My goal is to read 40 books a year in addition to journals, articles, and commentaries. Here is my 5-star rating for the books I read in 2019. Other than giving a ranking, the books are not listed in any further order. Mostly, within the categories they’re listed in the order that I finished them. Click on the title to find it online. At the end of this post, you can find a list of “Books Read” posts for previous years.

Five Stars

Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis. I read this in college and decided to revisit it.

The Green Mile, by Stephen King

A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

Descent, by Tim Johnston. I enjoy this guy’s writing.

A Pocketful of Rye, by AJ Cronin

Cool Hand Luke, by Donn Pearce. Even better than the film. A lot more detail about “Cool Hand’s” PTSD from crimes committed during WW2, and his loathing of his preacher father–and thus his loathing of the Heavenly Father–comes out much more sharply in the book.

The Testament, by John Grisham. I read this years ago and wanted to return to it. One of Grisham’s best, in my opinion.

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, by Daniel Taylor. Very entertaining first book in a series on a most unusual private detective. The relationship between the main character and his mentally-challenged sister is sweet, too. The imprint that printed this book, Slant Books, is doing some good work.

The Theology of the Book of Revelation, by Richard Bauckham. A good preparation for my sermon series through Revelation.

The Current, by Tim Johnston. I bought this after reading Johnston’s Descent

The Battle for Middle-Earth, by Fleming Rutledge. Rutledge saw the same thing I saw by my second time through The Lord of the Rings years ago: “I became consciously aware that there was an extraordinarily sophisticated and subtle balance being struck between human autonomy and the divine purpose.” Excellent book for Rings fans.

Reversed Thunder, by Eugene Peterson. Good prep for my sermon series through Revelation.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova. I had an idea for a novel where the plot depends on a woman slipping into dementia. So, I remembered the movie Still Alice and found the book it was based on.I liked the movie, but, as usual, I liked the book even more. (I don’t know if I’ll follow through with my novel idea, though.)

The Letters of Our Lord, by G. Campbell Morgan. Good prep for my sermon series on Revelation.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, by Mary Oliver. Upon news of the celebrated poet’s death, I decided to buy this book. So many good entries here.

Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life, by Scott M. Marshall. Dylan converted to Christ in 1979 or thereabouts, in my college freshman year. This book took me back. Marshall argues that Dylan hasn’t left behind those convictions, and he has a point.

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger. A different subject than Krueger normally covers. I liked it.

Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, by Richard Baucham. Oxford Press has a book series called A Very Short Introduction on a wide range of subjects. I was pleased to see they enlisted Richard Bauckham to write on Jesus for the series. At only 114 pages, it’s truly a very short introduction to the best of Bauckham’s New Testament scholarship.

Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully Engaged Members of Your Church, by Nelson Searcy. We’re hoping to improve our follow-up with first-time guests at my church in 2020, and this should help.

Lisa: Born to Inspire, by Betty Ann Goodman-Curvin. My aunt wrote a sweet book about her daughter.

Four Stars

Leonardo Da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. Fascinating overall; disappointing in places. Isaacson’s negative comparisons with Michelangelo, Da Vinci’s contemporary, makes me want to study more on Michelangelo.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

God Save Texas, by Lawrence Wright. Entertaining. I’d say it falls in that collection of books and movies that presents a Texas that the New York Times wishes was true, but still entertaining.

Doing Time in the Depression, by Ethan Blue. Good historical work here.

The Paragon Hotel, by Lyndsay Faye. Set in the 1920s and 1930s. Sparkling prose, but the surprise revelation about one of the main characters faithfully serves the current cultural agenda. I give the audio narration by January Lavoie five stars.

Infamous, by Ace Adkins. Based on Machine Gun Kelly and his scheming wife.

The Elusive Eden: Frank McMullan’s Confederate Colony in Brazil, by William Clark Griggs. I had an idea for a novel about Southerners who fled to Brazil after the Civil War. I don’t know if I’ll follow through on the novel, but Griggs’ work of history was engaging.

Long Way Gone, by Charles Martin. Martin is a popular author of Christian fiction. Like his other novels, some of the plot routes stretch credulity at times. But, like his other novels, he does a good job with character development and story arc.

Imagine Heaven, by John Burke. Intriguing study on a subject that about 300 churches in our city will cover for 4 weeks after Easter. I recommend the book but not the audio version. The reader used a lot of voices to distinguish the quotes: high effeminate voices for women, cultured affectations for the scholars, an ethereal voice for heavenly beings, and an attempted Indian accent for Indian speakers. Ill-advised. So, so ill-advised.

The Great Good Thing, by Andrew Klavan. The story of the horror writer’s conversion to Christ.

One More River to Cross, by Jane Kirkpatrick. A story based on an historical event. Entertaining.

Three Stars

The Reckoning, by John Grisham.

Depression Desperado, by Sid Underwood. A historical account of one of Clyde Barrow’s accomplices.

