Coyle’s Best of 2016

As with previous year’s recaps, these are the best books I read this year, not necessarily the best books I read that were published this year, or even the best books written this year in general. And as with previous years, the twin dragons of “work” and “family” have killed most of the time that I might otherwise have used to write extensive reviews. So apologies in advance for the brevity here. Also, I’ve not included re-reads, children’s books read to the kiddos, or most of the long list of terrible (mostly pre-Harry Potter) young adult novels I’ve plowed through the past two weeks so that I could meet my Goodreads challenge.

Devotional/Theological

Stop Asking Jesus into your Heart by J.D. Greear

Do you struggle with assurance? I do from time to time, which makes J.D. Greer’s excellent little book well worth the read. Even if you don’t, it’s worth the few dollars and couple of hours it takes to read. (Though, to be fair, a bit more time could have been spent with an editor—that’s not something I normally care about, but in this book the typos were common enough to be ridiculous, and occasionally even made whole sentences incomprehensible.)

Also, Greear was almost SBC President, for whatever that’s worth.

God so Loved, He Gave by Kelly Kapic

To be a Christian is to live a life of receiving gifts that we do not deserve. Most Christians will immediately assent to that statement, but most of us haven’t really thought through the implications of God’s grace in most of our lives. From our birth as human beings to our rebirth as believers in a community dedicated to loving God and serving each other, the grace of God defines and shapes all that we do. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough as a place to begin more deeply reflecting on how God’s giving pervades all things.

Building a Godly Home by William Gouge

There are no better expositors of Scripture than the Puritans. And yet, we have little from them on the practical aspects of family life. This set (in three volumes) presents an edition of the longest work on the family by a Puritan in updated language. These books are all excellent, but the first one is especially worthwhile. Volume 1 contains Gouge’s reflections on Ephesians 5-6 and the joyful responsibility families have to love and serve each other.

Books

Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times by Os Guinness

Despite/because of the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, Christians are increasingly wondering how they ought to live in a culture that is more and more hostile to our beliefs and lifestyle. Drawing loosely on the actual Renaissance, Os Guinness lays out a few principles that are worth keeping in mind as we think about our role as believers in an unbelieving society. Hint: the answer isn’t that we should run for President; it is that we should put our hope in heaven and strive to live faithful and wise lives on earth. Read this book along with Russell Moore’s Onward for even more reflection on the same subject (and if you’re really hardcore, add Augustine’s City of God into the mix).

Unleashed: Being Conformed to the Image of Christ by Eric Mason

As we’re rushing up on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’ve been seeing lots of books about justification. And that is an unmitigated good. And yet justification is only the beginning of the Christian life, which is why Eric Mason’s book on sanctification is so important and timely. Yes, we ought to cling to the Gospel by faith—that is the only way we are saved. But what does that clinging look like when it is stretched out over a lifetime? How do prayer, community, Scripture, and the other tools of the Christian life contribute to our war on sin and striving after holiness? To find out, take up and read this excellent book.

Good and Bad Ways of Thinking about Religion and Politics by Robert Benne

Related to Renaissance, but more specifically about politics, this book by Robert Benne is an excellent place to start thinking about, well, religion and politics. Benne walks us through the different approaches Christians have taken to interacting with government, and then highlights what he believes to be the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. While I happen to think that most of his conclusions are correct, even if you don’t you’ll find this to be a worthwhile reflection on how Christians ought to approach Babylon.

Non-fiction

To Kill a People: Genocide in the 20th Century by John Cox

It’s never terribly fun to read about the mass slaughter of millions of people, but it is important to do so nonetheless. In this short textbook (and yes, it is a textbook), John Cox has given us an excellent introduction to the idea of genocide and walked us through the circumstances that enabled four major genocides of the 20th century. He does not go into the mechanics of the events, which means that this book isn’t nearly as grim as it could have been given the subject matter. It is, however, well-written and worth the little time this short book takes to read.

