jasonbwatson

January 1, 2018

My Year in Books – 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — jbwatson @ 8:32 pm
Tags: ,

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?”

January 2, 2017

My Year in Books — 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — jbwatson @ 9:14 pm
Tags: ,

Well, I did it—I read fifty or more books for the tenth consecutive year. It was a close call this year though, as I ended with only fifty-one. So, here it is, the annual review of my year in books (grouped by genre, not by the order in which they were read).

The first book in read in 2016 was Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré. Despite my fondness for thrillers and spy novels, this was the first le Carré novel I have ever read. It was enjoyable and captivating and I suspect I will read additional le Carré works in the future.

Other fiction I read in 2016 included the following: Behind Closed Doors by Elizabeth Haynes, an interesting book that keeps you wondering at times about who is telling the truth while also providing an accurate and uncomfortable look at life for those who are victims of sex trafficking; An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin, which was a fascinating look into the world of fine art as well as pleasing tale (though it does contain some unnecessary an explicit sex scenes); The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl, a story about a bookaneer—individuals who stole manuscripts of books by famous others to have them published abroad without the permission of the author, thus making vast sums for publishers and the bookaneers who sold them—trying to get Robert Louis Stevenson’s final novel; Conversion by Katherine Howe, a creative novel that provides astute insight into the circumstances that created the Salem Witch Trials by interweaving stories of that event with a modern re-telling of similar events taking place at a girls’ school located on land where the original events occurred; Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, which provides a keen look into World War II from the perspective of women in occupied France, including the difficulties they faced, the choices they had to make and the incredible ways in which they worked to defeat the Nazis; Mark Pryor’s Hollow Man was a well-written story that also causes the reader to give serious thought to things he might do for personal gain, that he would never ordinarily imagine doing, when given the right set of circumstances, while also providing an insightful look at the consequences of choices; The Black Country by Alex Grecian uniquely combines Civil War America with coal country England and a Scotland Yard murder investigation in late 19th-century Britain and it, too, provides insightful consideration of the consequences of choices; Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Truth Be Told is part of a series of novels written by Agatha Anthony, Mary Higgins Clark and Ryan, and it includes a unique twist on home foreclosures and fixing bank books while also interweaving a cold case; The Whistler is probably John Grisham’s best effort in recent memory, far better than last year’s Rogue Lawyer and better than Gray Mountain, though he decided, for the second novel in a row, to make one of the main characters a lesbian—despite that adding nothing to the story; I do still enjoy Grisham’s teen series, and 2016 included Theodore Boone: The Scandal; and Natchez Burning by Greg Iles was a gripping and angering look at atrocities committed by white supremacists in the Deep South in the 1950s and ‘60s, combined with a taken-from-the-headlines storyline about bringing the perpetrators to justice some fifty years later—but the book starts to assume credulity from its readers near the end and when Iles proved either unable or unwilling to wrap up the story in nearly 800 pages I had little interest in reading the other two books in what I learned is actually a trilogy.

Jeffrey Archer released both the sixth and seventh (and final) installments of The Clifton Chronicles in 2016, Cometh the Hour and This Was a Man, and I read them both. I continue to enjoy Archer’s writing and any of these books could be read enjoyable as stand-alone novels, though it was a pleasure to read all seven. As always, I read a number of James Patterson books in 2016 and I continue to find them to be delightful mental vacations where the good guys always win in the end. Last year’s selections included Private Vegas, Private Paris, Private India and The Games, all part of the Private series (and all written with co-authors), NYPD Red 4 continued that series, and Alert and Bullseye continued the Detective Michael Bennett series (and those were also all written with co-authors).

One work of fiction I read in 2016 was a book I probably never would have picked up on my own but found to be a fascinating read after it was loaned to me by a friend who thought I should read it: The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. The story was based on true events during the extreme drought in 1950s Texas and gave me not only a greater appreciation for what those ranchers went through but for ranchers and ranching in general.

