My Year in Books – 2021

Another year has come to an end, which means it is time again for my annual review of books I read. As per usual, there is a variety of genres and subject matter included.

Laura Story’s I Give Up recounts Story’s gradual release of her desire to be in charge of her life and her realization that fulfillment comes through surrender to God’s working. Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission emphasizes the importance of discipleship. In Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, Christopher Yuan develops what he calls “holy sexuality,” which includes chastity in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. Yuan is probably not as well known as Rosaria Butterfield, but their personal testimonies have some similarities and he, like Butterfield, has written and spoken at length about faith and sexuality. While Butterfield is now married, Yuan remains single. Randy Alcorn calls Holy Sexuality and the Gospel “profoundly relevant in an age of toxic confusion.” I agree with that. I think Butterfield, though, goes too far when she says it is “the most important humanly composed book about biblical sexuality and godly living for our times.”

John Piper’s A Peculiar Glory is an important book about the reliability of Scripture. In The Dawn’s Early Light, an older book byJoe Stowell that I picked up somewhere, Stowell addresses the “deepening darkness” of our times and how to counter that darkness biblically. Impossible People by Os Guinness describes the challenges faced by Christians today and the task they have of continuing to display courage in the face of opposition. Jesus Unleashed by John MacArthur is an overview of the way that Jesus dealt with confrontation during His earthly ministry, providing a clear look at His willingness to stand firm in the face of opposition. (This book is an abridgement of MacArthur’s The Jesus You Can’t Ignore).  

Paul David Tripp’s Sex and Money examines the obsession of current culture with those two things and their inability to bring genuine satisfaction or fulfillment. The Entitlement Cure, by John Townsend, would be a good read for parents but also for anyone who is bothered by the sense of entitlement that seems to pervade modern culture. His recommended antidote is what he calls “the hard way.” Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be, by LeRoy Eims, was recommended by another pastor as an excellent book for developing men as leaders in the church. The book was fine, but given that it was originally published in 1975 there are more recent books that are just as good or better and would be more relatable for contemporary readers.

Uncoiling My Corkscrew is a book by a friend and former coworker, Marvin Williams, that recounts lessons he has learned in his life. Henri Nouwen’s Turn My Mourning Into Dancing is a short book with helpful biblical insight for finding joy even in the midst of difficulty. H.A. Ironside’s Full Assurance is probably about ninety years old now. It is a short, easy read, and is certainly of its time in terms of some of the language and illustrations, but it capably explains how and why Christians can have assurance of their salvation.

At some point last year I found myself wondering when African Americans first appeared in Coca-Cola ads. (The answer is Mary Alexander, in 1955). That led me to read Brenna Wynn Greer’s Represented, a fascinating look at the individuals who were influential in bringing African Americans into popular advertising and media and also, in the process, “reimagin[ing] African America citizenship.”

I read Melba Patillo Beals’ I Will Not Fear primarily because I had so appreciated A Mighty Long Way by Carlotta Walls LaNier when I read it five years ago. Both women were among the Little Rock Nine. Beals’ book does recount that experience but goes well beyond it in describing the experiences she has had in her life. There were a few times that I wondered how one person could have so many of the experiences she recounted, given how unusual they seem, and there is never an explanation given for why she moved so many times, but it was a worthwhile read for the most part. I suspect her earlier book, Warriors Don’t Cry, is probably more along the lines of what I expected.

Stephanie Grisham’s I’ll Take Your Questions Now provides a very interesting look at the Trump presidency. Grisham, who worked for First Lady Melania Trump and/or in the West Wing, including a stint as Press Secretary, from the beginning of the Trump presidency until she resigned on January 6 after Melania Trump declined to tweet out a condemnation of the invasion of the Capitol, provides a very different look at Trump and the Trump White House than Sarah Huckabee Sanders did in her memoir. It will be interesting to read Kayleigh McEnany’s recently-released book to see where it falls in comparison to those two, but I suspect that Sanders, who is running for office herself and has accepted the endorsement of Trump, opted not to include some of the less-flattering information that Grisham did not shy away from including.

There were a number of history books. Rosemary Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash offers a look at the role of women during the Revolutionary Era, particularly in the area of politics, and suggests that the women’s rights movement really began during that time period. David Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes is an examination of political festivals in early American history and the rise of nationalism. It is an examination of an aspect of American history I had never considered before and has some notable insights.

Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? has some merit, but I found it did not address the subject as clearly and carefully as it should have. Hall admits that it is the first book he wrote for the general public (not, in other words, for an academic audience) and it seems he may have erred to strongly on the side of not getting too deep.

