These are my favorite books that I read in 2017. Better late than never. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.
My Top 12:
1. Christ Alone / Stephen Wellum
My favorite book this year was a beautiful volume on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Wellum argues convincingly that our understanding of who Jesus is and what He does must be developed from Scripture and its entire storyline. This is clearly written, exegetical theology at its finest.
There are many good things in life which legitimately demand our attention. Yet, it is far too easy to forget who is central to everything, namely our Lord Jesus. Given who our Lord is as God the Son incarnate; given what He has done for us as our new covenant head and incomparable Redeemer; given the absolute necessity of His work; given that He has represented us in obedient life and stood in our place in substitutionary death to pay for our sin and accomplish our eternal salvation; given that He is the all-sufficient Savior who meets all of our needs as our great prophet, priest, and king; given all of this, our only reasonable response is to submit ourselves to Him in complete trust, confidence, love, joy, worship, and obedience. He demands and deserves nothing less. (312)
2. How To Understand And Apply The New Testament / Andrew Naselli
There are lots of books that seek to explain how to interpret and apply the Bible. But I’d wager this is the only one in which you’ll find references to B.B. Warfield, D.A. Carson, Harry Potter, and Lebron James. Naselli is a fun and faithful guide who helped me look at the Book more carefully and responsibly. Chapter 5 on tracing the logical argument of a passage by arcing, bracketing, or phrasing is worth the price of the book.
Don’t miss the whole point of exegesis. It’s to know and worship God. So I pray that this book will help you exegete the text in a way that spreads a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Exegesis and theology are thrilling because they help you know and worship God. And only God satisfies. You most glorify God when He most satisfies you. He’s better than sex and shopping and new iPhones and hot pizza and chocolate and money and power and anything else your heart may crave. God reigns, saves, and satisfies through covenant for His glory in Christ. That is what you get to see from so many angles when you look at the Book. And when you understand exegesis and theology better, the praise gets richer. So why wouldn’t you look at the Book? (333)
3. Calvin’s Company of Pastors / Scott Manetsch
This book provides “a systematic study of Geneva’s ministers, their pastoral theology, and practical ministry activities during nearly three-quarters of a century from 1536 to 1609,” (8). Manetsch’s meticulous research is brimming with Reformational wisdom and includes one of the best quotes on heaven that I’ve ever read.
4. The Lord’s Prayer / Thomas Watson
When I read Thomas Watson, I often think: “I should read more Thomas Watson.” He’s the most Tweetable of all the Puritans. Short, pithy, and heart-searching:
“Affliction can hurt a man only while he is living, but sin hurts him when he is dead.” (309)
“Our Saviour will have us pray, ‘Give us bread this day,’ to teach us to live every day as if it were our last.” (202)
“God’s glory is as dear to a saint as his own salvation. And that this glory may be promoted he endeavors the conversion of souls.” (44)
“To forgive sin, is for God to cast our sins into the depths of the sea. ‘Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea,’ (Micah 7:19). This implies God’s burying them out of sight, that they shall not rise up in judgment against us. God will throw them in, not as cork that riseth again, but as lead that sinks to the bottom.” (215)
“The pearl of price, the Lord Jesus, is the quintessence of all good things. To give us Christ is more than if God had given us all the world. He can make more worlds, but He has no more Christs to bestow.” (206)
“Here is comfort for such as can, upon good grounds, call God ‘Father.’ There is more sweetness in this word ‘Father’ than if we had ten thousand worlds.” (15)
You can you see why I plan to mine the riches of Watson’s Body of Divinity in 2018.
5. Majesty in Misery, Vol. 3 / Charles Spurgeon
I read Spurgeon because he consistently leaves me staggered by the glory and the grace of Jesus Christ. This volume is the third in a trilogy of sermons focusing on the passion of the Christ. In a sermon entitled “Christ’s Dying Words For His Church,” Spurgeon writes:
“It appears to me, that if Christ finished the work for us, He will finish the work in us.” (209)
Isn’t that wonderful? I’ve not even come close to reading all that Spurgeon wrote. I’m not sure anyone actually has. But I’ve realized that the man could write on just about anything and make it interesting. Even mosquitoes! But this much I know: Spurgeon on the cross of Christ is not to be missed.
6. All That Is In God / James Dolezal
God is simple. That is, God isn’t compounded or made up of parts. He’s not the sum of His parts. God’s attributes, His excellencies, are identical with His essence. God isn’t just loving; He is love (1 John 4:8). God isn’t just holy; He is holiness (1 John 1:5). This is what classical Christian theism teaches. Dolezal is concerned by recent denials of this vital truth by advocates of theistic mutualism: “The chief problem I address in this work is the abandonment of God’s simplicity and of the infinite pure actuality of His being.” This book on God’s simplicity isn’t simple. It’s what C.S. Lewis called “a tough bit of theology.” But, I believe if you work your way through it carefully and prayerfully, then you’ll find that your heart sings unbidden before the only Sovereign, the immortal God who is the great I AM.
7. God Is / Mark Jones
A few years ago, Mark Jones penned a delightful book called Knowing Christ. Jones does something similar in this volume where he focuses his exegetical attention on God’s attributes. In 27 brief chapters, Jones glories in the God who is Triune, simple, Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, independent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, Yahweh, blessed, glorious, majestic, sovereign, love, good, patient, merciful, wise, holy, faithful, gracious, just, angry, and anthropomorphic. This book is worth reading simply for all the amazing citations from Puritans like Stephen Charnock and John Owen and Thomas Watson.
8. The Story of Scripture / Matthew Emerson
I spent June 2016 – June 2017 doing a deep dive in several biblical theology volumes as research for a writing project. Many books in this field are rich but technical and advanced. For example, one book that’s served me well while preaching through the Gospel according to Mark has been Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark by Rikki Watts. It’s illuminating but also rather thick at times. So when I come across a book of biblical theology that’s clearly written, worshipful, accessible, and grounded and governed by the biblical text, I’m eager to share it with others. Matthew Emerson’s new book is just that. I knew it was going to be an outstanding work even before I finished reading the acknowledgements:
And I am eternally and fundamentally grateful to our Triune God, without whom I would still be blind to the truths of Scripture and deaf to its call to repent and believe in the incarnate, crucified-and-resurrected Son of God. I would be wandering in a story of my own making, a story without meaning and point. Instead, because of the graciousness of God in Christ, I am by the power of his Spirit finding my place in his story, the story of the world that finds its center in the person and work of Jesus.
Emerson tells the Story, and he tells it quite well. See for yourself.
9. Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel / Ray Ortlund
It’s been said before that the Bible begins (Genesis 2) and ends (Revelation 19) with a wedding. Ray Ortlund humbly and beautifully unpacks the meaning of marriage in his typical Gospel-centered way.
Marriage is not a human invention; it is a divine revelation. Its design never was our own made-up arrangement of infinite malleability. It was given to us, at the beginning of all things, as a brightly shining fixity of eternal significance. We might not always live up to its true grandeur. None of us does so perfectly. But we have no right to redefine it, and we have every reason to revere it. Only the Bible imparts to us a vision of marriage so transcendent and glorious, far beyond human variation and even human failure. Marriage is of God and reveals a wonderful truth about God. And we have no right to change the face of God in the world. All we can rightly do is receive what God has revealed with gladness and humility. (11)
10. Missions / Andy Johnson
This wise 9Marks volume wins “The Book I’ve Given Away Most to My Congregation in 2017 Award.” The strength of this little book lies in the confidence it produces in Christ’s unhindered gospel and in His unstoppable mission:
We should have confidence because we know the mission will not fail. We may fail in our faithfulness, but God will not fail in His mission. Christ will have the nations for His inheritance. Frantic speculation and guilt are weak motivators compared with the truth of God’s unstoppable plan to rescue every child for whom Christ died. Christ will not lose any of those whom the Father has given Him, and God has chosen to use us– in countless local churches– as the agents of His gospel triumph. (120)
11. The Tech-Wise Family / Andy Crouch
12. 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You / Tony Reinke
I’m grateful to God for help in thinking through the questions related to technology and family and Christian discipleship. Both Andy Crouch and Tony Reinke have written excellent books that serve the the church in these areas. The scope of Crouch’s volume is more broad, while Reinke’s is more narrow. Yet both are hugely helpful. Crouch notes:
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.
Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another. Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.
Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding (our family spent some joyful and awefilled hours when our children were ill middle school watching the beautifully produced BBC series Planet Earth). It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.
Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. If there’s one thing I’ve discovered about technology, it’s that it doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; much like my children’s toys and stuffed creatures and minor treasures, it finds its way underfoot all over the house and all over our lives. If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess. (20-21)
Reinke rightly observes that “technology tends to feed our vanity and kill our wonder.” (207-208) Does this mean you should you trade in your smartphone for a dumbphone? Maybe. Reinke concludes his volume with several helpful diagnostic questions:
1. What does my smartphone cost me per year if I add up the price of the device, insurance protection, covers and cases, and monthly service?
2. Do I need mobile web access to fulfill my calling in vocation or ministry?
3. Is texting essential to my care for others? Do those texts need to be seen in real time? And is the smartphone the only way to do it?
4. Do I need mobile web access to legitimately serve others?
5. Do I need mobile web access to navigate unfamiliar cities? Is the device an essential part of my travels?
6. Do I need my smartphone to take advantage of coupons in stores? How much money would I save instead without a smartphone data plan?
7. Can my web access wait? Is the convenience of mobile web access something I can functionally replace with structured time at a laptop or desktop computer later?
8. Can I get along just as well with a dumbphone, a WiFi hotspot, an iPod, or a tablet?
9. Can I listen to audio and podcasts in other ways (through an iPod, for example)?
10. Have I simply grown addicted to my phone? If so, can the problem be solved with moderation, or do I need to just cut it off?
11. Do the mobile lures of my phone insulate me from people and real needs around me?
12. Do I want my kids to see me gazing at a handheld screen so much as they grow up? What does this habit project to them and to others around me? (197-198)
These two books helped me rethink the way I use my iPhone and the ways I use/don’t use social media. They’ve produced good conversations with my bride this year and, I’m sure, these conversations will continue into 2018. I’m grateful to God for both of these brothers and for their books.
Honorable Mention: The Bible Project Coffee Table Book / The Bible Project
The book my three children enjoyed the most this year was definitely this labor of love from the good folks at The Bible Project. This book is spectacular. Imagine having a literary diagram and written summary of every book in Scripture. It’s a visual learner’s dream come true. If you’ve been helped at all by their Read Scripture videos, consider getting a copy of the print version of this series.
My Next 12:
13. Deep Work / Cal Newport
Cal Newport is a best-selling author. He’s a millennial. He’s an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. And yet he doesn’t have any social media accounts. Why? Because Newport is committed to deep work, which he defines as follows: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (3) Newport argues persuasively that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. His chapter on quitting social media is the most provocative in the book. If you want a taste of Newport’s message, watch his TedTalk on the subject.
14. Killers of the Flower Moon and The Devil & Sherlock Holmes / David Grann
David Grann is one of my favorite investigative feature writers from The New Yorker. In 2004, he wrote a piece about those who search for the mysterious giant squid entitled “The Squid Hunters.” I’ve been a huge fan ever since. His other famous long-reads include:
You can find other interesting examples of his work in the collection The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. But if you’re only going to read one thing by Grann, it should be Killers of the Flower Moon. He weaves a tragic and disturbing tale of greed, racism, deceit, murder, and justice:
In the early twentieth century, the members of the Osage Nation became the richest people per capita in the world, after oil was discovered under their reservation, in Oklahoma. Then they began to be mysteriously murdered off. In 1923, after the death toll reached more than two dozen, the case was taken up by the Bureau of Investigation, then an obscure branch of the Justice Department, which was later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case was among the F.B.I.’s first major homicide investigations. After J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the bureau’s director, in 1924, he sent a team of undercover operatives, including a Native American agent, to the Osage reservation.
You can read the book’s opening chapter article here to whet your appetite. But I promise that you’ll want to see for yourself how this sad and shocking story ends.
15. Hero of the Empire and Destiny of the Republic / Candice Millard
It seems impossible for Candice Millard to write an uninteresting book. Last year, I picked up The River of Doubt, a tale about Theodore Roosevelt’s quest into the Amazon. I loved it. So I went on a quest of my own to devour everything she’s written. If you like reading well-told history, you’ll dig Candice Millard’s books. Hero is about the young Winston Churchill’s dramatic escape from a prison camp during the Boer War. Destiny covers the sad and shocking assassination of President James Garfield, an extraordinary man of whom I knew far too little about. Both are excellent reads.
16. Battle For Middle-Earth / Fleming Rutledge
In the flurry of “best books of the year” posts, I saw a slew of positive endorsements for Rutledge’s magnum opus Crucifixion. While I read and appreciated some aspects of this work, I actually enjoyed her theological commentary on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings far more. I make it a point to try and read LOTR every year, and Rutledge was my companion this year as I journeyed with Frodo and Sam from Hobbiton in the Shire to Mount Doom and back again. Her comments throughout are textual, insightful, and illuminating. For those of us who often breath the sweet air of Middle Earth, this is a book worth reading.
