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Best Reads of 2021

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Each 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. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, Carl Trueman- impressive work, wide ranging and explanatory of these ideas. Clarifying as to why BLM would include the LGBTQ+ agenda and opposition to the nuclear family. In fact, in light of this analysis I realize we should have expected it to rather than being surprised by it. This makes it clear that CRT and Intersectionality are no friends to Christianity.
  2. Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe, Voddie T. Baucham Jr.- Well reasoned, clear and direct. Convincing and devastating on CRT
  3. The Making of C. S. Lewis (1918–1945): From Atheist to Apologist, Harry Lee Poe- The second volume in Hal’s biography of Lewis (vol. 3 due out this coming year). Fascinating, insightful, and written with Hal’s wit.
  4. The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate, Michael Kruger- very good, carefully, calmly, intelligently, and overwhelmingly persuasively argued on the point that the establishment of a canon by Christians is not a later ecclesial intrusion but something that arose naturally from Christian teaching.
  5. When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II,  Molly Guptill Manning- Fascinating. I started it just because it was free and it looked interesting. I thought it might be about certain books written during the war, but it is an account of the effort to get books to our military personnel for free during the war. It is very interesting to see the interest in and concern for the intellectual life of soldiers as well and emotional health. I think emotional health still ranks high but I haven’t seen this sort of interest in intellectual stimulation. Fascinating info on the role and importance of reading material in the war as well as how much the soldiers enjoyed and appreciated the books. Makes me wonder how much this shaped the “greatest generation.” Also significant impact on the book publishing industry.
  6. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, E. B. Sledge- I had heard this was the quintessential war diary, and it was profound. No glorying in war here, but a frank discussion of the horrors of war, as well as how faith brought this man through.
  7. So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport- Excellent. Useful for anyone, especially those starting college
  8. West Oversea: A Norse Saga of Mystery, Adventure, and Faith: Book 3 of the Saga of Erling Skjalgsson, Lars Walker- I finally read the follow up to Year of the Warrior and enjoyed it immensely. Walker gets in quite a bit of significant social commentary in this historical fantasy as well as numerous proverbial and witty comments which make it instructive and entertaining. I also read and enjoyed the other two books in the series: Hailstone Mountain: Book 4 of the Saga of Erling Skjalgsson, and The Elder King: Book 5 of the Saga of Erling Skjalgsson.
  9. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett- Very good, rich with lessons for today. I hope to write an essay on lessons from this children’s story for today.
  10. The Children of Men, P. D. James- fascinating. Striking since the story is set in this very year, though written 30 years ago. Shot through with Christian imagery and some characters openly struggle with Christian faith and whether or not there is a god and if there is if he cares. Clear on the inherent sinfulness of man. The hero is quite broken and self-centered, but goes through a transformation in the novel, learning to love and to care for another. Still at the end we see him drawn by the seduction of power. The novel closes without showing us whether he resists this or falls to it. The last sentence of the novel seems to have been constructed deliberately to close with the words “the sign of the cross.” [I also watched the movie, but it is a very poor approximation of the novel]

Theology/Bible/Christian Living

  1. Your Old Testament Sermon Needs to Get Saved: A Handbook for Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, David King- I read this pre-publication and was happy to write a blurb for the book cover. An excellent resource for all pastors!
  2. The Ideal Bishop: Aquinas’s Commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles, Michael G Sirilla- Insights for the history of interpretation of the Pastorals and for historical understanding of pastoral ministry.
  3. In the Name of God: The Colliding Lives, Legends, and Legacies of J. Frank Norris and George W. Truett, O S Hawkins- Fascinating story, told in an engaging way. In the end I differ significantly with the way Hawkins applies lessons from the history, but I welcome any engaging interaction with Baptist history.
  4.  Being a Pastor: Pastoral Treatises of John Wycliffe, trans & ed by Benjamin Fischer- fascinating historical piece.
  5. The History of First Baptist Church, 1837-2005, Jack Hilliard- I enjoyed learning more of the history of the church where my family and I are members. Reminded me of the value of writing historical accounts and preserving information as we can.
  6. God’s Smuggler to China, Brother David- I really appreciated God’s Smuggler, so this book by someone who worked with Brother Andrew also caught my eye. More challenging and encouraging stories about bold risk-taking for the sake of missions.

