The Year in Books 2008

A little belatedly, I thought I would wrap up my 2008 reading with a list of the books I thought were the best of those I read. When I went back through my 2008 book reviews, I counted 131 books that I read (other than the Bible, which I read about one and a half times through), but only found five that really stood out as particularly important or noteworthy. I was a little surprised that they were all non-fiction selections, but there it is. The other books I read were good too, but these were the best. Last year I had 15 top picks, but maybe I’m just in a mood to pare things down right now!

Without further ado, here are the top five, in no particular order:

The Forgotten Man, by Amity Schlaes
Given the state of our economy, I would highly recommend you read “The Forgotten Man” by Amity Schlaes. It’s important that we understand the past so we can make better decisions in the future, and this book does a particularly excellent job of examining the economic ramifications of the New Deal and how the related policies of government affected the US economy during the Great Depression. Although this is not a light read, Schlaes’ writing style will hold your interest.

Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen
“Embryo” is a comprehensive academic work addressing the ethics of embryology (including when an individual life is established, IVF, stem cell research, and the like). The book is carefully written, and answers common objections and counterarguments thoroughly. I think it’s important that we think about and understand the implications of our beliefs, and I think most readers would find “Embryo” challenging and informative, no matter what your conclusions on the issues might be. It disturbs me that in so many ethical debates of our time people are quick to dismiss arguments out of hand without taking time to hear them or examine the logic (or lack thereof) behind them – it is to the authors’ credit that they carefully weigh their critics’ objections and answer them.

Endangered Minds, by Jane Healy
As an educational psychologist who has worked in public schools and universities as well as in neuroscience research, Healy uses breaking research and studies of educational progress to examine how children’s brains develop and how that development has changed in our media saturated society. This book is fascinating and illuminating, and would be helpful and instructive for parents or prospective parents as long as you can read it without completely freaking out. Healy’s intent, I think, was to encourage parents and teachers to understand their children and make informed choices about how to best nurture and educate them. Aside from parents and educators, readers with an interest in sociology would also find much of interest in “Endangered Minds,” particularly in the staggering statistics about how Western societies have changed in recent history.

Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate, by Jerry Bridges
“Respectable Sins” was one of the most convicting books I have read in a long time. Bridges contends that Christians get too comfortable with sins that “aren’t so bad” while congratulating ourselves that we aren’t sinning in really public or egregious ways. In the book, he gently but firmly describes some of the more common respectable sins, and invites the reader to consider the how those sins actually affect our relationships with God and others. I realize that often books like this can really impact one person but not particularly convict another, but I’d be surprised if anyone could read the whole volume without finding something to challenge him or her.

The Naturally Healthy Pregnancy, by Shonda Parker
“The Naturally Healthy Pregnancy” is probably the most helpful and encouraging book I’ve ever read about pregnancy. A lot of “natural” pregnancy books are written from a kind of weird perspective, but Parker is unapologetically Christian, which means the book is refreshingly free from New Age mumbo-jumbo and “birth as the goddess within” nonsense. Also refreshing is Parker’s careful refusal to condemn people who do things differently than she does; rather, she lays out the pros and cons of different methods and options and invites the reader to draw her own conclusions based on her own circumstances. The best part of the book is the discussion of various pregnancy symptoms and side effects, how they interact, and how changes in diet and lifestyle or taking herbs or medications can improve the mother’s situation or comfort during pregnancy.

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To see all of the book reviews I did in 2008, click here.

To see my top 15 books of 2007, click here.

To see all of the book reviews from 2007, click here.

And, as always, if you want to buy any of the books I’ve reviewed, I have them linked with the reviews in my Amazon widget in my right sidebar. Thanks!

The Week in Books 2008, No. 52

Up front, let me just say that A Mom Just Like You by Vickie Farris is not about homeschooling, except in passing, and chances are Vickie Farris is not a mom just like you. The book is actually more like Mrs. Farris’ memoir of her life as a mother, and as such was really interesting and encouraging. I love to hear/read about the choices people make and how they live their lives when they make those choices out of a particular philosophy or conviction rather than just doing whatever everyone else is doing.

