You’ve probably noticed that the Schaeffer’s Ghost folks have gotten busy over the past twelve months. (I blame the overlord, Paul Miller.) But just because we haven’t had time to write many reviews doesn’t mean we haven’t had time to read. So once again here are the best books I have read in the past year.
Disclaimer 1: As with 2014’s list, these are the best books I’ve read in 2015—not the best that were published in the last year. Except, of course, for those books that were.
Disclaimer 3: My list is somewhat nonfiction-heavy, and for that I apologize. Again, this isn’t so much because I’ve not been reading fiction; rather my time has been so taken up with work and family that I haven’t had time to read much new fiction and instead have focused on the familiar books that I know I like and can read quickly and for pleasure. So as per Disclaimer 2, most of that won’t make the cut—however good Lord of the Rings may be.
The best of 2015:
The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop, by Edmund Morgan
Unless you are a scholar in the field, you’ve likely never heard of Morgan’s excellent little biography of John Winthrop. This is undoubtedly the result of the slow collapse of the American educational system, given how truly excellent a read this is. In this context, ‘excellent’ does not mean ‘useful in a scholarly sense’ (though it is that) or ‘useful in a classroom’ (though that is also true, according to my colleague who teaches Colonial History). Rather, when I say this book is excellent, I simply mean that this book is a well-written and fun read. If you’ve got a high schooler or college freshman who just doesn’t like history, this would be a great book to give them. I mean, assuming they’re literate—see the above comment about the American educational system.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story, by John Berendt
What happens when a certified Yankee (a New Yorker, no less!) goes to the deepest of the Deep South on vacation and ends up investigating a homicide? The reader comes to love a place he’s never been, that’s what. Which is not to say I want to live in Savannah—it’s still far enough South that it’s way too hot in the summer (give me nine months of winter over a humid summer any day). Seriously, Berendt is a fantastic writer. Don’t judge this book by the rambling film version, which is just a flop despite having an excellent cast and director.
Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God, by Gerald Bray
There are lots of books written about Augustine, some of which are definitely good and some of which were written by people who are clearly over him. This, I suspect, will end up being ranked as one of the best. Bray manages to cover Augustine’s life and thought, as well as the challenges we moderns face in reading him, all in a short and engaging book. Bray takes us into Augustine’s devotional life without sacrificing clarity or glossing over the mistakes in his theology. I can’t speak to the other books Tony Reinke read this year, but I’m not at all surprised to see Augustine on the Christian Life make his “Top 15” list.
Games Without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan, by Tamim Ansary
Covering the last three hundred years of Afghan history, Tamim Ansary (an Afghan-American himself) introduces us to Afghanistan’s occasional lurches towards modernization—lurches interspersed with anti-Western reactions and foreign invasions. Given our involvement in that nation for the last decade and a half, every American ought to read this book before forming an opinion about what our continued presence there ought to look like. I highly recommend the audio version, given that Ansary is a skilled narrator.
The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas RicksWhy is it that we haven’t clearly and indisputably had another Eisenhower, Marshall, or Pershing? Why have all our wars (so far) at best been ties, if not actual losses? In part, this is because we have shifted the way we do generalship. In this readable survey, Ricks introduces the major generals (heh heh) from the last seventy years and how the military’s view of what makes a good general has shifted over time.
How to Run a Country, by Cicero, trans. Phillip Freeman
Collecting some of the orator’s greatest hits, this short volume (just under 40 pages, if we don’t count the Latin text that makes up the second half of the book) gives us a delightful survey of Cicero’s style and public concerns.
To give you a taste:
As for those politicians who pretend they are friends of the common people and try to pass laws redistributing property and drive people out of their homes or champion legislation forgiving loans, I say they are undermining the very foundations of our state. They are destroying social harmony, which cannot exist when you take away money from some to give it to others.
For years, we have watched in silence while all the wealth of the world is gathered into the hands of a few men. Our willingness to let this happen is all the more evident because none of these men even bothers to pretend he is not doing wrong or tries to conceal his greed. (pg 42-43)
Given that we’re all pretty unlikely to take up and read any of Cicero’s longer works, this is an excellent place to go to get a taste of his overall thought and writings.
Justification by an Imputed Righteousness, by John Bunyan
Every Christian ought to read something by Bunyan every year. Of course, if you’ve not read Pilgrim’s Progress, you should definitely start there. But if you have already read that best-known classic, this short(ish) sermon is a worthy place to go next for a simple and profound exposition on the core of what Jesus did for us on the cross. As with any Puritan, Bunyan pulls no punches as he lays open our sinful attempts at self-justification and encourages us to embrace instead the righteousness of Christ and the way that righteousness has been counted as ours.
Impact, by Douglas Preston
When I started reading this book, I didn’t realize it was part of a series (that’s one of the perils of downloading books from the library). Fortunately, this works well as a stand-alone book with a solid plot, interesting characters, and a fascinating world. Part mystery, part science fiction (though the science fiction is mostly relegated to the fringes of the story), Impact is a worthy addition to your list of beach reads for 2016.
Amish Vampires in Space, by Kerry Nietz
Need I explain why a book sporting the title Amish Vampires In Space should, nay, must be read? What started as a joke title (and eventually spawned its own publishing imprint), evolved into a good story that is neither dismissive of the Amish nor glosses over the vampire mythology. And does this book really need any defense beyond its title? I do suggest the Kindle version: the book is excellent, but it’s $5 excellent—not $17 excellent.
The Hard SF Renaissance, edited by David Hartwell and Katheryn Cramer
Despite the title, this isn’t really a math book in disguise. In fact, it is a collection of excellent science fiction stories of the “hard” variety—though exactly what that means can be somewhat fluid. At times “hard science fiction” can mean that absolutely every claim is backed up with math and scientific reasoning, to the point where the “fiction” aspect of the book disappears and we’re left with a speculative thesis about how the future might look (often one that’s immensely wrong). Fortunately, none of the stories in this collection go in that direction. Most are gripping and had me looking for more works by the same authors. Especially excellent are “Into the Miranda Rift” and “Different Kinds of Darkness.”
There were a few books I read that deserve mention, but didn’t quite make the “ten best” list.
Commentary on Lamentations, by John Calvin
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
Summer for the Gods, by Edward Larson
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Dr. Coyle Neal is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.