It’s that time of year again. Time to put together a best of 2018 book list. This year was particularly hard to choose, but there were a few selections that rose to the top. Here are my humble selections.
Best Religious Book: Absolute Surrender by Andrew Murray. This book was first published in 1895 and you can tell. And I mean that in the best way possible. It seems to me that writers from The 19th century wrote in a way that was clear and devoid of fluff. Maybe they didn’t have as much distractions as we have and maybe they didn’t have the pressures of modern publishers breathing down their neck, but Andrew Murray’s book is clear, compelling, and to the point. If you’re looking for a book to challenge you, and make you investigate those things you are holding onto a little too closely, this book is for you.
Best Non-Fiction book: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. A fascinating look into death row and the men, women, and adolescents who are on it. Not everyone will come away agreeing with everything said in the book, and that’s OK. But this book is an insightful look into one man’s work, the lives he’s changed, and the lives that have changed him. If you are looking for a book which will challenge your assumptions and provide you a view you may not naturally have been exposed to, this is the book for you.
Best Fiction Book: Raintree County by Ross Lockbridge jr. I had heard some people call this book “the greatest underrated American novel of all time“. I don’t know if I would quite go that far, but would definitely categorize it as a epic novel of love, tragedy, and triumph. If you’re looking for a long, deep, in-depth, Odyssey type novel, this is for you.
Best Historical Book: John Adams by David McCullough. This is another older book (I guess that was a theme for me this year, not reading many newly published books), But if you are interested in historical books you can’t do much better than a David McCulloch book. By the end of this work you feel as if you are a personal friend of John Adams. If you love historical biographies, this book is for you.
Best Book of 2018: Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. This book grabbed my attention from the very first page to the last page. I can’t remember the last time I read the conclusion to a book and could feel my heart racing in my chest. This book does a fabulous job of providing historical context that’s informative and enlightening while carrying you along the plot of the story to its climax. You will learn, you will laugh, you will cheer, and you will find yourself a little more likely to try the rowing machine at your local gym. If you enjoy historical literature that reads like a novel, this book is for you.
what are some of your favorite books of 2018?
“But we all suffer. For we all prize and love; and in this present existence of ours, prizing and loving yield suffering. Love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much, though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.”
-Lament for a Son
Nicholas Wolterstorff received the phone call every parent fears. "Mr. Wolterstorff I must give you some bad new..." At 25 years old, Nicholas’s son Eric had died in a mountain climbing accident. Wolterstorff poetic recounting of the grief, loss, love, regret, thankfulness, and faith in the aftermath of his sons death is an emotional and vivid look into a parents worst nightmare. Lament for a son is comprised of a collection of thoughts and recollections about his son life and death. Its a honest look at a man's heart during one of the hardest moments of his life. During times of tragedy some people experience their grief by remaining quiet, Mr. Wolterstorff needed to speak. Lament for a Son is the result of his speaking.
What I liked about this book was that Wolterstorff does not try to answer all the questions his sons death poses. Some questions are answered, others are partially or unsatisfactorily answered, and some are just contemplated and left hanging in limbo. This seems right. Who could come to a definitive conclusions on every questions that arises from such tragedy? And does the answer always provide the solution one is looking for? Maybe there is goodness in the lament, the cry of sorrow and grief. Wolterstorff captures this beautifully when he says:
“Rather often I am asked whether the grief remains as intense as when I wrote. The answer is, No. The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over. Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it… Every lament is a love-song.”
If you are looking for a book that is going to take you step-by-step on how to deal with grief this book is not the right book for you. Instead, if you would like to sit and experience a fathers grief, hear his pain, see a man work through tragedy and understand how his faith underpins his journey; then this is the book for you.
Every lament is a love-song
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It's no secret that millennials are currently not engaging in church membership, but the issue runs deeper than that. There is also a mass exodus among millennials occurring out of the church in general. Many books have been written addressing this particular topic and dissecting the various reasons why this is occurring, and Abandoning Faith tackles this topic while giving us a fresh perspective. Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez write this book with the parents of those millennials in mind. They focus on helping the parents get into the millennial mindset, strategies for mending and strengthening relationship with their millennial child, and tools for laying down foundational truths.
