Favorite Books of 2016

Drumroll please … I read a whopping 81 books in 2016.   That’s two more books than my 2015 total.  Bonus points for the increase in production.  Here’s a rundown of my favorites from the year.

This is always a fun and excruciating process.  It’s fun to look back and flip through the books that had an impact over the course of a year.  It’s excruciating attempting to rank them.  Books serve different purposes:  Some books are not fun to read but provide a wealth of helpful information.  Other books are fun … but forgettable.

This is my meager attempt to show some books that will maintain prominent places on my bookshelves.  Rather than providing a top 10 lists, I’ve provided categories with my favorites in each.

I want to stress that these are my favorite books that I read in 2016 (they made have been released in years gone by).

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Favorite Book of the Year:

ALEXANDER HAMILTON BY RON CHERNOW

Chernow

This book has to be the favorite simply due to the fact that it spurred me on to read at least four other books with Hamilton as the main character or point of interest:  Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis, Adams vs Jefferson by John Ferling, Jefferson and Hamilton by John Ferling, John Adams by David McCullouch.  Plus, I’m currently reading a biography on Thomas Jefferson.  Here’s the write up from when the book appeared on my August Reading Log:

I fell in love with HAMILTON (the Musical) in January and it has been a part of every day since.   I listen to it while out for a morning or evening run, while riding in the car, and I quote it any time I can work it into a conversation.  My family can verify the truth of the preceding statements.  They’ve been tired of it for months.  It has yet to loose its appeal for me.

I have owned the Chernow biography (upon which the musical is based) for quite some time.  My love affair with the musical moved the biography from near the bottom of my to-be-read pile to near the top.  I have been slowly reading it for the past two months (maybe three). Some books you enjoy so much that you read them quickly.  Others you enjoy so much that you read slowly and deliberately.  This book was given the latter treatment.  I was sad when I came to the end of the 800 pages.

This is not a work of hagiography.  Chernow shows the many sides of Hamilton. You see his sinful ambition, pride, and quick temper.  You also dig deep into his achievements, unmatched work ethic, and superior intellect.  The life of Alexander Hamilton  is the story of a founding father  soap opera – filled with villains, untimely deaths via duels, and a political sex scandal.  It would be hard to mess this story up.  Yet, Chernow does more than merely avoiding disaster.  He has written a crisp biography even though the book can substitute for a boat anchor.  It approaches the realm of the “all-time favorites” list.  Let me stew on that a bit.

This is a great read for biography lovers, history buffs, presidential enthusiasts ( you get tons of info on Washington, Jefferson, and Adams), or anyone who loves a great story.

FAVORITES: BIBLICAL STUDIES, CHURCH, THEOLOGY

TELLING GOD’S STORY: THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVE FROM BEGINNING TO END BY PREBEN VANG AND TERRY CARTER

vang-and-carterThis books makes the list by the number of times I’ve recommended it.  I can clearly think of four instances when I’ve been in conversation and passed the title along to someone.  That’s a mark of a good book.  Here’s the write up when the book appeared on my September Reading Log:

I used this book to help prepare for a Bible overview sermon series.  I can’t recommend it enough.  It is written and formatted like a undergraduate textbook but it is incredibly readable and helpful.  If you look it up on Amazon do not be frightened by the price (currently $32.69).  It is tremendous at reducing large themes into concise chapters and paragraphs without oversimplifying.  Its treatment of the Old Testament narratives and history is fantastic.  It is filled with helpful charts (many of which I’ve adapted into slides for sermons) and full-color pictures.

Dr. Vang happens to be director of my Doctorate of Ministry program but that fact in no way influenced my endorsement of the book.  I type that with a smile – but its true.

WHY REVIVAL TARRIES BY LEONARD RAVENHILL

revival-tarriesMonths after reading this book I still have quotes from it that run through my mind.  The kind of quotes that convict and make you question your current habits and thought process.  Now that’s a good book.  Here’s my write from when it appeared on my October Reading Log:

I’ve spent the last two years with a small group praying early Monday mornings for revival.  I’m eagerly awaiting such a thing.  Yet, I often ask myself:  What will revival look like when it arrives?  What keeps revival from showing up on our doorstep?  

These questions led me to reread Leonard Ravenhill’s Why Revival Tarries.  Ravenhill was born in England in 1907 and moved to the United States in the 1950’s.  He traveled the U.S. holding evangelistic tent meetings.  Along the way he wrote a number of books on revival and prayer.  He died living in Texas in 1994.  He counted pastor/writer A.W. Tozer and singer Keith Green as close friends.