I found myself in the rather unusual position of enjoying all of the “classics” that I read in 2016, something which has been a rarity, and they spanned a range of “classic” categories. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is particularly haunting precisely because it is a true story. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper deserves to be a classic in my opinion and while it may not be entirely accurate, it does offer a glimpse into the changes that European settlement brought to Native American life in America. As I read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon I felt like I was watching an old black and white cops-and-robbers movie with classic film noir vibes. It is really the first book of that genre I have ever read and I suspect there will be more in my future. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy, was somewhat different than I expected and it offers an abundance of opportunity for thought and discussion about marriage, the long-lasting implications of hasty decisions made in the pursuit of lust, the hypocrisy so many of us are guilty of when it comes to expecting to be forgiven for grave wrongs but are so reluctant to forgive similar failures in others and the despair that can result when it seems there is no hope left. And finally, C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is indeed an easy-to-read but deeply insightful look at the failures of fallen humans and the methods employed to tempt us.

As always, there were a number of biographies and autobiographies that made my list in 2016. The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther and The Daring Mission of William Tyndale are both by Steven Lawson and a part of the Long Line of Godly Men series. The serve as good introductory overviews of these men but the writing lacks polish and precision at times. Jonathan Horn’s The Man Who Would Not Be Washington was a very readable, thorough and honest look at the life of Robert E. Lee. Nina Burleigh’s The Stranger and the Statesman is mostly a biography of James Smithson, though it necessarily interweaves some biography of John Quincy Adams and tells the story of the Smithsonian Institute’s founding. Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power is a superb biography of George H.W. Bush and George Vecsey’s Stan Musial is a terrific telling of the life of that baseball great (whom I was also privileged to meet more than twenty years ago). Margery Heffrom’s Louisa Catherine provided a fascinating look into the life and character of Mrs. John Quincy Adams, a first lady whom I knew very little about. Valiant Ambition by Nathaniel Philbrick irritated me for the first half of the book, as it seemed that he was either assuming facts not in evidence or ignoring the facts that were in evidence when making assertions about Benedict Arnold. However, he then shifts course and writes one of the more probing observations of human character I have ever come across in a single paragraph. And Richard Zacks’ The Pirate Hunter was a fascinating tale of Captain Kidd, the famed “pirate.” If Zacks’ account is correct, Kidd may be one of the most unfortunate men in history.

In her autobiography In Order to Live, Yeonmi Park provides both valuable insight into what it is like to grow up in North Korea and a gripping account of what she and her family went through to escape the Hermit Kingdom. And as one of the original Little Rock Nine, Carlotta Walls LaNier offers an understanding of what it was like, and the commitment it took, to integrate the all-white schools of Alabama in A Mighty Long Way. David Ring, John Driver and David Wideman combined to write a moving account of David Ring’s life told from the perspective of David Wideman, who became (and remains) a close friend, in The Boy Born Dead. If you have heard of Ring and think you know his story, I would suggest that you do indeed only think you know his story until you have read this book. Elizabeth Vargas showed tremendous personal strength and courage in writing Between Breaths, an autobiography that focuses primarily on her fierce struggle with anxiety and alcoholism—all while appearing in front of millions of people every day on Good Morning, America, 20/20 and ABC World News Tonight. If you think alcoholism is purely the result of weakness and lack of effort this book will surely disabuse you of such a notion.

In the areas of spiritual growth, theology and Bible study I read a lot on the Sermon on the Mount in 2016, including all of John MacArthur’s The Beatitudes: The Only Way to Happiness and James Montgomery Boice’s The Sermon on the Mount. (I also read much of Thomas Watson’s The Beatitudes and volume one of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, but since I did not read all of the first and my copy of the latter includes both volumes in a single book, I did not count either). Eric Ludy’s God’s Gift to Women is written for a target audience of teenage males, but it provides worthwhile instruction on how God intended men and women to relate to one another and men to treat women in particular. John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which is particularly relevant amidst the feminism and redefining of gender roles and identities that is so prevalent in our world today. Along those same lines, Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Helper By Design is a book about God’s design for married women that would likely set any NOW member into fits of histrionics.

