These are my favorite books that I read in 2018. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.
My Top 12:
1. Some Pastors and Teachers / Sinclair Ferguson
The best book I read in 2018 is this brilliant cornucopia of essays covering theological topics, historical figures, and spiritual issues. Imagine if you could take a course on pastoral ministry from Sinclair Ferguson. The substance of that class would be the bulk of this book. Ferguson issues a challenge to busy pastors right at the outset:
“Many—probably most—of these chapters were written in the context of busy pastoral ministry, either in Scotland or in the United States—preaching, teaching, pastoral visiting, personal meetings, crises in the lives of individuals and sometimes the whole church, administrative responsibilities, and the wide and wonderful variety of activities that make up the average ministers life. And since virtually all the essays were written by request, their writing has been squeezed into, or out of, an occasional hiatus in the sheer busy-ness of ministry life and the constant preparation involved in preaching anywhere between three and six times in the week.” (xii-xiii)
I am eternally grateful that Sinclair Ferguson took the time to write such edifying material for others. Over the years, I may have read and reread “The Preacher’s Decalogue” (chapter 39) twenty-five times or so. He calls these chapters “some of the leftovers from the abundance of good food the Lord has given us in His Word,” (xv). I call them a feast for the hungry soul.
2. God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ / Stephen Wellum
This book is a worshipfully written, biblical-theological, gold mine of Christology that will help you treasure more dearly God’s own dear Son:
“Because our plight is so desperate, due to sin, the only person who can save us is God’s own dear Son. It is only as the Son incarnate that our Lord can represent us; it is only as the Son incarnate that He can put away our sin, stand in our place, and turn away God’s wrath by bearing our sin. Only Jesus can satisfy God’s own righteous requirements, because He is one with the Lord as God the Son; only Jesus can do this for us because He is truly a man and can represent us.” (442-443)
3. Reformation Worship / Eds. Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey
Gibson and Earngey retrieve Protestant liturgies from the past for their use in the present. This volume includes entire orders of service from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Knox, Ursinus, the Puritans, and others. Gibson pens an incredible opening chapter entitled “Worship: On Earth as It Is in Heaven“:
“Worship is the right, fitting, and delightful response of moral beings—angelic and human—to God the Creator, Redeemer, and Consummator, for who He is as one eternal God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— and for what He has done in creation and redemption, and for what He will do in the coming consummation, to whom be all praise and glory, now and forever, world without end. Amen.” (2)
If you are responsible for planning the corporate worship services of your local church, you will be greatly served by mining the treasures of this book.
4. On Reading Well / Karen Swallow Prior
Reading great works of literature can cultivate a desire for the good life, a life of virtue and excellence, because “reading literature, more than informing, forms us” (22). Here’s what I wrote in my TGC review:
“On Reading Well is exquisitely written and will appeal immediately to a certain kind of reader: the kind who reads a book review about a book about the virtues embodied in reading books; the kind of reader who finds it impossible to pass by a used bookstore without slipping inside in search of a story that will stir a homesick hope within; the kind of reader who, like David Copperfield, reads “as if for life” itself (59); the kind of reader who joyfully affirms with C. S. Lewis, “My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others” (140).
But even if you’re not yet that kind of reader, Prior beckons you to become one. You won’t find a scolding tone or any long list of books you simply must read before you die. Instead, acting as the English professor we all wish we had in school, she humbly kindles a desire in you to leave her own book behind and reach for that daunting work of literature you’ve never quite finished and was never quite finished with you. I suspect this was one of Prior’s goals all along.”
5. The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospel / Brandon Crowe
We were plunged into the abyss of sin by the disobedience of the first Adam. Our salvation rests upon the obedience of the last Adam, who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. “Jesus never erred in any way, remaining faithful throughout His life, demonstrating His faithfulness all the way to Jerusalem and His enthronement upon a Roman cross.” (207) This careful study helped me marvel at how Jesus lived for us and for our great salvation.
6. Remember Death / Matthew McCullough
I did more funerals than weddings this year, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently. Matt McCullough is a godly pastor and an outstanding writer. He shepherds his readers through a topic most of us try desperately to avoid. But as he puts it: “So long as death remains someone else’s problem, Jesus will remain someone else’s Savior.” (59) McCullough’s sober meditation cultivated a “death-awareness” in me and helped me see how “facing up to the truth about death can lead us to a deeper hope in life.” (173)
7. Living Life Backwards / David Gibson
Speaking of death, Ecclesiastes tells us “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” (3:1-2) Gibson has written an outstanding exploration of this challenging OT book. Here’s the key paragraph:
“Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backward. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain—our death—and work backward from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end. It is the destination that makes sense of the journey. If we know for sure where we are heading, then we can know for sure what we need to do before we get there. Ecclesiastes invites us to let the end sculpt our priorities and goals, our greatest ambitions and our strongest desires. I want to persuade you that only if you prepare to die can you really learn how to live.” (12)
8. Spurgeon on the Christian Life / Michael Reeves
This book is Charles Spurgeon plus Michael Reeves. Honestly, that’s really all you need to know. I’m unsure if Reeves has read all 18 million words that Spurgeon published in his lifetime. But I do know that he accomplishes his expressed aim in this book: “I generally find reading Spurgeon himself like breathing in great lungfuls of mountain air: he is bracing, refreshing, and rousing. I want, therefore, to try to make myself scarce and let Spurgeon leap at readers himself.” (17) The Prince of Preachers indeed leaps off every page, and that’s a fabulous thing.