Tweetable Nietzsche by C. Ivan Spencer

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Nietzsche is the most important philosopher of the modern world. I also don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that most lazy, functionally illiterate Americans aren’t going to be bothered to read Nietzsche’s mostly-short-and-generally-accessible works. Which is where C. Ivan Spencer has made such an important contribution. I’ll confess that when I first saw the title of this book (which, for what it’s worth, was provided for free by the publisher—I was not required to write a positive review of the book), my thought was that this has to be the most useless book ever given that Nietzsche books are already written in tweets. And yet, on cracking it open I was delighted to find a thorough, readable, and accurate exposition of Nietzsche’s thought that will be accessible even to newcomers to Nietzsche.

Frank by Barney Frank

I despise nearly every political position that Barney Frank has taken in his long political career. And yet, that doesn’t make Congressmen Frank a bad politician or someone unworthy of respect. In fact, I’ll go a bit beyond that—I happen to think Barney Frank was one of the best Representatives who has served in either party in the last three decades. If nothing else, it’s because of his love of (and adherence to) process. My only major hangup with the book is that I wish he had written a bit about Obergefell v. Hodges. Obviously the policy outcome was one that he supports, but given how much of the book was dedicated to arguing that we have to do things the right way first and foremost (rather than beings ends-oriented), his thoughts on that massive procedural abomination would have been worthwhile. Still, it’s an excellent book and worth reading if you’re at all interested in the leadership branch of American government.

Eureka Man by Alan Hirshfeld

Most people who have learned a bit of ancient history (which group is not “most people” overall—the number of people who have learned a bit of ancient history is actually pretty small) know Archimedes as the ancient world’s greatest engineer. What people may not know prior to picking up this book is that Archimedes was also one of the ancient world’s greatest theoretical mathematicians, on a level with even Euclid and inventing calculus nearly two millennia ahead of what’s-his-name. Don’t worry, you don’t have to know or do math in order to enjoy this short and easy-to-read biography.

Hollowing out the Middle by Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas

Before J.D. Vance gave us his excellent book Hillbilly Elegy (which should also probably be on this list) there was Hollowing out the Middle. In this book, two political scientists embed themselves in a rural Iowa community to study what is happing to the middle parts of the country. As with Vance’s book, the prognosis is not an encouraging one, but it is something that anyone who likes to eat the food that comes from our rural communities needs to be aware of.

Inside the Statehouse by Ralph Wright

And while we’re on the topic of what’s going on out in the sticks, you should also pick up a copy of Ralph Wright’s book Inside the Statehouse. A long-serving Speaker of the House of Vermont, Wright combines an explanation of how state politics works with an engaging personal narrative explaining how he got into government in the first place. Especially interesting is the story of how he managed to get elected as a Democratic Speaker of a Republican-majority House.

Fiction

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Of the pre-Harry Potter young adult books I read this year, this one is certainly the best. While there’s much in the book I didn’t appreciate/understand, that is undoubtedly because I am a dude living in the 21st century and not a chick living in, well, whatever Medieval century this is supposed to be set in (or the mid-90s, when it was written). Despite that chronological gender gap, this book was still interesting and readable.

Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack Chalker

Most attempts to combine science fiction and fantasy are as terrible as they are awkward. In this book, however, Chalker makes it work. The world the hero finds himself in blends together magic and science in a way that is just a delight to read. And I really can’t say more than that without either giving the plot away or scaring people off.

Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh

Apparently available new only as a set (I read a copy I picked up at a used bookstore), this interesting book introduces us to a grim world of honor and death that would be akin to Game of Thrones if it had more sex and violence and were written by the Beauty and the Beast guy. The characters and the cultures are interesting, and given that we are provided with functionally no background other than a brief introductory blurb here and there, it’s surprising how good this book ended up being.

The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia McKillip

Because apparently this is the year I discover many obscure-but-excellent science fiction and fantasy texts, The Book of Atrix Wolfe rounds out the list as what one reviewer called “the best piece of American high fantasy.” And while I’m not entirely sure what that means, I can at least agree that this book is excellent.

Honorable Mentions

These books are all good as well, but, you know, not the best of 2016.

Asser’s Life of King Alfred
The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It
by John Dean
Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln (Audiobook—his explanation of the conservative defense of abolition is excellent)
Unorthdox Lawmaking by Barbara Sinclair (not a thrilling read, but if you want to know what’s going on in the modern Congress…)
Goblins in the Castle by Bruce Coville

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.