Some of the most encouraging parts of the book were Mrs. Farris’ humility in identifying which parts of her family’s life are based on Scripture and which parts just work for them, but need not be normative for everyone. For example, in spite of her husband’s high profile as a homeschool activist, she doesn’t think every family is called to homeschool, or to do school the way she does, and so forth.

Another encouraging facet of the book was Mrs. Farris’ willingness to disclose the struggles and questions she has had along the way. Often I think mothers are reluctant to admit to having to wrestle with issues because they fear it will put a bad name on motherhood, but sometimes that comes at the expense of discouraging other moms. I found it refreshing to see that even a SuperMom like Mrs. Farris has really had to work through her convictions and even though her struggles are vastly different from my own it was helpful to see how God has blessed her family and caused her to grow spiritually through her role as a mother.

I would recommend this book if you find personal memoirs interesting, and if you’re not expecting a homeschool manifesto or manual.

The Week in Books 2008, No. 51

At long last I got my turn to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – I had been number 100 and something on the wait list! The book is popular for good reason. Using an unusual format of letters to and from an author and residents of the island of Guernsey in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the book features compelling characters, a good story, and a lot of information about how the war affected the Channel Islands. I particularly enjoyed the letter format, because it seems to be a format that is dying out in real life. People express themselves differently in a written letter than they do in an email or a Facebook comment, and I wish more people still communicated that way. The main character of the book learns so much about the residents of the island by the way they correspond, and I think the device is a particularly effective means of telling the story, though it may take you a while to get used to the lack of straight narrative.

Things We Wish We’d Known: A Guide to Abundant-Life Homeschooling is a collection of short essays by veteran homeschoolers about…wait for it…things they wish they had known when they started homeschooling. Unfortunately, the brevity of the essays keeps most of them from being very helpful. The gist of about 90% of the essays is “you don’t have to do public school at home when you’re homeschooling.” It was mildly interesting to read about the obstacles people faced in the early years of homeschooling, mostly because I remember some of those issues from the 4 years my brother and I were homeschooled in the early 1990s. I think there are probably many much more useful books about homeschooling, that would likely be more applicable to the challenges homeschoolers deal with now. The book is not terrible, I’m just not convinced it’s worth a read if you really want to dig into this topic.

The Week in Books 2008, No. 50

Rarely have I read a book as convicting as Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate by Jerry Bridges. Bridges’ thesis is that Christians are prone to congratulate ourselves for not sinning in “really bad” ways like the world around us, while overlooking the more socially acceptable ways we sin against God. Bridges uses Scripture to point to the fact that although we may overlook or write off certain sins, God does not, and our continuing to sin in respectable ways separates us from God and affects our witness to others. There were points in this book where I had to stop after every sentence to consider and pray over what was being discussed – it was that convicting. I would absolutely recommend this book to you, especially if you’re in a situation or phase of life where you’re mostly among other Christians or feeling pretty secure in your goodness. This book will probably make my top 15 for the year.

That Hideous Strength is the third in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, although it takes place in England not in space. The book is the most obvious in it’s spiritual implications, causing readers to think about what angels really might be like, how people choose between God and Satan, the process of thought that takes people down the road to evil, how ideas affect actions, and so on. I think the book can stand alone, although you’d likely enjoy it more if you’ve read the first two books in the trilogy, “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Perelandra.” As I’ve mentioned before, I’m quite impressed with this trilogy, but then again it is C.S. Lewis.

Sorry to hit you with two book posts so close together, but I got to a late start last week and need to stay on track to finish the year!

The Week in Books 2008, No. 49

Cooking Among Friends: Meal Planning and Preparation Delightfully Simplified
presents yet another approach to freezer cooking, this time suggesting assembling a group of friends who will each cook in bulk and then get together to exchange meals in the group. I thought the recipes in this book sounded good – especially if you don’t like to do just casserole type meals all the time.

The drawback I could see to this method is that it seems like there is no real way to make it financially equal. The book presents various ideas for how to divvy up costs, but none of them really make sense if you’re a bargain shopper, unless everyone else in your group is too. I like Monica’s idea about everyone bringing their own meat etc a lot better in that respect.

