It is difficult to say that much good came out of the worldwide disruption caused by COVID-19, but I am sure that I am not the only one who found that I had more time to read in 2020 than I had for quite a while. In fact, I read 61 books in 2020, the most since 2012, when I also had 61. So, here is my annual review of those books…
I will start with fiction. I cannot remember a year when my reading did not include one or more of James Patterson, John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer, and 2020 was no different. I read James Patterson’s Criss Cross and Deadly Cross, the latest additions to his Alex Cross series. These were what you expect from an Alex Cross book, but I have to say that the timeframe covered by this series is not very realistic. Deadly Cross is the twenty-eighth book in the series. If anyone in real life experienced what Alex Cross has in those twenty-eight books, in the time period covered by those books, well…let’s just say it’s not possible, let alone plausible. I also read Patteron’s co-authored Lost and Blindside (both with James Born) and Princess (with Rees Jones). Lost is a stand-alone book (at least so far); Blindside is the twelfth installment in the Detective Michael Bennett series and Princess is the latest in the Private series.
Camino Winds by John Grisham is his second book featuring Bruce Cable and Mercer Mann and the eclectic group of friends Cable has accumulated on the island. It is not what I would call a typical Grisham read but it is no doubt exactly what people have in mind when they think of the term “beach read” and it does include an ingenious murder. The backstory about a prescription drug and nursing homes is completely fictional but raises some alarms of what could be possible, too!
John Grisham’s A Time for Mercy is his third book featuring Jake Brigance, who first appeared in Grisham’s debut novel. I was not the only person, based on Amazon reviews, to get a copy of the book that had major printing errors. It was fine until page 69 or so and then it became truly unreadable—missing pages, duplicated pages, etc. I had to return it and get another, which was correct. I was shocked, though; Doubleday is no fly-by-night publisher and Grisham is one of the best-selling authors in the country; that such a book could get out with such incredible errors is rather surprising. The story itself was what you would expect from Grisham; or, more precisely, from classic Grisham. Jake is, again, defending someone no one else in town would want to touch. It is not a pleasant story—but neither was A Time to Kill. Grisham manages to use a stereotypical presentation of rural, Southern Christians without belittling or mocking them, which I appreciated.
Jeffrey Archer’s Hidden in Plain Sight is the second in the William Warwick series, which is a spin-off of the Clifton Chronicles. It follows an Archer pattern of having a nemesis that just won’t go away, but it does also take a slightly different tack by having Warwick transferred to the drug squad when he gets promoted.
Mark Pryor is another author who has appeared regularly on my reading lists in recent years. In 2020 I read The French Widow, his ninth Hugo Marston novel. Marston, of course, seems to do surprisingly little in his actual job as head of security at the U.S. embassy in Paris, but he does manage to help the French police once again solve a tricky crime. The book again includes transgender French police Lt. Camille Lerens, which I could do without, but Pryor seems to include her primarily to be able to say that he does so—or to be cutting edge—since her transgenderism has absolutely nothing to do with the story. This book does take the approach of, at times, speaking from the perspective of the killer, which is a unique twist, and Marston does a good job—in my opinion—of keeping the reader guessing until near the end of the book.
I actually did not finish a fiction book until April of 2020, when I completed The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I try to include at least one classic work per year, and this was the one for 2020. I enjoyed it. I have actually not seen any of the various theatrical versions, so I cannot comment on those, but D’Artagnan and his three pals are not necessarily, or certainly not always, admirable individuals. If I was going to recommend one Dumas book it would be The Count of Monte Cristo, not this one, but it is worth reading.
This may be a surprise to some, but The Last Trial is the first Scott Turow book I have ever read. As the title suggests, it is the end of the career of a character that I now know has appeared in other Turow novels. I suspect that some of what this book includes would make more sense or be more meaningful to those who have read others in the series, but I found it an enjoyable read–but then I enjoy courtroom dramas.
Daniel Silva’s The Order is the third or fourth Gabriel Allon book I have read. I enjoyed the others much more than I did this one. Suffice it to say that this book presents the theory of a missing “gospel” that the ultra-conservative wing of Catholicism will literally do anything to prevent coming to light. The papacy is also connected to a far-right political group in Europe. And never mind the unlikelihood of the now-dead pope’s private secretary asking the head of Israel’s security service to help investigate; after all, in his last book Silva had the prince of a Muslim nation doing the same thing. I haven’t read or seen The DaVinci Code, but I suspect that this book has a lot of similarities. I wouldn’t recommend it.
