My Top Ten+ Reads of 2020 (… and 2019)

Have a Barnes & Nobel gift card burning a hole in your pocket? Did some kind soul gift you with Amazon cash? Still suffering under arbitrary shut downs and curfews imposed by power hungry governors? Have a trusty library card you need to put to use? I can help.

This year(s)’ list features thrillers (real and imaginary), histories, philosophy, psychology, grammars, devotionals, and writing how-tos. My picks were curated from 52 works by 35 authors and include books read in 2019 since I didn’t publish a top-ten last year.[1] Listed in the order they were read; I trust the suggestions lead you to your next reading enjoyment. Cheers, and Happy New Year!

Wedge: from Pearl Harbor to 9/11, How the Secret War Between the FBI and CIA Has Endangered National Security by Mark Rieblin

The more I read on the CIA, the more concerned I become for our country. Either they have pulled off the best disinformation campaign about their capabilities (or incompetence) or they are one of the most inefficient foreign intelligence services in the developed world. Wedge is a scathing indictment of CIA’s incompetence, of the absurdity of splitting domestic security from foreign intelligence and counterintelligence, and the danger of bureaucratic turf wars. Of particular interest to me was the continual highlighting of the difference between law enforcement mentality (FBI, “arrest the spy”) and intelligence mentality (CIA, watch the spy, develop the spy, turn the spy). Wedge reads like a real-life thriller, which it is.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner

Any report or publication delving into the history and truth behind a covert agency always leaves me wondering how much of the full story the author got and what is the potential of the work itself being a brilliant exercise in disinformation. Legacy of Ashes left me with only small twinges of doubt. Tim Weiner’s due diligence, exercised over decades as a journalist, comes through on every page of this extraordinary book. Factual and non-fiction, it reads like a top-notch political/espionage thriller. For those worried about the intrusions of spying in the digital age, read this book. I trust that like me; you leave this exposé with the expectant hope that our government has gotten better at intelligence that keeps a free society free.

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner

Originally published in 1996, I read the 2019 Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition. In O’Conner’s own words, “Woe Is I is a survival guide for intelligent people who probably have never diagrammed a sentence and never will.” Concise, witty, and practical, one need not be a grammar nerd to enjoy this book. But if you happen to be a grammar nerd, it is sure to please.

As the title itself implies, correct isn’t always right. English is a living language and constructions that may satisfy the purist can do violence to our ears. O’Conner devotes an entire chapter to old rules that need to be put to rest (“The house of grammar has many rooms,” she writes, “and some of them are haunted”) and enforced conventions that were never rules to begin with. The chapter is as liberating as it is enlightening.

This work has taken its rightful place on my writer’s reference shelf. O’Conner’s final chapter, “Saying Is Believing: How to Write What You Mean,” is a toolbox for anyone desiring to improve their craft.

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle

Only 224 pages long, I nevertheless opted to chew it slowly over the course of six weeks. More than just a commentary on the creation of Christian art, it is a contemplative devotional examining the deep impacts of our faith in our lives. Walking on Water, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a deep well. I rarely read a book without pen in hand, particularly a non-fiction book (even if it is written by one whose primary art is the writing of fiction). But this book was loaned to me. Its owner had already left her own annotations, which added to the richness of the read. I believe any artist with an open mind could benefit from this book. That said, the creative who walks in faith with Christ stands to benefit the most from L’Engle’s insights. The book is encouraging and challenging both on what it means to create good art and what it means to walk with Jesus across the lake of life.

On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir—the Greatest Battle of the Korean War by Hampton Sides

A harrowing read that moved me to tears more than once. The bravery and endurance of the men Sides highlights is inspiring. The lead up to the battle is a Greek tragedy. The generals and officers on the ground dutifully followed orders from self-referencing brass all the while knowing they were heading into the desperate ground of Chosin. General Smith stands as the central protagonist whose primary antagonist, in my view, was MacArthur and his subordinates. Sides says of Smith, “fifty-six years old, was a cerebral, soft-spoken man whose habits seemed atypical of a gung-ho Marine.” Two of my favorite quotes about General Oliver Prince Smith that Sides catalogs are: “[Gen. Smith was] a professional killer, employed in a hard trade: tenacious, cunning, resourceful, cold, cynical, and tough.” (p. 11) and “said one Marine, ‘I’d follow him to hell because I know he’d get me out.’” (p. 326).

