Friday, December 22, 2017

Best of 2017 (the Books)

It’s December which means an endless run of “best of”  articles, segments, slideshows and lists. To which every year I add my own.  This week and next week rather than the usual article on my life and my struggles I'm going to be posting my favorite movies and books of 2017.  

Today am going to talk about my top 10 favorite books of 2017.  There is no particular order to this list just the 10 books that most enjoyed reading this year.

I set a goal for 2017 of 100 books.  Which is way too many books. I ended up, as of writing this having read 127 books total.  That is between physical books and audiobooks. I spend a lot of time working on the computer and audiobooks are almost always on while I work. I liked an awful lot of these books but I always try to condense this down to 10 or so to share with you.

Out of that stack of 123 here are my favorites

I’m including the synopsis from Amazon in black and my thoughts in blue

Billy - William Paul McKay
We all know how the story ends but how did it begin? Before he became a household name, and America's Pastor, he was simply known as Billy.  When he wasn't playing baseball, he was discovering his love for Christian ministry.  His best friend, Charles Templeton, was already on track to be a highly successful evangelist and the two young men began strategizing on how to win the world for Christ. That plan takes a drastic turn, however, when Templeton deserts the faith and becomes an atheist. The impact of this decision on a young Billy Graham is immeasurable and agonizing. Charles would later become the great intellectual architect for agnosticism and atheism.  Billy would become the single greatest messenger for the Christian Gospel.  It is one of the great untold dramas between friends - Atheism vs Christianity, betrayal and hope. 
Set in contrast with the life of his friend and contemporary Charles Templeton who famously lost his faith in the height of their popularity.  Billy was an excellent biography and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone. There is also a movie of the same name which stars Armie Hammer (the Lone Ranger) as Billy graham and its an excellent movie as well.

All the Clever Words on Pages - Paul Matthew Harrison
Aaron Weiss--the eccentric frontman of the eclectic indie rock band mewithoutYou--is revealed here through a decade of friendship with the author, Paul Harrison. Set to the backdrop of mewithoutYou emerging from the post-hardcore scene in 2000 and signing with Tooth & Nail records, this book follows Aaron's spiritual life through its many incarnations. In a state of breakdown and disillusionment with this life and his faith, Paul found Aaron at Cornerstone Festival in 2005. Aaron invited Paul to live with him in Philadelphia that Christmas, starting what would become a lifelong friendship. Recounted here is a year-by-year account of their spiritual conversations, philosophical and religious ponderings on belief and doubt, books they traded and discussed, and the affection, affirmation, support, and love they shared over a decade through continual struggle, loss, and change. Part spiritual memoir, part portrait of Aaron Weiss, and part band biography of mewithoutYou, this is a classic example of the power of music to change lives and of lyricists to become gurus, even if reluctant ones. This book is not a biography about Aaron--it's bigger than that. It serves as a memoir of the inherent difficulties in navigating the complicated landscape of faith, music, relationships, and morality. Whether you came to this book as a fan of mewithoutYou, or out of love and curiosity about Aaron Weiss, or are a person who has lived through similar struggles with belief and doubt like me and Paul, you'll love this book. -- Matthew Putman (Eso-Charis, Living Sacrifice, Snailhuntr, Unwed Sailor, Lovedrug, Bear Colony, Chase Pagan) I'm looking forward to denying the validity of everything you wrote. Edward Said said the difference between representation and misrepresentation is a matter of degree . . . not do we get it wrong, but how wrong? -- Aaron Weiss (The Operation, mewithoutYou)
If you are a fan of the band this is a must read.  Even if you have never heard of them though its a very interesting story told in a truly original way.