Harold Holzer’s Lincoln at Cooper Union provides a fascinating look at the events surrounding Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in early 1860, as well as the speech itself, a speech that Holzer suggests made Lincoln president. Though it is not well known today, particularly compared to the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address, it was a very important speech for Lincoln. While the Gettysburg Address was supposedly written in haste, the address at Cooper Union was a thoroughly researched and thought-out rebuttal of the expansion of slavery.

Regarding slavery, Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause is an exhaustive look at abolition. It looks beyond the individuals and events usually included in studies of American abolitionism and thus includes valuable new perspectives. Unfortunately, I do not think that Sinha accurately represents the role played by those who believed that slavery was inconsistent with biblical principles. In a book that is just as voluminous, though, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, in The Mind of the Master Class, examine the role that faith played among Southern slaveholders, including their belief that slavery was consistent with the Bible. The book also manages to touch on the impact that Christianity had on slaves themselves. The book does help to understand the worldview of the enslavers even if one does not come away agreeing with them.

Sarah Rose’s D-Day Girls presents the many ways in which women were involved in Nazi-occupied France in helping to defeat the Nazis. Much like books by Erik Larson, among others, this is a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. I recommend this book for anyone with even remote interest in WWII history. Similarly, Lynne Olson’s Madame Fourcade’s Secret War is also about spying and the Nazi resistance in France, but her book is specifically focused on the story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who held a more influential role among the French resistance than any other woman. Olson recounts the incredible personal sacrifices Fourcade made, including being away from her two children and being captured twice by the Nazis. I recommend this one, as well.

Alex Kershaw’s The First Wave tells the story of the men who were “the first wave” of the D-Day invasion. The book was published in 2019 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I have not read a lot about D-Day, but I am confident that this book belongs alongside any other histories of that day.

Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya is also about a female spy—a Soviet intelligence officer code named Sonya who served in China, Japan and England. It is a pretty incredible story, all the more so since it is true, but I did not like it as well as I liked Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which I read in 2019.

Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War is a delightful look at a very unique aspect of WWII. Specifically, it recounts the efforts involved by the War Department and the American publishing industry to produce millions of small paperback books that soldiers could carry with them throughout the war. The resulting Armed Services Editions, of which 120 million were eventually produced, were beloved by troops who would create waiting lists for popular titles and trade finished books amongst themselves. I have looked, and you can find some of these Armed Service Edition books on Ebay. I haven’t purchased one yet, but I suspect it is only a matter of time.

That makes for a good transition to the fiction I read in 2021, because one of the books I chose was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read it because it was one of the most popular books printed in Armed Services Edition format and I had never read it. It is a pleasant read, and I can understand why Manning reported that it helped soldiers remember “regular life” back home. That is, after all, what the book is about; it has no real plot or climax to speak of—it simply tells the story of the life of Francie Nolan.

I always try to read at least one classic book and this year that was Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In looking at a list of the most banned books during Banned Book Week I realized I had read three of the top five. Now I have read four; J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye will have to wait until another year. I have not seen the film, but I can imagine Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. I found it an enjoyable read and Chief makes a terrific narrator. I am somewhat surprised it is in the top five banned books; I can think of others that would seem more fitting for that honor, though I can also imagine why it is in that group. It is said that the book was influential in the closing of asylums, which, if true, could place the book alongside The Jungle in terms of influence, but I do not know enough about whether that is true to make that claim definitively.

Christine Mangan’s Tangerine is set in Morocco in the 1950s, is full of vivid detail and is a well written debut novel. It is not surprising that many reviewers called it “Hitchcockian” or that it has been optioned by George Clooney to become a film starring Scarlett Johansson. The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters, is set in 1920s London. The book’s main character and her mother are forced to rent out part of their home in order to afford to keep it following the deaths of the men in the family. The resulting story is well-written and provides evidence of why Waters is considered an excellent writer of historical fiction, but the book hinges on a lesbian affair that develops between the main character and the wife of the couple that move in as lodgers. The book does do an excellent job of portraying the costs of choices, especially choices that are intended to be secrets.

If you read these reviews annually then you know there are a few fiction writers whose work I read regularly. This year that included Jeffrey Archer’s Turn A Blind Eye and Over My Dead Body, books three and four respectively in the William Warwick series; John Grisham’s The Judge’s List, which brings back Lacy Stoltz of the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct who first appeared in The Whistler and is, in my opinion, the closest to Grisham’s early novels that he has been in a while; James Patterson’s Fear No Evil, the latest Alex Cross novel; and Daniel Silva’s The Cellist, a significant improvement over last year’s Gabriel Allon novel The Order.

