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Mmmm ... four books of the year

A committee of WORLD writers chose these books, spread among four categories, that should be ‘chewed and digested’

<em>Mmmm ...</em> four books of the year

(Photo by Matt Rose)

Photo by Matt Rose
Photo by Matt Rose
Photo by Matt Rose
Photo by Matt Rose

Francis Bacon died almost 400 years ago, but his famous description of words on pages still animates our selection process: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

We—our committee of five WORLD writers—throughout the year looked for books that tempt us to delay writing projects: “Couldn’t put it down,” one committee member wrote about our novel of the year. Good books are exciting to read. We look for books that are thoughtful and capable of planting among our readers new ideas consistent with what the Bible teaches. Exciting, accessible, thoughtful: What the Francis Bacon in us would like to e-a-t.

A few other introductory notes. Our books issue, dated June 27, comes at this time of year because the 2015 International Christian Retail Show begins on June 28. Publication between May 1, 2014, and April 30, 2015, made this year’s winners and honorees eligible for consideration. Our committee members read numerous books, developed a short list of 14, and voted. The winners are:

  • Fiction: The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)
  • Accessible Theology: enGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship (Sam Andreades)
  • Current Events/Public Affairs: America in Retreat (Bret Stephens)
  • History/Biography: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Erik Larson)

Fiction

Winner

The Book of Strange New Things

by Michel Faber

These days, in books from secular publishers, we expect to see pastors depicted as hypocrites and missionaries as agents of exploitation. That’s what we’d expect from Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (Hogarth), which has as its protagonist a pastor called to be a missionary to the strange creatures of a planet galaxies away from his wife. Does he (a) steal precious minerals, (b) molest the females, (c) create a bizarre cult with himself as God, or (d) all of the above?

The answer is (e) none of the above. Instead we find empathy and splendid writing, and that’s why The Book of Strange New Things is our novel of the year. Peter the missionary is a rock. He tells his worried wife that “God will guide me.” He appears to be genuinely committed to the members of his flock on the planet Oasis: They are about 5 feet tall with two legs, small bones, narrow shoulders, two hands of five fingers each, and big heads with faces that “look nothing like a face” and more like “a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel.”

But Faber doesn’t emphasize their appearance or the science elements of this science fiction. He cares about souls, and here’s the shock: The Oasans have already heard of Jesus from a previous missionary, and many of them believed. Seventy of them greet Peter by singing what first seems to be abstract sound, but he then discerns “maaazzziiiiiiing graaaaaa how weeeeett a ouuund thaat aaaaaaaved a wreeee liiiike meeeee.” The Oasans can’t pronounce s but the message of their lives is also the message of Peter, formerly an addict: I once was lost but now am found.

Not only that: These Oasans are hungry for more. They call themselves “Jesus Lover One” or “Jesus Lover 30,” in order of when they made professions of faith. Some Oasans are standoffish, but many listen eagerly to sermons, quickly build a church, and yearn for more teaching from the Bible, which they call “the book of strange new things.” A fourth of the way through Faber’s 500 pages, then half the way, I continued to wonder: “What’s the catch?” No way a mainstream British publisher is going to put out a book with Christian faith at its core that’s actually … sweet, right? No way?

I can mention one subplot: Bea, Peter’s wife, sends him from galaxies away increasingly distressed messages about problems on Earth, and he is so enraptured by the pure faith of his Oasan flock that the reality of her life seems increasingly unreal to him. But I’ll stop here to avoid spoilers, except to note the personal tragedy that Dutch-born author Faber, who lives in Scotland, had while writing the novel: His wife Eva developed terminal cancer, and she died last July just as he was doing the final edits on his manuscript.

Faber, 55, now says The Book of Strange New Things is his last novel, but he’s been writing poetry about Eva and may publish some of it. Faber’s publisher says the book’s emotional integrity and power come out of the heartbreak Faber had as he was writing it. Or maybe this extraordinary novel is a gift from God at a time when many Christians are facing hard times: Maybe we need to bury our pride and become Jesus Lover two billion. —M.O.

(Read and listen to an excerpt from The Book of Strange New Things.)

Runner-Up

Frog

by Mo Yan

Chinese dissenters have called controversial Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan a mouthpiece for the Communist Party—but his newly translated novel Frog (Viking) takes a hard look at China’s one-child policy and its trail of devastation.

