Favorite books of 2014

I should say, books I read in 2014. Most of these weren’t published this year.

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, H. W. Brands

A compelling and readable (indeed, almost novelistic) account of the life and times of our 32nd president. Brands doesn’t gloss over his flaws, but I came away even more impressed with FDR’s political genius and his sincere desire to make the United States a better, fairer country.

Doctor Who: Harvest of Time, Alastair Reynolds

A lovingly crafted story of the third Doctor and his arch-nemesis (and here temporary ally) the Master. Reynolds is a popular “hard” sci-fi writer, and he brings some of that ethos into this story, while remaining faithful to this particular era of Doctor Who (which also happens to be one of my favorites).

Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams

This was a re-read, and I’m still convinced this is one of the best contemporary introductions to the Christian faith. Organizing the book around the theme of the “trustworthiness” of God beautifully illuminates how the various parts of the creed hang together.

The Magicians trilogy (The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land), Lev Grossman

Grossman’s trilogy is a sort of mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books filtered through the sensibility of a Brooklyn literary hipster. Which sounds kind of insufferable, come to think of it. But, despite the at-times aching self-awareness, Grossman manages to tell an original story about friendship and growing up infused with a genuine sense of wonder.

Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heschel–refugee from European Naziism, mystic, rabbi, theologian, friend and comrade of both Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr–is a near-legendary figure. So I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this is the first time I read him. Even more, I’m sorry I waited so long. Heschel’s writing sits somewhere between poetic allusiveness and philosophical argument, but radiating at the core of this book is the insight that wonder–or what Heschel calls “radical amazement”–at the sheer contingency of being is our deepest clue to the existence of the transcendent–and to a worthwhile human life. I’m currently reading the companion volume, God in Search of Man, where Heschel lays out his vision more explicitly as a “philosophy of Judaism,” and am enjoying it even more. He is easily the religious writer I’ve been most excited to discover in years.

1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Walter R. Borneman

It seems inappropriate to call a book about a war “fun,” but Borneman’s history of the War of 1812 (meant for the general reader) is definitely written with a light touch. Borneman focuses mainly on the theaters of war (the Western frontier, the Great Lakes, the Eastern seaboard, and the Gulf Coast), and I for one would’ve liked to see a little more attention to the social and political context. But he brings to life the admirals and generals on both sides who executed the war, and deftly shows how the conflict helped put the “United” in “United States.” I knew very little about the particulars of the war going in, but after reading this, my appetite to learn more has been sufficiently whetted.

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