At the end of Over My Dead Body there is a conversation with Jeffrey Archer in which he states that Stefan Zweig is his favorite author. I had never heard of Zweig, but I decided to read his novel Beware of Pity. Zweig was purportedly one of the most popular writers in the world in the 1920s and ‘30s, yet somehow his popularity has faded. Beware of Pity is the only novel that he published during his lifetime, though The Post Office Girl was published posthumously. In Beware of Pity Zweig tells the story of an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer in 1914 (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand occurs at the end of the book, though it is not significant to the story). As the title implies, the book is a cautionary tale about how pity can change someone’s life.

The Burglar is the first book I have read by Thomas Perry. I enjoyed it, and Perry does a nifty job of making a criminal—the burglar—a character the reader finds himself rooting for, and he never really addresses any negative to the fact that the main character makes her living breaking the law. Somewhat similarly, Colson Whitehead, in Harlem Shuffle, has a protagonist who breaks the law—willingly in terms of selling some stolen items and serving as a fence for others, and reluctantly in terms of some mischief his cousin gets him into. Whitehead, at least, depicts the negatives associated with criminal activity, and his main character also pursues a mostly honest living as a furniture salesman. Whitehead interweaves storylines about race and social status even among those of the same race in this story set in the 1960s. Whitehead is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, but this is the first of his books I have read.

Sharyl Attkisson’s Slanted is her account of the way in which the mainstream media manipulates and cherry-picks news stories to cover and angles to take. Given that Attkisson is a five-time Emmy Award winner, her insight has to be taken seriously.

During our family vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina I picked up two books primarily of interest to those who live there or who have, like me, spent a lifetime vacationing there. Amy Pollard Gaw’s Lost Restaurants of the Outer Banks and Their Recipes is exactly what the title says. It is also a fascinating look at restaurants that were notable and influential in the area for years, including a bit of history about the local culture. John Railey’s The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks recounts the true story of the 1967 murder of Brenda Joyce Holland, who had gone to the area to work at the long-running outdoor drama “The Lost Colony.” The murder was never solved, and Railey did some investigating of his own, leading to his conclusion about the perpetrator. Since the man Railey thinks was responsible is now dead himself, it seems unlikely anything will come of it, but his theory certainly seems plausible.

Quite possibly in response to my growing frustration with the modern game of baseball (and particularly the commissioner) I found myself reading a number of autobiographies and biographies of baseball players of yesteryear. Say Hey, by Willie Mays with Lou Sahadi, tells the story of Mays’ life and career. Perhaps no greater evidence could be given of the way the game used to be to the way it is now than the fact that Mays used to play stickball in the streets of New York when he first started playing for the Giants, even forgetting about a home game once because he was so into the stickball game. Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is an excellent book and should be read by anyone who wants to know what Cobb was really like. He does not have a great reputation, and while he surely did have a temper, much of what is purportedly “known” about him is inaccurate. Thom Henninger’s Tony Oliva is a wonderful biography of a man who is finally, as of December 2021, getting his due, having been elected to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Era Committee. Oliva was an incredible player—a dominant player for a few years before injuries limited his effectiveness. It was fun to learn, as well, that Oliva, a Cuban, married a woman from a town just about an hour from where I currently live. They have been married 53 years now. Doug Wilson’s Pudge, a biography of Carlton Fisk, is all the more impressive for the fact that Fisk himself never spoke to Wilson during the book’s writing. For a player with the work ethic, grit and competitiveness that Fisk had, it is amazingly sad how poorly he was, in the end, treated by both Boston and Chicago.

There were two other baseball books, Bill Gutman’s It’s Outta Here!, an interesting history of the home run, and Kevin Cowherd’s When the Crowd Didn’t Roar. Cowherd’s book is not purely (or only) a baseball book but it was an interesting look at what, prior to COVID, no one could have imagined–a game played with no fans. Following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, and the unrest in Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles played a home game against the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium. The gates were locked and no fans were allowed in the park.

Terry Teachout’s Pops is marvelous biography of Louis Armstrong. The Good Life is Tony Bennett’s 1998 biography and he has since written two more books, but I finally got around to reading this one. Perhaps most interesting is Bennett’s recounting of his battle with his record company over his desire to record the kind of music he liked—classic American songbook—and not to make what seemed popular at the moment. Given that Bennett, who now struggles with Alzheimer’s, just released his final album at the age of 95—recorded with Lady Gaga, whom Bennett influenced significantly—it would seem that he had the stronger argument.

