My 2016 Reading List and Top-Five Reads of the Year!

It’s an annual tradition for me to provide my reading list and recommendations, and I’m happy to oblige again this year.

Reading List

January
>>Wayward — Blake Crouch (started 12/31)
>>The Last Town — Blake Crouch
>>Avatar, the Last Airbender: The Search — Gene Luen Yang (3 vols.)
>>Written in Fire — Marcus Sakey
>>Red Harvest — Dashiell Hammett

February 
>>Do More Better — Tim Challies
>>A Wrinkle in Time — Madeleine L’Engle
>>Slave — John Macarthur
>>The Pastor Theologian — Hiestand and Wilson

March
>>Animal Farm – George Orwell
>>Gates of Fire – Steven Pressfield
>>The Silence of Our Friends — Mark Long
>>Captain America: Civil War — Brubaker/Perkins/Weeks
>>Jelly Roll — Kevin Young
>>Captain America: America First — Knauf/Chaykin/Breitweiser/Higgins/Siegel/Padilla
>>Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America — Loeb etc.

April
>>Essentialism – Greg McKeown
>>Captain America, Reborn – Brubaker etc.
>>The Trial of Captain America – Brubaker  etc.
>>Dad is Fat – Jim Gaffigan (audio)
>>Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, the Man Who Led the Band of Brothers – Larry Alexander
>>Inheritance of Tears – Jessalyn Hutto
>>Amusing Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman

May
>>The Hole in Our Holiness – Kevin DeYoung
>>Too Dumb to Fail – Matt Lewis
>>Smarter, Faster, Better – Charles Duhigg
>>It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis
>>Hawkeye, vol. 2 – Fraction/Aja

June

>>From Eden to the New Jerusalem – T. Desmond Alexander
>>Kill Devil – Mike Dellosso

July
>>Getting the Message – Daniel Doriani

>>40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible – Robert Plummer
>>No Hero – Mark Owen (audio)
>>A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

 

August

>>Star Wars:Bloodline – Claudia Gray
>>Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
>>Nobody Wants to Read Your S–t – Steven Pressfield
>>The Wright Brothers – David McCullough
September
>>Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs (audio)
>>Persuasion – Jane Austen (audio)
>>A Guide to Adoption and Orphan Care – Russell Moore
>>The Winter’s Tale – Shakespeare
>>The Innocence of Father Brown – GK Chesterton
>>Orphan Justice – Johnny Carr
>>Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus – Nabeel Quereshi (audio)
>>The Joy Project – Tony Reinke
October
>>Reviving New England – Nate Pickowicz
>>Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls – Scott Snyder / Bryan Capullo
>>Batman Vol. 2: The City of Owls – Snyder/Capullo
>>Hollow City – Ransom Riggs (audio)
November 
>>Batman: Dark Victory – Jeph Loeb; Tim Sale
>>Library of Souls – Ransom Riggs (audio)
>>On Bowie – Rob Sheffield
December
>>Armada – Ernest Cline (audio)
>>And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie (audio)
>>Love Your Life, Not Theirs – Rachel Cruze
>>Fat2Fit2Fat – Drew Manning
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Final Tally: 57 books. I think that’s a new personal record.
The big takeaways from this year’s list? 1) Graphic novels, 2) audio books, and 3) the public library.
  • As a palate-cleanser (and, frankly, mental “recess”) from the serious reading I did this year, I read a lot of graphic novels (mostly Captain America and Batman). Some of them were quite good (and may even crack my top-five!). But a solid fifth (11) of my reads this year were graphic novels, which I argue can be just as challenging and moving as regular print books. (Admittedly, some of them weren’t; they were cotton candy for my over-taxed brain.)
  • I also started “reading” more audio books (9 this year), partly due to the realization that they are quite useful for roadtrips. My wife and I started a new practice of picking at least one audiobook to enjoy together. I look forward to continuing this tradition in the future.
  • I have become a major proponent of the public library. Where I live, there are 2 fantastic library systems, and I’ve been the beneficiary of these all year long. Of the 56 books I read this year, fewer than 20 were from my own shelves. The rest were courtesy of the public library. Gang, if you haven’t checked out your local library lately, you need to get on that. There’s some fantastic stuff available, whether it’s paper or e-books, audio materials, movies on disc or via digital download, and a whole lot more.
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The4thDave’s Top Five Reads of 2016 (in no particular order):
  • Do More, Better by Tim Challies: At the start of the year, I read this productivity book by one of the most famous bloggers in Evangelical Christianity today. I even incorporated his system and reported on it a month later (resulting in the most-read post in 4DB history, thanks to the “Challies bump”). Since then?  I’m afraid my compliance has been hit-or-miss, and my personal productivity has suffered. That said, this weekend, I’m going to dive back into a refresher on the system. It’s pretty simple to adopt, and when I’ve used it as prescribed, it has been very effective for me.
  • Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield: From a pure “fun” standpoint, this is one of the best novels I’ve read in a while. Gates of Fire takes place during the years leading up to the Battle of Thermopylae and the final stand of the 300 Spartans, and it follows a handful of inter-connected characters through the story. Pressfield’s writing is crisp, his characterization is effective, and his dialogue pops on the page. However, there is a significant enough level of crude language and “barracks-talk” that I can’t recommend it widely. For those who aren’t offended by such things, this tale of warriors and honor is worth a look.
  • Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America, by Jeph Loeb and a bunch of other folks: Yes, I’m including a graphic novel on my top-five for this year, because this particular collection is one of the most memorable comics compilations I’ve read in years. The writers use 5 stories, each focusing on a different superhero’s reaction to the death of Cap, as a means of exploring the five stages of grief. The book culminates in Tony Stark eulogizing Captain America both publically and privately, and I found it to be surprisingly moving. This short collection is really well-done.
  • Biggest Brother…, by Larry Alexander: If you are familiar with the hit HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (and if you’re not, you should be!), then you would remember the main character, Dick Winters, who rose to the rank of Major as he led those brave men through the battles of the European front of WWII. Alexander’s biography fills in the gaps, as he explores the man behind the story. Alexander spent time with Winters, getting his own perspective on events from his past. The reader also gets a glimpse of Winters’ civilian life and retirement years, including his perspective on the TV miniseries that made him “famous.” Biggest Brother was a fascinating and valuable look at the life of an American hero.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: It wasn’t one of my favorite books of the year, but it was an important book for me to read. I disagreed with several parts of it, was sometimes (often) provoked by the author, but in the end, I needed this voice in my head for a little while, because I haven’t been exposed to many other voices like it. Reading Coates’ “open letter” to his young son forced me to see the world through his eyes for a while. I question some of his perceptions and assumptions; but I also was forced to reconsider some of my own. That’s a sign of a profitable reading experience.
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Your turn: What was your favorite book or books that you read this year? Let me know in the comments!
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2016 Reading Challenge: December Update and End-of-Year Round-up!

