Friday, December 16, 2016

2016 Books

The end of the year is a great time, because it's in these concluding weeks that prominent bloggers begin to publish their "Best Books of the Year" lists.  Most of the books that I read come from the recommendation of blogs that I read, so this time of year will literally fill up my reading list for the next few months.

In that spirit, I thought I might make my own list of the best books that I've read this year.  Actually, I need to clarify: for the past couple of years, I don't usually read books - I listen to them.  Audiobooks have revolutionized the way that I take in books.  I love listening to books when I'm walking, driving, cleaning, or doing anything else that doesn't require thoughtful attention that will draw me away from what I'm listening to.  That being said, this is a list of the best audiobooks that I've "read" this past year.  Reader beware: some of these books have disturbing content, although I must say that I didn't go into them knowing about that content.  So I can't give a blanket recommendation for all of these books, however, these are the ones that most caught my attention this past year, listed in order from 10-1.

10. If At Birth You Don't Succeed by Zach Anner.  Sometime this past year I stumbled upon the Youtube channel of Zach Anner and was instantly hooked.  Zach is a comedian who lives with pretty severe cerebral palsy, which he flawlessly works into his act.  His comedy is great.  So when I heard that he wrote a book describing his life and experiences, I jumped into it.  I always appreciate hearing from people who have overcome challenges - especially people with disabilities - and this book is a great example of someone doing just that.  Zach has a great outlook on life and on his disability, and his attitude and spirit are worthy of emulation.  Zach isn't a Christian, but his reflection on his life and disability almost presupposes a sovereign order to the universe, which I found interesting.  That being said, Zach is a raunchy comedian, which is a shame, and his book is also quite raunchy (but still very funny, and would probably be much funnier without the raunchy jokes).  His Youtube channel, however, is clean for the most part.  If the book had been less raunchy, it would occupy a much higher spot on my list.

9. The Revenant by Michael Punke.  One of my favorite genres is history (see In the Heart of the Sea for great historical book) or historical fiction, or books that are a little bit of both.  The Revenant fits into that latter category.  I got turned on to this book because the movie came out, and the book was in the iTunes bestseller list, I think.  After reading a short description, I was intrigued.  While based on historical events, the book is rather farm from factual.  Hugh Glass was a real man, and he he did have an encounter with a bear, and he was left for dead by two supposed friends, and he did have a plot for revenge...but it was never carried out.  According to his Wikipedia page, by the time he crawled his way back to the nearest fort, he was too tired to seek out his betrayers and exact vengeance.  But that's a much less exciting ending for a book, so Punke took it in a different way.  Although it's not true to history, it's still a good story of survival.

8. The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken.  This was a recent listen for me.  This book details what it's like to be a Christian in "hard" parts of the world where the Christian faith is either severely frowned upon or outlawed altogether.  Ripken (not his real name) travels all over the world to talk to believers in these hard places to see how they do it - how they live as Christians in hostile environments.  What he encounters are some remarkable people and stories.  While the stories are interesting, challenging, and convicting all at the same time, I had some theological quibbles with Ripken throughout the book.  For instance, in his own mission work, he acknowledges that many times the message of the gospel was not given (in favor of providing humanitarian aid).  He notes that this was a problem and that it troubled him, but he never addresses it beyond noting the problem.  He also seems to favor a strong continuationist theology that I think can get out of hand very quickly.  From a practical standpoint, I thought the narrator of this book left something to be desired as well.  But aside from these concerns (odd title notwithstanding), it's a very good book.

7. Fortunate Son by John Fogerty.  Another favorite genre of mine is biography or memoir.  I really enjoy reading about peoples' lives - even people I don't like!  Thankfully this wasn't true of John Fogerty, although he's got some pretty polarizing political views.  I read the book mostly for his reflections on the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival (Note: If you don't have "Chronicles Vol. 1 by CCR, stop what you're doing and go get it).  While Fogerty seems to be a bit of a self-important head case, hearing him talk about his influences, how he learned to sing, the guitars he likes, and so on, was a great listen for me, considering my own interest in music.

6. Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.  I bought this book for my dad for Christmas last year, and then I got the audiobook for myself.  It's a good read, and a great introduction to Christian apologetics.  Wallace, a former homicide detective, examines the evidence for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity.  It's fascinating, and I learned a ton about evidence in general and the different kinds of evidence that can and should be used in forming a conclusion.  There's also a lot of great stuff about inductive versus deductive reasoning, the power of circumstantial evidence, and a lot more.  This book is well worth a listen/read.

5. God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.  Confession: I really enjoy Christopher Hitchens, and interestingly, this isn't the only time he'll show up on this list.  In addition to this book, I also listened to his memoir, Hitch 22 this year.  Not only could I listen to his deep, British-accented voice for pretty much forever, I think he's actually intellectually honest (see number 2 below).  Even though the title of this book is rather provocative (as is the subtitle: "How Religion Poisons Everything"), Hitchens, I think was open to other views (see the fantastic documentary "Collision" for more on that), and he was open to thinking through good arguments and weighing them for their merit.  That being said, this book was not written to engage arguments.  It was written to be a polemic against Christianity, which is mostly what made him famous.  If nothing else, it's good to read things like this to know where people are coming from (an ever-increasing number of people in our post-Christian culture).  Why is it so high on my list?  Not necessarily for the book itself, but for the character of the author.  Reader beware: Hitchens can be crass and vulgar, and that is evident in this book.  