Steve McQueen the Salvation of and American Icon - Greg Laurie
Join Greg Laurie as he takes a cross-country drive in his 1968 Highland Green Ford Mustang 390 GT through the canyons of Malibu, the alleys of Hollywood, the wide and open roads of the Midwest, the streets of New York, as he traces the wooly geography of actor Steve McQueen's life, relationships, career, and spiritual journey. This iconic muscle car was the vehicle McQueen drove in his most raucous and enduring film, Bullitt. In the 1960s, McQueen was, according to box office receipts, the biggest movie star of his generation and one of the coolest men to ever walk the planet. Greg Laurie was a teen at the time and an ardent fan of ''The King of Cool", first mesmerized by McQueen in 1963's The Great Escape. Like millions of cinema fans, Greg developed a lifelong fascination with the actor. Now he has a chance to tell McQueen's story.
McQueen was a complex, contradictory man who lived the same way he drove his motorcycles and cars: fearlessly, ruthlessly, and at top speed. After a lifetime of fast cars, women, and drugs, McQueen took a surprising detour. In this book, Laurie thoughtfully interviews members of Steve McQueen's family, friends, co-stars, associates, widow, and pastor to tell of the dramatic life change for the actor in the spring of 1979 - six months before McQueen was diagnosed with terminal cancer. What were the critical steps that led McQueen to make such a life-altering decision? Perhaps more importantly, why is that part of his story so rarely told? This book answers these questions.
Greg Laurie will follow the seeds of Christianity that were sown throughout McQueen's improbable life where a Light finally shone into the darkness of his troubled life. These seeds miraculously germinated, allowing McQueen to see that redemption through Jesus Christ is a lasting truth more glittering and real than any magic of the entertainment industry.
I was walking through a Lifeway store and the cover photo of Steve McQueen caught my eye. What are the odds of a picture of Steve McQueen being in a christian book store. My mom was a big Steve McQueen fan and growing up I watched a lot of his movies.  My favorite of which is the Great Escape.  I decided to pick the book up and once I started I couldn’t put it down. This is a book that I am guaranteed to go back to. It was recently optioned for a movie as well produced by both Greg Laurie and Mel Gibson.

The Devil in Pew Number 7 - Becky Alonzo
Rebecca never felt safe as a child. In 1969, her father, Robert Nichols, moved to Sellerstown, North Carolina, to serve as a pastor. There he found a small community eager to welcome him - with one exception. Glaring at him from pew number seven was a man obsessed with controlling the church. Determined to get rid of anyone who stood in his way, he unleashed a plan of terror that was more devastating and violent than the Nichols family could have ever imagined. Refusing to be driven away by acts of intimidation, Rebecca's father stood his ground until one night when an armed man walked into the familys kitchen...and Rebecca's life was shattered.
If anyone had a reason to harbor hatred and seek personal revenge, it would be Rebecca. Yet The Devil in Pew Number Seven tells a different story. It is the amazing true saga of relentless persecution, one family's faith and courage in the face of it, and a daughter whose parents taught her the power of forgiveness.
I saw this book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. I took a picture of it so I could research later. After just reading the Amazon description I knew I had to read this book.
I grew up in small country churches where occasionally it seemed at least that one person or family ran roughshod over the pastor. Blocking anything he wanted to do and making sure everyone knew that the real authority was with them.  
This book, a true story of the author’s family’s struggle with such a person and the violence that eventually followed.  One man’s decade long terror campaign on a pastor and his family including multiple bombings all taking place not in some mission field overseas but in a rural South Carolina town.
This is a story of faith, violence and unimaginable forgiveness that I think everyone should read.

Kill the Spider - Carlos Whittaker
Are you tired of trying to live for Christ - only to fail time and time again with the same old behaviors? Do you pray for guidance, ask for deliverance, and vow to do better yet fail to progress?
As an author, speaker, pastor, and blogger at Ragamuffin Soul, Carlos has lived much of his spiritual life in the spotlight. But like any Christian, his faith story has its ups and downs. He spent decades trying to figure out how to be a "better person." Time and time again, he strived for holiness only to get caught in the web of destructive habits, behaviors, and thought patterns.
But the buck stops here. Or, rather, the spider is killed here.
In Kill the Spider, Carlos shares personal material ranging from hilarious, self-deprecating stories to passion-filled wisdom - to show others it's not enough to try to "stop sinning". He teaches that knocking out deep-rooted habits and issues comes by treating the issue, not just the symptoms.
With transparency, humor, and vulnerable stories, Carlos offers a breath of fresh air to any believer looking to finally step into the freedom in Christ. So sit down. Start listening to the book. And grab a shoe. We're going on a spider hunt
I heard Carlos Whittaker on an episode of the Carey Nieuwhof podcast and the way they told part of his story but kept the meat of it mysterious made me look the book up afterwords.  Kill the Spider is all about failure, how to deal with it and how to move on.  The author made some pretty big mistakes by any standards let alone a pastor and through the grace of God and his wife he was able to be restored.  This made me look for things in my own life that might be hiding in the corner of my life. Overlooked, brushed aside but possibly housing a spider that if left unchecked could grow to be a true danger to me, my family and ministry.

