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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My Top Ten Reads of 2016

I did a lot of writing in 2016, but by the looks of it not much made it on Larumland! Carlos de Leon, my favorite Gypsy, has been monopolizing most of my creative time. Even so, I did manage to get some reading done in 2016. Below are my top ten of the year in the order that I read them.

Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 by Benny Morris. Morris is an Israeli historian and is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. This masterful work on the establishment of the modern Israeli state and the resultant Zionist-Arab conflict tells a tale unlike what one hears from Evangelicals or Arabophiles. The righteous victims of the title could be either the Jews or the Arabs or neither depending on the incident or the era. It seems to me that current humanism believes any conquest to be immoral, regardless if it is accomplished through trade, war, or migration. But conquest is a reality of the human condition, a lesson that the Western Hemisphere teaches us well if we would but listen. Anyone desirous to understand the conflicts and talking points surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict owes it to themselves to read this book. Morris exposes both sides of the conflict in a highly objective history that documents the strength, perseverance, and atrocities of the clashing cultures. It is a very authoritative and highly approachable text. The reader will come away with a greater understanding of the challenges Israel, Jews, and Arabs face.

The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions by Andrew Hacker. Any book that challenges the status quo is bound to criticized. The Math Myth is no exception. Some reviewers go so far as to attack the author because he isn’t a mathematician. These attacks lend weight the author’s argument, in my opinion. I listen to colleagues recount their college days and their struggles in what their professors openly called “weeder classes” like advanced calculus and I have to agree that Hacker is on to something. The author’s thesis is that the continual push for higher mathematics is impinging on true talent development for the college bound as well as not offering real world solutions or delivering on its promise to make better critical thinkers. He exposes the influential role the mathematics “mandarins” have had in perpetuating this myth and imposing theoretical and abstract mathematics on a population in dire need of strong arithmetic skills and greater numeracy. In the last chapter, he provides great examples of how arithmetic alone is sufficient to provide deep insights into everyday problems and statistics. The Math Myth is a very enlightening and enjoyable read.

Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose. I was preparing for my pilgrimage to Arkansas this summer and grabbed this book as a fun read for the plane ride. I had watched AMC’s Turn and was curious how close to the “novel” the show was. First surprise: this book isn’t a novel; it’s a history – a very fascinating history. If you happen to be a fan of Turn, you may be disappointed in the facts presented in Washington’s Spies. But truth is stranger than fiction and ultimately more rewarding. Rose’s work is an eye-opening look into the factious society of revolutionary America. Not surprising that less than 100 years later, we managed to kill over half a million of ourselves in the Civil War! The early spy craft was fascinating and Washington’s role as our nation’s first spy master is a story every patriot should know. I had the opportunity to hear the author speak on 7/14/16. Mr. Rose is much younger than I had expected. He is a fascinating fellow and really knows his subject.

Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files by Nikolas Larum. It may seem self-serving to put my own book on this list, but it is a ripping good yarn if I do say so myself. Through most of its gestation, the story lived under the working title The Long March Home. I never expected the path to publication to mirror the title. Twenty-five years after the completion of my first draft, I began the layout of my latest rewrite for publication through CreateSpace. The Long March Home gave way to Gypsy Spy and a fortnight later, I had my novel in book format for the very first time. Until that time, I had never read my story as a reader – someone sitting down with a novel for a bit of escape. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. After all, a story crafted over the course of a quarter century moves much faster when read in two weeks’ time. My estimation of the work is truly biased, so I thought you should get a review from one of my readers. This one comes from Karla Perry, who is an accomplished writer in her own right.

“Gypsy Spy by Nikolas Larum is an exciting read. Larum provides the perfect combination of Cold War history, thrilling adventure, mystery, intrigue, and biblical truth in this excellent novel. Larum brought the characters to life in a way that I would find myself wondering what Carlos was up to when I wasn’t reading. His writing style actively pulled me along from sentence to sentence drawing me into this engaging read. I would love to share more on my favorite moments in Carlos’s life, but I like to read blind without any idea of where I’m being led. In fact, anytime I felt I knew where the story was headed, I found myself pleasantly surprised to be taken in a different direction. The twists and turns of the story enhance the beautiful cohesion of the novel. I read a lot of Christian fiction and it is rare to find a Christian author who is able to weave biblical truth into a story without losing the art of telling a story. Larum successfully told an amazing story while also powerfully communicating grace, truth, and the power of God. I recommend Gypsy Spy for your reading pleasure! Enjoy!”