I do not remember how Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching even got on my radar. I almost put it down after the first page because of the language, but I didn’t. The frequency of obscenities decreased, but there is plenty of foul language and—shocker—it adds nothing to the story. From what I can tell from what the book includes about Cole’s other works she usually writes romance novels, but this one was supposed to be a thriller. And it was, but I think Cole tried too hard. There are elements of reality in the book but in her effort to deal with issues of racism she takes a far-flung approach that is unrealistic. And then the ending is even more unrealistic than that. So again, I wouldn’t recommend.
Probably the biggest departure from my usual fiction reading was Asha Lemmie’s Fifty Words for Rain. First of all, this is Lemmie’s debut novel, and I think that bodes very well for her future. It is the story of a girl, Nori, who is the daughter of a Japanese woman of aristocratic lineage who had an affair with an African-American man who was in Japan because of WWII. The story touches on the importance of honor and tradition in Japanese culture but also touches on racism—realistically, unlike Cole’s book—and, most of all, about the power of sibling love. It is a richly told story and I found myself really invested in it, but I was, I confess, disappointed in the ending.
That was it for fiction in 2020. So, moving on…
Jon Bloom’s Not by Sight is an interesting read. It is, by its own description, “the imaginative retelling of 35 Bible stories,” and it does provide the reader with a new perspective on some very familiar passages of Scripture.
Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity examines twelve questions that most Christians have either asked or been asked—or both. Questions like, “doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?” or “doesn’t religion cause violence?” Perhaps the most timely questions were those on taking Scripture literally, whether or not Christianity is homophobic or denigrates women and how a loving God could allow suffering or “send” people to hell. John Lennox calls it “compelling reading” and I agree. It is well-written and thought-provoking.
The subtitle of David Jeremiah’s Reset—“Ten Steps to Spiritual Renewal”—gives you a good idea of what to expect. I am not a huge fan of “steps to…” books, but this one does have some good insights. It is what you would expect from David Jeremiah in terms of style. Jeremiah’s What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do is a good overview of the epistle of James. John MacArthur’s Only Jesus is essentially a significantly condensed version of The Gospel According to Jesus. The book begins by asking, “What did Jesus mean when He said, ‘Follow Me’?” and then proceeds to answer that question. MacArthur’s Stand Firm is a short book that addresses how Christians are to live in a post-Christian world.
Charles Bordonaro’s Free to Be Me is a good book for anyone who wants to understand what “security” really means for the believer apart from the strict Calvinist interpretation. It highlights the freedom that believers have in Christ without ever suggesting that such freedom is a license for ungodly living. Suffice it to say that it also presents a very different view than R.C. Sproul’s Willing to Believe, which is solid, as Sproul always is, but which comes down in a very Calvinistic conclusion. It is an interesting book for understanding more about Pelagius, Augustine and Arminius in particular, but also Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Finney and Chafer.
J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness is subtitled “The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life” and it looks extensively at the writing and teaching of Baxter, Edwards and Owen. It felt appropriate to read something by Packer since he passed away in 2020 and it is valuable introduction to Puritan thought.
John Piper’s Coronavirus and Christ is a small book and obviously put out hastily in order to respond to the pandemic, but the truths that the book contains apply far beyond COVID. The back cover of the book is headed with this from Piper: “This is a time when the fragile form of this world is felt. The seemingly solid foundations are shaking. The question we should be asking is, Do we have a Rock under our feet? A Rock that cannot be shaken―ever?” That is a powerful question and, like I said, it applies far beyond the current pandemic.
The Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Schiess is her first book. She is a graduate student at Dallas Theological Seminary and she completed her undergraduate degree at Liberty University. I did not agree with everything that she wrote, but she did do an admirable job of addressing how our political views and our understanding and interpretation of Scripture are likely more intertwined than we realize. I told someone recently that I would read the book again, so perhaps that is the best compliment I can pay to the way that the book makes the reader think.
Pulpit Aflame, edited by Joel Beeke and Dustin Benge, is a collection of essays in honor of Steven Lawson, and is one of the best books I have ever read on sermon preparation and delivery and the ministry of preaching.
As I always do, I read a significant amount of history in 2020. Andrew Lawler’s The Secret Token is another book about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Lawler spent significant time in Outer Banks communities around the colony’s location and he investigated every possible lead he could find. I do not think he leaves the reader with any new conclusions, but that’s probably because—in my opinion—we will never really know what happened.