Time for the final 2016 Reading Challenge update!

This month, I only read one more book from the list:

A Book About Money: Love Your Life, Not Theirs, by Rachel Cruze. This volume by the daughter of Dave Ramsey (and heir-apparent of his financial-counseling empire) is a lighter version of the core Dave Ramsey principles, with some extra material thrown in. In the book, Cruze lists 7 principles for finding contentment, which includes things like “avoid debt,” “save money,” and “use a budget.” Essentially, if you are familiar with Dave Ramsey’s “Baby Steps,” there’s nothing groundbreaking or useful here. The only addition Cruze makes is some discussion of the dangers of comparing yourself to others. However, the book mostly avoids the spiritual aspects of contentment and jealousy, so the reader is left with a bland, faith-lite exhortation toward gratitude and generosity as a solution for envy and discontentment. In the end, this book is fluff: watered-down, non-challenging, non-offensive. It seems like she’s trying to move away from the brusqueness associated with Dad, but it’s weak tea, so don’t bother.

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Final tally for the 2016 Reading Challenge: 33/52. I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t do better, but honestly, it’s a good run, considering how many additional books I read this year. All in all, I’m pretty satisfied with the experience. As you can see by the list below, the challenge successfully broadened my typical reading, and took me out of my  comfort zone. While I don’t plan on tackling another reading list in 2017, I will certainly give it a go down the road.

Reading Challenge Categories completed:

A book about Christian living
A biography
A classic novel
A book more than 100 years old
A book for children
A mystery or detective novel
A book published in 2016
A book about a current issue
A novel that won the Pulitzer Prize
A book with at least 400 pages
A book with a great cover
A book on the current New York Times list of bestsellers
A graphic novel
A book of poetry
A book that won a ECPA Christian Book Award
A play by William Shakespeare
A humorous book
A book based on a true story
A book written by Jane Austen
A book with 100 pages or less
A book with a one-word title
A book about money or finance
A novel set in a country that is not your own
A book about music
A memoir
A book about joy or happiness
A book by a female author
A self-improvement book
A book by David McCullough
A book you own but have never read
A book targeted at the other gender
A book by a speaker at a conference you have attended
A book written by someone of a different ethnicity than you
Check back tomorrow for my full 2016 reading list, and my top-five favorite books of the year!

2016 Reading Challenge Update: October/November

Time for another update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress!

You may be thinking, “Wait, Dave’s still doing this thing?” And the answer is…kind of?

I’m not sure why, but October and November were just not very bookish for me. Personal reasons aside, I just didn’t make reading a priority like I had in previous months. Also, as I noted previously, my limited reading was often occupied with non-Reading-Challenge materials.

That said, I did finish one short book from the Reading Challenge list:

A book about music: On Bowie, by Rob Sheffield. I mentioned in an earlier Friday Five post that I was slowly working my way through this one, with mixed feelings. While I definitely love Sheffield’s writing, I realized that my understanding and appreciation of David Bowie was very shallow. In a sense, “my” Bowie was the elder-statesman Bowie–more subdued, less sexually-charged, singing about love and loss. Sheffield’s short but adoring biography of David Bowie gave me a fuller understanding of the artist’s long and turbulent career. And to be honest, I find I’m starting to distance myself from him as a result. I can’t explain it other than to say I’m seeing in a new way how out there Bowie often was, and it’s turning me off a bit. I still recognize his immense talent–I’d never argue that. I guess I’m just seeing that Bowie isn’t my bag anymore, if he ever was. (I’m pretty sure Sheffield would be horrified and/or outraged by this response.)

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There’s one month left in the 2016 Reading Challenge. Guess what? I’m not going to make it.

