What I Read in 2020

Four of my favorite books from 2020, plus I'm giving one of them away!

Darren Richardson

Whatever else you can say about 2020, time spent sequestered at home afforded the opportunity to read more than usual. And, although I conclude just about every year wishing I had spent more time reading, I navigated my way through some good books these past twelve months. Here's what I read.  

Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway's Secret Adventures, 1935-1961

[Ernest Hemingway] had fallen in love with the antifascist, pro-Republican cause like so many other writers and intellectuals on the left. It was the one political equation that, in a decade of confusing crises, seemed to make absolute sense: freedom versus oppression, democracy versus dictatorship, progress versus reaction, the common man versus the oligarch, life over death.[1]

If you're not an ├╝ber fan of Ernest Hemingway or, at least, history in general you may not enjoy this book. I am one, which is why it caught my eye on a digital shelf some time ago. Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy is not a traditional biography, but rather focuses on Hemingway's (often unsanctioned) military and political escapades.

The idea for the book began when the author uncovered some documents smuggled out of the Soviet Union that show the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) actively recruited Hemingway, whom they codenamed Argo, to join their ranks in 1940.

But the book doesn't start there. Reynolds opens in 1935, just prior to the Spanish Civil War, to establish the development of Hemingway's political opinions and personal code of ethics and progresses through the rest of his life--one defined by war and politics. The author leaves no doubt that Hemingway never fully recovered from his disappointment over the loss of the Republicans to the Nationalists in Spain, a civil war in which Hemingway was an active participant. He despaired over the lack of support from the rest of Europe, particularly England.

While always an independent thinker, these experiences drove Hemingway further left, even leading him to sympathize with the Soviet Union which he lauded for its fight against fascism. Hemingway was no communist, but was a stark anti-fascist, who saw the rise of Hitler as a natural progression following the loss of Spain to Franco.

Some interesting tidbits from the book:

When touring Pearl Harbor in February 1941, Hemingway commented on the concentration of aircraft and equipment at the base saying, "Get everything and everyone packed in one place and [risk getting] . . . the whole lot wiped out.”[2] Such a critique, of course, turned out to be prophetic when Japan attacked later that year.

Hemingway was friends with Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame. Dahl, a member of the British Royal Air Force, managed to get Hemingway to Europe during WWII when Ernest agreed to sign on as a war correspondent.

Though not an active participant, Hemingway witnessed D Day in person from a "thirty-eight-foot landing craft . . . in the waters off Normandy on June 6, 1944."[3]

Whatever you think of the man, Hemingway's life was full of intrigue and mystique that still fascinates to this day.

Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People

Grace never seems fair until you need some.[4]

I read Bob Goff's Love Does back in 2015 and received it well enough that I added Goff's follow-up Everybody, Always to my to-be-read list.

Since the book appears on this list it's apparent I am recommending it to you, but I must say I almost gave up on it. I pushed on through, and I'm glad I did. The second half is better than the first.

If you do read this book, I'd urge you to read it as a memoir rather than as a how-to book. If you choose the latter, as I did to start, you might feel judged, inadequate, and a bad Christian, which is a shame because I don't think Goff intended that at all. But if you read the book simply as a memoir chronicling the ways in which the author learned how to become love throughout his life, then you'll probably enjoy Everybody, Always.

Most of Bob's stories and life lessons don't translate to the average mortal. I've never been to Uganda. I can't afford to buy and hand out dozens tickets of Disneyland. I don't own a plane, nor do I know how to fly. These particulars can snag those looking to glean advice for becoming love to those around you. Although he does dole out advice--"Go find someone you've been avoiding and give away extravagant love to them"[5]--I think Goff's primary goal is to inspire the reader by showing him or her what is possible when we think outside the box. We don't have to be rich lawyers to love our neighbor dying of cancer.

Often throughout Everybody, Always I found myself losing Goff's line of thinking at the expense of the story. But what great stories they are! Whatever anyone could say about Goff, he is a good storyteller. So if you go into Everybody, Always looking for some interesting and inspiring tales about an American philanthropist, I think you'll enjoy it. But if you're looking for a handbook or some deep theology you'll walk away disappointed.

One interesting nugget:
Remember when Jason Russell, director of Kony 2012, had a naked meltdown on a San Diego street corner? Goff claims in this book to have been there, trying to help his friend get back inside. Sure enough, when I looked at stills of the incident you can see Goff in the background with a concerned look on his face. Is there anything this guy hasn't done?!

That's Just Your Interpretation: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith

Relativism is self-contradictory because it claims to be absolutely true for everyone.[6]

Paul Copan's mission to arm Christians with answers to questions people are asking about truth and reality is a noble one. Although written in 2001 as a follow-up to his book, True for You, but Not for Me, That's Just Your Interpretation rings just as relevant in 2020. Copan tackles relativism head on and then proceeds to discuss philosophical questions about religion such as, "Why not believe in reincarnation?" The last section deals more specifically with questions surrounding the Christian faith and the Scriptures.

