March 5, 2010

Books I Enjoyed Most in 2009

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Year after year, I intend to post, early in January, a list of the books I enjoyed most during the previous year. Year after year, that list gets delayed. It’s March already, but here at last is the list of the books I enjoyed most in 2009, listed alphabetically by author’s last name:

* Walter R. Brooks, Freddy Goes to Florida. This is the first of the Freddy the Pig books, and in fact this one doesn’t focus on Freddy and originally didn’t have him in the title. But somehow Freddy took over. I read many of these as a kid, came upon them again more recently, and now have started reading them to my daughter. Lots of fun.

* Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part Two: From Noah to Abraham: Genesis VI 9 – XI 32. As I said last year, Cassuto is a very careful commentator and, even though he’s sometimes wrong, always worth reading because he discusses and notices things others often ignore.

* Rebecca Caudill, Happy Little Family. This is the first in the Fairchild Family series, and I enjoyed reading it to Theia before bed. Too bad the local library doesn’t have the whole series.

* Dale Ralph Davis, Looking on the Heart 1: Expositions of 1 Samuel 1-14. Very helpful material on 1 Samuel, which we’ve been going through in our Wednesday night Bible study here. Supplement with Peter Leithart’s A Son to Me.

* Brian Doyle, Spirited Men: Story, Soul, and Substance. A number of very interesting short biographical essays on men such as Plutarch, William Blake, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Van Morrison.

* Keith Ferrazzi, with Tahl Raz, Never Eat Alone and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. The title attracted me. There’s a lot of stuff a pastor could learn from this business-related book by a master networker.

* Dan Fesperman, Lie in the Dark and The Small Boat of Great Sorrows. Two novels about Croatian detective Vlado Petric by a journalist who knows Sarajevo and its recent struggles inside out. I enjoyed the first of these more than the second, but both were gripping.

* Charles H. Hapgood, Maps of the Ancient Sea-Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age. I first heard about this book years ago in one of Gary North’s books and have been interested in it ever since. It turns out that the Medford Public Library has a copy. Hapgood’s book is one of the most boring but fascinating books I have ever read.

It is boring in that he discusses in exhaustive detail all the various steps of his research, the mistakes he and his associates made, the failed attempts to figure out how the ancient maps worked, and so forth. If you’re a cartographer, you’ll be able to follow his discussion; if you’re like me, it’ll be pages of stuff you can hardly understand and you’re not remotely interested in. Boring.

But also fascinating: Hapgood, together with his students and aided by the US Air Force, studied Renaissance maps that seem to draw on even older maps. These maps involve both latitude and longitude, though it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that modern-era mapmakers figured out how to calculate longitude. The Renaissance mapmakers couldn’t, but the old mapmakers from whom they borrowed could. These old maps are remarkably accurate, when understood properly. For instance, if you look at an old map, you might see that Greenland is enormous, far larger than it really is. But Hapgood notes the reason for that distortion. The lines of longitude are farther apart at the equator and closer together the closer you get to the poles, but if you draw a map as if the lines of longitude are exactly the same distance apart everywhere, you end up with a huge Greenland. In fact, everything closer to the poles is going to be distorted and made a lot larger than it really is. (Note that every map involves some distortion, since you’re reproducing a rounded world on a flat surface.)

The implications of many of Hapgood’s claims, if they’re accurate, are fascinating. It appears that long, long before the Renaissance, there were mapmakers who were able to calculate longitude, who had traveled down the coast of South America (for instance) and had mapped the contours of those coasts, and who had even seen large portions of Antarctica without the ice caps. The last claim should then make you ask: How old are these maps? Don’t know. But it’s fun to think about.

* A. C. Harwood, The Recovery of Man in Childhood. Cecil Harwood was one of C. S. Lewis’s best friends. He was also committed to Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophism, which Lewis strongly rejected, and was one of the first teachers in a Waldorf school in England. So I don’t share the same philosophy, let alone theology. Nevertheless, Harwood’s book was extremely interesting and often made a lot of sense. Extremely thought-provoking.

* Jon Hassler, Staggerford. I enjoyed this novel a lot and will be reading more of Hassler’s in the future.

