Every year I like to set a reading goal for myself to help me stay focused on learning and growing. For three out of the last four years, I have used this guide from Tim Challies, as I have found that the wide variety of categories he offers keeps me reading broadly, forcing me to read things I might otherwise overlook. I encourage you to join me in this challenge as well! No matter how ambitious a reader you are, there's a plan for you (ranging from "light" to "obsessed"). I've set a goal to meet the "committed" level of one book per week, and I'll be sharing short book reviews of each book for those who'd like to follow along with me. If you decide to do the challenge, be sure to let me know about what you're reading, too!
Before I get to the reviews, there are a few things I'd like to point out:
Marc Fennell is an Australian journalist who investigates food-related interest stories, and narrates audiobooks (technical released as a short podcast series) with his findings. Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed his study of "the scandal-plagued race to breed the world's hottest chili," so when he released a new book about millions of dollars of nuts being stolen (by the Armenian mob, apparently), I thought it would be worth checking out. And I wasn't disappointed! While shedding light on a fascinating modern caper in which more than ten million dollars worth of almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and other nuts vanished without a trace from California's central valley, his journey ranged from the mafia's roots in agri-crime to corruption in food-related academic research to ethical questions related to the ethics of modern farming and employment practices. And while I don't share his political or philosophical worldview (which becomes quite apparent), I do appreciate the way he often challenges me to rethink some of my own positions, though I generally find his conclusions to be uncompelling.
Recommended for: Nut lovers, foodies, and those who enjoy a good crime tale. Be forewarned: There is some very uncouth language used at times, and a decidedly leftward slant to the conclusions he draws, which may be a turnoff to some. (link)
Book 3 in the Wingfeather Saga is where improvements in Peterson's writing and storytelling really begin to be evident. The entire series is great, but this is the book that really roped me in to the entire "saga." The characters become much more three-dimensional, flaws and all. In fact, it's the flaws that make it such a great book to read with the kids, as they are able to relate to the struggles with sin which the Wingfeather children (and others in the books) experience. I can't wait to finish the series again soon!
Recommended for: Everyone! (link)
Rainn Wilson has been something of a fascination for me for some time. Not only has he given life to one of the best characters in television history (Dwight Schrute from The Office), but he's been a very outspoken advocate for exploring "life's big questions," through his Twitter feed, a very influential video introduction to the Baha'i faith, and his website Soul Pancake. He's also a lapsed bassoonist. As I'm taking a summer class on World Religions right now at SBTS, this seemed as good a time as any to check out Wilson's memoir. It is at times hilarious, raunchy, introspective, and--as someone fully committed to the exclusivity of the gospel--terribly sad. He is nothing if not a true devotee of this modern (founded in the 19th century) religion, and has invested his considerable gifting and notoriety spreading its message, which, while on the surface seems to offer a hopeful and optimistic view of the world, ultimately fails to compellingly answer any of life's biggest questions (such as the "problem of evil"). As a spokesman for Baha'i, he is eloquent and winsome, but in the final analysis wraps an ugly present in pretty paper. Still, it was a worthwhile and enjoyable read.
Recommended for: Fans of The Office and/or those interested in learning about the Ba'Hai faith from one of its most dedicated adherents. (link)
Since I was a little boy, I've been fascinated by stories of myth & legend. From storybooks as a kid, to modern retellings as a teen, to classical study and original sources as an adult, to beginning the cycle again with my own children, Greek mythology has become a very familiar companion in my reading life. So when I stumbled across actor/comedian Stephen Fry's new retelling I was curious to see what he'd done with them. Having read many of the original sources, I am skeptical of most modern versions, as many seem to censor (or "bowdlerize", as Fry says in his book) material modern audiences may find offensive, and/or present the stories with some sort of modern political/moral agenda. In both of those areas, Mythos does better than most modern versions with which I am familiar. Fry certainly does not shy away from the gory or lewd elements of the ancient stories (though at times he perhaps even over-accentuates them, if that is possible), and, though his atheism and religious skepticism is quite apparent in his editorializing in the introduction and epilogue, he does seem to present the stories themselves relatively free from modern biases, for which I was grateful. That said, he does take quite a bit of artistic license in his "retelling" of many stories, at times fabricating fairly large plot elements to add dramatic flair--most notably in his telling of the story of Prometheus' creation of the first mortal men. He excuses such license as being in the tradition of Ovid and other classical and modern authors who have embraced the fictitious nature of the stories and made them their own. Whether or not one agrees with him, he is nothing if not thorough in covering the oldest Greek myths (from Creation through the Titans to the birth of the gods and the Titanomachy to the establishment of the Olympians and the beginnings of human civilization). At 352 pages (its followup Heroes, which covers later Greek mythology and is on my reading list for later this year is even longer) it may appear intimidating, but is actually quite easy and enjoyable to read, and worth checking out for the etymological highlights alone.