Right now, the tally sits at 32 out of 52. A respectable number, especially given how many extra books I threw into the mix this year.

For this final month of the year, I’m going to focus primarily on books that I have committed to reviewing on the blog. (I’m already about halfway through one more book from the reading list on money/finance, but that shouldn’t take long.) Some of these books for review can be applied to reading list categories, but most will not. However, I want to make sure I take care of these commitments I have made (some of them, months ago).

So my expectation is that I will reach at least 35 out of 52 before year’s end. As for the books and reviews coming up this month (hopefully): selections by Jared Wilson, RC Sproul, Tom Schreiner, Kevin Van Hooser, and others. Some tough sledding, but what better time for that than winter, right?

As for next year, who knows? I may decide to finish out this list before doing anything else. Or I may chuck the rest of this list and tackle something else. Tim Challies has already posted a 2017 Reading Challenge list, but I don’t think I’ll attempt that one next year. I have piles of unread books (both physical copies and Kindle books) that I would like to work through, so I may decide to do just that, and post little capsule reviews on this page from time to time (similar to these monthly updates).

Until then, thanks for reading.

Your Turn: Reading anything good lately? Let me know in the comments below!

2016 Reading Challenge: September Update!

Time for another update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress!

I guess September is the beginning of harvest time, so it makes sense for me to finally finish several books, including a few I had been working on, on and off, for a few months! It seems I had a lot to say about a few of these books, so this post is almost 2-3 posts in one!

So here’s a list of what I was able to finish in September:

A Book of Less than 100 Pages: A Guide to Adoption and Orphan Care, by SBTS Press (Russell Moore, ed.). This short booklet was produced by Southern Seminary, and is really just a collection of short essays (long blog posts?) from the Southern faculty about adoption and orphan care. The first group of essays addresses personal/family issues related to adoption, while the last few essays touch on how to begin or support orphan care ministry in the church setting. This is a hugely important topic, and while this book doesn’t go into any real depth, it may be a great starting point for beginning to think about how you can take part in and support orphan care. It certainly helped me begin thinking about this issue for my own family.

A Book by Jane Austen: Persuasion, by Jane Austen. I am a growing fan of Jane Austen stories–I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and I’ve seen the filmed productions of those two as well as Emma and Mansfield Park. I appreciate her style of writing, and her ability to describe a character in an incisive yet still sympathetic way. Austen’s stories have some stock character types that get mixed and matched in different ways: noble, long-suffering characters in a family of self-centered jerks; rogueish young men who are up to no good (a.k.a. the “all that glitters” character); silly aristocrats and bitter commoners. In Persuasion, the main character is the noble, long-suffering youngest sister in a family of silly aristocrats who is trying to find love with a dashing young captain whom she regrettably spurned in her younger days. (Truth be told, she reminded me of Edith from “Downton Abbey” early on in the story.) And about 2/3 of the way through the story, I was enjoying it immensely, on par with the top-shelf Austen stories. However, the ending seems to fall apart, and Austen seems to tie it up abruptly, almost arbitrarily. Nothing in the resolution felt really earned. On the whole, some interesting character moments, and Austen’s writing style shines through as well as ever, but the plot sags in the third act, leaving a disappointing conclusion (certainly no “Mr. Darcy walking through the morning fog” moment, that’s for sure).

A Play By William Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale, by…well, Shakespeare. Okay, bad-English-major / slacker-lit-geek confession: I haven’t read all of Shakespeare’s plays. Many–more than half–but not all. And one I hadn’t read before is The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s pastoral plays that he wrote in the waning years of his career. Now, I will argue passionately for the quality and value of his major works (and it drives me bonkers that they are being taught less frequently in schools), but this one?  Meh. Here are the highlights: accusations of royal infidelity, court intrigue, the hubris of a ruler not listening to wise counsel, loss and regret…and then a half-baked attempt at pastoral humor and a love-story resolution. Oh, and there’s a bear attack and a statue that comes to life, because…reasons. So, yeah. The first half feels like a mix of Othello and Hamlet, the second half like a half-baked Much Ado.  Not his best work.

A Book More than 100 Years Old: The Innocence of Father Brown, by G.K. Chesterton (1911). My original selection for this category was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which quickly showed to be tough sledding, and I wanted something a bit lighter. [I’ll get back to that one eventually.] I later realized that this collection of Father Brown stories would fit the bill. My previous exposure to Chesterton’s fiction was the novel The Man Who Was Thursday, which I enjoyed greatly. I was dimly aware of Father Brown, mainly that the character was a clergyman of some kind (Catholic priest, as it turns out) who solved mysteries. I began the collection expecting something of a religiously-tinged Sherlock Holmes. In that regard, I was mildly disappointed, since there wasn’t the consistent “big reveal” moment at the end of each story, as you’d get with the Baker Street detective. If there was ever a big reveal, it was understated almost to the point of denoument. In all of the stories, Father Brown (usually accompanied by French-master-thief-turned-detective Flambeau) stumbles his way into intrigue, or is invited to provide perspective. While he does do a bit of “detecting” of the classic sort, Father Brown’s skill set arises more organically from his understanding and experience dealing with the human soul. In fact, the best parts of these stories are Father Brown’s (and thus, Chesterton’s) ruminations on why people behave the way they do. Outside of one or two unfortunate racial slurs in one of the stories (a relic of its era), these stories are actually quite charming, and as such are worth seeking out.

