The Year in Books 2012

Over the past year I have read and reviewed 112 books (not including books I read to the kids) on A Spirited Mind, from a wide range of genres and topics.  In this sixth annual Year in Books post I’m continuing the tradition of listing my favorites from the year, in no particular order, with a brief note on why I liked them so much.  Links are to the longer reviews.

The Gospel of Ruth is a powerful, nuanced study of the scholarship, history, and theology of the biblical book of Ruth and its implications for how we live our lives with God, in relationships, and in community.  The book presents challenges to both patriarchal and egalitarian ways of thinking, with a commitment to embrace the radical perspective of the scripture instead.  My understanding of the book of Ruth grew exponentially from this book.  While it’s not structured as a Biblestudy, you could certainly use it as one.

Nurture Shock challenges popular assumptions and misconceptions about child development and presents a wide range of research on alternatives that might actually work.  Although it’s strongly based on research studies and is densely packed with information, the book is highly readable.  I didn’t find it as prescriptive as I would have liked, but it’s the sort of book that will keep you thinking long after you’re finished, and may bear re-reading from time to time.

All the Money in the World is an unusually thought-provoking and helpful book on finances.  Unlike most others in the genre, the book is not geared toward one-size-fits-all prescriptions or targeted to one particular audience.  Rather, it challenges popular assumptions and makes unique suggestions based on the premise that money is a tool for achieving your purposes, whatever those purposes might be.  I found the book well written, compelling, and immensely helpful.


Bel Canto, an amazing and lovely work of literary fiction by Ann Patchett, combines beautiful writing, deep character development, and a unique and compelling plot.  It will also compel you to love opera.  Yes, it will.  Patchett does a masterful job of using language and music to describe relationships and understanding.  She rightly won both the Pen/Faulkner award and the Orange Prize for this book.


The Revisionists is what the LA Times calls “literary sci fi” because it contains the character development and thematic weight of literary fiction while also using technology, history, and science to challenge our thinking to contemplate the sorts of moral and philosophical dilemmas that we might face in the future.  Although I enjoyed the futuristic aspects of the story, I most appreciated the book’s balanced and thoughtful presentation of issues such as historical interpretation, politics, and culture.

Spiritual Parenting is one of the best books on parenting I’ve ever read.  It doesn’t give a five step plan for how to deal with problems, but it casts an unusually thoughtful vision for the work of parenting the unique children you have in your family.  From how we talk to our children to how to teach them the value of service and responsibility, this book will give parents an intense dose of food for thought.


Refuse to Choose lays out an effective and inspiring plan for how to navigate life as a Renaissance person (someone with lots of interests and passions versus one main area of expertise).  As someone who definitely prefers Sher’s description of the Renaissance model of working (learn, try, teach, leave) to the more popular (but for me boring) approach of picking The One Job for life, I got a lot out of this book.  You’ll learn how to better understand your leanings, make a bigger impact, and channel your energy effectively over your lifetime in this helpful and encouraging book.

Mystery and Manners is an exceptional resource for writers, especially writers who are Christians (and even more especially for writers who are Christians who don’t just write for Christian audiences).  In fact, Flannery O’Connor writes convincingly about how writers who are Christians really shouldn’t be “Christian writers” but that writing high quality literature from your Christian perspective (versus the confines of having to write it explicitly) is a more honest and effective way to write.  O’Connor’s advice about how to write setting and use setting and characters to write about grace and redemption are incredibly helpful.

Happier at Home builds on Gretchen Rubin’s outstanding book The Happiness Project to further discuss unusual and thought-provoking ways to increase your happiness, this time by focusing on how you can be happier in your home and family relationships.  Rubin’s approach of setting goals (resolutions) and breaking them down into smaller monthly and weekly goals to make them achievable is incredibly helpful.  If you find it hard to follow through with resolutions, or make the same resolutions year after year, reading one or both of Rubin’s books would be immeasurably valuable for you.

