jasonbwatson

January 1, 2018

My Year in Books – 2017

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Somehow in a year that has perhaps found me busier than ever, I managed to read more books that I have since 2012, finishing the year with 59. Apparently, books are still both my inspiration and my relaxation, my motivation and my escape, the best means of broadening my mind and giving it a break.

As always, my reading for 2017 was primarily in these categories: theology and Christian living, history, politics/current events, autobiography/biography and fiction. My summary thoughts here will be classified by category and not by the order in which the books were read.

Having said that, I do usually indicate which book was the first one I finished in a year, and last year that honor goes to Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila. I have seen the movie Windtalkers and I mention the code talkers every year in my U.S. History course, so I found this book very interesting. The way of life for many of the Navajo boys growing up is hard to imagine—and then for those same boys to willingly serve in the armed forces of a country that had not treated their people well historically or personally is something difficult to wrap one’s mind around. Imagine being told that you cannot speak your native tongue in school—to the point of being physically punished for doing so—and then being asked by the government to use that same prohibited tongue to develop a code that the enemy could not crack. I cannot help but think that my natural inclination would be something along the lines of “no thanks,” although probably not quite that polite. The way in which the code was developed, the speed with which it enabled messages to be communicated and the accuracy the code demonstrated over the course of the war is incredible.

This post will be about 13,000 words long if I devote that much time to each of the books I read last year, so I better transition to shorter summaries and opinions—for my sake and yours.

I will start with history. I read Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, which I would recommend as reading for anyone interested in espionage during the Revolutionary War and particularly for anyone who has also watched the AMC series Turn: Washington’s Spies. (Another excellent book for anyone in either of those categories would be Tim McNeese’s Revolutionary Spies: Intelligence and Espionage in America’s First War).

Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse by Eric Jay Dolin was a fascinating look at what it was like to be a lighthouse keeper but also at what it took to build a lighthouse. I have long been interested in both lighthouses and keepers but I had never given all that much thought to what it took to build the lights. Dolin’s book served only to confirm my notion that other than those individuals with a particular interest in lighthouses, the importance of the lights and the keepers is an often-ignored aspect of American history that really should be more well-known. Tyler Anbinder’s City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York is a compelling narrative about the island purchased from the Native Americans by Peter Minuit in the early seventeenth century became the largest city in the U.S. and a magnet for immigrants from around the world.

Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women is another gripping read. This one tells the stories of women in early twentieth century America who worked in factories applying radium paint to watch dials—only no one grasps the dangers of ingesting radium, which these women do through the process of pointing their brushes. Indeed, they find themselves covered with radium dust, literally glowing when they go home each evening. This is another often-ignored part of American history, one I had never even heard of until seeing a one-act play based on the story last winter and then acting in a full-length version of the same play. Moore’s book has more than five hundred five-star ratings on Amazon, which should serve as proof positive that it is not a dry historical narrative.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown is far more than a sports story. It is a look into the realities of life during the Great Depression, the rivalries and attention given to collegiate rowing—a sport a distinct minority of people likely pay any attention to—and the politics of the Olympics in Hitler’s Germany. I highly recommend this book.

John Eisenberg’s The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr., and Baseball’s Most Historic Record is a great read for baseball fans in general and Gehrig or Ripken fans in particular.

I read Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower in February. I had not read it since my sophomore year of high school, though I have thought of it and referenced it often in the interim. Anyone interested in thought provoking contemplation of forgiveness should read this book.

Condoleezza Rice’s Democracy is a unique look at attempts—some successful, others not—for democracy around the world, including some front row perspective from this former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. Rice offers a look at America, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Kenya, Colombia and the Middle East, as well as chapters on authoritarians and on what democracy must offer in order to take root.  The New York Times said, “Both supporters and skeptics of democracy promotion will come away from this book wiser and better informed,” and I agree.

Mindy Belz, editor and Middle East reporter for WORLD, wrote They Say We Are Infidels, and it provides a glimpse into everyday life in the Middle East among those persecuted by ISIS. It is riveting, saddening, aggravating and infuriating, and a book I strongly recommend for anyone who wants a deeper perspective on this conflict than that offered by the nightly news.

In the autobiography/biography genre last year I read some contemporary first offerings by names very-well-known and some not-quite-so-well-known, second go-rounds by entertainers now in their nineties, an insightful look at a couple of classic American entertainers now both deceased, and a looks at two influential men in Christian history, who died nearly 500 years ago and another who died 280 years ago.

Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show is an insightful look at the lives of both Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, before that classic American TV show, during their time together working on it, and after. A word of caution: if you are not prepared to see Griffith and Knotts as they were in real life, preferring instead to think of them always as their affable Mayberry characters, don’t read this book.

Tony Bennett’s Just Getting Started and Dick Van Dyke’s Keep Moving are the two second go-rounds I referred to above. In reality it is Bennett’s third go-round, as he wrote The Good Life in 1998, but I have not read that one. I did read 2012’s Life Is a Gift, and the 2017 offering mostly recounts the people who influenced Bennett and taught him the lessons he described in 2012. Having turned 91 in August it is certainly unlikely that Bennett really is “just getting started,” but his output does not seem to be slowing down any. In 2011 Van Dyke wrote My Luck Life In and Out of Show Business. In 2017 he followed up with Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging. It is an engaging and humorous book that does offer insights into growing old, though Van Dyke still seems to have the energy and enthusiasm of a kid. Some of his insights on life are very insightful indeed. Some of his thoughts on politics are misguided but not surprising for someone who has spent most of his life among the Hollywood entertainment crowd. His thoughts on faith and what happens after death are confused at best, and saddening for those who have read the 2011 book and know that racism within it is what drove Van Dyke out of the church in the 1960s. But anyone who loves ice cream has to love Van Dyke’s recommended daily helping (with chocolate sauce). Van Dyke, who just turned 92 last month, is married to his second wife (though he had a long relationship that never culminated in marriage with a third woman) and she is 45 years his junior. Bennett is married to his third wife and she is 40 years younger than he. Thankfully there are other seasoned celebrities with long-lasting marriages (92 year old Angela Lansbury was married for 54 years before her husband died in 2003, for example; 87 year old Sean Connery has been married for 42 years and Kirk Douglas, who turned 101 last year, has been married for 63 years, just to name a few) to counter anyone supposing that the secret to Bennett and Van Dyke’s longevity is young spouses!

Megyn Kelly’s Settle for More is well-written. It tells her story as a successful attorney deciding she wanted to do something else—namely, the news business—and how she has persevered and found success in both careers. If for absolutely no other reason, the book’s section on the conflict that emerged between Kelly and Donald Trump after Kelly’s questioning of Trump during the presidential debate provides an inside look at how difficult life can be for someone who appears to have it made when our perspective is limited to their daily time on television. I have met Olympic champion Shannon Miller, so my interest in her book It’s Not About Perfect was a combination of sports fan and personal interest. The book does, of course, tell about Miller’s growing up, training and Olympic success, but it also describes struggles in her personal life and her successful fight against ovarian cancer. Missy Franklin’s Relentless Spirit was written before the Rio Olympics, which certainly did not go the way she would have liked, but it is not written as simply the story of an impressive athlete. While it does include some of that, this book is Missy and her parents talking about sports, childrearing, family and faith.

Lauren Green is the Religion Correspondent for Fox News though, to my knowledge, I have never seen her on television. She is also an accomplished pianist. But her book Lighthouse Faith Green frequently references her pastor Tim Keller and seeks to answer the question of how to have a personal relationship with God in a world, as she describes it, “immersed in fog.” Some of Green’s insights are spot-on. Others tend to ecumenism. Rebekah Gregory was a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing and eventually lost her left leg below the knee after scores of medical procedures and surgeries. Her five-year-old son was sitting just in front of the standing Gregory at the finish line when the bomb went off behind her; fortunately, she took the brunt of the blast and her son suffered only minor injuries. She tells this story, along with the lessons she learned through the experience as well as the rest of her life, and how she has come to realize that God is ultimately in control, in her book Taking My Life Back.

Since 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation I thought it appropriate to read a biography of Martin Luther. I chose Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand, originally published in 1950, which TIME called “easily the most readable Luther biography in English” and R.C. Sproul called “an inspiring summary of the life of the great reformer.” George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life is a comprehensive biography (more than 600 pages with small print) that provides insight into Edwards as well as his time and place. I also read J.W. Hanson’s The Life and Works of the World’s Greatest Evangelist: Dwight L. Moody. This book was republished in 2015 but it was originally published in 1900, and the copy I read was printed not too long after that. A friend came across it and loaned it to me to read.