Scalia’s Court: A Legacy of Landmark Opinions and Dissents, Kevin A. Ring, editor. Scalia was brilliant. Progressives may certainly disagree with his opinions, but having read some of SCOTUS’s decisions, I don’t think any of them could seriously argue with his approach. His writing was exquisite. One aspect of my day job is slugging through the mind-numbing language of contract legalese.  Scalia’s writing is anything but. Insightful, Constitutional, and consistent, his opinions and dissents are human and humorous. I left a lot of red ink in this book, but below is a small sample of some of his genius.

From his concurring opinion in Glossip v. Gross where he argues against Justice Breyer’s call for the abolition of the death penalty: “[Justice Breyer’s] invocation of the resultant delay [between sentencing and execution] as grounds for abolishing the death penalty calls to mind the man sentenced to death for killing his parents, who pleads for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.”

From his concurrence in part and dissent in part in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey: “The emptiness of the ‘reasoned judgement’ that produced Roe is displayed in plain view by the fact that, after more than 19 years of effort by some of the brightest (and most determined) legal minds in the country, after more than 10 cases upholding abortion rights in this Court, and after dozens upon dozens of amicus briefs submitted in this and other cases, the best the Court can do to explain how it is that the word ‘liberty’ must be thought to include the right to destroy human fetuses is to rattle off a collection of adjectives that simply decorate a value judgment and conceal a political choice.”

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. Clark is as enjoyable to read as he is a great help in writing. The numerous examples from different writers from various fields and times give great examples of the tools he expounds while showcasing great writing that can be emulated. And his own writing is insightful, entertaining, helpful, and encouraging. I am always inspired to write when I read Roy Peter Clark. The title promises 50 tools and the author delivers just that, fifty actual tools that writers not only can use, but neglect to their own peril. I underlined plenty of the text as I read, but offer this one jewel because I have found it to be tried and true.

“To test your writing voice, the most powerful tool on your workbench is oral reading. Read your story aloud to hear if it sounds like you.”

Back to the Future by Karla Perry is an insightful, thought-dense treatise on redeeming America through Kingdom mentality. Though informative to all, this book is addressed to the Church, the American Church specifically. Perry sets the stage of our current cultural decay through a concise review of the philosophers that seduced Western Civilization away from a biblical world view into the faith of secular humanism that has birthed our post-modern identity crisis. She builds on this exposure of the thought brokers in Chapter 1 to lead the reader into needed realm of reconstruction. This reconstruction, she argues, must be predicated on a rejection of the false antithesis of reason and faith. It must embrace a substantive faith that enlightens reason with truth.

“[The] faith spoken of in the Bible is not a matter of intellectual belief, but a matter of connecting experientially and substantively with the person of Truth, Jesus.” (p.26)

Throughout the book, she avoids the trap of cloistered Christianity and advocates a bold, public life of faith that brings salt and light to the culture. Well written, excellently documented with footnotes, bibliography, and suggested reading, Perry has loaded this 140 page book with gold. I highly recommend it.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Backman writes his novel. He writes like a sports commentator calls the game. Nikolas reads the story in a way surprised people taste new food and are unsure of the flavor or like a painter viewing a Picasso, sure for a moment that he can do better. Which of course, he cannot. Not quite in that way. A veritable treasure trove of similes, Backman breaks the rule of show-don’t-tell with wild abandon daring us to push past Ove’s brusqueness into a heart that is too large for the world it finds itself in.

The narrative of this novel is written mostly in the simple present. It is one of those literary devices you read about in writing books but seldom encounter in a full-length work. Since the author is Swedish and I was reading the English translation, I was unsure if this was an intentional device employed by the author or simply the way Swedes write. The coworker who turned me on to the story is Swedish. She has neither confirmed nor denied. Regardless, the style grew on me and charmed me into this marvelous story.