The Emperor of Ocean Park was such a fantastic book that I wound up buying copies for other people as gifts.  Set in the frame of a murder mystery and legal thriller of sorts, the book is really more concerned with philosophical themes, cultural criticism, and a close examination of family dynamics.  Critics faulted the author for taking a slower pace than most books billed as “legal thrillers” but I personally loved the deliberate pace because it allowed for the greater depth and complexity that I think the author’s themes demanded.  This book will make you think and may challenge some of your perspectives on commonly discussed issues at play in our culture.

The End of Men may be somewhat hyperbolically titled, but its balanced and thoughtful consideration of cultural trends and their implications for the future makes it a worthwhile read.  The book is a fascinating sociological study touching on trends in gender roles and their implications in education, parenting, and social structures.  I found the book profoundly interesting and it gave me a lot to think about and talk over with my husband as we look at ways to parent, but I would also recommend it to those without children because of its cultural analysis and the implications of these trends for the future of businesses and communities.

The Genesis Debate is an incredibly rich written debate about three ways orthodox Christians might interpret the opening chapters of Genesis.  All of the authors subscribe to views of scriptural inerrancy but they differ in how they interpret the Biblical accounts of creation.  I found the depth of the discussion challenging, but still accessible.  Although I don’t think that ultimately a person’s view of what the creation account means is a life or death or salvation issue, I really enjoyed the chance to dig deeply into the passages and consider theological issues I hadn’t previously even known existed.

Wired for War might not strike you as the sort of book you’d naturally pick up, but I’d really encourage you to read it anyway!  Although it’s framed around a journalistic discussion of how robotics are changing the way we conduct wars, the book spends more space considering the implications–social, philosophical, and cultural–of robotics and other technological advances on how we live and will live in the near future.  We live in an era in which our technological growth fast outstrips our ethics, so I think even people who only have an average interest in technology really need to stop and think through the implications of the advances we often unthinkingly accept into our lives and culture.  While the political and cultural biases of the author and people profiled in the book are evident at times, overall the book is balanced in presenting competing views and will give you a lot to think over.

For more book reviews:

What were the best books you read in 2012?  What do you plan to read in the new year?

How to Have Better Weekends

Because I work from home and homeschool, I often find that my weekends don’t look much different from my work weeks.  Aside from going to church on Sunday and having a short date with Josh while the kids are at Awana on Sunday night, I don’t tend to do much differently.

But that sort of plan, Laura Vanderkam posits, leads to burnout and ineffective leisure time.  When we don’t manage our time, life gets away from us.  Her latest e-book, What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend: A Short Guide to Making the Most of Your Days Off, describes how to “create weekends that rejuvenate you rather than exhaust or disappoint you.”

Rather than working all weekend or letting the weekend fade into mindless internet or channel surfing, Vanderkam suggests that you’ll get better results from choosing 3-5 “anchor events” for your weekend in advance.  She thinks of it as cross-training–neither overwork nor too much doing nothing.

The book does a great job of profiling busy people who make times for a restorative weekend, discussing relevant research, and offering practical suggestions for how to make sure your weekends leave you ready for Monday morning.  I especially liked her suggestions for how to avoid the “three common causes of weekend stress: chores, children’s activities, and work that follows you home.”

I always get a lot out of Vanderkam’s books, and What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend is no exception.  At $2.99 on Amazon, this book offers way more information and potential for life impact than most e-books, and is a shorter time commitment than Vanderkam’s longer (but also excellent) books on time and life management.

As you look ahead to 2013, I think reading What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend would be a great use of your time.  If you read it and decide to implement any changes in your weekends as a result, let us know!


Disclosure: The author sent me a free review copy of this book, but the opinions in this review are my own.  This post contains affiliate links.

Reading Through the Bible

The first time I read through the Bible I was in second grade.  For some reason my dad decided that when he got home from work, he and I would read the chapters suggested in a little booklet about how to read through the whole Bible.  Since then, I’ve read through the Bible several other times, and always find value in it.  I like to intersperse deeper Biblestudies with reading through the Bible, to get both the overview and the drill down perspectives.

This year I started late but with a different method, which has you read one chapter a day from ten different spots.  I did read through the whole thing with that method, but I didn’t think it was ideal because you wind up reading certain sections more than once, and not all of those are sections I think have more merit than some of the ones you only read once.