* Herge, King Ottokar’s Sceptre; Red Rackham‘s Treasure; The Seven Crystal Balls; Prisoners of the Sun; and Explorers on the Moon. 2009 was the year in which I reread the entire Tintin series, except for the earliest volumes which I was not able to obtain from the library. I loved them all, but the ones listed here especially stood out.

* Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train. Unputdownable. So intense that when a character sinned, I felt guilty.

* Peter Hopkirk, Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet. A couple of years back, I read Hopkirk’s Like Hidden Fire, which is the true story behind John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle. I enjoyed it a lot and wanted to read more Hopkirk. This one is the story of all the various explorers who tried to get into Tibet in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Tibet was off limits to outsiders.

* Mark Horne, Why Baptize Babies? An Explanation of the Theology and Practice of the Reformed Churches. Clear and helpful.

* Morag Joss, Half Broken Things. A well-written suspense novel. Like Ruth Rendell, Joss writes in a way that makes you sympathize with her characters, and all the more so as things start to go wrong. And they go very, very wrong here.

* Beth Kephart, Into the Tangle of Friendship: A Memoir of the Things That Matter. Good meditations about the meaning and implications of friendship, drawing on Kephart’s own life. Midway through the book, Kephart starts to talk about her former next door neighbor, a woman who was married to a Korean seminary student in Philadelphia and who eventually began to write. For a long time now, I’ve enjoyed the writing of Andree Seu in World magazine and I knew that she matched the description. Could it be? Well, I was right. That’s who Kephart’s neighbor was.

* Rudyard Kipling, The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Other Stories. There are only two reasons this collection of stories is in this list. One is that Kipling has an amazing ability to make it seem as if he’s telling you a true story, though I can’t easily explain how he does it. It has something to do with the narrative tone and something to do with the incidental details, all of which ring true. The other is that this collection includes “The Man Who Would Be King.”

* Marsena Konkle, A Dark Oval Stone. A good novel about the very small changes that bring healing after terrible hurt. Konkle is the daughter of Ransom Fellowship’s Denis and Margie Haack.

* Ursula LeGuin, Rocannon’s World. LeGuin does a masterful job of writing richly detailed stories about other worlds.

* Peter J. Leithart, Wise Words: Family Stories that Bring the Proverbs to Life. Truth be told, the connection to the Proverbs here often seems tenuous. But these are good fairy tales, each one involving many layers of meaning and inviting rereading. I read this to Theia.

* C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It has been a long time since I read this book as a child and I deeply enjoyed reading it to my daughter for the first time. I have to admit, though, that I was surprised when Mr. Beaver says that Jadis is the daughter of Adam and Lilith. That’s weird, but it was the only grating flaw in the book.

* C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. Another book I read first a long time ago. It was far better than I had remembered, full of deep, rich wisdom.

* W. H. Lewis, Levantine Adventurer: The Travels and Missions of the Chevalier, d’Arvieux, 1653-1697. This is the first book I’ve ever read by C. S. Lewis’s brother. I found it in the Medford library. My review is here.

* Rich Lusk, Paedofaith: A Primer on the Mystery of Infant Salvation and a Handbook for Covenant Parents. Thought-provoking, challenging to me as a parent, and well worth reading.

* Stephen Mansfield, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World. Someday, I’ll post a longer review of this book, which I received as part of Thomas Nelson’s Book Review Bloggers program (now renamed BookSneeze). I enjoyed the story Mansfield told and was charmed by his description of Guinness’s generosity toward its workers, but found myself wishing that there were a stronger and more obvious connection between that generosity and the founder’s Christian faith. I guess in general I wanted more from the book, but I did enjoy it.

* Nicole Mazzarella, This Heavy Silence. A slow-paced, thoughtful novel from a Christian writer.

* E. Nesbit, The Book of Dragons. I read this to Theia; it was a lot of fun.

* Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander. I had read this before, got part of the way through the series, and then, for some reason, failed to continue. So I went back and started over. Having read this novel before didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it at all.

* Jeffrey Overstreet, Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. I have long enjoyed Jeffrey Overstreet’s online reviews. Highly recommended to help you look closer at the movies and think better about them.

