After missing the mark in 2018, I once again met my goal of fifty books for the year, finishing with 54 books read in 2019. Here’s the rundown…
As it always does, last year’s reading included a regular helping of fiction, including titles from authors I enjoy and read a lot of as well as new authors I decided to try. In that first category would be Mark Pryor’s The Crypt Thief, The Sorbonne Affair, The Reluctant Matador and The Book Artist. They are all part of his Hugo Marston series and I have now read all eight of that series. James Patterson’s Target Alex Cross, Ambush, The Inn and Mary, Mary provided a range of Patterson, with the first and last both being from the Alex Cross series (the first being the most recent and the last being from 2005 but one I had not read); Ambush being from the Detective Michael Bennett series and The Inn being (at least so far) a stand-alone novel. I have never read a Patterson book and considered it great literature, but they make for quick reads that give the brain a rest…and the good guys always win. I read John Grisham’s latest, The Guardians, and, because I read all of Grisham’s books, Theodore Boone: The Accomplice, the latest in his series for young readers. The Guardians is a typical Grishamesque novel, but I am sure that it gives a fairly accurate picture of what some attorneys committed to ensuring that those on death row received fair trials and were justly convicted do indeed go through in their pursuit of justice. The New Girl is the latest in Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series; it is as enjoyable as all of Silva’s books, and it provides a unique story loosely based on the current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but it makes some highly unlikely moves that strain credulity, even for a work of fiction. And, having completed his Clifton Chronicles, Jeffrey Archer launched the Detective William Warwick series with Nothing Ventured. If you have read Pryor, Patterson, Grisham, Allon or Archer then you know what to expect from their writing, and these books all follow suit.
Other fiction this year included two books about quiet heroism in WWII Paris. Charles Belfoure’s The Paris Architect is an intriguing novel about (surprise!) an architect in Paris during who winds up—first reluctantly and then devotedly—designing architecturally-brilliant hiding places for Jews seeking to avoid capture by the Nazis, and Kristin Harmel’s The Room on Rue Amélie tells of an American woman who married a Frenchman who, unbeknownst to her, was part of the French resistance. When he died and she discovered his role, she commits to continuing his work. This story interweaves the incredible risk and sacrifice of so many “everyday people” during war with a love story. Transcription, by Kate Atkinson, is another WWII-era story, though one set in England. It focuses on a young woman who winds up working for MI5, transcribing the recorded conversations of Fascist sympathizers, and interweaves that story with one that took place ten years later when the main character was working at the BBC. All three of these were interesting reads and I would recommend them all, probably in the order they are listed here for anyone wanting them in rank-order.
The Other Side of Silence is the second Philip Kerr novel I have read, and both have featured Bernie Gunther, a former homicide detective in Nazi Germany. This story takes place a decade after WWII and finds Gunther working as a concierge along the French Riviera. The tale also features Somerset Maugham and his work for the British Secret Service during WWII, though the details of the plot rely heavily on Maugham’s homosexuality.
Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night is a delightful work of historical fiction that features young lawyer Paul Cravath and his work on a lawsuit filed by Thomas Edison against George Westinghouse over a lightbulb patent dispute. The story also features J.P. Morgan and Nikola Tesla, as well as an opera singer whose story is not what she presents. A fun and fascinating read that would also prompt interest in the real historical facts among many readers, I am sure.
The classic work of fiction I read in 2019 was James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. It is a slow read, and there is a legitimate reason why Mark Twain said that Cooper “persistently violated” the rule to “eschew surplusage” with this tale, but all in all it was not as bad as Twain made it out to be.
Moving on… I read a number of biographies in 2019, starting with Maxwell King’s The Good Neighbor. I would call this a must-read for fans and admirers of America’s favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers. King provides an insightful look at the life of the man who committed his adult life to communicating kindly and truthfully with children. Randy Peterson’s The Printer and the Preacher is a dual biography of Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield that also tells the story of their mutually-beneficial friendship, and Jason Lane’s General and Madame de Lafayette is a dual biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, whom every good schoolboy and schoolgirl learned about from an early age while studying American history, his wife, and the interesting way in which Lafayette’s commitment to liberty and equality made him both a hero and a scoundrel, depending on the year and the one giving the verdict. Tim Hornbaker’s Fall From Grace is an engaging biography of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the famous Chicago “Black Sox.” Susan Page provides a detailed, but not cumbersome, look at the life of Barbara Bush in The Matriarch and Scott Lamb gives an excellent biography of Mike Huckabee, and keen political insight, in Huckabee. Lamb gives readers a glaring reminder that the American evangelical community all but ignored Mike Huckabee in 2008 despite the fact that he was the most evangelical presidential candidate ever. If the fictional works about WWII mentioned above are of interest to you, then I strongly recommend Tilar Mazzeo’s Irena’s Children, the true story of the incredible work done by Irena Sendler and her colleagues in the Warsaw ghetto.
Nancy Koehn’s Forged in Crisis is a blending of biography and leadership study. Koehn looks at the lives of Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln, Fredrick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rachel Carson and offers insights from the way each handled “turbulent times” (part of the book’s subtitle) in their lives.
