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It’s not much of a secret I’m a bibliophile. I love books. I like to buy them (or check them out from the library), read them, and talk with others about them. Bookstore and libraries are Though reading Christian books has always been my norm, years ago I made a commitment to read more fiction. I’m so very glad I did. Not only is reading good in and of itself, but for me, it’s one of the few things that slows down my ever-racing mind.

It’s not too uncommon for folk to ask what I’m currently reading or what books have I finished lately that I liked and might recommend. So, as we find ourselves in a unique season of “social distancing” and possibly having a bit more time on our hands, I thought I might recommend a few 1 of my favorite novels for those who are looking for a book or two to read. In alphabetical order:

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A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. Years ago a Wheaton professor of English said this was his favorite book of all time, but I didn’t think anything of it. That was until one of my friends, who I hold in high esteem literary recommendations2, told me I must read Helprin’s novel. I did and regard it as one of the best modern novels I’ve ever read. It literally left me in tears at parts. I read Helprin’s work was blackballed from Pulitzer consideration because of his conservative political views. Whether true or not, I don’t know. I would say A Soldier of the Great War is easily Pulitzer material.

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Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. The same friend who told me to read Helprin also recommended Stegner’s work. Crossing to Safety is a moving novel about friendship that stays with you long after finishing the book. There’s a part of me that wished I read it with my close friends as a book club just so we could talk about what makes a real friendship. It’s an absolutely fantastic (and rather short) read I’ve cherished to this day.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and, reading it, it doesn’t take long to realize why. The language is sublime and so is Robinson’s treatment of the subject matter: John Ames, a Congregationalist minister, looks back on his life in Gilead, Iowa, and his struggles both outward and inward with life, family, and faith. Superb!

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Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. For years my mother chided me as a Texan who still hadn’t seen the TV miniseries. My excuse was that I wanted to read the book first. So, when one of my closest friends told me he was blown away reading Lonesome Dove, I knew it was time. The only thing I can say is, “Texas, I apologize for waiting so long to read ‘Lonesome Dove.’” McMurtry’s novel is a masterpiece and ode to friendship. It evokes deep feelings in me – of friends, of our ranch in the Texas Hill Country, and much more. In a Texas Monthly interview (July 2010) McMurtry said he wanted Lonesome Dove to demythologize the West but wound up increasing its legend all the more. Lonesome Dove is one of the best modern novels I’ve ever read. McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show are fantastic as well.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. My wife suggested I put this one in the list (and why it’s out of alphabetical order). She, a bibliophile in her own right, finished this book then proceeded to be in tears the rest of the day telling me how this was one of the most touching books she’d ever read. I was powerless to resist. Mirza, who published her book at the young age of 26, writes about a Muslim family whose children are finding their own way to being modern-day Americans while both embracing and distancing themselves from their faith of their immigrant parents. The story asks questions of love, identity, family, and faith. Think of this as the Muslim equivalent of the prodigal son. Upon reaching the end of the novel I realized why my wife was so upset. It brought me to tears as well. I won’t give it away but if you are a parent (no matter your faith), there’s no escaping the feelings Mirza expects for you to be engulfed in at the end of her beautiful book. 

My Best Books of 2019

December 22, 2019 — Leave a comment

As I reflect on 2019 and the close to 30 books I put away in it (I don’t remember if that’s a lot or a little, but a few of those reads were well over a thousand pages), here are my best books of the year:

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Best Christian Life BookLiturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. This book was recommended to me last year, and after reading a selection in it, I wanted to give it a whirl. I’m so glad I did. Warren’s aim is to help make our everyday actions a part of spiritual formation. She’s a winsome and gifted writer, and the book feels very devotional in nature. Warren’s sense of gospel-story infusing our day is alone worth giving it a read. While I might have some disagreements with Warren in non-essential areas of the faith, there is more than enough common ground to not only recommend Liturgy of the Ordinary but to do so enthusiastically!

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Best Biblical Studies/Theology Book (Classic)Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Vol. 2 by Herman Bavinck. Since Bavinck’s Vol. 1 was my best book of it’s kind in 2018, I couldn’t see his Vol. 2 not taking 2019’s top spot. I wrote a year ago about Vol. 1 that Reformed Dogmatics has a “gravity, precision, and brilliance about it that is unparalleled in my experience.” Vol. 2 is no different. Bavinck’s theological presentation of God and Creation was food for my soul. It was intellectually stimulating – a theology for thinkers – not one that easily succumbs to cheap parlor tricks of proof texting idea or using paper-thin logic for support. It is the work of people like Bavinck that can rescue disillusioned Christians from the stunted and shallow perspectives that pass for current evangelical thought. Bavinck not only holds his own in theology proper but does so in light of the theologians throughout the ages – a truly catholic work if you will. Though challenging to read, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, shows the kind of erudition the church needs more, not less of.

Best novels in 2019:

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Best Fiction (Classic) – 1984 by George Orwell. This is one of those books I never read when I was in junior high or high school. I’m glad I didn’t. It’s not because it wasn’t a classic. It’s because it was. I’m increasingly coming to the conviction that the great works of literature are wasted on youth who can’t appreciate them because they’re either forced to read them or aren’t old enough to appreciate them. At least that was true for me. With that said, 1984 was a terrifying, harrowing experience. Orwell feels less author and more prophet. He is prescient in his writing as it deals with a totalitarian state where the thought police…and word police…and philosophy police as Big Brother rule the day. Ironically, in the 80’s and 90’s people thought 1984 described a world ruled by the far right. Today, it could be argued that the novel is a picture of the far left gone awry – of political correctness as idolatry. Orwell’s is the best kind of fiction. Like Albert Camus once said, “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” and 1984 tells the truth in an unforgettable way.