Recommended for: While I am still partial to the classical authors, those looking for a readable, entertaining version of Greek mythology will enjoy this. It is NOT recommended for reading to kids! (link)
Why is it so hard to have a civil conversation about anything of substance these days? Why does everyone seem to have such strong opinions about everything, and why do we find it so hard to trust what we see on the news? The Death of Expertise takes on these questions and many more, and given the current state of the world, may end up being the most important book I'll read all year. Nichols offers great insight--with acerbic wit--into the breakdown of trust between laypeople and experts. Capitalism, he rightly argues, relies on specialization and diversification of skills. And, bitter pill though it may be for some to swallow, some people are smarter than others (this is consistent with the acknowledgement that there are many kinds of "smarts"). However, lately it seems that everyone feels that his/her opinion is equally valid as anyone else's, regardless of experience or expertise in the matter. Nichols examines multiple reasons for this, from breakdowns in the education system, to the ubiquity of Internet data, to special interests in the mainstream media, to public and epic failures of actual experts. His writing is compelling and well reasoned, and useful for understanding the world around us. Thankfully, he does offer hope... though the path to bring the general public out of the depths of willful ignorance seems to get steeper and steeper by the day. This is likely to be a book I will read many times in the coming years.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in civil discourse and genuine learning, and those wondering how the breakdown of those things got to the point that it has. (link)
Nothing has made our family laugh more than this book in a very long time! I've long enjoyed Pyle's comics through his social media presence, but it's so much better in print (not to mention the fact that many of the comics in the book are not available online). I love the way Pyle shows us, through the beings he has created, the absurdity of many of our every day rituals. The ability to laugh at ourselves through the common experience of simply being human is a joy, and something from which I think we could all benefit right now.
Recommended for: Absolutely everyone. Except fuddy-duddies. (link)
A couple years ago I began reading some of Baldacci's books when he appeared on the "favorite authors" lists of Barack Obama and George W. Bush in the same year. I, too, now consider him a favorite author, though I have enjoyed some series more than others (the "Camel Club" and "Amos Decker" series in particular). This is the first book of his "Atlee Pine" series, which follows an FBI agent stationed near the Grand Canyon. So far this is shaping up to be another series I'll enjoy!
Recommended for: Those who enjoy thrillers and/or detective stories. (link)
I already sang the praises of The Wingfeather Saga earlier (see book 19 below) so I won't say too much more here, other than that our family is already missing the nightly read aloud which Peterson did for Books 1 & 2 on his social media accounts. Lucky for us, he also recorded the audiobooks for Books 3 & 4, so we're going to start working through those as a family very soon (Carrie has already read ahead and finished the entire series because she just couldn't stand only reading a couple chapters a night).
Recommended for: Anybody who has finished the first book? (link)
I love reading about church history, and this book was certainly a unique addition to the genre. Rather than focusing on people, places, or events, Epic focuses on artifacts which are accessible to the general public today, which help tell the story of Christian history. Thanks to the donations of a wealthy benefactor, Challies was able to travel the world for a year visiting museums, cathedrals, and other places holding interest artifacts (some well-known, others quite obscure). Each of the 33 short chapters (with a few additional artifacts receiving shorter treatment) explains the significance of one of these items, arranged in a way that progresses from the earliest days of the Church until today. While it is by no means the best book on my library's church history shelf, it did introduce me to some stories I'd never heard before, and Laurie and I quite enjoyed it (along with the accompanying DVD) together as a read aloud.
