Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Best Books I Read This Year (2016)

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These are my favorite books that I read in 2016. There are 36 selections this year so I apologize in advance for the length of this post and for all the intense scrolling you’re about to do. Consider yourself warned.

My Top 12:

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1. The King in His Beauty / Thomas Schreiner

My favorite book this year was this biblical theological feast by Dr. Tom Schreiner. He walks through the Old and New Testaments, book by book, tracing both the wonders of our King’s glory and grace and the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God. Any book that helps you understand the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26) and causes you to treasure the Lord by faith is worth reading. The King in His Beauty does just that.

“Believers are instructed to trust God and to look to Jesus, who went before them. They are promised a final reward whereby they will eat from the tree of life forever. The world will be a new temple and a new garden where God dwells. All that belonged to Adam at the beginning will be theirs and more. Those in the new creation know what it is like to be separated from fellowship with God. They know what it is to be redeemed from the horrific evil that dwelt in their own hearts. They know and exult in the love of God demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ. They are safe in the heavenly city, with its impregnable walls. The gates of the city can be left open, for there is no enemy within or without who can conquer God’s people now. They will see God’s face in the person of Jesus Christ. They will see the King in His beauty, and they will be glad forever.” (645-646)

2. Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God / Rankin Wilbourne

Rankin Wilbourne has written a crystal clear and winsome survey of the glories of the believer’s Spirit-wrought, faith-union with Jesus Christ. This book was a joy to read from start to finish. Understanding our identity in Christ changes everything.

  • “Union with Christ is not a fact we can put in our pocket, but rather a key to open a door into a whole new reality.”
  • “Of all the good news the gospel brings, the greatest—and the door to all the rest—is that you can be united to Christ.”
  • “’You are in Christ’ gives you assurance. ‘Christ is in you’ gives you power.’”
  • “Union with Christ tells us we are not alone.”
  • “Union with Christ is an enchanted reality. The most important things about our lives cannot be seen or touched with our senses.”
  • “Union with Christ is not only the anchor of holiness; it is also the engine of our holiness.”
  • “If you are in Christ, your life and your story become enfolded by another story, Another’s story.”
  • “Union with Christ gives you a completely new self-understanding found outside of yourself in Christ.”
  • “Union with Christ says that Christ is not simply at the center of our lives; He is at the center of all creation.”
  • “If you are united to Christ, then from Him come both grace and demand, which together lead to a life of joy.”
  • “The gospel of extravagant grace requires nothing from us and the gospel of radical discipleship demands everything of us.”
  • “Christ dwelling in us by His Spirit is a guarantee that we can and will change.”
  • “We are not the center of the gospel because we are not the center of the universe.”

3. His Love Endures Forever: Reflections on The Immeasurable Love of God / Garry Williams

This book is worshipful systematic theology at its best. God is love but His love is different from human love. Williams magnifies God by highlighting these differences from Scripture.

“My argument is that our grasp of the unique manner of God’s love deepens our grasp of its peerless magnitude: it is only when we see the similarities of God’s love to human love and its differences from it that we see how great it is, how great He is.” (18)

“God’s love is different from our love in its manner and the uniqueness of its manner lends it a peerless magnitude. In this book I have tried to offer you a glimpse of the love of God from the Scriptures. I am thrilled by what we have seen, but as I draw to a close my attempt feels flimsy and inadequate against the reality, this book like fragments of crumbling paper scattered by a mighty wind. This majestic, glorious, unfathomable divine love will be our inexhaustible eternal occupation. We are teetering only on the brink of edging across the margins of the very beginning of understanding it.” (195)

4. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance / Sinclair Ferguson

In The Whole Christ, Dr. Ferguson, in his pastorally wise and winsome way, reminds us that our salvation, all of our salvation, comes to us from God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This salvation is a “Christ-centered, Trinity-honoring, eternity-rooted, redemption-providing, adoption-experiencing, holiness-producing, assurance-effecting, God-glorifying salvation.” (228-229) 
Throughout this rich volume, Ferguson reiterates the truth that real progress in sanctification and real growth in ministry boils down to Christlikeness.

“Perhaps it was the experience of— or at least the desire for— such ministry that led the Scottish forefathers to have a small brass plate fastened inside the pulpit of many churches, the words engraved on it being visible only to the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” (John 12:21 KJV) For that to be true— whatever our gifts and calling— we who serve Christ and His people must first ‘see Him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly.’” (229)

5. A Peculiar Glory / John Piper

Near the conclusion of this superb book about the self-authenticating divine glory of Scripture, Piper writes:

“No one decides to see glory. And no one merely decides to experience the Christian Scriptures as the all-compelling, all-satisfying truth of one’s life. In the end, seeing is a gift. And so the free embrace of God’s word is a gift. God’s Spirit opens the eyes of our heart, and what was once boring, or absurd, or foolish, or mythical is now self-evidently real. You can pray and ask God for that miracle. I ask daily for fresh eyes for His glory.” (283)

Amen. I can hardly wait to dig into Part 2 of this series.

6. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels and Reading Backwards / Richard Hays

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these volumes by Richard Hays on the Old Testament echoes in the Gospels. You don’t have to agree with all of his interpretations or conclusions to marvel at the clarity with which the Evangelists point us to the glory of Jesus Christ, the God of Israel in the flesh.

“There is only one reason why the Evangelists’ Christological interpretation of the Old Testament is not a matter of stealing or twisting Israel’s sacred texts: the God to whom the Gospels bear witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Either that is true, or it is not. If it is not, the Gospels are a delusional and pernicious distortion of Israel’s story. If it is true, then the figural literary unity of Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament together, is nothing other than the climactic fruition of that one God’s self-revelation. As readers, we are forced to choose which of these hermeneutical forks in the road we will take. By forcing this choice upon us, the Evangelists compel us to read their Gospels neither as mere sources of historical information nor as entertaining or edifying tales. They compel us instead to read their Gospels as testimony to the truth, the sort of testimony that demands a self-involving response. We cannot rightly read the Gospels without hearing Jesus’ question to Peter as a question also addressed directly to us: ‘But you— who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29).” (365)

7. ESV Reader’s Gospels / God

I loved reading this book over and over again in 2016. If you’ve never tried reading through each Gospel in one sitting, get this book and go for it. You won’t regret it.

8. The Whole Story of the Bible in 16 Verses / Chris Bruno

The title says it all. Clever idea, faithfully executed, and extremely useful. A great book to use for discipling new believers on the grand story of Scripture.

9. The Essential Trinity / Eds. Brandon Crowe and Carl Trueman

The Trinity is both Biblical and practical. This book has two parts: “Part 1 considers the trinitarian contours of every corpus of the New Testament, along with a chapter on the Trinity and the Old Testament. Part 2 counters the charge that the Trinity is irrelevant as a practical doctrine by considering selected topics in Christian life and ministry.” Scott Swain’s chapter on the mystery of the Trinity is outstanding:

“The doctrine of the Trinity is the most sublime truth of the Christian faith and its supreme treasure. Christian teaching concerning one God in three persons flows from the revelation of the high and holy name of the Lord God Almighty: ‘the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19). This glorious name identifies the true and living God and, because it is the name into which we are baptized, constitutes our only comfort in life and in death. Not only does the doctrine of the Trinity identify God, it also illumines all of God’s works, enabling us to perceive more clearly the wonders of the Father’s purpose in creation, of Christ’s incarnation, and of the Spirit’s indwelling. All things are from the Trinity, through the Trinity, and to the Trinity. And so, seen in the sublime light of the Trinity, we see all things in a new light.” (191-192)

10. Luther on the Christian Life / Carl Trueman

I spend time reading Martin Luther every February. Carl Trueman’s contribution to Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series was a helpful guide for me this year. He reminded me why reading Luther is challenging, rewarding, and, at times, just plain fun.

“I find Luther to be one of the most human theologians there is, certainly among Protestants. His humor alone endears him to me. His last written words—’We are beggars: this is true’—set all human pretensions to greatness and divinity in tragicomic perspective. A theologian who ultimately helps us to remember that we are of no lasting earthly importance whatsoever has crucial importance in an era obsessed with numbers of Twitter followers and Facebook friends. I find Luther to address some of the most basic questions of human existence: despair, illness, sex, love, bereavement, children, enemies, danger, death. Luther touches on them all, and always with an unusual anecdote, an insightful comment, a human touch. There is no false, desiccated, tedious piety about the man. He lived his Christian life to the full, red in tooth and claw. I find Luther to be fun. Who else would describe how a woman scared the Devil away by breaking wind in his face, but then caution his listeners not to do the same as it could prove lethal? Any theologian with advice like that has to be worth reading. Finally, I love Luther because it was his highest ambition to let God be God. And in doing so he realized that the love of God does not find but creates that which is lovely to it.” (29)

11. Job: The Wisdom of the Cross / Christopher Ash

Garrett Kell told me about the awesomeness of this book and it certainly lived up to the hype. It’s one of the most devotionally rich commentaries I’ve ever read. Ash is a wonderful tour guide through one of my favorite books in Scripture.

12. Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting / Dave Furman

I read this book when I was in the middle of preaching a sermon series through the Book of Job. I was served and convicted when I read Dave’s chapter entitled “Whatever You Do, Don’t Do These Things.” I trust you will be too. If you want to help hurting people, consider reading this book.

My Next 12:

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13. Station Eleven / Emily St. John Mandel

“The Novel I’ve Discussed the Most With My Wife” Award for 2016 goes to this post-apocalyptic tale about a worldwide pandemic, a traveling symphony, the glories of Shakespeare, the pain of loss, the meaning of life, and the yearning for beauty. Why should you read this book? “Because survival is insufficient.” (58) The passage that stuck with me long after I finished the book details the aftermath and repercussions of the deadly outbreak:

“An incomplete list: No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years. Aviation gas lasts longer, but it was difficult to come by. No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages. No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars. No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. No more flight. No more towns glimpsed from the sky through airplane windows, points of glimmering light; no more looking down from thirty thousand feet and imagining the lives lit up by those lights at that moment. No more airplanes, no more requests to put your tray table in its upright and locked position— but no, this wasn’t true, there were still airplanes here and there. They stood dormant on runways and in hangars. They collected snow on their wings. In the cold months, they were ideal for food storage. In summer the ones near orchards were filled with trays of fruit that dehydrated in the heat. Rust blossomed and streaked. No more countries, all borders unmanned. No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pickup. No more spacecraft rising up from Cape Canaveral, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from Vandenburg, Plesetsk, Tanegashima, burning paths through the atmosphere into space. No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.” (31-32)

And yet, even amidst such loss and absence, something glorious remains: “What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.” (57) I’m grateful for this beautiful book.

14. Moby Dick / Herman Melville

The best novel I read in 2016 was Melville’s classic. The characters are spectacular: Ismael, Queequeg, Starbuck, and the “all-destroying” white whale. But Captain Ahab steals the show. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness:

“Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! From all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (477)

My two favorite chapters were “The Sermon” and “The Whiteness of the Whale.” I agree with R.C. Sproul. This novel is worth all the attention you can give it.

15. A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube / Patrick Leigh Fermor 

Have you ever daydreamed about backpacking across Europe? Well, I have. But after reading A Time of Gifts, now I just daydream about being Patrick Leigh Fermor instead. He penned this kaleidoscope of a book detailing his walking journey through pre-WWII Europe in the 1930s when he was only 19-years old. Reading Fermor is a surreal literary experience. His knowledge of language, architecture, art, geography and culture is astounding.