The Reformation of America by Karla Perry

On a scale from populist-pablum to serious-think, Karla Perry lands squarely on the latter. A serious thinker, Perry presents her case in The Reformation of America in a way that demands the honest reader to think seriously. Through multiple historical examples, she unflinchingly demonstrates what can be accomplished in the uplifting of a nation when believers in Jesus become disciples of Christ and follow through on His order in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations.” Along with providing encouraging examples of cultural redemption, Perry also drags some embarrassing skeletons out of the Church’s closet (e.g., “secularism is a Christian heresy.”) The Reformation of America is not a cozy read intended to simply reaffirm many present-day Evangelical suppositions. It is a well written overview of the biblical formation of America, where the Church went wrong, and how we must work to reform our nation into a disciple of Christ.

Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s most Prolific Serial Killer by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer

Warning: this is not a bedtime story! McElhinney and McAleer are documentary filmmakers and Gosnell is their first book. For a first time out, and understanding their intent, it is a sterling performance. Print journalists would have written it differently. A novelist would have taken away from Kermitt Gosnell’s banality and pedestrian greed and focused on his misogynistic tendencies and perverse joy in infanticide. As is, this is a horrific read which in many ways was harder for me emotionally than all the holocaust studies I’ve read. If you think you know about pro-choice or pro-life, you need to read this book.

Murder Your Darlings: And other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser by Roy Peter Clark

Murder Your Darlings is a metabook, a tome on books about the craft. Clark’s passion to continue developing as a writer has fed his life’s work of being “America’s writing coach.” In this work, he highlights some of the primary lessons he’s gleaned from the writing books on his shelf. Organized in six parts, each addressing a specific aspect of the craft and the writer’s life, it is informative and inspirational. As to the titular advice, Clark writes “A way to murder your darlings is to identify ‘false color’ in your work, also known as overwriting…Too many vivid words bump into one another, competing for attention. Apply this test: which of these words is more interesting or important? Murder the rest.” In the final section, which is on mission and purpose, he offers this quote from Kurt Vonnegut, “Practicing any art―be it painting, music, dance, literature, or whatever―is not a way to make money or become famous. It’s a way to make your soul grow.”

10 Stupid things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives by Dr. Laura Schlessinger

In my life, I’ve encountered numerous women who have saddled themselves with losers. It never made sense to me how otherwise intelligent, self-supporting, and attractive women would stay with drug users, alcoholics, cheaters, and abusers. Though Schlessinger’s work provides numerous insights as to how this happens, the phenomenon still leaves me scratching my head. I like Dr. Laura. My wife is a bona fide fan. She bought this one and the one on stupid guys for our young adult children to read—just in case. Schlessinger is always a healthy dose of common sense and blunt-nosed candidness. Written in the mid-1990s, its worth is evidenced by its relevance and applicability a quarter of a century later. It’s not pop-psychology. It is great life advice for getting out of horrible situations, or better yet, avoiding them all together.

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman (translated by Ronnie Hope)

Hands down, Rise and Kill First is the best spy thriller I have ever read and it is truth, not fiction. Bergman’s unflinching history of the shadow realm of Israel is a tour de force and speaks of the author’s discipline, commitment, and courage. In an age inundated with overt biased reporting, Bergman is evenhanded without hiding his own sensibilities. In framing a history that encompasses early 20th century Zionism to the modern state of Israel as of 2015 with Meir Dagan―a man who “had a serious malfunction in his fear mechanism” (p.128) and whose great specialty according to Ariel Sharon was “separating a terrorist from his head” (p.708)―the author shows both the necessity of deadly force and its ultimate inability to solve the situation. For anyone truly interested in understanding the Middle East conflict, Rise and Kill First is an essential read.

The Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin

Packed with powerful one-liners, The Practice was a shot in the arm to my creative efforts. Efforts―not channeling, not magic, not the muse―are essential to the practice, to showing up and being on the hook. As a writer, the section “No Such Thing as Writer’s Block” was particularly affirming. I am tempted to plunk down numerous memorable lines, but I will only mark two here. For a long time, I have sought to help people who were angst-filled because they just wanted to do what they loved. I have found that knowing how to love what you do is the better life skill. Godin encapsulates this idea with the following lines: “Do what you love” is for amateurs. “Love what you do” is the mantra for professionals. (p.22)

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richard J. Heuer, Jr.

I came across this title in the conclusion of Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World: A History of Intelligence. Recruited to the CIA in the early 1950s, Heuer is a veteran Cold Warrior who spent the first 24 years of his career working with the Directorate of Operations before moving into the Directorate of Intelligence. This work is a text book, the kind of reading one would do in a CIA class room. As such, it offers a real view into the world of intelligence. But its value and application go far deeper. Only three chapters in, I found myself texting my former boss that I had found his next business read.

Heuer’s work, though tailored to the intelligence analysts’ world, deals with the cognitive limitations we all have and how to work around them. Heuer begins with a review of our mental machinery, how our brains work and memories are built, then provides tools for thinking. He shows how more information doesn’t necessarily make analysis better and can actually be counter-productive, then lays out objective means for structuring analytical problems. Lest you think this is all cloak and dagger stuff, his analysis matrix provides a quantifiable means to arrive at the best car buy choice.