My kids are little and I am not the target audience of this book, however, I still found it insightful and interesting. One particular part that stood out to me was the responses from millennials about why they did not seem attracted to their parents faith. One of the more honest answers from the millennials was their parents example of what a Christian is. Millennials identified that while their parents were going to church, they did not seem to actually believe what they said they did. They would talk the talk, but never walk the walk. They would drag the whole family to church on Sunday, and yet Monday through Saturday things were different. I completely agree! Its total hypocrisy and it should drive the millennials away. Good for them for sniffing it out. However, we don't assess truth based on how people do or don't act. But the point is well taken, and the mirror needs to be constantly held to my own face.
If you have a millennial child who has walked away from their faith, this book might be helpful for you. In the very least, it maybe encouraging to know that others are going through similar situations as yourself.
I received this book as a compliment of Tyndale House Publishers for my honest review. I did not receive any monetary compensation aside from a free copy of this book for my review in the opinions are strictly my own.
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
- Atticus Finch To Kill A Mockingbird
Just Mercy follows the story of Walter McMillian’s wrongfully conviction for the murder of Ronda Morrison, at a dry cleaners, in Monroeville, Alabama. Walter possesses seemingly overwhelming evidence to prove his innocence, including being able to provide multiple witnesses to his whereabouts when the murder took place. In fact the only real evidence connecting him to the case is the consistently contradicting testimony of a career criminal named Ralph Myers. The trial last only a day and a half and Walter is found guilty. He spends the next 6 years of his life on Alabama’s death row. Attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, take Walters case and spends the next 3 years navigating the Alabama court of apeal before Walters convention was overturned. But its not that simple. Mr. Stevenson fights an uphill battle encountering road block after road block, and it is these road blocks in the judicial system that is the bed rock of Just Mercy. This book isn’t just about one man and his wrongful conviction. The book brings to life those who make up the population on death row. This includes the mentally ill, adolescent children, the poor, minorities, and the innocent. In Just Mercy, Mr, Stevenson takes a topic and puts a face to it.
I think it would be a mistake to allow this book to be boiled down to just an argument over capital punishment. Don’t get me wrong, the book is certainly about capital punishment and raises many issues concerning this topic. But that is not the only thing the book is about. I found the book to be compelling in addressing the human condition. On one hand the book was about a person fighting a seemingly unwinnable battle. It is about moving forward with what you believe is right despite the high probability of loosing, But you move forward anyway. The parallels to Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird are striking. The book is also about human compassion, forgiveness, hatred, indifference, patience, perseverance, and love. Through the various characters we encounter people who embody all aspects of the human experience. It is in the connection with these different experiences, that brings value to this book. What I don't think the book is about is letting people "off the hook" or "turning a blind eye" to a situation. I don’t believe a single person who might be a supporter of this book would state that justices should not be served for crimes committed. Of course proper justice should be executed for crimes committed. Hopefully that is the foundation of our judicial system. What I think Mr. Stevenson is trying to point out is that injustice committed in the pursuit of justice is just as big of a tradgedy as justice never being served for a crime in the first place. If a crime is committed and justice is not served to the one who committed it, that’s a tragedy. But it is just as tragic for an injustice to be committed in the name of justice. It’s one of the lessons we teach our youngest kids: two wrongs don’t make a right. Not all situations are easy and clear cut. Every situation will be different as to how proper justice is to be served. But we must put every effort into making sure proper justice is served. And this is hard, its tricky, it takes effort and sacrifice. That’s what Atticus Finch was talking about. It’s not courageous to tackle the easy things. It’s courageous to tackle the hard things, the things that are seemingly impossible. If we care about justice, true justice, then we take on the hard situations.
I would strongly recommend Just Mercy not as a means to convince you of anything, or to change your mind on a particular topic. But as a book that might challenge you, stretch you, cause you to examine, and maybe feel a bit uncomfortable. It may possibly build some of that courage Atticus Finch is talking about.