Recommended for: People who really like church history, and/or books with lots of pictures. (link)
A couple weeks ago we had some folks over for dinner, and, well... one thing led to another, and we began discussing politics. I know! Anyway, my friend mentioned his desire to devote some of his time during quarantine to developing a more robust personal political philosophy by reading up on some historical books which have influenced the development of political thought, and he asked me for a good place to start. This was my recommendation--not because it's my favorite (though it's high on that list) or the best--but because I know how daunting it can be to begin a major reading project, and getting that "first win" out of the way is really important. Bastiat's book, which was published as a refutation of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto (published two years earlier), is jam packed with good thought fodder, but remains very accessible to modern readers. It's also only 60 pages, allowing the intrepid political philosopher to check a completed book off the list relatively easily, making it easy to keep going. Bastiat was a dissenting voice in the wake of the French revolution, when socialism was very much in vogue among the French thought leaders. His treatise on the purpose and proper function of the law is excellent. And, as I read it for the first time in about a decade, I was struck by how relevant it is as we wrestle with the implications of the actions of our government during this unprecedented season of a global pandemic.
Recommended for: Those wanting to think seriously about the law and justice, and the proper function of the civil government. (link)
Bonus Recommendations: For those who are interested, here are some other books (in no particular order) I told my friend should be on his list, and which have informed my own thoughts and convictions on politics:
I am a big Harry Potter fan, and have been looking forward to the day I could share these books with my kids. My two oldest began reading them together, but I told them that after Book 3 I didn't want them going on by themselves, and that I would read to them. As fans of the series know, the books begin getting darker and scarier in Goblet of Fire, and I wanted to be sure to be with my kids as they encountered and wrestled with moments of fear, anger, and loss. I have read this entire series multiple times before, but am really enjoying the opportunity to enter this world with fresh eyes. It's also led to some really good conversations with my kiddos, both in processing some of the more difficult emotions brought out in the book as well as in talking through the rightness and wrongness of decisions made by the various characters.
Recommended for: Anybody who enjoys a good story. (link)
A few years ago I read this author's second biography of Genghis Khan (Genghis Khan and the Quest for God) after it was recommended by one of my seminary professors, and loved it. I kept meaning to go back for the first one and finally got it done. Genghis Khan is a truly fascinating historical figure, and Jack Weatherford--whose passion for his subject is obvious--makes a compelling case for considering the Mongol conqueror as one of the most important and consequential figures in world history. Both books (and potentially a third about the Great Khan's daughters, which I haven't yet read) are highly recommended.
Recommended for: Students of history and those who enjoy biographies. (link)
This was on the list of books I'd intended to read aloud to my children this year, but with the coronavirus quarantine came the wonderful opportunity to tune in each evening to hear the author doing his own readaloud! I was privileged to get a pre-release copy of the first edition back in 2008, and since then The Wingfeather Saga has become one of my absolute favorite series, right alongside The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter. It's seriously that good! If you've never read it, drop everything and get started. If you hurry, you might even still find Peterson's own reading of it on his Facebook and YouTube pages. I will say that, as his first novel, the writing can be a bit awkward at times, though the story is wonderful. It's interesting as the series progresses to also observe his progressive improvement as a writer.
Recommended for: Lovers of epic adventures and/or beautiful storytelling. (link)
Alas, I'll never get the chance to become friends with Douglas Adams, as he died in 2011. Still, in many ways I feel we have been friends for some time! His satirical writing is perhaps an acquired taste, but one which I acquired upon first reading this book (and the other four books in the "increasingly inaccurately named trilogy) in high school. Over the years I've read it a few more times, though it had been a while. This year, in which the book celebrates its 42nd anniversary of publication (the significance of which will be understood by those who have read it) certainly merited another reading!
Recommended for: Fans of British humor and clever satire. (link)
This book came very highly recommended by multiple friends, and it did not disappoint! I'd have never thought a cookbook could become one of my all-time favorite books, but this one is definitely on that list now. It's certainly not like any other cookbook! Laurie and I read this aloud together and laughed more than we've laughed in a long time. Capon's insights into life, joy, and beauty are matched by his sharp wit and skilled wordsmithing. Do yourself a favor: Read this one out loud! My only regret is that we finished it just as the COVID-19 quarantine was going into effect, when it will be such a long time before we're able to enjoy feasting with friends again!
