Saturday, January 09, 2016

Nonfiction of 2015: Miscellaneous

Today's post is the last in my annual reading roundup--after reviewing all the memoir and poetry yesterday, I'm collecting the rest of the nonfiction (from theology to biography to psychology/sociology and more) here.

My favorite "spiritual growth/theology/Christian living" book of 2015 was, without question, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts. I found it phenomenally wise and helpful and lovely. I read a lot of other interesting and worthwhile nonfiction, as well as a few duds--some purely entertaining, some deeply insightful, some a strange mix of truth and nonsense. Below, from five-star on down...

My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts - Joe Rigney*****
An excellent, beautiful book. It’s crammed with rich theology that will make your head spin (in a good way!), yet also full of intensely practical and down-to-earth insights and wisdom. The tone is so winsome—warm, humble, empathetic, contagiously excited about who God is and what He gives. Rigney writes in a clear, compelling way, taking aim at false guilt and casting a vision for how to live abundantly and generously. If you’ve ever feared that maybe you love your blessings too much, or if you’ve ever wondered how to navigate a healthy, godly balance between enjoying earthly pleasures and sacrificing for the sake of the gospel, or if you’ve struggled with how to respond when blessings are lost, you’ll find this book immensely helpful.

Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself - Joe Thorn*****
I don't do well with "devotional" format books (which is why it took me over two years to finish this one)...but this little book is really excellent. Pointed enough to make you squirm at times, yet brimming with joy and hope, it's a wonderful, useful collection of 48 short exhortations to remember what's true and live like it. I should immediately start back at the beginning.

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory - Ben Macintyre (audio)*****
A little difficult to get into (at least as an audiobook), with so many characters to keep track of--but in the end, I enjoyed this immensely. I have read/heard/watched a fair amount about WWII, but had never before thought about the influence of espionage on the outcome of the war. It was fascinating to hear about the intelligence and counter-intelligence, the way psychological maneuvers affect battles and nations and ultimate results. The author also had some really profound statements to make about human nature and how our willingness to be deceived plays a huge role in whether we believe lies. Worthwhile story for sure.

Somebody Told Me: The Newspaper Stories of Rick Bragg*****
I really believe Bragg is one of the greatest writers of our time. His raw talent + polished skill with words makes nearly any subject compelling. He has this way of telling a story that is understated instead of melodramatic, which serves to pierce the reader with the drama of the tale. The chapter epigraphs in this volume are a perfect example--one or two elegant, startling sentences that say so much, so simply. And he makes the most diverse characters come to life. If you haven't read any of Bragg's work, I'd start with his first memoir, All Over But the Shoutin'. But this collection of feature articles from The New York Times is wonderful too--nice to dip in and out of, savor just a small piece at a time.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God - Timothy Keller****
It's hard for me to review this because I read it over the course of the entire year--receiving it for Christmas in 2014 and finishing it in December 2015. It's immensely rich and helpful, as I almost always find Keller to be, but it's a lot "headier" than some of Keller's other work, especially in the beginning (the footnotes are slightly overwhelming). For that reason I'm not sure it would be a good introduction to prayer. I also think it can easily discourage anyone who doesn't already have much of a prayer life, despite Keller's efforts to encourage the beginner. Still, it's definitely valuable, and I expect to refer back to it to strengthen my weak prayer life, as he provides lots of practical suggestions and examples.

The Gifts of Imperfection - Brené Brown****
I finally gave Brené Brown a try after being intrigued by her work and hearing others rave about her for years. The first sentence of the introduction told me I'd have to read with a filter--yet I think there is much value in this book if read critically through a gospel lens. It is so good, and yet it falls so short of a biblical worldview. Much (most?) of what she says is absolutely fantastic. But the "you are enough, you are OK" mantra, absent of really dealing with the fundamental reality of sin and inadequacy, left much to be desired. I think the gospel provides richer and more satisfying answers to the problems she diagnoses, but if you can map that onto her work yourself, you'll find plenty to chew on. I definitely plan to go back through all my many highlights and to read more from Brené Brown. I find her style winsome and compelling, and I generally think she's brilliant--she just doesn't go far enough. As this review of her most recent book puts it: "The gospel offers a deeper hope than what she describes, yet what she offers can point the way forward—if you follow it to its logical conclusion—to our need for God’s love in Christ."