Still, if you’re interested in the whole freezer cooking party scenario, you might find some good ideas in this book.

The Week in Books 2008, No. 48

I have to say up front that doing the whole cook for 30 days all at once thing is a completely overwhelming concept for me. I much prefer the idea of just doubling a recipe I’m cooking anyway to have on hand for nights I don’t have time to cook an entire meal from scratch. However, if you’re up for the marathon cooking day thing, The Freezer Cooking Manual from 30 Day Gourmet: A Month of Meals Made Easy will be helpful for you. I thought the best thing about the recipes was the fact that they have all the ingredients listed by the number of meals you plan to make – one through six, so you don’t have to figure out the changes in proportions as you go along. Some of the recipes looked better than others, and some frankly seemed kind of silly to make as freezer meals. I mean, if the whole recipe is putting a piece of meat in a crockpot with some onion soup, just put a piece of meat in your crockpot with onion soup the day of, you know? That said, there is a lot of useful information in the book, and I think it’s a helpful resource.

The Best Freezer Cookbook: 100 Freezer Friendly Recipes, Plus Tips and Techniques has some good insights on how to freeze fresh produce if you garden or have farmer’s market surplus on hand, including detailed charts on how to best freeze different fruits and vegetables. The recipes contained in the book are a little more gourmet than other freezer cookbooks I’ve read, but because I think it’s a tacit law, there IS a chili mac recipe (seriously, what is up with the plethora of chili mac recipes in this genre of cookbook???). Another good section is a set of suggestions for how you might prepare in advance for entertaining by making some of the dishes in advance and freezing them so you’re not too exhausted on the day of the party to actually enjoy it.

Frozen Assets Lite and Easy : How to Cook for a Day and Eat for a Month follows a plan of “mini sessions” of bulk cooking based around a given type of meat. So, for example, if you found chicken on sale somewhere, you could make 5 different meals out of chicken and freeze them to have later. The book contains a wide variety of recipes, going beyond regular chicken and ground beef to include mini sessions using crab, tofu, and other vegetarian options. Some of the recipes seemed a little repetitive but if your family likes to eat the same genre of food once a week but with different types of meat, you might not mind it. If I were to really use the book, I’d make up my own mini sessions just using the recipes I think we’d like. I did mark a few to try out, and it’s nice to know in advance that they will freeze well so I can make some extras for later.

Fix, Freeze, Feast: Prepare in Bulk and Enjoy by the Serving – More than 125 Recipes is a cook in advance and freeze meals cookbook based on the idea of buying those big tray packs of meat at a warehouse store and using one pack per recipe. If that is the way you buy meat, you might like the way these recipes are designed. I tend to buy meat in large quantities when I find a big sale, but the quantity of meat in the tray pack is given, so you could just as easily use this book if you don’t buy tray packs. Many of the recipes sounded good, although I thought several sounded like so much work once you thawed them that I didn’t see how you saved time by making part of it in advance. If you’re new to cooking in bulk, there is a helpful chapter on how to do prep work and assemble your meals for the freezer.

The Week in Books 2008, No. 47

Harper Collins sent me an advance copy of Juliette Fay’s novel Shelter Me
, which will be released in December. The book is the story of a young mother suddenly widowed and her first year of grieving after her husband’s death. The greatest strength of the novel is the author’s ability to convey the depth of loss through describing the tiny moments that poignantly combine to create the magnitude of the situation. Those moments move the reader to more closely identify with and understand the character of Jane. At first Jane’s wounds draw her within herself, but as time passes, the love of other people begins to draw her back out, and she heals as she slowly allows others to shelter her.

Every time I saw the book’s title, I thought of the hymn “Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty,” specifically the lines “Praise ye the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth, shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth…how oft’ in grief, hath not He brought thee relief, spreading His wings to o’er shade thee.” It was interesting to think about how Jane dealt with grief and loss without a relationship with God, and think of what things would have been similar or different had the author chosen to give her character a personal faith.

