It is the time of year for lists. Here are five non-theological works of non-fiction that I enjoyed in 2014.
1. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, by William Manchester
I love this book. How can you beat Manchester’s prose? To understand Churchill, you have to see that he was fundamentally a relic of a bygone era called to lead the greatest conflict of the modern era. But it was Churchill’s vision of England’s greatness that made him great and equal to the task. All of his upbringing and early political life is covered in this book. The book begins, however, with a fast forward to Britain’s most desperate hour during the Second World War. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Manchester’s description of the rescue at Dunkirk gets me weepy even now:
“Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around in angular, existential attitudes, like dim purgatorial souls awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI has been told that they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for ‘hard and heavy tidings.’ Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure crafts, smacks and coasters; the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s Cup challenger Endeavour; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw—all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted, bleeding sons.”
2. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940, by William Manchester
This book tells the story of Churchill’s political death and resurrection. It’s amazing to think about how thoroughly out of the game Churchill was during this period. Still, he never forsook his conviction about the nobility of England and the wickedness of the raving Hun named Hitler. Appeasement was all the rage, and Churchill never flinched. It is a profile in courage like no other I’ve seen. Who is flinty enough to pull this off? The same guy who wasn’t happy unless he was charging the enemy in the Boer War or manning the trenches in the First World War. The guy was fearless with a rapier wit.
3. Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
The book is about the life and times of Louie Zamperini, a 1936 Olympian and hero of World War II. His story is larger than life, painted on a global canvas, encompassing the heights of human triumph and the depths of human degradation. In short, Zamperini went from juvenile delinquent to Olympian (who met Hitler!) to bombardier to lost at sea to POW to home again. The story is incredible. You will cringe in horror and exult with joy while reading this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The twist at the end with Billy Graham is not depicted in the new movie, so you really should read the book first.
4. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, by Rod Dreher
The book focuses on the life and times of Ruthie Leming—Rod Dreher’s younger sister—who died in 2011 from lung cancer. But the book is more than that. It’s the story of Dreher’s sojourn away from his native south Louisiana roots and of how he found his way back. It’s about a boy who resented his hometown and who couldn’t wait to be free from it but who also grew into a man who realized that his heart never left it. This work is not for the faint of heart. It’s emotionally raw. Several times I cried while making my way through the story. Dreher leaves it all on the field in this one. And you walk with him through the grief that called him away from the life of an east coastal elite and back to “the little way of Ruthie Leming” in rural south Louisiana.
5. The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian
If you’re a fan of college football, this is a must-read. It really is the story of both glory and scandal in college football. There is much more to college football than what you see on the field every Saturday during the Fall. The system is riddled with money and with amoral coddlers of the misdeeds of talented athletes. But there are also some great stories in here too—some of them not so well-known. The story of the underdog Towson at LSU was greatness—which says a lot because I’m an LSU fan. But even I was pulling for Towson after hearing their side of the story. This book has salty language throughout and mature subject matter. Obviously, it is not recommended for children.