Presidio, by Randy Kennedy. Entertaining enough story, but I give the narration on the audiobook two stars, and I’m sure that impacted my ranking of the novel itself.

Recent Changes in the Vernacular: Poems, by Tony Hoagland

Between the Cross and the Throne: The Book of Revelation, by Matthew Emerson. Good prep for my sermon series through Revelation.

Didn’t Finish

Sugar Land by Tammy Lynn Stoner

Lists from Previous Years

(The links for Books Read 2013-2018 will take you to pages on this blog. You can access the “Books Read” lists from 2009-2012, but the links on those page take you to a blog I no longer update.)

Books Read 2009

Books Read 2010

Books Read 2011

Books Read 2012

Books Read 2013

Books Read 2014

Books Read 2015

Books Read 2016

Books Read 2017

Books Read 2018

In 1992, Rich Mullins explained his secret formula for finding happiness

1. Forget about finding happiness. Happiness is not worthy of your search.

2. Bake a cake—a really rich cake, preferably from scratch (and especially if you are an inexperienced baker or a tested, tried & notoriously awful cook). The value is in the baking more than in the cake.

3. Call up some enemy of yours and invite that enemy to eat the cake with you. If the cake is good you may lose an enemy and gain a friend. If the cake is bad, at least vengeance is sweet.

4. If you can’t think of a single enemy, then call up a friend. Invite your friend over to eat the cake with you. If the cake is good the favor may be returned. If the cake is awful your friend may go buy one from a bakery for you. If you are without any enemies or friends, take your cake to an old folks’ home. Eat it with them! If the cake is good you will no longer be without friends. If the cake is terrible you will no longer be without enemies.

5. Memorize Isaiah 40 or the first Psalm or Psalm 91. Read the closing chapters of the Book of Job. Meditate on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). Write out one of the Prison Epistles (Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians) and send them to some other unhappy person. All of this may not make you happy but it will tell you how to be holy. Once you tie that knot you may find yourself in a position to be made happy.

6. Work hard. Clean something. Find new and more space-efficient ways of folding your clothes. Rake someone else’s yard for them. If you are unhappy maybe you can help someone else be less so.

7. Go back to the 3rd chapter of Lamentations and then repeat after me:

“It is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man to bear
the yoke while he is young.
Let him sit alone in silence
for the Lord has laid it on him.”

8. Reread the 23rd Psalm and remember that if the Lord is your shepherd, then you are in a lush pasture. You are by a still stream. If it seems otherwise to you, it may be because you would rather be happy than be God’s. If this is so, then you have more reason to be happy than anyone. God has chosen you—ungrateful, decadent you—and being His is a joy and a happiness that goes beyond anything else you may seek, and in your folly settle for. God will (in His mercy) make you discontent with anything less than Him. So, we have only one step left…

9. Rejoice!

My goal is to read 40 books a year in addition to journals, articles, and commentaries. Here is my 5-star rating for the books I read in 2018. Other than giving a ranking, the books are not listed in any further order. Mostly, within the categories they’re listed in the order that I finished them. Click on the title to find it online. At the end of this post, you can find a list of “Books Read” posts for previous years.

Five Stars

The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. Excerpt here.

The Lord of the Rings. Sixth time thru. (Excerpt from the appendix here.)

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. This has been turned into a TV mini-series which I didn’t think was very good at all. Don’t let the poor TV adaptation make you bypass the book. It’s a fascinating look at what led to 9/11.

The Monk of Mokha, by Dave Eggers. Entertaining read about a young man attempting to restore the coffee trade in war-torn Yemen, where coffee as a beverage began. As well as a good story, it gave me a much better appreciation of all the hands my coffee beans have to pass through before making it into my grinder.

Abide with Me, by Elizabeth Strout. Excerpt here. Good review at WaPo here.

Fathered by God, by John Eldredge. Wonderful reminder about what the fatherhood of God means.

Ten Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard

Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx. Fine writing here.

He Held Radical Light, poems by Christian Wiman

The Coming Storm, by Michael Lewis. Available only as an audiobook from Audible. It’s about the people who make weather forecasts accessible to everyone–and how commercial interests and neglect by politicians endangers this access.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder? by Christopher R. Beha. Excerpt here. I asked Karen Swallow Prior and her Twitter followers to recommend books that have a Christian conversion as a main character development. The list included Sophie Wilder as well as the next two titles below. (Two other titles were recommended, but I’ll have to read Moll Flanders and The Robe in 2019.)

Leave Her to Heaven, by Ben Ames Williams. Written in the early 1940s, a study of jealousy and its consequences. Irrelevant observation on my part, being a new fly fisherman: Given that the characters pull up a lot of trout in the outdoor scenes in this book, the author must not have known about fly fishing or there must have been many more trout in upstate New York waters in the 1930s and 40s.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

From a Limestone Ledge by John Graves. Entertaining essays on life in the rural Texas Hill Country.