A Book You Own But Have Never Read: Orphan Justice, by Johnny Carr. I bought this book back when my wife and I were dating. Orphan care and adoption has been a passion for my wife for years, and I wanted to be a supportive boyfriend/husband, so I purchased this book but never actually read it, until now.  I have to admit, this one is a bit tough to read, because it challenges you with the realities that orphans face around the world. Carr looks not only at the orphan crisis itself but also the complex social issues that feed into it, like human trafficking, HIV, poverty, and abuse. Hard stuff. But God used this book to continue the process of awakening a concern for orphans in my own heart. I don’t have the same level of passion that my wife does, but I’m getting there. There is such need. These kids are suffering every day. And that’s…wrong. I mean, really wrong. The wrongness of it is so great that it’s getting harder for me to ignore. And this book really forced me to think about that, and to question some of my own assumptions and stereotypes. One great feature of this book is that Carr ends each chapter with a challenge to act, by pointing out things that everyone, some people, and a few people can do to make a difference in each area. By doing so, he keeps the book very practical. My main critique of the book is that the author pulls Scripture out of context frequently, which really bugs me. However, I committed not to let these issues distract me or close my ears to the bigger truths in the book. And you shouldn’t either.

A Book that Won an ECPA Christian Book Award: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, by Nabeel Qureshi. Qureshi is a Christian apologist whose focus is evangelizing Muslims. He was raised in Islam, and this book chronicles his critical exploration of both Christianity and Islam, as well as his eventual conversion to Christianity. Qureshi demonstrates through his own story his deep appreciation for his family and upbringing, as well as the difficulty of facing the truth about the faith he once believed. The book provided a glimpse into a world I’ve never known, and it helped me understand how a person can actually love Islam (or at least, some versions of it). The one reservation I had as I began this book was that I had heard the story involved Qureshi receiving “dreams and visions” from God. Theologically speaking, I consider myself about 93% cessationist, with only just enough doubt not to be adamant. In other words, when people talk about experience with sign gifts like prophecy and visions, I tend toward doubt until their testimony meets some thresholds of doctrinal testing. So I have to admit, I was a little leery. Well, I can tell you this much: the “dreams” Qureshi describes did not concern me from a doctrinal perspective. While he does drift into some “God spoke to my heart” direct revelation talk, it’s no more than the standard evangelical nomenclature (and nothing I haven’t said myself at one time or another).  All in all, this book was encouraging and edifying, and the description of Qureshi’s conversion brought tears to my eyes. I’m glad I read (technically, listened to the author read) this book.

A Book about Joy or Happiness: The Joy Project, by Tony Reinke. I wrote about this a little last week. The Joy Project is a sneaky book, in a way; while you think from the title and cover art that it’s a book about “joy,” you find out that it’s really a book about theology–specifically, the Calvinist “doctrines of grace.” However, as you read it, you recognize that Reinke wasn’t trying to pull a fast one. He was sincerely linking a Christian’s joy to their understanding of their salvation as a work of sovereign grace that rescues, redeems, and secures them. As I wrote earlier, this truth is something that I need to spend a LOT of time meditating upon, because in my years of being Calvinistic, I have only half-heartedly applied it to my own life. What I’m beginning to see is tha there is joy–so much joy!–in knowing that I am fully and completely secure in the Father’s hand. May I know it ever more and more.

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The end of September means we’re 3/4 of the way through the year. (That’s crazy to think about!) So how am I doing in regard to the 2016 Reading Challenge? Well, a 7-book month definitely helps things along!

I still don’t know if I will be able to hit the original goal of 52. Back in mid-July, I lowered by expectations and set a goal of reading at least 30 of the books on the list. Well, consider that “realistic” goal met! With the 7 books completed in September, my current total is 31/52 books read!

That leaves…21 for the next 3 months. Can I do 3 more 7-book months in a row? Considering the fact that those months include the holidays, which in our house is the busiest part of the year…probably not.

But if you know me at all, you know I’m sure gonna try! And as always, I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Thanks for reading.

Your Turn: Reading anything good lately? Post your recommendations in the comments below–because I’m definitely working on my list for next year!

2016 Reading Challenge: August Update!!!

Time for another update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress!

I think I have developed a bit of Literary ADD. I’m in the middle of several books and, despite my efforts, I have been slow to finish them. So, another month of slow progress. But hey, it’s progress, right?

So here’s a list of what I was able to finish in August:

A Book Written By Someone of the Opposite Sex: Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray. Last year, I read Gray’s great Star Wars YA novel, Lost Stars, which took place shortly after Return of the Jedi. Bloodline takes place about twenty or so years later. Princess Leia is now Senator Leia, a senior member of the New Republic’s very divided Senate. Leia and a young up-and-coming senator from the opposition party stumble upon a criminal smuggling ring that rivals Jabba the Hutt’s cartel in size and influence. However, this underworld ring is itself a front to something much more dangerous. This novel was a quick and fun read, and it helped to provide backstory for a few key plot points from Star Wars Episode VII. If you’re at all inclined to read a Star Wars novel, this one may be worth a look.