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Best Fiction (Modern) – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. This was a book I couldn’t put down: exquisite writing, engrossing storyline, and captivating characters. Tartt’s tale, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is of a boy who loses his mother and tries to find himself while losing himself in the world he been thrown into (literally). It’s part cultural critique, part Bildungsroman…and all epic but reads much quicker than its 775 pages. The amount of detail in this book must have kept Tarrt busy doing research for months if not years. Maybe that’s why she writes one book a decade. The result, at least in the case of The Goldfinch, was definitely worth it. Easily my favorite modern read of 2019.

Runner Up: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Best Fiction (Debut Novelist) Presidio: A Novel by Randy Kennedy. As I person who grew up in West Texas during the 70’s and 80’s, I knew I’d be almost powerless from keeping a book with the same setting out of my reading stack. I’m sure glad I didn’t. The biggest strength of Kennedy’s debut novel is his power to hit all the right notes in describing life on the Llano Estacado. His noir style has some similarities with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. For a first novel, I think Presidio is a wonder. It has well-paced writing, an engaging story, and tension in the all the right places. I’ll let the readers be the judge as to whether the ending is a fitting conclusion to the story line.

Runner Up: Into the Distance by Hernan Diaz

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Best Nonfiction Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott. This is a book I’d seen several of my pastor friends enjoy. After reading it myself I now see why. Lamott, the child of hippies in San Francisco, illustrates the principle of the apple not falling far from the tree. She’s an irascible, dyed-in-the-wool liberal who has converted to Christianity. Her writing is funny, quirky, and unflinchingly honest. Her autobiographical stories are messy because she’s messy. Her life is messy, her decision-making is messy, her theology is messy, etc. Now, you can either let that trouble you or inspire you. If you have a good working knowledge of the gospel, I hope you choose the latter instead of the former. Traveling Mercies left me grateful for a Jesus who has by his grace also included me, another messy person, in the kingdom of God.

Best Book I Still Need to Think About 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. This epic 900-plus page book and National Book Critics Circle Award Winner has been regarded as a modern masterpiece. It’s a border story that’s no mere border story. It felt a bit like reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the plot isn’t clearly demarcated, but that’s okay, it’s the journey that one is to remember. I finished 2666 feeling all kinds of things and not too sure exactly what they were. It’s the kind of book you’re sure you’re not going to like and then, after finishing it, it sticks with you in a way you can’t put your finger on it. I’m still not too sure what to say about 2666. But I won’t be surprised if I wind up coming back to it one way or another.

On Friday I received a text from one of my closest buddies informing me that Stacy, one of my college friends, had committed suicide. I was immediately overcome with emotion – a whole bucket full of sobbing, cursing, shouting, and stunned silence to boot. Frankly, there were brief moments where I was inconsolable. Something was breaking in me. Indeed, the depth of anguish and sorrow was so profound that there were times I even wondered where it was coming from. But here are my thoughts.

Stacy and me circa 1990

I’ve said many times that the greatest gift I ever received from Baylor were the friendships formed over those four years in Waco. For me, that brief chapter in life was almost magical. It seemed the bonds of friendship were formed quickly our first semester as freshmen. This gaggle of kids who were trying to figure out who they were and who they wanted to be immediately connected; we ate lunches together, took road trips, opened God’s Word and prayed for each other, danced with each other at various formals and local honky-tonks, always stopped to talk if we saw another of us walking around campus, and even a few shared brief romances that we reflect upon with more fondness than embarrassment. We laughed a lot, spoke of spiritual things, and offered our shoulder for those who needed to shed a tear or two.

Stacy was firmly fixed within the constellation of those friendships, almost as a sister we wanted to protect. Our sophomore year she even moved to the apartment complex that we guys had chosen so she could be with us. Maybe she felt we would protect her as well. Truth is we would have done anything for Stacy. Everyone loved her because she embodied the best of what those friendships looked like – a godly woman, a godly friend. She just joined in with everyone else as we learned how those kinds of friendships could be formed.

To look back on those times is to be awash with a little nostalgia and quite a bit of melancholy where one hearkens for the “good ole days” when life was simple, beautiful, and innocent. Sure, it might’ve been a little on the naïve side – it is college – but those relationships were sincere, hopeful, spiritual, and powerful enough to leave an impression on me for what defines real, godly friendships. In fact, it’s almost darn near ruined me ever since.

So it’s possible that in my mind’s eye I want to keep those years at school and the people I loved in them untouchable. I felt like in those friendships I was given a masterpiece painting, something priceless and rare, a possession many would want but few would ever find. It was so meaningful I have hung it high above on the mantle of my heart where it would serve to inspire me and drive me to better friendships in life. In way, Stacy represented not only a dear friend but the grace of best kind of friendships.

So when I got word that she committed suicide it felt as if someone or something drew a big black mark across the canvas. The beautiful and good was disfigured and marred. It was a tragic way to be reminded that the brokenness of sin sinks its claws into everything. And that you don’t get to keep anything for yourself that isn’t protected from its reach. The darkness not only assaults your present but can assail your past. Thus, Stacy’s death felt tragic to me…and in me. Something was stolen from me, and it’s not coming back this side of Jesus’ return. That’s my best guess on why I feel this so deeply.

And that won’t change any time soon because this does strike me in my core. The pillars have shaken and there may be a few cracks within. For all the goodness and grace in which those friendships shaped, taught, and blessed me over the years, it only makes sense that when we lose one of us we also lose a little bit of ourselves. That just might be what this is: a losing of Stacy and a little bit of me.

I love you Stacy. Kyrie Eleison.