Welcome to the new year and the weekend reading! With the new year upon us, I’ve had a hankering to write a little about all the books I read last year. Maybe some of these thoughts will help you pick out books to read in 2019!
So here’s the rundown (these aren’t all 135 or so of the books I read, just a sampling of the ones I wanted to mention) in the general order in which I read them from the start of the year through December 31:
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – I’m always impressed by people who can write history as if its a novel, and that’s definitely the case with A Spy Among Friends. Though there isn’t a lot of suspense to this book (it takes a more analytical approach), its written well and its fascinating.
Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life – Tish Warren is an ordained clergy woman, which in biblical terms is a contradiction. Yet despite this deep theological oddity, and despite a few oddities and errors in the theological composition of the book, this is a work that is hard to ignore. I found it fascinating and helpful. It is hard to get such an honest perspective – not because most authors aren’t honest, but because most humans aren’t – or simply aren’t able to explicate what it means to live out Christian doctrine in the throws of real life. It is for that reason this book triumphs and is worth consideration – disclaimers above apply and theological discernment is recommended.
A Night to Remember – this book about the night the Titanic sunk by Walter Lord was really fantastic. The narrative never lost steam, and the perspectives were first person and fascinating. It’s not overly long, and you will come away with a very good idea of what it really was like to be on the boat that night.
Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends and Unanswered Questions – It’s all here. Everything you want to know about drinking and your Uncle Al K Hall. My only warning is that Brian Hoefling is a smart dude…and sometimes his brains outpace his writing abilities (or my understanding, at least). Still, there’s a ton to learn from in this volume!
From a Certain Point of View – Ben Acker’s book draws you in with a novel idea for experiencing Star Wars from the perspectives of minor characters and folks normally outside the standard view port (so to speak). It fails miserably. What results is not only trite and unimportant, but at times it actually messes up the storyline and how you’ve come to view the characters that actually matter. It puts words in the mouths and minds of characters best left unsaid.
At the Back of the North Wind – Maybe I should just paste in what I wrote on Goodreads, “Tortuously written with overly flowery language, and 10 page poems with nothing to do with the story, I’m so glad to be done.” I continue to be drawn in to George MacDonald works, hoping that he will justify his place in the pantheon and I’m continually disappointed and annoyed by his writing.
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius proves that some works are enduring for a reason – their wisdom never grows old, because its part of the fabric of life. He also shows here that even an image-bearer of God who doesn’t acknowledge His deity, can stumble on self-evident truths about the way things work. Of course you’d be much better served to read Pascal, or better still, Solomon.
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No – For some people who struggle with priorities and social pressure, I think Cloud’s best seller will be helpful. For others it will seem trite and too simple to require so many pages. It certainly has a tendency to feel at times as though Cloud is pushing his theory too far – using Biblical passages to prop up proposals that don’t quite fit. A more theologically careful/thoughtful book would have been even more helpful.
Dune – So odd and so fascinating is the world that Frank Herbert drops you into in his classic work Dune, that you don’t know what to make of it half the time. But by the time I was half way through, I found myself amazed at his power of description and forcefulness of vision for these characters. It’s a book that, while strange, is a must read for any fan of fantasy literature.
Sojourner Songs: Poems – For several years running I’ve been reading and re-reading Ben Palpant’s poetry, and it never seems to grow old. I highly recommend it to any Christian.
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount – during my time studying the sermon this past year or so (2017 and 2018) I was able to re-read large swaths of this classic by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and was reminded of how gifted he was as a preacher, and how good it is to re-read his sermons from time to time. I really appreciate his passion and love for God.
Books that Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories – is it sad that I not only read books but I also read books about reading books??? This little volume is helpful and a good resource for those looking to shepherd their children through the large world of books. Not every recommendation is terrific, and some are obvious, but I have found it helpful as a resource.
A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour – No one said that being a professional athlete was easy, but many don’t realize just how difficult it is on the PGA Tour. This insiders look at the 1994 season on tour is fascinating and insightful. It was a little overly long, but it certainly humanizes the stars, and casts a sobering eye over what it takes to make and remain on the world’s greatest golf tour.