4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  When I was in seventh grade a friend of mine was really into the Tolkien books.  I picked up the hobbit and started reading it, but never made it too far, as the opening chapters are...well...slow.  Now as an adult, I figured it was time to give it another go via audiobook.  I also listened to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy this year, but didn't enjoy them as much as I did The Hobbit.  For one thing, it's narrated by the great Robert Ingliss, whose reading and style simply can't be outdone (at least for these Tolkien books).  Secondly, I think the Hobbit is just a more engaging story (at least in book form - the movies on the other hand...ugh).  I plan to read this one to my kids in the next year or so.

3. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi.  I'll be honest: books on the Muslim religion don't hold a lot of draw to me.  It's not that I don't care about the evangelization of Muslims - I do - but more so that I just don't see it as a front-burner kind of issue for me and my life at the current moment.  In other words, when I picked up this book I didn't have high expectations that I would be significantly engaged by it.  I'm happy to say that I was very wrong.  This is a phenomenal book.  Qureshi comes from a Muslim family and was steeped in Muslim religion and culture throughout his childhood and young adulthood before becoming a Christian.  For this reason, he is able to provide fascinating insight into Muslim culture and tradition and belief, which sheds a very helpful light on why many Muslims think the way they do (for instance, why a caricature of Mohammed is so offensive, or how Muslims regard authority, and so on).  Qureshi also explains in detail why Muslims have a hard time believing that Jesus died on the cross, and in the process provides a fantastic apologetic for the Christian faith.  Moreover, through this book, we can see a very clear picture what it means to count the cost of following Jesus, as Qureshi basically left everything to become a Christian.  You should get this book and read it.

2. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton.  If you read the Amazon reviews for this book you will find a lot of angry atheists who hate Taunton for writing it.  Hitchens was, of course, a vehement atheist, and many of his disciples despise the notion that Hitchens was potentially open to considering other points of view.  They see it as the deepest betrayal by one of their heroes, so rather than engage what Taunton says of his relationship with Hitchens, they simply respond with blind anger.  That is unfortunate, because this is a wonderful book.  For a long time, this was - hands down - the best book that I read this year (until I read the book at number 1).  The story of the friendship between Taunton and Hitchens in the closing months of Hitchens' life is endearing, real, deep, heartfelt, and any other number of adjectives.  This book really demonstrates the spirit of Hitchens that I described above in number 5.  It also serves as a great example of how and why we should be ready, willing, and able to talk to people about the Christian faith.  While Hitchens himself downplayed the possibility of a "deathbed conversion" for himself, this book reminds us that we have no idea what God can do in a person's life (even at the point of death).  Even if you know nothing of Christopher Hitchens, you should read this book.  And if you do enjoy or appreciate Hitchens you simply must read this book.

1. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.  This is the only book on this list that I have read/listened to twice this year, which is one of the main reasons that I figured it should occupy the number one spot.  It was so good (and so complex that I wanted to make sure I heard and understood the story correctly) that it required a second listening, and I'm planning on another read-through in the near future.  On second thought, I'm not sure "good" is an adequate description of this book.  Perhaps "intriguing" or "thought-provoking" is more accurate.  This is another work of historical fiction that is based on historical fact, but many of the details have been significantly indulged to the extent that it is categorized as a novel.  The story takes place in the pre-Civil War American Southwest, and details the terrible crimes of the Glanton Gang, through the eyes of the main character, known simply as The Kid.  The Glanton Gang made their living by collecting bounties on Indian scalps, the owners of which were known to terrorize white settlers.  Soon, however, the gang realized that the scalps of violent Indians looked the same as the scalps of peaceful Indians, and the bounty was the same for either kind of scalp, so they began to mercilessly slaughter any Indians they encountered.  Not long after that, drunk with bloodlust, they turned their violence on anyone and anything that got in their way.  The main antagonist is a character simply known as The Judge.  I'm not sure I've encountered a character anywhere else in literature as intriguing as The Judge, even though his character is utterly depraved and unspeakably evil.  There have been many interpretations by readers of who or what The Judge represents (my own interpretation is that his character represents unchecked human depravity), but you'll have to read it yourself to form your own opinion.  Another thing I thoroughly enjoyed about this book was its narrator: Richard Poe.  There cannot be a better voice for the narration of this book.  Reader beware: this book is a story that will take you to the depths of human depravity.  This book is exceedingly violent, as it details the account of the reprehensible men of the Glanton Gang doing horrible things (let's face it: scalping Indians isn't a pleasant activity), however the violence therein is stated very matter of factly and isn't sensationalized.

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