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?