I got my first taste of Copan a few years ago when I read If God Made the Universe, Who Made God?, a collection of apologetic essays to which he contributed. In fact, That's Just Your Interpretation addresses the titular question of that book--Who made God?--also. While I don't agree with the author's take on everything in this book, for example his assertion that natural disasters are unavoidable and would have occurred regardless of the Fall,[7] I would recommend this book to any Christians wishing they had better answers when friends or family make claims like "The Bible condones slavery," or "That's just your reality."

Copan's format of addressing actual questions or criticisms of Christianity lends to the usefulness of the book. I've read some these issues in various other books, but one that stuck with me was the discussion of Jesus's temptation. The question is, "If Jesus is God, how could he really be tempted?" Copan argues that when Jesus became a man he willingly gave up the awareness of his inability to sin. He uses the analogy of a locked room:

Imagine that you enter a room and close the door behind you. You do not realize it, but the door immediately locks with a two-hour time lock. You consider leaving once or twice, but in the end you freely choose to stay in the room for the full two hours. After you read a newspaper and some magazine articles, you decide to leave. By this time, the lock has automatically been released by the timer and you freely walk out the door. Why did you stay in and not try to go out? Because you freely decided to stay. Would you have been able to leave? No.[8]

Jesus was "locked out" of the ability to give in to temptation and sin, but he didn't know it. Therefore every temptation he experienced was as real as those you and I face.

This is just one example of many interesting arguments the author presents, and if you're looking to read a good apologetic book, you could do much worse than That's Just Your Interpretation.

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume I

I shall be my own police. When I have spun the web they may take the flies, but not before.

Sherlock Holmes [9]

My favorite book all year was the first volume of Bantam's complete Sherlock Holmes collection. Adaptations of the world's most famous detective abound--whether serialized or on the big screen--in part owing to the character's entrance into the public domain.

Nevertheless were Sherlock not free of copyright, I'm convinced producers and studios would still seek out adaptions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories due to the captivating nature of the titular character. You could come up with several good definitions of "classic" but one I'd offer is a work's ability to transcend the period in which it is written.

Holmes does just that. Though Doyle penned the first Sherlock Holmes novel in 1887, his detective tales still gripped this 21st century American with strong characters and believable intrigue. Once I acclimated myself to British and other period terms like "four-wheeler" and "Pullman car," I had no trouble losing myself in the gripping tales of robbery or murder.

For the unfamiliar: Sherlock Holmes is a private detective-savant who solves crimes for the sheer thrill of the puzzle. He seeks neither fame nor fortune, but begins to receive the former as his sidekick, Dr. John Watson, begins chronicling the exploits of the keen British observer. Commoners and royalty alike seek Sherlock's services as word of his brilliance spreads throughout England and beyond.

It would be impossible to choose a favorite story from this collection, but one that stays with me is The Adventure of the Priory School in which the son of a Duke goes missing from a boarding school with few traces, clues, or even suspects. The schoolmaster, dumbfounded, seeks out the assistance of Holmes after the local police investigation yields no answers. Was the boy kidnapped for ransom? Did he runaway to his mother in France? Where is the bicycle that is missing from the school? At three days' disadvantage Holmes and Watson set out to investigate.

If you're a fan of the character Sherlock Holmes, but never have read any of the stories, you would do well to pick up this book and give it a read. I'm already looking forward to reading volume 2.

A Giveaway!

How would you like to win one these books?

I'm giving away one of the above books of your choice plus a copy of The Last Lessons of Christ to one lucky winner!
How can you enter?

It's actually quite simple: subscribe to my email list. That's it.

I typically send out two emails a month, including one on the last Tuesday with exclusive subscriber-only content. But there's no obligation to stay subscribed once the giveaway ends. To sign up, enter you email address below and click subscribe:

Already on the list? You're already entered!

I'll leave the giveaway open for seven days (through the end of 1/18/21 CST) and choose a random winner on 1/19/20. (Note: this contest is open in all territories, but since I'm based in the US, if cost is too prohibitive in foreign territories, I might sub out the prize with a gift card.)

I'll update this post with the first name and location of the winner as well as notify him or her by email.

Good luck!

Update 1/19/21: Cindy from Oklahoma won the giveaway. Congratulations!

1. Nicholas E. Reynolds, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy (New York: William Morrow, 2017), Kindle edition, 49.
2. Ibid, 92.
3. Ibid, 161.
4. Bob Goff, Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018), Kindle edition, 205.
5. Ibid, 8.
6. Paul Copan, That's Just Your Interpretation: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), Kindle edition, 28.
7. See Ibid, 98.
8. Ibid, 141.
9. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Five Orange Pips,” in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I (New York: Bantam, 1986), 304.
10. This post contains affiliate links which means I receive a portion of sales at no extra cost to you.


  1. Thanks for the reviews/recommendations. I will definitely restart the Bob Goff book!