The Best Books I Read in 2015

I set a goal to read 50 books in 2015. In September, I revised my goal down to 40…and I hit it! What follows is my list of the best 6 books I read in 2015, in chronological order.  (Update: My entire 2015 reading list is here.)

My Rules

I only count books I read all the way through, cover to cover.  I read lots of journals and periodicals, and in my weekly sermon prep read parts of different books and commentaries, but for my reading goal, none of those count.

A book that I keep thinking about, a book that adds enduring value to my life, that’s a book I’ll define as good.  I use a 5 star system in my ratings to signify the following:

★★★★★ life-changing and unforgettable
★★★★     excellent
★★★         worth reading

Books getting less than 3 stars aren’t on my “Best” list, which doesn’t mean they were necessarily bad, but just not books that I’d excitedly recommend to you.

★★             read other things first
                 not recommended

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

gladwell

I read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books in 2015; Outliers is my favorite.  No man is an island; any amount of success we achieve is due to hard work, of course, but it’s also all about right place, right time; success is about our circumstances, our family, and our environment. ★★★★

The Radetsky March, by Joseph Roth

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I read because I want to experience life; the books I like best are the ones that evoke other times and other places so acutely that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, they make me remember things I’ve never known.  And, there is something about the vanished places that only exist in memory that are the sweetest and saddest.  Since I first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s great memoirs (A Time of Gifts and Between the Wood and Water) I’ve loved reading works of nostos for Mittereuropa, that now-vanished world of the Austro-Hungarian empire, dismantled in World War I and disappeared with murder and concrete by World War Two and the Iron Curtain.

After watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, I read about Stephan Zweig, whose work was the inspiration for the Wes Anderson movie. Then, in Zweig’s autobiography, I stumbled across a reference to The Radetsky March.  I’d never heard it mentioned anywhere else, but it was one of the best books I read in 2015 and the sense of it will stay with me a long time after.

So, what is The Radetsky March about?  I like Simon Schama’s remark:

‘Read this and your life will change,’ we say, pressing it relentlessly on strangers encountered in Daunt Books who might confuse him with Henry or Philip of the same moniker. ‘So what’s it about?’ they reasonably inquire. ‘Ah, well,’ you say, ‘it follows an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army before the first world war, stuck in a provincial border garrison doing nothing in particular except getting drunk on 180 per cent schnapps and haplessly wandering from calamity to disaster … ‘ ‘Oh, right, thanks,’ they say, looking around for an escape route before you can add: ‘Oh and, of course, all of human life – sex, class, food, music, land, power, and Jews – there’s this scene where Kaiser Franz Joseph runs into an old Hasidic rabbi … ‘ But you’ve already lost them to the Man Booker shortlist table.”

Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1848-1916.

Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1848-1916.

The novel is an “elegiac evocation of the slow decay of a way of life that disappeared with the collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire” and about the soft but irresistible pull of that empire towards destruction, and about one family’s own petty paralysis in the face of that slow pull.

For me, The Radetsky March is all atmosphere, elegy for a world that will never come again. (For a contemporary review of the novel that even then was looking back on a lost world, see this 1933 New York Times piece.)  ★★★★

 

An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest, by Alan Fadling

an-unhurried-life

“If you had one word to describe Jesus, what would it be?”  In An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling recounts how, when philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard answered that question, he chose relaxed.  Fadling writes, “What took root in my own heart [after hearing Willard’s one word description] was the desire to know Jesus as an unhurried savior.” When I read that sentence last summer, I thought “YES.  Me too.”

I read this book at exactly the right time.  I had been feeling harried and shallow for months, feeling as if I could never find quiet, and feeling that God was calling me to prayer and silence.  Alan Fadling’s book was a blessing to me, and I recommend it to you.  ★★★

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Unset

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Imagine living in a world in which all of reality–everything you could see and touch and taste and smell–was enchanted with the power of God.  This is the world of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Rod Dreher explains:

The late medievals were heirs to a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted. God was everywhere, and ordered all things to Himself. All of Creation — and it was “Creation,” not yet “Nature” — was a sign pointing to its Creator. It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose [emphasis in the original].”