Recommended for: Foodies, or anyone who wants to learn to love life a little more. (link)
I finally finished the published books from the Song of Fire and Ice series (for reasons why I've been reading this series, see below), though rumor has it the author may finally publish the next book in the series this year. I feel the series--and in particular books 4 & 5--have gotten so elaborate that it's difficult to stay invested in the story... and probably even more difficult to try to conclude it. If he does write more, I may read them, but I also don't feel like I'll be missing anything if there aren't any more.
Recommended for: Not recommended.
If you're looking for a theological treatise on issues of gender & sexuality, keep looking. That's not what this book is, nor does it claim to be. Instead, it is a book-length testimonial of how a good God met a gay girl and gave her a new heart. Her writing style is not my preference, but it is deeply and unmistakably personal. As someone who has never experienced same-sex attraction, it is difficult to understand what that is like, but Perry invites readers into her story in a way that helps us empathize with those living in this all-encompassing lifestyle. As good as the story is, though, I most appreciated the third section of her book, aimed at helping Christians better understand same-sex attracted people. In this section she rightly emphasizes that their greatest need is not a new sexual orientation, but a new heart. And while there are indeed stories of SSA people coming to Christ and instantly receiving new affections, this is not always--or even often--the case. Many, like Perry herself, grieve the loss of partners they genuinely loved but gave up for the sake of the gospel. Many never marry or experience sexual attraction toward the opposite gender. It's good for believers to read stories like this, because if we are ever going to reach and then disciple LGBTQIA+ people, we need to have a much better understanding of the battles they will face in coming to Christ.
Recommended for: Those with a burden for reaching SSA people with the gospel. (link)
Anticipating the need to begin offering a live stream of our church services soon due to the outbreak of COVID-19, I picked up this book (graciously offered for free by the author during this unprecedented time) to see what helpful information I could glean. Having previously had only bad experiences with church live-streaming, I wanted to make sure that whatever we did was done with excellence. While most of what is in this book is very technical (and for those starting with zero prior experience, this information would be extremely useful), I appreciated many of the questions the author asks to help churches refine their goals, their audience, and their processes. Thankfully our tech team is incredible and was able to pull together a tremendous live stream on very short notice (which you can see here) with equipment we already owned, though we may look to expand our options in the near future since this looks to be our new normal for a while.
Recommended for: Churches considering launching or improving their live-streaming capabilities. (link)
This was a short, fun audiobook by an author whose work (particularly Cooked) I have found fascinating. Pollan has a way of making anything interesting, and considering my already considerable interest in coffee and tea, this was a no brainer. The book traces the scientific and economic development of this relatively recently cultivated substance and its impact on society as well as on individuals. Love that he narrated it himself; his passion really comes through in the performance.
Recommended for: Coffee connoisseurs, foodies, and history buffs. (link)
First off, this really isn't a biography, though in my defense, I thought it was when I started it. But it is based on real events in 1940s Denmark. My two oldest kids have been reading a lot of books lately about World War II and the Holocaust, and had some questions after reading this book about the Danish resistance which helped smuggle Jews into Sweden. As a quick and easy read, I enjoyed it, and definitely enjoyed the conversations it led to with my kids. There's a reason it won a Newberry award!
Most Christian parents, according to author Luke Gilkerson, avoid talking to their young children about sex out of a fear of saying too much, too soon, only to find out they've said too little, too late. Having worked for years for Covenant Eyes (a highly recommended & highly effective tool for helping break addiction to pornography), Gilkerson knows as much as anyone about the pitfalls of sexual immorality and how to avoid them. This book contains seven short lessons designed to help parents have "the talk" with their children ages 6-10. Each lesson begins with a passage of Scripture dealing with God's design for sexuality, then unpacks the text in a way that is easy to understand for kids in that age range. The lessons range from basic anatomy (i.e., God made us male & female, with similarities and differences in how we're put together) to how babies are made, to the importance of sexual purity and marital fidelity. I'll be honest-starting this book with my son was difficult. But it was only difficult because of my discomfort (confession: I bought it two years ago); he was very eager to learn and to talk about these things with me. As hard as it was for me to start this with him, I'm so glad I did, and so glad I got to be the first to talk with him about sex. I want him to grow up knowing he can talk to me about these things anytime. Studies show that the average age of a boy's first exposure to pornography is between 8-11. The world wants to teach our kids about sex, and the world is not exactly promoting purity. This book has been a great tool in preparing my son (and soon my daughters) to face the onslaught of sexual temptation that is coming, as well as helping us develop a much stronger bond.
