Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 non-fiction

As promised, I'm back with my favorite non-fiction books of 2015. In no particular order, here goes:

The Big Short by Michael Lewis. I'm a big fan of Lewis, who also wrote The Blind Side and Money Ball, as well as the next book on this list. I just finished The Big Short, which profiles the personalities and institutions involved in the 2008 financial crisis precipitated by the mess with subprime lending. As a lawyer and banker who has had some limited (thank goodness) exposure to, and fair amount of knowledge regarding, the subject matter (although even with that, a lot of this was over my head), this was a fascinating story for me. I have not yet seen the movie but plan to do so in the near future.

Home Game by Michael Lewis. Another great one by Lewis, this is a comical yet poignant narrative of his experiences as a dad of three. Anyone who has had the privilege of raising children is likely to laugh and cry at Lewis's honest account of fatherhood.

How God Became King by N. T. Wright. Any Christian would benefit from a very slow reading of this Anglican's priest's perspective on the holiness and deity of Jesus. I say slow because much of this is so deep that I had to read parts of it a couple of times to let it sink in. You might also have some long-held assumptions challenged.

Interrupted by Jen Hatmaker. Oh my gosh, Jen Hatmaker is one of my new favorite people I have never met. She is hilariously funny but her convictions regarding the church brought me to my knees. This is the story of the church she and pastor-husband Brandon started in Austin, Texas, a radical and vibrant congregation that is leaving an indelible imprint on the community. I believe God has been trying to teach me about social justice for most of my adult life. Jen's book is one of His latest tools.

Scary Close by Donald Miller. I've been a fan since Blue Like Jazz. This latest installment chronicles Miller's personal journey of allowing himself to be loved. He and wife Betsy, the subject of much of the book, now live near me and I'm hoping someone will introduce us before I have to stalk them.

My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg. This Alabama native and resident has outdone himself with this compilation of essays about life in the South. I had the privilege of hearing him speak and read from this at the Southern Festival of Books a couple of months ago in Nashville. Of all the adjectives I could use to describe Bragg's writing, one stands above them all: beautiful.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. This story of the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team and its quest for gold. I don't know the first thing about rowing but I loved this book.

You'll Get Through This by Max Lucado. A couple of years ago, while serving as chairman of the board of a local non-profit, I made opening remarks at a dinner where Max spoke, a day after the release of You'll Get Through This, which contains practical advice for making it through challenging times, applying sound Scriptural principles. He also includes stories of those who applied those principles and "made it through." He gave copies to all of us in attendance. Some two years later, when I hit a rough patch of my own, I read the book. Max was right -- I got through it. It wasn't necessarily painless and it wasn't necessarily quick (which Max writes in the book), but with God's grace and kindness, I got through it.

Jesus, Bread and Chocolate by John J. Thompson.  I met the author at a local brewery last spring. He was sitting next to me and had a pre-release copy of this book, which has as its subtitle, "Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World." Thompson shared with me a bit about the book's content, which includes an account of his personal faith journey, as well as stories of friends he has made who have abandoned "mass market" products in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables, hand-made furniture, specialty dark chocolate, craft-brewed beer (a portion of the book describes the brewery where I met Thompson) and boutique coffee shops. And believe it or not, he weaves in an interesting parallel with the Gospel -- and it works. It was a few months after meeting him that I finally got a copy of Thompson's book and read it, but I am very glad I did.

So that's it for non-fiction in 2015. It was a good year of reading and I already have a stack for 2016. And as always, I'm open to suggestions and recommendations.

Happy New Year to all.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Warm temperatures and another international Christmas Eve

Having grown up in the South, I am not unaccustomed to varying types of weather at Christmas. I can remember Christmases as a child when temperatures hovered around 80 degrees and I wore shorts, and I can remember some, although not many, when there was snow and ice.

During the 18 years I have lived in the Nashville area, which is a bit farther north than south and central Arkansas, where I lived previously, it has, more times than not, been fairly cold at Christmas. I can remember there being snow and/or ice on the ground maybe two or three times.

We almost always attend an 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service which ends at midnight, when Christmas Day officially begins. I remember one year we walked out and it had begun snowing, It was magical.

We associate Christmas with cold weather and many of the traditional Christmas songs don't even mention Christmas -- the lyrics are about snow, sleigh rides and getting in out of the cold.

Welcome to Christmas 2015 in Middle Tennessee. It's a balmy 66 degrees outside and we're expecting thunderstorms later today. The forecast is 73 for Christmas Eve, 72 Christmas Day and 75 the day after! So any thoughts of a White Christmas are only in our dreams, for sure.

I understand it's similar for much of the Southeast and even the Northeast will experience higher than normal temps over the holiday weekend. Apparently it's all due to some Atlantic high pressure system.

It's doubtful we'll be roasting any chestnuts over an open fire, unless we just want to crank up the AC and force the ambiance.


If you have read this blog over the years, you know that our family celebrates Christmas Eve with an international theme. Each year we pick a different country or region and we decorate, dress and eat according to the traditions of the area we have chosen.

It all started when Wife, years ago, said she would like to prepare something different on Christmas Eve and told us she was going to prepare Mexican food. To add atmosphere, we strung up red pepper lights in the dining room and played a recording of "Feliz Navidad" over and over.

