My Top Ten Reads of 2017

This year’s top ten comes to you from a deeper data set than the previous two years. Though writing still occupied much of my time this year, I still managed to read my way through twenty tomes. The ten (plus one) below are the ones I enjoyed the most. With the exception of the plus one, below are my reviews of them in the order that I read them.

Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller.
Timothy Keller has been preaching for the better part of the past 40 years plus and this book clearly demonstrates the passion of his faith and the wisdom of his age. In the introduction of the book, Keller identifies three levels of ministering the Word: informal one-on-one conversations (Level 1), counseling and teaching individuals and small groups (Level 2), and pulpit ministry (Level 3). Though he aims this work primarily at those involved in Level 2 and Level 3 Word ministry, I can think of no Christian communicators who would not benefit from the insights in this excellent work.

He sets the foundation of the work well on the only foundation that can hold the true weight of Word ministry: the accomplished work of Christ. Keller recounts reviewing two sermons from Mark 5 on Jesus’s healing of the demoniac. The first one pointed to Jesus as the demoniac’s deliverer and invited the hearers to bring their problems to Jesus for resolution. The second one more faithfully presented the Gospel for it gave the reason why Jesus could free the naked, bound, banished, and tortured man. He was able to do so because He would take the man’s place. He would be bound, stripped naked, tortured, and banished before God in our place. This is just one of many illustrations through which Keller brings home not only the absolute necessity of the message being centered on Christ, but also how to bring it home.

Subsequent sections and chapters deal with how we communicate Christ to our culture, to the late modern mind, and to the heart of the listeners so that the sword of the Spirit finds its mark and exposes all to their need for Jesus. In short, this book is a treasure trove and a great encouragement to all who are intent on sharing the Gospel effectively.

Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America by James E. Mitchell, PhD., with Bill Harlow.
It seems that no film or TV show involving spies, terrorists, torture, or behavioral modification has been without a “waterboarding” scene or an allusion to the practice. James Mitchell is a bona fide expert in the field and everything you have seen is fiction. This book is educational, enlightening, and heartbreaking.

Politicians have warped the realities of war since before Athens was a city-state. After the CIA black sites and enhanced interrogations had kept us safe for almost a decade after 9/11, they lined up to paint a necessity of war (gaining actionable intelligence) as an atrocity on mankind and a stain on America’s moral fabric. But their labeling of the techniques that were approved by the Justice Department and used in the enhanced interrogation program as torture is like school administrators calling a sixth-grader’s fumbled kiss rape.

This book is a must read for those who want a “behind the walling wall” view of how Osama bin Laden and many of his lieutenants were found, apprehended, and brought to justice.

The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins by Robert B. Baer.
I dabble in the fiction of what Robert Baer lived. A recipient of the Career Intelligence Medal, Baer brings his uniquely qualified observations on what makes for truly effective assassination operations. His 21 laws are the chapter titles in the book and could be a viral-worthy Pinterest post in their own right. (A couple of my favorites are Law #1: The Bastard Has to Deserve It and Law #19: Always Have an Encore in Your Pocket.)

Although it is a mix of memoir and political science musings, it comes off like a first-person, hard-boiled detective novel except the detective is a self-deprecating operative with a deep philosophical bent. Baer’s proverbial similes add plenty of spice to the text, some even sending me to my reference tools. If one wants to know what the morass of the Middle East looks like from the ground level of the CIA, this book is for you.

I purchased this book at Barnes & Noble along with Enhanced Interrogation as research material for my next Gypsy Spy novel (see Law #19 above). When I handed the cashier my educator’s discount card, he asked me, “With these books, should I be worried about what school you are teaching in?” Deadpan, I replied, “Homeschooler.” My comment didn’t seem to ease his concerns at all.

The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost—from Ancient Greece to Iraq by Victor Davis Hanson.
Themistocles, Belisarius, Sherman, Ridgway, and Petraeus viewed through Hansen’s keen historical eye and explained in his always masterful use of ink. It is a thrilling ride through history showing the common principles of what it takes to lead others out of hopelessness when the opposition is intent on your defeat and your life and culture hang in the balance. The author carves a story arc from sea battles in ancient Greece to the modern counterinsurgency in Iraq and skillfully demonstrates that the character and skills required to save a lost cause have not changed in millennia. An informative, engaging, enlightening, and entertaining read. Hansen does not disappoint.

Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.
Be sure to read this one cover to cover as even the end notes have gems in them. Though some of the subject matter covered was familiar to me (SMART goals, Lean thinking, team dynamics), Duhigg offers history on the genesis of these standard productivity tools as well as a host of new insights. His skill in weaving them together through the stories of people and organizations that have been improved through their implementation is on full display and highly enjoyable. Not to be missed is the Appendix where the author shares his own application of this productivity tool box to the writing process. If you liked The Power of Habit, you will not be disappointed by this book.