Contemporary Christianity is filled with people and movements calling for a "gospel-centered" approach to Christian life and ministry. We have entire networks of gospel-centered churches pastored by gospel-centered teachers who attended gospel-centered seminaries and have written gospel-centered books on everything from gospel-centered parenting to gospel-centered marriage to gospel-centered media consumption..... but there is one problem: For all of contemporary Christianity's emphasis on being gospel-centered, there is still a lot of confusion about what the gospel we are so centered on actually is."- The Gospel is
The Gospel Is gives an excellent straight forward introduction to what it mean when someone speaks about the Gospel. Brown gives a clear definition of the Gospel and then breaks that definition into 5 small chapters. Each chapter giving a brief explination and application on a part of his gospel definition. Brief is the optimal word here as most people could read this book in under an hour. This book is meant to be an introduction on the topic of what the Gospel is. It just begins to scratch the surface on how the Gospel changes everything and what the Gospel would look like when lived out. That is not trying to disparage the book in any way. I like the book for what it was. A brief, straight forward introduction to what the Gospel actually is. At the end of each chapter there are some nice discussion questions if you want to facilitate conversation with a group or just a friend. If you don't know what it means when someone is talking about the Gospel, or you want to introduce someone to the Gospel, The Gospel is by Cole Brown is a great resource to use.
I have to admit, I am a bit addicted to "best books" list. I have read no less than 20 "Best of" list already and my to-be-read pile for next year has since grown immensely. I compile my own yearly best books list not only to add my own thoughts, but also as a way to reflect on the great literature I have had a pleasure to read over the past year. I relish the chance to reflect on novels that made me smile and laugh, regurgitate the books that challenged me to see a new perspective, and revisit an idea that was constructed in such a fresh way that it inspired me. So maybe this Best Books of 2017 is more for me than you, but then again, maybe you enjoy seeing these list as much as I do. Here is my Best Books of 2017.
Best Religious Book: Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore. This was the first book I read in 2017 and one of the books I thought often about throughout the year. I Found Dr. Moore's thoughts on the current evangelical culture spot on. This can be a weighty topic, but Moore addressed it graciously, while still speaking boldly. Looking to challenge your thoughts on some topics? This might be the book for you.
Best Non-Fiction Book: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Evicted follows several families and landlords in Milwaukee, WI through the seemingly endless cycle of evictions for the families and the search for good tenets for the landlords. But the book is about much more than a processes. Its about people and a way of life. What I enjoyed about the book was not if I agreed or disagreed with things, but because it introduced me to something I did not have much experience with. Looking to put yourself in someone else's shoes? This might be the book for you.
Best Fiction Book: Beartown by Fredrik Backman: This novel seemed to have a wide appeal to readers. The story is based around a small towns hockey team, but addresses issues of sexual assault and societal priorities. If you are looking for a novel that will keep you turning the pages as well as keep you up late discussing it over coffee, this is the book for you.
Best Fantasy Book: The Beyond Experience by Michael Reid Jr. Don't let the fantasy category scare you off. This novel is ultimately about love, friendship, and appreciating what you have each day. Two scientist discover a unique side affect of their drug treatment for anxiety and depression....the ability to reconnect with deceased loved ones. Sounds great right? But what if you push the limits too far? Part Romeo and Juliet, Part Grays Anatomy equals one enjoyable read for anyone who wants something out of their comfort zone.
Best Historical Book: Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White Jr. I am a sucker for Lincoln books, but this book exceeded all my expectations. When we think of great Lincoln's speeches we always gravitate towards The Gettysburg Address, and rightly so. However, After reading this book I have to agree that Lincolns greatest speech was the Second Inaugural Address. Mr. White does a fabulous job of pulling in Lincoln's personally letters from several years prior to his address to show how the idea of reconciliation for the nation was not a new idea for Lincoln, nor a political strategy. It was something he actually believed. If you love history in any sense, this is the book for you.
Best Biography or Memoir: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. I loved the introduction of this book when Vance confesses that writing a memoir at 31 years of age is quite odd. But Vance has a very unique story. One that I found fascinating. Vance comes from a lower income blue collar factory working area in Ohio and Kentucky, is a self proclaimed "hillbilly" with an alcoholic mother, and eventually graduates from Yale Law. That is quite the story worthy of a memoir at 31. Hillbilly elegy gives you insight into the struggles and triumph of an individual and a culture. If you want to be educated and inspired, this is the book for you.