Kristin Lavransdatter is an 1,100 page historical novel (actually a trilogy of novels, published in the early 1920s), written by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset about 14th century Norway.  The novel follows the life of the title character (Kristin, daughter of her father Lavrans)

first as a young girl enjoying bread, butter, dried reindeer, and mead in sunny alpine meadows with her father; then through her thrilling first encounters with the love of her life, the beguiling Erlend Nikulausson, during which Undset precisely renders the romantic heart of a teenage girl; and finally through Kristin’s adulthood as a brooding but hardworking mistress of a household and mother of many sons.”

Carrie Frederick Frost has an insightful essay at First Things (from which I took the above quotation) about Kristin and motherhood and faith.  I will never be a mother, but I am a son and a father, and I appreciate Frost’s summary of the insight that Kristin gains from motherhood:

It is through reflection on her own experience of motherhood that Kristin is able to understand her parents’ love for her. After a decade of motherhood she considers the character of her parents’ love: “That love had been strong and wide and unfathomably deep; while the love she gave them in return was weak and thoughtless and selfish, even back in childhood when her parents were her whole world.” Kristin realizes that even though she loved her parents, her love for them did not approach the love they had for her, and that she now feels this same “strong and wide” love for her own children. Through her maternal meditation, Kristin understands that she belongs to a lineage of love linking her children, herself, her parents, and all of humanity back to God’s “unfathomably deep” parental love.”

Kristin Lavransdatter is not just about motherhood, though: like other great epic novels (e.g. War and Peace or Island of the World) it is about all of life: marriage, adultery, hatred, war, forgiveness, and the grace of God.  I love this novel.  ★★★★★

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspirationby Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

buzz

I had an insight last year: my job (or at least the most public aspect of it) is essentially creative.  Every single Sunday, 47 weeks a year, I am personally and alone responsible for a 30 minute presentation that is supposed to faithfully convey Christian doctrine, bring the Bible to life, appeal to outsiders and skeptics, nourish the faithful, and, if possible, be both humorous and poignant.  And then do it again in 7 days.

How is it possible to make that kind of creativity and excellence routine?

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Ed Catmull is a computer genius in his own right, but he is also a business genius, and as a co-founder and president of Pixar he has been obsessed with creating a culture of creativity since 1986.  Creativity Inc. is Mr. Catmull’s attempt to put what he has learned down on paper.  The result is a business book unlike most business books, and I found myself underlining sentence after sentence as I read.  ★★★★

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

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The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’s dystopian young adult novel, surprised me: it was much better than I expected it to be, and I still find myself thinking about it frequently, months later.  The basic story line–how a ruthless elite amuses themselves to death while exploiting the general population in order to maintain their wealth and comfort–strikes me as chillingly similar to life in modern America: we live in The Capital.  I think Katniss Everdeen is a totally believable heroine, and I am impressed with Ms. Collins’s creativity and vision.  ★★★

My 2016 Reading Goal

Once again, I’ve set myself a goal of reading 50 books this year.  What about you–do you have a reading goal for the year?

 

[Here are my 2013 and 2014 reading lists, respectively.]

 

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Best of 2015

The editors at www.andrewforrest.org (best blog on the internet™) have been working long hours and our fingers to the bone to get our 1st annual best-of list together.  Yes, we didn’t make it by 12/31, but it’s not too late to look back at 2015, right?

 

Best Book I Read in 2015

 

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The Amazon description calls Kristin Lavransdatter “the turbulent historical masterpiece of Norway’s literary master.” I agree that it’s a masterpiece (though certainly an overlooked one): Sigrid Undset’s 1100 page historical novel is a book that will stay with me for years to come.  It’s about the life of the title character in 14th century medieval Norway, and I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it.  Highly recommended.

Best Movie(s) I Saw in 2015

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[https://lisathatcher.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/71-1.jpg]

Here’s what I wrote in April about the brutal war thriller ’71:

Walking down the stairs of the theater afterwards, I realized that I’d been keeping my entire body rigid and tense throughout the movie–it’s that kind of film.  It’s really well done: terrifying, honest, brutal, and resists the urge to clean-up everything at it’s end.  Highly recommended, though not for the faint of heart.”