Because the character of Jane doesn’t have that experience, some of her choices seemed a little odd or hollow to me, but overall made sense in the context of the character. I thought the book would have been stronger if the author had developed more of the potential in Jane’s relationship with her mother, rather than focusing on a tangential relationship with a local priest, which added a lot of little spin-offs but didn’t serve to deepen the characters or move the story forward particularly, in my opinion.

Those observations aside, I think overall “Shelter Me” is a good book, and I’d recommend it with the caveat that there is some strong langugage and there are adult situations that might be off-putting to some, although they make sense in the context of the story and serve to explain things about the characters.

At long last I got my turn to read the second of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, Perelandra .
I suppose it says something about a book when people still wait in line to read a book written 65 years ago. As with “Out of the Silent Planet,” I thoroughly enjoyed Lewis’ work. The spiritual aspects of the trilogy are even more apparent in the second book of the trilogy, although I would say it’s not so much an allegorical treatment of God and spiritual things as it is a tangential way of looking at them. In “Perelandra” Lewis presents a way of considering the Trinity and spiritual truth from a different perspective that is illuminating. I found myself thinking about the ways in which Satan tempts us, the ways our limited view of life hampers our ability to trust God, and how subtly sin can infect our thinking. Because it was more thought-provoking, I enjoyed “Perelandra” more than “Out of the Silent Planet,” but would still recommend both although perhaps each could also stand alone.

The Week in Books 2008, No. 46

Oh yes, I am going there. For the past several weeks I’ve been working my way through two big books on natural ways to understand fertility and take a natural approach to it. Up front, let me just say that I don’t want this post (or the comments) to be about choices couples make regarding birth control methods, filling or capping quivers, or the like. I just want to review these two books in case the concepts sound interesting to you or if you just like to think about things from different perspectives. It’s always helpful to understand more about how your body works and what your options are, I think, even if you don’t choose to do anything about it.

The Art of Natural Family Planning is the second book I read, but, in my view, the more useful if you only have time for one book on the subject. It is written from a Christian perspective, and a great deal of the book is devoted to why Christians should consider natural family planning (NFP) rather than chemical or invasive birth control methods. Although the authors are Catholic, they make a big point of noting that NFP is used by and equally helpful for Protestants. For example, they use quotes from Calvin and Luther, not just Popes, and note that until 1930 no Protestant denominations thought artificial birth control was moral, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that conservative Protestant churches allowed for it. I found it interesting to follow the Catholic arguments for and against certain things, even though I disagreed with some of the theology because I don’t find Biblical basis for it and I don’t think the Catholic Church is an authority equal to the Bible. My disagreements were more limited to specific details of some of the rules and methods described, rather than to the NFP idea in general.

If you’re like most people, you probably erroneously think that NFP is the rhythm method, which it’s not. Unlike the rhythm method, which assumes everyone has a uniform cycle and ovulation schedule, NFP is a means of cross-checking physical signs and your daily temperature fluctuations to accurately pinpoint the week to ten days that you are actually fertile in a given cycle. If you follow the rules, which are fairly easy to understand, this is a highly accurate way to prevent or achieve pregnancy. It’s actually more effective than all but a few other methods, and other methods cite statistics that don’t take user error into account.

One strength of this book, aside from the easy to understand and reference descriptions of how NFP works, is the emphasis on carefully and prayerfully considering your attitudes toward God’s will, children, and our culture. The book rightly points out that Western nations have a big problem with materialism and selfishness, and that our culture’s acceptance of death and devaluing of children through abortion and other abortifacient birth control methods has had a huge impact on how even Christians view children (as blessings or liabilities) and how Christians assess the prudence of having children or not. I personally struggle with balancing God’s sovereignty, love, and provision for us with questions of prudence in planning or not planning family size. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to those questions, and I think God calls different families to different things. I think it’s wrong to attribute motives to other couples or presume to declare that all families must look the same way.

Aside from some objections I had, I found “The Art of Natural Family Planning” to be overall a quite helpful and thought provoking book. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the information contained therein, but as I said before, I think it’s always useful to understand your body and how it works more fully.