Best Book of 2017: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amar Towles. To be honest, this was an easy decision for me. I loved everything about this novel. The writing was superb, the character development was extraordinary, and the plot never seemed to lag. Towles crafts a masterpiece about a Russian aristocrat who is under house arrest at the famous Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The novel, like a fine wine, aged gently and has an after taste that will leave you reaching for the novel again soon. The novel just requires of you to give it time. You need to let it swirl around the glass and sit on your tongue for a moment. You need to let it breath. You have to be Ok with nuance and subtlety. If you can do that this will quickly become one of your all time favorites. Looking for a modern American Classic? This book is for you.
What are some of your favorite books of 2017? I would love to hear what you enjoyed reading this past year. Leave a comment below!
"Ignatov: Alexander Ilyich Rostov, talking into full account your own testimony, we can only assume that the clear-eyed spirit who wrote the poem Where Is it Now? has succumbed irrevocably to the corruption of his class-and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall. But there are those within the senior ranks of the Party who count you among the heroes of the prerevolutionary cause. Thus, it is the opinion of the committee that you should be returned to that hotel of which you are so fond. But make no mistake: should you every set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot."
With those words Count Rostov was a prisoner. The Count’s prison, however, would not be cold, dark, and lonely, but warm, bright, and a constant shuffling of people. That’s because the Count is on house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in the heart of Moscow. Beginning in 1922 and continuing on for the next several decades, the Count experiences life along side the hotel staff as well the various guest that come and go. Life for the Count revolves around dinning at the hotels lavish restaurants, leisurely paging through classic literature, and engaging in small talk at the hotel bar; nightcap in hand. By all reasonable standards, the Count is making the most of his house arrest. But as life has a way of doing, the Count begins to encounter interruptions to those daily routines. First a forced change in living accommodations. Then a young, attractive, up and coming actress checks into the hotel. An inquisitive little girl looking for a friend joins him for lunch. Slowly this aristocratic Count's life starts to take on a new shape. With the Count as the conduit, The Gentlemen in Moscow teach us above love, friendship, fatherhood, loyalty, patriotism, sacrifice, and servanthood during some of the most important decades of Russian history.
I have always loved the Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. I loved the length, depth, imagery, and complexity of those novels. Some describe these type of novels as slow, meticulous, and too extensive, but that is why I love them. They have the flavor of something that taken dedication and effort. The Gentlemen in Moscow is a modern day novel that fills the shoes of its Russian predecessors. So, I think it’s obvious I absolutely loved this novel. Towles is a master of language and his descriptions naturally draw you into each scene. Towels writing creates living breathing scenes, inviting you in, while allowing you to remain anonymous. I could pull on numerous different threads Towels creates during this novel, but the one that I love the most was the motif of servanthood. Throughout the novel, the Count transitions from the one being served to the one doing the serving. This is typically described as a "fall from grace", but the Count embodies how to "gracefully fall". In the Count, we see that dignity and worth are not found in whom is being served, but that dignity and worth are initiated by the individual and the intentional positive outlook on life, despite which side of service line you are on.
I would highly recommend this novel for anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort. If you want a microwaveable dinner, this is not for you. If you have the patience to allow this novel to marinate and stew, you will be rewarded with a meal that would rival the Boyarsky.
(The soup in the picture above was a traditional Russian cabbage (shchi) and was very delicious!)
J.D. Vance is a hillbilly. At least that's how he would refer to himself. It's an odd description of oneself since hillbillies usually do not conjure up admiring images in most American minds. Typically, some combination of the Beverly Hillbillies and the banjo playing child from Deliverance flashes in our mind. While some truths maybe be lined in those hillbilly characterizations, they are certainly not an exhaustive representation.
Hillbilly Elegy is the memoir of J.D. Vance. J.D. is a product of the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and the Ohio Rust Belt. J.D.'s Grandparents (Mamaw and Papa) left the mountains of Kentucky for Southern Ohio, after World War II, in search for a better life. In a lot of ways they found it, in many ways they didn't.
