My annual review of my year in books is the post I receive the most comments on face-to-face. Readers tell me they enjoy and look forward to it every year. It is a favorite of mine, too—I enjoy looking back over the list of books I read during the past year and recalling what I learned, liked and disliked. In 2015 I did, once again, surpass fifty books for the year, ending with fifty-four (and a quarter—more on that quarter later). So, without further ado, here is the overview. As always, the books are grouped primarily by genre rather than by the order in which I read them, not all fifty-four books are included, and none are reviewed extensively for sake of space.
I will start with what many would call classic fiction. Despite referencing it in my teaching for many years, I had never read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. I have now rectified that. It is worth reading and worthy of its classic status. It does provide an interesting look at the life of immigrant workers and the meatpacking industry. John Updike’s Rabbit, Run provides a glimpse into the life of someone who seems unable to get past the fact that his success in high school basketball is not going to carry him through life. The search for the thrill and fulfillment he experienced there, though, leads him to make some poor choices, and if nothing else the book serves as a lesson in the folly of thinking that real happiness can be found in self-gratification. I had read it before, but a debacle over the merits of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath being read by students in a Christian high school English class led me to read the book again. My own opinion remains that the book has merit and provides an abundance of teachable moments, but I do understand and respect the opinion of those who do not agree. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, which I had not read before, proved a reasonable alternative for 20th-century American literature. The book reminded me in many ways of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and it can certainly produce excellent discussion on the subject of marriage.
The quest for ideal American lit for Christian school students led me to read or re-read each of the following, as well: John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I found all worthwhile reading and conducive to meaningful discussion.
Each year I set my sights on one of the greatest classics I have yet to read, and in 2015 that was Don Quixote. Suffice it to say that I did not enjoy it, do not recommend it and struggle to grasp why it is considered one of the all-time greats. I found most of it absurdly silly and ridiculously long. The same objective could have been accomplished in a book one-third the length (or less). It did not help matters that the translation I was reading did not adhere to normal rules of English grammar, resulting in extreme run-on sentences and other challenges. It took me five months to finally finish the book, and even then I had to force myself to read 100 page increments in between other books I read during that time.
In the genre of contemporary fiction, my 2015 reading included Elaine Neil Orr’s A Different Sun, about a well-bred southern woman who marries a former Texas lawman-turned-missionary and joins him in missionary work in Africa. This book, too, could produce interesting discussions about marriage and love, as well as dealing with temptation and the many challenges of evangelizing an unknown land. Jolina Petersheim’s The Outcast was my first foray into Amish fiction and it was presented in the review I read as a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter. While there are some similarities, I think that is an overly generous comparison. Still, the book did present opportunity to grapple with hypocrisy, the cost of sin, the meaning of forgiveness and the impact of bitterness among other topics. Someone gave me Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and encouraged me to read it, so I did. The story is interesting in parts but invites the reader to follow a dangerous path of looking for omens to direct one’s life and “listening to one’s heart.” I would not recommend it for those immature in their faith, as it could prove problematic. Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, though, gives insight into life in Victorian-era Chile and in Gold Rush California. It also provides a look at the lengths to which someone who believes they are in love will go to find their soulmate.
I don’t recall how I came to read Laird Hunt’s Neverhome and I am not sure I liked it. The book tells the story of a woman who fought in the Civil War, disguised as a man, leaving her husband at home. It does not make it clear right away that that is what is happening—the reader is left to figure that out. Women, of course, did fight in the war, and the book provides an interesting look into the challenges they faced in doing so. However, the book never makes clear why the main character’s husband stayed at home and makes him out as a sissy, quite frankly. Perhaps the blatant abandonment of proper male and female roles is why I ultimately disliked the book.
I was sorely disappointed with Harper Lee’s Go, Set a Watchman. I did not find it particularly well-written and it left me disliking Atticus Finch–I would have been content to keep liking him.
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, on the other hand, was quite enjoyable. It is the first of Doerr’s books I have read, but his interweaving of the lives of a blind French girl and a German boy during the period Germany occupied France in WWII was captivating. Particularly agreeable is the love shown between father and daughter.
I always have a number of entries in the mystery and crime fiction genre and 2015 was no exception. Mary Louise Kelly’s The Bullet was an engaging tale that I enjoyed, but it fell victim to too many convenient unlikelihoods that made the ending somewhat unsatisfying. Alafair Burke’s Long Gone was a fun and pleasing read, as was Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country.