Taking Charge of Your Fertility
is a non-religious description of natural family planning, and thus is probably more popular among people who just want to avoid using chemicals and invasive birth control methods out of a general desire to live more naturally. As with “The Art of NFP” this book is helpful and easy to understand. It has a much more in-depth discussion of the differences between birth control methods, and a greater emphasis on achieving pregnancy if you’ve been trying to conceive unsuccessfully.

One point against the book is the sprinkling of hokey yuk-yuk humor and cartoons. I just don’t see why adults have to act like 7th graders about this topic, and it drove me crazy as I was reading the book. If you can skip those parts or skim them, the book is really useful.

The Week in Books 2008, No. 45

Until recently I wasn’t aware that C.S. Lewis wrote science fiction, and although I generally don’t care for that genre, the fact that Lewis wrote it inspired me to check out his trilogy, which begins with Out of the Silent Planet.
Unlike other science fiction, which I tend to think of as being the realm of adolescent males (sorry, that’s just my perception!), Lewis’ work was plot-driven and not overly reliant on battle scenes. Although it has clear allegorical ties to Christian themes, the book does not beat one over the head with clumsy references. After all, this is C.S. Lewis! I can see that this book would be appropriate for, and resonate well with junior high and high school readers, but it was a fast and interesting read for me, so I’d recommend it for adults as well.

On Heather L.’s recommendation I checked out Karen Ehman’s book A Life That Says Welcome: Simple Ways to Open Your Heart & Home to Others.
I found the book to be a helpful discussion of hospitality, especially as the author challenges readers to think about what is really holding them back from showing hospitality, and then addresses further sections of the book to the most common reasons she finds Christians are reluctant to open their homes to others. I decided my top three reasons for not practicing better hospitality are that we live so far from most people we know (and I often feel like it’s an inconvenience and imposition to ask people to drive 45 minutes or more to visit us), that we’re on a pretty tight budget, and, related to the budget, I have an unfortunate tendency to confuse hospitality with entertaining and so I feel like unless my house is spotless and I can really impress people with heights of culinary sophistication, I shouldn’t have them over. Regular readers will understand why the culinary sophistication requirement often disqualifies me!

I was inspired by this book though to move past those objections. Ehman writes that “Entertaining puts the emphasis on you and how you can impress others. Offering hospitality puts the emphasis on others and strives to meet their physical and spiritual needs so that they feel refreshed, not impressed, when they leave your home.” The book contains a helpful chapter on using your week to prepare for Sunday so you are free to rest and show hospitality then, and another useful discussion on the importance of showing hospitality to your own immediate family before you go doing special things for other people at the expense of your husband and kids. I got some great tips from this book, but there were some parts I found to be a little overstated or understated, so as always I suggest you take the good and leave the weird.

I found Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers
to be a better book on blogging than Hugh Hewitt’s “Blog” because it’s more comprehensive and useful than Hewitt’s somewhat dated and hyperbolic approach. “Naked Conversations” would be especially helpful if you have an interest in marketing or run a business, but the authors’ tips on how to build and maintain a successful blog would interest personal bloggers as well. If you’re interested, I wrote a more in-depth review of this book over on
our company’s blog
.

{Caveat: I was sent a copy of the following book from the publisher. My policy on receiving books to review is that I still publish an honest review of the book.}

Because I’m a mother, and enjoy sarcastic humor, and can’t stand the book “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” because it’s full of incorrect information and blows some things way out of proportion while minimizing other things that are actually important, I thought I would LOVE The The Unexpected When You’re Expecting
by Mary K. Moore. The book is a parody of the popular “What To Expect” series written by an author who formerly wrote for and edited magazines like Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and Marie Claire.

Actually the Cosmo connection might give you a tip-off as to the type of humor in this book. Although as I said I do really enjoy sarcasm, unfortunately I think this book too often veers off into unimaginative and derivative jabs and stereotypes. There are so many funny things about motherhood and first time parents that the book didn’t get to or didn’t develop enough to make funny. I’m not averse to parodies of serious topics, as long as they are funny and witty, but when it’s just the “and you’re dumb!” variety, I get tired of it pretty quickly. That said, I don’t want to totally pan the book because there were some funny parts, just not as many as I would have liked. A certain type of person will probably find this book funny, but my guess is if you read my blog you may be kind of turned off by some of the language and crass descriptions.

