2017 Top 12 Montage

388: A Year Marked by Provocative Books

Since compiling my 2016 reviews, I might have absorbed more nonfiction books than I had cumulatively read in my entire adult life (including 2016). To make that happen, I listened to fewer podcasts and took more nature hikes with headphones. I regularly switched off sports radio in my car and took long road trips. My life is richer for it.

I intentionally sought authors with a dissimilar or even opposing worldview. I listened to more female voices, views further left or right of mine, more international perspectives. At least one of the authors actually mocked people like me. While broadening my horizons, I was surprised to also find a lot of affirmation and resonance in the words of people on the other side.

Charles “Tremendous” Jones said, “You will be the same person in five years you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” Between the books here and a bevy of new friends this year, I’ve got a good head start on being a better me in 2022.

Here are the books I finished in 2017 in the order I liked them.

Born a CrimeBorn a Crime
Stories from a South African Childhood

Trevor Noah’s memoir includes both edge-of-your-seat action stories and poignant reflections. Incredible experiences are wrapped in commentary on race & society, religion & relationships. This book will challenge your excuses in life. I highly recommend the audio book, read by Trevor. (It brings the various African accents to life and reveals his abiding pragmatism.)

Amazon rating: 4.8 out of 5 stars

Hidden Life of TreesThe Hidden Life of Trees
What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World

Peter Wohlleben blew my mind. The first half of this book (especially if you get the audio version with the stately Mike Grady reading) will explain how a book about trees broke into The New York Times nonfiction best seller list. Though this fascinating treatise was penned by an evolutionist, I came away more impressed with the intelligent design of the symbiotic community of the forest.

Amazon rating: 4.6 out of 5 stars

Power of MomentsThe Power of Moments
Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

Chip & Dan Heath did it again. The brothers wrote a profoundly simple book I will recommend again and again. For anyone in leadership, education, customer service, hospitality, or ministry, this is a must read. Parents can change the dynamic of family gatherings with the Heaths’ advice. Their insight proved as practical as that from any book I’ve read this year and offers multiple case studies that bring the truths home.

Amazon rating: 4.8 out of 5 stars

Extreme OwnershipExtreme Ownership
How Navy Seals Lead and Win

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin kicked my six with these leadership principles. They confronted some areas of weakness in my leadership of various groups and environments. I have no military experience, but their narratives were easy to follow; and they made very practical application to businesses and other organizations.

Amazon rating: 4.8 out of 5 stars

Eerybody LiesEverybody Lies
Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

I’m an analytics guy, but you don’t have to be interested in data science to get swept up in this captivating book. The general premise: our actions in secret are no longer secret (even though anonymous). In the aggregate, our digital and consumer footprint reveal trends—often with counterintuitive results—before culture at large realizes them. Don’t read the conclusion chapter first, as it’s the worst chapter in the book.

Amazon rating: 4.3 out of 5 stars

How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better

Wow. This book lived up to its “radical, provocative” hype—just by talking about how Jesus frustrated his culture by his radical, provocative alternative to religion. Brant Hansen took this topic to places I didn’t expect. Even though much of the truth proves difficult to put into practice, I can’t argue with the pragmatic, logical conclusions. I highly recommend the audio version, as it leverages the author’s broadcasting skills.

Amazon rating: 4.9 out of 5 stars

Braving the WildernessBraving the Wilderness
The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone

Dr. Brené Brown’s book exploded as a #1 New York Times Bestseller within two weeks of publishing. She articulates the motivation behind the uneven and caustic division in our American culture and then offers a cure. Implementing her advice has improved my life. I’ve been using some of those recommended practices, especially recently; and her assertions encouraged me in those pursuits. Her books build on each other and on her past research. This book is not a capstone, though—more a next logical expression of her empathic work.

Amazon rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

On Homecoming and Belonging

Sebastian Junger succinctly presents some counterintuitive principles that will change your heart, if you have an open mind. If his statistics are true, this content will change the way you look at the American Dream. This secular war journalist and Vanity Fair editor affirmed how my inner circle of church friends have approached community over the past couple years.

Amazon rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Geography of BlissThe Geography of Bliss
One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Eric Weiner transcribed his international and introspective journey with careful humor. He surgically edits his impressions into efficient memoirs with succinct and powerful use of dialog and researched anecdotes. He turns phrases like a poet but in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. As a writer and traveler, this book inspired me to hone my craft. (The audio version adds value, being read by the author.)