Backman invites us to dislike Ove, a man intent on suicide sabotaged by the lives around him, only to peel the layers back in a way that leaves us embracing this most lovable curmudgeon. I did indeed laugh and cry. My only regret in reading this book was that I had to do it in English. If it is this good translated, I can only imagine how great it is in its original language. Treat yourself. Read this book.

Self-Publishing for Profit: How to Get Your Book Out of Your Head and Into the Stores by Chris Kennedy. The author generously shares the methods he has used and the knowledge he has gained to be a successful independent author in this very practical guide. Clearly written and very encouraging, this one is going on my writer’s shelf for handy reference.

The Power of Understanding People by Dave Mitchell. Iconic personality type profiling has been with us for a while. From Hippocrates’s humors to Jung’s alphabet soup a la Myers-Briggs, these schemas have aided those interested in understanding people to classify them in general categories for greater ease of interaction. If you have spent any time in the corporate world or a modern mega-church, you have no doubt encountered this philosophy. From Humors to DISC to Jung to OCEAN, they all bear a consistent four part root that in spite of physiological evidence still leaves us nodding our heads in agreement. We know these types of personalities exist.

It is a testament to Dave Mitchell’s talent that he is able to pick up this well-known paradigm of psychology and breathe fresh life into it through humor, anecdotes, and fresh nameplates on old character types. Enter the Romantics, Warriors, Experts, and Masterminds (no spoilers here – you’ll have to read the book to find out who wins)! Mitchell outlines these basic personalities and then blends them into characters we all recognize: the best friend, the hired gun, the specialist, the adventurer. He then illustrates these roles through well-known Hollywood actors who portray them. I truly enjoyed this book, though I caution against eating while reading as you might choke on your food while laughing. Insightful and funny, this book is both enjoyable and helpful.

My Top Five Reads of 2015

 

Twenty-five books a year – roughly two a month – isn’t a lot of reading compared to some. I am part of a family of speed readers. My father devoured books. My brother turns the pages fast enough to burn his fingers. My wife reads faster than I can talk and my children appear to be following suit. I love to read, but it takes me a while to carve through the text. I usually put out a top ten list of my reading journey for the year, but in 2015 writing took as much of my attention (if not more) than reading. With two book projects, two blogs, weekly sermons, and reviewing some of my children’s writing I only managed to finish reading through seventeen books in 2015. I felt that the data set wasn’t large enough to warrant a top ten list and opted for a top five instead. Though I could easily list ten very good books, you deserve a true cream of the crop listing. So, without further ado, following are my top five reads of 2015 listed in the order I read them.