A couple of books that did not really fit in any other categories: Letters to Lisa by John Van Dyk provides helpful ideas for Christian teachers in an easy-to-read style, since it is written as correspondence between Van Dyk, a professor at Dordt College, and his daughter during the beginning of her teaching career; Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player continues Lencioni’s series of helpful parable-style books on business and management but for some reason includes profanity in the tale that adds nothing to the book and will likely offend some of his readers; and Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura is a book I do not know how to categorize, as it is equal parts Japanese history and accounts of Christian persecution, literary and art criticism and spiritual meditation. I have not read Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, which is the basis of this book, and I suspect Fujimura’s work will be more meaningful to those who have read it.

So, that was my year in books. I think I may have left a few books out of this summary, but then I always do. Perhaps something here will catch your attention or pique your interest and you will explore new books in the upcoming year as a result. Happy reading!

October 15, 2015

Pretty Simple, Really

Joy Pullman, in the October 3, 2015 issue of WORLD, wrote a brief article entitled “A real head start.” In the article she addressed the fact that preschool and the federal Head Start program are not all that effective in equipping children for academic success. In fact, she quoted a study which found that watching Sesame Street was just as beneficial as Head Start on a child’s academic success. As much as you have to admire the long-running success of Big Bird and his buddies there is no way to justify the $8 billion annual price tag for Head Start if that is really all the difference it makes.

Pullman also referenced the efforts underway by the group Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), which is running ads in New Hampshire and Iowa in an effort to get presidential candidates to lend their support to the creation of government programs for children from birth to age 4. The organizations web site says that its purpose is “to mobilize all Americans in a commitment that cannot wait–investing in early childhood now.” If you follow the link to the “Secure Early Education” page you will read this:

Save the Children Action Network knows that investing in early childhood education is the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty. These investments lay the foundation for success in school, career and life. The type of environment and the quality of interaction to which children are exposed in the first five years of life greatly influence the outcomes of their adult lives.

Education may very well be one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty but it certainly is not the most effective way. And educating children in preschools and government programs for the first four years of their lives is not the answer. The Save the Children Action Network page lists the following under the headline “The Problem”: “From 2010 to 2012, more than 4 million 3-and 4-year-olds were not attending preschool, representing more than half (54%) of all children in that age group.” I have no reason to think those numbers are not accurate but I have every reason to believe that is not the problem. Nor is the goal of “high-quality early childhood education” the solution. The solution, according to the Save the Children Action Network is this: “A comprehensive, national early childhood education program would add $2 trillion to the annual GDP within a generation, according to the Brookings Institution. Evidence-based, high-quality early childhood education programs not only prepare children for school but also empower parents to influence their child’s academic success.”

It is interesting to me that the web site includes this nod to parents, since the effort to create a national early childhood education program is really an effort to take children away from their parents at an even earlier age in order to submit them to the influence of the state. It is not difficult to imagine how long it would take before such a program would become mandatory once it was created. Of course an incredibly important part of the problem–which SCAN and other organizations do not want to acknowledge–is the breakdown of the family. Even before the legalization of homosexual marriage we had an epidemic of broken families in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children born out of wedlock in the United States in 2013, the most recent year for which I can find numbers, was nearly 1.6 million, meaning that 40.6% of all births in the U.S. were to unmarried women. According to the ChildTrends Data Bank, only 64% of children in the U.S. lived with two married parents. (Notice that does not say those were necessarily the child’s biological parents, so this figure includes adoptions as well as blended families). This is huge because, also according to ChildTrends, “Single-parent families tend to have much lower incomes than do two-parent families, while cohabiting families fall in-between.” The site also states the following:

Both mothers and fathers play important roles in the growth and development of children. The number and the type of parents (e.g., biological, step) in the household, as well as the relationship between the parents, are consistently linked to a child’s well-being. (Nationally representative data on adoptive families are relatively new, and warrant a separate treatment.)