9. The Beauty of the Lord: Theology as Aesthetics / Jonathan King
This monograph is one of the most edifying and God-glorifying works I read this entire year. There are wonderful systematic and biblical-theological insights found throughout. The author’s aim is “to explore and develop a theology of beauty based on God’s plan in Christ. Thus the nature of beauty, as defined by the divine economy of redemption, which sums all things up in Jesus Christ (Eph 1:10), is pursued in a specifically biblical and systematic way from beginning to end.” (1)
King makes a compelling case both from biblical evidence and theological warrant that beauty properly should be considered a perfection of the divine nature. The author draws together bright threads of beauty from Scripture and from the writings of Irenaeus, Augustine, Calvin, Balthasar, Bavinck, Edwards, and others, to fashion a glorious “theodramatic” tapestry of redemption. If you read this book carefully and prayerfully, I trust that your eyes too will ‘behold the King in His beauty.’ I’m looking forward to reading King’s next book project, provocatively titled God’s Oikosystem: The Roles that Holy Angels and Fallen Angels Play in God’s Eternal Plan for Humans.
10. J.C. Ryle: Prepared To Stand Alone / Iain H. Murray
I know of no finer biography of the great Bishop of Liverpool than this one. It’s what I’ve come to expect from Murray: clearly written, theologically astute, and resolutely wise. I’m writing this from my home study where my bookshelves are brimming with works published by the Banner of Truth. I’m forever grateful to the Lord for providentially using Murray to co-found the Banner on July 22, 1957, while he served as an assistant to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in London. I actually got the idea to begin this blog in 2003 from an offhand comment Murray made during an interview with Mark Dever in 2002.
Chilling with Iain and Jean at Cracker Barrel
After his funeral, J.C. Ryle’s successor referred to him as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” (213) That also seems to me to be an apt description of Iain H. Murray.
11. Calling on the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer / J. Gary Millar
John Calvin observed an unbreakable link between prayer and the gospel: “Just as faith is born from the gospel, so through it our hearts are trained to call upon God’s name.” (Institutes, 3.20.1-3) This connection between prayer and gospel is explored in this outstanding NSBT volume. Millar argues convincingly that “calling on the name of the Lord” is to be primarily understood throughout the Scriptures as asking God to come through on what He has already promised:
“I can find five prayers in the New Testament encourages us to believe God will always come through on: He will always answer our prayers when we ask Him to do His new covenant work through His Word by the Spirit. And what does that look like? Here is a summary of the ‘no brainer’ prayers we should pray for as individuals and communities, because God has already guaranteed to answer:
-when we pray for forgiveness (1 John 5:19);
-when we pray to know God better (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:18-19);
-when we pray for wisdom (James 1:5-6);
-when we pray for strength to obey/love/live for God (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:14-15);
-when we pray for the spread of the gospel (Luke 10:2; Acts 5; Col. 4)” (239)
12. Prayer / John Onwuchekwa
This wonderful little book, written by a dear brother, is packed full of glorious wisdom for making prayer central to the life of your church:
“It’s so much easier to read about prayer than to actually pray.” (16)
“Prayer is oxygen for the Christian. It sustains us. It is to the church what it is to individuals—breathing. Yet many of our gatherings could be likened to people coming together merely to hold their collective breath. This would explain why people seem to have so little energy for actually living out the Christian life.” (23)
“The local church is the best way to define the ‘us’ in our prayers.” (62)
“Jesus stared death square in the face, knowing his fate was inescapable. How did he face it? On his knees in prayer.” (70)
“We’ll always lack peace when we judge God’s love for us by how many of our prayers are answered with a ‘yes.’ False hope is the most fertile soil for a crop of discontentment.” (72)
“Jesus’s faithfulness to do God’s task is directly tied to his prayer. The disciples’ faithlessness is directly tied to their prayerlessness.” (75)
“A church that practices prayer is more than a church that learns; it’s also a church that leans. We learn dependence by leaning on God together.” (92)
“Let the temptation to worry serve as the divine alarm clock reminding you it’s time to pray.” (125)
“The power of our prayers isn’t found in the number of people praying, but the willingness of the One to whom we’re praying.” (126)
Three Honorable Mentions:
Best Out of Print Book: The Collected Writings of Lemuel Haynes / Lemuel Haynes
Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) was the first African-American ordained by any religious body in America. He was a veteran of the American Revolution and was a powerful preacher, influenced greatly by the works of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Unfortunately, his collected writings remain difficult to find. I was only able to access them via InterLibrary Loan. Here’s a taste:
“The godly preacher will not be ambitious of saying fine things to win applause, but of saying useful things to win souls. He will consider that he has the weak as well as the strong, children as well as adults to speak to, and that he must be accountable for the blood of their souls if they perish through his neglect. This will influence him to study plainness more than politeness.