Thinking back on it 9 months later, I stand by that assessment.  ’71 is one of the best movies of the year.

Meanwhile, on the complete other end of the movie spectrum….

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[telegraph.co.uk]

On the complete other end of the spectrum, the British claymation film Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is also one of my favorite movies of the year.  It’s wordless, really funny, and touching and sweet as well.  Recommended.

Best Reason Not to Visit Seattle

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Yes, I do know the difference between San Francisco and Seattle….

Kathryn Shultz wrote a long article in The New Yorker‘s July 20 issue called “The Really Big One,” about how the Pacific Northwest is overdue for a massive earthquake.  One of the memorable quotations from the piece comes from the region’s FEMA director when he says (and subsequently stands by his remarks): “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”  Her follow-up piece 8 days later addressing some FAQ’s won’t make you feel any better.

I’ll stay in Texas, thank you.

Best App

"All packed...." (The kind of pic we shared on Togethera in 2015.)

“All packed….” (The kind of pic we shared on Togethera in 2015.)

My wife and I made a decision to never share pictures of our son on social media.  However, our extended family is far-flung and lives on 3 different continents, and sharing pictures is an important way to feel closer.  Enter Togethera, a photo sharing app that allows you to create closed groups.  We’ve been using it since the summer and love it.

Best Sermon

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That’s like asking me to choose which one of my kids is the best.  The answer is obvious: I like them all, except the ugly ones.

Best Everyday Carry Accessories

I never leave the house without the following in my pants pockets:

Best State Fair

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Too easy: The State Fair of Texas, fool!  (September 30 will be here before you know it….)

Finally: Best Hanukkah Song

I know, I know: with so many to choose from, how do you narrow it down to just one?  But, this year’s winner (which, being held hostage by our house’s resident kindergartner, we played on repeat in our household 1,000 times in the month of December) is Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu’s 2012 single “Happy Hanukkah.” The video ain’t my favorite, but I defy you not to be happy with the audio turned way up.

My favorite part is the “Lion of Juuuuudah” part of the refrain.

Auld Lang Syne

2015 was a great year; here’s to an ever better 2016.

 

 

 

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My 2014 Reading List

Soviet Russia during wartime; climbing Mount Everest in canvas puttees and hobnailed boots; Hasidic teenagers in Brooklyn: these were just a few of the subjects I read about in 2014.  Sure, I didn’t make my reading goal, but it was a great year for reading all the same.

"The Artist in His Room at the Villa Medici, Rome," by Léon Cogniet, 1817 [Wikipedia].

“The Artist in His Room at the Villa Medici, Rome,” by Léon Cogniet, 1817 [Wikipedia].

My 2014 Reading Goal

I set a goal to read 50 books in 2014.  My actual total: 34.  (Just like last year, I fell short.)  But can I get a little credit for reading several huge novels?

I mentioned last year that I wanted to read more fiction and literature in 2014, and as you’ll see below, I accomplished that goal.  (I think I’d like to add more books on theology and pastoral ministry in 2015.)

Here Are My Rules

I only counted books that I read all the way through.  In my weekly sermon prep, I often end up reading parts of different books, but they don’t count.  Also, I read lots of periodicals and online journals, but I don’t count them toward my total.  Why not?  I find that the concentration required to read a book all the way through is different (and more valuable) than reading a blog post or online article.  Also, reading blog posts and articles isn’t life-giving to me the way reading a book is.

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A book that I’ll remember in the future, a book that adds enduring value to my life, that’s a book I’ll define as good.  I use a 5 star system in my ratings to signify the following:

★★★★★ life-changing and unforgettable
★★★★     excellent
★★★         worth reading

Books getting less than 3 stars aren’t on my “Best” list, which doesn’t mean they were necessarily bad, but just not books that I’d excitedly recommend to you.