Amazon rating: 4.3 out of 5 stars

Last ArrowThe Last Arrow
Save Nothing for the Next Life

The overwhelming poignance of Erwin McManus’ latest book is that it might be his last one. The juxtaposition of this book’s central theme and his battle with cancer adds passion and credence to an important message. McManus weaves stories so compelling that I finished this book in less than 24 hours. As a follower of Jesus, he makes off-the-beaten path stories in Old Testament Israel come alive with relevance in the social media age.

Amazon rating: 4.8 out of 5 stars

Hit MakersHit Makers
The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

I’ve already heard myself retelling some of the anecdotes of Derek Thompson’s first book. He explains some of the science present in otherwise serendipitous progressions. This book won’t tell you how to make something go viral, but it will help you analyze and explain how and when something explodes. It also affirmed the content of my branding seminars.

Amazon rating: 4.7 out of 5

Communicating for a ChangeCommunicating for a Change
Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication

Andy Stanley and Lane Jones co-wrote the most practical book on persuasive communication I’ve read—besting even Made to Stick. The first half of the book unfolds as an allegory, which somehow worked for me in the audio book; the second half persuades even the skeptical with incredible insight. While the guide was written to pastors, I found ample application to my blogging, consulting, and seminar speaking.

Amazon rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars

Power of VulnerabilityThe Power of Vulnerability
Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage

I bought Brené Brown’s “audiobook,” thinking it was a book. It’s actually a series of connected lectures covering the content of several of her books. I’m thankful for that mistake. This course should be required for all parents, teachers, and ministry leaders. Authenticity is bigger and more complicated than I assumed before hearing this content.

Amazon rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars

Weapons of Math DestructionWeapons of Math Destruction
How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

As someone who teaches small business folks how to leverage big data to compete in the marketplace, I wasn’t surprised by what Cathy O’Neil revealed. Having listened to her past podcasts, I also wasn’t surprised by her superfluous and biased delve into politics near the end of her book. Still, she raises great points—first for awareness and then for discussion. I hope companies, governments, and individuals incorporate some of the reforms she suggests.

Amazon rating: 4.1 out of 5 stars

Love Lives HereLove Lives Here
Finding What You Need in a World Telling You What You Want

Maria Goff’s husband is a hero of mine, and I’ve read his book multiple times. While her personality is the ying to Bob’s yang, they unite for a powerful approach to life. I would guess moms or parents in general would appreciate this book for its content. For me, it proved a primer for how to cherish my wife while I pursue adventure. I highly recommend listening to this interview with Maria after finishing the book.

Amazon rating: 4.8 out of 5 stars

Men Who Stare at GoatsThe Men Who Stare at Goats

This book showcases both Jon Ronson’s diligent journalism skills and his ability to weave a captivating journey out of a compilation of interviews. The connections he found and access he earned will impress you. I particularly liked how he narrated the audiobook; his pronunciation and cadence added to the eccentricity of the work. Ronson shares the reader’s skepticism but does so within the fourth wall.

Amazon rating: 3.9 out of 5 stars

What is the BibleWhat is the Bible?
How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything

Rob Bell is notorious for questioning the status quo of evangelicalism’s tenants, but this book does this only in a handful of its forty-some chapters. The rest proves a compelling invitation to believers and skeptics alike to dive deep into the beauty and countercultural profundity of these sacred pages. Bell adds context to stories and new meaning to accounts I’ve heard dozens of times.

Amazon rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars

Head in the CloudHead in the Cloud
Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy to Look Up

William Poundstone’s book introduced me to the Dunning Kruger effect and offers an interesting premise.  (The answer to the cover “why” is that you’ll make more money.) His debunking of popular polar ice cap melting theory surprised me. Ironically, the condescending author ended with “Known facts . . . make us wiser as citizens and supply the underrated gift of humility—for only the knowledgeable can appreciate how much they don’t know. The one thing you can’t Google is what you ought too be looking up.”

Amazon rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Man Seeks GodMan Seeks God
My Flirtations with the Divine

Eric Weiner’s search for God zigzagged around the globe through eight different faith systems. But not mine. So, from my worldview, I wasn’t surprised to hear that he flat-out admitted, “I feel lost.” The book is worth your time because of both its futility and its example of thorough introspection—like the ideas that “every religion is full of paradox” and that most folks “fill their God-shaped hole with a hole-shaped God.”