* Paul Park, A Princess of Roumania; The Tourmaline; The White Tyger; and The Hidden World. One long novel, divided into four volumes. I enjoyed it a lot, though I didn’t find the ending entirely satisfactory.

* Eugene H. Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. I have a like-dislike relationship with Peterson’s books. I don’t care for his approach to Scripture, which often seems to draw on higher criticism and what I consider liberal scholarship. But his insights into pastoral work are wonderful.

* Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Some very good things here, especially on the push toward “total work” (as opposed to leisure and worship), toward defining people in terms of their work, and on worship as a bulwark against “total work.”

* Nina Planck, Real Food: What to Eat and Why. Planck, who has established farmer’s markets in various cities, argues strongly (and sometimes scientifically) for the health benefits of … well, of the kind of diet your grandparents used to have. She contends that raw milk (and cream!), cheese, butter, and other dairy products are good for you; that it’s good to eat red meat as well as chicken (including the skin!) and certain types of fish; that eggs are good for you; that cholesterol scares aren’t worth getting frightened by; and more.

* Barbara Pym, Some Tame Gazelle. The first of Barbara Pym’s novels. It’s slow, quiet, and often funny, much like the village lives she describes.

* Paul Shepherd, More Like Not Running Away. An intense novel; I eagerly await the sequels that have been promised.

* Russell Smith, Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress. A very helpful guide. Often, I asked my wife about the things Smith says (“Is that really what looks good?”), only to have her confirm his opinions again and again.

* Robert Spencer, Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions about the World’s Fastest-Growing Faith. Very well documented. Joins many other helpful volumes written by Spencer.

* Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. A long time ago, when Theia asked what other books I had out in my office library, I used to tell her that I had many exciting books I could read to her someday. I’d name a few, but I often mentioned Treasure Island as an extremely exciting story. This past fall, I finally got to read it to her. I doubt she understood all the words, but she was certainly grabbed by the story.

One night, after I read the passage where Long John Silver falls on a good sailor and stabs him to death, I turned out the light and started to pray before bed … and Theia interrupted and said, “Pray that God would kill Long John Silver.” Do you pray for fictional characters? I did. I figure they are (as Doug Wilson said to me, when I talked to him about it some time later) “typological placeholders”: they stand in for real life people. So praying for the death of Long John Silver is praying for God to kill all such wicked people.

I prayed, and then Theia spoke up again: “Pray that God would kill his parrot, too.”

* Deborah Tannen, I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives. Very helpful. Tannen is not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor; rather, she’s a linguistics professor. Her work involves careful study of how people communicate, and that makes this book extremely helpful for counseling, as well as for understanding your own communication patterns.

* John Thorne, Outlaw Cook. Fun reading, even though I didn’t attempt any of the recipes. Thorne writes well, challenges those who are bound to recipes, and interacts with (and often argues with) other famous food writers. His chapter on Martha Stewart is well worth reading (see here).

* James Thurber, The 13 Clocks. Read to Theia; a lot of fun. See here.

* Megan Whalen Turner, The Thief. A fun fantasy novel, though I do wonder why Turner set it in a Greece that never was instead of simply creating her own fantasy world entirely. This is the first in a series, and I’ll keep reading.

* Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy and On the Banks of Plum Creek. Read to Theia. I especially enjoyed all the eating that takes place in Farmer Boy.

* Valerie Worth, All the Small Poems and Fourteen More and Peacock and Other Poems. Absolutely wonderful. Worth is now one of my favorite poets. What’s strange is that libraries put these books in the juvenile section, as if the fact that these are small poems must mean that they are (only) for small people.

* Jane Yolen, Raising Yoder’s Barn. Gorgeous. So often when I see lists of great children’s books, I’m disappointed. I go and look up those highly recommended books and find that they were published in the 1970s and the artwork strikes me as sloppy and unattractive. I’m glad that from, perhaps, the 1990s to today, more and more books are coming out with beautiful artwork that complements well-written stories. This is just one example, but now I wish I had written down more of the books I’ve been reading to my daughter.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:23 pm | Discuss (4)