For theology and Christian living my 2017 reading included several books. Carolyn McCulley’s Radical Womanhood examines the three waves of feminism and how each has attacked God’s design for womanhood, giving readers a clear presentation of the complementarian position. Courtney Reissig’s The Accidental Feminist is another excellent book along the same lines, identifying how the feminist movement has influenced the entire culture whether we readily recognize it or not, and seeking to restore a correct, and joyful, understanding of God’s design.

I read two books by Carter Conlon, lead pastor of Times Square Church, The 180° Christian and Fear Not. The subtitle of the first book is “Serving Jesus in a Culture of Excess” and that gives you an idea of what the book is about. Conlon examines the church in Corinth and the self-centeredness that infected that body. He then suggests that twenty-first century America is not much different, calling on the church to do a 180 and live lives instead focused on serving others. Pastoring in Times Square, Conlon has a perspective on this that few others will have. Fear Not addresses the many ways that Satan tries to put fear and doubt into the hearts and minds of believers, reminding readers that perfect love casts out fear.

Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? Is subtitled Making Sense of the Old Testament God, and that is what Copan attempts to do here. I do not agree with all of Copan’s conclusions but the book does offer unique insight into what often seems like a God of wrath and even hatred in the Old Testament, seemingly conflicting with the New Testament God. Richard Phillips argues that the five points of Calvinism are comforting in his short book, What’s So Great About the Doctrines of Grace? But unless you are a committed five-point Calvinist you will likely come away from the book thinking something along the lines of “not much.” In None Other John MacArthur shows how to study Scripture to discover who God really is. This, too, is a short book and not theologically complex.

In You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith shows how easily we may be led astray from worshipping God and God alone. The book’s subtitle is The Spiritual Power of Habit, and initially I did not see the book in that light, but Smith ultimately is asking readers to evaluate whether they really love what they think—and say—they love, which is often revealed in habits, so the subtitle fits.

Jacquelle Crow is in the last of her teen years, so her book This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years has an extra level of authenticity for teenager readers. It is a book along the lines of Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris or Totally Infatuated by Jacqueline Pierre. It is short but full of rich truth and I would recommend it for any teenager.

In Why Jesus? Ravi Zacharias calls for an abandonment of relativism and tolerance and a return to biblical truth. R. Albert Mohler, in We Cannot Be Silent, takes that a step further and calls on Christians to embrace biblical truth and to engage the culture with that truth.

Parenting by the Book by John Rosemond is about exactly that and provides valuable insight for parents. Charles Swindoll’s A Life Well Lived is a short book drawing lessons from the book of Micah. J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology is exactly that, proving short (usually two to three page) chapters on almost one hundred questions about theology. There are a handful of those questions on which Packer and I do not agree, but it is a user-friendly and easy to read introduction or overview to theology. The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges is a book I have read before and will likely read again. There is a reason this book has sold more than 1.5 million copies. It is a succinct look at what holiness look like in everyday life. Max Lucado’s Because of Bethlehem provides a Lucado-esque look at the promises of Christmas. Lucado reminds readers that Christ was born to die—the Christmas is only the beginning of what culminates with Easter. I read this book a week or so after I preached a message on the humble birth and life of Christ, focusing in large part on Philippians 2, a passage I had never heard anyone use in a Christmas sermon, and found that Lucado too thinks it is a beautiful encapsulation of the Christmas message.

John Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals is addressed at pastors and is specifically a caution to them to avoid seeking to be culturally relevant and “professional” at the expense of being biblically relevant and God-centered. Mark Dever’s Discipling is a short book and easy read and it is relevant for any pastor or lay leader but also anyone interested in what discipleship means. There is a reason why John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin is considered a classic. In it, this seventeenth century Puritan addresses how to deal with the sin nature, focusing primarily on Romans 8.

Andrew Telford’s Subjects of Sovereignty is a book I found among those I received from my grandfather’s collection after he passed away. It is short and I could not find a publication date in it, though Amazon tells me it was published in 1971. Apparently Telford pastored in Pennsylvania, and I am guessing my grandfather must have met him, as the book is signed. I appreciated much of what Telford had to say about adoption, predestination, election and foreknowledge. In seeking to learn more about Telford I found an excerpt of this book published on the site of the Society of Evangelical Arminians, and I definitely do not consider myself an Arminian. Further reason why I am not a fan of labels in general of Calvinism and Arminianism in particular.