A Book Written By Someone of a Different Ethnicity: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This book was challenging for me, as I noted in my “open-letter” to the author. I picked this book because Pastor Jared Wilson said on a podcast that it was a book that helped him listen better to the stories of others. I can affirm that it does that. It is challenging, and I don’t agree with all of Coates’ assumptions. But it is important for me to remember that I need to be humble and even silent sometimes, and give other voices a chance to speak before critiquing what they say. I would challenge my white friends to read this short book, if only to catch a glimpse of another version of the world.

A Book by David McCullough: The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian David McCullough has written some long books. Don’t get me wrong; they look really fascinating, but they’re beasts.  So, I looked for one of his shorter volumes to fulfill this task, and was pleasantly surprised with the result. The Wright Brothers tells the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the two men who performed the first successful manned-flight on an airplane-type glider. There are a lot of caveats on the “first” there; as McCullough reveals, there were many pioneers in the field of aviation. But it was the Wrights and their dogged determination to defy gravity and conquer the problem of flight who took the entire human race into the next era of transportation. McCullough’s short biography of the brothers captures a clear (if limited) sense of their relationship, their family life, and their passion for what would be their lives’ work. The brief personal anecdotes throughout the book give a sense of who these men were, and the historical context of their exploits helped me as a reader to appreciate the importance of their accomplishments. The Wright Brothers were often mocked and dismissed, all but accused of perpetuating a hoax, but eventually they had the last laugh (as Sinatra famously noted). The Wright Brothers is an interesting and approachable biography worth exploring.

 

Reading Challenge: July Update!

Time for another update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress!

My summer class is over (yay!), and I think I did pretty well, actually (double-yay!). Once the class was over, I had 2 weeks left in July to dive back into my reading list. I used a combination of audiobooks, Kindle books, and paper books to get back on the Reading Challenge train!

So here’s a list of what I was able to finish in July:

A Memoir: No Hero, by Mark Owen.  I listened to the audio-book of this memoir of a 14-year Navy SEAL. Owen, whose previous book No Easy Day about the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden brought him national reknown, tells a series of personal stories and experiences to expound on the qualities needed to succeed as a SEAL. He highlights attributes like purpose and focus, the necessity of dealing with fear, the power of embracing discomfort, and the vital importance of teamwork and trust. The stories he tells are sometimes redacted, the names have all been changed, but the emotions and experiences are real and are fascinating. If nothing else, books like No Hero can give the reader a renewed appreciation for the sacrifices and selflessness of the men and women who serve in the military.

A Book that won the Pulitzer Prize: A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. Every person who has read this book had the same reaction when I told them I was reading it: an affectionate, “Aaaaah, Goon Squad!” Though some suggested I may not appreciate it as much as they did because I “wasn’t a girl” (which seems a bit sexist, but whatever), I assured them that I was enjoying the style and language even if the characters weren’t always that likable. I have to admit, though, once I finished the book, I still wasn’t sure if I actually liked it. I enjoyed aspects of it, and I can appreciate the themes the author was going for (the paradox of emotional distance in an age of increasing “connectivity”). But I have to admit, it’s not a book I would ever re-read, and I don’t know if I could strongly recommend it to others. So, there you are: well-written, effective, but in the end, it left me cold.

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And unfortunately, those were the only two I finished by July 31st. I am halfway through about 3 other books, so I’m in good shape to beef up my August numbers. And after some discussion with my beloved wife, we decided that I’m going to postpone my next seminary class until the spring (for various reasons), so I’m back on the Reading Challenge train full-force!  I’ve fallen behind quite a bit over the last 2 months, but let’s see if August is my month to gain ground. I’ll keep you posted as always, faithful readers!

2016 Reading Challenge: May/June Update!

Time for another update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress!

May and June were full months for me–the 8-week summer class on Biblical Hermeneutics has been really helpful but very demanding! However, I was able to get a few books read before my class started and the homework started piling up. (Unfortunately, my reading outside of school materials in June was effectively zero.)

So here’s a list of what I was able to finish in May:

A Book by a Speaker at a Conference You Have Attended: The Hole in Our Holiness, by Kevin DeYoung. About 4 years ago, I attended Together for the Gospel, and one of the free books (so many free books at that conference!) I received was this one by DeYoung, whose session that year covered some of the material from the book. I stuck the book on my shelf, always meaning to get back to it. I’m glad I finally did, because this short volume (150 pages) is a dynamo: punchy, pithy, and powerful. The main thesis of DeYoung’s book is that we cannot sacrifice the imperatives (commands) of the Gospel for the sake of the indicatives (descriptive truths) of the Gospel. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved FOR good works. DeYoung rightly points out that Christians in the West (and especially here in the States) too often hold to a half-developed understanding of the Gospel that focuses almost entirely on BELIEVING the right things and almost none at all on DOING what the Bible commands Christians to do. HIGHLY recommended.