Such a preacher will not come into the pulpit as an actor comes to the stage to display his talents, but as one who feels the weight of eternal things. Oh! With what zeal and fervor will he speak! How will death, judgment, and eternity appear as it were in every feature, and every word!
Out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will speak. He will study and preach with reference to a judgment to come, and deliver every sermon in some respects, as if it were his last, not knowing when his Lord will call him or his hearers to account.” (50-51)
How can sermons like this be out of print?
Best Biblical Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark / James Edwards
The best commentary I read this year was this gem on the Gospel of Mark. Highly recommended!
Best Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves! / P.G. Wodehouse
One can really never read too much Wodehouse. So it’s a good thing there are 99 volumes in his collected works. Here’s a sampling from the rip-roaring volume, Very Good, Jeeves!:
“When it is a question of a pal being in the soup, we Woosters no longer think of self; and that poor old Bingo was knee-deep in the bisque was made plain by his mere appearance– which was that of a cat which has just been struck by a half-brick and is expecting another shortly.” (22-23)
“Bingo uttered a stricken woofle like a bull-dog that has been refused cake.” (25)
“Young Bingo, you see, is one of those fellows who, once their fingers close over the handle of a tennis racket, fall into a sort of trance in which nothing outside the radius of the lawn exists for them. If you came up to Bingo in the middle of a set and told him that panthers were devouring his best friend in the kitchen garden, he would look at you and say, ‘Oh, ah?’ or words to that effect.” (26)
“Never give in. Perseverance brings home the gravy.” (59)
“As Shakespeare says, if you’re going to do a thing you might just as well pop right at it and get it over.” (63)
“Tuppy has one of those high, squeaky voices that sound like the tenor of the village choir failing to hit a high note. This voice, however, was something in between the last Trumpet and a tiger calling for breakfast after being on a diet for a day or two.” (76)
“His eyebrows seemed to pierce me like a knife.” (78)
“Reason was beginning to do a bit of tottering on its throne.” (111)
“You know, whatever you may say against old Jeeves– you’ve got to admit that the man can plan a campaign. Naopoleon could have taken his correspondence course.” (126-127)
“The voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number.” (160)
My Next 12:
13. Washington Black / Esi Edugyan
My favorite novel of the year tells the heart-wrenching tale of an eleven-year-old slave named Washington Black. “Wash” escapes from a Barbados sugar plantation with the help of Titch, his master’s brother, who also happens to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Their worldwide adventures begin with a frightful flight and daring getaway in an experimental hot-air balloon. Edugyan is quite the wordsmith. Here’s proof:
A wind was blowing; the Cloud-cutter roared, creaked, leaning into its ropes. The wind was warm, unpleasant, with the scent of iron and rain in it. I watched Titch’s dark figure move to adjust the canister of gas in the blackness, grunting and cursing softly. The canopy hung high above me, a scorch against the lighter sky.
Titch called to me urgently, and I clambered into the wicker-and-wood gondola, its oars stretching like antennae into the sky, its four odd wings creaking like rudders in the wind. How terrifying it all looked, in the dark; a great hot fear of death went through me. As Titch was double-checking the bolts and knots, he paused to give me a strange, quiet look. But I said nothing, and he said nothing, an in silence he turned back to his preparations.
“Well, Wash,” he said at last.
“Well,” I said, terrified.
Then, without another word, he adjusted the canister. A higher column of fire surged upwards into the canopy, and the fabric began to shudder and shake. The shaking was terrible. My teeth rattled in my skull. I stared in fascinated terror at the broad black mouth sucking up fire.
The air stank of char and smoke, of burning oil. Finally Titch leaned over and severed each rope in its turn. All around me I could hear the hissing of the grass as the wicker basket was dragged across it– a vicious, final sound.
In the half-light I could just make out the hollows of Titch’s face, his eyes blacked out, only the white shards of his teeth distinct and visible. I felt a give in my belly; I clutched at the oars of the Cloud-cutter in dread. The air around us began to howl; the sky rushed towards us. We were rising.
I can barely describe the sight of it. I saw the threatening sky below, a great red crack of light, like a monstrous eye just opening. The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.
What did I feel? What would anyone feel, in such a place? My chest ached with anguish and wonder, an astonishment that went on and on, and I could not catch my breath. The Cloud-cutter spun, turned gradually faster, rising ever higher. I began to cry– deep, silent, racking sobs, my face turned away from Titch, staring out onto the boundlessness of the world. The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm-fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous. (130-131)
14. A Gentleman in Moscow / Amor Towles
This is a charming story about a Russian count sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to spend the rest of his life in Moscow’s Metropolis Hotel. The Count loses much of his earthly possessions, and yet this doesn’t rob him of his irrepressible joy. A life without luxury can be the richest of all. I was reminded that even something like a simple breakfast and freshly brewed coffee should cause me to pause and give thanks to the Lord, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy:
“Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov stirred at half past eight to the sound of rain on the eaves. With a half-opened eye, he pulled back his covers and climbed from bed. He donned his robe and slipped on his slippers. He took up the tin from the bureau, spooned a spoonful of beans into the apparatus, and began to crank the crank.
Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists—the aroma of freshly ground coffee.
In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth. The trees bore fruit and the woods rustled with the movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things. While closer at hand, a patient pigeon scuffed its feet on the flashing.
Easing the little drawer from the apparatus, the Count poured its contents into the pot (which he had mindfully primed with water the night before). He lit the burner and shook out the match. As he waited for the coffee to brew, he did thirty squats and thirty stretches and took thirty deep breaths. From the little cupboard in the corner, he took a small pitcher of cream, a pair of English biscuits, and a piece of fruit (today an apple). Then having poured the coffee, he began to enjoy the morning’s sensations to their fullest:
The crisp tartness of the apple, the hot bitterness of the coffee, the savory sweetness of the biscuit with its hint of butter… So perfect was the combination that upon finishing, the Count was tempted to crank the crank, quarter the apple, dole out the biscuits, and enjoy his breakfast all over again.” (171-172)
15. Grant / Ron Chernow
Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, penned the following scathing indictment of Ulysses S. Grant: “He is a poor drunken imbecile and hopelessly foolish.” Grant did indeed battle alcohol abuse much of his life. But Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography reveals many commendable and inspiring aspects of the man who rose from Union General to the nation’s Commander in Chief. One of my favorite scenes occurred as Grant marched triumphantly towards Vicksburg:
“In less than three weeks, Grant had traversed 130 miles on foot and handily won five consecutive battles in a bravura campaign that would be enshrined in military textbooks. He had shown true virtuosity in spontaneously coordinating many moving parts and adapting to shifting enemy positions. With the Army of the Tennessee, he had created the mobile, lightning-quick army for which Lincoln yearned in contrast to the hidebound eastern forces. As Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay exclaimed, ‘The praise of our western soldiers is on every lip, Illinois valor particularly receiving as it properly should, large honor.’ Contrary to his image of securing victories at heavy cost, Grant had sacrificed 4,300 men versus 7,200 for the Confederates, even though he had tackled a combined Confederate force at Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, and Jackson of more than 60,000 men, much larger than the 43,000 he transferred across the Mississippi. ‘Grant is now deservedly the hero,’ Sherman proclaimed. ‘He is now belabored with praise by those who a month ago accused him of all the sins in the calendar.’ One journalist traveling with Grant’s army summed up his new stature: ‘Nothing like this campaign has occurred during this war. It stamps Gen. Grant as a man of uncommon military ability—proves him the foremost one in the west; if not in the nation.’ The New York Times, noting that Grant had captured fifty guns and six thousand prisoners, stressed that this whirlwind operation had been accomplished ‘in a foreign climate, under a tropical sun ablaze with the white heat of summer, with only such supplies as could be gleaned from the country.’ As Grant’s columns strode confidently toward Vicksburg, scenes of ecstatic jubilation greeted them as they passed abandoned plantations and were applauded by former slaves. One ex-slave, seated on a lawn, rocking back and forth in joy, kept shouting, ‘Glory, hallelujah, glory, hallelujah… Bless God, bless God. I never spected to see dis day.'” (266-267)
In the book’s last chapter, we encounter Grant spending his final days dying of cancer. Having been swindled by a family friend, Grant was desperate to provide for his family. Despite being racked with excruciating pain, Grant persevered and penned what is widely viewed as a masterpiece, the foremost military memoir in the English language. It was an immediate best-seller. After his death, Grant’s widow received $450,000 in royalties. In his final battle, General Grant once again emerged victorious.
16. Stalin: Waiting For Hitler / Stephen Kotkin
I’d never read anything about Stalin but after watching this lecture by Kotkin, I decided to take the plunge. I learned a bunch. Who was Joseph Stalin? He was a human being, a revolutionary, a dictator, a fearsome contriver of class warfare, a creator of great power, a magnetic leader, and a destroyer of tens of millions of lives.
“Murderous and mendacious do not begin to describe the person readers will encounter in this volume. At the same time, Stalin galvanized millions. His colossal authority was rooted in a dedicated faction, which he forged, a formidable apparatus, which he built, and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which he helped synthesize. But his power was magnified many times over by ordinary people, who projected onto him their soaring ambitions for justice, peace, and abundance, as well as national greatness. (8)
During Stalin’s 30-year rule, the most terrible crimes became morally imperative acts in the name of creating paradise on earth. Kotkin’s section covering the Great Terror, the purge led by Stalin, was horrifying.
“Throughout 1937 and 1938, there were on average nearly 2,200 arrests and more than 1,000 executions per day.” (437)
I’m looking forward to Kotkin’s third volume on Stalin that will pick up the story in 1942.