Why Revival Tarries was published in 1959.  My copy is the ninth printing from 1965.  Its a used copy and falling apart.  I love it.  The book looks old which is appropriate since the words within it seems like nothing being spoken today.  Many lines jump off the page, hang in the air, and take the air from the room.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago with quotes from this book.  You can find it here.  There is gold on almost every page of this book.  Perhaps my favorite: Preachers make pulpits famous; prophets make prisons famous.

THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE CHURCH BY EMIL BRUNNER

The Misunderstanding of the Church

I place this book on the list … reluctantly.  This was required reading for my D Min studies and I found it to be a laborious read.  While thin in size it is dense in thought.  On first read I found much of the argument offensive.  As a pastor of a local church I did not appreciate Brunner’s criticism of the local church as a Spirit-less institution.  Yet, after six months of reflection I’ve grown to appreciate Brunner’s call for the church to return to the Spirit and Spirit-led fellowship.  Here’s my write up from my July Reading Log:

Those interested in a nice, fluffy Saturday read need to beware of this thin volume.  You can feel safe in knowing that you will not accidentally stumble unto this book.  It is out of print and a bit pricey.  When I first went to purchase it the used copies on Amazon were all over $40.  I just checked and a few copies are now available for under $20.  While looking to church purchase this book I was leery of buying a used copy and receiving it filled with margin notes, underlines, and highlights.  This would not work with me needing to read it for a D Min seminar. So … I found book publisher in England selling news copies of the book.  The price was steep –  but I have a clean copy.

Brunner’s aim in this book is to criticize – perhaps correct – the common practice in Roman Catholic and Protestant thinking in identifying the modern church with the New Testament Ecclesia.  Ouch.  You read that correctly.  He argues that the modern church is more of an institution than the body of Christ. The church described in the New Testament is one of fellowship characterized by communion with Christ through the Holy Spirit and also dynamic communion with one another.  He argues the institutional church of todays’s world  has developed over time through a complicated and ugly process that has moved the church from the New Testament Ecclesia to the institutional church.

It’s a fair critique is some ways.  Yet, in other ways I feel Brunner pokes the church with a stick without ever allowing the church to defend itself.

FAVORITES: BIOGRAPHY

SHOE DOG: A MEMOIR BY THE CREATOR OF NIKE BY PHIL KNIGHT

Shoe DogThis book makes the list because its an engaging and well-written biography from an unexpected source.  In regards to biography I read mostly in the area of presidential biographies and a few business profiles every now and then for a change of pace.  If every business profile was this caliber – I’d read much more of them.  Here’s the write up when it appears in my May Reading Log:

I finished this book in two days.  It’s a gripping story and worthy of reading for those interested in great memoirs, business profiles, or the sport of running.  It is even part spiritual journey.

Knight does a fantastic job of detailing the early days of Nike.  Without knowing any of the Nike story prior to this book, it seems brutally honest and insightful.  I was struck time and time again about how close Nike was to never getting off the ground or getting off the ground merely to crash back down.  You see early troubles with business partners, lack of cash flow, a CIA investigation, and failed relationships with banks. It is a definitely a memoir – Knight offers memories and reflections on events and conversations.  He even points out when his memory and the facts seem to be in disagreement.  Yet, many lessons can be gleaned for those reading it as a business profile or a source of inspiration.  Knight never gets “preachy” – he simply tells the story – but many memorable nuggets shine through.

Some might be disappointed that this book only chronicles the early days of Nike.  Reading this book does not provide a glimpse into the sporting good juggernaut that we know and love.  Rather, it shows a company scratching to survive.

WILSON BY A. SCOTT BERG

Wilson BioThis books makes the list because it also resulted in me reading another book.  I admittedly knew little of Wilson and was captivated by aspects of his story – specifically his health issues near the end of his presidency.  Thus, I’m currently reading When The Cheering Stopped by Gene Smith that looks at the last years of Wilson’s life.  Here’s the write up from my May Reading Log:

Without the extra material, this book is over 740 pages … and the pages are big and the font and margins are small.  It’s a monster.  But I loved it.

I admittedly did not know much about Woodrow Wilson.  This added to my enjoyment of the book.  I found myself constantly putting the book down to Google certain topics and events merely to learn more about it on the spot before picking up the story.  Berg does a fabulous job of giving an extremely detailed look at Wilson’s life while keeping the story moving on an appealing trajectory.  As a bit of a criticism, I feel the book paints Wilson in a glowing light.  Having since done more reading on Wilson, Berg could have been more critical of Wilson’s lack of support for women’s suffrage and his last year in office when Wilson was severely hindered by health issues.