A Book About a Current Issue: Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots), by Matt Lewis. I’d been looking forward to reading this book for a few months, because it was touted as a good explanation for how the Trump phenomenon happened. I think this is a fair, if incomplete, description. Throughout the volume, Lewis seeks to diagnose the GOP’s ailments, and provide some suggestions for turning the tide.  He begins by looking at the history of conservative political thought in America, its influences and standard-bearers, and how it began to erode after the Reagan presidency ended. I found a lot of Lewis’ analysis to be on-point, but about halfway through the book, the worm began to turn a bit for me. Lewis has little appreciation or patience for Conservative Evangelicals (and some of that is justified, I think). But his solution seems to involve Evangelicals abandoning (or at least toning down) some of their convictions because it’s a bad look for the Party. He trumpets the work of men like Tim Keller and Russell Moore as exemplars of thoughtful religious conservatism (though these men have taken positions on certain tertiary issues that would be considered ideologically liberal among some circles). All in all, Lewis’ book seems to be long on diagnosis, and a bit short on cure, though he presents some good ideas. As a religious conservative reading the book, however, I felt like my ilk was seen as part of the problem more than part of the solution.

A Book on the NYT Bestseller’s List: Smarter, Faster, Better, by Charles Duhigg. I’ve already reviewed Duhigg’s follow-up to The Power of Habit. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who likes pop-level sociological analysis in the mold of Malcolm Gladwell. (And for the record, none of the preceding sentence is meant to be a slight, though I’d imagine it might be taken as such if you’re not a fan of any of those things. I enjoy Gladwell’s work, so…) Duhigg dishes up some interesting ideas that are fun to consider and implement.

A Book of at least 400* Pages: It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis. This 1935 novel follows the fictional campaign and election of Democratic presidential candidate Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip to the highest post in the land, and the utter devastation that happened as a result. Through this allegory, Lewis addresses the question of how the American public could unthinkingly embrace Fascism, due to willful ignorance, fear, and desperation. While the protagonist of the story (Doremus Jessup, a broadminded New England liberal who is the editor of a small-town newspaper) is convinced that somehow, someway, common sense and sanity will win the day and stop the snowball-momentum of Windrip, he is over and over proven wrong. Windrip’s seemingly incompetent and blatantly phony campaign speeches and self-contradicting missives do nothing to stop his progress, and he eventually wins the campaign. Once he is inaugurated, he immediate sets up a police state and goes the way of all rotten totalitarian regimes. I started reading this book after seeing it referenced in a newspaper op-ed about the current political jungle. I was amazed, even appalled, how familiar whole sections of the first half of the book sounded. Unfortunately, once Buzz is elected, the novel starts to lose its punch. The protagonist and his family and friends just aren’t that likeable and seem to stumble into the underground resistance movement. However, since they’re played up to be a bit farcical themselves, I struggled to take them seriously in the second half of the book. The conclusion of the novel isn’t that satisfying, except that it mercifully ends. I wonder if Lewis should have chopped about 100 pages off the back end and tightened up the punch of the story. On the whole, the book probably won’t stick with me, but the first 150 pages or so detailing the campaign and first few months of the Windrip presidency are a stinging indictment of all would-be demagogues in American politics.

[*Okay, now the disclaimer: While there are editions of this novel that are over 400 pages, the version I read (with smallish print) was only 382 pages. But I don’t care — I’m counting it.]

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As I said in the last post, resuming my seminary education will take the place of much of my pleasure reading, so I’m making the decision to ease back my expectations. I’m not going to stop until I finish the 52-book list; however, I see now that it won’t be until sometime next year. So, a new part of these monthly/bi-monthly updates will be a running tally of my progress!

Current Totals:
May/June: 4
Year-to-Date: 19
Original Goal: 52
Realistic Goal: 30

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My class ends next week, so I should be able to get a few more books in before my next class in August. Right now, I’ve started listening to the audio book of a memoir of a Navy SEAL. I’m limiting my listening to only when I’m being “active,” so hopefully this will motivate me to work out more. And I’m also about to start a biography of two very important American inventors, so I’m pretty psyched about that. I’ll keep you posted!

2016 Reading Challenge: April Update!

Time for another update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress!

In keeping with T.S. Eliot’s old adage, April was the cruelest month–lots of challenges and frustrations (and rain–so much rain!).  But that said, I was able to get some reading done, amid all the craziness.

So here’s a list of what I was able to finish in April:

A Book with a One-Word Title or Subtitle: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. I had heard such good things about this one that I had to see for myself. McKeown espouses a philosophy/approach to productivity and life in general in which one must consistently choose what is most important, and focus all their efforts on that goal. This is accomplished often through “editing,” or adding-by-subtracting–removing things from our life that may be good but not best, or saying no to opportunities or options that would divert us from focusing on what matters most.  This all sounds very basic and obvious as I’m typing it–and it is, to some extent. But McKeown’s clarity of thought and description of process keep it fresh and engaging. The Christian reader should be aware that, at the end of the book, McKeown begins to espouse mindfulness as a tenet of this “essentialist” approach, which isn’t a Christian practice and is closely linked to Buddhist and Hindu belief. That said, there is a lot in this book that is practical and beneficial, so with those caveats, I would recommend it.

A Humorous Book: Dad is Fat, by Jim Gaffigan. I tried something different for this one: I listened to the audio book instead of reading the printed version. If you are familiar with Jim Gaffigan’s material (“Hot Pocket…”), you would expect that a book written and read by Gaffigan would be hilarious. And it was funny, but the style was more of a humorist than a stand-up act–think Garrison Keillor. (That is, if you like Keillor; if you don’t, that’s a terrible analogy. Forget I mentioned it.) Which is to say, fewer gut-busting guffaws from me, and more wry smiles and chuckles. Also, the book falls into the same problem areas that Gaffigan’s stand-up does: there is the rare crude joke/innuendo, and he treats spiritual things with irreverence, trying to mine them for humor (while besmirching God in the process). All in all, if you like Gaffigan’s material, you’d like this book. I find myself becoming less and less of a fan, though there are still certain bits from his routine that kill me.