Amazon rating: 4.2 out of 5 stars

Adventures in Sex, Love, and Laughter

Isabel Losada and I have very different definitions of monogamy, different meanings for “open mind,” and different depths of research for writing topics. My friends who feel awkward because I “don’t have a filter” would probably not even want to be friends, if I conversed at Losada’s level of candor. That said, I know many marriages that could afford to lean into the pursuit she and her boyfriend made—an exploration that can go a lot of places, even while reigned by biblical boundaries.

Amazon rating: 4.9 out of 5 stars

Modern RomanceModern Romance

As someone who’s been in a committed, monogamous relationship since 1998, my hours with this book came from schadenfreude. I consider hookup culture and cohabitation to be unhealthy options; so, the exasperation from the anecdotes didn’t surprise me. Aziz Ansari makes the text come alive in the audiobook, but his extemporaneous interjections add a lot of profanity to pages already drenched in expletives.

Amazon rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars

Approval JunkieApproval Junkie
My Heartfelt (And Occasionally Inappropriate) Quest to Please Just About Everyone and Ultimately Myself

Faith Salie writes personal essays with creative candor. I was surprised to find that the only things we have in common are the wrestle with insecurity and a love of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. This book make me grateful for the sovereign guardrails God put in my life—the touch of discomfort that kept me from pain.

Amazon rating: 4.0 out of 5 stars


Tina Fey has worked harder and accomplished more than I ever will. Her memoirs, though, humbly inspire readers rather than spill a bucket of humble brags into our laps. Her writing balances conversational easiness with literary and creative turns of phrase.

Amazon rating: 4.3 out of 5 stars

Bird by BirdBird By Bird
Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Other bestselling authors have praised Anne Lamott’s book as a necessary experience for professional writers. As a writer, my only real takeaway is that my work needs more outside examination—that its lack of professional exposure explains its stunted success. As a reader, though, this book is music. It’s dance without pretense. Susan Bennett’s narration proves a performance of itself. I’ve never heard a book interpreted with such vitality.

Amazon rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Mating in CaptivityMating in Captivity
Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

I read this book because of Esther Perel’s TED talk and the number of times I’ve heard her concepts referenced by others. Her impressive international résumé gives her a unique perspective on American monogamy, as she explores the tension between commitment and attraction. Her book’s interesting assertions include the idea that a couple can have too much intimacy and that intimacy can eventually get in the way of a healthy sex life. While some of her prescriptions fall outside of my Judeo-Christian boundaries, I found affirmation in how my wife and I pursue individual personhood.

Amazon rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Mindy KalingIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
(And Other Concerns)

I listened to Mindy Kaling’s memoirs to gain the perspective of someone almost completely opposite to me in every way. Her writing style and vocal performance made that easy to do. Her story of ascension is more impressive than the humor with which she tells it.

Amazon rating: 4.3 out of 5 stars

Smart EnoughAre We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Frans De Waal thinks I’m stupid for believing that the incredible design of the creatures he discusses could have a source other than chance, but we agree that it’s foolish for humans to use arbitrary or personal benchmarks to determine what makes another species intelligent or not. The principles of this book work not only for inter-species study but also for how we value other humans. Values differ greatly between cultures or subcultures, and we all need humility to recognize the beauty, strength, and insight of those different than us.

Amazon rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars

Give Yourself the Gift of Done

Jon Acuff’s advice rings counterintuitive but believable. His last book, Do Over, inspired me more; but this collection of advice has equally-practical concepts. He helps you recognize perfectionism’s pernicious lies, as it seeks to steal your accomplishment. My biggest takeaway is that we have permission to set the parameters on our arbitrary goals.

Amazon rating: 4.9 out of 5 stars

What You Do BestWhat You Do Best in the Body of Christ
Discover Your Spiritual Gifts, Personal Style, and God-Given Passion

As someone who has done all sorts of personal assessments, I didn’t find any surprises in this book. What I appreciated about Bruce Bugbee’s quick read, though, was how succinctly he covered and connected the range of topics that other authors might want to stretch into individual books. The expanded edition provided great conversation starters for my book study group.

Amazon rating: 4.3 out of 5

All Marketers Are LiarsAll Marketers Are Liars
How Marketing Really Works—and Why Authenticity Is the Best Marketing of All

My biggest takeaway from this Seth Godin book will be the Walmart mantra he quoted,” You can’t out-Amazon Amazon.” As someone who loves both storytelling and advertising, I appreciate the recommendations for pursuing authenticity.

Amazon rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars

How We LoveHow We Love
Discover Your Love Style. Enhance Your Marriage.

I wish Milan & Kay Yerkovich had included far less of their anonymized-client stories and more of the content in the workbook that was regularly recommended. You’ll find the most value and the most difficult assignments in the last third of the book.