Last, and perhaps least, are the works of fiction I read in 2017. I always seem to read James Patterson, David Baldacci, John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer, and 2017 was no exception. In Cross the Line Patterson continues the Alex Cross saga, this time putting his wife Bree into leadership position and creating some strain in their relationship as they seek to solve the latest crime spree in D.C. The Black Book, written by Patterson and David Ellis, is a stand-alone novel that centers around a cop who loses his memory after being shot but finds himself charged with a double murder. It is an interesting read with plenty of plot twists and an ending that I did not see coming. Haunted was written by Patterson and James Born and is the tenth book in the Detective Michael Bennett series. This one finds the Bennett clan vacationing in Maine in a small town that is, of course, caught up in serious drug crime and a local law enforcement officer/former Bennett partner needing Bennett’s assistance.

Baldacci’s No Man’s Land continues his John Puller series and in this book Puller and his brother seek to find out the truth of what happened to their mother. Grisham’s Camino Island was an intentionally different style for Grisham and I found it enjoyable, in no small part because it includes a look into the world of rare books and independent book shops. It does include casual sex but not as explicitly as Gray Mountain. The Rooster Bar, also by Grisham, returns to the classic Grisham model—simultaneously spotlighting the evils of for-profit law schools and the lost-in-the-shuffle madness that poor individuals find themselves facing when they are charged with a crime while also creating an outrageous but just-maybe-possible story of a few law students who profit from that madness and rake in lots of cash—temporarily. Jeffrey Archer’s Tell Tale is a collection of short stories that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The Button Man by Mark Pryor is a Hugo Marston novel and a prequel to The Bookseller, which I enjoyed. The Heist is the first of Daniel Silva’s books I have read and it is part of his Gabriel Allon series. It combines espionage and art, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to reading more by Silva. Fatal Enquiry by Will Thomas is set in Victorian England. This book read like a blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Alex Grecian. Opening Moves by Steven James is part of his Bowers Files series, but it is the first James novel I have read. This one is set around 1997 Milwaukee with a series of copycat crimes going on, including copying Jeffrey Dahmer. The story is well told and even, I suppose, riveting, but it is not for the faint of heart.

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings tells the dual story of Sarah Grimké (and her sister Angelina) and Sarah’s slave “Handful.” The story is fictional, but Grimké was real—and she became a passionate abolitionist and member of the woman’s suffrage movement, despite coming from a prominent slave-holding family in Charleston. Kidd is a great story teller, and the book is engaging. It also provides a description of a (real) method of slave punishment I was not previously familiar with, something called a treadmill. Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is a return to the town of Gilead, though I have not read Robinson’s novel by that title, and it tells the story of a homeless girl named Lila who marries the local minister. It is an interesting read and provides unique insights into small town life, a Christian worldview and marriage. Amanda Hodgkinson’s 22 Brittania Road tells the story of Polish refugees in England after World War II, including the challenges of rekindling a marriage separated for years by war and of the impacts of war on not just soldiers but women and children—impacts felt long after the war is over.

I think that just about wraps it up. As usual, there are two or three other books I read that did not make it into the review because I did not have much to say about them or they did not fit neatly into these categories. I do want to mention briefly, though, a couple of books that I cannot include in the formal review above because I haven’t read them in their entirety so they are not included in my 59 books for 2017. First is Michael Burlingame’s two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life. I read most of these two volumes last summer while I was taking a course on Lincoln and I would recommend it to anyone interested in Lincoln. Burlingame has done extensive research and the provides great insight into Abraham Lincoln the man, as well as into Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd and his time as president.

Second is Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of “Privilege”, which I am actually in the middle of reading right now, so it will likely be included more fully in next year’s annual review. The book is subtitled Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage and is addressed at the silliness of using the word “privilege” to shut down debate, and is among The Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction in 2017. As I said, I am halfway through it (almost exactly), but I cannot help pointing out my fondness for a line on page 84 of the book. After quoting an article in which the authors write “students should also be taught how to live in a world full of potential offenses. Why not teach incoming students how to practice cognitive behavioral therapy?” Bovy writes, “Or: Why not teach incoming students? (Period. The end.)” I love it….

I hope 2017 found you with ample time to read as well. Perhaps something above will prompt you to pick up one of these books to read it for yourself. Until next year’s annual review, I leave you with this thought from Henry Ward Beecher, one I find to be painfully true for myself: “Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”

1 Comment »

  1. Thanx for the Carter Conlon tip.

    Comment by Agent X — January 2, 2018 @ 4:27 am | Reply


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