“I too heard the change in the bells and the croaking and the solitary owl’s note. But it was getting too dim to descry a figure, let alone a struck match, at the windows of the Archbishopric. A little earlier, sunset had kindled them as if the Palace were on fire. Now the sulphur, the crocus, the bright pink and the crimson had left the panes and drained away from the touzled but still unmoving cirrus they had reflected. But the river, paler still by contrast with the sombre merging of the woods, had lightened to a milky hue. A jade-green radiance had not yet abandoned the sky. The air itself, the branches, the flag-leaves, the willow-herb and the rushes were held for a space, before the unifying shadows should dissolve them, in a vernal and marvellous light like the bloom on a greengage. Low on the flood and almost immaterialised by this luminous moment, a heron sculled upstream, detectable mainly by sound and by the darker and slowly dissolving rings that the tips of its flight-feathers left on the water. A collusion of shadows had begun and soon only the lighter colour of the river would survive. Downstream in the dark, meanwhile, there was no hint of the full moon that would transform the scene later on. No-one else was left on the bridge and the few on the quay were all hastening the same way. Prised loose from the balustrade at last by a more compelling note from the belfries, I hastened to follow. I didn’t want to be late.” (314-315)⠀

Big thanks to the New York Review of Books for bringing this trilogy back into print. I’m eager to tackle into Part 2 and Part 3 in 2017.

16. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life / William Finnegan

I began reading this book about a writer’s life-long love affair with surfing and I simply couldn’t put it down. It’s absolutely glorious.

“A set rolled through, shining and roaring in the low winter afternoon sun, and my throat clogged with emotion– some nameless mess of joy, fear, love, lust, gratitude.” (356)

“Sloat looked to be at least five refrigerators high as I pulled up one Sunday afternoon in January. The waves breaking on the outside bar were difficult to see, though. The sun was shining, but the surf was generating a salt mist that filled the air on both sides of the Great Highway— a sharp-smelling haze like some essence from the bottom of the ocean. There was no wind, but gray plumes of spray rose nonetheless from the tops of the largest waves, lifted by the sheer mass and speed of their crests as they plunged. The inside bar was a maelstrom of dredging, midsized killer waves, their dark chocolate faces smeared with drifts of foam. The outside bar looked ill-defined, the swell confused, but the outside waves themselves were smooth and shiny, with clean peaks and sections looming randomly in the mist. Some of them looked ridable— loveliness amid lethality.” (388)

But don’t take my word for it. I’ve never even been surfing before. But my friend Bobby Jamieson has surfed a bunch. And he totally dug this book too. If you read his review, I wager you’ll want to read this book.

17. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt / Edmund Morris
18. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey / Candice Millard

The historical figure I chose to live with in 2016 was Theodore Roosevelt. I’d never read a biography of Teddy before, so I learned a lot. Mr. Roosevelt was quite the character. Here’s the one story from his storied life that will stick with me:

“Roosevelt, still famously energetic at fifty-four, greeted his admirers with characteristic vigor, pumping his left arm in the air like a windmill. His right arm, however, hung motionless at his side. The last time Roosevelt had given a speech—just two weeks earlier, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he had been shot in the chest by a thirty-six-year-old New York bartender named John Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant who feared that Roosevelt’s run for a third term was an effort to establish a monarchy in the United States. Incredibly, Roosevelt’s heavy army overcoat and the folded fifty-page manuscript and steel spectacle-case he carried in his right breast pocket had saved his life, but the bullet had plunged some five inches deep, lodging near his rib cage. That night, whether out of an earnest desire to deliver his message or merely an egotist’s love of drama, Roosevelt had insisted on delivering his speech to a terrified and transfixed audience. His coat unbuttoned to reveal a bloodstained shirt, and his speech held high so that all could see the two sinister-looking holes made by the assailant’s bullet, Roosevelt had shouted, ‘It takes more than that to kill a bull moose!'”
-Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 10.

I spent much of the year gobbling up as much TR material as I could get my hands on. By far, the best book on Roosevelt that I read was Edmund Morris’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography. Morris is quite the wordsmith. Check out his description of the dawn before the Battle of San Juan Hill:

“The first of July, 1898, which Roosevelt ever afterward called ‘the great day of my life,’ dawned to a fugato of bugles, phrase echoing phrase as a reveille sounded in the various camps. The morning was Elysian, with a pink sky lightening rapidly to pale, cloudless blue. Mists filled the basin below El Pozo, evaporating quickly as the air warmed, exposing first the crowns of royal palms, then the lower green of deciduous trees and vines. Hills rippled around the horizon to east, west, and north, like a violent backdrop. As the vapor burned away, the effect to Roosevelt was of shimmering curtains rising to disclose ‘an amphitheater for the battle.’ While his men got up he walked about calmly lathering his face, reassuring the many who had woken afraid.” (681)

Morris tells the history of one man who was really seven men: a naturalist, a writer, a lover, a hunter, a ranchman, a solider, and a politician. And this multifaceted man had an electric personality: “You go to the White House,” writes Richard Washburn Child, “you shake hands with Roosevelt and hear him talk– and then you go home to wring the personality out of your clothes.”

And early on in the book you learn about Teddy’s insatiable appetite for books:

“At about ten o’clock the First Lady will rise and kiss her husband good night. He will continue to read in the light of a student lamp, peering through his one good eye (the other is almost blind) at the book held inches from his nose, flicking over the pages at a rate of two or three a minute. This is the time of the day he loves best. ‘Reading with me is a disease.’ He succumbs to it so totally— on the heaving deck of the Presidential yacht in the middle of a cyclone, between whistle-stops on a campaign trip, even while waiting for his carriage at the front door— that he cannot hear his own name being spoken. Nothing short of a thump on the back will regain his attention. Asked to summarize the book he has been leafing through with such apparent haste, he will do so in minute detail, often quoting the actual text. The President manages to get through at least one book a day even when he is busy. Owen Wister has lent him a book shortly before a full evening’s entertainment at the White House, and been astonished to hear a complete review of it over breakfast. ‘Somewhere between six one evening and eight-thirty next morning, beside his dressing and his dinner and his guests and his sleep, he had read a volume of three-hundred-and-odd pages, and missed nothing of significance that it contained.’ On evenings like this, when he has no official entertaining to do, Roosevelt will read two or three books entire. His appetite for titles is omnivorous and insatiable, ranging from the the Histories of Thucydides to the Tales of Uncle Remus. Reading, as he has explained to Trevelyan, is for him the purest imaginative therapy. In the past year alone, Roosevelt has devoured all the novels of Trollope, the complete works of De Quincey, a Life of Saint Patrick, the prose works of Milton and Tacitus (‘until I could stand them no longer’), Samuel Dill’s Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, the seafaring yarns of Jacobs, the poetry of Scott, Poe, and Longfellow, a German novel called Jörn Uhl, ‘a most satisfactorily lurid Man-eating Lion story,’ and Foulke’s Life of Oliver P. Morton, not to mention at least five hundred other volumes, on subjects ranging from tropical flora to Italian naval history. The richness of Roosevelt’s knowledge causes a continuous process of cross-fertilization to go on in his mind. Standing with candle in hand at a baptismal service in Santa Fe, he reflects that his ancestors, and those of the child’s Mexican father, ‘doubtless fought in the Netherlands in the days of Alva and Parma.’ Watching a group of American sailors joke about bedbugs in the Navy, he is reminded of the freedom of comment traditionally allowed to Roman legionnaires after battle. Trying to persuade Congress to adopt a system of simplified spelling in Government documents, he unself-consciously cites a treatise on the subject published in the time of Cromwell. Tonight the President will bury himself, perhaps, in two volumes Mrs. Lodge has just sent him for review: Gissing’s Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, and The Greek View of Life, by Lowes Dickinson. He will be struck, as he peruses the latter, by interesting parallels between the Periclean attitude toward women and that of presentday Japan, and will make a mental note to write to Mrs. Lodge about it. He may also read, with alternate approval and disapproval, two articles on Mormonism in the latest issue of Outlook. A five-thousand-word essay on “The Ancient Irish Sagas” in this month’s Century magazine will not detain him long, since he is himself the author. His method of reading periodicals is somewhat unusual: each page, as he comes to the end of it, is torn out and thrown onto the floor. When both magazines have been thus reduced to a pile of crumpled paper, Roosevelt will leap from his rocking-chair and march down the corridor. Slowing his pace at the door of the presidential suite, he will tiptoe in, brush the famous teeth with only a moderate amount of noise, and pull on his blue-striped pajamas. Beside his pillow he will deposit a large, precautionary revolver. His last act, after turning down the lamp and climbing into bed, will be to unclip his pince-nez and rub the reddened bridge of his nose. Then, there being nothing further to do, Theodore Roosevelt will energetically fall asleep.” (xxxii-xxxiv)

And then there’s also the fascinating bit about Roosevelt’s photographic memory:

“Theodore Roosevelt’s memory can, in the opinion of the historian George Otto Trevelyan, be compared with the legendary mechanism of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Authors are embarrassed, during Presidential audiences, to hear long quotes from their works which they themselves have forgotten. Congressmen know that it is useless to contest him on facts and figures. He astonishes the diplomat Count Albert Apponyi by reciting, almost verbatim, a long piece of Hungarian historical literature: when the Count expresses surprise, Roosevelt says he has neither seen nor thought of the document in twenty years. Asked to explain a similar performance before a delegation of Chinese, Roosevelt explains mildly: ‘I remembered a book that I had read some time ago, and as I talked the pages of the book came before my eyes.’ The pages of his speeches similarly swim before him, although he seems to be speaking impromptu. When confronted with a face he does not instantly recall, he will put a hand over his eyes until it appears before him in its previous context.” (xxx)

I so enjoyed hanging out with Teddy that I’m gonna try to tackle other Roosevelt volumes in 2017. Probably this one and this one.

19. Hillbilly Elegy / J.D. Vance

One of the timeliest reads of 2016 was this deeply moving memoir by J.D. Vance.

“Nearly every person you will read about is deeply flawed. Some have tried to murder other people, and a few were successful. Some have abuse their children, physically or emotionally. Many abused (and still abuse) drugs. But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity. And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in the story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way– both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.” (9)

20. All the Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr

Imagine what it’s like to be blind. Now imagine what it would be like to be blind and to live in a war zone that’s occupied by Nazis and under constant Allied bombardment. That’s the setting where we meet the blind heroine of this beautiful and moving story, Marie-Laure LeBlanc. Though blind, she sees.

21. Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America / Jill Leovy

This is an unforgettable and insightful book about a complicated set of life and death issues.

“This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides.” (8)

Whatever you make of the author’s thesis, the relentless persistence of the book’s protagonist, Detective John Skaggs, is awe-inspiring.

22. The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State / Lawrence Wright
23. ISIS: A History /  Fawaz Gerges

I took a trip to visit some dear friends in Iraq earlier this year. Given the state of unrest and fighting that has engulfed this part of the world, I wanted to learn more about Islam, terrorism, and US foreign policy. So I spent 2016 doing a deep dive on these issues, with a special focus on Iraq. God has grown my heart for this war-ravaged land and despite my doubts about any immediate prospects for lasting peace, I am certainly hopeful and prayerful for the furtherance of the gospel in Iraq.