The Week in Books, No. 44

I picked up Why Spy?: Espionage in an Age of Uncertainty by Fred Hitz because Hitz was my thesis advisor at Princeton and I took several of his classes. I would absolutely recommend this book if you have wondered about the intelligence community, spying, or counterterrorism at all. Hitz developed his perspective working for the CIA in various capacities and as its independent Inspector General during a crucial period of time, so he does approach his topic from a broad viewpoint and with, I think, an evenhanded and insightful tone. Based on my experience in my former line of work, I found Hitz’s observations to be accurate and helpful.

Unlike some public sources on this topic, Hitz has a clear understanding of the need for and problems inherent in cooperation between international and domestic intelligence (CIA vs. FBI), and an appreciation for how strategic and tactical intelligence analysis is crucial to, not secondary to, operations. I thought his discussion of the problems facing both agencies after 9/11 was fair and although I had a slightly different take on a few of the points he raised, overall I agreed with his analysis and conclusions.

Again, I’d recommend this book to you as an engaging and informative look at a part of the government that many people misunderstand.

Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It
by Jane Healy is a fascinating look at how changes in our culture are affecting the way our children learn and even how their brains are wired. Healy admits up front that her research is likely to touch a nerve, because a lot of well-meaning parents may be taking a flawed approach with how they interact (or not) with their kids, and I think we all know that parents tend to bristle when someone suggests that they are harming their children. Healy has an interesting perspective, because she is an educational psychologist, and has spent much of her career in the public school system and at public universities. Her research is based on neuroscience, but a significant portion of the book is devoted to the problems she sees in public education. Many of her recommendations track closely (although I am not sure she was aware of it) to the Charlotte Mason educational approach, such as the importance of discussing ideas with children, doing narration and reading aloud, teaching children to think, and developing good habits of the mind.

The basic conclusion Healy draws from numerous studies is that children’s minds continue to develop after birth, and that although heredity plays a key role in the way brains function and how intelligent a child will become, environmental factors play a key role as well – particularly “screen time” while children are in developmentally crucial years up to age 6 or so. In those early years, it appears that children’s brains form connections and habits that last, and that they best ways to foster good growth are reading aloud, having good two way conversations one-on-one with the child, and allowing him to experience things for himself rather than overscheduling, having him spend the majority of his time in group situations, or expecting that he will learn from TV or computers. I know that is a controversial line to take, and I don’t think Healy intends to make parents feel bad as it appears she was a working mother herself. I think her goal is to make sure parents understand what they are doing and make the most of their time, and to help teachers understand how to cope with kids who don’t get enough personal interaction and stimulation.

I was heartily dismayed by the statistics and studies cited in this book. Healy cites some truly staggering statistics about the amount of time the average western child (she notes that this is not merely an American phenomenon and uses statistics and studies from France, England, and other western nations as well as American sources) spends watching TV, playing on computers and with video games, and so forth, while also noting that for the first time researchers and teachers are starting to see middle class and upper class kids who are even less well prepared academically than disadvantaged kids, because they aren’t read to or spoken with the way advantaged kids in previous generations generally were. One woman Healy interviewed heads up an exclusive preschool on Manhattan’s upper east side, and also works with homeless kids. The woman noted that amazingly the wealthy children were only marginally better off than the homeless kids because neither group is getting the emotional or intellectual nourishment they need.

I also found it interesting that Healy devoted an entire chapter to why Sesame Street is NOT educational, but rather has a deleterious effect on children’s ability to learn. At first I was skeptical, but as I read her reasoning and looked at the evidence, I understood what she meant.

I would recommend this book to parents or people who are thinking of becoming parents, as long as you can take a deep breath and not freak out and read the book as I think it was intended, which is suggestions for how best to help your kids and things to think about and consider as you attempt to do your best by them, not as a condemnation or attempt at fear-mongering.