America’s Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worlwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies by George Friedman.
Friedman is the founder of Stratfor, arguably one of the most authoritative geopolitical intelligence platforms in the private sector. Borrowed from a friend’s bookcase in June of 2017, I found myself wishing I had known about it when it was published back in 2004 as I read it. Considering that in the year of its publication it was a near-event reflection on 9/11 and a fair piece of highly educated prognostication on how the War on Terror might progress, it proves the measure of prestige that Stratfor and Friedman hold in intelligence circles. Page 339 from the conclusion is highly insightful. “The weakness of the U.S. is not our soldiers, nor their numbers, but the vast distance that separates American leaders from those who fight … To them, the soldiers are alien, people they have never met and don’t understand. When the children of leaders stay home, the leaders think about war in unfortunate ways.” And this: “Either the U.S. will withdraw [we did] from the Islamic world, creating a vacuum to be filled by the Caliphate [which ISIS did], or Al Qaeda will be crushed and the spirit that gave rise to it will be defeated [it has not been].”

Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend by Ravi Zacharias, Author and General Editor.
Ravi Zacharias is a treasure and his team brings a wealth of apologetic experience to the page. This book, written for popular consumption (as opposed to an academic audience), centers on the relational-reality model of apologetics. As Zacharias writes, “All reality is ultimately defined by the Holy Trinity, God who is a Being in relationship.” It is this insight and approach that I most appreciated in this work. Having read many apologetic books, mostly from the scientific or philosophical perspectives, this work from multiple authors and disciplines was very enlightening and encouraging. If you are a Christian seeking to grow in your presentation skills of the Gospel or a person curious about the claims of Christianity and its relevance to the modern world, I highly recommend this book.

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg.
I have a genius older brother who commented when I told him about reading this book, “Doudna is brilliant. She and her lab are involved in Nobel Prize worthy work.” I can think of no higher accolade than that. Though authored by two scientists on the forefront of CRISPR technology, it is told primarily through Doudna’s perspective. A Crack in Creation is the scariest book I have read since Regenesis by George Church. Unlike Church, whose hubris and trans-human intentions are on full display in Regenesis, Doudna’s humble and wise humanity shines through her prose.

Church observed that the 1990s were still the Stone Age of genetic engineering and that the state of the art had moved into the Industrial Age when he wrote his book published in 2012. Doudna published her paper on CRISPR applications for gene editing in Science in June of 2012. If 2011 was the Industrial Age of genetic engineering, 2017 is well into the Information Age. We have moved on from genetic engineering to gene editing.

One of the authors’ most chilling (and telling) statements is that “what used to require years of work in a sophisticated biology laboratory can now be performed in days by a high school student.” (p. 113) They state that a CRISPR lab can be set up for just $2,000. What is scary about this? CRISPR can make gene edits that are heritable. The age is upon us, exciting and chilling. Genome beware, Tinkering-man is coming for you!

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.
An excellent book and affirming in an odd way. Based upon what Grossman documents, I got much of the psychological cost of killing right in Gypsy Spy. At least 12 dog-eared pages and multiple underlinings give evidence to my engagement with the book. The author has a fascination with Freud, but that can be forgiven. He doesn’t make any faith claims, but he is Biblically literate. He knows the difference between killing and murder and this book is on killing.

The history, psychology, and current social implications all combine to make for a very worthwhile tome. His section on killing in Vietnam made me appreciate even more what all the veterans of that war have had to suffer because of our treatment of them and the cause they served.

Heartening to all should be the revelation that despite the decrepit condition the human race is in and the awful instances of mass shootings at home and barbarism by our enemies abroad, mankind isn’t naturally predisposed to killing. It takes a lot to get someone to the point where he or she will kill another person.

Grossman quotes Swank and Marchand’s WWII study that noted that only 2% of combat soldiers exhibited “aggressive psychopathic” tendencies. He goes on to clarify that a more accurate conclusion of their finding would be that there is a “2% of the male population that, if pushed or given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.” He later drops this jewel of an observation regarding this rare 2%: “Whether called sociopaths, sheepdogs, warriors, or heroes, they are there, they are a distinct minority, and in times of danger a nation needs them desperately.”

Fascinate, Revised and Updated: How to Make Your Brand Impossible to Resist by Sally Hogshead.
When we worked together, my brother often said, “You know me, I ride for the brand.” His comment, born from our love of the Western and the reality of our step-father’s livelihood is a strong reminder of what we mean when we talk about branding. In the days before ear tags, cattle had their flesh seared with the indelible mark of their owner’s identity. Our modern use of “brand” derives from the Middle English use of a torch. Burning wood heats iron and a branding-iron imprints identity. As Sally Hogshead so aptly demonstrates, we all carry a fire—corporately and individually—that is our brand. Her gift is a replicable method for identifying and leveraging one’s brand effectively and affordably.

If the reader is familiar with any of the various personality type inventories such as Myers-Briggs, DISC, or OCEAN then the sense of this work will be even that much more apparent. Hogshead has identified seven archetypes of brand advantage and illustrates how and why they work to draw the public’s attention. She then moves into how these can be used in a combination of ways for tactical gains in changing circumstances without a loss of central value or identity.

Reading this work fired my imagination, has reignited my personal author branding message, and has inspired deep conversations on marketing and branding in the company I work for. Whether we recognize it or not, most of us are involved in the business of marketing. Fascinate provides great tools to increase the impact and effectiveness of those efforts.

And … [drum roll] … the promised Plus One:

Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey by Isabel Fonseca.
Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing is a singularly stellar personal and literary accomplishment for the author. Isabel Fonseca put herself in circumstances few would willingly venture into, gained access to a closed society dominated by men and mother-in-laws, and reported her findings with literary elegance and beauty. I first read this book over 20 years ago. It stands the test of time. It is vital reading for anyone who wants insight into the Roma.

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