The Black Dahlia Red Rose - Piu Eatwell
With startling new evidence, this gripping reexamination of the Black Dahlia murder offers a definitive theory of a quintessential American crime.
Los Angeles, 1947. A housewife out for a walk with her baby notices a cloud of black flies buzzing ominously in Leimert Park. An "unsightly object" is identified as the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, an aspiring starlet from Massachusetts who had been lured west by the siren call of Hollywood. Her killer would never be found, but Short’s death would bring her the fame she had always sought. Her murder investigation transformed into a real-life film noir, featuring corrupt cops, femmes fatales, gun-slinging gangsters, and hungry reporters, replete with an irresistible, legendary moniker adapted from a recent film―The Black Dahlia.
For over half a century this crime has maintained an almost mythic place in American lore as one of our most inscrutable cold cases. With the recently unredacted FBI file, newly released sections of the LAPD file, and exclusive interviews with the suspect’s family, relentless legal sleuth Piu Eatwell has gained unprecedented access to evidence and persuasively identified the culprit. Black Dahlia, Red Rose layers these findings into a gritty, cinematic retelling of the haunting tale.
As Eatwell chronicles, among the first to arrive at the grisly crime scene was Aggie Underwood, the "tough-as-nails" city editor for the Los Angeles Evening Herald & Express; meanwhile, the chain-smoking city editor for the Los Angeles Examiner, Jimmy Richardson, sent out his own reporters. Eatwell reveals how, through a cutthroat race to break news and sell papers, the public image of Elizabeth Short was distorted from a violated beauty to a "man crazy delinquent." As rumors of various boyfriends circulated, the true story of the complex young woman ricocheting between jobs, lovers, and homes was lost. Instead, kitschy headlines tapped into a wider social anxiety about the city’s "girl problem," and Short’s black chiffon and smoldering gaze become a warning for "loose" women coming of age in postwar America.
Applying her own background as a lawyer to the surprising new evidence, Eatwell ultimately exposes many startling clues to the case that have never surfaced in public. From the discovery of Elizabeth’s notebook, inscribed with the name of the city’s most notorious and corrupt businessman, to a valid suspect plucked from the hundreds of "confessing Sams" by a brilliant, well-meaning doctor, Eatwell compellingly captures every "big break" in the police investigation to reveal a truly viable resolution to the case. In rich, atmospheric prose, Eatwell separates fact from fantasy to expose the truth behind the sinewy networks of a noir-tinged Hollywood. Black Dahlia, Red Rose at long last accords the Elizabeth Short case its due resolution, providing a reliable and enduring account of one of the most notorious unsolved murders in American history.
Black Dahlia Red Rose seeks to put to bed the mystery of this whodunit and finally lay bare the conspiracy and politics that let a killer go free. If you are at all interested in this murder or in true crime as a whole this is a book you need to read.  I’m personally convinced that this is no longer an unsolved murder.

Midnight Line - Lee Child
Reacher takes a stroll through a small Wisconsin town and sees a class ring in a pawn shop window: West Point 2005. A tough year to graduate: Iraq, then Afghanistan. The ring is tiny, for a woman, and it has her initials engraved on the inside. Reacher wonders what unlucky circumstance made her give up something she earned over four hard years. He decides to find out. And find the woman. And return her ring. Why not?
So begins a harrowing journey that takes Reacher through the upper Midwest, from a lowlife bar on the sad side of small town to a dirt-blown crossroads in the middle of nowhere, encountering bikers, cops, crooks, muscle, and a missing persons PI who wears a suit and a tie in the Wyoming wilderness.
The deeper Reacher digs, and the more he learns, the more dangerous the terrain becomes. Turns out the ring was just a small link in a far darker chain. Powerful forces are guarding a vast criminal enterprise. Some lines should never be crossed. But then, neither should Reacher.
This is surprisingly the only fiction book on my list this year.
I can’t imagine a year that a Jack Reacher book comes out and doesn’t make my top 10.  Midnight Line is the 22nd book in the series and it’s a pretty strong entry.
This is Jack Reacher doing what Jack does best. 
If you are a fan of the series you’ve probably already picked this up. If not this isn’t a bad place to start.

