Without going into a ton of detail here, 2019 was an unusually hard one for the Strnads. We’ve been very blessed by friends and family who have come alongside us through our struggles (God has indeed been very good to us, and sometimes hard times are a means to highlight His blessings), but as the year comes to a close I can’t help but utter a hearty “good riddance.” In the midst of it all, Goodreads tells me I read 58 books over the past year (counting all 20 original Goosebumps children’s novels as one big book), so, as usual, here is my commentary on some of the highlights.
BEST CLASSIC: Paradise Lost by John Milton
I am convinced that everything just sounds cooler when it’s uttered in iambic pentameter. Paradise Lost puts the “epic” in epic poem, and it is easy to see why this work became one of the lynchpins of Western literature, influencing generations of authors from every genre. Retelling the Biblical story of the creation and the fall of man, Milton presents readers with one amazing sequence after another (including a massive war in Heaven itself), making me wish for a full-scale, big-budget action movie that preserved the original language. Satan, under Milton’s pen, is perhaps the most memorable character as a silver tongued and utterly convincing villain, but others are given their due as well– Christ himself is portrayed as an epic warrior who, by his resurrection, “ruin[s] all my foes, Death last, and with his carcass glut the graves.” From a modern perspective, the book suffers from some mysogony (Eve is a hopeless ditz), and at times Milton seems more interested in telling a cool story than in communicating theological truth, but these are fairly minor quibbles to have with such a great book. Upon reading it, I can’t help but feel that he really did intend his masterpiece to be God honoring, as well as exciting. The result is nothing short of breathtaking.
BEST GENERAL NONFICTION: Toss-up Between Every Tool’s A Hammer by Adam Savage, Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures
Celebrity memoirs are a bit of a guilty pleasure for me– I read them without expecting any real literary merit, but if I like the work of a movie star or musician, sometimes reading their own words can give further insight or trivia into a piece of media I already like. When I picked up Every Tool’s A Hammer, I expected some goofy stories from the set of Mythbusters, and probably not a lot else– what I got was very different, and a very pleasant surprise. Although he does touch upon some of the things he did while working on the Discovery Channel show that made him a star, Adam Savage spends most of this book simply talking about the joy of making things, analyzing his own creative process and work style, and offering practical advice to other creatives. C.S. Lewis observed that “we read to know we are not alone,” and I found that wonderfully true in this case: where I expected to find a showbiz memoir, I instead found a kindred soul and a wealth of experience.
Best known for his goofy sci-fi comedy series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams is one of my poster boys for droll British wit. In Last Chance to See, he turns his attention to a somewhat more serious topic, taking a trip to record encounters with endangered animals around the globe. The result is as heartfelt and funny as anything else he ever wrote, well worth digging into (although I did find his atheistic bias and his cynicism toward people of faith at times a bit overwhelming and annoying).
I also really enjoyed The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures, a massive, 774 page tome from the good folks at Hardcoregaming101.net. I’m know I’m in a minority here, but I have a huge soft spot for the oft-maligned point-and-click adventure computer game genre that dominated PC gaming in the 1990s. To this day, I actively seek out games like this– enjoying both the rich storytelling and the complex logic puzzles they offer. This book offered history and amusing commentary on a number of games I’ve played, while directing my attention toward many more fascinating-sounding titles I’d never even heard of. I now have a running “to-play” list of old adventure games to get my hands on.
BEST SCI-FI: Toss-up Between Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Much ink has been spilled about the alleged fascist political undertones of Heinlein’s classic of military science fiction, Starship Troopers. I’m not really equipped to comment one way or another on the subject. What I found, while reading it, for good or ill, was a unique and detailed insight into the mentality of a soldier– an apologetic for why one fights and for what one hopes to accomplish, a detail of fears and loves that may be universal to anyone who goes to war, regardless of the book’s futuristic set dressing. The best science fiction always provides insight into the human condition and, whether one ultimately agrees or disagrees with the views of the novel’s first-person protagonist, this one accomplishes that handily.
Like most kids of the 1990s, I have fond memories of Stephen Spielberg’s supremely entertaining film adaptation of Jurassic Park, but had never read the book till this year. It holds up, and actually probably surpasses the film in some ways, with the cautionary “don’t play god” theme coming through stronger than it does in the movie. I’ve read a handful of Crichton novels over the years, but this is the best I’ve encountered from him.
BEST CHRISTIAN LIVING: The Gospel Comes With a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield
In end-of-year lists like this, I often feature a category I call “Philosophy and Theology,” but such a label doesn’t really feel like it applies to this book. This isn’t an exploration of doctrine or thought which I would encourage my non-Christian friends to read and wrestle with; this is a book specifically written for the Church. In it, Butterfield (who has a pretty amazing life story) presents a case for what she calls “Christian Hospitality:” a messy, self-sacrificial, radical, open way of doing life together as a practical means of sharing Christ’s love among believers and unbelievers alike. The result is beautifully written, as well as deeply challenging. Much of the book, though, is descriptive, rather than prescriptive– she is a special lady and her life is very unique; I think the best way to read the book is not as instruction that every Christian conduct his or her life in a way that mirrors hers, but as a challenge to find ways to apply the principles and attitudes she discusses within the context of one’s own home.
BEST COMIC: Batman Inferno by Alexander C. Irvine
I’m kind of cheating with this one, because it’s not really a comic– it’s a straight-up prose novel. Also, I didn’t read it, but listened to the full-cast audio adaptation from Graphic Audio (slogan: “A movie… in your mind”). Regardless, it’s the best superhero story I encountered this year. I used to look down my nose a bit at guys who read nothing but serialized adventure novels, but I’ve reached a point where, when I am down or stressed, I want to read things that are comfortable and easy. Give me my Batman story, and leave me in peace, please. Recently, I picked up a little extra work with a house painting friend, and I listened to this one as I sanded and wiped baseboards. Plot-wise, although the story is fun, there’s nothing particularly special about Batman Inferno, but Irvine’s understanding of the characters is very solid. The real reason it makes it onto this list, though, is the production of the audio version. In particular, the acting for the Joker (channeling Mark Hamill’s iconic intonation) is spot-on, and became even more impressive when I realized (listening to the credits afterward) that the actor who provided the voice for the Clown Prince of Crime also voiced the Dark Knight himself!
Anyway, that wraps up this year’s list. Happy New Year, everyone. I wish you all the best as we swing into the roaring 2020’s.