J.D. grew up with his mom and a revolving door or male companions she cycled through. After his biological father left the family when he was young, J.D. was constantly saddled with the feeling of if not when the next male figure would make his exit. Between the constant emotional wrestling from living with his abusive and drug addicted mother, and the shuffling of men in his life, stability is not something J.D. was well aquatinted with. If that was not enough of an obstacle to overcome, J.D. found himself caught in a downward spiral of two worlds. He was influenced by the hillbilly culture that was formed in the "holler", and now was trying to survive in a postindustrial Midwestern town. His hillbilly culture taught him that screaming, fighting, and running away was an acceptable avenue for conflict resolution. You upheld your families honor with brutal violence. You spoke of hard work, God, and patriotism even if you didn't always display those virtues or see that lived out around you. He learned firsthand that addiction and failed marriages are a common occurrence. In his postindustrial Ohio town he learned that chasing your dreams is meant for other people, other towns. He learned that the outlook for kids like him is bleak, and nothing around him indicates otherwise. Pessimism is not just and outlook, but a way of life. Yet from those life lessons and circumstances, J.D. Vance graduated from Ohio State University and Yale Law School. From a place where dreams were not just crushed, but dreams were never even had, J.D. Vance dream was realized. To get knocked down and still get up is commendable, but to pull yourself up and out of, when every statistic and circumstance is pulling you back down, that's a miracle. That’s the story of J.D. Vance.
Memoirs are quite possibly my favorite genre of book, so I am kind of a memoir snob. In addition to that, I have heard nothing but praise for this book. I was ready to be disappointed. I couldn't have been more pointed (that's the opposite of disappointed right?). Hillbilly Elegy is a wonderfully written and insightful book. While this is the story of a particular person, Vance does a wonderful job of using his and his family’s experience, to paint a picture of Southern Appalachian sub-culture. Of course, this won’t represent everyone, but provided a perspective into a culture I had little experience with. Vance's ability to provide insight came of particular interest to me in the light of our last Presidential election. Again, that is not to say his experience and perception represents all and can explain a broad and complex issue, but it was insightful to say the least. I was also impressed with Vance's ability to walk the cliffs edge of describing his experiences, but also periodically interjecting his thoughts and assessments on particular issues, especially now that he is on the other side of the experience. While I can appreciate letting the details speak for themselves and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions, I am also always curious on the author’s analysis of the situation. They have lived an experience that I haven't, and I am reading not only for the story, but for their thoughts as well. Hillbilly Elegy is a prime example of how one can tell a story and give an opinion simultaneously.
One of the conclusions Vance presented, that I appriciated, is the way we (society) typically take an either or approach to problems. Let’s take poverty as an example. Historically, liberals will conclude that this particular problem is due to oppressive societal factors (i.e. it’s out of the persons control), while conservatives will conclude that the issue is due to personal choices and lack of personal responsibility (i.e. it’s all due to the personal choices). Yet, it’s absurd to think a problem like poverty is singularly an "either" society "or" personal choice issue. The possibility that it could be both gets lost in the desire to be right. Of course it can, and probably most often is, due to both factors! The percentage of each factor will likely fluctuate from situation to situation, but the quicker we can realize that both issues needs to be addressed, the faster we can actually effect change. It's possible to promote social equality and personal responsibility in the same breath.
One critique I did have of the book was his seemingly inconsistent assessment of Christianity. It was not his conclusions on if Christianity was true or not, but his seemingly inconsistent critiquing of how people expressed their faith. Vance was very critical of his father’s legalistic expression on his faith (personally I agreed with Vance). However, he didn't seem to apply the same critique to his Mamaw for her verbal expression of faith in God, but showing no daily discernible signs of how that faith impacted her life. If we are going to be critical of those who profess faith and live it out with an oppressive legalistic expression, we need to apply those same standards to those who profess a faith and yet don't show any signs of it in their daily lives. Both approaches can be hypocritical, but he seemed to take issue with just one.
Hillbilly Elegy lived up to the hype for me. It gave me a lot to think about and provided a perspective into a culture I knew little about. I think this is an excellent read for anyone today. Not because everyone will agree with it, but because it does a wonderful job of providing a perspective, and sometimes perspective does wonders
"American Culture is shifting, it seems, into a different era, An era in which religion is not necessarily seen as a social good. Christianity in its historic, apostolic form is increasingly seen as socially awkward at best, as subversive at worst."
I love everything about books. The feel of the page between your fingers, the sound of a book spine cracking, even the smell of an old dust jacket. Looking to share that passion with others.