Set in a rural village in Northeast China, the 400-page novel barely mentions the post–Great Leap Forward famine that killed 40 million civilians and the terror-reigning Cultural Revolution that pitted families and neighbors against each other. Mo, though, swings hard at his main target as he describes the descent of Gugu, a revered midwife who delivered thousands of new lives into the world, and later aborts more than 2,000 unborn babies.

Desperate to prove state loyalty after her fiancé defected to Taiwan, Gugu becomes a zealous champion of the national family planning policy and its twisted logic: “Before it was ‘out of the pot’ it was just meat, and it needed to come out one way or another. But once it was out of the pot it was a human being, even if it had no arms and no legs, and was protected by national laws.” She thus goes to outrageous measures to enforce abortions, even using a motorboat and loudspeaker while chasing a pregnant woman trying to swim out of her reach.

The country folks aren’t innocent, either: Their deep-seated favoritism for boys drives husbands and wives to terrible acts, and a husband whose wife just died giving birth to a second daughter mourns his family line rather than his dead wife.

Frog imagery infuses the text. Frogs—wa in Chinese—symbolize fertility, family prosperity, and femaleness in China. But wa also sounds exactly like the cry of babies: wa, wa. This theme culminates in one terrifying night scene when, surrounded by the croaks of frogs, Gugu suddenly hears the cries of thousands of newborn infants—wa, wa, wa!—“as if the souls of countless murdered infants were hurling accusations.”

Not even the iron-willed Gugu can withstand such guilt, and Mo does a masterful job of weaving the system’s comprehensive human toll into a humorous yet chilling tale. —Sophia Lee

Runner-Up

Lila

by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a prequel to her highly regarded Gilead. Lila, the young wife of 67-year-old Rev. John Ames, bears him a child in his old age—and in Lila Robinson moves her from the wings to center stage.

The book begins with misery: young Lila locked out of her house because she won’t stop crying. It’s not clear who the evicting adults are, but they clearly have no compassion regarding the dirty, wet, hungry child. A mysterious woman, Doll, who lives in the house with the others, returns home, finds Lila, cleans her up, and nurses her back to health. Lila then travels the country with Doll and a band of migrants who eke out a living picking crops and doing odd jobs.

By the time Lila ends up in the tiny Iowa town of Gilead, she’s alone and carrying a life’s worth of shame. There she meets John Ames, who spots her taking refuge in the back of his church. Critics have praised the book for the way it develops the relationship between the learned Rev. Ames and the uneducated, deeply wounded Lila. Christians will appreciate the many ways Robinson incorporates biblical themes and imagery, sometimes explicitly. Lila is like the cast-off baby in Ezekiel 16. She’s like the wild olive branch, grafted in.

In many ways, John Ames is like Abraham, surprised in his old age to find love and become a father. Lila is just as surprised to find an accepting home. She’s been hurt and abandoned so often, she remains poised to run.

Although Lila stands alone as a story of grace amid suffering, it’s probably more understandable to those familiar with Gilead. —Susan Olasky

Accessible Theology

Winner

enGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship

by Sam A. Andreades

WORLD’s book of the year in the theology for nonacademics category is enGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship (Weaver). That’s because author Sam Andreades guides readers through at least three crucial cultural debates: Are men and women different? How should husbands and wives help each other? What about same-sex marriage?

His key concept is asymmetry: Men and women are different and have different tasks in marriage. Husbands should make their wives secure, and wives should give their husbands rest: “The principles of rest-giving and secure-making are the roadway underneath the snow of cultural practices.”

Andreades shows how at the beginning of the book of Judges, men treasure women: “Othniel secures the woman by taking the city for her. At the end, though, men are raping and mistreating women as if they were disposable objects.” He exegetes passages about Jael slaying Sisera and a woman using a millstone to crack Abimelech’s skull: “These brave women, in creative ways, brought rest to their homes. … [T]hey teach us that the way in which we do gender is not limited to one narrow job.”

Andreades shows how “embracing gender distinction in housework improves marriage.” It makes sense that nine of 10 evangelicals say “marriage should be an equal partnership [and] the husband should be head of the family,” because he provides security and she gives him rest. In short, “a real man is someone who lays down his life for the women in his life.”