  1. hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice by Randy Alcorn. If you’ve never read any of Alcorn’s work, do yourself a favor and grab one – any one. Alcorn is a deep thinker who delves into the implications of the plain text of Scripture with a boldness I’ve seldom read elsewhere.[1] This book is his contribution to the Calvinism (God’s will saves and man has no choice in the matter) vs. Arminianism (God’s will saves and man has a choice in the matter) debate. Regardless of which theological camp you find yourself currently in, this book will challenge your presuppositions and give you some appreciation for the other side. Alcorn spent his first ten years in the faith as an Armenian and then slowly moved over to four-point Calvinism (which, to be fair, some would say is no Calvinism at all!). I found that much of my angst toward Calvinism was really a reaction to what could be more aptly termed hyper-Calvinism (which to me is nothing more than pagan fatalism wrapped in Christian terminology). After reading this book, I am still closer to Arminius than I am comfortable with Calvin. But the book helped me temper some of my hyper-Arminian assertions (which at times could be nothing more than secular humanism wrapped in Christian terminology). Alcorn’s book is a fine apologetic for two contrary views that remain orthodox. Not only is the text engaging and provocative, the book also includes great tables and informative diagrams. What’s not to like?
  1. The American House of Saud by Steven Emerson. Published in 1985, I consider this book a classic and a must read for anyone who really wants to understand our government’s response to 9/11, how we’ve prosecuted the War on Terror, and the real power of the petrodollar. My greatest regret in reading this book was that I hadn’t read it sooner – thirty years sooner! The influence of Saudi money in the US reaches beyond government to the business decisions that impact many middle class Americans living blissfully in fly-over country. If you’ve ever wondered why America went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq after 19 Saudi Arabian nationals killed nearly 3,000 US civilians, this book is for you.
  1. The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp by Marin Katusa. I ran into this book while researching the petrodollar undergirding of our financial system. What I found was a treasure: a venture capitalist and energy expert whose telling of the stranger-than-fiction tale of the rise of Vladimir Putin puts Tom Clancy to shame. Great books have great beginnings and I wish I had come up with this one: “I’m going to tell you a story you’ll wish weren’t true.” And he delivers. Katusa is a specialist in his field – he’s made millions at it – but he makes the subject matter accessible to the layman. Making the complex concise and comprehendible is a great talent; which Katusa displays in spades. He doesn’t allow the text to get bogged down in jargon and the statistics are given in great infographics. Though he has skin in the game in the sense that he advises educated speculation in the energy market as a hedge against the impending implosion of the petrodollar[2], he doesn’t say “invest with me and I’ll make you rich” as other authors on this subject do. Katusa’s sense of humor is salted throughout the text in numerous insightful and funny quips. Here is his observation on the succession of the Saudi throne: “Whenever a throne room is crowded with would-be successors, it’s easy for a brawl to break out, which favors the most ruthless over the best qualified. The chance that Prince Right will emerge the winner is remote.”[3]
  1. A Time to Betray by Reza Kahlili. When I was a young teenager, I had a mentor who was a missionary living in Iran when the Islamic Revolution took place. She was a courageous woman and her eye-witness accounts of how demonstrations and riots broke out did much to help me see through what I was watching on the evening news. Some years after the American hostages were released from Iran, I read Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles, the story of the two EDS employees that Ross Perot made sure got home. Kahlili’s book rivals Follett’s on multiple fronts. While both are non-fiction, Kahlili lived his. As a member of the Revolutionary Guard from the early days of the revolution, he was a spy for the United States. In America, we incarcerate spies. In Iran, they arrest them and their families, friends, and loved ones. The captured endure untold torture while their wives and daughters are raped before them and their loved ones are executed. Only after extracting its ten pounds of flesh does the regime decide to execute the traitor. Kahlili knew this before he became an agent for the US in the hopes of saving the Iran that once was. True spycraft is the ultimate confidence game. Kahlili walked that tight rope for years while providing vital intelligence to our government. As I read it, I wondered how many hundreds – if not thousands – of foreign agents our government has been able to recruit because the assets really believed in the American ideals of truth, liberty, and justice for all. Kahlili’s belief and honesty are palpable throughout the text. The manner of his handling by the US in light of American foreign policy would certainly justify a fair level of cynicism on his part. But his narrative never falls into it. His hope for his people and his pain in their suffering shines above it all. Any who agree with the Iran Nuclear Deal should be made to read this book.
  1. Agnes Sanford and Her Companions by William L. De Arteaga. This is a complimentary and updating work to Quenching the Spirit by the same author and contains great perspectives on the Charismatic Renewal from the Catholic and Anglican perspectives. They laid the groundwork in many ways for the growth of modern Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement. His explanation of experimentation and his understanding of the graces in sacraments and the energies of God are enlightening and refreshing. I’ve been a fan of De Arteaga’s since reading Quenching the Spirit over a decade ago. Through a series of divine appointments, we wound up being Facebook buddies and I recently attended a healing workshop he held in an Anglican church in North Carolina. De Arteaga is the real deal. He doesn’t just study, write, and teach. He walks the walk and preaches a full Gospel, ministering not only the revelation of the Scriptures but the grace of healing through the power of the Holy Spirit. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

All these titles can be found on Amazon and would make a worthy addition to any library. I certainly enjoyed them and found them enlightening. I trust you will too.