Recommended for: Anyone with kids in this age range. I can't overstate how grateful I am for this resource! (link) For those with older kids, Gilkerson has also published a book geared toward 11-14 year olds to give them a greater understanding of Biblical sexuality, as well as a book to help adolescents make sense of puberty. I'll likely be adding these to our family library soon.
This is a novel I've heard about for years, but have never read. It was a Pulitzer Prize winner (thus satisfying that particular criteria from Challies' list), but more importantly, has been recommended by a number of people whose taste in books I generally share. I'll be honest... it took me a while to really get into it. Thankfully, I'd been warned, not only by friends of mine who've read it, but by the numerous endorsements printed on the back cover and inside the book, all saying that this book is something to be read slowly and savored, not simply consumed. Having reached the end, I absolutely concur with that sentiment. It's an absolutely beautiful piece of writing, fully engaging the full range of human emotion. Robinson puts the reader inside the head of dying pastor John Ames as he writes a journal for his young son to read as he grows up without his father. The book deals poignantly with a number of topics (notably forgiveness, contentment, racism, and friendship) which will resonate with all readers, while also being a very intimate, personal story. The closest comparison I can think of is to the writing of Wendell Berry in his Port William novels... and that's high praise!
Recommended for: Those who appreciate great writing and possess the patience and endurance to read at the pace of an old man, knowing they'll reap the reward for having completed the journey. (link)
I've long been a big fan of Gladwell's writing, so when I saw the only one of his books (save the newest, on which I've placed a hold at the library) I hadn't yet read sitting in a yard sale box for 50 cents, I figured it was time. This book is a bit unique among his works, as it lacks a single unifying theme. Rather, it is a collection of some of his best writings from his time spent working as an essayist for The New Yorker. While many of the essays were intriguing--and some really quite good--I found it difficult to plod along through the book. Perhaps if I'd tried reading an essay each week (the frequency with which The New Yorker is published) it would have been better. In any event, I will continue to enjoy his writing, but count myself glad he has now devoted himself full time to writing book-length treatments of whatever topic strikes his fancy.
Recommended for: Hard-core fans of Malcolm Gladwell's writing, or those who want just a smaller sampling of it. (link)
In the Bible, Jesus talks more about money than about anything else, so it's no wonder there are so many books aiming to help Christians become better stewards of God's resources. I try to read at least one a year, even when it's NOT a category in a reading list. Most of them tend to focus on eliminating debt, cutting spending, and living within our means... all important aspects of our financial health! This book was refreshingly different, though, as it focuses on the other side of the ledger. What do we do when we really can't cut anything else from the budget, yet still have financial burdens we can't meet? In cases like that, it's not an expenses problem, it's an income problem, and it's a problem that is particularly common in pastoral ministry, where frugality and generosity tend to far outpace salary. Thankfully, most people have marketable skills that can be leveraged to "find more money." Rainer's book is eminently practical, exploring the modern "gig economy" to help Christians build a "side gig" that will provide some financial margin in a way that complements rather than competes with their main job. As I am working hard to build my own side gig (as a music instructor, performer, and arranger), this book arrived at just the right time.
Recommended for: Christians looking to use their gifting and passions to increase their income for the sake of living more generously. (link)
As with all of Mohler's expository writing—his book on the 10 Commandments (Words from the Fire) remains a favorite of mine—this short book on the Lord's Prayer is easily accessible and full of brilliant insights. The book's introduction states well the reason the Lord's Prayer is so important: The vast majority of Christian prayers (including, embarrassingly enough, so many of the prayers I have prayed in public) are "mindlessly automatic", full of "familiar prayer language and stock devotional phrases." Thankfully, Jesus has given us for both how to pray and what to pray. And, as Mohler convincingly demonstrates, the Lord's Prayer is a radical assault on the status quo of this fallen world, and provides the answer to our yearning for what is wrong to be made right. This book is a wonderful resource, and also an excellent model for how to study Scripture; watching Mohler examine every word of the text provides quite the hermeneutical education!