He notes that the Bible is unlike the Quran, which teaches that “men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other” and advises husbands to “admonish [wives], forsake them in beds apart, and beat them.” The Bible praises women business executives such as Lydia in Acts 16 and Bereans in Acts 17, but indicates that women should not be elders.

Andreades also emphasizes the importance of asymmetry in critiquing same-sex relationships. He learned much while pastoring a PCA church in Greenwich Village and offers insights from 10 men who had a history of same-sex relationships but are now in thriving man-woman marriages lasting five years or more.

Throughout, Andreades writes with wonderful flow and shows how the principles of secure-making and rest-giving underlie so much in the Bible. For example, Mosaic gender statutes forbidding prostitution “kept the home a refuge by forbidding women from selling the gift of sex outside of it. And they kept the men securing their wives and daughters by disallowing a society where men could bed women without commitment. A land without the possibility of prostitution is a land where women sense safety.” —M.O.

(Listen to and read a transcript from Warren Cole Smith’s interview with Sam Andreades on Listening In and read an excerpt from his book enGendered.)

Runner-Up

Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God

by Dane Ortlund

Dane Ortlund’s Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Crossway) is important at a time when television demands visible emotion: Arms thrust upward mean happiness; screwed-up eyes and grimacing mouth mean intense prayer. Ortlund shows that Edwards went deeper: “When we first picture joy, we might think of loud shouts of praise, exuberant exclamations, expressive displays of exultation—the sort of response you’d expect from someone who has just won the lottery. Edwards’s theology of joy goes in a different direction. He speaks of the quiet sweetness of true joy.”

That doesn’t play well on television: “For Edwards, a person may be enjoying true joy yet without looking joyful in terms of the way the world tends to define joy. True joy is not frothy. It does not equate with laughing or joking.” Ortlund’s good summary: “The calm, exquisite contentedness … of resting satisfied in God, in his beauty and love … the nondramatic, discrete happiness of a heart filled with the love of heaven. Authentic joy is not ostentatious. It does not draw attention to itself. It need not; it has all it needs in God.”

Ortlund delivers clear chapters and useful metaphors showing Edwards’ view of aspects of the Christian life: New Birth (the ignition), Love (the essence), Joy (the fuel), Gentleness (the aroma), Scripture (the treasure), Prayer (the communion), Pilgrimage (the flavor), and Obedience (the fruit).

Regarding pilgrimage, he writes that at the beach we “feel the waves beginning to come against us. First our ankles, then knees, waist, and so on. As we continue out into the water, though, inevitably a wave comes that cannot be out-jumped. It washes over us. We become completely submerged, and there is no way to avoid it. The total-submersion wave is what Edwards knew God sends to his children to drive home their pilgrim status.” —M.O.

(Read an excerpt from Edwards on the Christian Life.)

Runner-Up

Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives

edited by Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves

Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives, edited by Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves (Baker), includes 15 thoughtful essays on this basic Christian teaching now under assault by those who say an individual Adam never existed. Jettisoning the doctrine, though, has consequences. Madueme and Reeves, in an essay well-titled “Threads in a Seamless Garment,” show that without a real, historical fall we are left to explain evil by either dualism, where good and evil combat each other, or monism, where God transcends both good and evil.

Other authors show how man’s loss of personal fellowship with God—communion with the Holy Spirit—explains the corruption of our nature. They show how original sin is crucial to biblical understanding even when it’s not explicitly mentioned: It’s why the world goes from “very good” at the end of Chapter 1 of Genesis to “only evil continually” in Chapter 6, to Abraham and Isaac both risking their wives, to Moses teaching all Israel that only radical heart changes will allow them to obey God, to all the problems that emerge in Judges and Kings.

The biggest debate in the early Christian church was on this issue: Pelagius denied original sin and argued that we are born innocent and start sinning by imitating what we see around us. Happily, Augustine understood differently and won the debate 1,600 years ago, but in the 19th and 20th centuries neo-Pelagians argued that the state could preserve children from dire ecclesiastical or capitalist influences and have them retain their natural goodness.