★★             read other things first
                not recommended

 

The Best Books I Read in 2014 (in chronological order)

The Abominable: A Novel, by Dan Simmons.  The first book I read in 2014, and one of the best I read all year.  It’s a long novel (688 pages) about a team trying to climb Mount Everest in 1924, against a background of mystery and international espionage. Author Dan Simmons takes the gaps in our historical knowledge (What really happened to George Mallory and Sandy Irvine? Why didn’t Hitler put Operation Sea Lion into motion and invade England in 1940?) and connects them and fills them in in creative and satisfying ways.

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From Booklist, via Amazon:

It’s 1924, and a trio of rogue climbers—mysterious WWI vet Deacon; emotional Frenchman Jean-Claude; and our narrator, brash young American Jacob—are hired to find the corpse of a dignitary lost on Everest. While they’re there, they go for the legendary summit. Right away, there’s a complication: a fourth team member, the dead man’s cousin—and a woman, no less! But it’s the subsequent complications that make this required reading for anyone inspired or terrified by high-altitude acrobatics: sudden avalanches, hidden crevasses, murderous temperatures, mountainside betrayals, and maybe—just maybe—a pack of bloodthirsty yeti. Though the first 200 pages of climbing background might have readers pining for the big climb, it is nearly always interesting, and, later, Simmons excels at those small but full-throated moments of terror when, for example, a single bent screw might mean death for everyone.”

The Abominable had me constantly reaching for my atlas and looking things up on Wikipedia.  Highly recommended.  ★★★★

 

The Christ of the Indian Roadby E. Stanley Jones.  I’d like to understand the culture in which I minister as well as Jones, a Methodist missionary to India 100 years ago (and a friend of Gandhi’s) understood his.  Recommended.  ★★★

 

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand.  The story of Louie Zamperini’s life is one of the more remarkable I’ve ever read.  Highly recommended (and I also recommend the movie, by the way).  ★★★★

 

The Last Hero, by Peter Forbath. This fictionalized retelling of Henry Morton Stanley’s final trip through the Congo is terrifying and compelling.  Another long novel (729 pages) that had me constantly reaching for the atlas and encyclopedia, it re-introduced me to the remarkable life of Henry Morton Stanley.  Stanley was one of the most famous and lionized me in the world in the last 3rd of the 19th century, and though I’d read about him when I was a teenager, I’d forgotten how improbable, exciting, and impressive were his accomplishments.  Like Louie Zamperini–although actually much more so–Stanley’s life story is one of those that if you made it up, no one would believe it.  Highly recommended.  ★★★★

 

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok.  Why read fiction?  Fiction enables you to experience the life of another in a way that is impossible otherwise.  The Chosen is about the friendship between two boys in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn during the Second World War.  Highly recommended.  ★★★★

 

Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. I wrote about this book here.  Like most of these sorts of business and leadership books, it’s too long, but still worth the read.  Recommended.  ★★★

 

What Radical Husbands Do, by Regi Campbell.  I’d like all the men I know to read this book.  Recommended.  ★★★

 

The Advantage, by Patrick Lencioni.  A great book on organizational leadership.  Recommended.  ★★★

 

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. The only novel of Berry’s I’ve ever read, it’s a slow accounting of the life of a small hamlet in Kentucky, and its bachelor barber.  Highly recommended.  ★★★

 

The Best Book I Read in 2014

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman (translated by Robert Chandler).  A novel by a Red Army journalist who lived through the Battle of Stalingrad, Life and Fate is a masterpiece and an experience that I will never ever forget.

Urban warfare, Stalingrad, 1942.

Urban warfare, Stalingrad, 1942.

German POWs, Stalingrad, 1943.

German POWs, Stalingrad, 1943.