Wilson’s faith subtly plays in the background of the book.  Berg uses religious/spiritual language to frame Wilson’s story.  For example, part one of the book is broken down into the following chapters: Ascension, Providence, Eden, Sinai, Reformation, Advent.  Its a creative and powerful angle.

This is a magnificent book.  Yet, only serious biography readers need apply.

JFK’S LAST HUNDRED DAYS: THE TRANSFORMATION OF A MAN AND THE EMERGENCE OF A GREAT PRESIDENT BY THURSTON CLARKE

jfk-last-hundred-daysThis makes the list because its good.  It also makes the list because I found the attention given to Kennedy’s greatness, along with his dark side, to be fascinating.  I’ve done a lot of reading this year on the dark side of leadership and Kennedy provides a perfect case study.  Here’s my write up from my October Reading Log:

I LOVED this book.  I’ve not done much reading of Kennedy but have a few volumes lined up on my to-be-read shelf.  This was a great start.  As the title suggests, this is a look at the last hundred days of Kennedy’s life.  It literally gives you a day-to-day rundown, at times taking it a few days at a time.

I really enjoyed the author’s inclusion of Kennedy’s marginal notes during meetings and conversations.  It is fascinating to read what sentences Kennedy underlined or words he wrote in the margin while in meetings concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis or conversations on the Civil Rights Movement.  These tidbits here and there make the book pure gold for me.

It is also refreshing to read a presidential biography that gives an even handed view of the subject.  Clarke does not paint Kennedy as a saint.  He details Kennedy’s sex addiction, vanity, and ambition to be liked alongside his political genius, incredible intellect, and leadership ability.

FAVORITES: MEMOIR

RUNNING WITH THE KENYANS: DISCOVERING THE SECRETS OF THE FASTEST PEOPLE ON EARTH BY ADHARANAND FINN

Running w KenyansThis book was in contention for my favorite of the year.  It combines my love for writing with my love for an interesting memoir.  Here’s the write up from when it appeared in my June Reading Log:

This book was recommended to me via a conversation at Starbucks.  I love finding books via the Starbucks route.  After a conversation about running and running shoes, a fellow coffee sipper mentioned this book.  I purchased it with one click before the conversation was over.

Adharanand Finn (best author name ever?) decides to get serious about running.  So he does the only sensible thing  … he moves his family to Kenya to train with world class runners for 6 months.  The adventure in Kenya is concluded with a marathon deemed “difficult” even by Kenyan standards.  This memoir is fascinating and a little bit of everything – it’s a human interest story, travel memoir, sports bio, and culture study rolled into 275 pages.  The end result is a powerful story.  Probably only to be enjoyed by running fanatics but a great book overall nonetheless.

This was a vacation read and I finished it in less than 2 days.  Loved every page.

CONSEQUENCE: A MEMOIR BY ERIC FAIR

ConsequenceThis book makes the list because of the unique topic and interesting social commentary it provides.  I’ve worked this book into conversation numerous times when people outline the difficult situations they find themselves in due to past decisions – specifically career decisions.  Here’s the write from my May Reading Log:

Sometimes you stumble onto books and find a real gem.  I heard about this book via the New York Times Review of Books Podcast.  I’m a faithful listener and was listening to the podcast while mowing the yard one day when this book was featured.   I was hooked.

Eric Fair was an civilian interrogator in Iraq.  During the course of his time in Iraq he participated in or witnessed a variety of aggressive interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, diet manipulation, exposure, and isolation. While uncomfortable with these techniques during live time, he now calls these actions torture.  The book is part reflection and part processing of things witnessed.

The surprising element of this book was the subtle theme of faith that resonates from start to finish.  I was ignorant of this theme when I purchased it … it was not mentioned in the podcast at all.  Yet, it adds a great dimension to the book.  While heading to Iraq the author was also awaiting word on his application to Princeton Theological Seminary.  Throughout his time in the war zone, Fair processes interrogation through the lens of one contemplating a call to pastoral ministry.  Fascinating.

The book provides no answers – simply honest reflection and emotion.

THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY: ONE MAN’S QUEST TO FOLLOW THE BIBLE AS LITERALLY AS POSSIBLE BY AJ JACOBS

aj-jacobsThis was another book that I contemplated as my favorite of the year.  In terms of pure enjoyment of the book – it probably is my favorite.  Here’s the write up from my November Reading Log:

The first Thursday in November I attended my local library book sale.  It’s a highlight of the year for me.  I show up early on the first day of the sale and pay $10 to get first crack at the rows and rows of books.  Like new books are $4.  Hardcovers are $2. It’s the Super Bowl for this book lover.  You’ll be seeing the gems I picked up at the sale over the course of the next year.  Here’s the first beauty of a book that I brought home from the sale.

This is one that has always had my eye put I’ve never pulled the trigger to purchase it or read it.  When I saw a beautiful deckled-edge hardcover for $2 I thought, “the wait is over.”  I got the book home and began to read it than very night.

This book is equal parts fascinating and frustrating.  I love Jacobs’ humor and integrity in going about the project.  He reads the Bible and prays everyday.  He gets aquatinted with various groups that do the same.  He truly tries to live it out bit by bit.  Yet, the book is frustrating.  Ultimately he takes a few wrong turns and gets some horrible advice from spiritual guides.  At one point Jacobs expresses some conviction after a racy interview as a writer for Esquire (Get the book.  It’s on page 133).  His time in prayer, reading Scripture, and living out God’s commands is having an impact of conviction.  The page is filled with my marginal notes of “fascinating” and “how interesting!”.  Yet, on the reverse page he seeks the counsel of a professor from a Jewish Seminary and  is told that his guilt and conviction is pointless.  He’s told that the Bible is not antisex and he should feel free to continue with raunchy talk with celebrities about X-Rated material.  He concludes “This is liberating information.”  I can still hear my face palm.

Jacobs is officially Jewish but was raised in a secular home.  He’s probably best described as an agnostic.  The journey of growing his beard, observing food laws, stoning adulterers, and reading Scripture doesn’t change much.  Nonetheless, it’s a great read.

FAVORITES: FICTION

THE LAST SUMMER OF REASON BY TAHAR DJAOUT

Last Summer of ReasonLooking for a short but powerful read?  Pick this one up.  It makes the list because its a work of fiction but delivers a social commentary like few other books.  Here’s the write up from my August Reading Log:

This is a fascinating book, along the lines of Fahrenheit 451, with a back story to the author that gives it significance beyond measure.  On May 26, 1993 Djaout was shot in the head three times outside of his apartment.  He died a week later, the first of 57 Algerian intellectuals killed in a wave of terror. He was an important symbolic target. A New York Times article states, “More than anyone, he embodied the tolerant, cosmopolitan outlook of Algeria’s French-speaking intelligentsia, whom fundamentalists vilify as latter-day colonialists, obstacles to the dream of an Islamic state.”  (See ‘The Last Summer of Reason’: A Despairing Parable About Fanaticism)

Upon Djout’s death, an unpublished short novel about a country ravaged by Islamic fanaticism was found and published as The Last Summer of Reason.  The work is more than a bit prophetic.  In the short essay-like novel, a bookstore owner is harassed and assaulted for his promotion of ideas (book selling).  Art and literature are no longer acceptable in the new world ruled by fundamentalist terrorists seeking to control every element of life and forcing people into submission.  It does not read like an unpublished  work.  The prose is beautiful and the meaning is powerful.  The author’s life proved the message before it was read by the very first set of eyes.

THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAT HEAVEN BEARS BY DINAW MENGESTU

heaven-bearsThis books makes the list because it comes to my mind almost every time I walk into a convenience store.  In the novel a convenience store owner reads The Brother Karamazov with a little girl during store hours.  Every time I hear the familiar ding as walk into a store I look to see if the person behind the counter is reading a classic.  Here’s the write up  from my  October Reading Log:

First, a note on reading habits.  I’m frequently asked for advice on how to read more.  This book is a perfect example of one of my go-to suggestions: have a large to-be-read stack.  Reading is often about mood.  Sometimes a certain book just jumps out to you and begs to be completed.  I was walking out of my office and looked at my TBR stack for a weekend book.  The books at the top of stack didn’t grab my attention.  Yet, this little gem near the bottom sure did.  I took it home and read it over two days in about three sittings.  It struck my mood at the time.

This is a beautiful, well-written novel.  The characters have depth and so does the storyline.  The book follows an Ethiopian immigrant who runs a failing grocery store in a struggling neighborhood in Washington DC.  It’s a story about friendship, race, and identity.  It has one of the most interesting “love stories” that I have ever read.  Simple yet powerful.  Powerful yet subtle.

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