Among young children, for example, those living with no biological parents, or in single-parent households, are less likely than children with two biological parents to exhibit behavioral self-control, and more likely to be exposed to high levels of aggravated parenting, than are children living with two biological parents. Children living with two married adults (biological or adoptive parents) have, in general, better health, greater access to health care, and fewer emotional or behavioral problems than children living in other types of families.

Among children in two-parent families, those living with both biological parents in a low-conflict marriage tend to do better on a host of outcomes than those living in step-parent families. Outcomes for children in step-parent families are in many cases similar to those for children growing up in single-parent families. Children whose parents are divorced also have lower academic performance, social achievement, and psychological adjustment than children with married parents.

Given this data, combined with that shared above about the effectiveness of Sesame Street equaling that of Head Start, it would seem that SCAN would be advocating for marriage-based two-parent families rather than more government early-education initiatives. I suspect we will not see SCAN take that route, though, or many other organizations or politicians since that would mean having to address the self-centered focus so prevalent in our culture, having to address the overthrow of traditional marriage and gender roles, the abandonment of commitment in marriage, saving sex for marriage and just about everything else that has been thrown out with the embrace of the attitude so prevalent in our nation today. When the focus is on what works for me right now the focus is solely on self; children are considered very little, if at all.

Pullman’s article highlights another very interesting finding by researchers: what is “most effective for tots’ long-term success is having a married biological mother and father. Other legs up include the number of books in a child’s home and eating meals together as a family.” It seems to me it’s pretty simple, really. Forget Head Start (and Sesame Street). If we want to give children a better chance to succeed, if we want to grow the annual GDP, and if we want to strengthen our nation, what we need to do is get back to the basics–the basic family unit. Father, mother, children. Marriage between a man and a woman. Marriage commitments, not no-fault divorces. Parents who actually read to and with their children, families that sit down at the table and eat together at least once a day–without the television on and without cell phones in everyone’s hands. That sounds like a real commitment that cannot wait. Let’s mobilize Americans to pursue that goal!

January 15, 2015

My Year in Books – 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — jbwatson @ 11:13 pm
Tags: ,

Between all of the activities of the Christmas season and the busy-ness of starting the second semester, I have not posted anything in nearly a month! What better way to kick off a new year of blogging than by giving my annual overview of the books I read last year. As always, this will be a quick run-down, not an exhaustive review of any books. I was, once again, able to meet my goal of reading at least fifty books a year, finishing with fifty-seven.

The first book I finished in 2014 was Sarah Palin’s Glad Tidings and Great Joy. I was not entirely sure what to expect from this book, but I found it a pleasant read. Palin included a number of family stories, traditions and photos throughout the book (as well as a few recipes), intertwined amongst examples of the attack on Christianity in general and Christmas in particular around America. More than likely, anyone who likes Sarah Palin will like this book, and anyone who does not like Sarah Palin will not.

For the most part, I am going to break down the other books I read by genre rather than by date. R W Glenn’s Crucifying Morality was a short look at what the Beatitudes are really all about–and what they are not all about. Max Lucado’s 3:16 The Numbers of Hope and David Jeremiah’s God Loves You are both excellent looks at God’s love–and how incredible that love truly is. Lucado’s book is, of course, written in his usual style. Rebecca Friedlander’s The Potter and His Clay is a fascinating look into the biblical comparisons of God to a potter and us to the clay. Friedlander is a gifted potter and artist, and if you have the opportunity to see her live Potter’s Wheel presentation you should definitely avail yourself of the chance. Strange Fire, by John MacArthur, is a thorough examination of the charismatic movement and the many misinterpretations and outright abuses of Scripture that have characterized the movement through the years. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is Nabeel Qureshi’s autobiographical account of how a devout follower of Islam came to accept Christ. For anyone interested in knowing more about what Islam teaches and the challenges associated with leading a Muslim to Christ would do well to read this book. Anthony Carter’s Blood Work is an examination of why the blood of Christ is so incredibly important and what it accomplished. Carter interweaves stanzas of classic hymns throughout. Christena Cleveland is social psychologist and college professor who wrote a thought-provoking look at the way Christians tend to segregate themselves within the body of Christ–for all kinds of reasons. Disunity in Christ is an excellent read, but do not read it if you have sensitive toes!