That revolutionary project did not work out well. Recent history provides evidence of what Paul and Augustine knew: Our sin is incurable, so we need Someone to heal us. That’s good news, as Madueme and Reeves declare: “Inherited sin is a dark reality, but it is one with the widest silver lining. … Because Adam first sinned, we all participate in that one sin, and as a result we are all in the same sinking boat, we all have the same problem”—and we have the solution in Christ. Happily, nothing in oversold Darwinian theory forces us to give up that solution, as two of the chapters note. —M.O.

Runner-Up

What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality?

by Kevin DeYoung

Many books examining same-sex marriage emerged over the past year: Solid exegesis and tight writing make Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? (Crossway) stand out. DeYoung faithfully explains the hard-hitting words in Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1, but he also contextualizes those verses in the whole story of God creating, man sinning, and “a holy God making a way to dwell in the midst of an unholy people.” That whole story explains giving ourselves over to sexual immorality can lose us the opportunity to eat of the tree of life.

DeYoung helpfully focuses on seven of the gay lobby’s objections to seeing marriage as a male-female bonding, and demonstrates that no persuasive historical, cultural, pastoral, or hermeneutical objections should move us to abandon the plain meaning of the Bible. He shows us that God objects to every kind of homosexual activity, that the objections are of a different character than critiques of gluttony or divorce, that churches should welcome broken people but not affirm continued destructiveness. He also offers good responses to common claims that “you’re on the wrong side of history,” “it’s not fair,” and “the God I worship is a God of love.”

It would be much easier for biblical Christians today if the Bible were not so clear about homosexuality, but DeYoung shows that the underlying question is not same-sex marriage but the authority of the Bible and its entire grand narrative. That’s not giving up so as to attain a temporary peace that offers us no true peace. —M.O.

(Read an excerpt from What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?)

Current Events/Public Affairs

Winner

America in Retreat

by Bret Stephens

“A balance of power may seem plausible in theory. But the nature of power is that it seeks preeminence, not balance.” That’s how Bret Stephens, foreign-affairs columnist for The Wall Street Journal, critiques unrealistic hopes in America in Retreat (Sentinel)—and his lucid analysis makes it WORLD’s current events/public affairs book of the year.

Stephens shows how isolationist rhetoric is on the rise in America, along with balance-of-power appeasement. The consequence may be more disorder than we bargained for, including world war and the avoidable sacrifice of countless lives. He counters the clichés about how the United States cannot be “the world’s policeman” by saying the United States must take on that role, for if America does not lead, Russia, China, or Iran very likely will.

Can this country make an international comeback? Stephens argues that retreat does not imply decline. For all our problems, the United States is still the world’s leader in innovation, with the strongest military. He notes that we have “surprised ourselves” several times in recent history: winning the Cold War, halting runaway crime, leading the digital revolution in the 2000s and the energy renaissance in the 2010s.

Besides, our not-entirely-eroded bedrock values make the United States as close to a moral power as exists in the world today. Stephens applies the “broken windows” theory of urban policing—ignoring minor problems creates a sense of lawlessness that leads to major crimes—to the international scene. That means the United States should maintain a visible presence, demand some degree of reciprocity from our allies, and focus on putting out fires and punishing bad actors rather than remaking nations.

America in Retreat does have limitations. Stephens sees problems in our current military structure and diplomatic corps, but gives less attention than he should to political obstacles and deep-seated isolationist tendencies that go back to Washington’s warning to “avoid foreign entanglements.” His strategy for keeping order may sound utopian—or worse, Wilsonesque (as in Woodrow)—but Stephens sees it as merely practical: Instead of trying to make the world “safe for democracy,” the United States should simply try to make the world safer.

Is that modest goal attainable? The possibility is worth an honest debate, and America in Retreat sets forth a solid case for the affirmative. —Janie B. Cheaney

(Listen to Bret Stephens discuss America in Retreat on The World and Everything in It.)

Runner-Up

Prepare: Living Your Faith in an Increasingly Hostile Culture
by J. Paul Nyquist

American Christians haven’t had to sacrifice much. That’s the opening argument J. Paul Nyquist makes in his book Prepare: Living Your Faith in an Increasingly Hostile Culture (Moody). But then comes the warning: The nation’s culture war is over, Christians have lost, and persecution is on its way: “Christians are being ordered to leave the room and take their Bible talk with them.”

