Best & Worst of 2019

This year I set a new personal record for number of books and pages read (134 books, 42,308 pages), and the last book I finished was my 1,000th book since I started keeping track in 2008 (and I didn’t even plan it that way!). Without further ado, here are my best & worst lists for the year (excludes rereads). Let’s start with the worst of the year, so we can end on a positive note:

Worst of the Year (Fiction & Non-fiction)

  1. Why Poetry Sucks: [absurdly long subtitle that I’m not going to reproduce here] by Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball – While trying to show that poetry can be amusing, these authors simply demonstrate how much pretentious experimental poetry does indeed suck.
  2. Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng – Why, oh why would you spin such an interesting premise around such a creepy/pervy plot point?!
  3. Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block – I didn’t bother to review this, but it is essentially crime noir starring an exploitive misogynistic cad who “wins” in the end through mental and physical abuse of a female partner-turned-victim
  4. Preacher Sam by Cassondra Windwalker – This had everything that I dislike about “Christian fiction”: repetitive morbid introspection, shoehorned-in romance, shoddy plotting, etc.
  5. The Little Drummer Girl by John LeCarré – This anti-Israeli thriller earns LeCarré the “honor” of being the first author to appearing on both my best and worst lists in the same year.

Dishonorable Mention: Atonement by Ian McEwan – This is another one I didn’t review. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of literary masterpiece, but I thought it was just overwritten and self-indulgent.

Best Fiction

  1. Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja – I feel a little silly selecting this ridiculous “military sci-fi” book for top honors, but I guess I really needed a good laugh this year.
  2. O Alienista (The Alienist) by Machado de Assis – My first time reading a Brazilian classic was a great success with this satire about psychiatry & science
  3. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy – This is basically philosophy wrapped in story. It’s the kind of thing I usually hate in Christian fiction, but Tolstoy makes it work.
  4. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to impress. Macbeth retold as a gritty, slightly over the top crime drama works quite well.
  5. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – This tale of the glory and horror of war provides a surprisingly humanising portrait of the 300 Spartans and their allies.

Honorable Mention: Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarré – This isn’t anywhere near the level of his Cold War novels, but it was a solid spy story.

Best Non-Fiction

  1. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre – Macintyre makes the “best of” list two years running with another fascinating true spy story culminating in an edge-of-your-seat exfiltration attempt.
  2. How Long, O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson – This provides a compassionate yet solid biblical framework for understanding suffering and evil.
  3. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion by Rebecca McLaughlin – McLaughlin’s thoughtful answers demonstrate the continuing value and viability of Christianity
  4. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild – I finally knocked this off my TBR. Reading about such exploitation and suffering is difficult, but important. Those who forget history…
  5. The Proverbs of Middle Earth by David Rowe – This fed my Tolkien-geek soul…and it’s based entirely on the books, so that’s an added bonus!

Honorable Mention: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward – “King James Onlyism” is one of my pet peeves, and this book ably defends and promotes vernacular Bible translations without denigrating the venerable KJV.

Plans for Next Year

This year the two challenges I was in were fun, but I felt a little locked into reading certain books, so in 2020 I’m not planning on entering any challenges. I don’t think that I’ll read anywhere near as many books because quite a few of the titles on my TBR are in the 500-1000 page range. I’m going to set my goal at 78 books (2 books every 3 weeks) with an average page count around 400 pages/book.

Well, that’s it for this year. Happy New Year, everyone!

Christianity & Roman Culture

Title: Destroyer of the gods:
Early Christian Distinctives in the Roman World
Author: Larry W. Hurtado
Genre: Church History
Pages: 260
Rating: 4 of 5

Larry Hurtado explores ways in which Christians and Christianity diverged radically from the religious landscape of the Roman Empire in the first three centuries AD/CE. The characteristics he describes are largely inherited from Judaism but were regarded as bizarre, offensive, and/or antisocial in Christians who were not ethnically Jewish and thus were abandoning their duties to the gods. The points he discusses included:

  • Belief in only one God and absolute refusal to participate in the worship of any other deities (and a confusing identification of Jesus with God…a major divergence from Judaism)
  • A reliance on written Scripture
  • Behavioral requirements and community values significantly more restrictive than Roman culture at large – especially in the value of human life (opposing abortion, the exposure of infants, and gladiatorial games) and sexuality (limiting it to marriage in a culture where men were pretty free to sleep with anyone who wasn’t married or a freeborn virgin).

The author presents the beliefs and practices of the early Christians fairly neutrally, mostly refraining from evaluating their truth or even elaborating on specific beliefs about Jesus (e.g. he’s pretty coy about the exact relationship between Jesus and God the Father). He generally accepts the books of the New Testament as accurately representative of the dominant early form of Christianity though he does seem to consider many of them to be pseudonymous.

The main text of the book is complemented by copious end notes (over 40% of the page count) in which the author interacts with other scholarly works relating to early Christianity and the culture/religion of the Roman Empire. In these notes he generally argues against positions that seek to radically reinterpret or call into question the reliability of early witnesses.

Even though I have some disagreements with the author (e.g. he doesn’t seem to hold as “high” a view as Scripture as I do), I found this to be a profitable and fascinating look at the tension between early Christians and the predominant culture of their day. It has interesting implications for how it has affected the way people in general now think about religion (one of his main points throughout) and for how Christians should be distinctive today (something he doesn’t really explore).