I will wrap this review up with three books that deal with contemporary culture. We Too, by Mary DeMuth, is an effort to address the role that the church needs to play in addressing #MeToo—both in terms of listening to and affirming victims and proactively preventing future victimization. While the book makes some good and valid points, I didn’t really like it overall. I suspect that some other individuals have addressed this issue in ways that I would consider more effective. Because I never give any individual book lengthy space in these annual reviews, I will put additional thoughts on this one in a postscript.

Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is considered must-reading among many Christian thinkers. The book is a thorough overview of the philosophies and worldviews that shaped the thinking and actions that led us to where we are today, looking specifically, but not exclusively, at the sexual revolution. This is one of those books that I filled with highlighting and marginalia as I interacted with the text. It is well worth reading, but I think it does miss in a few areas. A couple of times Trueman seems to overreach, failing to adequately support the conclusion he reaches. I think he ascribes far too much influence to the Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley in particular. Oddly, around the middle of the book it almost seems that Trueman learned two new words and wanted to show them off, as he includes “adumbrate” and “lacuna” far more times than seemed appropriate—especially since very few people use either of those words ever. At the end of the book, as Trueman was making his conclusion, he suggested that he could have made the same arguments using art or architecture instead of sexuality and I think that was a significant error on his part. While there are certainly fads and influences that can be seen in those two fields, neither have inherent binary characteristics and neither is inherently moral. As a result, Trueman undermines the importance of the very argument he spent 400 pages making about sexuality—though I am sure he had no intention of doing so.

In part of his book, Trueman addresses critical theory. It is not a major element of his book, though, and it does not as a result, get a lot of space. For a better understanding of both what critical theory is and why it is so dangerous, read Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. This book is all the more powerful because Pluckrose and Lindsay are not conservatives. They fall into the categories that most would expect to embrace critical theory, yet the effectively show why critical theory should be opposed. Rarely will you find a book recommended by such disparate thinkers as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It is about fifty pages shorter than Trueman’s book and, while they do not have the same purpose, I would probably have to recommend this one over Trueman if someone pressed me to select one over the other. Both, however, are timely and relevant.

I don’t think I said so at the top so, in case you were not counting, that was fifty-three books for 2021. Thanks for reading my thoughts. Hopefully you found a title or two you now want to read for yourself.


Postscript: further thoughts on We Too

Mary DeMuth’s We Too is a book that claims to be a “how to” manual for the Church to “respond redemptively to the sexual abuse crisis.” While it has elements of that, I suspect there are other, more helpful books on this subject. I actually found myself liking the book less and less as I read it. DeMuth suffered horrific sexual abuse as a child, so she knows whereof she speaks. At the risk of sounding like I am dismissing that, which I am surely not, she reminds the reader far more often than seems necessary of that fact. At times she comes across as condescending. At other times one wonders why she did not just publish a giant post-it note saying to refer to Boz Tchividjian to know how to effectively deal with abuse. The book is only about 200 pages, so she could probably have taken the time to deal with some matters more carefully. On the subject of forgiveness, for example, she spends about three pages, and as a result does not deal with it in nearly the detail and accuracy it requires. That error is exacerbated by the fact that she spends most of those three pages using Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers as her example. DeMuth also errs in oversimplifying other recommendations that could be valuable. For example, when suggesting that parents and churches place children into potentially dangerous situations by teaching them to respect adults, she says, “We strip children of their autonomy when we insist that they be kind to elders.” Well, children are not supposed to be autonomous. They are children. Effective parenting strips children of their autonomy on a regular basis. There are many ways in which children can be taught what is and is not appropriate behavior, and what to do if something inappropriate happens, while still teaching them to “be kind to elders.”

DeMuth also makes the valid point that those who are informed of abuse sometimes make it about them and thus diminish the victim, but it is important to recognize that someone who learns of abuse will understandably feel angry and guilty if the victim is someone they know and care about—particularly if they think they could have done something about it had they known sooner. It is foolish to suggest that such individuals can simply absorb the victim’s story and not have an emotional response to it. DeMuth references Rachael Denhollander several times throughout the book, including in the acknowledgements, but Denhollander is not the author of any of the more than twenty endorsement blurbs at the beginning of the book. This is pure speculation on my part, but it does make me wonder if that is because Denhollander recognized some of the same issues I am touching on here. The bottom line is that what DeMuth is addressing in the book needs to be addressed, but there have to be more effective books out there than this one.

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