The New World (Volume 2 of A History of the English Speaking Peoples) – I’ve slowly been making my way through Winston Churchill’s 4 volume set in this series, and enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed the first volume a tad more than this one, maybe because of the content being so new to me. Still, it is well worth noting that the writing style of Churchill is so good that anything you read by him is going to be enjoyable and easy to read.
The Loveliness of Christ – This is another annual read that I keep coming back to again and again. I can’t recommend this little volume enough. Buy one, and you’ll be encouraged with the extracts of Samuel Rutherford’s letters in a way only a devote and passionate (and well written) Christian can convey.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky – Riveting history (with maybe a few literary licenses) that was one of the best books I read all year long. It follows the story of a young Italian man who gets caught up in world events, as WWII comes to his doorstep.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos – I’ve written about this at length in other areas. Let it be enough to say that its much better to watch Peterson on YouTube than it is to read his writing.
Economics in One Lesson – It’s been since High School since I’d read Henry Hazlitt’s excellent book. In fact, I’d totally forgotten I’d read it until I began (at the recommendation of a friend) and the words were so familiar that it seemed almost eerie. Only once I’d finished it did my mom remind me of how she’d had all of us children read it before graduating high school! Still, I enjoyed it and want to make it a book I review every few years.
Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon – I think that one of the best ways to experience an era of history is through the lens of biography, and while this book does not set the context as well as some others, it DOES paint the man’s life in a unique and honest perspective. Highly recommend.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (book) – Loaned to me by a terrific friend at church, this is a compilation of the original script and some notes, along with parts of the script that didn’t make it into the film. It was hilarious all over again!
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany – my good friend Brian R. Has told me that he’ll have all his children read this book before they grow up, and now I can see why. To watch the purposeful design of an evil and mentally unstable man take control of a strong country led by feckless men was hard to read about. Knowing the outcome and how this menace grew to envelop the entire globe, makes each page to the lead up of the cataclysm and each subsequent description of its result, heavy with anticipation and wonder. There are so many lessons to be learned here. I can’t recommend it enough.
How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age – Jonathan Leeman’s attempt to get Christians thinking about politics in a way that is Biblical and doesn’t skirt the difficult issues and conversations we’re having every week in this country. I’m planning on re-reading this volume again soon, and referring back to it in the future. An excellent source of wisdom and guidance here.
The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing – So many gems in this one. This is really just a series of essays mashed together and edited by the great Leland Ryken. Anything Ryken touches is gold, and this is no exception. My only wish is that he’d do more writing and more commentaries on literature! If you love literature and thinking about art, then you need to pick this up and read some of the essays. This is worldview shaping stuff.
The Brothers Karamazov – I think that, much like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky must have written stories in order to preach a message. There are times when he enters into the sublime, with wisdom and character depths that you can’t not underline and discuss with your book club pals. But the story itself isn’t really all that compelling, and sometimes the way characters behave doesn’t really make much sense – they act or speak in ways that aren’t believable. I don’t think that its one of my favorites of all time, but it was good to slog through, and holds plenty of little sermonettes for those interested.
Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles that can Radically Change your Family – This is a Paul Tripp special, and it is very good. It’s better written than Fitzpatrick’s Give Them Grace, and more straightforward. Definitely helpful and a volume I’ll come back to again – maybe even this year.
The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot – Not terribly well written in the sense that it isn’t a page turner, but this classic work on conservatism by Russell Kirk was recommended to me by a fellow politico, and for that I’m very grateful. Not every conclusion is one I’d agree with, but there is a lot of very right and good thinking here – and especially in Burke, I found a lot of inspiration and reminders for why I believe what I believe.
Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune – This was another recommendation from a friend (thanks Dave B!), and it was really fascinating. Not terribly well sewn together or compellingly written, but the story is very compelling. It’s a book detailing a piece of American history I’d never known about, and again, through the genre of biography that delivers perspective so well.
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation – This was my first read by Joseph Ellis, and it definitely won’t be my last. Ellis’ prose are elevated and a joy to read. He describes the relationships between founding members of the early American political class in an informative and enjoyable way. Excited to read more from Ellis in the future.