The Unlikely Disciple - Kevin Roose
No drinking.
No smoking.
No cursing.
No dancing.
No R-rated movies.
Kevin Roose wasn't used to rules like these. As a sophomore at Brown University, he spent his days drinking fair-trade coffee, singing in an a cappella group, and fitting right in with Brown's free-spirited, ultra-liberal student body. But when Roose leaves his Ivy League confines to spend a semester at Liberty University, a conservative Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia, obedience is no longer optional.
Liberty is the late Reverend Jerry Falwell's "Bible Boot Camp" for young evangelicals, his training ground for the next generation of America's Religious Right. Liberty's ten thousand undergraduates take courses like Evangelism 101, hear from guest speakers like Sean Hannity and Karl Rove, and follow a forty-six-page code of conduct that regulates every aspect of their social lives. Hoping to connect with his evangelical peers, Roose decides to enroll at Liberty as a new transfer student, leaping across the God Divide and chronicling his adventures in this daring report from the front lines of America's culture war.
His journey takes him from an evangelical hip-hop concert to choir practice at Falwell's legendary Thomas Road Baptist Church. He experiments with prayer, participates in a spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach (where he learns to preach the gospel to partying coeds), and pays a visit to Every Man's Battle, an on-campus support group for chronic masturbators. He meets pastors' kids, closet doubters, Christian rebels, and conducts what would be the last print interview of Rev. Falwell's life. 
Hilarious and heartwarming, respectful and thought-provoking, THE UNLIKELY DISCIPLE will inspire and entertain believers and nonbelievers alike.
I originally bought this book in July of 2012 but for some reason didn't read it.
I had just finished the book PTL and this book was recommended by Amazon as something similar that I might like.
I recognized the cover and sure enough I already owned it.
I wish I had read it 5 years ago. 
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mr Roose did an excellent job of not judging those he was attending school with.  He made friends, he joined bible studies and began to even enjoy prayer.  He even scored an interview for the school paper with Falwell himself.  It turned out to be the last interview Falwell gave before he passed away in May 2007.
I thought the book was a very interesting insight in to what the secular world initially thinks of Christians and how through relationship that can change.  Definitely worth a read.

More Than the Tattooed Mormon - Al Carraway
Al Fox Carraway has spent the last four years inspiring the world with her story of conversion, redemption, and finding faith. As a blogger, social media personality, and award-winning public speaker, her message has reached millions. This moving biography and up-close account of her life and membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes called the "LDS" or "Mormon" church) will show you what it means to truly trust in the Lord.
"Don't go, Al. You won't fit in."
Being baptized and following the Lord has made Al's life harder than it ever was before. She endured criticism from friends and family for becoming a Mormon. She faced harsh judgments from Church members for her appearance. She gave up everything and felt more alone than she ever had in her life. All because she chose God.
Now she shares an up-close look at how trusting God has led her to places she never expected. As a blogger, YouTuber, and award-winning public speaker, her message has reached millions. Sharing her love of the Savior, Al goes beyond her own conversion and encourages listeners to choose God above anything else. This uplifting audiobook inspires listeners to build a true relationship with the Lord that will bring them real, lasting happiness.
Conversion stories, are one of my favorite things.  Whether it is someone converting from one religion to another or from a life of no faith to that of the faithful (or vice versa) these are always interesting to me.
It was after finishing the Unlikely Disciple that this book appeared in the Amazon recommends section of my browser.
Having done an abnormal amount of reading about mormonism and knowing that tattoos are taboo I was intrigued to see how this played out.
Putting theology aside, the sheer optimism of this book blew me away.  I don not think I have ever come across anyone as cheerful as Al Carraway.  Just reading about how much she loves God and how she loves the scriptures (granted she’s not talking about the Bible) was infectious. She carries a physical copy everywhere. It made me want to dig into the word (the actual Bible) more.  It ignited a desire to read, to sit and just talk to God more.
This is the only book I read twice this year but I couldn’t help it.  I found myself in a bit of a funk and I needed something to pick me up to get me jazzed so I grabbed the audiobook too.  Listening to Al read and talk about her faith in God and His promises was a welcome change from my inner dialogue during that time.
I very much enjoy religious journeys seeing someones passion for what they believe sparks a passion in me even when what we believe is different.  
I almost left this book off my list because of our vast difference in theology but her attitude is something that was so refreshing I had to mention it.  It’s certainly an attitude that I want to foster in myself.

