Well, it’s almost here: the end of 2017. It’s been a long and particularly busy year for me, full of exciting new experiences and important milestones. I did a decent amount of writing this year, but unfortunately didn’t get around to reading as many new books as I maybe would have liked. This year’s list might be shorter, but it’s still a list of books I read this year and absolutely loved, books that I think more people should read. The list is more varied across genre than it was last year–maybe I’m branching out a bit more–which means there should be something for everyone here. If you’re looking for something to pick up in the coming new year, consider giving one of these a try.
1. The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
High above the planet Florinia, the Squires of Sark live in unimaginable wealth and comfort. Down in the eternal spring of the planet, however, the native Florinians labor ceaselessly to produce the precious kyrt that brings prosperity to their Sarkite masters.
Living among the workers of Florinia, Rik is a man without a memory or a past. He has been abducted and brainwashed. Barely able to speak or care for himself when he was found, Rik is widely regarded as a simpleton by the worker community where he lives. As his memories begin to return, however, Rik finds himself driven by a cryptic message he is determined to deliver: Everyone on Florinia is doomed…the Currents of Space are bringing destruction. But if the planet is evacuated, the power of Sark will end–so there are those who would kill the messenger. The fate of the Galaxy hangs in the balance.
Isaac Asimov didn’t just write about robots; he wrote space opera too, and The Currents of Space showcases Asimov’s skill and ingenuity, his ability to write a story both entertaining and meaningful. I already reviewed this one back in August, and I don’t want to simply retread what I said then, so I’ll say this: it’s short, it’s sweet, and it’s Asimov. That’s a winning combination in my book.
2. Soul Survivor by Phillip Yancey
Philip Yancey, one of America’s leading Christian thinkers and author of more than a dozen books with sales of more than five million copies, returns for his most profound and soul-searching books yet. Soul Survivor is the story of his own struggle to reclaim his belief, interwoven with inspiring portraits of notable people from all walks of life who have succeeded in the pursuit of an authentic faith.
Readers will find these inspiring portraits both nurture and challenge for their own understanding of authentic faith. Yancey fans will devour these new glimpses of how he has held onto faith while acknowledging with utter honesty its inherent difficulties. New Yancey readers will be drawn in by the theme of faith versus religion and drawn along a compelling narrative of signposts on a spiritual journey.
Taking a hard left turn away from old-style space opera, Soul Survivor is an intensely personal theological journey. There is a lot that can be said about this book, and I have no doubt that much of it has been said, by better writers and thinkers than me. All I have to add is one of my impressions of it: Phillip Yancey writes about himself, and the effects his mentors have had on him over the years, but at no time does Soul Survivor come off as self-centered or self-serving or in any way driven by some ulterior motive. It is written out of a desire to help others, and it does help. Despite being, as I said, very personal, the themes explored in this book are, if not universal, than very wide spread and applicable to a wide swathe of people. This allows what could have been a lagging memoir to become something much, much deeper.
3. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
In It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein identify two overriding problems that have led Congress—and the United States—to the brink of institutional collapse. The first is the serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. Second, while both parties participate in tribal warfare, both sides are not equally culpable. The political system faces what the authors call “asymmetric polarization,” with the Republican Party implacably refusing to allow anything that might help the Democrats politically, no matter the cost.
I generally try to avoid the political commentary section of my local library, since it’s all too often filled with incendiary, up-to-the-minute hot takes about a certain party or political figure, books that rarely age well. This is not one of those books. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks is a thoughtful, measured commentary on the increasing polarization of American politics. The two authors are congressional scholars whose analysis is balanced and avoids hyperbole, even when it seems warranted. Though it was published in 2012, Mann and Ornstein’s observations in this book have overwhelmingly held up and still apply to the current state of things. If you read any book of political commentary, make it this one.
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, stands as the supreme achievement of his career. This exemplary novel of the Jazz Age has been acclaimed by generations of readers. The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s.
I’m not going to recommend The Great Gatsby for its plot, because honestly the plot itself is of middling quality, and I’m not going to recommend it for being a classic, because enough people do that already. What I will recommend it for is its writing. The genius of The Great Gatsby is the atmosphere, the way the narrator maintains a distinctly lonely and almost detached feeling even while describing the events of a wild party or a tense emotional showdown. This is an element that tends to be lost in adaptations (particularly Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version), and thus I recommend the book. It’s a novel that speaks of loneliness, obsession, loss, and even spiritual emptiness, wrapped up in the glittery coating of 1920s New York. The preponderance of those themes in every page of the narrative is, again, something that gets lost easily, and is in my opinion the best reason to read the book. That kind of writing should be experienced for itself.
5. 1984 by George Orwell
Winston Smith toes the Party line, rewriting history to satisfy the demands of the Ministry of Truth. With each lie he writes, Winston grows to hate the Party that seeks power for its own sake and persecutes those who dare to commit thoughtcrimes. But as he starts to think for himself, Winston can’t escape the fact that Big Brother is always watching…
A startling and haunting vision of the world, 1984 is so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the influence of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions—a legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.
It’s 1984. What more do I have to say? If you haven’t read this book you should, because it’s a classic and it’s always relevant, and it’s good to have a firm grip on the book that people are constantly, constantly referencing in political debates. But while we’re here, let me add this: don’t stop at 1984. Read more of Orwell. Shooting the Elephant in particular is the number one piece of writing from Orwell that’s I’d recommend, but read Animal Farm, too. Read Down and Out in Paris and London. Read Burmese Days, if you have the patience for it. Try to really understand Orwell’s philosophies and politics. He had contributions to literature beyond what was thought of in 1984, and though 1984 is undoubtedly one of his best, it’s not his only work. This is a recommended books list, but really I’d like to recommend the author. Start with 1984, maybe, but don’t stop there.
Five recommended books for 2017. As 2018 bears down on us, I hope this list is helpful to you in finding new books to read, and I hope to find more books for myself next year than I did this year. For now, until my next post: Feliz Navidad, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year to all.