17. The Power Broker / Robert Caro
Have you ever heard of Robert Moses? I had not. But Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses makes plain just how he became America’s greatest builder and the single most powerful man of our age in the City and in the State of New York. But more than an enthralling biography, Caro also eloquently explores the dangers, the temptations, and the acquisition of absolute power.
18. Educated / Tara Westover
Power can be abused at a national level (see Joseph Stalin), and at a city/state level (see Robert Moses). But power can also be tragically abused in a single home, in one family. Tara Westover tells her heart-breaking story of overcoming the lasting effects of growing up in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.” (199) Many parts of this book were hard to read, but I was thankful I made it to the end.
19. The End of the Affair / Graham Greene
Faith, unbelief, God, atheism, love, lust, hatred, desire, life, and death. This riveting novel has it all. I couldn’t put it down. I read it twice. Then I came across this audiobook recording by Colin Firth, and I spent six hours listening to this story again. Searching and superb.
20. To A God Unknown / John Steinbeck
A lush and lyrical story that blends together elements of the creation and fall narratives of Genesis, paganism, pantheism, a Greek tragedy, a tree of life, and, of course, California. This is a strange and haunting book and I was mesmerized by it.
“When his eyes cleared from the lantern light he saw that the night was sharper. The mountain flanks, rounded and flesh-like, stood out softly in shallow perspective and a deep purple essence hung on their outlines. All of the night, the hills, the black hummocks of the trees were as soft and friendly as an embrace. But straight ahead, the black arrow-headed pines cut into the sky. The night was ageing toward dawn, the leaves and grasses whispered and sighed under the fresh morning wind. Whistle of ducks’ wings sounded overhead, where an invisible squadron started over-early for the south. And the great owls swung restlessly through the air at the last of the night’s hunting. The wind brought a pine smell down from the hills, and the penetrating odour of and the pleasant bouquet of a skunk’s anger, smelling, since it was far away, like azaleas. Joseph nearly forgot his mission, for the hills reached out tender arms to him and the mountains were as gentle and insistent as a loving woman who is half asleep. The sharp pines lengthened and pierced higher and higher into the sky.” (88-89)
21. The Man Who Caught the Storm / Brantley Hargrove
In 2013, I read a crazy story in National Geographic about a legendary storm chaser named Tim Samaras, and the infamous El Reno tornado, the widest tornado in recorded history. I remember thinking, “Someone should write a book about that guy.” Brantley Hargrove has not only written a poignant tribute to Samaras, but he’s also penned an unputdownable classic. (And this is Hargrove’s debut book!) If you liked Into Thin Air or The Perfect Storm, you’ll dig this book.
22. The Feather Thief / Kirk Wallace Johnson
The subtitle of this book says it all: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Here’s my best attempt at a run-on sentence blurb: A 20-year-old American dude who plays the flute at London’s Royal Academy of Music and who is obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying, rides a train to the Tring museum, breaks in, and proceeds to steal thousands of priceless rare bird feathers, and then escapes into the darkness. What could possibly go wrong? A rip-roaring story.
23. The Hunt For Red October / Tom Clancy
My Dad introduced me to the stories of Tom Clancy. I read most of the Jack Ryan books 20 years ago but hadn’t picked one up again until this year. I was digging through the fiction shelves at a used bookstore near Capitol Hill, and I saw an inexpensive hardback first edition of The Hunt of Red October. It’s hard to believe that a book written in 1984 featuring nuclear submarine warfare would still hold up to rereading decades later. But it does, with flying colors. I agree with the Gipper. “It’s my kind of yarn.”
John McPhee has written a variety of fascinating long-form stories for The New Yorker over the years. Several of these have been made into books, two of which I read this year. One tells the story of Ted Taylor, a theoretical physicist, who conceived and designed the largest-yield fission bomb ever exploded by any nation in the world. The other McPhee book I devoured was a book about oranges. That’s right. An entire book about oranges! I enjoy eating oranges and find orange juice delicious but I’d never thought much about the history of oranges. McPhee has a forensic eye for detail and this book didn’t disappoint:
“The custom of drinking orange juice with breakfast is not very widespread, taking the world as a whole, and it is thought by many peoples to be a distinctly American habit. But many Danes drink it regularly with breakfast, and so do Hondurans, Filipinos, Jamaicans, and the wealthier citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. The day is started with orange juice in the Colombian Andes, and, to some extent, in Kuwait. Bolivians don’t touch it at breakfast time, but they drink it steadily for the rest of the day. The ‘play lunch’, or morning tea, that Australian children carry with them to school is usually an orange, peeled spirally halfway down, with the peel replaced around the fruit. The child unwinds the peel and holds the orange as if it were an ice-cream cone. People in Nepal almost never peel oranges, preferring to eat them in cut quarters, the way American athletes do. The sour oranges of Afghanistan customarily appear as seasoning agents on Afghan dinner tables. Squeezed over Afghan food, they cut the grease. The Shamouti Orange, of Israel, is seedless and sweet, has a thick skin, and grows in Hadera, Gaza, Tiberias, Jericho, the Jordan Valley, and Jaffa; it is exported from Jaffa, and for that reason is known universally beyond Israel as the Jaffa Orange. The Jaffa Orange is a variety that British people consider superior others, possibly because Richard the Lionhearted spent the winter of 1191-92 in the citrus groves of Jaffa. Citrus trees are spread across the North African coast from Alexandria to Tangier, the city whose name was given to tangerines. Oranges tend to become less tart the closer they are grown to the equator, and in Brazil there is one kind of orange that has virtually no acid in it at all. In the principal towns of Trinidad and Tobago, oranges are sold on street corners. The vender cuts them in half and sprinkles salt on them. In Jamaica, people halve oranges, get down on their hands and knees, and clean floors with one half in each hand. Jamaican mechanics use oranges to clear away grease and oil. The blood orange of Spain, its flesh streaked with red, is prized throughout Europe. Blood oranges grow well in Florida, but they frighten American women. Spain has about thirty-five million orange trees, grows six billion oranges a year, and exports more oranges than any other country, including the United States. A Frenchman sits at the dinner table, as the finishing flourish of the meal, slowly and gently disrobes an orange. In France, peeling the fruit is not yet considered an inconvenience. French preferences run to the blood oranges and the Thomson Navels of Spain, and to the thick-skinned, bland Maltaises, which the French import not from Malta but from Tunisia. Sometimes, Europeans eat oranges with knives and forks. On occasion, they serve a dessert orange that has previously been peeled with such extraordinary care that strips of the peel arc outward like the petals of a flower from the separated and reassembled segments in the centre. The Swiss sometimes serve oranges under a smothering of sugar and whipped cream; on a hot day in a Swiss garden, orange juice with ice is a luxurious drink. Norwegian children like to remove the top of an orange, make a little hole, push a lump of sugar into it, and then suck out the juice. English children make orange-peel teeth and wedge them over their gums on Halloween. Irish children take oranges to the movies, where they eat them while they watch the show, tossing the peels at each other and at the people on the screen. In Reykjavik, Iceland, in greenhouses that are heated by volcanic springs, orange trees yearly bear fruit. In the New York Botanical Garden, six mature orange trees are growing in the soil of the Bronx. Their trunks are six inches in diameter, and they bear well every year. The oranges are for viewing and are not supposed to be picked. When people walk past them, however, they sometimes find them irresistible.” (3-5)
I found this book irresistible and I’ll never look at an orange the same way again.
My Final 12:
25. Charity and Its Fruits / Jonathan Edwards
Every month I spend time reading from my personal Canon of Theologians. In July, I always hang out with Jonathan Edwards. This year I slowly reread his exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, where he scatters jewels throughout. In his sermon on “Love does not envy,” (13:4) Edwards writes:
“The gospel scheme, all of it from beginning to end, tends to the contrary of this spirit of envy. For there we are taught how far God was from grudging us the most exceeding honor and blessedness, and how He has grudged us nothing as too much to be done for us, and nothing as too great and too good to be given us.
He hath not grudged us His only begotten Son, that which was most precious and most dear of all to Himself. For what was dearer to God than His only begotten, dearly beloved Son? He hath not grudged us the highest honor and blessedness in union with Him.
The doctrines of the gospel teach us how far Jesus Christ was from grudging us anything which He could do for or give to us. He did not grudge us a life spent in labor and suffering. He did not grudge us His own precious blood.
He hath not grudged us a sitting with Him on His throne in heaven, and being partakers with Him of that heavenly kingdom and glory which the Father hath given Him, and sitting with Him on thrones judging the world.” (224)
26. Christ From Beginning To End / Trent Hunter & Stephen Wellum
This is an excellent introduction to Biblical theology that will help you see how the full story of Scripture reveals the full glory of Christ. “As the radiance of God’s glory, Jesus is our great prophet. As the purification for our sins, He is our Great High Priest. As the one who sat down at God’s right hand, He is our King.” (211) Amen.
27. The Gospel Comes With a House Key / Rosaria Butterfield
The latest book from Rosaria Butterfield unpacks “radically ordinary hospitality.” I found it to be both encouragingly hopeful and devastatingly convicting. But don’t just take my word for it. Read the first twenty pages for yourself.