Nyquist predicts more hostility, rejection, and marginalization as religious liberty protections continue to fray. He not only gives numerous examples but contextualizes them with his sense that America is a modern retelling of the book of Judges where “everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes.” That the spiritual climate has shifted is no surprise to WORLD readers, but Nyquist’s attitude may be “We are to be super-abundantly, overflowing, exceedingly overjoyed persecution knocked on our door.”

That’s a lot of excitement over pain. Why? Nyquist argues that oppression will challenge American Christians to live what the Bible teaches. He reminds us that persecution is the norm for Christianity: The World Evangelical Fellowship estimates 200 million Christians live under daily threat of imprisonment or torture. Nyquist chides American believers who think all of God’s blessings are pleasant: “In God’s economy persecution means we’re blessed not cursed.” We should embrace suffering because it is part of “God’s perfecting work” in our lives, allowing us to know Christ and become more like Him.

Nyquist encourages American Christians to avoid the easy exit. Then his instruction gets harder: God commands us to respond to our persecutors with compassion, not anger. Only by embracing such meekness can we turn mistreatment into opportunities for spreading the gospel: “God wants us to be his witnesses, not his prosecuting attorneys,” Nyquist writes.

Prepare opens with a dose of reality, transforms into a pep talk, and ends with a message of hope. Nyquist reminds us we are not alone. God promises that the steadfast will be rewarded, not forgotten. Our goal? “Fear God, not man.” —Edward Lee Pitts

(Read an excerpt from Prepare.)

Runner-Up

Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed

by Jason Riley

In Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed (Encounter), Jason Riley quotes Lyndon Johnson’s commencement speech for Howard University in 1965: He said the next stage of progress in civil rights would be “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” Riley notes some progress but lots of regress over the last 50 years and presents a concise, sympathetic, but unflinching examination of the question: Is the chief engine of black progress government action, or has government policy had a minimal, even detrimental effect on black progress?

Riley shows that even though America has a “Black Man in the White House” (Chapter 1), African-Americans are statistically, economically, and socially worse off now than when Barack Obama took office. That’s continuing a long trend: Government policy regarding sentencing, family structure, education, and employment has tended to harm rather than help the community’s most vulnerable (the poor and uneducated), while benefitting middle-class and high-profile black leaders. Riley effectively uses facts, figures, and personal recollection to support his case and doesn’t spare the Republican Party, which could have done much more to reach out to African-Americans.

Riley, a leader in the new generation of black conservatives, is following the trails Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Shelby Steele blazed. Unlike them, he experienced firsthand the downturn of black culture during the 1990s. In many ways he is blessed: Though his parents separated, his father remained a purposeful presence in his life, incorporating a strong work ethic and sparing his son the reactionary scorn for “acting white” that sprang up with hip-hop and gangsta rap. But Riley saw his own sisters succumb to single motherhood and remembers his 9-year-old niece mocking his diction: “Why you talk white, Uncle Jason?”

The book ends abruptly and lacks a ringing call to action, but that makes sense: Given the harm liberal help has done, a ringing call to inaction might help more. —Janie B. Cheaney

Runner-Up

Bootleggers & Baptists

by Adam Smith and Bruce Yandle

Bootleggers & Baptists (Cato Institute), by the grandson-grandpa writing team of Adam Smith and Bruce Yandle, is a public policy book that’s both serious and fun to read. The title stems from Prohibition, when Baptists and bootleggers both worked to shut down taverns and other places where alcohol could be publicly consumed. More recently, the religious right has worked alongside bricks-and-mortar liquor sellers to fight interstate shipment of wine and lobbied alongside casinos to oppose online gambling.

The B&B concept also has broader applications. Natural gas producers and environmentalists fight use of coal: one more example of an economic interest gaining a halo by uniting with a supposedly disinterested group.

Another example: Traffic safety groups and big trucking companies both supported a U.S. Department of Transportation proposal that all trucks have Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. The reason: Big companies that already have GPS on their trucks are happy to run up the costs of smaller competitors that usually don’t.

The biggest grab of recent years, Obamacare, squeaked through Congress with support both from the AARP and other groups supposedly representing public interests and from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which had language inserted into the bill that barred importation of less expensive drugs manufactured or sold abroad. That was political pork, but Smith and Yandle note that “politicians who deliver pork to the Bootleggers can justify their actions by appealing to higher Baptist morality.”