I first heard about Life and Fate as a college history student, and have had it on my someday/maybe list for 15 years or so.  It’s a massive novel (896 pages), and was the last book I read in 2014.  Here’s a good summary from Publisher’s Weekly:

Obviously modeled on War and Peace, this sweeping account of the siege of Stalingrad aims to give as panoramic a view of Soviet society during World War II as Tolstoy did of Russian life in the epoch of the Napoleonic Wars. Completed in 1960 and then confiscated by the KGB, it remained unpublished at the author’s death in 1964; it was smuggled into the West in 1980. Grossman offers a bitter, compelling vision of a totalitarian regime where the spirit of freedom that arose among those under fire was feared by the state at least as much as were the Nazis. His huge cast of characters includes an old Bolshevik now under arrest, a physicist pressured to make his scientific discoveries conform to “socialist reality” and a Jewish doctor en route to the gas chambers in occupied Russia. Ironically, just as Stalingrad is liberated from the Germans, many of the characters find themselves bound in new slavery to the Soviet government. Yet Grossman suggests that the spirit of freedom can never be completely crushed. His lengthy, absorbing novel–which rejected the compromises of a lifetime and earned its author denunciation and disgrace–testifies eloquently to that spirit.”

Highly, highly recommended.  (I’ll need to write more about this separately.)  ★★★★★

 

The Rest of 2014 (in chronological order)

Some of the books below are quite good, but for whatever reason, they didn’t grab me in such as way to make my “best of” list above.  Still, some of these books might be worth your time.

Others most definitely aren’t.  Caveat lector.

That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented And How We Can Come Back, by Thomas Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum. The title pretty much says it all….  ★★

Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer,” by Tim Jeal.  After reading The Last Hero (see above), I wanted to learn more about Stanley.  ★★

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher.  A memoir about returning home after the death of an only sibling.  I first read about the book on Dreher’s blog, which is one of my favorites.  A nice book about the importance of family and community.  ★★

Death by Meeting, by Patrick Lencioni.  Helpful.  ★★

Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace, by Heath Lambert.  A book about men and pornography.  ★★

Foundation
Foundation and Empire
Second Foundation, all by Isaac Asimov.  I’d heard that these were ground-breaking books in science fiction, so I think I was expecting more.  Good, but not great.  ★★

The Tale of Three Kings, by Gene Edwards.  A lot of evangelical pastor types love this book about Saul, David, and Absolom.  Not totally sure why.  ★★

The Anglican Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, by John Stott & J. Alec Motyer.  Not helpful to me. 

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John Maxwell.  I don’t get much out of Maxwell’s stuff. 

All In, by Mark Batterson. 

Developing the Leader Within You, by John Maxwell.  Maxwell’s first book, and definitely one of the worst books I’ve ever read. More clichés than a box of chocolates.  

The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, by John Maxwell. 

Podcast Launch, by John Lee Dumas. 

Come Home: A Call Back to Faith, by James MacDonald.  My mom told me about this book, and as soon as I heard the title, I thought, “I want to do a sermon series on that theme.”  I ended up doing the series–one of my favorites we’ve ever done–but I didn’t find the book very helpful to me, and all I ended up using was the title (which is a great title, by the way). 

An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture, by Andrew Davis.  Can’t beat the price.  ★★

Eat This Book, by Eugene Peterson.  Like Come Home mentioned above, I got a sermon series out of this title (which I’d heard elsewhere), but didn’t get much content for the actual series from the book.  ★★

7 Men and The Secret of Their Greatness, by Eric Metaxas.  I want to like Eric Metaxas’s books because I believe in what he’s trying to do and agree with his general worldview, but as with his Bonhoeffer book, I found the writing in this book to be really annoying and juvenile.  Unfortunately, I just don’t think Metaxas is a very good writer.  Not recommended.  

Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, by Michael Hyatt. Good practical stuff for bloggers.  ★★

In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, by Henri Nouwen.  I love the epilogue about Nouwen and his friend with special needs, speaking at a conference together.  Beautiful.  ★★

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel.  I really disliked this book; this Vox post is a good summary of my own feelings.  (For another funny article on Silicon Valley arrogance and foolishness, see this New York magazine piece about the men behind the laundry app “Washio.”)  Not recommended.  

Not Yet Christmas, by J.D. Walt.  Some nice reflections on Advent.  ★★

Into the Silent Land: a Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, by Martin Laird.  A reference on Rod Dreher’s blog pointed me towards this book.  Good stuff on contemplative prayer.  ★★

 

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the above.  Anything I need to be sure and read in 2015?

 

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