I intended to read extensively about women in American history in 2020—historically and contemporarily—given that 2020 was the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers and Nancy Loane’s Following the Drum both provide great insight into the roles that women played in the American Revolution—Berkin’s more broadly and Loane’s specifically at Valley Forge. Melissa Lukeman Bohrer’s Glory, Passion and Principle examines eight women of the revolutionary era, some of whom are familiar (Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren and Phillis Wheatley) and others who should be (Sybil Ludington, Lydia Darragh). She gives a better understanding of who “Molly Pitcher” was and she selects one woman (of a number of them) who dressed and fought as a man (Deborah Sampson). Karin Wulf’s Not All Wives focuses on women in Philadelphia during the colonial era in order to explain the law of coverture and the way that women who were no longer, or who had never been, married were able to survive.
Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming is the first in a projected trilogy on the Revolution and, despite being about 800 pages long only gets to 1777. Perhaps most interesting to me about the book was the re-introduction to me of Dr. Benjamin Church, a leading figure in the Massachusetts patriot movement who was convicted of spying for the British. That led to me reading John Nagy’s Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy, which I would love to write a rebuttal to someday since I do not think that the evidence that Church was indeed a spy is sufficient to warrant his conviction.
Like Atkinson, Alan Taylor is a Pulitzer Prize winner. But his American Revolutions covers fifty more years in one hundred fewer pages. To be fair, he and Atkinson have different goals in their works, and Taylor provides much more insight into what led to the revolution and then also describes the first years of the newly-independent nation.
Edward Larson’s Franklin & Washington is a fascinating dual-biography about two of the most famous Americans ever, examining how the two men worked, often together, to pursue American independence.
It is important to get the full title of Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality because the subtitle is exactly what the book is. Allen, a Harvard professor who has recently announced her candidacy for governor of Massachusetts, takes the Declaration line by line to examine what it meant—and means—and particularly to understand what equality really means vis-à-vis that founding document. I highly recommend this one.
Of course, at the time the Declaration was written, the founders removed the attack Jefferson originally penned against slavery, and it would not be until a Civil War more than eighty years later that slavery would finally be abolished. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning has perhaps been one of the most talked-about books in the past year or two and it makes for itself an audacious claim—“The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” If for no other reason than that Kendi has become so influential it is worth reading. Kendi does offer some valuable insights, but I cannot say that I agree with all of his conclusions or assertions.
James Gorman, Jeff Childers and Mark Hamilton edited Slavery’s Long Shadow: Race and Reconciliation in American Christianity, and the essays it includes are worth reading. Some are more denominationally-specific than some readers might care for, but those could certainly be skipped. Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that Richard Hughes, a Scholar in Residence in the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University, begins his essay “Resisting White Supremacy” by asserting that the “heart of Jesus’ preaching was his concern and compassion for disenfranchised and oppressed people” and that “to listen carefully and attentively to what those people wish to tell us about the contours of their lives” is the first step to becoming a disciple of Christ. The gospel is not a social justice message and any attempt to make it one distorts who Jesus was and why He really came.
In When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War, John Patrick Daly suggests that Christians “interpreted the Bible and Christian moral dictates in light of individualism and free market economics” and that interpretation is what led to some Christians using the Bible to oppose slavery while others used it to support it. The use of Scripture on both sides of the slavery debate is a subject of great interest to me, and thus I found Daly’s book worthwhile, but I would not suggest reading it and only it on this subject, as it needs to be balanced out with other perspectives.
Back to the fight for women’s suffrage, Catherine Clinton’s The Other Civil War examines the efforts of women in the 19th century to achieve equality. They were generally unsuccessful, of course, but their efforts are worthy of study. Lisa Tetrault’s The Myth of Seneca Falls explains that the well-known Seneca Falls Convention was not necessarily the starting point for the suffrage movement that it is so often presented as—and that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked so hard to make it. Combining those two books with Susan Ware’s Why They Marched gives readers an introduction to many other suffragists they might want to read more about, such as Lucy Stone, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Julia Ward Howe, Ida Wells Barnett, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and more. Vanguard, by Martha Jones, looks specifically at the efforts of black women in the fight for equality—including, but not limited to, the right to vote.
Shifting gears, Adam Cohen’s Nothing to Fear was a fascinating look at the New Deal and gives valuable information about Frances Perkins, Raymond Moley and Henry Wallace in particular.