Then, too, there are always a number of books by authors I read annually—as most of them can be counted on to provide at least one book a year. David Baldacci’s The Escape is a typical Baldacci page-turner that would be enjoyed by any of his fans. Jeffrey Archer’s Mightier Than the Sword was the latest installment in his Clifton Chronicles and was generally as enjoyable as the others. The next book in the series is out next month, I believe. James Patterson can be counted on for quick reads, and NYPD Red 2 and NYPD Red 3 both fit that bill (and both were co-written with Marshall Karp). John Grisham’s Theodore Boone: The Fugitive was an expectedly consistent addition that series of juvenile fiction.
Among Baldacci, Grisham and Patterson, all three had new books out late in the year, and the three of them are grouped in Amazon’s “frequently bought together” feature. In these three offerings, the authors apparently felt compelled to inject current affairs into their novels. Grisham’s Rogue Lawyer is probably the book I like least of all of Grisham’s efforts, and I have read them all. The book seems like a combination of short stories slapped together in an effort to hit on all of the hot-button issues of the day while cranking out a legal thriller—cage fighting, human trafficking, homosexuality (the main character’s wife left him for a woman and works in a law firm full of raging lesbians), police brutality and more. Even worse, the book contains some of the most implausible plot twists Grisham has used since his conclusion to The Firm.
Baldacci’s The Guilty continues his Will Robie/Jessica Reel series and is centered around Robie going home for the first time since high school to (1) find out why his father has been arrested for murder, and (2) deal with some inner demons that cropped up after a successful assassination mission at the start of the book unintentionally included killing the target’s young daughter. Homosexuality is not a main theme of the book, though it does come up, and Baldacci creates a character—a physician in Robie’s hometown—who gives away Bibles among other efforts at righting the wrongs of his father. When he helps Robie crack a coded message based on Leviticus he gives a Bible to Robie. He explains that Leviticus contains one of the passages that has created such a fuss when it comes to homosexuality and says something to the effect of, “I don’t believe everything in this book. It has some great stuff, but it’s time we realize we’re in the 21st-century and ignore biblical injunctions against homosexual activity.” That the one character in the book who seems to possibly care about biblical truth takes this approach to the Word is disappointing. The book also includes reference—though not explicit—to child molestation and incest.
Patterson’s Cross Justice was apparently written by Patterson alone, a rarity for Patterson books these days. Frankly, Patterson would be well served to allow a little more time to pass between the events Alex Cross deals with in his life full of one crisis after another. This book, too, takes some incredibly unlikely plot twists and includes some truly absurd actions that ultimately go unpunished. Still, the book is interesting overall and, like all Patterson offerings, a quick read. This book includes a split personality male whose alter-persona is a female. It was refreshing to see that Patterson presents this cross dressing persona as a result of nurture, not nature and of mental instability. I feared from the beginning that it would go the other, more politically-correct route.
In the biography category, Terry Teachout’s Duke is a comprehensive and well-written biography of Duke Ellington, perhaps the greatest American jazz composer. Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions, a biography of British poet and abolitionist Hannah More, was well-written and interesting. Prior to reading this book, More to me was nothing more than a name that had appeared in biographies of William Wilberforce. David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers is the latest in McCullough’s long line of well-crafted biographies. I have spent a considerable amount of time on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where Wilbur and Orville Wright made their first flights so have always had an interest in the brothers, but this book only heightened that interest. It also prompted me to plan my summer vacation travel to include a visit to Dayton, OH where the Wright brothers grew up, had their bicycle shop and eventually perfected manned flight.
Rifqa Bary’s autobiography Hiding in the Light is a captivating account that will both challenge and aggravate you. It will challenge you to reconsider your own faith and how strong it really is while aggravating you to see what Bary went through with Social Services after running away from home for fear of her life.
As I do every year, I read a number of history books last year. Gregory Coco’s Wasted Valor is an attempt at understanding how the Confederate dead at Gettysburg were treated. This is a unique and necessary part of Civil War history, but the book gets tedious at times and would likely not be of interest to anyone who is not a devoted Civil War buff. Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom is a mostly-fascinating (though at times tedious) history of the Underground Railroad. Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men is the most thorough account of the constitutional convention I have ever read and is well worth reading for anyone interested in that transformational summer.