The Scarlet Pimpernel – Talk about putting together a heat pounding narrative into a short space! This is a fantastic story, and would likely make a great movie as well. It details the adventures of a man of the aristocracy and his quest to rescue fellow aristocrats from guillotine dominated France during the revolution. He is a sort of masked vigilante ducking into small towns in France, before returning to England. Who is he? The Scarlet Pimpernel, of course.
The Art of Divine Contentment – as only a member of the Puritan movement can do, Thomas Watson logically explains the many reasons Christians have for resting in Christ. This is not a long volume (comparatively speaking), but its very rich, and I highly recommend it!
12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You – Tony Reinke is an excellent writer, and this is well worth the read. This book joins a growing chorus of literature exploring the consequences of all this technology is having on us. I like Reinke’s perspective because he’s not writing from an ivory tower – he’s a lover of tech himself. But he’s also honest, and I think we all need to be sober and honest as well, as we seek to live lives of joy in the years to come. We need to evaluate how technology interacts with living a live that is WORTH living – one that is lived well.
Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage – I’ve been wanting to read this book for 5 years! Finally got to it! Before reading this book I had a more idealized perspective on Eisenhower, but when you read this account, you can’t help but feel like the guy was a bit of a tool. Fascinating stuff in here about Nixon – the guy was definitely insecure and neurotic, but how much of that was reinforced by the way Eisenhower and others treated him? Judge for yourself…
The Great Train Robbery – This is the first Michael Crichton book I’ve ever read, and maybe it wasn’t a great sampling. The level of detail was astonishing – it you want to understand 19th century England, this is the book for you. If you want to hear about a great heist and enjoy a great story, then I suggest you enter in with great patience as well. Still, I think that while I found this book annoying to sort through, I may come back to it later and give it another shot to win me over. Certainly the way the story wraps up is very interesting.
A Study in Scarlet – I maintain that this is one of Conan Doyle’s best! I think that perhaps I’ve mentioned this before somewhere, but the illustrious author spent more of his time writing shorter stories of the adventures of Holmes, but its my opinion that the longer the man wrote, the better the story got! This one was fun because I listened to it with my daughter Chloe, who enjoyed it immensely – it was neat to introduce her into the world of Sherlock Holmes.
The War of the Worlds – Most of you will be familiar with this title, and may have seen some silver screen iteration of the novel. But what struck me about actually reading the thing was just how well written it was! Detailed finely, and worth the enjoyment of just listening or reading the way Wells describes each situation. Well worth checking out.
Painting as a Pastime – I wasn’t expecting such a tour de force for someone thinking of what it means to take up the brush. Churchill’s little book is one of the best books I read all year, without a doubt! I was spellbound by the prose, I was inspired by the subject, and I was encouraged by the perspective. I read portions aloud to Kate after I was finished, and I can’t wait to read it again.
A Simple Way to Pray – This is more of a pamphlet than a book, but it was very impactful for me this year. In this short work, Martin Luther gives Christians a way to think through prayer, and also gives a lot of examples which prove very helpful. Highly recommend.
The Character of the Church: The Marks of God’s Obedience People – This was a fantastic book – one of three, actually, that are all very good (well, I haven’t finished volume three yet, but I’m sure I’d say the same thing). I am going to be recommending these tidy little volumes to Christians seeking to understand the church, their faith, and the way to live it out. It’s not easy to write in such a lucid and succinct way. Anyone can drone on, but Joe Thorn has done some remarkable service for the church here.
Fifty Famous Stories Retold – This is a compilation by James Baldwin that I both read and listened to. It was very helpful to me, even as a matter of literary understanding, to know some of these famous stories and myths. Of course they are told for children, but maybe that’s what I needed – I mean who needs a dissertation on the sword of Damocles?
The Testament – I really enjoy a good Grisham, but often find myself frustrated by the same reworked plot line and the unsatisfying endings. Not so with The Testament. This is very creative and totally out of the norm for him in terms of the story line. Very good little read!