Goodbye to a River by John Graves. Observations from a solo canoe trip Graves took in the 1960s on the upper Brazos before all the dams were built. The book is regarded as Graves’s legacy, and though it’s definitely worth a read, I liked From a Limestone Ledge better,

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. I started Morris’s trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt a decade ago. Finally got around to finishing the third book in the series.

Four Stars

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. An interesting premise: Gods from various mythologies trying to make a life in the twenty-first century United States.

The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath

The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, by Kay Ryan

Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances FitzGerald. This is a pretty good review of evangelicalism, though it’s limited to white political involvement in America. White, political, and American is way too narrow to sufficiently understand the evangelical tribe of Christianity.

Forty Lashes Less One, by Elmore Leonard

Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, The Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde, by John Bossenecker

A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. You should really get in the audio format so you can hear the recordings of the actual sermons instead of just reading a transcript. I was intrigued by all the sermons, though disappointed with his most confessional sermon, “Unfulfilled Dreams.” He hinted at moral regrets but knew that God would judge his heart was in the right place. This is simply not the gospel. However, his prophetic calls for the nation to deal with racism is stirring, and his criticism of the futility of the nation’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War proved prescient.

The Meanest Man in Texas, by Don Umphrey. The true story of Clyde Thompson of Eastland, Texas, a murderer whom everyone had regarded as unredeemable. A Bible–and the Savior–turned him around. This is an old book, and someone should update the story.

Three Stars

Nine Horses: Poems, by Billy Collins

Twelve Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. I wanted to know what was generating such interest in Peterson. The book was an interesting enough read, with mostly obvious advice (though I guess that’s an indictment on contemporary culture that obvious advice seems so fresh to many). I thought his Jungian take on Christianity was silly.

Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin

Civilwarland in Bad Decline, by George Saunders. I loved Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo, so I checked this collection of his earliest short stories. I should give this Four Stars, but I didn’t like the last story, and the longest, so here it sits on the Three Stars list.

Oil Field Fury, by Boyce House. Life for a newspaper editor in Eastland County in the early 1900s.

Chaos and Grace by Mark Galli

Two Stars

The Second Coming, by Walter Percy

The End of Our Exploring, by Matthew Lee Anderson

The Lynching of the Santa Claus Bank Robber, Tui Snider and H.E. Cameron.


Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford. Maybe the audiobook narrator made the male characters too effeminate.

Lists from Previous Years

(The links for Books Read 2013-2017 will take you to pages on this blog. You can access the “Books Read” lists from 2009-2012, but the links on those page take you to a blog I no longer update.)

Books Read 2009

Books Read 2010

Books Read 2011

Books Read 2012

Books Read 2013

Books Read 2014

Books Read 2015

Books Read 2016

Books Read 2017

“It’s like Graham Greene or something. I mean, who converts anymore? Unless they’re converting away.”

This is what the publicist says in hopes of putting the best spin on the oddity of Sophie Wilder, the critically acclaimed young writer, converting to Christianity, in Christopher Beha’s novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder?

It’s intriguing to see a recent novel take conversion seriously, like Graham Greene or something. Here is the description of Sophie’s turn to God:

It is in the nature of what happened next that it can’t be conveyed in words. The few times Sophie tried to explain it later, even to herself, she fell back on cliche: something came over her; she walked out changed. It got closest to it to say that she was, for a time, occupied. After all her reading in the week leading up to that day, she thought of that occupying force as the Holy Spirit. But mostly she knew that it was something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor. Once it passed on, she knew that her very outline had been reshaped by it, that this reshaping had been long awaited though she hadn’t recognized as much. More than that, she knew that she wanted the feeling back. She would chase it forever if need be. Everything later followed from that. That was the part she couldn’t explain to others. It couldn’t be explained. It didn’t come from books; it didn’t allow itself to be argued for or against. 

The author does have a passing moment on one page where he refers to Sophie not knowing that such a sensation was quite independent of any particular religion. That’s the only interruption of the flow; the author’s bias otherwise seems to stay off the stage and Sophie is allowed to be a real character who processes her conversion to (Catholic) Christianity intellectually and emotionally. 

There are plenty of observations throughout the book on how the Christian message is regarded in our day, such as this one:

“It’s funny,” he said. “After all this time, people still can’t do without God. I never would have guessed that He’d survive to your generation. Even the atheists are militant. They can’t quite get over Him.”

“Most of my friends don’t think one way or another about it,” Sophie told him. “They’re not for it or against it; they’re just beyond it.”

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe. The starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

“You’ve got a real way with words,” she said.

“That’s Kant….”

The book was recommended when I posted on social media a request for recommendations of books, preferably recent books, that included a Christian conversion of one of the characters as part of the plot.

People regard David as the ideal king. Thus they easily forget the tumult he faced in securing the throne, uniting the tribes, and subduing the surrounding forces. Many of his prayers recorded in the Bible deal with his enemies (internal and external).

Lifeway’s Biblical Illustrator magazine asked me to write an article about all the enemies David had to deal with–enemies he often prayed against in the Psalms. You can find it here:

(Click the little box with an arrow and you’ll get a large enough image to read the print)