Lawrence Wright has written a good bit about terrorism for the New Yorker and his book, The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, pulls together the best of his material into one volume.

“This age of terror will end one day, but whether our society can restore the feeling of freedom that once was our birthright is hard to predict. The security state that is grown up since 9/11 has transformed our culture; and yes, we have a needed the protection. We are often reminded that we must ‘never forget’ what happened on that fateful day. But if we fail to keep in mind the country we were before 9/11, we may never steer in that direction again. In that case, the terrorists really will have won.” (350)

His chapter about FBI agent, John O’Neil, entitled “The Counter-Terrorist,” is just haunting. Other books worth mentioning are:

Warrick helpfully explains ISIS’s past. In his lucidly-written book, ISIS: A History, Fawaz Gerges looks forward at ISIS’s future. I feel like I understand a great deal more about the current crisis in Syria after reading this book.

“What this reformation entails is an intellectual revolution, a cognitive or epistemological rupture with the dominant religious and historical scripts and narratives about the past, as some Arab writers, like Abdullah al-‘ Arwi, George Tarabishi, and others, argue, a cultural revolution that transforms state and society. Arab intellectuals are fully aware of the derailed efforts by al-Nahda and renaissance pioneers who called for such ‘reformation’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While there is no assurance of success, this complex, generational struggle must be fought and won regardless of how long it will take. Salafi-jihadists like ISIS must be denied the doctrinal and theological oxygen that nourishes their movement. Ideas are the first line of defense against the Salafi-jihadist nihilistic ideology and the final nail in its coffin. Without this revolution in ideas, the narrative and brand of Salafi-jihadism, of which ISIS is the most recent iteration, will continue to prevail in the Arab-Islamic world.” (292)

24. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit / P.G. Wodehouse

I’ve gotten into the delightful habit of reading at least one volume of Wodehouse every year. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit did not disappoint. My favorite line in the book: “Love is a delicate plant that needs constant tending and nurturing, and this cannot be done by snorting at the adored object like a gas explosion and calling her friends lice.” (29) Wodehouse’s prose is always colorful and endlessly entertaining. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

  • “He was looking definitely piqued, like a diner in a restaurant who has bitten into a bad oyster.” (26)
  • “Our relations had always been chummy to the last drop.” (72)
  • “No hostess wants a Hamlet on the premises.” (73)
  • “What if he does think you the world’s premier louse? Don’t we all?”
  • “Did you notice how he looked when he said ‘Florence’? Like a dying duck in a thunderstorm.” (85)
  • “And with these words he pranced off like a mustang.” (93)
  • “He had all the earmarks of one about whom Love had twined its silken fetters.” (93)
  • “She was madder than a wet hen.” (94)
  • “What girl would not be delighted who finds herself unexpectedly free from a man with a pink face and a head that looks as if it had been blown up with a bicycle pump?” (94)
  • “My ears were sticking up like a wirehaired terrier’s.” (99)
  • “His demeanor throughout was that of a homicidal deaf mute.” (102)
  • “Uncle Tom is a great lad for prowling in the garden.” (103)
  • “Bertie, you revolting object, that mustache of yours is the most obscene thing I ever saw outside a nightmare. It seems to take one straight into another and a dreadful world. What made you commit this rash act?” (110)
  • “‘Proceed, Jeeves.’ He did so, turning now to Aunt Dahlia, who was gazing at him like a bear about to receive a bun.” (119)
  • “I emerged like a cork out of a bottle.” (134)
  • “I had just finished tucking away a refreshing scrambled eggs and coffee, when the door opened as if a hurricane had hit it and Aunt Dahlia came pirouetting in.” (148)
  • “Before my eyes she wilted like a wet sock.” (150)
  • “I am unable to discern in you the slightest vestige of charm, the smallest trace of any quality that could reasonably be expected to appeal to a girl like Florence.” (157)
  • “The Woosters do not desert their aunts in their time of need.” (160)“Suddenly a thought came like a full-blown nose, flushing the brow.” (160)
  • “Aunt Dahlia was in the hall, pacing up and down like a distraught tigress.” (164)
  • “I’m in agony. I feel as if I’d swallowed a couple of wild cats.” (186)
  • “I wilted like a salted snail.” (188)
  • “Emotion overcame her, and she grabbed at my arm again. It was like being bitten by an alligator.” (200)
  • “She was staring at The Times, which was what she had drawn in the distribution of the morning journals, in much the same manner as a resident of India would have stared at a cobra, had he found it nestling in his bath tub.” (208)

My Final 12:

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25. The Name of the Wind / Patrick Rothfuss 

I stumbled upon this richly textured fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy, and I was hooked. It’s sort of like LOTR and Harry Potter blended together with a dash of Lev Grossman and Charles Dickens sprinkled on top combined with lots of cool fights, mysterious libraries, and dangerous creatures. This story has all the makings of a huge blockbuster movie. The main character is named Kvothe and he’s not someone you want to mess with:

“I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them. But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant ‘to know.’ I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned. I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me.” (52)

As entertaining as Kvothe is, even in the happy moments of the book, there’s also an omnipresent sense of foreboding.

“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. The first part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been horses stabled in the barn they would have stamped and champed and broken it to pieces. If there had been a crowd of guests, even a handful of guests bedded down for the night, their restless breathing and mingled snores would have gently thawed the silence like a warm spring wind. If there had been music… but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained. Inside the Waystone a man huddled in his deep, sweet-smelling bed. Motionless, waiting for sleep, he lay wide-eyed in the dark. In doing this he added a small, frightened silence to the larger, hollow one. They made an alloy of sorts, a harmony. The third silence was not an easy thing to notice. If you listened for an hour, you might begin to feel it in the thick stone walls of the empty taproom and in the flat, grey metal of the sword that hung behind the bar. It was in the dim candlelight that filled an upstairs room with dancing shadows. It was in the mad pattern of a crumpled memoir that lay fallen and unforgotten atop the desk. And it was in the hands of the man who sat there, pointedly ignoring the pages he had written and discarded long ago. The man had true-red hair, red as flame. His eyes were dark and distant, and he moved with the weary calm that comes from knowing many things. The Waystone was his, just as the third silence was his. This was appropriate, as it was the greatest silence of the three, wrapping the others inside itself. It was deep and wide as autumn’s ending. It was heavy as a great river-smooth stone. It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.” (662)

26. Baseball: An Illustrated History / Ken Burns and Geoffrey Ward
27. The Glory of Their Times / Lawrence Ritter
28. The Boys of Summer / Roger Kahn

What a year for baseball. We witnessed an unforgettable Cubs victory in what will go down in history as one of the most entertaining final games in World Series history. While I was happy for Cubs fans and sad for Cleveland fans, my thoughts were in Atlanta. As a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves, the 2016 season was a smorgasbord of defeat. The Bravos finished in last place in the division and only the lowly Twins had a worse league record. And so I plunged myself into the past, remembering the glorious baseball summers of the past. The best baseball book I read in 2016 is an illustrated history created by Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker. This is how the book opens:

“It measures just 9 inches in circumference, weighs only about 5 ounces, and it made of cork wound with woolen yarn, covered with two layers of cowhide, and stitched by hand precisely 216 times. It travels 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home–and it can cover that distance at nearly 100 miles an hour. Along the way it can be made to twist, spin, curve, wobble, rise, or fall away. The bat is made of turned ash, less than 42 inches long, not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter. The batter has only a few thousandths of a second to decide to hit the ball. And yet the men who fail seven times out of ten are considered the game’s greatest heroes. It is played everywhere. In parks and playground and prison yards. In back alleys and farmers fields. By small children and by old men. By raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed. The only game where the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime and ending with the hard facts of autumn. Americans have played baseball for more than 200 years, while they conquered a continent, warred with one another and with enemies abroad, struggled over labor and civil rights and the meaning of freedom. At the games’s heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game, born in crowded cities; an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating and has excluded as many as it has included; a profoundly conservative game that sometimes manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to father and grandfathers. And it reflects a host of age-old American tensions: between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective. It is a haunted game, where each player is measured by the ghosts of those who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.” (xviii)

That’s glorious, isn’t it? The book is sprinkled with excerpts from the likes of Thomas Boswell, Robert Creamer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, George Will, Walt Whitman, Buck O’Neill, and Ted Williams. The introductory essay by Roger Angell is superb. It was so good that I devoured Angell’s collection The Summer Game I also enjoyed Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times. If you can find an audiobook version of this book, you’ll discover a treasure. It’s the actual recordings of Ritter interviewing elderly ballplayers. Great stuff.

What did I learn through immersing myself in the glories of baseball’s past? I think it’s a lesson that Cubs fans know all too well. Or maybe something they used to know.

“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.”
-Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), xii.

29. Drone: Remote Control Warfare / Hugh Gusterson

Drones are a big deal. I heard Gusterson do an interview with MIT Press (or read it here) and it made me want to read his book. Drones aren’t going away any time soon. “Less than fifteen years after the first use of an armed drone by the United States, over 50 percent of the pilots being trained by the U.S. Air Force are drone pilots, and the proportion of remotely piloted aircraft in the U.S. fleet went from 5 percent in 2005 to 31 percent by 2012.” (21) This book made me ponder the impact of what Gusterson calls “Remote Intimacy.”

“Remote Intimacy examines the paradoxical mix of closeness and distance in the relationship between drone operators and their targets that can evolve over days of remote surveillance, and looks at what it is like to kill someone from over seven thousand miles away while watching as if close up on screen, whether it is easier or harder to kill someone this way than on the physical battlefield, and why drone operators seem to have high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder.” (7-8)

Did you catch that? Drone operators have high rates of PTSD. The book doesn’t just cover the moral implications of drone warfare. Gusterson begins the book by detailing the technical specs of US military drones:

“A little longer than the average station wagon, and weighing just 1,130 pounds, the Predator is surprisingly small. With its modified snowmobile engine it has a maximum speed of 135 mph, although it usually flies at speeds under 100 mph. The Predator can fly as high as 25,000 feet but usually is operated at 10,000 to 15,000 feet so that it gets better video imagery. It can stay aloft for about 24 hours at a time. About a quarter of the cost of the Predator goes into the ‘Ball,’ which is a rotating sensor ball that is mounted under the nose of the plane. It carries daylight cameras and infrared cameras that can pick up the outline of bodies at night, as well as equipment that scans the ground for cell phone signals, logging sim cards on the ground below. The cameras are said to be able to read a license plate from two miles up, and they feed data streams to controllers in different locations. Even filming from two miles up, the camera has a lens so powerful it feels like a hawk hovering at 100 feet. The Predator is typically equipped with two Hellfire missiles for use against targets on the ground. Each missile costs around $ 70,000. The Predator flashes an infrared beam to ‘light up’ or ‘sparkle’ targets below that are then attacked by the Predator’s missiles, by other planes, or by soldiers on the ground. These targets can be as small as individual insurgents who are fleeing an attack (what the U.S. military refers to as ‘squirters’), although the blast radius of a Hellfire missile is reportedly fifteen to twenty meters.. The Reaper, a larger second-generation armed drone, can fly twice as fast as the Predator, go twice as high, and carry eight times as much ordnance. Both Predators and Reapers are launched from bases near the areas they patrol. The operation of a drone requires about 170 people in multiple locations. The people with their hands on the controls are the tip of a spear that extends from ground crews in Middle Eastern deserts to generals and lawyers in air-conditioned control rooms in the United States.” (19-21)

30. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets / David Simon

Back in 1988, there were 234 murders in the city of Baltimore. David Simon was the first reporter ever to be given unlimited access to Baltimore’s homicide unit. He was embedded with three homicide squads for an entire year. This book is the fruit of his front-row research. It’s a crime classic for good reason.