Amazon rating: 4.7 out of 5

Help Thanks WowHelp Thanks Wow
The Three Essential Prayers

Anne Lamott’s portrayal of God strides right over my line of blasphemy and sacrilege, but she paints a portrait of prayer with relatable strokes and vibrant hues. I listened for her writing more than her content, because she uses plain words to capture complex emotions.

Amazon rating: 4.6 out of 5 stars

Industries of the FutureThe Industries of the Future

Alec Ross is certainly qualified to write this book, though you wouldn’t have to be for the first half. The second half is where he leverages his experience and gives you new food for thought. This content should scare most of us into continuing education of some form or another.

Amazon rating: 4.4 out of 5

Fully AliveFully Alive
A Journey That Will Change Your Life

Ken Davis aims this book at people older than me, but it contains wisdom for all ages. You won’t find anything ground-breaking in these pages—just good reminders of principles you’ve probably studied in depth, if you’re a regular reader of nonfiction. Davis knows how to captivate on stage and brings that storytelling prowess to this book.

Amazon rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

How's Your SoulHow’s Your Soul?
Why Everything that Matters Starts with the Inside of You

This felt more like a fleshed out sermon series from Justin Bieber’s pastor, Judah Smith, than a book written from scratch. The audio book even inserted a couple sermon excerpts at the end of chapters. I listened to this book because my wife had gifted it to a family member. If you’re new to Christianity, this content will probably mean more to you than it did to me.

Amazon rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars

Yes PleaseYes, Please

Amy Poehler writes like a crass, disillusioned version of my hilarious Aunt Sandi. I love my Aunt Sandi. I didn’t love this book or even find much humor in it, but I finished it for the storytelling. Poehler described an American youth and a career path both foreign and unattractive to me.

Amazon rating: 4.2 out of 5 stars

Good Girls Guide to SexThe Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex
(And You Thought Bad Girls Have All the Fun)

This was one of the first sex books in our house that I didn’t buy. (I found it stacked on the table after my wife wrapped up a counseling session.) Sheila Wray Gregoire’s book started with churchy clichés and eventually got around to some good advice between awkward generalizations. The last chapter’s “polling data” is laughable—not because of the trends it infers but because of its sampling. Her Canadian demeanor permeates the book, falling far closer to June Cleaver than Virginia Johnson.

Amazon rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

're WrongBut What If We’re Wrong?
Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past

I was sold on the “reconsider everything” premise of Chuck Klosterman’s book by my favorite podcaster. I was hoping for more practical content, but I feel accomplished to have comprehended at least half of the content. It contains the densest philosophical discussion I’ve ever read. For a book about distrust of bias, Klosterman paradoxically proves emphatic about his biases.

Amazon rating: 3.7 out of 5

You Are a BadassYou Are a Bad Ass
How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life

Jen Sincero’s approach to spirituality without God intrigued me—how hard she worked to be her own god but also surrender to the universe. If you need clichés to fuel your hedonism or if you need someone else to give you permission to do something your closest friends don’t recommend, this is your book.

Amazon rating: 4.7 out of 5 stars

When to Rob a BankWhen to Rob a Bank
…And 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants

This collection of highlights from a decade of blog posts affirmed the pragmatic, libertarian part of me. Levitt and Dubner bring their usual irreverence to a wide range of topics. Not as good as their other books, I did like that they read their own posts in the audio book, even if it felt like I was paying for podcasts.

Amazon rating: 3.7 out of 5 stars

Marriage CodeThe Marriage Code
Discovering Your Own Secret Language of Love

Bill & Pam Farrel try too hard with the metaphor, and the content looks barely different than the boilerplate Christian marriage conference fare; but its reminders can’t hurt. If you need this kind of content, you have much better options available.

Amazon rating: 4.3 out of 5 stars


Anna Faris takes more than 300 pages to prove the thesis of this book’s title. In terms of relationships, she is not a role model. As I finished this book, words came to mind like sad, pitiful, and coarse. I was left with a profound gratitude for my sexual, spiritual, and relational journey.

Amazon rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

What Your Stuff Says About You

Dr. Gosling’s book completely underwhelmed. The most interesting tidbit I gleaned was that scientists have proven that women wear more revealing clothes during the ovulation part of their menstrual cycle.

Amazon rating: 3.7 out of 5 stars

How ’bout you? What books did you absolutely love recently? Which ones made you think? I’d even your warnings of books you hated. Let me know in the comments below.

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