I have heard good things about chronological Bibles, and I’m intrigued by the concept.  I might try that in the new year.  If you’ve read a chronological Bible, did you like it?  Which one did you use?

On a related note, Darcy from Message in a Mason Jar recently wrote about a book called Together: Growing Appetites for God that chronicles one mother’s journey reading the entire Bible verse by verse to her children.  I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds really interesting!

Robots, War, and the End of the World as We Know It

Perhaps you think you aren’t interested in robots (but probably you are, because, as author P.W. Singer notes on the first page of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, robots are “fracking cool”). However, even if you aren’t naturally disposed to want to find out about robotics, you might change your mind after reading Singer’s highly engaging book, which covers the way post 9/11 wars have propelled robotics research, the applications for those advances in everyday life, the implications for society, and the incredible array of ethical dilemmas looming as a result.

The first section of the book details the amazing things robotics are able to do.  I stopped after just about every fourth sentence to read something aloud to someone.  “Get this!  This robot diffuses IEDs and can crawl down tunnels or swim underwater!” I was astounded by the way the technology has grown exponentially over the past ten years and the ways that robots are saving lives and money on the battlefield.  I also enjoyed reading about the people who create them, the companies that do both military and civilian robotics (for example, the company that makes the IED diffusing robot also makes Roomba vacuums).

Singer then turns to the history of robotics.  Since we just finished studying Ancient Greece I remembered about the Hephaestus myth and how he had robots and sent a robot to guard Crete, but I was not aware that divers found the first known mechanical analog computer in a ship wrecked off of the coast of Crete in 200BC (the box contained 37 gears and calculated the positions of the sun, moon, and other planets).

Singer then examines competing views of the future of robotics.  The fact is, we’re already living with and dependent on a staggering array of technologies, and the advances coming at an ever faster rate will change the way we live even more precipitously.  It was interesting to read about how some people have bizarrely rosy views of a new robotic future, while others have desperately negative views. I found myself thinking quite a bit about how a person’s worldview impacts the way he interprets events and possibilities.

Finally Singer delves into the moral, ethical, and philosophical questions of technological advances.  I found this section the best of the whole book.  As in related fields like bioethics, in robotics and technology our abilities have fast outstripped our ethics.  We do not have a commonly understood ethic or philosophy of technology, so we haven’t grappled in advance with the implications and acceptable boundaries for its use.

Robotics come with an incredible array of ethical questions.  Take, for example, the question of technological augmentation.  We all know what to do with the fact that people get pacemakers.  We’re glad when an amputee can use a robotic arm.  After a terrible car accident in college my brother had the bones in one of his legs completely replaced with titanium.  We’re pretty much OK with this, and don’t worry that he is secretly a Borg now.  However, what do we think about augmentation that changes a person’s abilities?  What about technology that would allow a person access to unearned knowledge or athletic ability?  These are not far off questions, but a matter of a few years.  As robots are increasingly given artificial intelligence that mimics human responses, who will be responsible for their actions?  And how will we be responsible for our actions toward them?  Singer does a thorough job of presenting a variety of possible solutions and competing viewpoints, and also writes about the way in which science fiction literature contributes one of the few sources available for thinking through ethical implications of technology.

As is probably obvious from the length of this review, I found Wired for War fascinating and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in technology, sociology, philosophy, or public ethics.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

J.I. Packer describes his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God as “a piece of biblical and theological reasoning, designed to clarify the relationship between three realities: God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility, and the Christian’s evangelistic duty.”  The book, which is short and accessibly written but still meaty, does a good job of explaining how an appreciation for God’s sovereignty actually equips and underscores evangelism, rather than rendering it moot.

I enjoyed Packer’s writing style and found the book instructive.  If you’ve ever been involved in a discussion about why you should bother to evangelize if you really believe in predestination, or why anyone would believe in God’s sovereignty anyway, this would be a great book to read.  It has theological depth without being too dense or difficult to navigate for a lay person.

Throughout, I appreciated Packer’s reliance on Scripture and emphasis on the fact that God’s sovereignty should make us “bold, free, natural, and hopeful of success” as we share the Gospel.”  I’d recommend Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God as a useful and encouraging read.