There were two autobiographies on my 2019 list, an old one and a new one. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is the true story of a woman born in slavery, the abuse she endured from her owner, her escape—and subsequent seven years spent living in her grandmother’s attic—and the difficult decisions Jacobs made in her pursuit to be near, and do what was best for, her children. The new one was Gary Sinise’s Grateful American. It tells Sinise’s personal story, which is interesting, but also tells the story of how the part of Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump led him to start the Gary Sinise Foundation. The work that that organization has done on behalf of American veterans is absolutely incredible and incredibly admirable. How TIME has never selected Sinise as its Person of the Year is beyond me.
There is always a good bit of American history on my reading list, too, and 2019 was no different. Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor is an intriguing story of Cold War espionage and a captivating spy thriller—and it is a true story! Ellen Wayland-Smith’s Oneida is a detailed look at the attempted utopian community by that name, including all of its strange ideas and living arrangements. Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg is the best and most thorough single-volume look at that Civil War battle that I have encountered, despite the fact that Guelzo sometimes inserts opinion and commentary that is not really befitting the book’s overall approach. I always enjoy David McCullough’s writing, and he brought his usual style to the history of the settlement of the Northwest Territory in The Pioneers. Bruce Chadwick’s I Am Murdered tells the story of the murder of George Wythe and the subsequent trial.
Due largely to taking a couple of graduate courses on the subject, I read a great deal about slavery during the past year, including these books in their entirety: Daina Ramey Berry’s The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, Heather Andrea Williams’s American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction, Calvin Schermerhorn’s Unrequired Toil and Educated in Tyranny, edited by Maurie McInnis and Louis Nelson. I would recommend all four. Berry introduces the concept of “soul value” in her work, a valuable approach to considering the lives of the enslaved; Williams’s work is indeed short but it is comprehensive too, making it a very effective overview and a great starting point; Schermerhorn’s book contains a chapter entitled “Geopolitics” that is the most insightful look at the causes of the Civil War I have probably ever seen; and Educated in Tyranny provides a fascinating examination of the role of slaves in the construction and early operation of the University of Virginia.
Some books do not really fit into any other category. For 2019 that would include Millard Seaman’s Gumbo, Gumption and God, a combination history of the founding of Sunshine Bible Academy, where I have served since 2011, and thoughts on the philosophy of Christian education. In Allow the Children Susan Cook explains how the ministry of that name was started and has grown to include the support of orphaned, abandoned and disadvantaged children in several countries around the world, as well as children’s homes and pastoral training. Another in that category would be Lauren Winner’s Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity was honest and thought provoking, and consistent with the assertion Winner made in a 2000 column for Christianity Today that many evangelicals did not take chastity seriously. The book certainly loses some of its value when considering that Winner is now divorced and an ordained Episcopal priest, and it is worth noting as well that Real Sex is not listed among her works on her faculty profile page for Duke Divinity School, where she is an Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality. Cal Ripken, Jr.’s Just Show Up applies Ripken’s approach to baseball to other areas of life and Hans Rosling’s Factfulness stressed the importance of accurately understanding the “facts” that we are confronted with on a regular basis throughout our lives.
Last, but not least, would be those books that fall into the categories of Christian living and the practice of Christianity. Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Worship explains how the gospel message should shape corporate worship. Daniel Henderson’s Old Paths, New Power focuses on the importance of praying and preaching the Word of God. It had some good reminders and interesting personal accounts but also seemed to stray at times from what I would personally be comfortable with. In It’s Time to Pray, Carter Conlon emphasizes the importance of prayer, as well, personally and corporately, and he also tells personal stories of seeing the power of prayer at work in incredible ways. Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way describes the way Old Testament figures prepared the way for the coming of Christ but also shows how often we, in contemporary America, emphasize things that have very little to do with the “Jesus way.” Jeremy Walker’s Life in Christ is a short book on discipleship, and Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission addresses both being a disciple and making disciples. Balanced Christianity by John Stott emphasizes not veering too far one way or the other in various areas of tension in the Christian life. Your Victory in Christ is the only book by John Bunyan that I have ever read other than Pilgrim’s Progress, and there is a reason that the former is not anywhere near as well known as the latter. It uses the same style as Pilgrim’s Progress and the message is worthwhile, of course, but it is not nearly as effective. In The Secret Battle of Ideas About God Jeff Myers provides an update to the various worldview ideas presented in Summit Ministries’ Understanding the Times materials while interlacing accounts of his personal struggles. Stop Loving the World, by Puritan William Greenhill, addresses the problem of worldliness—and even greater problem now than when Greenhill wrote in the seventeenth century—and the biblical antidote to that sin. Joseph Stowell’s Radical Reliance is adequately summed up in the book’s subtitle, “Living 24/7 with Christ at the Center,” and his Simply Jesus is a concise book with much the same theme.
So, there’s another annual recap. When I ended last year’s Books in Review post I said that when it came time to write the next one I would hopefully have once again exceeded my goal of fifty books—which I did—and would maybe even have posted more than three times during the year—which I did not. Well, .500 is not bad, is it? And there’s always next year…