31. Seven Brief Lessons in Physics / Carlo Rovelli

I bet your physics professor in college didn’t explain physics this beautifully. Not only was this slim volume packed with mind-bending facts, I was also moved by Rovelli’s tone of humility and awestruck wonder that pervaded the book. He writes:

“Our knowledge of the world continues to grow. There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.” (80)

32. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work / Mason Currey

This book is  brilliant collection of the daily habits of brilliant people. Here were my favorite entries:

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): “Kierkegaard had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee: Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid. The process was scarcely finished before the syrupy stimulant disappeared into the magister’s stomach, where it mingled with the sherry he had consumed earlier to produce additional energy that percolated up into his seething and bubbling brain—which in any case had already been so productive all day that in the half-light visitors could still notice the tingling and throbbing in the overworked fingers when they grasped the slender handle of the cup.

Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964): After being diagnosed with lupus in 1951 and told she would live only another four years, O’Connor returned to her native Georgia and moved in with her mother at the family farm in rural Andalusia. Years earlier, a writing instructor had advised O’Connor to set aside a certain number of hours each day to write, and she had taken his advice to heart; back in Georgia she came to believe, as she wrote to a friend, that ‘routine is a condition of survival.’ A devout Catholic, O’Connor began each day at 6:00 A.M. with morning prayers from her copy of A Short Breviary. Then she joined her mother in the kitchen, where they would share a Thermos of coffee while listening to the weather report on the radio. Morning mass was at 7:00, a short drive into town at the Sacred Heart. Her religious obligations fulfilled, O’Connor would turn to her writing, shutting herself away between 9:00 and noon for her daily three hours, which would typically yield three pages—although, she told a reporter, ‘I may tear it all to pieces the next day.’ By the afternoon, O’Connor’s energy was spent—the lupus caused her to tire early and experience flulike symptoms and mental fogginess as the day wore on. She passed these hours receiving visitors on the porch and pursuing her hobbies of painting and raising birds—peacocks, which she loved and often incorporated into her stories, as well as ducks, hens, and geese. By sundown she was ready for bed; ‘I go to bed at nine and am always glad to get there,’ she wrote. Before bedtime she might recite another prayer from her Breviary, but her usual nighttime reading was a seven-hundred-page volume of Thomas Aquinas. ‘I read a lot of theology because it makes my writing bolder,’ she said.

Philip Roth (b. 1933): “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare,” Roth said in 1987. Coal mining is hard work. This is a nightmare.… There’s a tremendous uncertainty that’s built into the profession, a sustained level of doubt that supports you in some way. A good doctor isn’t in a battle with his work; a good writer is locked in a battle with his work. In most professions there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness. There is a lot of repetition in the work. In fact, one skill that every writer needs is the ability to sit still in this deeply uneventful business. My schedule is absolutely my own. Usually, I write all day, but if I want to go back to the studio in the evening, after dinner, I don’t have to sit in the living room because someone else has been alone all day. I don’t have to sit there and be entertaining or amusing. I go back out and I work for two or three more hours. If I wake up at two in the morning—this happens rarely, but it sometimes happens—and something has dawned on me, I turn the light on and I write in the bedroom. I have these little yellow things all over the place. I read till all hours if I want to. If I get up at five and I can’t sleep and I want to work, I go out and I go to work. So I work, I’m on call. I’m like a doctor and it’s an emergency room. And I’m the emergency.”

33. Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It / Marc Goodman

This book sort of freaked me out. Mainly because the author isn’t some weirdo who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Marc Goodman has been a Resident Futurist for the FBI and a senior adviser to Interpol. And he’s very concerned.

“In a world in which all of our critical systems and infrastructures are run by computers, it would be easy to dismiss our profound technological insecurity as just a computing problem. But we don’t just have an IT problem. Because technology is woven through the entire fabric of our modern lives, we also have a social problem, a personal problem, a financial problem, a health-care problem, a manufacturing problem, a public safety problem, a government problem, a governance problem, a transportation problem, an energy problem, a privacy problem, and a human rights problem. We have no choice but to win this battle for the very soul of our own technologies because frankly the alternative is too horrible to consider. This must be our call to action. Accordingly, now is the time to completely reevaluate all that we take for granted in this modern technological world and question our dependence on the ubiquitous machines that so few of us understand. We do this not out of blind technophobia nor in deference to Luddite ancestors but as a commonsensical measure, fully appreciating the vast positive potential these exponential technologies portend. The innovation cannot be stopped, and the technological changes are coming faster and faster. We’ve reached an inflection point, a punctuated moment in time that demands our immediate and greatest possible attention.” (498)

Yikes.

34. Overview: A New Perspective of Earth  / Benjamin Grant

The most gorgeous book I read in 2016 is Overview, which features amazing images from the Daily Overview account. Check out some of the pictures here or here. These satellite images will make you feel very small and remind you that the Creator and Upholder of all things is really big. My three kiddos loved this book.

“When we are removed from our usual line of sight on the Earth’s surface, we can see things differently. We can see our world completely.” (20)

35. Life on a Little-Known Planet / Howard Ensign Evans

I read an interview with the great David McCullough where he was asked, “What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?” McCullough’s answer intrigued me: “A book I keep going back to for the sheer pleasure of the writing, as well as all it brings to life about a subject I might otherwise have taken no interest in whatever, is “Life on a Little-Known Planet,” by Howard Ensign Evans, which is all about insects.” Really?! Well, if an out-of-print book about a biologist’s view of insects and their world is good enough for David McCullough, then surely it’s good enough for me. My favorite chapter, “In Defense of Magic: The Story of Fireflies” is worth the price of the book.

“Magic in the sense of something inciting wonder is here to stay; or if it is not, man will have been vastly diminished by its loss. What can rival a twilit meadow rich with the essence of June and spangled with fireflies? Here is magic, and the joy of pursuing through grass just touched with early dew a light now here, now there, now gone. Or of collecting several in a bottle and taking them indoors for illumination; or of tying one lightly with a thread to one’s clothing, as natives of some tropical countries are reported to do at fiesta time. As children, we used to call them lightning bugs; and wingless kinds that emit a steady light from the ground are called glowworms in English-speaking countries wherever they occur. In fact fireflies are neither flies nor bugs nor worms, but soft-bodied beetles called Lampyridae, a name based on an old Greek word that also evolved into our word ‘lamp’… Adult fireflies possess the most complex light organs known to man, and these organs are still far from fully understood. Despite the intensity of the light they produce, the amount of heat is negligible. Only in very recent years has man developed chemical light-producing systems that rival that of the firefly in efficiency.” (103, 104)

Amazing. I’ll never look at a lightning bug on a summer night the same way again.

36. Various Volumes of Poetry:

Time spent with good poets is time well spent. I hung out with George Herbert (a constant companion), Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Luci Shaw, Ben Palpant. I thoroughly enjoyed the collection of poems pulled together by Czeslaw Milosz, aptly entitled A Book of Luminous Things. The two contemporary poets that I enjoyed the most this year were Dana Gioia and A.E. Stallings. You might be wondering, “Why bother with poetry?” I agree with the assessment of James Parker:

“If you’re a certain kind of reader, with a certain kind of brain, you’re always on the lookout for the poem that will save your life. Existence heaps itself upon you; your tongue thickens and your thoughts get cluttered. But you keep a muddy eye trained on the world’s poetry portals, the places where the poems come flapping through, because you know that a line, a rhyme, a verb can reboot your internal chitchat and zap you out of all your encrustations. You know that this is the poet’s job, in the end: to remind you—oh, the cheesiness, but oh, the urgency—how to be alive.”

Poets remind us of the glories of being alive in this beautifully strange and God-spoke world. Luci Shaw once said: “A poem is a little lens through which we can examine in close range some of the ‘insignificant’ details of the universe, a miniature window on the world. In such small works of art the poet is lending you, the reader, her eyes in hopes that your own eyes will be captivated by things you’ve never noticed before.” Good poems help us notice and remember what would impoverish us to forget.

The poem that captured 2016 for me was this one by A.E. Stallings. May the Lord grant us all the grace of growing in empathy, in tender-hearted brotherly love, and in humility of mind.

“Empathy”

My love, I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
Precariously adrift
As we dodge the coast-guard light,

And clasp hold of a girl and a boy.
I’m glad that we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy,

And we didn’t hand over our cash
To one of the smuggling rackets,
That we didn’t buy cheap lifejackets
No better than bright orange trash

And less buoyant.
I’m glad that the dark
Above us, is not deeply twinned
Beneath us, and moiled with wind,
And we don’t scan the sky for a mark,

Any mark, that demarcates a shore
As the dinghy starts taking on water.
I’m glad that our six-year old daughter,
Who can’t swim, is a foot off the floor

In the bottom bunk, and our son
With his broken arm’s high and dry,
That the ceiling is not seeping sky,
With our journey but hardly begun.

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish.  It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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Filed under Bible, Book Reviews, Books, Christian Theology, Jesus Christ, Puritanical, Quotable Quotes, Reading

“For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five” by W. H. Auden

“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between Taste and Judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like.

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

–W. H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden, Volume VI: Prose: 1969-1973, Ed. Edward Mendelson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 222.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Quotable Quotes, Reading

The Best Books I Read This Year (2015)

booksofyear2015-ab

These are my favorite books that I read in 2015:

1. Newton on the Christian Life / Tony Reinke
John Newton was dramatically converted to Christ after a thunderstorm on the high seas. He then faithfully pastored two congregations for 43 years. J.I. Packer called Newton the “friendliest, wisest, humblest” evangelical leader of his day, and he was “perhaps the greatest pastoral letter-writer of all time.” (25) Tim Keller claims that Newton is “the best pastor I’ve ever seen in my life.” (23) The former slave trader encouraged William Wilberforce in his efforts to help end the slave trade in England. And he also penned the most well-known hymn in the English language. I think it’s safe to say that we can learn much from John Newton about living for Christ in this world.

To that end, Tony Reinke has written the best book in what is a wonderful collection of books, Crossway’s Theologians On the Christian Life series. “Think of this book,” Reinke says, “as a field guide meant to get dirty, dog-eared, and faded in the clenched hands of a Christian pilgrim.” (32) This “field guide” is glorious. It’s a delight from beginning to end and brimming with golden selections from Newton:

“All shall work together for good: everything is needful that He sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds.” (195)

“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.” (49)

“Have we not a Saviour, a Shepherd full of compassion and tenderness? If we wish for love in a friend, He has shewn love unspeakable; —He left His glory, assumed our nature, and submitted to shame, poverty, and death, even the death of the cross, that He might save us from sin and misery, and open the kingdom of heaven to us, who were once His enemies. For He saw and pitied us, when we knew not how to pity ourselves. If we need a powerful friend, Jesus is almighty: our help is in Him who made heaven and earth, who raises the dead, and hushes the tempest and raging waves into a calm with a word. If we need a present friend, a help at hand in the hour of trouble, Jesus is always near, about our path by day, and our bed by night; nearer than the light by which we see, or the air we breathe; nearer than we are to ourselves; so that not a thought, a sigh, or a tear, escapes His notice. Since then His love and His wisdom are infinite, and He has already done so much for us, shall we not trust Him to the end? His mercies are countless as the sands, and hereafter we shall see cause to count our trials among our chief mercies.” (17)

Newton and Reinke served me this year by calling me again and again to fix my eyes on Christ. For that, I am grateful.

2. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God / Tim Keller
Prayer is crucial. Keller writes: “Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and to be in life.” (18) He spends the next 300 pages helping his readers understand what prayer is and how to do it. Along the way Keller relies on choice lessons that he’s learned from Augustine (“Letter 130”), Martin Luther (“A Simple Way to Pray”), John Calvin, John Owen, and several others. My only beef with Prayer is with the publisher: I think we all can agree that Dutton’s decision to use endnotes in Tim Keller’s books is barbaric. So, Dutton, please do us all a favor, give the people what we want, and start using footnotes instead. Thank you.

3. Enjoy Your Prayer Life / Michael Reeves
This helpful book is brief, convicting, and life-giving. Reeves writes:

“The Son has brought us with Him– in Him– before His Father. That’s what we enjoy in prayer.” (35)

“It is the word of God, the gracious message of Christ, that awakens faith and so prayer – and so that must be the basic shape of our everyday communion with God. We need to set Christ before ourselves. That is, we hear the word of Christ in Scripture, in song, through each other and by reminding ourselves as we praise him. We should long that our eyes might be opened to see the beauty of the Lord and that we might be drawn afresh to want him – and then prayer is simply the articulation of our heart’s response. To summarise what we have discovered so far, prayer is the chief exercise of faith. Naturally we’re rubbish at prayer because we’re sinners. Yet the solution – what will give us the true life of real communion with God – is the gospel of Christ that awakens faith.” (19)

4. A Way to Pray / Matthew Henry
Henry is known for his whole-Bible commentary. But he also wrote this excellent primer on how to pray scripturally. This volume, edited by O. Palmer Robertson, is sort of like The Valley of Vision meets D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation a.k.a Praying Like Paul. Henry is helping me to grow in praying according to God’s will. (1 John 5:14) Consider this simple prayer before a meal (373):

“Gracious God, You are the Protector and Preserver of the whole creation. You have nourished us throughout our lives up to the present day with sufficient food, though we are evil and unthankful. Forgive all our sins, for by them we have forfeited Your mercies. Restore our right standing with you in Christ Jesus. Enable us to taste covenant love in commonplace mercies. Give us the grace to use these mercies and all the comforts of Your creation to the glory of Christ, our great Benefactor and Redeemer. Amen.”

5. Edwards on the Christian Life / Dane Ortlund
What is the role of beauty in the Christian life? Ortlund’s answer: “To become a Christian is to become alive to beauty… Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.” (23, 24) This book is an accessible way to introduce others to the beautiful, God-entranced vision of Jonathan Edwards.

6. The Greatest Fight in the World / Charles Spurgeon
Spurgeon’s final address to his beloved students in his Pastors College is as timely now as it was back in 1891:

“On his knees a believer is invincible.” (31)
“We need nothing more than God has seen fit to reveal.” (40)
“God’s Word is our ultimatum.” (41)
“The very root of holiness lies in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (50)
“We are ourselves trophies of the power of the sword of the Spirit.” (54)
“A good textuary is a good theologian.” (60)
“Believers in verbal inspiration should be studiously careful to be verbally correct.” (61)
“The gospel has the singular faculty of creating a taste for itself.” (63)
“There is no arguing after we find that ‘It is written.’” (64)

7. The Ministry Medical / Jonathan Griffiths
Griffiths walks through 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul’s last letter, and asks 36 textual questions to help diagnose the spiritual health of your ministry. I’m eager to read this volume again with my fellow elders.

8. Who is Jesus? and Why Trust the Bible? / Greg Gilbert
9Marks and Crossway continue to crank out wonderfully helpful books, especially books that busy pastors can give away to bless their church members. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these volumes by Gilbert and plan to get a bunch of copies to give away throughout the year.

9. Knowing Christ / Mark Jones
Following Jesus means growing in our knowledge of Jesus. This book helps us know Christ better. My favorite chapter in Knowing Christ was “Chapter 26 — Christ’s Names”:

“All that God has revealed to us concerning His Son, Jesus Christ, and the various names attributed to him, leave us in little doubt that His names ought to be exceedingly precious to His people. What more can be said? He is the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), Almighty (Rev. 1:8), Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8), Amen (Rev. 3:14), Arm of the Lord (Isa. 51:9), Pioneer of our faith (Heb. 12:2), Ruler of God’s creation (Rev. 3:14), beloved Son (Matt. 12:18), Branch (Isa. 4:2), Bread of life (John 6:32), Cornerstone (Ps. 118:22), Counsellor (Isa. 9:6), Faithful witness (Rev. 1:5), God (Rom. 9:5), Ruler (Matt. 2:6), Holy One (Acts 3:14), Horn of Salvation (Luke 1:69), I Am (John 8:58), Immanuel (Isa. 7:14), Righteous One (Acts 7:52), King (Zech. 9:9), King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15), Lamb of God (John 1:29), Life (John 14:6), Light of the world (John 8:12), Lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5), Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8), the Lord our righteousness (Jer. 23:6), Man of sorrows (Isa. 53:3), Messenger (Mal. 3:1), Mighty God (Isa. 9:6), Morning star (Rev. 22:16), Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), Prince of life (Acts 3:15), Prince of peace (Isa. 9:6), Redeemer (Job 19:25), Resurrection and the life (John 11:25), Rock (1 Cor. 10:4), Root of David (Rev. 22:16), Rose of Sharon (Song of Sol. 2:1), Overseer of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25), Sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2), True vine (John 15:1), and Witness (Isa. 55:4). Perhaps we now have some glimpse into why Isaiah said: ‘and his name shall be called Wonderful…’ (Isa. 9:6). What is it to know Christ? It is to know his names and all that they mean. For this reason, we shall spend eternity worshipping the One whose names are past finding out.” (217-218)

10. Stuff Matters / Mark Miodownik
Materials are marvelous. That’s the lesson I learned from Stuff Matters. It’s the #1 bestseller in the Inorganic Chemistry section of Amazon.com for good reason. The book begins with a lackluster photograph of a man relaxing on his outdoor deck. The man in the photo is Mark Miodownik, a professor of materials at University College London. Captured in the picture are also ten common materials that we see and use everyday without really stopping and marveling. When is the last time you were amazed by paper, concrete, glass, graphite, plastic, steel, and chocolate? Chesterton was right when we wrote: “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” This booked helped me wonder. The chapter on chocolate is worth the price of the book:

“Take a piece of dark chocolate and pop it in your mouth. For a few minutes you will feel its hard corners against your palate and tongue but taste little in the way of flavor. It is almost impossible to resist the urge to give it a good bite, but try very hard not to, so that you can experience what happens next: the lump becoming suddenly limp as it absorbs the heat from your tongue. As it becomes liquid, you will notice your tongue feels cooler, and then a combination of sweet and bitter flavors floods your mouth. These are followed by fruity and nutty sensations, and finally an earthy, muddy taste down the back of your throat. For one blissful moment you will be in thrall to the most deliciously engineered material on earth. Chocolate is designed to transform into a liquid as soon as it hits your mouth. This trick is the culmination of hundreds of years of culinary and engineering effort, aimed initially at creating a popular drink that could hold its own against tea and coffee. That effort failed miserably until chocolate manufacturers realized that making hot chocolate in the mouth instead of a saucepan was much more delightful, much more modern, and far more widely liked. In effect they created a solid drink, made possible by their understanding and control crystals– specifically, cocoa butter crystals. The chocolate industry has never looked back.” (73-74)

11. Do More Better / Tim Challies
There are lots of productivity books out there. I found this one by Challies to be concise and clear and practical. He writes: “Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.” (16) Amen.

12. The Ology / Marty Machowski
We read The Ology during our family worship in the morning and the Roark kids loved it. Deep truths, beautifully communicated and illustrated.

13. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered / Rosaria Butterfield
I was fascinated by both of these books by Butterfield. If you’re only able to read one of them, I’d encourage you to read Openness Unhindered because of her extended treatment on sexual identity and union with Christ. Secret Thoughts begins in this way:

“When I was 28 years old, I boldly declared myself lesbian. I was at the finish of a PhD in English Literature and Cultural Studies. I was a teaching associate in one of the first and strongest women’s studies departments in the nation. I was being recruited by universities to take on faculty and administrative roles in advancing radical leftist ideologies. I genuinely believed that I was helping to make the world a better place. At the age of 36, I was one of the few tenured women at a large research university, a rising administrator, and a community activist. I had become one of the ‘tenured radicals.’ By all standards, I had made it. That same year, Christ claimed me for himself and the life that I had known and loved came to a humiliating end.” (ix)

14. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena / Anthony Marra
The best story I read in 2015 was this beautiful and brutal debut novel about a surgeon in war-torn Chechnya. Marra was asked about the book’s title and he replied:

“One day I looked up the definition of life in a medical dictionary and found a surprisingly poetic entry: ‘A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.’ As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.”

These characters stay with you. In a variety of ways, Constellation reminded me of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. I’m not ashamed to say that I wept like a baby when I got to the last page. Just a beautiful, heartrending story of loss and hope and “immense, spinning joy.” (379)

While were are on fiction, let me briefly mention two other novels that I loved.

15. Crossing to Safety / Wallace Stegner
Last year was a season of transition for me, for my family, and for several of our dearest friends in ministry. So I’m thankful to have read this wise and tender novel that follows the lives of two couples, the Morgans and the Langs, along with their joys and losses. When I think of Crossing to Safety, I’ll think of our family’s life on Capitol Hill: “There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness had its headquarters.” (6)

16. The Other / Thomas Tryon
This might not be your cup of tea but I couldn’t put The Other down. It’s bizarre, beautifully written, and by far the spookiest book that I’ve ever read. And the ending… wow. Tryon’s story has the power to makes an apple cellar on a bucolic New England farm seem menacing:

“I’ve told Miss DeGroot all kinds of stories about the apple cellar. She says it’s a spooky place; she’s right. Buried deep in the heart of the barn, with thick walls of New England traprock, and no electrical illumination, the room was a marvelously clandestine place. For six months of the year, October to March, the bushel baskets stood in rows, brimful with apples; onions dug out of the kitchen garden swagged from the rafters, and garlands of dried peppers, and along the shelves lay bunches of beets, parsnips, and turnips. But during the remaining months, its store of provender spent, the apple cellar served for other, more devious, employment. Shut away from the light, free from intrusion, you felt it was such a place as could be peopled by a boy’s imagination with all the creatures of his fancy, with kings, courtiers, and criminals—whatever; stage, temple, prison, down there seeds were sown, to grow magically overnight, like mushrooms. A place whose walls could be made to recede into airy spaciousness, the ceiling and floor into a limitless void, wood and stone and mortar dissolved at will. But in June, with the whole of the summer stretching endlessly before you, the apple cellar was forbidden and you had to be close and cunning not to get caught. You had matches hidden in a Prince Albert tobacco tin and a candle butt stuck in a Coca-Cola bottle for light. All was dead secret; you listened carefully, one ear cocked, fearful of discovery; you envisioned every sound a Betrayer, a Giant, a Walking Horror…” (9-10)

Did I mention the ending?

17. Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln / Richard Brookhiser
I try to spend time every year with masters of English prose. In 2014, I spent the year with Winston Churchill. In 2015, I lived with Abraham Lincoln. I thoroughly enjoyed Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. If you want a brief biography of Lincoln, check out Abraham Lincoln by James McPherson. As I slowly worked my way through Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, I stumbled across one of my favorite passages, Lincoln’s consoling letter to Mrs. Bixley, who had lost five sons in the Civil War:

November 21, 1864

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

Abraham Lincoln

As enjoyable as his speeches and letters were, the Lincoln book that will stay with me, and the one that I’ll return to again, is Richard Brookhiser’s Founder’s Son. Brookhiser shows how Lincoln’s “greatest curiosity was about the great things.” (301) I loved this book and I learned a bunch.

18. The Warmth of Other Suns / Isabel Wilkerson
In early 2015, a friend and dear brother in the Lord gave a sweet and challenging meditation on 1 Peter 3:8. One of his applications was, “Diversity with sympathy is key to unity. Diversity without sympathy is assimilation.” That got me thinking and I was provoked to spend more time reading books that might help me grow in understanding, tender-heartedness, sympathy, and brotherly love, especially for those who have experienced (and continue to endure) racism in all its manifold ugliness. No book served me more than The Warmth of Other Suns, a riveting history of the Great Migration told through the lives of four individuals who experienced the horrors of life in the Jim Crow South:

“Younger blacks could see the contradictions in their world—that, sixty, seventy, eighty years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, they still had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, were banished to jobs nobody else wanted no matter their skill or ambition, couldn’t vote, but could be hanged on suspicion of the pettiest infraction. These were the facts of their lives: There were days when whites could go to the amusement park and a day when blacks could go, if they were permitted at all. There were white elevators and colored elevators (meaning the freight elevators in back); white train platforms and colored train platforms. There were white ambulances and colored ambulances to ferry the sick, and white hearses and colored hearses for those who didn’t survive whatever was wrong with them. There were white waiting rooms and colored waiting rooms in any conceivable place where a person might have to wait for something, from the bus depot to the doctor’s office. A total of four restrooms had to be constructed and maintained at significant expense in any public establishment that bothered to provide any for colored people: one for white men, one for white women, one for colored men, and one for colored women… There was a colored window at the post office in Pensacola, Florida, and there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. White and colored went to separate windows to get their license plates in Indianola, Mississippi, and to separate tellers to make their deposits at the First National Bank of Atlanta. There were taxicabs for colored people and taxicabs for white people in Jacksonville, Birmingham, Atlanta, and the entire state of Mississippi. Colored people had to be off the streets and out of the city limits by 8 P.M. in Palm Beach and Miami Beach. Throughout the South, the conventional rules of the road did not apply when a colored motorist was behind the wheel. If he reached an intersection first, he had to let the white motorist go ahead of him. He could not pass a white motorist on the road no matter how slowly the white motorist was going and had to take extreme caution to avoid an accident because he would likely be blamed no matter who was at fault. In everyday interactions, a black person could not contradict a white person or speak unless spoken to first. A black person could not be the first to offer to shake a white person’s hand. A handshake could occur only if a white person so gestured, leaving many people having never shaken hands with a person of the other race. The consequences for the slightest misstep were swift and brutal. Two whites beat a black tenant farmer in Louise, Mississippi, in 1948, wrote the historian James C. Cobb, because the man ‘asked for a receipt after paying his water bill.’ It was against the law for a colored person and a white person to play checkers together in Birmingham. White and colored gamblers had to place their bets at separate windows and sit in separate aisles at racetracks in Arkansas. At saloons in Atlanta, the bars were segregated: Whites drank on stools at one end of the bar and blacks on stools at the other end, until the city outlawed even that, resulting in white-only and colored-only saloons. There were white parking spaces and colored parking spaces in the town square in Calhoun City, Mississippi. In one North Carolina courthouse, there was a white Bible and a black Bible to swear to tell the truth on.” (44-45)

To think that all of this happened in this country just a few decades ago. Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup, Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates were all unforgettable reads for me. The most poignant paragraph from these books was the one below from Jesmyn Ward, who tragically lost her brother, Joshua, in October 2000:

“Every year on the day he died, I wake up to the dread of another year passing. I lock myself in my room, wherever I am living, and I cry until my eyes swell shut. And at the edge of the longing, the terror that I will forget who he was and forget our lives together immobilizes me, pulls me down further, until I am like someone in those cartoons from our youth, stuck in a quagmire of quicksand, mired in the cold, liquid crush, and then: drowning. After Joshua died, my father stopped working, lived on Top Ramen and hot dogs by working odd jobs, and watched television on two different sets at the same time for hours a day. My mother cleans my brother’s grave every few weeks, picking stray grass, brushing the sand to an even smoothness. Every death anniversary, she takes to her room, closes her blinds, wraps herself in silence and darkness. Every year on his birthday, she buys mums for his grave and cleans the small ceramic figures of angels and teddy bears she’s placed around it, while Nerissa and Charine attach balloons, one for every birthday year, this year thirty-three, to his headstone. ‘I only dream of him as a child,’ my mother says. ‘He’s always my little boy.’ This is grief.” (242-243)

19. Spying in America / Michael Sulick
Can you keep a secret? The United States government clearly cannot. In this book, Michael Sulick, former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, details thirty fascinating espionage cases from the American Revolution to the Cold War. Imagine if David McCullough wrote a history of espionage. That’s what Spying in America is like. (And, while we’re on spying, if you’re looking for some fun spy novels, check out Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books. I liked this The English Spy, The Prince of Fire, and The Messenger).

20. The Boys in the Boat / Daniel James Brown
I enjoyed several nonfiction books abouts boats this year. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is the harrowing true story of the whale ship Essex that was attacked by a huge whale that later inspired Moby Dick. Erik Larson’s Dead Wake (I follow the simple rule of reading everything Larson writes.) tells the story of the sinking of the luxury ocean liner Lusitania by the Nazi U-boat in 1915 during the first year of WWII. But my favorite book about boats in 2015 was definitely The Boys in the Boat. It’s about the quest for rowing gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I was inspired by the story.

21. Beowulf: A New Translation / Translated by Seamus Heaney
One of my favorite reads from last year was N.D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur, which is a kind of modern re-telling of Beowulf with swamps and sugarcane fields and the Everglades and high school football. So I decided to reread the original Beowulf, an epic that I hadn’t read since college. I’ll probably tackle Tolkien’s translation in 2016, but for 2015 I chose the award-winning translation by Seamus Heaney, one of the best poets in the world. It did not disappoint. Even though it’s abridged, also consider checking out Heaney’s audiobook version.

22. Thirst: Poems / Mary Oliver
A few years ago, I was in a bookshop with my wife in Cape Cod and stumbled across Thirst, a collection by a poet who lived just up the road a bit, in Provincetown, MA. I’ve enjoyed Oliver’s poems ever since. (Check out: Blue Iris, Evidence, Swan, A Thousand Mornings, Blue Horses, and Felicity). Poets are shepherds of words. They can teach us to see and to say. Oliver has mainly helped me to marvel more at the beauty of God’s creation. “Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still learning to be astonished.” (“Messenger,” Thirst, p. 1). If you are looking for some wonderful poetry about the incarnation of our Lord, it’s hard to beat Accompanied by Angels by Luci Shaw.

23. The Wingfeather Saga / Andrew Peterson
I spent nearly all of 2015 traveling with my three children through the magical world of Aerwiar alongside the three amazing Wingfeather children. Peterson is a talented singer and songwriter (Dear Andrew, please bring the Behold the Lamb of God tour back to the DC area! We missed you this year). So I wasn’t surprised when we loved all four books in this bittersweet series:

My kiddos gave the following reviews:

Emmaline (6): “I like the characters. They all have creative names.”
Hudson (8): “I like the stories because they’re about a different world with interesting creatures.”
Elijah (9): “I like the Wingfeather books because they’re adventurous.”

Daddy likes how Peterson weaves the redemptive power of self-sacrificial love throughout the saga from beginning to end. “Blood was shed that you three might breathe the good air of life.” (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, 17)

The Warden and the Wolf King concludes with the following poem (516-517):

The world is whispering–listen child!–
The world is telling a tale.
When the seafoam froths in the water wild
Or the fendril flies in the gale,
When the sky is mad with the swirling storm
And thunder shakes the hall,
Child, keep watch for the passing form
Of the one who made it all.
Listen, child to the Hollish wind,
To the hush of heather down,
To the voice of the brook at the stony bend
And the bells of Rysentown.
The dark of the heart is a darkness deep
And the sweep of the night is wide
And the pain of the heart when the people weep
Is an overwhelming tide–
And yet! and yet! when the tide runs low
As the tide will always do
And the heavy sky where the bellows blow
Is bright at last, and blue
And the sun ascends in the quiet morn
And the sorrow sinks away,
When the veil of death and dark is torn
Asunder by the day,
Then the light of love is the flame of spring
And the flow of the river strong
And the hope of the heart as the people sing
Is an everlasting song.
The winter is whispering, “green and gold,”
And the heart is whispering, too–
It’s a story the Maker has always told
And the story, my child, is true.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

p.s. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Tolle Lege. If you like this blog, consider leaving a comment below with your favorite books of 2015. I’d enjoy learning what books you enjoyed.

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Filed under Bible, Book Reviews, Books, Christian Theology, Jesus Christ, Quotable Quotes, Reading, The Gospel, Writing

The Best Books I Read This Year (2014)

tl-books2014-1These are my fourteen favorite books that I read in 2014:

1. One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation / Marcus Peter Johnson
To be saved is to be united to the Savior because Jesus is in Himself the blessings He provides. John Murray once noted that nothing is more basic than a believer’s union with Christ. My favorite book of the year helped me see that few things are more beautiful. For example, Johnson writes:

“The Son’s relationship to His Father is everything to Him, for He has existed eternally in the intimate love of His Father. The love of the Father for His Son is the source of all love and the ground of all life. It is a love so extravagant that it overflowed into the creation of the world— God the Father created all things through and for His Son (Col. 1:16). In joining Himself to us, the Son of God has signaled the recreation of all things by opening up to us the love the Father has for Him. He became one with us to make known the love the Father has for Him. But let us be perfectly clear—Jesus came to do more than preach about the Father’s love for us; He came to make this love known in us. (John 17:25-26) To be joined to Jesus Christ is to participate in the love the Father has for the Son. It means we now belong to God as His children, and the Father now loves us no less than He loves His only begotten. It is difficult to conceive of a greater benefit than this because it impossible to conceive of a love deeper than this. How incredible, then, is the doxology that pours forth from John’s pen: ‘See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are’ (1 John 3:1). Jesus Christ is our salvation because in Him, and only in Him, we share in the love that alone can be called eternal life.” (pp. 167-168)

Isn’t that glorious? Get this book and read it slowly. You won’t regret it.

2. Expositional Preaching / David Helm
I’ve been blessed through the writing ministry of David Helm. I often use One to One Bible Reading in my discipling relationships and my daughter loves the Big Picture Story Bible. His latest book is on preaching and it’s excellent. He offers wise and practical instruction to help preachers to both faithfully get the text right and get the text across. The folks at 9Marks cranked out a bunch of jewels this year, but this one was my favorite.

3. Stoner / John Williams
The first novel I read in 2014 was the best I’ve read in a while. And it’s haunted me ever since. C.S. Lewis once reviewed a book by his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, and wrote the following: “Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realised. To them a review need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.” That’s pretty much how I feel about Stoner.