Darren Dochuk’s From the Bible Belt to Sunbelt is a study of how the evangelical movement in California was transplanted from the deep south. The book includes many names that will be familiar to believers, as well as details and contexts that likely are not so familiar. It also reveals that an incredible number of today’s hot-button issues are not new problems for the evangelical community. Douglas Bond’s The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts is a short, easy-to-read and fascinating look at the life of this prolific hymn writer. Lauren Drain’s Banished is an autobiographical account of her experiences as a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. The book often left me wondering “how can anyone believe that?” It is a truly sad commentary of what some people believe the Bible teaches.

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch is a monster of a book at 775 pages. And while there were a few times I found myself thinking she could have left out a few details without hurting the story any, I found the book a delightful read overall. As with many great works of fiction there are a few “twists of fate” that seem entirely too convenient and unlikely, but these are forgivable. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner is a difficult book to like yet worth reading. It is thought provoking, and in turns caused me to be angry, irritated and even sick, amidst other emotions. It is a book I would recommend, but selectively. It is certainly not for everyone. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, is a tale any booklover will enjoy and a classic telling of doomed love. Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale is an easy like for any bibliophile, and was an intriguing look into both the transforming power of romantic love and the incredible power of bitter rivalry. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees is a well-crafted story about the healing power of true love of the non-romantic variety. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, provided some of the most well-written sentences I have read in a long time. The entire book is letters written between the tale’s characters–a unique approach that worked surprisingly well.

As I usually do, I also attempted to add a few “classics” to my have-read list. Jane Eyre was recommended by a colleague and I found myself liking it much more than I anticipated I would. There was one incredibly unlikely and unbelievable twist in the book that soured me a bit, but it was well worth reading. It could generate some very interesting discussions about marriage in a discussion group setting. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye would probably be my “Banned Book” for the year. I can see why parents would object to it being in a high school reading list, but it would surely prompt fascinating conversations about racial relations, both between races and within them. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is worthy of being a classic, and the story is all the more fascinating because of when it was written. Cry, the Beloved Country is a book I have read before, and it is still a book I will recommend to anyone who asks. While it contains some of the same unlikely twists that irked me in Jane Eyre, they are not nearly so irksome in Alan Paton’s classic work set in South Africa. The novel presents perseverance and forgiveness in a way seldom seen. I finally got around to reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, too. James McBride’s The Color of Water is another very interesting look into race relations, as well as an endearing glimpse into the love of son for mother. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a creative and captivating retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, and I would recommend it. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was pure drudgery, and I would not recommend it.

In the contemporary fiction category I read Camron Wright’s The Rent Collector; A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash; The Absence of Mercy by John Burley; Be Careful What You Wish For–the latest installment of Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles; David Baldacci’s The Target; James Patterson’s Private: LA, Invisible and Burn; Marcia Clark’s Guilt By Association; and John Grisham’s Gray Mountain.

In history, I read Lawrence Denton’s A Southern Star for Maryland, an interesting look at what was going on Maryland during the Civil War; Edward Behr’s Prohibition, an overview of that part of U.S. history; Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a riveting account of the Chicago World’s Fair and a murderer preying on women in the city at the same time that reads like a novel; The Black Count by Tom Reiss, an incredible true-life account of Alex Dumas; John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Scientists; and Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, an engaging look at four women who assumed roles in the Civil War far more often reserved for men.

George W. Bush’s 41 was an enjoyable read. It was not the book I had anticipated, but he politely warned me in the preface that it would not be. Captive in Iran, Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh’s account of their time in Iran’s Evin Prison, is an incredible story.

There are a few I did not mention here, but I’m sure you’re ready to go do something else anyway. Check back next year to see where this year takes me!