Recommended for: Those looking to improve their prayer life and their ability to study God's Word. (link)
Technically this is a re-read, but since it's been several years since the last time I read it, I figure it counts again! This is a book I've used many times over the years in discipling young men to be better men. The title comes from Genesis 2:15, which Phillips interprets as a mandate for men to work ("to labor to make things grow") and keep ("to protect and to sustain progress already achieved") in every aspect of our lives, with eminently practical chapters devoted to marriage, fatherhood, and the need for friendships with godly men. This view is in start contrast to both secular views on masculinity and other popular Christian books on manhood (most notably Wild at Heart). You can read a full review I wrote on this book here.
Recommended for: Christian men who are not satisfied with what the world tells us about what it means to be a man. (link)
This book is difficult to classify, as there really isn't anything like it out there. McKelvey aims to give Christians words to read and share for many different occasions, from the routine to the momumental (e.g. "A Liturgy for the Ritual of Morning Coffee", "A Liturgy for a Moment of Frustration With a Child", "A Liturgy for Those Who Weep Without Knowing Why", etc.). The best comparison I can give it is that it is almost a Valley of Vision for today's world; a collection of prayers infused with the Gospel which help us to keep our focus on God and His goodness no matter what we may be dealing with at any given moment. It is truly magnificent, truly beautiful (definite shelf candy), and I can't recommend it strongly enough! Our family is already looking forward to Volume 2.
Recommended for: I would love to see every family have a copy of this for their home library! (link)
I really loved Challies' Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God, so when he published another book in the series I knew I needed to get it. There are many types of learning, and in my world of working with children, musicians, and other creatives, I find a great number of people who learn best through visual representation of information. In both VT books, Challies presents stunning infographics conveying beautiful truths. This second volume functions essentially as a beginner's Biblical theology, showing how the entire Bible works together to tell a single story. While I didn't love it quite as much as the first book, I'm still glad to have it on my shelf.
Recommended for: New Christians, family libraries, and visual learners (link)
This is book four of the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, which I began reading last year upon the recommendation of a friend. I had, admittedly, been very wary of this series having heard about the extremely gratuitous nature of the HBO television series A Game of Thrones, which is based on this series, and which I have never seen (nor intend to see). Every so often, however, I find it helpful to engage with secular literature which has had a profound impact on our culture. Additionally, my interest was piqued when I learned that Martin had loosely based the series off the period of the 100 Years War, a particularly shameful era of church history. While I would strongly caution impressionable readers to stay away from this series, I have found Martin's worldbuilding, character development, and storytelling to be really incredible. Despite Martin's pessimistic and decidedly non-Christian worldview, there is something very true in his writing about the fallenness of our world and the mixture of virtue and vice found in every human. Still, I can't in good conscience recommend this series to others.
Recommended for: Not recommended
There are very few scholarly books addressing the phenomenon of "contemporary worship," and perhaps none so thorough as this one. While the writing is a bit dry (typical of academic writing), I found the content fascinating on a number of levels. Having grown up in the midst of the period the book examines, I realized there are a great many things I took for granted, but which were actually fairly significant developments in the history of the church. For instance: the fact that I have always attended a church where the various service elements and the Bible itself were all in modern English. While my formative years in the church were dominated by "worship wars" involving musical selections, the use of common, everyday language—the biggest factor in whether a worship gathering was considered "contemporary" in the early days of the movement—was already fairly ubiquitous at that time. While music is an important part of the conversation of what makes up contemporary worship (that discussion occupies about a quarter of the book), it is far from the only consideration. Throughout their survey of contemporary worship, the authors do an admirable job of being thorough and charitable, allowing their personal preferences to remain fairly transparent.
Recommended for: Worship leaders, pastors, and anyone interested in a scholarly study of recent church history (link)