“Jesus dined with sinners, but He didn’t sin with sinners. Jesus lived in the world, but He didn’t live like the world. This is the Jesus paradox. And it defines those who are willing to suffer with others for the sake of gospel sharing and gospel living, those who care more for integrity than appearances. Engaging in radically ordinary hospitality means we provide the time necessary to build strong relationships with people who think differently than we do as well as build strong relationships from within the family of God. It means we know that only hypocrites and cowards let their words be stronger than their relationships, making sneaky raids into culture on social media or behaving like moralizing social prigs in the neighborhood. Radically ordinary hospitality shows this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like. Radically ordinary hospitality gives evidence of faith in Jesus’s power to save. It doesn’t get dug in over politics or culture or where someone stands on current events. It knows what conversion means, what identity in Christ does, and what repentance creates. It knows that sin is deceptive. To be deceived means to be taken captive by an evil force to do its bidding. It knows that people need to be rescued from their sin, not to be given pep talks about good choice making. It remembers that Jesus rescues people from their sin. Jesus rescued us. Jesus lives and reigns.” (13)
28. The Odyssey / Homer, trans. Emily Wilson
If you ever get the hankering to read this classic epic, you’ll want to read Emily Wilson’s exquisite translation. “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home… Tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” (105) My favorite line in the book: “My life is thin with weakness.” (195)
29. Why We Sleep / Matthew P. Walker
Two years ago I listened to a fascinating interview on NPR with Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Terry Gross asked Walker, “What are we losing when we deprive ourselves of sleep?” I still remember his six-word response: “Short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Walker argues that “our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia.” (324) Yikes! Did you know that caffeine is the second most-traded commodity on the planet after oil? I didn’t. I found the really fascinating stuff in this book to be chapters 9, 10, and 11, on how and why human beings dream. Reading this book made me thankful for the gift of sleep and eager to trust the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps.
30. I’ll Be Gone In the Dark / Michelle McNamara
Michelle McNamara was a true crime journalist who spent years in a tireless quest to unmask the identity of a notoriously violent predator, the “Golden State Killer.” Tragically, she died in 2016 before she could complete the final edits to her book. But what’s even more incredible is what happened in April 2018. Detectives, using DNA evidence, believe they have finally solved the case. You can listen to how investigators chased down the clues in a recent audiobook, Evil Has A Name. The diligent pursuit of justice displayed by McNamara and the detectives is awe-inspiring.
How can you not devour a book that starts like this?
“Three astronauts are strapped into a small spacecraft thirty-six stories in the air, awaiting the final moments of countdown. They sit atop the most powerful machine ever built. The Saturn V rocket is a jewel of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a vehicle that will generate the energy of a small atomic bomb. But it has never flown with men aboard, and it has had just two tests, the most recent of which failed catastrophically just eight months earlier. The three astronauts are going not merely into Earth orbit, or even beyond the world altitude record of 853 miles. They intend to go a quarter of a million miles away, to a place no man has ever gone. They intend to go to the Moon. Beneath them, the United States is fracturing. The year 1968 has seen killing, war, protest, and political unrest unlike any in the country’s history, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy to the unraveling of Vietnam to the riots in Chicago. Already, Time magazine has named THE DISSENTER its Man of the Year. As the countdown begins, there are engineers and scientists at NASA who question whether the crew will ever return. Even the astronauts are realistic about their chances of surviving the flight, an operation riskier than anything the American space agency has ever attempted. One of them has recorded a final goodbye to his wife, to be played in the event he doesn’t return. In August, this mission did not exist. Nearly everything that has gone into its planning—the training, analysis, calculations, even the politics—has been rushed to the launchpad in a fraction of the time ordinarily required. If anything goes wrong, public opinion—and the will of the United States government—might turn against NASA. The fate of the entire space program hangs on the crew’s safe return. As the moment of launch draws near, one of the astronauts spots a mud dauber wasp building a nest on the outside of one of the spacecraft’s tiny windows. Back and forth the insect moves, grabbing mud and adding to its new home. The astronaut thinks, ‘You are in for a surprise.’ Vapors begin to spew from around the base of the giant rocket. Less than a minute remains before lift-off. When the five first-stage engines ignite, they will deliver a combined 160 million horsepower. In the final few seconds, a typhoon of flames unfurls to either side. Beneath the astronauts, it is not just the launchpad that begins to shake, but the entire world.” (3-4)
32. The Life of Olaudah Equiano / Olaudah Equiano
In 1756, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his home in Nigeria and sold into slavery. Years later, after many dangers, toils, and snares, Olaudah would write these amazing words, as a free man, a man set free from his sins by amazing grace:
“In the evening of October 6th, as I was reading and meditating on the fourth chapter of Acts, the twelfth verse, I had solemn apprehensions of eternity. But the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with His bright beams of heavenly light. And in an instant, He removed the veil, and I saw clearly with the eye of faith the crucified Saviour bleeding on the cross: the Scriptures became an unsealed book. I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law of God, but I also saw the Lord Jesus Christ in His humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, my sin, and my shame. Christ was revealed to my soul as the chiefest among ten thousand. I felt an astonishing change; the burden of sin, the gaping jaws of hell, and the fears of death, that weighed me down before, now lost their horror. Every providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then in my view. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when I didn’t know the truth. Still the Lord pursued me and His mercy melted me down. I was finally enabled to praise and glorify God’s most holy name. There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, but Jesus Christ.’ What a Saviour I have! What a great debtor I am to sovereign free grace.” (310-311)
33. A River in Darkness / Masaji Ishikawa
Masaji Ishikawa was born in 1947. His father was a Korean national residing in Japan. His mother was Japanese. In 1960, when he was thirteen years old, his family moved to the “promised land” of North Korea. In 1996, he made a desperate bid to escape. In this book, he tells his unforgettable story.