History/Biography

  1. Co. Aytch: A Confederate Memoir of the Civil War, Sam R. Watkins- Another celebrated war memoir. Far more literary than I expected and a significant book. The author regularly states he is not writing an official history, but just recording what he saw. But, this puts him at the forefront of the move to look at history not simply from the viewpoint of the leaders and people of high station, but to look at things from the viewpoint of the everyday person. Highlights the horror of war, talks about how much the lowly privates suffered which the leaders avoided, and he provides a very chilling portrait of the effects of war. Anyone who fall into the glorification of war, could do well to read this narrative.
  2. The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time, Will Durant- I love how Durant writes, even when I have to disagree with him. This is how history should be taught, with verve, attentive to people, and with an eye to lessons, even in tentative, we can draw from the past.
  3. The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library, Edward Wilson-Lee- Fascinating story, but the books draws it out too long. I had never heard about this library.
  4. The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived, Admiral William H. McRaven- a great little secular book on key virtues. McRaven tells stories well and draws from good sources, largely his own experiences. For natural revelation, this is a good book. We’d be a lot better as a culture if people heeded his lessons.
  5. Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot, Starr Smith- a fun read, good info on Stewart’s WWII career. Mentions his strong Christian upbringing, centrality of church to the family. When he left for the European theater, in his 30’s, his dad gave him a copy of Psalm 91 saying he was praying that psalm for Jimmy. Stewart was involved in serious bombing raids and aerial combat. He made some of the plans did the briefing for his group for the D-Day invasion.
  6. Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy, Ben Macintyre- I love Macintyre’s writing, and this was another good one.
  7. Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, Jared Cohen- Interesting look at the transition of power when presidents have died in office. He tells the stories well, though his slant is apparent. He is very biased against Coolidge, and does not interact with Amity Shlaes at all. Then he fawns over FDR. He closes the book with the affirmation that the Constitution is a “living document.”
  8. Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, Stephen E. Ambrose- Ambrose is always worthwhile reading, and the intertwining of these lives is interesting.
  9. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Dee Brown- A long, sad, depressing tale. Saga of the depravity of man, and a resounding example of why we should not entrust our wellbeing to a government
  10. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, Fawn M. Brodie- A well written account of Smith’s life, which seeks to weigh the evidence carefully.
  11. Terry Bradshaw: Man of Steel, Terry Bradshaw with David Diles (1979), and No Easy Game, Terry Bradshaw with Charles Paul Conn (1973).- I found these in a church library and was intrigued because I grew up liking Bradshaw. They were really engaging reads. I had no idea Bradshaw was so outspoken about his faith early in his career. Staubach wrote the preface and spoke highly to TB. Quite open about his struggles.
  12. Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost, Michael Walsh- The opening chapter is worth the book as Walsh holds nothing back critiquing modern, Western culture in the ways it has turned its back on fundamental truths our forebears knew to be basic realities of the world. A ringing endorsement of heroism and manliness as essential to the survival of any culture.