4. From the Mouth of God / Sinclair Ferguson
Imagine if you got coffee with a godly, wise, and seasoned minister of God’s Word and you asked him to share the greatest lessons he’s gleaned from his many decades of trusting, reading, and applying the Bible. That’s what it feels like reading this book. I read several excellent works on Scripture this year (like this one, this onethis one, and this one). But it was this one by Sinclair Ferguson that affected me the most.

5. Music At Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert / John Drury
If you love Herbert’s poetry, then you won’t want to miss this beautiful biography. Illuminating and moving throughout. 

6. American Spies / Michael Sulick
I live in a city with a higher concentration of spies than any other location in the world. Michael Sulick, a retired intelligence operations officer who was director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and chief of CIA counterintelligence, has written a fascinating study on espionage against the United States from the Cold War to the present that helps answer this question: What motivates people to sell their country’s most precious secrets?

7. Justification Reconsidered / Stephen Westerholm
This brief book is one of the most lucid and elegant treatments of justification that I’ve ever read. In a span of 100 pages, Westerholm helpfully, humbly, and critically interacts with recent proposals from New Perspectivists. Westerholm argues convincingly from the biblical text that “Justification through the gospel of Jesus Christ represents one way in which Paul can respond to the question inevitably provoked by a message of pending eschatological doom: ‘How can I find a gracious God?'” (p. 9)

8. Christ Our Life / Michael Reeves
Sometimes you know a book is gonna be good from the opening paragraph. Such is the case with Christ Our Life. Take it away Mr. Reeves:

“Jesus Christ, God’s perfect Son, is the Beloved of the Father, the Song of the angels, the Logic of creation, the great Mystery of godliness, the bottomless Spring of life, comfort and joy. We were made to find our satisfaction, our heart’s rest, in Him. Quite simply, this book will be about enjoying Him, revelling in His all-sufficiency for us, and considering all that He is: how He reveals such an unexpectedly kind God, how He makes, defines– how He is– the good news, and how He not only gives shape to but is Himself the shape of the Christian life.” (p. ix)

NOTE: This book will be published soon in America under the title Rejoicing In Christ.

9. The Gospel Story Bible / Marty Machowski
We used this book as part of our family worship in the mornings and absolutely loved it. Check out this sample and see for yourself.

10. With the Old Breed / E.B. Sledge
This book is a first-hand account of the experiences in training and combat of E.B. Sledge with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division during the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns in World War II. Sledge and his comrades were swept into an abyss of war and brutality that often beggars belief. He kept copious battle notes on slips of paper in his copy of the New Testament. Years later, he wrote about his war experiences to explain them to his family.

 “War is brutish, inglorious , and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other— and love. That esprit de corps sustained us.” (p. 316)

11. Master and Commander / Patrick O’Brian
I finally got around to reading the first volume in the Aubrey and Maturin series. It was just as good as advertised. The fun thing is knowing that the remaining 20 volumes (!) are really just one long and wonderfully told story of life and war and adventure on the high seas.

12. The Gospel at Work / Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert
John Piper once wrote, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.” One of the best sentences in The Gospel at Work is one that could transform your entire outlook on your job: “Who you work for is more important than what you do.” (p. 16) The writers do a fine job showing how working for King Jesus gives purpose and meaning to the work we do everyday.

13. The Painted Word / Philip Cousineau
If you’re in love with the English language and fascinated by words, then you should pick up a copy of The Painted Word which is billed as “A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their Origins.” That’s exactly what it is. I promise you’ll learn something interesting. Check out these two examples of things near and dear to my heart, books and coffee:

BOOK
A collection of words printed on paper and bound by covers. Tracing the roots of such an elemental word reminds me of what art critic Bernard Berenson called “the aesthetic moment,” which he defined as “that flitting instant so brief as to be timeless, when the spectator is at one with the work of art.” That’s what happened when I discovered that book comes from the Anglo-Saxon boc, the bark of a beech tree, traditionally believed to have emerged into German as buch, from Buche, beech. The page turns, and we’re into Old English boc, book, any written document. The notion is of beech-wood tablets on which runes were inscribed, but the word may come from the tree itself. (People still carve initials in them.) Latin and Sanskrit also have words for “writing” that are based on tree names (birch and ash, respectively). Book, meaning “libretto of an opera,” dates from 1768. The self-taught Cherokee scholar Tecumseh described books as “talking leaves.” The irrepressible Groucho Marx said, “I find television very educational. Every time someone turns on a set I go into the other room and read a book.” The first essayist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote, “Books give not wisdome where none was there. But where there is, reading makes it before.” My father was fond of the bookmarks handed out by his favorite bookstore in Dearborn, Michigan, which featured the words of Thomas Carlyle: “Blessings upon Cadmus or the Phoenicians or whoever it was that invented books.” The tea cookie inspired Marcel Proust to write, in In Search of Lost Time, “It seemed to be that they would not be my readers, but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a magnifying glass.” The ultimate mythologization of books is Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel: “On some shelf, in some hexagon, it was argued, there must be a book that is a cipher and a compendium of all other books.” Companion words include book as a verb, “to enter for a seat or place, issue tickets,” from 1841; betting book, from 1856; bookmaker, 1862. A bookkeeper was originally someone who never returns a borrowed book. (p. 43)

COFFEE
A tree, a beverage, a way of life. A beverage and a word that seems to have been around forever, but dates back only to 1598, when it appeared on the doorsteps of Europe as the Turkish kalve, from Arabic qalwa, and eventually Italian caffè. The crop grows in the tropics; the beverage is made in a café by percolation, infusion, or decoction from the roasted and ground seeds of any of several Old World tropical plants (genus Coffea, especially C. arabica and C. canephora). Its storied roots lie in the hills of Ethiopia, where, it is said, a goatherd noticed his flock capering about one afternoon. Wondering what had made them so capricious, goatlike, he watched them chewing a red berry from a bush. The roots of the word coffee probably come from the soil of Dutch koffie, from Turkish kaveh, and earlier from Arabia, where it was considered a kind of wine. Coffee entered the Western world during the Siege of Vienna, in 1529, when the marauding Turkish soldiers left their sacks of coffee beans behind when they were repelled at the gates of the city. The next day the victorious Austrians celebrated with croissants, as a tribute to the crescent moon that shone above the city the night of the attack. Coffeehouse, in merry old England, was vulgar slang for a woman who was taken advantage of, suggestive of “coming and going and spending nothing.” (p. 75)

See what I mean?

14. Boys of Blur / N.D. Wilson
Only a writer as talented as N.D. Wilson could take swamps and sugarcane fields and the Everglades and high school football and Beowulf and turn it into an amazing story. My two boys kept asking me to read and re-read the opening line of the book. They told me that hearing it read aloud was just fun. “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.” (p. 2).

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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The Best Books I Read This Year (2013)

These are my 13 favorite books that I read in 2013:

1. Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God / Brian Rosner
My favorite book of the year is this treatment of the Apostle Paul’s repudiation, replacement, and reappropriation of the Mosaic Law. Rosner brings a humble tone, a pastoral heart, and a lucid brevity to a notoriously complex conversation. Also be sure to check out Rosner’s lectures (audio and notes) that form the basis of the book. 

2. A New Testament Biblical Theology / G.K. Beale
It’s dense. It’s too long. And it’s repetitive. Did I say it was repetitive? But Beale’s book made me treasure my Bible and inspires me to read it more and more.

3. Poems / George Herbert
Pastors shepherd people. Poets shepherd words. Pastor-poets do both. George Herbert was a pastor and a poet. I enjoyed his poems all year long. Of Christ, Herbert wrote: “Much more him I must adore, Who of the law’s sour juice sweet wine did make, Ev’n God himself, being pressed for my sake.” If you want a good introduction to his work, check out A Year With George Herbert by Jim Scott Orrick.
 

4. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (John, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3) / J.C. Ryle
My pastor preached through the Gospel of John in 2013 and good Bishop Ryle’s Expository Thoughts was my blood-earnest companion from beginning to end.

“Weak, and feeble, and foolish as it may seem to man, the simple story of the Cross is enough for all the children of Adam in every part of the globe. The tidings of Christ’s death for sinners, and the atonement made by that death, is able to meet the hearts and satisfy the consciences of all nations, and peoples, and kindreds, and tongues. Carried by faithful messengers, it feeds and supplies all ranks and classes. ‘The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but to us who are saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Cor. 1:18.) Five barley loaves and two small fishes seemed scanty provision for a hungry crowd. But blessed by Christ, and distributed by His disciples, they were more than sufficient. Let us never doubt for a moment, that the preaching of Christ crucified,—the old story of His blood, and righteousness, and substitution,—is enough for all the spiritual necessities of all mankind. It is not worn out. It is not obsolete. It has not lost its power. We want nothing new,—nothing more broad and kind,—nothing more intellectual,—nothing more efficacious. We want nothing but the true bread of life which Christ bestows, distributed faithfully among starving souls. Let men sneer or ridicule as they will. Nothing else can do good in this sinful world. No other teaching can fill hungry consciences, and give them peace. We are all in a wilderness. We must feed on Christ crucified, and the atonement made by His death, or we shall die in our sins.”

–J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John, Vol. 1 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1869/2012), 229-230. Ryle is commenting on John 6:1-14.

5. Death By Living / N.D. Wilson
Wilson’s writing inspires me to see and to say. In Death By Living, he does both beautifully. But he also charged me to live. Here are three gems:

“This is a spoken world–from galaxies to inchworms from seraphs to electrons to meter maids every last thing was and is shaped ex nihilo. It–and we–all exist as beats and rhythms and rhymes in the cosmic and constant word art of the Creator God. To fully embrace and attempt to apply such a vision is… dizzying.”

“Understand this: we are both tiny and massive. We are nothing more than molded clay given breath, but we are nothing less than divine self-portraits, huffing and puffing along mountain ranges of epic narrative arcs prepared for us by the Infinite Word Himself. Swell with pride and gratitude, for you are tiny and given much. You are as spoken by God as the stars.”

“By His grace, we are the water made wine. We are the dust made flesh made dust made flesh again. We are the whores made brides and the thieves made saints and the killers made apostles. We are the dead made living.”

6. Les Misérables / Victor Hugo
Hugo’s classic was a huge investment of time but it was worth it. It’s such a great meditation on law and grace. One of my favorite passages was the description of a pastor counseling a criminal awaiting execution:

“Bishop Myriel sped off to the jail, rushed to the cell, called the murderer by his name, took his hand and talked to him. He spent all day and all night with him, forgetting about food and sleep and praying to God for the soul of the condemned man. He spoke to him of the highest truths, which are the simplest ones. He was a father, brother, friend; and only acted as a bishop to bless him. He taught him everything he could, reassuring him and consoling him as he did so. This man had been about to die in despair. Death for him had been an abyss. Standing, trembling, on the ghastly brink, he had shrunk back in horror. He couldn’t take his eyes off the fatal chinks in the wall and what lay on the other side and he could see only darkness. The bishop made him to see the light. The next day, when they went to get the poor man, the bishop was still there. He climbed into the cart with him and mounted the scaffold with him. The doomed man, so gloomy and horror-stricken the day before, was radiant. He felt his soul reconciled and he trusted himself to God. The bishop embraced him and, just as the blade was about to fall, he said to him, ‘Whomsoever man puts to death, God restores to life. Pray, believe, and enter into life! God the Father is there!’” (14-15)

7. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction / Alan Jacobs
This delightful book is dripping with wise reading counsel. The biggest takeaway: “Read what gives you delight– at least most of the time– and do so without shame.” (23)

8. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief / Lawrence Wright
This book is a meticulous exposé on the bizarre and brutal cult called the Church of Scientology. If you don’t want to read the whole book, just read Wright’s 2011 profile of Paul Haggis in The New Yorker.