Thomas Bogar’s Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination is an absorbing look at the actors and theatre employees who were present when Lincoln was shot and how that event impacted their lives. That brings me, as well, to the “and a quarter” I referenced at the start. Robert Summers’ The Assassin’s Doctor includes a 160-page biography of Dr. Samuel Mudd, which I read. Mudd is the physician who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth after Booth assassinated Lincoln. Though it is unlikely Mudd knew about the assassination ahead of time, he was sentenced to life in prison for his role in aiding Booth’s escape. Andrew Johnson pardoned him, however, just before he left office, meaning Mudd served not quite four years. The book, however, also includes some 500 pages of primary source material, including letters to and from Mudd, trial documents and much more. It would be a treasure trove for anyone interested in Mudd. I am interested in Mudd, both because of my interest in Civil War history and because I grew up just a few miles from Mudd’s house. When I entered school on my first day of kindergarten it was at Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Elementary School (which also tells you more than a little about the sentiments and sympathies of those in southern Maryland!). So while I read the 160-page biography, I have not read all of the documents Summers included.
Nathaniel Philbrick and Erik Larson write history books that read more like novels—and that is meant as a high compliment. Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea is a fascinating account of the whaling ship Essex. In addition to a thorough accounting of the tragic final voyage of that ship and the impact it had on the men who survived, the book forces readers to consider what man is capable of doing when staring almost certain death in the face. I have not yet seen Ron Howard’s film adaptation of this book but look forward to doing so. Larson’s Dead Wake was a compelling account of the sinking of the Lusitania, interweaving perspectives from the U.S., Great Britain and Germany. Fascinating characters abound, and the look into the secret British intelligence office alone makes the book worth reading. In the Garden of Beasts is an older one of Larson’s books (2011) but equally intriguing. I recommend it for anyone interested in WWII history, and especially to anyone who has ever wondered how no one could have seen what Hitler was doing in Germany.
In the category of leadership, Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership was a worthwhile read but offered little that was truly new insight. Good reminders, though. Theodore Kowalski’s The School Superintendent is really a textbook, but it is one of the best and most practical books I have ever read on the subject (despite being written for public school administrators), while Gene Frost’s short book Learning From the Best, Volume 2 takes secular business insight and applies it to the Christian school.
In the area of Christian living, my 2015 reading included Max Lucado’s Before Amen (a helpful book on effective prayer written in typical Lucado fashion), Nancy Ortberg’s Looking for God (an interesting read I did not agree with entirely and well summed-up in its sub-title, Slightly Unorthodox, Highly Unconventional, and Entirely Unexpected Thoughts about Faith), John Ortberg’s All the Places to Go…How Will You Know? (a book consistent with Ortberg’s style of addressing meaty spiritual matters in an easy-to-read and sometimes lighthearted manner), Edward Welch’s Side by Side: Walking With Others in Wisdom and Love (a practical guide for effectively coming alongside those who are hurting for one reason or another), John MacArthur’s The Truth War (an exposition of Jude and highly relevant for this day), Kevin Leman’s The Way of the Wise (a book in typical Leman fashion about applying practical biblical life lessons), and Jamie Snyder’s Thou Shall (a short book focusing on all the things the Bible tells us we should be doing, challenging the reader not to focus on all of the things the Bible says we should not be doing).
In March I finally read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, a book I have been meaning to read for years but kept putting off. Some of it I liked and some of it I did not. I found that Miller addresses topics few other Christian writers are willing to address. Sometimes that is refreshing and necessary. Other times it is because they should not be addressed. I also found Miller unnecessarily crude at times. Even if that is his effort at “being real,” I found it off-putting. After discussing the book with a friend, said friend then loaned me two of Miller’s other books, Through Painted Deserts and Searching for God Knows What. The previously stated opinion of Miller’s writing was only reinforced in these two volumes, though the latter of these two books did include an excellent chapter on Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet in particular) that would be beneficial for anyone wanting to bring biblical integration into a study of that most famous of all Shakespeare plays.
I read only one political book in 2015, but if your political leanings are at all like mine, Rick Santorum’s Blue Collar Conservatives will leave you wishing Santorum had a place on the main stage for the GOP debates rather than being stuck in the undercard round.
I think that just about sums up my 2015 in books. Thanks for sticking with this post to the end. Please feel free to share your own recommendations for books I should read, or your thoughts on any of those referenced here, and stay tuned next year for another review of my year in books.