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Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be : A Breviary of Sin presents a short but important theological discussion of what is becoming a less well-understood but still very important facet of Christian belief.

Our culture is uncomfortable with the notion of sin.  We have a vague sense that things are not they way they are supposed to be, but little apprehension of or willingness to admit to why we are anxious, restless, and locked into cycles of damaging behavior.

The answer, author Plantinga believes, begins with renewing our understanding of what sin is, how it feeds on itself, and how its power over us is broken.  There are a lot of important things to think about in the book, although it’s written in an accessible style.  Plantinga touches on common questions about sin, subtle facets of sin that we have grown comfortable and thus overlook, and the implications for that forgetting.  I found the chapter on how sin and evil are represented in and responded to in literature particularly interesting and helpful.

As I read I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable and disturbed by sin, which I think speaks to the effectiveness of the volume.  Sin, rightly understood, should make us uncomfortable and disturbed, should grieve us, and should drive us toward repentance not toward making excuses or shrugging it off. As Plantinga concludes at the end of the book, rightly understanding sin is the only way to rightly understand grace and the glorious gift of salvation.

I found Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be a helpful and thought-provoking book, and I would recommend it.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

52 Mondays

Speaking of resolution prep, I found Vic Johnson’s book 52 Mondays: The One Year Path To Outrageous Success & Lifelong Happiness exceptionally helpful.

The format of the book, breaking goals down into weekly chunks, makes the volume stand out from other books of this type.  Each of the chapters of the book offers inspiration, addresses common pitfalls and reasons why people often give up, as well as what to do about that.  Helpfully, each chapter ends with an actionable task for that week that will get you closer to your goal.

The weekly format will be helpful particularly for people who have trouble following through with goals and resolutions or who want to stick to goal plans but aren’t sure how to put that into practice on a week-by-week basis.  I think this would be a great companion book to any of the time management and goal setting books I recommended the other day on this topic, because of its practical application.

52 Mondays is available in actual book form, but also as a Kindle download for $2.99.  Frankly, it’s a much better buy than Tell Your Time for the same price.  Also, if you have Amazon Prime, you can get it for free.

Have you ever followed through on a goal or resolution for an entire year?  If not, what has kept you from getting there?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Making Room For Life

Do you spend a lot of time sitting around pondering how slow your life is?  How relaxed you and your family feel?  The surplus of time you have?  Don’t you wish you could work more, spend more time running around in the car, take your kids to more activities, cut things closer?


I didn’t think so.  That’s why I think I’d recommend Making Room for Life: Trading Chaotic Lifestyles for Connected Relationships to absolutely anyone.  This book will not only give you a lot to think about and talk over, it will also give you tools to think through how you want your life to be and how to realistically evaluate your schedule and priorities to create space for actually living in your life.

Randy Frazee begins Making Room for Life with a description of common problems in Western families: we have lots of exposure to different groups of people, but very few truly deep connections.  We have linear friendships rather than connected friendships–most people know one facet of who we are, but very few know the whole story of who we are, which leads to loneliness, anxiety, and a general sense that something is off balance.

The solution, Frazee believes, is to establish boundaries in the way we devote our time, and establish habits of connection.  He advocates limiting your work to the hours of 6am-6pm, and leaving the hours of 6pm-10pm for real dinners, conversation, and community.

I think the time boundary section was most compelling for me.  I work from home, and I homeschool, and so often it feels like there is never a time when I’m not working.  Or, if there is, I feel guilty, as though I really ought to be doing something.  At the same time, I definitely struggle with feeling like I have a lot of superficial friendships but few deep connections.  As a homeschooling family, we spend a LOT of time together, but I have long sensed that we lack the kind of unstructured relaxing together time that is refreshing and restoring as well as relationship-building.

In the book, Frazee discusses different ways people structure work, how to establish a strong family dinner time, how to work around homework and sports schedules, and how to figure out ways to connect more of the disparate groups you’re a part of currently.  Although a lot of the book is directed at two parent families, significant sections speak to single parents, singles, empty nesters, and the elderly.