Heuer’s advice to intelligence analysts is equally applicable to problem solvers and creatives regardless the enterprise or the art: “Talking about mindsets, or creativity, or even just openness to new information is really talking about spinning new links and new paths through the web of memory.”

Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli

Dr. Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew, wound up being the coroner of Auschwitz working directly for Dr. Josef Mengele. Nyiszli offers a front-row seat to the gates of the crematorium and beyond. I endeavor to write a paragraph or two in my reading journal after finishing a book. My note on this book was only three words: gruesome horror story. Though Communist regimes have murdered millions more than Hitler’s Germany, the rational and methods of the Nazi industrial murder machine sets it apart as a deeper form of evil. Let us never forget.

A Top Ten+ list would be incomplete without a fiction section. The fiction authors I read in the 2019-2020 timeframe include J. R. R. Tolkien, Lee Child, Scott Turrow, Adrian J. Walker, Michael Connelly, James S. A. Corey, and Craig Johnson.

Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is best known for his Harry Bosch novels. Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch in the Amazon Prime series, is the voice actor for the audiobooks. I listened to and read seven Bosch books these last two years. Print or audio, they are a treat. Following is a peak into my reading journal on one of the novels. [Spoiler alert!]

The Crossing by Michael Connelly (audio book)

The Bosch novels deliver on entertainment, mystery, and rich characters. The title comes from the search of “the crossing,” where perpetrator and victim intersect. Bosch is hired by his half-brother Mickey Haller as an investigator on a murder. It turns out to be all about the watch. It leads Harry to two bent cops who kill to cover their trail. It was a hoot to hear Titus Welliver do Mickey’s character in a manner that seemed to channel Matthew McConoughey. I enjoy Welliver’s work on the TV show, but have a higher degree of respect for his acting on his nuance as a voice over talent. Superb.

James S. A. Corey

James S. A. Corey is the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, who write the Expanse series of science-fiction novels. Expanse is space opera with grit. The authors say they wanted to fill in that gap in the genre between humans inhabiting the stars and how they colonized the solar system. All that and vomit zombies. It’s not Orson Scott Card or Frank Herbert. Which is good, because Card and Herbert did their own thing well. So do Abraham and Frank. I recently finished the third book in the series. Below is the note from my reading journal.

Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

The authors deliver yet again. Expanse has all the grit of realpolitik and messiness of flawed humans along with the epic stretches and stakes of science fiction. This book gets bonus points from me for grappling with theological issues that arise in the face of alien life and the potential to colonize the stars. The duelers in this debate are Hector Cortez (a Catholic priest or Anglican minister or just a televangelist?) and Anna Volovodov, a Methodist minister. The following bit of dialogue between these two hints at more serious considerations—deep dialogue for science fiction:

“So many stars,” she said. “Some of them might be ours someday.”

“I wonder,” Hector replied, his voice low and sad. “I wonder if we should have them. God gave man the Earth. He never promised him the stars. I wonder if He’ll follow us out there.”

Anna squeezed his hand again, and then let it go. “The God I believe in is bigger than all of this. Nothing we ever learn can be an attack on Him as long as that’s true.”

Never mind that the conversation happens between a televangelist who is more political animal than religious leader and a Methodist minister that is in a same sex marriage, the words are evidence of the authors’ familiarity with Christian theology.

Another line from Rev. Dr. Anna reminds me of questions and considerations debated in my family when I was young. Faced with alien life and the fact that it had stolen from and killed humans, “all things we would consider sins if we were doing them,” she says, then adds:

“Does that mean they’re fallen? Did Christ die for them too?”

Here’s the thing, this is not Christian fiction. But the authors’ raise these questions in a way that isn’t heavy handed, that serves the plot, and is a serious theological question if one is a Christian and happens to believe in alien life.[2]

Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson is the writer of the Longmire Mysteries. I’ve read ten so far. Johnson’s prose is captivating, poetic, and profound. If you’ve seen the Netflix show, you’ve met a Walt Longmire, but you haven’t met the Walt Longmire or Henry Standing Bear or Victoria Moretti, for that matter. Written in first person perspective from Walt’s point of view, the reader is in the main character’s head for the whole ride. And what a ride it is. For great writing and true escape, it’s hard to top Craig Johnson.

[1] I was all set to do it, but New Year’s Day 2019 landed hard and I wrote the poem “Red” instead.

[2] Which, for the record, I don’t. Mankind is a unique creation of God that sinned against its Creator and for which His Son died to redeem and resurrected to justify.

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