The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis and Historiography: An Introductory Guide by Eileen Ka-May Cheng are good for those interested in historiography, but would not likely be of much interest to others.
2020 was certainly marred by racial tension and plenty of authors have attempted to address that subject over the years. But Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness has to be one of the stupidest books I have ever read and my copy is filled with marginalia expressing my thoughts on Metzl’s arguments. Those arguments can essentially be summed up this way: if you favor anything that would be considered politically conservative then you are “white”—regardless of your race or ethnicity—are you are not only what is wrong with the country but you are actively opposing your own best interests.
Another book that has received a lot of attention is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. It contains some personal accounts that are both sad and inexcusable, but overall I cannot agree with her attempt to equate the caste system in India, Nazi Germany and the racial issues of the United States.
Interestingly, the best book that I read on the subject of racial tension was written a half-century ago—Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans. Perhaps this line will suffice to provide an idea of what Murray spent the book arguing: “The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people…. Any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another.” In his forward to the anniversary edition, Henry Louis Gates asserted that Murray had a unique ability to argue all sides of any issue and to point out that which was not necessarily clear or even desirable to those dominating the conversation. I would agree, based on this book. And for this book, I am indebted to Wynton Marsalis, who wrote of Murray in his book Moving to Higher Ground. Marsalis spoke specifically of Murray’s Stomping the Blues, which I have not yet read, but he still made the introduction. As for his book, Marsalis proves to be a terrific teacher about what jazz really is. While the book’s subtitle—“How Jazz Can Change Your Life”—might be an overreach, I would recommend this book specifically, and Marsalis in general, for anyone who doesn’t really get jazz.
This Is Your Time is a short little book by Ruby Bridges, who, at just six years of age, was the first to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. The book would be a great introduction to Bridges’ story for anyone who does not know it, and it is worth getting just for the photographs that it includes. It is sad, though, how far we have not come in the nearly sixty-years since Bridges’ experience.
A couple of baseball books in 2020—Ron Snyder’s A Season to Forget tells the story of the truly awful 1988 Baltimore Orioles, who started the season 0-21, and in The Lost Memoir Alan Gaff assembles into one volume the syndicated newspaper column Lou Gehrig wrote in 1927 for Christy Walsh’s papers, telling his personal story and also giving an inside glimpse into the Yankees’ season.
In the genre of memoir and autobiography, I tended mostly to women in 2020. Nadia Murad’s The Last Girl is powerful and should be read by anyone who wants to understand (and can stomach) what ISIS did to Yazidis. Likewise, Rachael Denhollander’s What Is a Girl Worth? is powerful and should be read by anyone who wants to understand (and can stomach) what Larry Nasser specifically, and any sexual abuser generally, does to the victims of their actions. Denhollander’s book also makes her statement to Nasser at his sentencing all the more incredible. I read those books back-to-back. Both stories are sickening and heart wrenching but both women also have incredible stories of resiliency.
Nikki Haley’s With All Due Respect is an interesting look at her life, including deeper looks at her time as governor and UN ambassador. If I had to select a woman to run for president in 2024 I would have a hard time picking between Haley and Kristi Noem. But since I hope that Noem will be re-elected governor of South Dakota in 2022 and will finish out her term, I will have to go with Haley in 2024. I enjoyed Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Speaking for Myself, and while I understand that she desired to present a side of Donald Trump that she thinks too few people know, I think she may have been overly kind to him despite her effort to be balanced.
Michelle Obama’s Becoming was a well-written autobiography. I do not understand why she has become so reviled by the political right. I do not agree with her on much politically, there is no doubt, but I do not think that she is the horrible monster she is so often portrayed to be. Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold is well-written, too, and Harris has quite a personal story. She has had some tremendous accomplishments and some interesting ideas, particularly when it comes to criminal justice, but the book also reinforces why I would not want her to be the president.
Alex Trebek’s And the Answer Is… was a unique memoir in its structure but it does give the reader a great glimpse into the life of one of the most famous game show hosts in American history. It would seem that Trebek was a nice and truly decent guy…though I have to hope that he changed his thoughts on God before he passed away.
If you want an easy and light-hearted read, and you enjoy musical humor, Victor Borge’s My Favorite Comedies in Music fits the bill—but the book is not nearly as funny as Borge’s live performances.
And there you have it, another year in books. Feel free to comment with book recommendations—I have plenty of books on my list, but am always looking for suggestions. Happy New Year…and Happy Reading!