A Biography: Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, the Man Who Led the Band of Brothers, by Larry Alexander. As the title no doubt indicates, this biography tells the life story of Dick Winters, the leader of Easy Company, the paratroopers made famous in the best-selling book by Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers, and the Emmy-winning HBO miniseries of the same name. While Ambrose tried to tell the stories of all the men involved, in brief vignettes, Alexander focuses specifically on Winters, telling the tale of his life before and after the war, in addition to a detailed look at his wartime experiences. I loved the Ambrose book and the HBO series, so this was a great opportunity to find out more about one of the key figures in this amazing true story. Winters, who passed away about 5 years ago, was a noble and honorable man, a man whose commitment and courage are worthy of consideration and emulation. I’m definitely glad to have read his story.

A Book Geared toward the Opposite Gender: Inheritance of Tears, by Jessalyn Hutto. It’s amazing to me how common miscarriage is and yet how little I’ve heard people talk about it. This short book from Cruciform Press is just over 100 pages long but is packed from cover to cover with comforting theological truth about the issues related to coping with miscarriage from a specifically Christian and Scripture-focused perspective. Hutto demonstrates through this short volume that good theology can be a source of great comfort and healing. While this book is specifically geared toward women who have suffered a miscarriage, I think their husbands, friends, and ministers can definitely benefit from the wisdom contained in its pages. If you or someone you know has experienced the grief of miscarriage, I commend this book to you as an encouragement and comfort. And I would strongly recommend that anyone in pastoral and women’s ministry should pick up at least a few copies of this book to give away to couples in need. It will be a benefit to any couple in your care who has to walk through the dark valley of miscarriage.

A Book with A Great Cover: Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. Postman’s famous jeremiad about the destruction of the American intellect, the death of print culture, and ascendancy of the screen culture was written thirty-one years ago, and like any book of the cultural moment, it is certainly dated in places. But Postman makes some incisive observations about the nature of television as a medium of communication, and draws some interesting conclusions from his observations. The tone of the book is eloquently misanthropic, as if Postman knew that his critique would fall upon deaf ears. Truth be told, the book is long on diagnosis and short on cure, but it raises some interesting questions that are worth your time to consider. Though he demonstrates fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the Christian faith, his critique of televised religion could be easily applied to the approach of seeker-sensitive megachurches trying to draw in an “audience.” Though Postman’s politics are clearly left-leaning, his critique of the televised political process is scathing enough to burn both ends of the bread, as it were (and happens to apply to several key elements of the 2016 election season). All in all, this was an interesting and frustrating book, but I’m glad I finally read it. And check out that creeptastic cover!

amusing-ourselves-to-death


So where does that put me in the overall reading tally?

I have completed 15 of the books on the list, in 17 weeks. So, I’m a little behind schedule at the moment.

The good news is that I’m about 20 pages away from finishing another book on the list, and I have made progress in about 3 others.

The bad news is that I start my next seminary class in 3 weeks. It lasts from late May to mid-July, and needless to say, my extra-curricular reading time will be drastically reduced during that stretch.

Do I think I’ll hit my goal of at least  50 out of the 52 books on the reading list? Probably not. However, I’ve also read a few graphic novels and a few other novels along the way, so I still might hit the 50-book mark overall.

Only one way to find out, gang–keep checking in each month here at the 4thDaveBlog!

 

Your Turn: Did you read anything cool in April? Are you working on any good books at the moment? Let us know in the comments below!

2016 Reading Challenge: March Update!

Time to give you an update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress!

This month, I was able to keep pace on the reading challenge (along with some extracurricular comic-book reading–I’m excited for the new Captain America movie, so I’ve been catching up on that title!).  I also finished the month with a handful of books “in progress” (including one that I almost got in under the wire for March), so I’m hoping April will be another good reading month.

Here’s what I was able to finish in March:

A Classic Novel: Animal Farm, by George Orwell. When I told people that I had never read Animal Farm, they were incredulous. How can I not have read a staple of high-school English class? My answer: private Christian school. We read a different set of novels, and I missed out on a lot of the standards that my public-school contemporaries read (or at least, skimmed the Cliffs Notes). So I finally got around to reading Animal Farm, Orwell’s scathing satire of Soviet Marxism. It was a fun read, and I’m glad to finally fill in this egregious gap in my education. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s certainly worth your time and attention. And remember, kids: four legs good, two legs…better?

A Novel Set in A Country Other Than Your Own: Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield. This novel, set in ancient Greece, tells the story of the 300 Spartans (and hundreds of various other Greeks) who defended Thermopylae (the “Hot Gates” of the title) against the invading Persians. The frame of the story is the account of a Spartan squire named Xeones, who survived the battle with grave injuries only to be questioned by Xerxes, the Persian emperor, who wishes to know more about the brave warriors who withstood his advance for days. Through the narrative detailing Xeo’s early life and journey to Sparta and his experience as an outsider living within Spartan culture, the reader gets a fascinating picture of a past culture, as the author explores the themes of the nature of courage and the bonds forged in battle. While I quite enjoyed the story, the consistent presence of “barracks-language” and crude dialogue prevent me from recommending it broadly.