Is God Anti-Gay? And Other Questions About Homosexuality, the Bible and Same-Sex Attraction - Sam Alberry****
A very short (I read it in one quick sitting) but wise and helpful little book. Only an introduction to complex and sensitive issues, but the way the author (who experiences same-sex attraction but chooses to remain celibate) answers some of the "classic" questions/objections on both sides is winsome and compelling. 

For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards - Jen Hatmaker****
I weirdly (stubbornly?) didn't want to love this because of the way everyone and her sister was fangirling over it and the way all the advance hype took it to the top of all the lists. But what can I say? There is a reason Jen Hatmaker has so many fans. She's funny and clever and has a lot of true and meaningful things to say in the midst of the hilarity. Steve even picked this up, which cracked me up. I think the subtitle is a bit misleading/overambitious, though. It mostly felt like a collection of random, unrelated essays--like basically the publishing team went, "We know we can sell a book with Jen Hatmaker's name on the cover, so we'll let her write about whatever blessed thing strikes her fancy." As this review points out, her use of the word "grace" rings a bit hollow in the end. Still, a fun read.

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and Women's Work - Kathleen Norris****
I really enjoyed this short little gem of a book. Lots of lovely food for thought and inspiration for the ordinariness of daily work and life.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy - Eric Metaxas***(*)
Bonhoeffer was indeed an admirable and compelling man, and reading about his life as well as excerpts from his own writings made me interested in reading more of his work. However, I kind of felt like Metaxas seemed intent on canonizing him. Perhaps he really was an extraordinarily saintly man and I'm just a cynic. But it was like he had no flaws, which felt unrealistic. Anyway, the story started slow and was longer than it needed to be, and I didn't appreciate the overly obvious "foreshadowing." Still, it was a fascinating look not only at an extraordinary man, but also at 1930s Germany. I think since the victors write the history books, I had absorbed an overly simplistic view of WWII as Germany = Evil, Allies = Good Guys. So it was enlightening to read about all the Germans who despised Hitler for what he was doing to their beloved country, and it was heartbreaking to learn about foolish decisions (made by the British especially) that could have, perhaps, changed the course of events dramatically. All in all I *do* recommend it. You just have to be patient through the slow parts.

Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time - Greg Ogden***(*)
I skimmed the first half of this; it is great material, but very very familiar to me after having spent two years in college working with a ministry for whom this was the heartbeat. The second part, which promised to "take this biblical vision and translate it into a [workable] church-based model of disciple making," was the tool/model/nitty-gritty "how to" piece that has been missing for me. I feel a bit skeptical of a few of Ogden's minor points, but on the whole I think this was a good reminder of a familiar vision with some helpful added nuances/tweaks. I'm excited that our pastor is advocating this and hoping to implement it in my own life soon.

Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda - Michael Barnett***
This is by far the least-accessible book I've read on Rwanda. But while it's thoroughly awful to slog through (it reads like a dry academic dissertation), I do think it's an important analysis of the international community's role in the 1994 genocide. Other books I've read on the topic focus more closely on events in Rwanda; this one was centered on the UN and whether the Security Council, the Secretariat, and/or member states bear moral responsibility for the genocide. I thought Barnett's research and conclusions were thorough, balanced, fair yet pointed. In between the incredibly tedious writing and interminable paragraphs, he also had some profound things to say--provocative truths about the nature of bureaucracies and morality and about human nature in general. 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up - Marie Kondo***
To me this seemed like equal parts valuable tips and utter nonsense. I was torn between wanting to attack my house and get rid of lots of stuff and try to implement some of her suggestions...and throwing up my hands because the methods she insists on feel completely unattainable and unrealistic. Some of what she said made so much sense and was insightful. Some of it was downright ridiculous. Very woo-woo "your possessions have feelings, your house will talk to you" etc. Read if you have three weeks to set aside to tidy your entire house and change your life, and/or if you want a good laugh, and/or if you are concerned that your socks are sad because you fold them in a ball in your drawer. 

Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think - Bryan Caplan***
Curiosity made the cat pick this up based on the title alone. (And no, my reading and reviewing it does not mean I am open to your nosy questions about whether or not I want or plan to have more children.) It was provocative for sure. Caplan makes some compelling arguments. He's also annoyingly repetitive, a bit alarming/discouraging in his treatment of adoption, and totally neglects to address some of the significant reasons people might choose not to have more children, especially from a woman's perspective.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania - Erik Larson (audio)***
Did not enjoy this nearly so much as Devil in the White City. It was mildly interesting but not overly compelling.

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness - Timothy Keller**(*)
I normally love Tim Keller, but this booklet (it can't really be called a book) was not really anything new if you've read C.S. Lewis. Those who have never heard his perspective ("humility isn't thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less") or who have never been exposed to the gospel third-way thinking about self-image (with low self-esteem and high self-esteem being sides of the same coin, neither desirable) might find this very helpful and revolutionary. But if those ideas are familiar to you, you probably won't find anything new here. It's a very quick read, so it can't hurt. But  I sort of felt like Keller wasn't telling me anything I hadn't heard before, and yet he didn't develop the ideas enough to help me really get a handle on HOW, practically, to get there. So I came away thinking I hadn't learned anything new and hadn't gotten any closer to applying what I already know. 

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas**(*)
I'll admit that I don't often really love "devotional" type books in general...but this one was definitely not a favorite. It sounded so promising, but in between the big-name authors on the cover were a bunch of people I didn't know whose work was not particularly wonderful to me. I really enjoyed a handful of the pieces; most of the others were very "meh" to me and several were downright awful. (Many were also much longer than I prefer in this type of daily-reading collection.) I'm rounding up to 3 stars, but I won't be keeping this for future reuse. 

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune - Bill Dedman (audio)
This book was kind of like a train wreck: gruesome, and sad, and not edifying in any way, yet you have this morbid curiosity and you can't look away. I alternated between feeling disgusted by Huguette Clark and feeling sad for her. The opulence of her and her family's lifestyle was appalling. The squandering of so many millions of dollars, unbelievable. It all just seemed like such a waste. Wasted money, wasted lives. The latter part was something like a real-life version of Grisham's Sycamore Row, with a hotly contested will, but it wasn't resolved in a satisfying way. I'm not sure how many stars to give this--not because the reporting or writing was terrible, but because in the end, the woman's life did not seem worth giving my time to learning about. I did finish; the story was fascinating at times. Just kind of morbidly so.

Other books I abandoned:
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey - Candice Millard
I was eager to pick this up after loving Millard's Destiny of the Republic, but I wasn't motivated to finish. It was mildly interesting, and I was curious how it turns out, but I just didn't care enough about the characters or the quest. When my Kindle said I had another 3.5 hours to go, I just kept thinking about all the other books I could be reading in that time. 

Italian Journey - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I ordered this old book through interlibrary loan and was startled to find it was a massive, 500-page volume. So I skimmed only the parts about cities I was going to visit. I found some really poignant quotes, but also a lot that didn't interest me at all. Many of the quotes were lovely and yet melodramatic--I felt like either Goethe was over the top about Italy, or he was dead on and you really can only understand once you've experienced it yourself. After having been there...I'm inclined to say he was perhaps a bit melodramatic.

What were your favorite nonfiction reads in 2015? 

1 comment:

Danielle said...

In Bonhoeffer I too enjoyed reading about the Germans who wanted to oust Hitler and why overthrow plots were so complicated.

Thanks for your review of "Watch for the Light." I keep looking at that wondering if I'd like it or not. Kathleen Norris' book has also been on my to-read list.