The Second World War: Milestones to Disaster – This is the audio title for what is also a volume of Churchill’s WWII narrative. Anyone interested in WWII history has to read this and his other volumes. His is a unique perspective, and his writing is superb. Highly recommend.
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson – Another great work of literature from Joseph Ellis. Now, the book starts in a bit of a bizarre fashion, so hang in there! Ultimately, this is less a typical biography than it is an exploration into exactly who Jefferson was, and his thinking process (if you could call it that). The more you read about the founders, or any other figure in history, the more you want to understand their thinking and how it evolved. This volume does that with excellence.
Genghis: Birth of an Empire – My good friend Rod recommended I read this piece of historical fiction, and I’m glad he did. This is a book that once started will not be easy to stop – probably the very definition of a page turner. The writing isn’t at a level of, say, Joseph Ellis, but it doesn’t have to be. Iggulden will make history come alive for you, but more than that, he will help you really get inside the heads of men and women you would normally have absolutely zero in common with.
Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery – This is very interesting. Lots of great history here, though Metaxes is overly fawning at times, and you’d be surprised how much that gets on the nerves after a few hundred pages. Still, I learned a great deal not only about Wilberforce, but about the men and women he surrounded himself with. Worth the read, as long as you can get over the unquestionably bias approach.
Tools of Titans – Another giant book by ego maniac Timothy Ferriss. Another opportunity for quick fire starter this coming summer.
And Then There Were None – This was my third Christie book of the year, and probably my favorite. Eerie and well written, it keeps you on the edge until the end, and then (and this was really fascinating) it explains the whole thing from the point of view of the villain! Very interesting stuff. Worth putting on the list!
The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin – As one might expect, this is not a rosy picture of a great world leader. Putin comes across as cold, calculating, and even inept at times. If Meyers could have gotten more access, he could likely have written a story with more connectivity – or maybe he just didn’t want to draw the kinds of conclusions that seemed too obvious to anyone paying attention. Without this perspective, you’re sort of left to sketch the man on your own from the facts as they’re given…and the sketch is not pretty.
Catch-22 – My second attempt at reading this, I decided to give it a listen. It’s just as nonsensical to listen to as to read. Many people who read this consider it one of their favorites. What in the world am I missing here? To me this seemed like the most inane book of all time…
Churchill: A Life – This is the condensed official biography of Winston Churchill by Martin Gilbert. It’s about 1000 pages, and goes along at a pretty good rate. There’s definitely some interesting items here or there that you might not get from The Last Lion (Manchester), but you don’t get the agony of the wilderness years, that’s certain. And you don’t get a neutral perspective. It’s not fawning, so to speak, but its told with a positive assumption/outlook. I’ve just received in the mail the original 8 volumes (maybe 8000 or so pages?) from which this shorter volume is drawn, and am looking forward to reading those for reference in the years to come. I think that if you’re going to read one biography of Churchill, this is probably near the top of the list, though its hard to recapture what Manchester did in his epic three volume set – the man just brought it all together in a way that only someone who fought and lived through those times could do.
A.J. Liebling: World War II Writings – these are fascinating articles by Liebling, many from the front lines, or just behind them, originally published during the war in the New Yorker. For 15-20 page glimpses into what life was like during that period from a journalist’s perspective.
The Last of the Mohicans – In the mode of the very worst of Walter Scott and George MacDonald, Cooper combines needlessly flowery language with a ridiculous level of detail. His prose is horrid to the point that his story is lost in an archaic jumble of speech that wasn’t even commonplace in his day. I have zero clue as to why this is a classic other than my suspicion that his stories’ influence upon the English mind was vast in his day – so vast that it inspired a great deal of emigration.
Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal – Other than my complaint that Sasse is short of the latter portion of his title, I think this is a splendid book, and a very good effort at explaining what’s going on in America right now. It’s not a screed, but an honest evaluation from his perspective. Worth reading and contemplating as Sasse becomes an increasingly important player in our culture and political arena.
Democracy in America – Another volume I hadn’t read since my school days, and another volume I wished I had read sooner. De Tocqueville was eerily prescient in his analysis of the weaknesses and strengths of the new nation of America. As soon as you dive in, you need to break out the highlighter, because you’ll be using it…a lot.