[1] In his book Heaven, he makes 21 brief jaw-dropping observations on the nature of existence in the intermediate Heaven from just three verses (Rev 6:9-11).
[2] The short story: The Saudi’s only sell oil in US dollars. This arrangement causes a demand on US currency that keeps it valued beyond its real worth. For this hedge, we provide the Saudi’s with just about anything they ask for. Russian energy development threatens to upset this paradigm. Should the Saudi’s abandon the dollar, the US economy would suffer greatly.
[3] Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, (Hoboken: Wiley, Stowe: Casey Research, LLC 2015), 189. Since the publishing of the book, King Abdullah died and was succeeded by his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. One of his first reforms was to reduce cabinet level positions, consolidating power in fewer hands. Portents of things to come?

My Top Ten Reads of 2014

My Top Ten Reads of 2014

I don’t read nearly as fast as my wife or brother. So, I am fairly confident of my inability to complete another tome before December’s end. This means that I can confidently present to you my top ten reads from this year without fear of any of them losing their spot on the list to a year-end upstart. They are listed in the order which I read them.

  1. What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell. A fantastic collection of some of Galdwell’s best work in The New Yorker, this volume would be a welcome introduction to the author for any who haven’t read him and highly enjoyable for those who have. Gladwell is a master story teller disguised as a social commentator with a uniquely objective view. In this book, he covers topics as widely divergent as the mysteries of ketchup to the development of the Pill, the power of structured interviews to the pointlessness of current policies regarding the homeless. He has a knack for the unusual in the ordinary and a true talent to set the reader thinking.
  2. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Benerjee and Esther Duflo. If you are a conservative looking for a book that substantiates the belief that hard work can raise anybody out of poverty, this book isn’t for you. The poor of the world work plenty hard enough. If you are a liberal looking for a tome by respected economists that shows more government intervention and redistribution of wealth are what is needed to solve global poverty, this book isn’t for you either. If, however, you are intellectually inquisitive enough to get a realistic view of the economic decisions the poor make and why, I highly recommend this book. The authors aren’t interested in ideology. They are after facts and empirically proven methods of making the lives of the poor better. For evenhanded comparisons, they use the concept of Purchasing Power Parity where the poverty level is set at 16 rupees and converted to the actual buying power in the states, which is roughly $0.99. The real poor live on $0.99 or less per day. Makes poverty in America appear to be a vacation! One of my favorite paragraphs comes from page 68: “The poor seem to be trapped by the same kinds of problems that afflict the rest of us – lack of information, weak beliefs, and procrastination among them. It is true that we who are not poor are somewhat better educated and informed, but the difference is small because, in the end, we actually know very little, and almost surely less than we imagine.” Amen to that!
  3. Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. Jonah Berger could be considered Malcolm Gladwell’s intellectual child. Berger was inspired by Gladwell’s now classic The Tipping Point and made it his life’s mission to figure out exactly why things catch on. Contagious is the result. If The Tipping Point be the original observation of the phenomenon in modern culture, Contagious is the empirically examined process of why things go viral. The principles are encapsulated in the acronym STEPPS: Social currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical value, and Stories. The notes about narrative on page 187 I found particularly insightful with applications for evangelism and teaching as well.
  4. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. In case you haven’t noticed, behavioral and cognitive sciences have made great strides in the past decade. This book not only rates high on the Fascinating Scale, it is also practical. It offers great explanations of how habits are formed, what triggers their expressions, and how to rewrite them. Information from this book helped me tell the tale of “Crawling Out of the Bottle” in a more frank fashion than I otherwise would have. Not prone to contacting authors, I actually reached out to Duhigg via e-mail to thank him for his work. To my delight and surprise, he kindly responded.