Fiction

  1. John Macnab, John Buchan- This is one of Buchan’s I had inadvertently missed, and it’s a good yarn. It involves some of Buchan’s standard characters (Leithn, Lamancha. Palliser-Yeates, Archie Roylance), but it is not a thriller of the same sort. There is no international intrigue, in fact there is no real bad guy at all. There is adventure and danger, but tis time for the sheer sport of it rather than to rescue someone or some country. In a way the men are seeking to rescue themselves, since they have sunk into an ennui which they can’t shake. So, this is sort of an adventure comedy.
  2. Castle Macnab: Richard Hannay Returns, Robert J Harris- This was significantly better than Harris’s first new Hannay book (mentioned last year). I liked the first one, but it was a little stilted, too obviously an imitation. This one worked on its own, and was compelling. In fact, I read it in one day. On Jan 1 I decided I wanted a fun read and started the book during the day. Then I stayed up til 1 am to finish it! This one is not set after Buchan’s originals but in the midst of them, once again pulling together beloved characters into a new adventure. Harris plays well off of John Macnab.
  3. The Old Man and the Boy, Robert Ruark- I loved this book, and it just barely failed to make my top 10. It is a beautiful account of a boy growing up enjoying the outdoors, free to roam, fish, hunt, and learn under the tutelage of a wise and caring grandfather.
  4. Planet of the Apes, Pierre Boullefor- Very interesting and very different from any of the movies. In this one they really do travel to a different planet. Rather than a Cold War warning (as in the 1968 film), the novel seems to be making a point about the treatment of animals, and perhaps racism, as well as suggesting the eventual end of civilizations and further steps in evolution. Also, I did not realize the same author wrote Bridge over the River Kwai, and that he was a spy in WWII. He worked in Asia.
  5. The Heist, Daniel Silva (Gabriel Allon series)- Another decent entry in this series. Silva has a gift for turning a phrase. A few examples:  “he came waddling into the bar a few minutes later with all the discretion of a train whistle at midnight.” “He wore a blue powersuit that fit his portly frame like a sausage casing ….” “Oliver Dimbleby was a sinner of the highest order, but his conscience bothered him not.”
  6. The Conqueror (Constantine’s Empire), Bryan Litfin- I enjoyed this historical novel.
  7. The Sky Pilot, a Tale of the Foothills, Ralph Connor- R G Lee said this novel played a part in his call to ministry. It is a well-told tale of ministry in the turbulent west, or faithful witness despite hardship.
  8. The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence Mysteries), Agatha Christie- fun, the lighthearted humor was engaging, but it did get tiresome as well. Overall I enjoyed it, though it almost lost me early on. Strikingly similar to Bulldog Drummond and Richard Hannay, both in general topic and in the portrayed threat- criminal mastermind, socialist uprising with infiltration of Britain by sinister elements aided by fifth columnists.
  9. Skystorm (Ryan Decker Book 4), Steven Konkoly- I read the first three books last year. A former CIA operative now working to rescue children from trafficking. A fun listen, good action, moral compass.
  10. Furious and Free: A Novel about the Maccabees, Elmer L.  Gray- well done, helps bring to life the history of this period. It isn’t great writing, but workmanlike and efficient. I grasped better the ups and downs of the period and realized how I had flattened it out in my mind due to brief treatments of it.
  11. The Broken Gun, Louis L’Amour- I didn’t realize when I started this one that it is set in (then)modern day. L’Amour draws on his cowboy research to write a western crime/mystery story. It is almost certainly highly autobiographical, as the main character seems much like how L’Amour saw himself and was: Western writer, knowledgeable of the West in history, careful researcher, also a man’s man, able to ride and shoot, and fight. Fun story
  12. Sitka, Louis L’Amour- great fun! This one spans the continent but centers on Alaska, particularly intrigue leading up to the sale of Alaska to the US. The main character’s friend, Robert Walker, was indeed a senator from MS born in PA as the story mentions.
  13. I enjoyed several other L’Amour novels. High Lonesome (the hero, a young man who has ended up taking up with bandits, must choose his path, and in the end honor wins out) and The Proving Trail, were particularly good. I rank The Proving Trail among his best. Utah Blaine was also good. Comstock Lode was also good, though it seemed to be stretched longer than it needed to be. The Quick and the Dead and Guns of the Timberlands were fine, but not as good as the others. Bowdrie I chose because Reagan apparently referred to Chick Bowdrie when he honored L’Amour. This is a collection of stories rather than one continuous story, and, though it was fun, I don’t think his short stories are as good as the complete books.
  14. At the Earth’s Core: Book 1 of the Pellucidar Series, Edgar Rice Burroughs- fun story. Follows the same formula as the Mars stories so at first I wasn’t taken with it. The fun won me over though as a completely different world is discovered inside the earth’s crust. I find it fascinating to note the basic assumptions about life and humanity in older novels like this. Here as in any others the humans can quickly master another language. Is that just necessary for the stories, or was there a greater assumption in past days that this could be done? Also, there are great assumptions about nobility, courage, not abandoning friends, defending women (even if they hate you), etc. In this one, the zeal and excitement about introducing greater weapons was interesting. There seemed to be no fear that this could bring negative implications. The story was serialized in 1914 and published in book form in 1922. One would think the horrors of modern warfare would have been evident by that time. Perhaps, though, the unchecked eagerness of the characters is intended to be recognized as foolhardy by the reader.
  15. The G-man’s Son, Warren F. Robinson [acc to cover], Edward O’Connor [acc to title page]- Published in 1936 and dedicated to J. Edgar Hoover! One of the “boys’ novels” of the time so it was interesting to see how it came across. Not as good as the Hardy Boys, to which it has many similarities. Written to engage boys and to hold in high esteem the G Men. Much about their sterling character and honesty, as well as intelligence, physical fitness, and bravery. Funny how ready the dad is for his boys to engage in pursuit of killers and for them to go into harm’s way. None of the carefulness of Mr. Hardy.

Other

  1. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin- Plenty of good insights for leadership, illustrated by stoires from the authors’ experiences as Navy SEALs.
  2. Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty, Susan VanZanten- I don’t often like these kids of books but this one was very helpful- thoughtful, insightful
  3. John Wayne: The Official Movie Book, Topix Media Lab- a lot of fun, listed all his movies, many I had never heard of. Provides an intro to all of his major movies and an assessment of the how good the movie was, ranking all of them in order. Helpful reminder of ones I want to watch again with the kids.

Disappointments

  1. Seize the Day, Saul Bellow- I’ve heard much about this author, so I gave him a try. Maybe I chose the wrong book. It never grabbed me but I pushed through. When I finished, I thought, “So what?”
  2. Casino Royale, Ian Fleming- A real disappointment. Bond is a scumbag. I knew that at some level, but it’s worse in this novel (the first one). Plus, this story just isn’t very good. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and thinking it ought to be a movie.
  3. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Kristin Kobes Du Mez- Full of insinuation, “seems”, “maybe”, lumping together disparate people and failing to note pieces that don’t fit her narrative. She documents sad things that have happened which we already knew were true. But her overall thesis is terribly overblown. Sad to see a Calvin prof scoff at inerrancy and to be shocked that 1980’s evangelicals would oppose the normalization of homosexuality.

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