17. The Secret History / Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s most famous novel, The Goldfinch, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Her debut novel, The Secret History, is not as well known and, perhaps, for good reason. It’s nerdy. It’s literary. It’s bookish. It’s highfalutin. It’s gloomy. It’s way too long. It’s filled with untranslated Greek. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s got this startling opening paragraph, and that’s all it took to reel me in:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston. (1)
18. True Grit / Charles Portis
Speaking of Donna Tartt, she once wrote:
It’s commonplace to say that we ‘love’ a book, but when we say it, we really mean all sorts of things. Sometimes we mean only that we have read a book once and enjoyed it; sometimes we mean that a book was important to us in our youth, though we haven’t picked it up in years; sometimes what we ‘love’ is an impressionistic idea glimpsed from afar as opposed to the experience of wallowing and plowing through an actual text, and all too often people claim to love books they haven’t read at all. Then there are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart; that cheer us when we are sick or sad and never fail to amuse us when we take them up at random; that we press on all our friends and acquaintances; and to which we return again and again with undimmed enthusiasm over the course of a lifetime. I think it goes without saying that most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece. Not only have I loved True Grit since I was a child; it is a book loved passionately by my entire family. I cannot think of another novel—any novel—which is so delightful to so many disparate age groups and literary tastes. (215-216)
I love True Grit, too. What’s it about? In the opening paragraph, the young Mattie Ross sets the stage:
People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened. (9)
The dialogue in this novel is simply superb. One of my favorite exchanges in the book happens when Mattie is trying to find someone to avenge her father’s death:
“Who is the best marshal they have?”
The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L. T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”
I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?” (22-23)
And you’ll also find surprising theological jewels like this one:
The Indian woman spoke good English and I learned to my surprise that she too was a Presbyterian. She had been schooled by a missionary. What preachers we had in those days! Truly they took the word into “the highways and hedges.” Mrs. Bagby was not a Cumberland Presbyterian but a member of the U.S. or Southern Presbyterian Church. I too am now a member of the Southern Church. I say nothing against the Cumberlands. They broke with the Presbyterian Church because they did not believe a preacher needed a lot of formal education. That is all right but they are not sound on Election. They do not fully accept it. I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. Read I Corinthians 6:13 and II Timothy 1:9, 10. Also I Peter 1:2, 19, 20 and Romans 11:7. There you have it. It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too. (109-110)
19. The Last Kingdom / Bernard Cornwell
Have you ever discovered a book you enjoy and then find out that it’s the first in a larger series of stories? My favorite historical fiction series is the sweeping Aubrey-Maturin collection by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve just begun the fourth novel, The Mauritius Command, and I’m thrilled to know that 16 more of these beautiful sea adventures still await me. I had the same experience when I came across The Last Kingdom, the first of ten volumes in Cornwell’s Saxon Tales. This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms. Here’s a flavor of Cornwell’s writing, when the main character sees the Viking ships approaching for the very first time:
And then I saw them. Three ships. In my memory they slid from a bank of sea mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is a faulty thing and my other images of that day are of a clear, cloudless sky, so perhaps there was no mist, but it seems to me that one moment the sea was empty and the next there were three ships coming from the south. Beautiful things. They appeared to rest weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. Their prows and sterns curled high and were tipped with gilded beasts, serpents, and dragons, and it seemed to me that on that far-off summer’s day the three boats danced on the water, propelled by the rise and fall of the silver wings of their oar banks. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged, and the beast-headed boats surged, and I stared entranced. The three boats had been rowing northward, their square sails furled on their long yards, but when we turned back south to canter homeward on the sand so that our horses’ manes tossed like wind-blown spray and the hooded hawks mewed in alarm, the ships turned with us. Where the cliff had collapsed to leave a ramp of broken turf we rode inland, the horses heaving up the slope, and from there we galloped along the coastal path to our fortress. (5)
20. 1984 / George Orwell
The best futuristic fiction is often utterly prescient. If you haven’t reread 1984 since high school, it’s high time you do so.
“BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” (3)
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” (3)
“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” (31)
“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.” (44)
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” (154)
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” (168)
“For the first time he perceived that if you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.” (177)
“He loved Big Brother.” (187)
21. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 / Volker Ullrich
Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, once asked, “How did Adolf Hitler — described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a ‘half-insane rascal,’ a ‘pathetic dunderhead,’ a “nowhere fool,’ a ‘big mouth’ — rise to power in the land of Goethe and Beethoven? What persuaded millions of ordinary Germans to embrace him and his doctrine of hatred? How did this ‘most unlikely pretender to high state office’ achieve absolute power in a once democratic country and set it on a course of monstrous horror?” Ullrich supplies the tragic answer in this first of a two-volume series. It’s long, at over 1,000 pages. But it’s very well written. A timely read.
22. Theodore Rex / Edmund Morris
I spent much of this year hanging out again with Teddy Roosevelt. Last year just wasn’t enough time for me to get to know him, and after spending the year going slowly through volume two in Morris’ magisterial series, I’ve once again been entertained and amazed at the whirling dervish of personality that was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.. He was quite a piece of work. There are so many splendid examples of the Rooseveltian intensity, strenuosity, and enchantment in Theodore Rex. I commend the book to you and end by quoting from the personal reflections of Captain Archibald Willingham de Graffenreid Butt (what a name!), the President’s military aide from Georgia who visited Teddy at his home in Sagmore Hill:
Captain Butt stayed at Sagamore Hill for four more days, enchanted by the Roosevelt family, while they in turn found him to be unflappable, tireless, well-bred, and discreet. Like the President, he was a heroic trencherman, and matched Roosevelt plate by oversized plate, from double helpings of peaches and cream for breakfast, followed by fried liver and bacon and hominy grits with salt and butter (“Why, Mr. President, this is a Southern breakfast-), through three-course lunches and meat dinners suppurating with fat. “You think me a large eater,” Butt wrote in his next letter home. “Well, I am small in comparison to him. But he has a tremendous body and really enjoys each mouthful. I never saw anyone with a more wholesome appetite, and then he complains of not losing flesh. I felt like asking him today: ‘How can you expect to.)’ ”
Between meals, there was much strenuous activity. Butt discovered during a midsummer deluge (as Ambassador Jusserand had discovered during a February snowstorm) that Roosevelt considered tennis to be a game for all seasons. The sodden ball was smashed to and fro. Swimming and water-fighting, too, were by their nature compatible with rain. When heat built up in the woods, the President was impelled to seize an ax and get in fuel for the winter. “I think Mr. Roosevelt cuts down trees merely for the pleasure of hearing them fall,” Butt wrote. “Just as he swims and plays tennis merely for the pleasure of straining his muscles and shouting. Yet when he reads he has such powers of concentration that he hears no noise around him and is unable to say whether people have been in the room or not.” The President’s strenuosity extended even to ghost stories. “I want ghosts who do things. I don’t care for the Henry James kind of ghosts. I want real sepulchral ghosts, the kind that knock you over and eat fire… none of your weak, shallow apparitions.”