January 9, 2014

My Year in Books – 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — jbwatson @ 5:48 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

I managed to keep my streak of reading fifty books per year intact in 2013, though I am not sure I would have done so had my wife not been hospitalized for sixteen days; I read ten books during that time! Given that I took two graduate classes during the summer of 2103 and traveled some 7,500 miles by car during my family’s two summer trips and read very little during that time I was prepared to excuse my falling short of the goal. I am glad I met the goal, though I would have preferred it to have been met in a different manner. But, without further ado, here is an overview of the fifty two books I read in 2013.

I think it’s fun to start my list with the first book I finished during the year. However, due to a computer crash suffered in the spring, the exact order of the first fourteen books I read is not known. Due to the fact that I am out in desperate need of more book shelves in my house and therefore stack most of the books in a pile as I read them these days, I do know what the fourteen books were, but I cannot guarantee the order. That’s because one of the books was loaned from a colleague and one or two others were already on a shelf and I put them back when I completed them. So, I will present my overview more by genre than by chronological order.

Let’s start with non-fiction, history. Ernest Grafe and Paul Horsted’s Exploring with Custer: The 1874 Black Hills Expedition is a fascinating book in that it provides a detailed overview of the 1874 expedition, including many first person and primary source accounts and photographs, but also provides contemporary photographs of the exact same spots and directions to get there. The result is that you could literally retrace Custer’s expedition yourself if you wanted to do so. I also read Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand. As Philbrick books go I liked it better than Bunker Hill and probably almost as much as Mayflower. It is a readable overview of the events leading up to, and including, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, including first person perspectives from both sides of that battle. If you have an interest in Custer personally or the conflict with Native Americans in general it is a good read. I also read Bunker Hill in 2013, by the way, and despite the fact that the American Revolution is perhaps the part of U.S. history that fascinates me most, and I even enjoy historical minutiae, I did not particularly enjoy this book. Though the specific reasons slip my mind at the moment I remember finding the book hard to get through and less than interesting in many parts. I can say the same thing for Kevin Phillips’ 1775. It was a book that I might not have even finished were it not for my conviction to never let a book beat me!

For those of you caught up in the international smash hit Downton Abbey you may enjoy reading Lady Fiona of Carnarvon’s Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey. I read it when my wife had finished it, and given that Lady Fiona is the current occupant of Highclere Castle (the setting of the show) she has access to a treasure trove of original documents and photographs. It was an interesting read, and she has a second book out now, continuing the exploration of the history of the castle and the families that have lived there. Another book I read that drew extensively from original documents and photographs was also loaned from a friend. E.M. Young: Prairie Pioneer tells the incredible story of one man’s pioneering farming experiences in the early 20th century.

I read David Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie in 2013, too, but I reviewed that at length in an earlier post, so I will not elaborate on it here.

I also read several biographies and autobiographies. Tony Bennett’s Life is a Gift is a fascinating look at his artistic life. Even if you do not particularly like Bennett (who I just realized, incidentally, I am listening to at the moment) his first-hand accounts of such now-hard-to-fathom incidents like seeing incredible and well known African American artists perform in clubs that they could not enter as patrons provide a unique perspective on that sad part of American history. David Green’s More Than A Hobby tells the story of the development of the Hobby Lobby juggernaut and the philosophies that have driven the Green family in its development. The book was written long before Hobby Lobby’s run in with the federal government over the contraceptive mandate but reading it leaves a good understanding of why the family would have challenged in the way that they did. Gracia Burnham’s books In the Presence of My Enemies and To Fly Again recount the experience of being taken hostage in the Philippines, the incredible ordeal she and her husband endured in their year-plus of captivity, and his death during the rescue (the first one) and the way in which her life has “moved on” since returning to the states and recovering from her injuries (including being short herself). Kisses From Katie by Katie Davis will no doubt leave you overwhelmed at the incredible things this young woman has done already to impact hundreds of lives in Uganda. The way in which the Lord has used her and the things that she has accomplished, and is doing, as a single young white woman in Africa will certainly prompt you to learn more about her Amazima Ministries, if not prompt you to take some action yourself! John Ownes’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher recounts the experiences of this publishing executive who decided to leave his skyscraper office to become a teacher in New York City. The book highlights the challenges faced by teachers everywhere when parents are absent or uninvolved but, even moreso, highlights the challenges teachers face when their administrators do not have the first clue about how what may seem like grand ideas or necessary policies actually play out in the classroom, and the challenges faced by teachers, students and parents alike when administrators are more concerned about rules than about students actually learning. The scenario Owens presents is not common, in my opinion, but he highlights important realities nonetheless. Finally, Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala provides a vivid first-person account of the realities of living in a region controlled by the Taliban and how incredibly repressive many of their rules are. That Malala survived when she was shot in the face is amazing, and she is an articulate advocate for education.