It was so much fun that a new tradition was birthed and since that time we have celebrated Italian, Greek, Asian, French, Caribbean and German Christmas Eves. The dress, decorations and food have gotten a bit more elaborate and it has become a highlight of the Christmas season for us.

This year is England, mate, and a meal of beef wellington, Yorkshire pudding and other yummy dishes are planned. I've spied a few British relics here and there that I'm sure Wife is planning to use to add atmosphere. We are also having "afternoon tea" which will morph into "evening pub."

It will be another grand time.

Older Son and DIL, and Daughter and SIL will be with the in-law families Christmas Day. Wife, Younger Son and I plan a non-traditional day of seeing a movie, bowling and dinner out.

We'll have a postponed Christmas Day celebration on the 26th.

Wherever you are, and whether you are warm or cool this Christmas -- and it really shouldn't matter, should it? -- I hope it's a very joyful one for you and your family, and I hope 2016 brings many blessings.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Recent column

Here are two recent installments of "What I Know:"

Nov. 30

Dec. 7

Monday, December 7, 2015

2015 favorite fiction

          Although it's not quite the end of the year, it's close enough for me to list some of my favorite reads of the year.

            As usual, there is no rhyme or reason to the books I read. I get most of the books I read from the library and I read largely based on recommendations from others or a book review I might catch in the paper or a magazine. At the time I'm writing this, I have read 36 books this year, which is a substantial increase from the past several years, when I averaged about 2 per month. Maybe the books I read this year were shorter on average than in past years or maybe I am reading faster.

            It looks like a little less than half are non-fiction. Again, no system there. I don't set out to read a set number of fiction vs. non-fiction; I just take them as they come. For this blog post, I am only going to refer to fiction. I'll come back later and tell you about my favorite non-fiction picks of 2015.

            As I look back over the list, I realize I liked nearly every book I read. I have a rule that if I don't like a book after 50 pages, I'll allow myself to put it down. That didn't happen at all this year, although there's one I wish I had given up on, and I'll start there.

           The Nashville Public Library (not the library I use; we live in a suburb a few miles south with a great local library) has a wonderful series where they bring in authors from time to time. It's free, and it always surprises me when I go and there are so few people there. For example, yesterday afternoon we heard Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie and Five People You Meet in Heaven. He was extremely interesting and entertaining and I would estimate there were less than 100 people there.

             But I digress.
              Earlier this year, Wife and I went to hear Annie Barrows, author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. We both read that book several years ago and loved it. Barrows is primarily a children's author and Guernsey was her first adult novel.

              As it turns out, she co-wrote Guernsey, as she explained when we heard her speak. Her aunt was in the middle of writing it when she became ill. When she knew she was going to die, she asked Barrows to help her, and complete the book for her when she was gone. As I said, Wife and I loved it.

              Barrows was a great speaker. Her second novel, The Truth According to Us, had just been published when we heard her, and she read from it. I felt sure I would like it as well as I liked Guernsey, so I got it. I even purchased it, which is rare for me.

               After 50 pages, I was not impressed, but I just knew it would get better, so I kept going. At 100 pages it was still dragging for me, but since I'm a borderline obsessive-compulsive rule follower, even when the rules are self-imposed, I stuck with it to the end. After all, I had gone past page 50 and rules are rules. (I need help, I know that). Unfortunately, I just didn't like it.

                Bet let's not dwell on the negative. Here are some of the ones I liked:

                Still Alice by Lisa Genova. This is the story of a college professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer's and how she and her family deal with it. Because I have not dealt with a close family member who has had this horrible disease, I was able to read it with great interest and it was also a great story. I've heard from some who have had close family with Alzheimer's that it was just too close to home and they couldn't do it, and I certainly get that. I have not seen the movie of the same name and probably won't. Although I have heard it's good, movies made from books I like rarely live up to my expectations.

               Genova also wrote Inside the O'Briens, which I also read this year, which is also about a family dealing with disease, this time Huntington's. Although the story did not grab me as much as Still Alice, it was still interesting and well written.

                All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This was probably my favorite book of the year, and also Wife's. It's set during World War II, and traces parallel stories of a French girl and a German boy. I don't want to give you any more detail for fear of being a spoiler, but please go buy this book or check it out at the library. It's a beautiful read and I can almost promise you will be enriched.

                Here are the three funniest and quirkiest fiction books I read this year, all from foreign authors:

                What Alice Forgot by Lillian Moriarty, about a woman who has a concussion, forgets she has three children and must become reacquainted with them. Set in Australia, it's a poignant story but also hilariously funny.

                 The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. If memory serves, this is another one set in Australia, about a college professor with a mild form of Autism who finds love in a most unlikely place.

                 A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. This one takes place in Sweden and if you have ever had a lovable curmudgeon in your life, this book might be for you. I laughed out loud.

                  I read the final book in Ken Follett's Century trilogy, which started pre-World War I. This one, Edge of Eternity, ends with Obama's election to the presidency. Over a thousand pages just like the other two, I enjoyed it but I was glad to be done with the series.

                  And speaking of series, I thoroughly enjoyed Jan Karon's Come Rain or Come Shine, her latest installment in the Father Tim series (which succeeded the Mitford series), and The Splendor of Ordinary Days, the third in Tennessee author Jeff High's Water Valley series.

                   I would also give honorable mention to The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani; Peace Like a River by Leif Enger; Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult; and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

                    So there you have it. As usual, so many books and not enough time. I'll be back soon with my favorite non-fiction of the year.