Much of Roosevelt’s library time that weekend was devoted to books and maps about Africa. He talked about it continually. “You know how you feel when you have all but finished one job and are eager to get at another. Well, that is how I feel. I sometimes feel that I am no longer President, I am so anxious to get on this trip.” He hoped that by the time he came down the Nile, to meet up with Edith in Cairo, he would be “sufficiently forgotten” to return home “without being a target for the newspapers.” Winthrop asked what quarry he feared the most in East Africa. The answer came promptly: “You can kill the lion by shooting him in any part of the body, but his alertness and agility make him the most dangerous to me.”
Roosevelt moved on to discuss the King of Abyssinia, Albert Beveridge’s affectations, Shakespeare’s “compressed thought,” and the Book of Common Prayer, with interspersed witticisms that had his listeners roaring with laughter. “His humour is so elusive, his wit so dashing and his thoughts so incisive that I find he is the hardest man to quote that I have ever heard talk,” Butt wrote. “In conversation he is a perfect flying squirrel, and before you have grasped one pungent thought he goes off on another limb whistling for you to follow.” (532-533)
23. Hellhound On His Trail / Hampton Sides
This book tells the story of one of the darkest moments in America’s history, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sides then details the subsequent search for the killer, James Earl Ray, which was the largest manhunt in American history.
24. Ten Restaurants That Changed America / Paul Freedman
Almost half the meals eaten in America take place outside the home. I’ve eaten at restaurants all my life but I’d never once considered the history of restaurants in America until I read this book:
This book is not about the ten best restaurants that ever existed in the United States. Some of the establishments on our list have served marvelous food; others changed how we eat, even if in retrospect their innovations don’t seem so wonderful or their food fails to satisfy today’s tastes. The selection is based on influence and exemplification: the importance of each restaurant for setting or reflecting trends in what Americans think about food and particularly dining out. Culinary fashions, as social history shows us, are determined not just by the upper classes who pride themselves on discernment but by the enthusiasms of less pretentious people for modest but ubiquitous places to eat, such as coffee shops, ice-cream parlors, or highway restaurants. What we eat today is the result of the innovations of these ten restaurants.
The opening chapter on Delmonico’s is, as you might expect, mouth-watering.
My Final 12:
25. Shark Drunk / Morten Strøksnes
Perhaps the most unique book I read in 2017 was subtitled, “The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean.” Even though the author writes from an utterly secular perspective, I still found times when his description of creation led me to worship. I pray Mr. Strøksnes comes to know the One deserving of all worship, the One who made the Greenland shark as a display of His matchless glory:
On land, life is lived horizontally. Almost everything takes place on the ground, or at most on a level with the tallest trees. Of course birds can fly higher, but even they spend the majority of their time near the ground. The sea, on the other hand, is vertical, an interconnected column of water with an average depth of approximately 12,000 feet. And there is life from top to bottom. The vast majority of living space on earth, so to speak, can be found in the sea. All other landscapes, including the rain forests, pale in comparison. If we combine what we know about the ocean’s depths, from a purely logical point of view we can conclude that everything found on land—all the mountains, ridges, fields, forests, deserts, even the cities and other man-made phenomena—all this could easily fit into the sea. The average elevation on land is only 2,700 feet. Even if we dumped the whole Himalayan range into the deepest part of the ocean, it would make only a big splash before the mountain chain sank and disappeared without a trace. There is so much water in the ocean that if we imagined the entire seafloor rising up to what is now the surface, all the continents would be totally covered under many miles of salt water. Only the tops of the tallest mountains would stick up out of the ocean. (35)
There is an enormous amount of water in outer space. But in our own solar system, water—in liquid form—presumably exists only on our planet. The earth is the perfect distance from the sun. If we had been farther out in the solar system, all our water would have been in the form of ice or vapor, as in the sperm-like tails of comets racing away from the sun. The earth is big enough for gravity to hold the atmosphere in place, even though that’s not a given. And we’re not close enough to any giant planet with so much gravitational pull that every flow tide would make a wave several hundred feet high wash over the whole planet, like in the movie Interstellar. On Neptune, harsh conditions prevail. Icy winds blowing at more than twelve hundred miles per hour are constantly sweeping across the planet’s polished white surface. The average temperature is about minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit. The distance from our earth to the sun is such that most of our water is liquid. Without these conditions, the water would be ice or gas, if it was present at all. And life as we know it wouldn’t be able to exist. (112)
Moonlight takes more than a second to reach earth. Sunlight takes eight minutes. It occurs to me that astronomers are archaeologists or geologists, searching for fossils of light. Nothing happens in real time; everything we see is from the past. We’re always lagging slightly behind. Even in our interactions, even inside our own heads, we’re a millionth of a second behind. Our own Milky Way, which is one among billions of galaxies, is a hundred thousand light-years in diameter. (113)
Today the sea is not quiet. We know that even before we reach the seaward side. But it’s not outright hostile either. The fourteen-footer sits noticeably low in the water, for obvious reasons. Luckily the sea isn’t too rough, just long breakers that won’t put our heavy, listless boat to the test. Of course that could all change, and much faster than the time it would take to get back to harbor. The boat could serve as a deep freezer. It probably contains enough ice for two thousand cocktails, and four thousand whisky on the rocks. A couple of drinks would be great right now, to stop me from worrying about heading into the open Lofoten Sea in this frozen boat. The seagulls are silent, the snow sparkling white. Even the sun seems cold. For me, coming from the big city only yesterday, the dazzling clear surroundings and the wide horizon are refreshment for my soul. Yet there’s something about the sea today that has me concerned. What could be lurking behind the silvery-white and viscous fluidity? It’s like staring into a glass eye. (169)
To find out what’s lurking just below the service, you’ll have to read Shark Drunk for yourself.