PTL - John Wigger
In 1974 Jim and Tammy Bakker launched their television show, the PTL Club, from a former furniture store in Charlotte, N.C. with half a dozen friends. By 1987 they stood at the center of a ministry empire that included their own satellite network, a 2300-acre theme park visited by six million people a year, and millions of adoring fans. The Bakkers led a life of conspicuous consumption perfectly aligned with the prosperity gospel they preached. They bought vacation homes, traveled first-class with an entourage and proclaimed that God wanted everyone to be healthy and wealthy. 
When it all fell apart, after revelations of a sex scandal and massive financial mismanagement, all of America watched more than two years of federal investigation and trial as Jim was eventually convicted on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy. He would go on to serve five years in federal prison. 
PTL is more than just the spectacular story of the rise and fall of the Bakkers, John Wigger traces their lives from humble beginnings to wealth, fame, and eventual disgrace. At its core, PTL is the story of a group of people committed to religious innovation, who pushed the boundaries of evangelical religion's engagement with American culture. 
Drawing on trial transcripts, videotapes, newspaper articles, and interviews with key insiders, dissidents, and lawyers, Wigger reveals the power of religion to redirect American culture. This is the story of a grand vision gone wrong, of the power of big religion in American life and its limits.
I loved this book!  I grew up in the 80’s and I remember when all of this was happening.  I vaguely remember seeing the PTL club on TV prior to the scandal but after it broke in 1987 it was all over the news and the late night talk shows.  I was only 9 at the time but when I was a kid we watched whatever my mom and grandpa watched.  At dinner overnight we watched the 5 o’clock news, of an evening it was Johnny Carson and David Letterman on Friday nights when we all stayed up. Saturday Night Live was on the only tv in the house on Saturday night after the news and while I drew or played with action figures I heard report after report, monologue after monologue about the scandal.
     This was another Barnes and Noble find. As soon as I saw it I knew it was something I was gonna read. I tried to put it off because I was used to buying books cheap on Amazon but it never came down in price and there were never used copies available. I finally broke down and bought it full price and it was worth it.
The book does an amazing job of telling the story without feeling like it is an indictment of religion. Mr Wigger’s personal religious views are never expressed or hinted at.  
You follow along in stunned amazement as decision after decision is made to line pockets or to proclaim the name of Bakker more than the name of God.
You shake your head as Jim spends millions he doesn’t have on his theme park (Heritage USA) and hotels.
You cringe as he begs for money and makes extravagant promises to his believing followers.
At one point he offered a lifetime membership in the PTL Club that came with 5 days 4 nights every year at Heritage USA to 25,000 people at $1000 a pop. The deal even came with a pewter statue of David and Goliath to symbolize them overcoming this giant of an obstacle of finishing their park.  I bought one of those statues myself last moth for $15 on eBay and it currently sets on my shelf directly below this book.
It was fascinating to read the story of the scandal as an adult. I only caught bits and pieces as a child through half listened to news stories and monologue jokes.
Just as interesting as the scandal was the aftermath as 2 prominent televangelists jockey for control of the Bakker media empire only to find out it is a house of cards.
I cannot recommend this book enough.  It’s informative, its entertaining and it is a true life example of why we always have to remember what we do is not about us.

Thanks for Reading

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