The Thrawn Trilogy (Star Wars, 3 volumes) – This was absolutely fantastic. I agree with my friend Tim that these stories were as good as the original trilogy, and at times they’re better. Can’t believe I hadn’t read these before, but all three were interesting, and well written. Timothy Zahn is a very creative guy, and if you choose to listen to them, be sure to listen to the Marc Thompson editions, and bypass the shortened versions that Anthony Daniels did years ago. Thompson is a master at his craft, and you won’t be disappointed by the audio.
Moby Dick – I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I just felt so frustrated by this book. Melville is a fantastic writer, and at times he can have you rolling with laughter. In fact, the entire book seems to have a strain of ironic goofiness to it that you’d not expect going in. But the waste..oh the waste! There is something to be said (a lot to be said) for knowing what to write and what NOT to write, and Melville fails in epic ways in this arena. This is a 600+ page book that at page 500 I resigned in protest. I was sick to death of his detours into the 5 ways to skin a way, and the 7 ways you could use wale fat, and the 3 interesting items (detailed over 5 pages) of the nose of the wale. Awful, awful writing. I know many will be afraid to say that, or aghast to read this analysis, but this is the truth. The man needed an editor, and he needed one badly. This should be one of the best stories from a skilled writer in the history of the English language, instead it sinks down to what amounts to a sad disaster and a squandering of the readers’ time and attention. Pride, and bad editing.
James Madison: A Life Reconsidered – This was interesting and helpful in that I needed to learn more about Madison. But its also overly friendly and mostly an argument for the greatness of Madison than a fair and unbiased accounting of his work. It also lacks somewhat from time to time, and I can’t quite put a finger on why…almost as if the writing style or the personal look at Madison vanishes, and in its place come perfunctory 9th grade history lessons. Still, I learned a lot about Madison, and found him interesting and important for the founding of our nation.
Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution – Very interesting book. Interesting historical detours, good research, and pretty good writing as well. It really is a screed though! Not overly obnoxious though, considering its a diatribe. And I like that it is not simply a GOP pamphlet in disguise. Everyone gets roasted. His suggestions for change are woefully lacking and where they appear they’re not very impression. Still, I found myself agreeing with much of what he has to say.
God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs – I can’t recommend this strong enough. I really enjoyed the book, and found in Keller’s writing a great deal of helpful explanation and teaching. Winsome and thoughtful, this is some of the best writing on the Proverbs that I’ve taken in.
The Case Against Sugar – This one really educated me, and I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads. It’s pretty well written, and not what I thought it would be – I was expecting some complex argument or some soapbox screed, but it was neither. It was more of a history and a journalistic deep dive than anything. Taubes allows you to draw your own conclusions, but he definitely is making a case against ingesting any sugar! And…by the time you finish the book, its hard not to agree with his assessments.
The Riches of Divine Wisdom – There is a great deal of help and good that is done in this volume. It’s approachable and pretty well written. I think you could read this without having a ton of theological training or even a ton of Biblical training. My main complaint amongst all the helpfulness of this book, is that the classification of the Abramatic Covenant as unconditional, and how that plays out in the rest of his assumptions, isn’t very helpful. The unconditional/conditional nomenclature is in need to revision, I think, because it can lead you away from the correct conclusions that God did have expectations of a faithful covenant partner (Abraham) and that when Abraham failed, God took upon himself the penalty for that failure. Thus it was conditional – and God fulfilled the conditions. It seems unconditional in that we receive the benefits based on conditions God has met for us as we place faith in him. So the nomenclature needs reworked. I also didn’t agree that Gen. 15 and 17 represent two separate covenants, but I won’t go into that here! Despite these things, Gooding is very helpful and interesting and provides many great reasons for Christians to study the Old Testament, and many helpful tools to use in that study.
That’s it! There were many others that I just couldn’t take the time time mention here. And, I mean frankly if you’ve read this far you deserve a medal anyway!
Have a great weekend – and happy reading in 2019!