“What do I remember of that night? The night I escaped from North Korea? There are so many things that I don’t remember, that I’ve put out of my mind forever. But I’ll tell you what I do recall. It’s drizzling. But soon the drizzle turns to torrential rain. Sheets of rain so heavy, I’m soaked to the skin. I collapse under the shelter of a bush, utterly incapable of measuring the passage of time. I am weary to the core. My legs have sunk into the mud, but somehow I crawl out from under the bush. Between the branches, I can see the Yalu River in front of me. But it’s changed—now totally unrecognizable. This morning, kids were wading in what was little more than a stream. But the cascading downpour has turned it into an impassable torrent. Across the river, about thirty yards away, I can make out China, shrouded in mist. Thirty yards—the distance between life and death. I shiver. I know that countless North Koreans have stood here before me, gazing across at China under the cover of darkness, memories of the people they’ve just left behind swirling through their minds. Those people, like the ones I’ve left, were starving. What else could they do? I stare into the torrent and wonder how many of them succeeded. Then again, what difference does it make? If I remain in North Korea, I’ll die of starvation. It’s as simple as that.” (1-2)
Pray for North Korea.
34. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot / Robert Macfarlane
Macfarlane is a Cambridge literature professor who loves to walk. He’s also an amazing writer. Here’s what it’s like to stroll through Cambridge on a wintry, moon-lit evening:
“Two days short of the winter solstice; the turn of the year’s tide. All that cold day, the city and the countryside around felt halted, paused. Five degrees below freezing and the earth battened down. Clouds held snow that would not fall. Out in the suburbs the schools were closed, people homebound, the pavements rinky and the roads black-iced. The sun ran a shallow arc across the sky. Then just before dusk the snow came — dropping straight for five hours and settling at a steady inch an hour.
I was at my desk that evening, trying to work but distracted by the weather. I kept stopping, standing, looking out of the window. The snow was sinking through the orange cone cast by a street light, the fat flakes showing like furnace sparks.
Around eight o’clock the snow ceased. An hour later I went for a walk with a flask of whisky to keep me warm. I walked for half a mile along dark back roads where the snow lay clean and unmarked. The houses began to thin out. A few undrawn curtains: family evenings underway, the flicker and burble of television sets. The cold like a wire in the nose. A slew of stars, the moon flooding everything with silver.
At the southerly fringe of the suburb, a last lamp post stands by a hawthorn hedge, and next to it is a hole in the hedge which leads down to a modest field path.
I followed the field path east-south-east towards a long chalk hilltop, visible as a whaleback in the darkness. Northwards was the glow of the city, and the red blip of aircraft warning lights from towers and cranes. Dry snow squeaked underfoot. A fox crossed the field to my west at a trot. The moonlight was so bright that everything cast a crisp moon-shadow: black on white, stark as woodcut. Wands of dogwood made zebra-hide of the path; hawthorn threw a lattice. The trees were frilled with snow, which lay to the depth of an inch or more on branches and twigs. The snow caused everything to exceed itself and the moonlight caused everything to double itself.
This is the path I’ve probably walked more often than any other in my life. It’s a young way; maybe fifty years old, no more. Its easterly hedge is mostly hawthorn and around eight feet high; its westerly hedge is a younger mix of blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel and dogwood. It is not normally a beautiful place, but there’s a feeling of secrecy to it that I appreciate, hedged in as it is on both sides, and running discreetly as it does between field and road. In summer I’ve seen small rolling clouds of goldfinches rising from teasel-heads and then curling ahead to settle again, retreating in the measure that I approach them.
That evening the path was a grey snow alley, and I followed it up to the hanger of beech trees that tops the whaleback hill, passing off the clay and onto the chalk proper. At the back brink of the beechwood I ducked through an ivy-trailed gap, and was into the forty-acre field that lies beyond.
At first sight the field seemed flawless; floe country. Then I set out across it and started to see the signs. The snow was densely printed with the tracks of birds and animals — archives of the hundreds of journeys made since the snow had stopped. There were neat deer slots, partridge prints like arrowheads pointing the way, and the pads of rabbits. Lines of tracks curved away from me across the field, disappearing into shadow or hedge. The moonlight, falling at a slant, deepened the dark in the nearer tracks so that they appeared full as inkwells. To all these marks I added my own.” (5-7)
35. The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands / Ed. Huw Lewis-Jones
This volume gets the award for the most beautiful book of 2018. It’s chock-full of delightful, imaginary maps from Pilgrim’s Progress, Middle Earth, Treasure Island, the world of Harry Potter, and more. We all learned at a young age that if you find a map at the start of a book, then an adventure and a journey is about to begin. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Western Woods, building up to the mountains of Ettinsmoor, and then Cair Paravel rising to the east, all because C.S. Lewis included a map at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Maps don’t just speak to our soles; they speak to our souls.
36. The Soul in Paraphrase / Leland Ryken
My favorite book of poetry this year was this excellent collection that includes 150 choice poems with insightful comments by Leland Ryken. I close with the words of the great George Herbert, from his poem, “The Elixir”:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee. (101)
As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!