26. Off Speed / Terry McDermott
The best sports book I read in 2017 was far and away this gem of a baseball book by Terry McDermott. He uses the perfect game tossed by King Felix in August 2012 against Tampa Bay as a backdrop to wax eloquent about the sweet science of pitching a baseball, that five-ounce ball roughly the size of your fist. McDermott covers the history and mechanics of the fastball, curveball, spitball, sinker, knuckleball, slider, split, cutter, and change-up.
Consider the major league hitter’s basic problem. The pitcher stands on a small hill sixty feet six inches, give or take a foot, depending on where in the batter’s box the hitter stands. The pitcher strides forward before he throws, and, by the time he releases the ball, has already shrunk the distance between him and the hitter by almost 10 percent. An average fastball from an average pitcher leaves his hand at about 90 mph. A pitcher of average size throwing at average speed gives the hitter approximately four-tenths of a second to see, identify, and attack a pitch. That is about how long it takes to blink your eyes twice. The batter is using an implement uniquely unsuitable to accomplishing his task. A baseball bat is normally somewhat less than a yard long; it weighs somewhere between twenty-nine and thirty-six ounces. At its thickest part it is 2.25 inches in diameter. If the bat is to strike the ball solidly, the ball must hit near the center of the bat’s circumference about six inches from the bat’s end. The spot varies from bat to bat, depending on the type and hardness of the wood and the shape and weight of the bat, but at its largest this spot is about five square inches in area. Think of that for a moment. A hitter must swing a yardlong piece of round wood in such a way that he contacts a small round ball moving faster than he is legally allowed to drive his car. The contact has to occur within a fivesquare-inch area of the wood. The plane of the strike zone varies from hitter to hitter but is theoretically seventeen inches wide and approximately two feet tall. Of course, the zone is not a plane at all, but a volume of approximately 4.5 cubic feet. It extends from the front of home plate to the rear, and a ball passing through it at any point is supposed to be a strike. In real life, the zone tends to be wider and shorter than the rulebook stipulates. Nonetheless, the batter is defending more than four cubic feet of space with a five-square-inch weapon, and he has to swing the bat at a speed of 70 mph in order to move it from his shoulder to the center of the plate. “It is far more likely that the pitcher will accidentally throw the ball in the way of the hitter’s bat than it is for the hitter to time the pitch perfectly and execute flawless swing mechanics to achieve 100 percent on-time contact on their own,” according to Perry Husband, who has studied pitcher-batter interactions extensively. The deck, in other words, is stacked. (7-8)
Early baseball was a hitter’s sport. Hitters could request pitchers to throw the ball in specific locations. Teams routinely scored dozens of runs, sometimes as many as one hundred. Pitchers were placed inside a box about forty feet from the hitters and were required to throw the ball underhanded. They were also supposed to throw the ball as slowly as possible. To ensure the speed limit was adhered to, the pitcher was required to keep his wrist stiff. The rule makers might as well have served the ball to hitters on a platter, which was exactly the point. The rule specified: “The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat. ” It was more like slow-pitch softball, or coach-pitch Little League, than the game we know today. (26)
When a man throws a baseball, it travels at whatever speed he is able to impart to it through the levers of his throwing motion. There is an upper limit, imposed by human physiology, on this speed. It appears to be something less than 110 mph, perhaps as low as 106 mph. By manipulating his grip on the ball and the motion of his wrist at release, the pitcher imparts spin to the pitch. As the ball moves through the air, the spin causes the ball to move in a certain, predictable direction. Because of the spin, the air on one side of the ball moves faster than the other, resulting in uneven pressure on the ball, making it curve in the direction of the lower pressure. This is known as the Magnus Force. Additionally, no matter how fast a ball is thrown, gravity pulls the ball toward the earth as it hurtles homeward. Finally, air resistance, or drag, slows the ball down. A typical major league pitch will lose about 10 percent of its release velocity by the time it gets to the hitter. A 100 mph fastball will be traveling at about 90 mph when it reaches the vicinity of home plate…In the time it takes your brain to register that a baseball has been thrown at it, the baseball has already eliminated a third of the distance between you and it. (81-82, 83-84)
You don’t have to know what Magnus Force is to enjoy this book.
27. The Genius of Birds / Jennifer Ackerman
Reading books is often an exercise in humility because you realize how little you actually know. There’s so much in this God-spoke world that we simply don’t know. I was humbled throughout The Genius of Birds. I was provoked by the title. What’s so special about birds? Well, it turns out, quite a lot actually.
For a long time, the knock on birds was that they’re stupid. Beady eyed and nut brained. Reptiles with wings. Pigeon heads. Turkeys. They fly into windows, peck at their reflections, buzz into power lines, blunder into extinction. Our language reflects our disrespect. Something worthless or unappealing is “for the birds.” An ineffectual politician is a “lame duck.” To “lay an egg” is to flub a performance. To be “henpecked” is to be harassed with persistent nagging. “Eating crow” is eating humble pie. The expression “bird brain,” for a stupid, foolish, or scatterbrained person, entered the English language in the early 1920s because people thought of birds as mere flying, pecking automatons, with brains so small they had no capacity for thought at all. That view is a gone goose. In the past two decades or so, from fields and laboratories around the world have flowed examples of bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those found in primates. There’s a kind of bird that creates colorful designs out of berries, bits of glass, and blossoms to attract females, and another kind that hides up to thirty-three thousand seeds scattered over dozens of square miles and remembers where it put them months later. There’s a species that solves a classic puzzle at nearly the same pace as a five-year-old child, and one that’s an expert at picking locks. There are birds that can count and do simple math, make their own tools, move to the beat of music, comprehend basic principles of physics, remember the past, and plan for the future. (1-2)
Many bird species are highly social. They breed in colonies, bathe in groups, roost in congregations, forage in flocks. They eavesdrop. They argue. They cheat. They deceive and manipulate. They kidnap. They divorce. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war with twigs, strands of Spanish moss, bits of gauze. They pilfer from their neighbors. They warn their young away from strangers. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. (101)
The sheer profusion and precision of a mockingbird’s imitated songs is a marvel. A tally of one mockingbird’s tunes captured twenty imitations of calls and songs per minute: nuthatches, kingfisher, northern cardinal, kestrel, even the high-pitched seep seep seep begging of a mockingbird chick. The Arnold Arboretum mocker of Boston was said to mimic thirty-nine birdsongs, fifty birdcalls, and the notes of a frog and a cricket. You can tell where a mockingbird lives by the songs he sings. So particular is a song to its bird that individual birds within a population may share only 10 percent of their song patterns. When it came to describing the mockingbird’s imitative skills, the ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush dropped all pretense of scientific detachment, trumpeting the mocker as “the king of song” surpassing “the whole feathered choir.” No wonder the Native Americans of South Carolina called the bird Cencontlatolly, or “Four Hundred Tongues.” It’s only a small exaggeration. Mockingbirds regularly imitate as many as two hundred different songs. (147)