The key understanding behind this: “Most government-provided goods and services are not really ‘public’ at all. They are bundles of private goods that redound to the benefit of specific individuals, communities, and organizations rather than society as a whole. These benefits do not spring randomly from public wells but are generated by the behavior of particular special interests—Bootleggers—working with particular political entrepreneurs.”

The housing crash that turned into our Great Recession shows one result of such entrepreneurship: “What could be more noble than enabling people everywhere to experience the American homeownership dream, even if they lack the income to qualify for regular loans? Yet perhaps it is not so noble when families by the thousands are bounced from their homes. … The great housing bubble and its collapse were rooted in a complex witch’s brew of special interest legislation. … Bootlegger/Baptist-driven legislation had spurned the expansion of such risky loans.” —M.O.

History/Biography

Winner

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by Erik Larson

Readers of Erik Larson’s Dead Wake (Crown) are immune to spoilers. We know how the story ends: A German submarine torpedoed and sank the four-stack steam luxury liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in 1915. But Larson creates tension by painstakingly recreating the weeks leading up to the disaster. He masterfully tells the story of those responsible for sinking the Lusitania and makes us empathize with the ordinary men, women, and children who were war’s collateral damage. That appeal to emotion as well as intellect makes Dead Wake our history/biography book of the year.

Larson’s real-life characters grip readers. He sketches the ship’s experienced captain, William Thomas Turner; famous and not-so-famous passengers who thought the ship too fast and too mighty to be in danger; the German submarine captain, Walther Schwieger; British politicians, including Winston Churchill, who wanted to draw the Americans into the war; and the codebreakers in Room 40, who successfully tracked the German subs. But Larson also focuses on the whys and what-ifs of the story. What if the Cunard company had paid attention to German warnings? What if the ship’s crew had run life boat drills and taught passengers how to wear their life jackets? Why didn’t the Admiralty warn Capt. Turner about the presence of a submarine along his route, or send warships to escort it safely into port?

Larson depicts the cramped life on the German submarine while it searches for targets. He shows the video-game-like disconnect between men on the submarine and the carnage they inflict with their torpedoes, which they see only from the end of a periscope. He cuts to quotidian scenes on the Lusitania, then to the Admiralty where analysts track the killer sub, then to Capt. Turner who doesn’t understand the danger he’s speeding toward. But the tragic end is what we know: It took the mighty Lusitania only 18 minutes to sink, killing 1,198 people, most of them civilians. Two years later, the United States entered the war. —Susan Olasky

(Read an excerpt from Dead Wake and listen to Jim Henry discuss the book on The World and Everything in It.)

Runner-Up 

The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot

by Blaine Harden

Blaine Harden’s The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot (Viking) tells the riveting parallel tales of two extraordinary North Koreans.

One, cunning fighter pilot No Kum Sok, noisily proclaimed his love for Kim while planning to defect in a Soviet MiG-15 jet. The son of a middle-class, baseball-loving family did just that in 1953, and today he is 83-year-old Kenneth Rowe, a retired aerospace engineer and American citizen. The other, Kim Il Sung, was an underachiever turned into a demigod by state-sanctioned myths. Harden calls Kim a “Soviet poodle” whose “monotonous, plain, and duck-like voice” annoyed listeners. Josef Stalin considered Kim “a man of no consequence.” Mao Zedong thought him an “irritating incompetent.”

But Kim was shrewd enough to turn “the Yankee bastards” into his perfect enemy. After U.S. planes during the Korean War bombed and napalmed the North’s cities and towns, Kim cleverly utilized this devastation as a fear-mongering propaganda tool to empower his own legitimacy. Part biography, part history, and part memoir, the book can help readers understand the Kim dynasty’s longevity, bizarre antics, and obsession with nuclear weapons.

Harden’s best-selling previous book, Escape from Camp 14, churned opaque information about human rights in North Korea into a best-selling thriller by narrating the harrowing life of prison camp survivor Shin Dong-hyuk, who later confessed to fabricating certain details of his account.

Harden’s second book also chases a human interest angle, but eyewitness testimonies, archival material, and recently declassified documents made possible more substantial fact-checking. —Sophia Lee

(Read an interview with author Blaine Harden.)

Runner-Up

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall
by Mary Sarotte

Mary Sarotte’s The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall (Basic Books) overtly blows the whistle on those who think earth-shaking changes are the inevitable results of massive economic and social pressures—and also on those who see change trickling down from the decisions of leaders.

