this suggesting we reconsider and take seriously Pauline authorship of Eph and Col. I take that and say, “The PE, too.”
  5. The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World, Bruce Longenecker- Although it starts a bit flat, it grows as it goes and in the end I thought it was a good story while it teaches a lot about NT background.
  6. Honest Evangelism: How to Talk About Jesus Even When It Is Tough, Tico Rice with Carl Laferton- good, very helpful at key points on just doing evangelism. Not triumphalistic as so many books are, honest about the struggles, good about urging you to simply trust in God and do it
  7. Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, Josef Pieper- Very good! Striking and profound.

History

  1. Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, Tom Clavin- This was a fun book. I started slow, but in the end was fascinating. I didn’t realize Earp and Masterson were such good friends and were connected so much. I didn’t realize their brothers were lawmen, and one of the Earps served as a lawman longer than Wyatt or Bat. They were also friends with Buffalo Bill Cody and Teddy Roosevelt. They interacted socially with Frank & Jesse James. I’ve begun keeping an eye out for other books by Clavin.
  2. The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, C Vann Woodward- A very interesting analysis of this important battle.
  3. The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War, Neal Bascomb- interesting, though it was slow moving back and forth to the stories of the different people. The latter part about the actual escape was more riveting. Many interesting points though. I was especially struck again by the total agreement among European countries of the strict distinction between officers and men and the “right” of officers to have servants (“orderlies”) even in prison camp
  4. Seal Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama Bin Laden, Chuck Pfarrer- An account of this mission by one man who was involved. It differs from the official account.
  5. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre- Started slow, but then picked up and was great. Had me on the edge of my seat. Also filled a gap of history- in my own lifetime- that I did not know. Fascinating
  6. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre- The previous book led me to look for other books by Macintyre. This one was fascinating as well, detailing the biggest scandal in British spy craft, with one of their leading spies being a Soviet double-agent from the beginning. Much here about human nature as well. The author interacts significantly with C. S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring,” to describe British culture.
  7. The Men of the Revolution, Edwin S. Grosvenor, ed.- A nice collection of essays on key men of this era. Good overviews and reminders. The essay on the governor of Spanish Louisiana and his role in fighting for the patriot cause was all brand new to me.

Fiction

  1. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck- A good story, sad, even discouraging, but I think that’s what he was aiming for- forcing people to consider the plight of people in difficult circumstances, the oppressed and limited. It is effective to that end. Did the trope of the small smart guy and the big strong dumb guy come from this book or inform it?
  2. Darknet, Matthew Mather- very entertaining. A cyber espionage, conspiracy tale. Really drew me in.
  3. The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner (Tales of Old Natalia Book 2), S. D. Smith – Fun, not quite as compelling as some of the other ones in this series
  4. Surfeit of Suspects, George Bellairs- I picked up a copy in the British National Library. They had a whole section of British Library Crime Classics. It was fun, though not great.
  5. No Traveller Returns, Louis L’Amour & Beau L’Amour- I haven’t always liked what Beau has done with his father’s stories, but this one is quite good. This is a previously unpublished novel that had been sitting in a file. Louis wrote in from 1938-1942 with the outbreak of WWII causing him to put it aside. You can see many of the common ideas of L’Amour here, especially if you’ve read his memoir. As usual I listened to several of Louis L’Amour’s books over the year. His moral code and concern for historical accuracy keep drawing me in.

The Turkey Feather Riders

Where the Long Grass Blows

Showdown at Yellow Butte

Reilly’s Luck, – I particularly liked this one

Man Riding West

The Key-Lock Man

The Californios

Trouble Shooter (A Hopalong Cassidy novel),- from what I had read about L’Amour distancing himself from his Cassidy novels I didn’t expect much from this, but I enjoyed it. It was quite similar to his other books.

  1. Silence, Shusako Endo- I still have not watched the movie, but wanted to engage the book.  It is an important discussion of missions and the problem of persecution. I did not find it as challenging as others have suggested, though. The questions raised have been addressed along the way in the history fo the church.
  2. The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury- very good, essentially a collection of short stories, many very insightful. He foresaw much. His story about a racial harmony is powerful, especially coming from 1951. His story about men in space encountering a society where Jesus had just visited is a strong expose of presuppositionally critical approaches. The entire book is available online here: https://csuclc.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/illustrated-man-by-ray-bradbury.pdf
  3. Fractured State: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller, Steven Konkoly- fun, engaging story set in California in the near future where poor decisions have led to a water shortage which has then led to a drastic increase of government control of everyday life in California and thus a desire among some to secede from the Union.  I enjoyed it so much that I immediately moved on to the sequel: Rogue State: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller .Too much profanity, but other than that a captivating story.
  4. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P. W. Singer & August Cole- an entertaining story, intriguing in what it imagines for the near future

 Bios/Nonfiction

  1. Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller, Burke Davis- Burke Davis is one of my favorite historical writers, and Chesty Puller’s is a fascinating life.
  2. Just Show Up: And Other Enduring Values from Baseball’s Iron Man, Cal Ripken, Jr.- Very good- a great title for Ripken and a great piece of advice. Not as well written as Mattis, but solid advice
  3. The World as I See It, Albert Einstein- interesting. Some places to agree some to disagree. Interesting to see him so strenuously arguing for complete disarmament of every nation and then for each nation to give up some of its national sovereignty to a world court for arbitrations. Also striking to see his argument for an atheistic Judaism, that Judaism has great insights for the world and that the idea of God was only aa crutch which can now be discarded as insignificant to the whole. Sounds a bit like what some German liberal “Christians” about that time were arguing.
  4. Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album, Danny Robbins- I really enjoyed the first half with the story about how Cash ended up doing a concert at Folsom and his reaching out to the songwriter in jail there. The author/narrator is overly dramatic, but I enjoyed it. It went on to too much of a debunking tenor after that
  5. Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches, Peter Greer and Christ Horst, with Anna Haggard- Excellent! This was required reading but I really enjoyed it. Well written and many great points
  6. Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life, Gary M. Burge- Insightful. I think in a few places he sees only one way a prof’s career might develop when I think there are several, but still this is immensely helpful for people just beginning this career, in mid-career, or at the close of their career.
  7. Brett Favre: America’s Quarterback, Chuck Carlson- fun, easy read
  8. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Stephen Eric Bronner- A dull read, but important as this is a key text on this topic by a leading proponent. The history of this idea/movement reads like a ship without a rudder. Having rejected God they flail about looking for some basis for authority and meaning. They talk about the need for the transcendence but reject religion.
  9. The Red Bandanna: A Life. A Choice. A Legacy, Tom Rinaldi- A compelling account of a young man who died in World Trade Center on September 11. He worked there but was preparing to leave his lucrative job to be a fireman. He had been a volunteer fireman for years. In the midst of the tragedy he helped people escape and went back to help more.

Disappointments

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John LeCarré- not very good at all. I didn’t care for the first Smiley novel I read (last year), but this one is on lists of great novels so I tried again. But disappointed. The moral ambivalence doesn’t’ engage me, and the way he writes makes it hard to follow the jumps and understand what’s going on. No need to bother with any more of his books
  2. Preacher’s Justice, William Johnstone- fair, action-packed story, but lacked the moral compass of L’Amour and the attention to historical accuracy. This made me appreciate Louis L’Amour all the more.
  3. Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World, Thomas Cahill- Cahill is a compelling writer but not much of a historian. He has his own point to make and will fit everything into that. Worth reading, but it started so well that I had high hopes.

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