A Book Based on a True Story: The Silence of Our Friends, by Mark Long. This NYT-bestselling graphic novel depicts two families, one black and one white, living in Houston, Texas, during the Civil Rights era. The story, which is semi-fictionalized but based on the author’s experiences, depicts the tensions in Houston surrounding the trial of 5 TSU students accused of shooting a police officer during a protest/riot. The author’s father was a TV news reporter who tried (despite pressures at the station) to present the story objectively. While the book doesn’t present this complicated issue with any sort of depth, it does provide a snapshot of childhood during a turbulent time. I also learned a bit of local history that I had never heard before, which is a good thing.

A Book of Poetry: Jelly Roll, by Kevin Young. Rather than go with something safe or familiar, I tried to stretch a little, so I picked up this book of poems by Kevin Young, an African-American poet and professor of English and creative writing. Jelly Roll, a National Book Award finalist, is a collection of poems inspired by love, loss, and jazz. The jazz element is particularly strong, which meant I had to work a little bit to “get” several of the pieces, but a few of them elicited an audible reaction of “whoo, that’s good” from me. If nothing else, reading this book made me want to write poetry again. Like Young, I love the sound of language, and poetry is a perfect medium for reveling in its music. This collection may not be for everyone, but it was an interesting experience for me.

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That’s all I have this month, as far as the official list is concerned. As I said, I also read a few trade-paperback collections of Captain America comics. One in particular that stood out for me was Fallen Son, a collection of five stories taking place in the wake of the death of Captain America. The writers shaped these stories to represent the 5 “stages of grief,” and the result is a collection of surprising emotional resonance. As I’ve said elsewhere, most of my limited comics-reading are “fun-and-done” but, once in a while, a well-written book grabs my imagination. This one did.

Your Turn: Did you read any good books this month? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Reading Challenge Update: January

Happy February, friends. Just checking in today to give you a quick update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress. (As I’ve written previously, I’m taking part in this reading challenge, and endeavoring to blow my previous yearly best out of the water by reading at least 50 books this year, inspired mostly by Tim Challies’ list).

I started the year with some library books already in my reading queue, so while I have read a total of 5 books already, only 3 of them fit slots on the list:

A Graphic Novel:  Avatar, the Last Airbender–The Search, by Gene Luen Yang. Over the Christmas break, I binge-watched the Airbender animated series with some teenage boys staying with us for the holidays. I was engaged and intrigued by the depth of character and story-telling, which was impressive for only 3 seasons of television. So when I found out that there have been a few graphic-novel continuations of that story, I wanted to check out one of them as part of this challenge.

Graphic novels are obviously a visual art form, so the lines, coloring, and use of space are all part of the language of the story. This graphic novel, though not perhaps as well-written as some of the episodes of the show, carries on the spirit of the source material surprisingly well. If you enjoy the television show, this book is worth your time. It’s a quick read, perfect for a lazy Saturday afternoon.

A Book Published in 2016: Written in Fire, by Marcus Sakey. I’ve already blogged about this one, so I’ll keep this short. I enjoyed the first two installments of this trilogy, and I enjoyed following the characters, but this novel failed to thrill me, and left me a little disappointed on the whole. Not recommended unless you’re really into the premise of the series and you’re not bothered by the increasing amounts of objectionable and troubling content.

A Mystery or Detective Novel: Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett. Dashiell Hammett is widely considered to be the godfather of the American crime novel. Some of his most famous characters and stories have been turned into classic films that have cemented the image of the tough-guy private eye in the American consciousness. I’ve been wanting to read something by Hammett for a while, and rather than pick up The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man (books with which I’m very familiar through their film adaptations), I decided on Red Harvest, a book that would be the inspiration for the classic Japanese samurai film Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa, and the American westerns A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing.

In Red Harvest, Hammett’s recurring nameless main character (called “the Continental Op” outside the novels) is called to the town of Personville (or “Poisonville” as it’s soon called) by a newspaper editor who wants to expose corruption. The editor is killed as soon as the C.O. arrives in town, and our protagonist learns that the entire town is corrupt from top to bottom, and he figures he can stir the pot enough to wreck shop with the local rackets. Throughout the entire story, our “hero” (loosely-called) is lying, cheating, killing, and double-crossing, living by his own loose moral code of only doing dirty those who deserve it. In the end, the body count is high and the ending is frankly unsatisfying. The story pretty much ends when there’s no one interesting to kill anymore.

I was disappointed with Red Harvest, because given Hammett’s reputation, I was hoping for some slam-bang noir action. Some of the dialogue was snappy, but the pacing was inconsistent and the plotting was muddy. Something tells me that Hammett’s film adaptations did him a great many favors by tightening up and focusing his writing.

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As for my current reading: I’m about to finish a book on productivity (full review forthcoming), and I’m working through a book about the Christian view of being a “slave of God.” Up next on the hit parade: a couple of books about the role of pastor as public theologian (for review), a book of poetry, and a children’s classic.

Your Turn: What have you been reading lately? Are you taking part in the 2016 Reading Challenge? I’d love to hear your mini-reviews and recommendations in the comments!