I actually read quite a bit of fiction in 2013. I made a conscious decision to read mostly fiction while my wife was in the hospital because I did not really feel like having to think too much! I also decided, thanks to the local library and the convenient proximity of a Barnes and Noble to the hospital, to read some authors I had never read before. So, by way of new-to-me authors, I read Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, which I found to be a fascinating story and one that deals intriguingly with the question of forgiveness–what it is, who can give it, and more. There were parts of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief that I did not really care for or find necessary to the story, but in the end Zusak succeeds in presenting a very different kind of hero than is often seen in literature. Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them was an interesting tale with an interesting perspective on Cold War U.S.-Soviet relations, from the perspectives of children becoming teenagers. Alafair Burke’s If You were Here has some nifty plot twists in it. While I have watched the show based on her books I had never read Tess Gerritsen until I read Rizzoli and Isles: Last to Die. Being familiar with a television version of characters before reading a book can have the same influence on the reader as being familiar with the book before seeing the movie or show can have on the viewer, but it was a good story overall. More than a few parts seemed a bit far-fetched but it is fiction, after all. I loved Mark Pryor’s The Bookseller, and I look forward to reading more of his Hugo Marston novels. Jonathan Cahn’s The Harbinger was given to me by a friend; it is not the kind of book I likely would have read on my own. It presented some interesting things, but it is correctly placed in the fiction section of bookstores. Chevy Steven’s Still Missing presents a graphic look at how we humans in our sin nature can get focused on things that really matter not at all and, as a result of that focus, can cause us to do things that no one in his or her right mind would ever even give a second thought. I also read two Robert Crais books, Taken and The First Rule. These are mostly typical crime drama/suspense books similar to many other authors.

My fiction reading was not limited to new-to-me authors, though. I read several books by those authors I tend to keep up with, too, including the following: Merry Christmas, Alex Cross; Alex Cross, Run; Private Berlin; NYPD Red; and Cross My Heart by James Patterson; The Racketeer, Theodore Boone: The Activist, and Sycamore Row by John Grisham; The Forgotten, The Hit, and King and Maxwell by David Baldacci; Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer; and Threat Vector and Command Authority by Tom Clancy (with Mark Greaney). Clancy’s death late in the year means, I assume, that there will be no more true Clancy books (though there is always the possibility that he left behind some manuscripts) but I suspect it will not mean the end of Jack Ryan or The Campus.

Finally, in the area of spiritual growth, I read Jacqueline Pierre’s Totally Infatuated, a short book aimed mostly at teens (and Pierre is still a teen herself) highlighting the relevance of Scripture to our everyday lives; R.C. Sproul’s A Taste of Heaven and The Work of Christ; R. Albert Mohler’s Desire and Deceit (which I have also referenced in earlier posts); Joe Stowell’s Following Christ; John Piper’s God Is the Gospel, and Matt Chandler’s To Live is Christ, To Die is Gain. All of these books are very good and depending on where you are in walk with the Lord, what you want to focus on or dig deeper into may or may not be what you “need” right now, but Stowell’s book would be relevant and practical for any Christian at any stage of their Christian walk, I think.

So, there you have it, a quick run through of my year in books. Until next January…keep reading!

Blog at WordPress.com.