Birds wearing tiny geolocator backpacks have revealed the details of their marathon migrations. The tiny blackpoll warbler, a bird of boreal forest, leaves New England and eastern Canada each fall and migrates to South America, flying nonstop over the Atlantic to its staging grounds in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Greater Antilles—a flight of up to seventeen hundred miles—in just two or three days. The Arctic tern, a bird who lives by his love of long daylight and bent for high mileage, circles the world in orbit with the seasons, flying from its nesting grounds in Greenland and Iceland to its wintering grounds off the coast of Antarctica—a round-trip of almost forty-four thousand miles. In an average thirty-year lifetime, then, a tern may fly the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back. How in the world does it find its way? How does a red knot resting at Cape May on its spring journey north from Tierra del Fuego know how to pinpoint last year’s breeding grounds in the distant northern Arctic? How does a European bee-eater traveling south from its summer season in a farm field in Spain find a course over the Sahara to its familiar patch of West African forest? How does a bristle-thighed curlew or a sooty shearwater steer homeward over a vast and featureless expanse of sea? As one who gets easily lost in a small patch of woodland, I’m in awe of the navigating abilities of birds. How can they accomplish a feat few humans can carry out even with the help of a compass? (199)
The fog is lifting. I can begin to make out the undulant curtain of the Blue Ridge Mountains across the valley, purpled by the haze. From a grove of trees nearby comes the piercing zeet of a chickadee. I wander over, and there is the bird perched in a pine tree, rolling out its string of dees, perhaps taking measure of my presence. One has only to consider the extraordinary genius packed tightly into that tiny puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries of a bird’s knowing—the what and the why. These are wonderful puzzles to keep around on our intellectual bookshelf, to remind us how little we still know. (266)
28. Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout / Philip Connors
In his book, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis makes a fascinating point about the value of reading books:
“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others.” (140)
I owe enormous thanks to Philip Connors, the author of his lyrical nonfiction memoir about his life as a wilderness lookout. Connors left his budding career as a Wall Street Journal reporter in order to spend half a year keeping vigil over 20,000 square miles of desert, forest, and mountain chains from atop a tower 10,000 feet above sea level. I’m quite certain I’ll never be a wilderness lookout. But after reading Fire Season, I feel like I’ve looked through the eyes of one:
Since that first summer I’ve returned each succeeding year to sit 10,000 feet above sea level and watch for smoke. Most days I can see a hundred miles in all directions. On clear days I can make out mountains 180 miles away. To the east stretches the valley of the Rio Grande, cradled by the desert: austere, forbidding, dotted with creosote shrubs, and home to a collection of horned and thorned species evolved to live in a land of scarce water. To the north and south, along the Black Range, a line of peaks rises and falls in timbered waves; to the west, the Rio Mimbres meanders out of the mountains, its lower valley verdant with grasses. Beyond it rise more mesas and mountains: the Diablos, the Jerkies, the Mogollons. A peaceable kingdom, a wilderness in good working order—and my job to sound the alarm if it burns. Having spent eight summers in my little glass-walled perch, I have an intimate acquaintance with the look and feel of the border highlands each week of each month, from April through August: the brutal winds of spring, when gales off the desert gust above seventy miles an hour and the occasional snow squall turns my peak white; the dawning of summer in late May, when the wind abates and the aphids hatch and ladybugs emerge in great clouds from their hibernation; the fires of June, when dry lightning connects with the hills and mesas, sparking smokes that fill the air with the sweet smell of burning pine; the tremendous storms of July, when the radio antenna sizzles like bacon on a griddle and the lightning makes me flinch as if from the threat of a punch; and the blessed indolence of August, when the meadows bloom with wildflowers and the creeks run again, the rains having turned my world a dozen different shades of green. I’ve seen lunar eclipses and desert sandstorms and lightning that made my hair stand on end. I’ve seen fires burn so hot they made their own weather. I’ve watched deer and elk frolic in the meadow below me and pine trees explode in a blue ball of smoke. If there’s a better job anywhere on the planet, I’d like to know what it is. (3)
29. How to Steal the Mona Lisa / Taylor Bayouth
One of the perks of living in the Washington, D.C. area is the easy access to wonderful museums and art galleries. During one of our visits to the Smithsonian, my youngest son saw the Hope Diamond and asked, “I wonder if anyone has ever tried to steal that thing?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but after reading How to Steal the Mona Lisa, I now have at least an idea of how someone might try to pull off such a brazen heist. Bayouth describes how he would go about nabbing several priceless art and artifacts including the Hope Diamond, the “Mona Lisa,” the Archaeopteryx Lithographica, Rodin’s “Thinker,” King Tut’s golden death mask, the Crown Jewels, and the Codex Leicester. I’m not sure any of these how-to’s would actually work and I think he’s only kidding. But either way, my boys laughed and giggled mischievously throughout this read. They especially enjoyed the fun diagrams and visual aids, like this one:
Pro tip: When driving your getaway car at a remarkable rate, don’t forget to remove your welder’s goggles.
30. Magpie Murders / Anthony Horowitz
This unputdownable whodunit is a mystery within a mystery, an enigma within an enigma, a novel within a novel. It’s like getting two ingenious novels for the price of one. I thought it was brilliant.
31. The Black Tower and Sleep No More / P.D. James
I miss P.D. James. While she died in 2014, her mystery stories are still being published posthumously, evidenced by the most recent release of Sleep No More. Several of these tales are set during Christmastime, including one morbidly entitled “The Murder of Santa Claus”:
We drove through the village in silence. It lay sombre and deserted in its pre-Christmas calm. I can remember the church half-hidden behind the great yews and the silent school with the children’s Christmas chains of coloured paper gleaming dully against the windows. Marston Turville is a small seventeenth-century manor house, its three wings built round a courtyard. I saw it first as a mass of grey stone, blacked out as was the whole village, under low broken clouds. My uncle greeted me before a log fire in the great hall. I came in, blinking, from the December dusk into a blaze of colour; candles sparkling on the huge Christmas tree, its tub piled with imitation snowballs of frosted cotton wool; the leaping fire; the gleam of firelight on silver. My fellow guests were taking tea and I see them as a tableau, cups halfway to their lips, predestined victims waiting for the tragedy to begin. (64-65)
I also had the pleasure of revisiting one of my favorite Inspector Dalgliesh stories, The Black Tower, that finds the famous Scotland Yard detective-poet downcast and convalescing in a retirement home in an isolated village on the Dorset coast.