  5. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. An amplification of the work and theories that earned him the Nobel Prize in Economics – a prize in economics because certain physical scientists were uncomfortable with the establishing of a prize in social science – Kahneman takes us on a tour of the thought and lab experiments that he and his colleague Amos Tversky carried out over their long collaboration. It is a book on judgment and decision making and exposes many of the mind traps and blindsides we set up for ourselves. The author examines the two primary thought process – automatic operations and controlled operations – and their impacts and influences on the decisions we make.
  6. What Is Secular Humanism? Why Christian Humanism Became Secular Humanism and How It is Changing Our World by James Hitchcock. This book was a large part of the backbone to my post “Secular Humanists Have a Problem.” I first read this book some twenty-five years ago. The author’s insights into the modern influences of secular humanism still hold up today. My interest in the subject was rekindled when Kevin Swanson sent me Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West after the debacle of Doug Phillip’s fall and the collapse of Vision Forum Ministries. Though Swanson’s book is more detailed in the personal lives of secular humanisms leaders, Hitchcock’s treatment of the subject is more engaging and even handed.
  7. Why Science Does not Disprove God by Amir D. Aczel. This is not a book written by an evangelical to debate atheists. This is a work by an award winning mathematician and author to explain how and why the New Atheists have overreached in their claims for science. In my reading journal, I jokingly commented that the title could have as easily been Against the New Atheists or Dawkins, Kindly Eat Your Hat! If I had to pigeonhole Aczel, I would call him an agnostic, but a humble one at that. A quote from the introduction gives you a taste of things to come. “Roger Penrose, addressing only one of the many parameters necessary for a universe that would support life, has put the probability against the emergence of our universe as 1 over 10^10123, meaning 1 divided by 10 raised to the power of 10, raised to the power of 123. Such numbers are humbling. Now consider the odds of intelligent life developing. To assume there is no God or act of creation behind our immeasurably unlikely universe seems to me presumptuous.” (from page 4)
  8. Breaking Free: Escaping an Exclusivist Christian Group by Reb Bradley. I catalogued some of my own experiences in an exclusivist Christian group in my post “Membership Has Its Privileges.” When I spoke with the author at a conference, he told me that he had stopped putting his name on the cover of the book because he started getting death threats from folks who were sure he had written it about them. At only 82 pages, it packs a punch. Most insightful is his admonition to former members to take responsibility for their involvement and to stop playing the victim. It was his testimony that he seldom saw true healing begin until this was done.
  9. The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek. First published in Britain in 1944, Hayek’s work stands the test of time. Writing in the gale wind of popularity that central planning held in economic and government circles of his day, Hayek did much to expose that Nazism and Communism were two sides of the same coin, slavery by different names. Hayek showed that social planners were inevitably forced to control more and more aspects of society if they ever hoped to hold it to their declared societal goals. The end result would always be the deterioration – if not outright eradication – of personal liberties. I consider it necessary reading for any serious student of real world economics and political science.
  10. Man: The Dwelling Place of God by A. W. Tozer. A compilation of articles that Tozer wrote on the subject, his depth of insight will challenge and bless your soul. Though Tozer died in 1963, his comments on the human condition, errant evangelical practices, and the markings of a real spirit-filled life are as applicable today as when he wrote them. Some notable quotes: “God is never found accidentally.” (p.41) “True faith brings a spiritual and moral transformation and an inward witness that cannot be mistaken. These come when we stop believing in belief and start believing in the Lord Jesus Christ indeed.” (p. 45) “Future historians will record that we of the twentieth century had intelligence enough to create a great civilization but not the moral wisdom to preserve it.” (p. 34) “The most fervent devotees of tolerance are invariably intolerant of everyone who speaks about God with certainty.” (p. 87) Drink slowly, absorb well.