9. Churchill: The Power of Words / Winston Churchill and The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill / Ed. James Humes
My fascination with Winston Churchill hung with me in 2013 and I expect it will drift on into the new year. These two books helped me appreciate Churchill’s love affair with the English language. He once remarked, “It was my ambition all my life to be master of the spoken word.” Read the following paragraph slowly and aloud. It’s masterful.  

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

10. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose / Flannery O’Connor
If you like Flannery’s short stories, then you’ll  eat up this book. Her wit and wisdom is on display throughout.

She’s witty.

  • On living with peacocks: “It is hard to tell the truth about this bird. The habits of any peachicken left to himself would hardly be noticeable, but multiplied by forty, they become a situation.”
  • On freaks: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
  • On bad writing: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

She’s wise.

  • “Fiction should be both canny and uncanny.”
  • “The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”
  • “I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don’t think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction.”

Her essay, “The King of the Birds,” is just plain delightful. I promise you that it’s the best thing you’ll ever read on raising peacocks.

11. My Man Jeeves / The Code of the Woosters / Carry On Jeeves / P.G. Wodehouse
If Allison found me laughing with a book in my hands, it was because I was reading Wodehouse. His stories are ripping and he’s “a black belt metaphor ninja.” But don’t just take my word for it.

12. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation / Herman Bavinck
If you want to read worshipful theology, then read Bavinck. I only wish I’d met him years ago.

“Every attribute of God is precious to believers. They cannot do without any of them. They desire no other God than the only true God, who has revealed Himself in Christ, and they glory in all His perfections in truth. Their adoration, their love, their thanksgiving, and praise are aroused not only by God’s grace and love but also by His holiness and righteousness, not only by God’s goodness but also by His omnipotence, not only by His communicable but also His incommunicable attributes.” (250)

13. The Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 3 / Thomas Brooks
Even though I didn’t finish this entire volume, I thoroughly enjoyed the portion that I read. Here’s an example of why I lingered for months in a work called “The Unsearchable Riches of Christ.”

“Sinners, don’t you deceive your own souls: sin and your souls must part, or Christ and your souls can never meet. Sin and your souls must be two, or Christ and your souls can never be one. Christ is a most precious commodity; He is better than rubies, Prov. 8:11, or the most costly pearls. And you must part with your old gold, with your shining gold, your old sins, your most shining sins, or you must perish forever. Christ is to be sought and bought with any pains, at any price. We cannot buy this gold too dear. He is a jewel worth more than a thousand worlds, as all know that have Him. Get Him, and get all; miss Him and miss all.” (203)

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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The Best Books I Read This Year (2012)

These are my twelve favorite books that I read in 2012:

1. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ / Herman Bavinck
Reading through this volume was the highlight of my reading life this year. Bavinck writes such worshipful theology. For example, after unpacking the hypostatic union, Bavinck writes: “How utterly the mystery of the union of the divine and human nature in Christ exceeds all our speaking and thinking of it. All comparison breaks down, for it is without equal. But it is, accordingly, the mystery of godliness, which angels desire to look into and the church worshipfully adores.”  (3:308).

2. Paul and Union With Christ / Constantine Campbell
Campbell examines every reference to union with Christ in the writings of the Apostle Paul. I’ve been awaiting a substantial, exegetical-theology of Spirit-wrought, faith-union with Christ for some time. This was worth the wait.

3. Instruction in Faith / John Calvin
I’d never heard of this gem of a book until Pastor Mark introduced it at Theology Breakfast earlier this year. It’s sort of like a 100-page mini-Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin writes: “True piety consists rather in a pure and true zeal which loves God altogether as Father, and reveres Him truly as Lord, embraces His justice and dreads to offend Him more than to die.” (22)

4. Smooth Stones From Ancient Brooks / Charles Spurgeon
In the preface of this wonderful collection of quotes from the Puritan Thomas Brooks, Spurgeon says: “As a writer, Brooks scatters stars with both his hands.” I agree wholeheartedly. I was so encouraged by Brooks that I dipped into several of his works. I kept stumbling into sentences like this one: “This is your glory, Christians: in the presence and sight of all your graces, to see the free grace of Christ, and His infinite, spotless, matchless, and glorious righteousness, to be your surest, sweetest, highest, and choicest comfort and refuge.” (The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 3, 86.)

5. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (John, Vol. 1) / J.C. Ryle
Before 2012, my only exposure to Ryle had been through his classic book on Holiness and the excellent posts over at J.C. Ryle Quotes courtesy of Erik Kowalker. I decided to delve more deeply into Ryle in 2012 and I enjoyed his company so much that I added him to my Canon of Theologians. His devotional commentary on John’s Gospel was food for my soul. I’m looking forward to spending more time with him in 2013. If you’re a pastor, be sure to check out his Simplicity in Preaching.

6. The Precious Promises of the Gospel / Joseph Alleine
If you’re looking for a great, short book to give away to a fellow believer who’s especially in need of spiritual comfort and encouragement, then I’d recommend this one. Alleine “impersonates” God speaking to His people by weaving the promises of Scripture into nearly every sentence of the book. My favorite section describes the day of the Christian’s death as “the birthday of glories.”

7. The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness / Tim Keller
A short but very convicting read. Keller reminded me that humility is not about thinking less of myself as much as it is about thinking of myself less. 

8.Delighting in the Trinity / Michael Reeves
Reeves helped me marvel at the beauty of our Triune God. Chapter 2, on the Father’s love, was particularly encouraging to me: “Knowing God as our Father not only wonderfully gladdens our view of Him; it also gives the deepest comfort and joy. The honor of it is stupefying. To be the child of some rich king would be nice; but to be the beloved of the emperor of the universe is beyond words.” (76)

9. What I Learned in Narnia / Douglas Wilson
10. Wordsmithy / Douglas Wilson
Wilson on Narnia. Wilson on writing. Enough said. Here is my favorite quote from the latter: “As a general pattern, read quality literature, and go ‘slumming’ occasionally to remind yourself what quality is and why quality matters. And when you go slumming, enjoy yourself. Don’t act like you just came down to check out the rubes and cornpones. In the writer’s restaurant, you should know what first rate cordon bleu is and, at the same time, not be above enjoying an elephant ear or a funnel cake at the state fair.” (Wordsmithy, 42).

11. Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 / Max Hastings
This is the best book I’ve ever read on WWII. Richly detailed and deeply moving.

12. Baseball and Memory: Winning, Losing, and the Remembrance of Things Past / Lee Congdon
If you love baseball, you’ll love this book. Congdon’s section on losing was worth the price of the book.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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The Best Books I Read This Year (2011)

These are my thirteen favorite books I read in 2011:

1. Unbroken / Laura Hillenbrand
This biography of Louie Zamperini was the best book I read in 2011. (Thank you, Russ Andrews, for recommending it to me!) As I read Unbroken I kept asking myself, “Why in the world have I not heard of Zamperini’s story before now?” Unbroken is unforgettable.

2. The Deep Things of God / Fred Sanders
This book helped me see more clearly how deeply Trinitarian the gospel truly is. I’m grateful to Sanders for writing this book and I’m grateful to God for being who He is: one God, three persons, blessed Trinity.

3. The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus (NSBT) / Alan Thompson
The majority of the volumes that I’ve read in the New Studies in Biblical Theology Series have been mildly disappointing. Don’t get me wrong. There are some golden books in this series (like this one and this one and this one). But when I picked up this book by an author from Australia that I’d never heard of, I have to admit that my expectations weren’t sky-high. What I discovered, though, was the best book I’ve ever read on the book of Acts. Thompson’s explanation of the kingdom of God in Luke-Acts is glorious.

4. Chosen For Life / Sam Storms
Most books on divine election are fuzzy and argumentative. Chosen For Life is clear and courteous. Storms provides a model for pastors who are seeking to faithfully understand, explain and apply this crucial doctrine.

5. Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices / Thomas Brooks
This was my first time reading a book by the Puritan Thomas Brooks. It won’t be my last. Here is a taste of what you will find in Precious Remedies: “Never let go out of your minds the thoughts of a crucified Christ. Let these be meat and drink unto you; let them be your sweetness and consolation, your honey and your desire, your reading and your meditation, your life, death, and resurrection.”

6. The Christian Faith / Michael Horton
I enjoyed Horton’s new systematic theology. You may not agree with all of his conclusions (I certainly don’t) but you won’t be bored or puzzled because Horton pens delightfully lucid sentences like this one: “What a wondrous thing it is that even though Jesus Christ has been exalted to the throne of God, absent from us in the flesh, we may nevertheless only now be united to Him in a manner far more intimate than the fellowship enjoyed by the disciples with Jesus during His earthly ministry.” (587) Wow.

7. Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian / John Piper
Vintage Piper. I read this book to learn more about race and racism. You get that in Bloodlines. But what you get most of all is the good news of God’s manifold grace in Jesus Christ.

8. A Year With George Herbert / Jim Scott Orrick
Every Sunday evening, after preaching to thousands of people in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Charles Haddon Spurgeon would ask his wife to read to him from the poet George Herbert. This Anglican poet refreshed the weary Spurgeon, who once said “I love George Herbert from my very soul.” You just can’t go wrong with 52 Christ-centered poems by Herbert with Professor Orrick as your guide.

9. In the Garden of Beasts / Erik Larson
Imagine what it would be like if you were the United States ambassador to Germany, living in Berlin during the rise of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime. Or you could just read this book and let Larson tell you this chilling true story.

10. Churchill / Paul Johnson
If you want a wonderful and brief biography then look no further than Johnson’s life of Winston Churchill. The book is brimming with excerpts from Churchill’s speeches. I really liked this one: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.” But my favorite Churchill line in the whole book is one he delivered while paying tribute to Royal Air Force fighter pilots: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Read that sentence again. Slowly. The epilogue alone is worth the price of the book.

11. Decision Points / George W. Bush
Few presidential memoirs are page-turners but this one is. I simply couldn’t put this book down. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about what this President did during his two terms in office. This book details why he did what he did and how he arrived at his major decisions. Interesting stuff.

12. All the Pretty Horses / Cormac McCarthy
This was the best novel I read all year. McCarthy is certainly not for everyone but I happen to enjoy his craft. No other author could write a paragraph quite like this one: “Dark and cold and no wind and a thin gray reef beginning along the eastern rim of the world. He walked out on the prairie and stood holding his hat like some supplicant to the darkness over them all and he stood there for a long time. As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes and creating out of the night the endless fenceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing groundshudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.” That run-on sentence is as long as a train. But it works, doesn’t it?

13. Writing Tools / Roy Peter Clark
I enjoy reading books on writing. Clark gives you 50 short chapters of writing tools instead of writing rules. Thanks to Clark, I will always remember to get the name of the dog.

With the Roark family moving to Washington, D.C. tomorrow, my blogging will probably be more erratic than usual for the next few weeks until we get settled on Capitol Hill.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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