I really appreciated Frazee’s honesty about how this has been a gradual process in his family’s life, and his understanding that different situations and phases of life might call for different solutions.  I found myself wondering at times how certain ideas could be implemented with small children, introverts, or a spouse who is not a morning person, but I think that with some thought the main ideas of the book are sound enough for a variety of applications.

Whether you are the sort of family that attempts radical overhauls or the kind that prefers incremental changes toward a goal, I think there is something for everyone in this book.  I found it challenging and compelling and once my husband and I have a chance to discuss it more fully I think we will probably integrate a number of these ideas into our life in the new year.

As you look ahead to the new year, I would highly recommend Making Room for Life, and I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read it!


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Quick, Easy Romance Read

I am not a fan of the romance genre, not because I don’t appreciate love stories, but because I find the conventions of the type of book kind of boring and repetitive.  That said, Ree Drummond’s memoir of her courtship and early marriage, The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels–a Love Story is sweet and a really quick and easy read.

I don’t read Drummond’s blog (I’ve tried, but it’s just not my thing) so I don’t know if this is her usual style, but the book was funny at times, if a bit repetitive.  I found myself wishing her editor had convinced her to condense a bit, since quite a few chapters follow the outline of

  • Wow, I’m really falling for this guy!
  • Kissing
  • Kissing
  • Kissing
  • Getting home late
  • Sleeping late while he gets up early, how will this ever work!?
  • Small mishap
  • Kissing
  • Kissing
  • Kissing
  • I really like him!

I could have done with just one chapter like that.  And at several points during the newlywed section I got kind of tired of the “legs tangled up” euphemism.  However, I don’t mean to be too flip because I do think there is value in telling your story, and it’s particularly heartening to hear the story of someone who is so obviously head-over-heels about her husband.  And the book will be a huge gift to her children when they read it: what a cool thing to have a chance to know your parents as they were when they met and see how they changed together!  It would be interesting to have that perspective.

Although it’s a bit long for what it is, Black Heels to Tractor Wheels is not trashy, and this time of year sometimes a light, happy, easy read is just the thing.


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Tell Your Time

It’s the time of year when I start thinking about resolutions and goals and how to get my life together.  As I conduct this exercise, I find it helpful to read books about organization, time management, and goal setting to give me ideas and spur me on.  Perhaps you’re the same way.

A while back I downloaded Amy Lynn Andrews’ short e-book Tell Your Time: How to Manage Your Schedule So You Can Live Free and this week when I was having insomnia one morning I read it (insomnia is dreadful, but it might as well be productive) and found it a helpful kickstart.

The book contains a lot of information you’ve probably read before in other books, but Andrews puts a good spin on it, especially in her emphasis on how to block out a schedule and protect your goals by protecting your time.  It’s got a practical application focus that is sometimes missing from similar volumes, although I found myself marveling at the example of Andrews’ own schedule, in which she only blocks off an hour a day to homeschool her four kids!  I figure they must be older and mostly self-motivated at this point.  But it’s cool that people can find different ways of balancing work and homeschooling.

Tell Your Time is for you if:

  • You have Amazon Prime (because it’s free for Prime members).
  • You need a jolt of inspiration on the time management/goal accomplishing front but you don’t have time to read a longer book.
  • You’re looking for a book that has a little bit of vision and a little bit of application, but can be read quickly.

If you have time for more in-depth reading on goals and resolutions and time management, I’d recommend:

  • 168 Hours (probably the best time management book I’ve read, and I’ve read more than my fair share)
  • What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (like Tell Your Time, a short e-book and available for the same price, but really jam-packed with helpful information and a good reader’s digest version of 168 Hours)
  • The Happiness Project (for fabulous inspiration on how to break down larger goals into monthly projects and weekly goals)
  • Eat That Frog (more information on actually getting goals accomplished by making smaller concrete steps a daily priority)
Side note: Great minds think alike!  A Spirited Mind reader and writer of The Deliberate Reader Sheila posted this week on ebooks that have helped her get organized for the new year.  Check out her post for more inspiration!

Do you read this kind of book more at the end/beginning of a year?  If you like this genre, what are some of the more helpful books you’ve read lately?


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