My Top Ten Reads of 2013

Over the years, I’ve worked at formulating a personal motto that both encapsulates my passion and propels me forward in life. Thus far, I’ve narrowed it down to three: 1. “Your meetings do more harm than good”[1], 2. “All I want to know is everything”, and 3. “So many books, so little time.” In the spirit of the last two, I offer for your review my top ten reads from last year. I’ve listed them in the order that I read them.

  1. La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafron. This novel was the one I broke my fiction fast on. I’ve always been an avid reader. But somewhere around 1997, I stopped reading fiction. My mother was in the habit of sending me book store gift cards for my birthday. But in 2007, she decided to send me a book instead. It was The Shadow of the Wind. She said she knew if she sent the gift card, I would just go out and buy another dry science book and she wanted me to enjoy a good read. And so I did. I liked it so much; I went on line and bought it in the original language. Spanish is the first language I learned to read and write. To this day, my comprehension level reading it still exceeds hearing it. This novel is a Gothic tale set in Barcelona of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It revolves around the mysteries of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I re-read the Spanish version again last year in preparation for a Spanish CLEP[2] test. It was my third time through the story and I still found it engrossing.
  2. What Love Is this? Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God by Dave Hunt. This is a masterful exposition of Scripture regarding the love of God and the ways in which the Calvinist TULIP stands in contradiction to it. With all due respect to my Reformed brethren, this book is worth your honest investigation. You may find it liberating.
  3. Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves by George Church and Ed Regis. Genetic engineering has been an intellectual hobby of mine since 1999 when I began seriously researching the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Many of the articles I read then warned of what was to come in bio-engineering. Much that was theoretical then is old hat now. George Church is very prominent in the GE field. He compares the science used to sequence the human genome to the Stone Age compared to where the science is today. This book reads like science fiction, but it is scientific intent. And it is terrifying. Science may be amoral, but scientists are not. Humans beware!
  4. The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler. The author compiles cutting edge corporate team building techniques and applies them to the family context. He opens with a line from Tolsoy’s Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The author discovered that the way in which all happy families are alike is that they work at it continuously.
  5. El Capitan Alatriste  by Arturo and Carlota Perez-Reverte. I chanced upon a trailer of the film Alatriste starring Viggo Mortensen some years ago. I’ve wanted to see the film ever since, but decided to read the book first. Lucky for me, the movie is based on four books in the series! Thus far, I’ve only read this one but plan to continue on with the rest as time allows. The story revolves around Diego Alatriste, a soldier turned mercenary in 17th century Spain. High adventure and wry humor. Fun, fun read.
  6. How Islam Plans to Change the World by William Wagner. The author documents the recent history and strategies of Islamic evangelism. Having done missions work in Africa, I can attest to many of the methods he describes. The most surprising find in this book was the Baptist author’s appeal to the miraculous in the “Power Encounter” chapter as one asset in the Christian arsenal lacking in Islam. This book is a vital intelligence briefing if you are an evangelical and serious about world missions.
  7. The Mormonizing of America by Stephen Mansfield. In 2012, prominent evangelicals endorsed Mitt Romney in his bid for the presidency. The nation has come a long way from sending troops into Utah to stop plural marriage. From the days that Mormon missionaries visited my family when we lived in Spain, I’ve been a student of the religion. Though the author doesn’t shy away from the controversial areas of Mormonism, he primarily focuses on what most Mormons find important in their faith. Highly readable and informative.
  8. The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis. I read this shortly after I completed my rounds of chemotherapy and radiation for tongue cancer. Dr. Davis has been in the cancer research field for many years. Her revelations from the trenches will open your eyes to the complexity of this disease and the complicity of government, industry, and the medical community in its continual propagation.
  9. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had read this book many years ago. But they finally made the movie and I had to read it again. Card has made a whole franchise from his Ender universe, but for my money, he could have stopped with this one and been fine. I read the three subsequent works in the series in the way back and none of them approached the sheer enjoyment of the first one. It ranks up there as one of my all-time favorite science fiction reads. (Dune tops the list, but Frank Herbert is hard to beat.)
  10. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm is in the rank of one of my top five favorite authors. His insights are brilliant and his writing is exquisite. When I grow up, I want to be able to write like Malcolm Gladwell. Don’t let the title fool you. This isn’t a Bible book. It’s a book about asymmetrical thinking and winning against the odds. For an idea of how insightful Gladwell is (or how thick-headed I am), I’ve been a serious Bible student for thirty-four years. I’ve read, studied, and taught on David’s confrontation with Goliath more times than I can count. I thought I knew the story until I read this book. If you think you know all about this historic encounter, you’re in for a real treat.

I trust you enjoyed this little slice of my library. If any of the titles intrigued you, don’t be shy. Hop out on Amazon or go to your favorite book store (or library) and pick one of them up. You won’t regret it.


[1] Believe it or not, this comes from my chosen “life verse” 1 Corinthians 11:17. From the days of my late teens, it has been a continual reminder to me that gathering together should result in net benefit, not harm.

[2] CLEP – College Level Examination Program. It is a great way to rack up college credits for pennies on the dollar. The tests usually cost around $90. Scoring well on the Spanish test is worth 12 credits. Not bad for a couple of hours in the evening.