He wasn’t sure whether this disenchantment with his job was caused solely by his illness, the salutory reminder of inevitable death, or whether it was the symptom of a more fundamental malaise, that latitude in middle-life of alternate doldrums and uncertain winds when one realizes that hopes deferred are no longer realizable, that ports not visited will now never be seen, that this journey and others before it may have been a mistake, that one has no longer even confidence in charts and compass. More than his job now seemed to him trivial and unsatisfactory. Lying sleepless as so many patients must have done before him in that bleak impersonal room, watching the headlamps of passing cars sweep across the ceiling, listening to the secretive and muted noises of the hospital’s nocturnal life, he took the dispiriting inventory of his life. (11-12)
What I enjoy most about P.D. James is her ability to draw the reader’s attention to God’s bright and bountiful kindness in creation, even atop the dark backdrop of murder and mayhem:
Before he turned again to the car his eye was caught by a small clump of unknown flowers. The pale pinkish white heads rose from a mossy pad on top of the wall and trembled delicately in the light breeze. Dalgliesh walked over and stood stock still, regarding in silence their unpretentious beauty. He smelt for the first time the clean half-illusory salt tang of the sea. The air moved warm and gentle against his skin. He was suddenly suffused with happiness and, as always in these rare transitory moments, intrigued by the purely physical nature of his joy. It moved along his veins, a gentle effervescence. Even to analyse its nature was to lose hold of it. But he recognized it for what it the first clear intimation since his illness that life could be good. (18)
It was a warm misty morning under a sky of low cloud. As he left the valley and began to trudge up the cliff path a reluctant rain began to fall in slow heavy drops. The sea was a milky blue, sluggish and opaque, its slopping waves pitted with rain and awash with shifting patterns of floating foam. There was a smell of autumn as if someone far off, undetected even by a wisp of smoke, was burning leaves. The narrow path rose higher skirting the cliff edge, now close enough to give him a brief vertiginous illusion of danger, now twisting inland between a tatter of bronzed bracken crumpled with the wind, and low tangles of bramble bushes, their red and black berries tight and meagre compared with the luscious fruit of inland hedgerows. The headland was dissected by low broken walls of stone and studded with small limestone rocks. Some, half buried, protruded tipsily from the soil like the relics of a disorderly graveyard. Dalgliesh walked warily. It was his first country walk since his illness. The demands of his job meant that walking had always been a rare and special pleasure. Now he moved with something of the uncertainty of those first tentative steps of convalescence, muscles and senses rediscovering remembered pleasures, not with keen delight but with the gentle acceptance of familiarity. The brief metallic warble and churling note of stonechats, busy among the brambles; a solitary black-headed gull motionless as a ship’s figurehead on a promontory of rock; clumps of rock samphire, their umbels stained with purple; yellow dandelions, pinpoints of brightness on the faded autumnal grass. After nearly ten minutes of walking the cliff path began to slope gently downhill and was eventually dissected by a narrow lane running inland from the cliff edge. About six yards from the sea it broadened into a gently sloping plateau of bright green turf and moss. Dalgliesh stopped suddenly as if stung by memory. This then, must be the place where Victor Holroyd had chosen to sit, the spot from which he had plunged to his death. For a moment he wished that it hadn’t lain so inconveniently in his path. The thought of violent death broke disagreeably into his euphoria. But he could understand the attraction of the spot. The lane was secluded and sheltered from the wind, there was a sense of privacy and peace. (103-104)
32. Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection / Arthur Conan Doyle
My Audiobook of the Year is this Audible production read by Stephen Fry, whose narration sweeps you away to Victorian England, fog-drenched London, and, of course, 221B Baker Street.
33. S Is For Southern / Ed. David DiBenedetto
If you’re from the South, or have visited the South, or just know a Southerner, I think you’ll find this survey both entertaining and illuminating. There are brief articles on all things Southern, from “Absinthe” to “Zydeco,” from the “Atlanta Braves” to “Wonder Bread, and from to “Barbecue” to “Y’all.” Here’s a tasty sampling:
ACCENT: The Southern accent is one of our nation’s greatest treasures. Its beauty rivals that of a songbird or the most resonant cello. Had the Southern accent not been invented, our ears would have fallen off long ago, or become vestigial, fleshy cauliflowers hanging off the sides of our heads, for without the Southern accent there would have been nothing much worth listening to. Someone, somewhere, can make a case that I’m exaggerating its importance to us as a people and to America, but I can assure you I am not. Maybe I am.
But it’s lovely, isn’t it, the Southern accent? It’s not because I have one myself that I say this, because my accent is not what it could be: years of watching I Dream of Jeannie growing tip have me talking more like an out-of-work B actor than like my grandmother Eva Pedigo, who came from Savannah, settled in Birmingham, and sounded as if she marinated her vowels in butter overnight. An accent is your vocal personality. It’s like a hairstyle or a favorite pair of shoes, the only difference being that it’s in your throat.
There’s a Northern accent as well, and it’s easily distinguishable from a Southern accent the same way a paper bag full of broken glass is distinguishable from a cashmere scarf. But when you leave the South and head in other directions, accents tend to disappear, the song of language is lost, and what you’re left with is bland communication, meaning without music. It’s amusing, at least to me, to hear scholarly argot used to understand and investigate our day-to-day lives, especially the most resolutely non-scholarly subjects, like Southern English. My wife, a Vermonter, had no idea what fixin’ to meant when she first heard it. Had she researched the phrase, she would have learned that it indicated “immediate future action.” I could have told her that. (2)
BACON: I remember. Weekend mornings asleep in my attic bedroom in Birmingham, Alabama, not exactly waking to the smell of bacon, but being awakened by it. Similar to that of freshly cut wet grass, the smell of bacon can travel for miles and never lose its potency. It was just like the cartoons I watched at the time— Pepe le Pew I remember most vividly— in which you could see the smells; they wafted through the air like spirits. They could corral you like a lariat; they could capture you. That’s what bacon did to me. Half-asleep, I would follow it downstairs and into the kitchen, and still half-asleep eat it until my mother slapped my hand. “Save some for the rest of us.” Only then would I open my eyes completely, a boy trapped in an unfeeling world where he had to share.