USC professor Sarotte combines the sensibility of a journalist and a historian in showing how Lutheran pastors in Leipzig—some brave and bold, others hesitant and ambivalent—called for marches that gradually increased the pressure on Communist Party leaders running out of both money and vision. The Collapse tracks well the hour-by-hour process in Berlin on Nov. 9, 1989, that led the terrible wall to come tumbling down.

Sarotte concludes, “The Wall’s opening was not a gift from political elites, East German or otherwise, and was in no way predetermined. It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events—and not a little courage on the part of some of the individuals directly involved—that came together in a precise but entirely unplanned sequence.” She twice refers to “fortuitous timing,” because, if the pressure hadn’t peaked until 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev would have been under greater pressure from hardliners and the United States would have been involved in Iraq War I.

But Sarotte also notes that “the history of 1989 shows just how many things have to go right for such a revolution to succeed”—and that leaves me thinking that Christians should change “fortuitous timing” to “providential.” A quarter-century later we tend to take the happy ending for granted, but in Tiananmen Square the revolutionary stirrings ended in mass murder. It could have been that bad or far worse in Berlin, with hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides of the border and nuclear missiles minutes away. 

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow. Sarotte may or may not understand that, but she does a great job of providing the details. —M.O.

Previous books of the year

2008
The Reason for God
 by Tim Keller

2009
English Standard Version Study Bible
 

2010
The Battle
by Arthur Brooks

2011
Should Christians Embrace Evolution?
 edited by Norman Nevin

God and Evolution edited by Jay Richards

2012
The Triumph of Christianity
 by Rodney Stark

2013
Escape from North Korea
 by Melanie Kirkpatrick

2014
What’s Your Worldview
by James N. Anderson

Mission at Nuremberg by Tim Townsend

The Tyranny of Experts by William Easterly

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

Comments

  • Karen S
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:11 pm

    I found your Novel of the Year award winner, The Book of Strange New Things, an interesting read, but found the ending to be anti-climatic. The author did not make it possible to understand Peter's last words to his alien congregation by printing them only in their language. I found that disappointing. My biggest complaint, however, is that you failed to warn us about the excessive foul language and inappropriate physical scenes. I realize this is not a Christian novel despite its theme, but I would have appreciated a warning. "....whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely....think on these things" Philippians 4:8

  • Japon
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:11 pm

    I don't understand "The Book of Strange New Things" as a book of the year. I found it verbose and boring. I gave up reading it about halfway through and, like agrarian's comment, would have appreciated a head's up about language and sexual content.

  • agrarian
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:11 pm

    I wish Marvin had given a Not Family Friendly warning for the Novel of the Year award winner, "The Book of Strange New Things." Based on this World Magazine award we checked the audio version out at the public library for our recent road trip as a family. We made it through the steamy sex scene in the back seat of the car (after all, they were married to each other), and the repeated f-words (realistic dialogue of unbelievers?), but we finally shut it off when the missionary began pleasuring himself in the shower ("and the sem*n flowed"). [Note how the commenting plugin won't even let me use the technical term for a man's seed, which the book used.]  Maybe it's different when you are reading a book alone, but when someone is reading the book aloud for the entire car and family.... In the future, please consider family friendliness for your book reviews.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 05/20/2018 07:38 pm

    I wish you had been more qualified in your recommendation of Strange New Things. True, it may be much more than we would expect from a mainstream publisher, but that doesn't make it good. I just read it this week, and I found the whole thing quite depressing.

    I was somewhat bothered by all the casual profanity and matter-of-fact descriptions of private parts, but not enough to discontinue reading. But then the whole thing about his relationship with his wife deteriorating just made her look incredibly weak and him look completely clueless. (Which is admittedly a popular stereotype of male-female relations, but I'd expected a bit more from them--the characters and the author both.)

    And on top of that, the theology portrayed is a confused jumble that seems to mostly focus on his desire to teach them to live good lives, except that they already seem to be doing that, so it's rather unclear whether they need God at all. At that point, the only reason I finished the book was to get some sort of resolution to all the unfinished questions, only to find that the book is the sort that ends abruptly with most of them still unanswered. So definitely not a book I would recommend myself.