Bacon is a time machine for me to this day. I smell it and it’s Saturday morning. My parents, dead now for many years, are seated around the morning room table. My beautiful sisters— one of whom is also gone— also crowd around me, lunging for what is rightly mine, for what I very clearly had dibs on, being the first down. But they strike as fast as copperheads. Our dog Rudy, that little brown mixed breed, as long as a dachshund with the face of a beagle (we called him a dog, though no one was really sure), hid himself beneath the table, as still as a jungle animal, hoping for crumbs. Everyone is happy, everyone is young. Life is something that is just about to happen, and it’s all good. That is what bacon does to me.
Eating bacon is like dating Taylor Swift: it may not be good for you, but people just keep coming back for more, understanding that a life with a little bacon in it beats a life with no bacon at all. Bacon is full of saturated fat and salt, and yet unlike other foods makes no secret of it. Bacon is honest. Maybe this is one reason we’ve seen an increase in the popularity of bacon and recipes that call for it, such that we can now be said to be experiencing a “bacon mania.״ Those of us who were raised on a farm might count a piglet as a dear first pet and eat him later. That’s because bacon is stronger than love itself. I wasn’t raised on a farm but, rather, in front of a television, and yet I too counted a pig as my first virtual pet: Arnold Ziffel, on Green Acres. But that changes nothing. I would eat him if he were bacon. Bacon is not just bacon. It’s bacon ice cream, chocolate-dipped bacon, and more. It’s the meaty embodiment of Southern culture. (18)
34. Zeal Without Burnout / Christopher Ash
Christopher Ash produces helpful resources for believers year after year. I appreciated his candid and humble missive on sustainable sacrifice. We need sleep… and God does not. We need Sabbath rests… and God does not. We need friends… and God does not. We need inward renewal… and God does not. Sacrifice is not the same as burnout. As a young pastor, I needed to read this book and I plan to read it again in 2018.
If you’re looking for other helpful resources to get organized and focused for the new year ahead, I was helped last year by each of these books in various ways:
35. Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road / Patrick Leigh Fermor
Two years ago I began walking across pre-WWII Europe with Patrick Leigh Fermor. We’ve been trekking our way to Constantinople and we finally arrived. I’m sort of sad that the journey is over. Fermor is quite the wordsmith. He never uses one word when ten would do. Here’s a typical Fermorian sentence:
A restless geometry of fire-flies darted about under the spatulate volume of the chestnut trees, and getting up one night to go to bed, we found emerald-coloured tree-frogs smaller than threepenny-bits clinging to the leaves like miniature green castaways on rafts. (Between The Woods and the Water, 107)
Imagine being near a train track when the Orient Express passed by. How would you put that experience into words? Here’s the way Fermor rendered such an event from his own life:
I was pondering these matters, slogging along through the twilight beside the banked railway, when a humming along the rails and an increasing clatter behind me indicated the approach of a train. The shuddering cylinder grew larger and larger and soon it was rocketing by overhead; all the windows were alight in a serpent of bright quadrilaterals, and along the coach work, as it crashed past, was painted: Paris–Munich–Vienna–Zagreb–Belgrade–Sofia–Istanbul and Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits. The Orient Express! The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed. The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs. I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer. I wondered who the passengers were– they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople. The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms’ manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau. (The Broken Road, 22)
How would you describe a sunset? Here’s Fermor doing just that:
The clouds had flushed an astounding pink. But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alfold leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants… the least said the better. (The Broken Road, 44)
Perhaps my favorite part in these final two volumes is the conclusion of Volume 2 when Fermor finally catches sight of the Carpathian Uplands:
On the one hand a canyon thrust a deep gash north-east into the range I had been skirting for days, and its climb into the Carpathians reached the foot of the great ashen peaks. On the other, it plunged south-west down a gorge that would lead to the lowlands, and, at last, to the everyday world: but there was no hint of this yet. The chasm was silent except for the sound of water and the echo of an occasional rock falling. But while I gazed, clouds at the head of the ravine were breaking loose and spreading crumpled shadows across the juts and the clefts; then they blotted out the sun in an abrupt upland storm.
The wind sent a few sighting shots, followed by a swish of raindrops. Sheltering under an overhang, I watched them turn into hailstones the size of mothballs: they bounced and scattered downhill by the million; and in half an hour, their white drifts were all that was left. The washed rocks looked newly cut, there was not a cloud in sight and a breeze smelling of bracken and wet earth kept the air from stagnating.
Even jumping from ledge to ledge and sliding on wet pine-needles, the downward climb lasted for hours. Scree slowed the pace and buttresses of rock, smooth as boiler-plates or spiked like iguanas, imposed grueling swerves. Gleams across the cliffs revealed faraway threads of water; close to, they coiled and cataracted through the tree-trunks as conifers abdicated when the hardwoods began to outnumber them; and the ravine, deepening fast, coaxed the trees higher and higher until the oaks, mantled with ivy, pronged with the antlers of dead boughs and tufted with mistletoe, grew into giants.
Clearings of beech opened their forest-chambers and bracken gave way to mares’ tails, hemlock and the tatters of old man’s beard. The damp, which covered everything with moss, looped the branches with creepers and plumed the clefts and forks overhead, and the flaking bark, shaggy with lichen, greaved the tree-trunks like metal tainted with verdigris, filling the slanting world underneath with a stagey green-grey light. The woods had become an undercroft of acorns, beech-nuts and moaning wood-pigeons; the sound of water grew louder; and soon, flecked by leaf-shadows and askim with wagtails and redstarts, the ice-cold Cerna was rushing by under the branches.
The mysterious river split and joined again round blades of rock, slid over shelves that combed it into symmetrical waterfalls and rushed on chopping and changing down the gorge. Then I came down into quieter reaches. Shoals of trout anchored themselves among the reflections of elderflower or glided to new retreats, deep in the shade, where only a few wrinkles hinted at the current, and the black rocks, which gave the river its dark Slavonic cumbered the depths. (The Broken Road, 221-222)
36. Devotions / Mary Oliver
Several years ago, I was in a small bookshop with my wife in Cape Cod. While in the poetry section, I found a copy of Thirst. I’ve been a big fan of Mary Oliver ever since. Devotions is a wonderful collection of her work. Some of my favorites aren’t included (like “The Place I Want To Get Back To”), but that doesn’t diminish the quality of this volume for me. Oliver, like all poets worth reading, paints with words what she sees in the world, marvelous mysteries in plain sight and miracles in the commonplace.
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass? (173)
W.H. Davis once wrote: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?” I’m hoping for a more attentive year in 2018, filled with thanksgiving to the Lord for His covenant mercies, fresh every morning.
As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!