Monday, September 15, 2014

Perimeter, by Kevin Miyazaki

In 2012, Kevin Miyazaki, a native of Milwaukee, spent 18 days traveling the perimeter of Lake Michigan, photographing the lake and the people who love it.  The result was an exhibit at Marquette University's Haggerty Museum of Art, and now the book Perimeter: A Contemporary Portrait of Lake Michigan.

The book consists of beautifully done portraits of people Miyazaki met along the way, and pictures of the water.  There is beauty in the simplicity of his work.  The portraits, which he took in a portable studio, reflect a wide variety of people and faces.  But he could have gotten a bunch of people in one place to line up at one studio to take their pictures.  There is no sense of place.  The water pictures show a variety of place, but uniformity in composition.  Sky on the top half, water on the bottom, the horizon right in the middle.  In the sameness, Miyazaki shows the many faces of the lake.  At the same time, he could have reached a similar result had he stayed in one spot and taken photographs at different times of day and in different weather. . . .

Lake Michigan lovers who love the sights of the lake will be disappointed in this book.  It's not a travel book, and does not feature the many interesting land formations, the lakeside architecture, or the animal and plant life of the lake.  Just the water.  And a random collection of people.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lost in Translation, by Ella France Sanders

Have you ever been reading something and the author mentions a foreign word, and says "this is literally translated as," and goes into several sentences of explanation?  Well, sometimes a single word in one language doesn't have a direct parallel in other languages.  Ella France Sanders's beautiful book Lost in Translation takes a number of these words from a variety of languages and describes and illustrates the rich meaning to be found.

Some of my favorites:

Boketto (Japanese): gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking about anything specific.

Ubuntu (Nguni Bantu): I find my worth in you and you find your worth in me.  Or, I am what I am because of who we all are.

And some a little more mundane but amusing:

Karelu (Tulu): the mark left on the skin by wearing something tight.

And some very practical, depending on your setting:

Poronkusema (Finnish): the distance a reindeer can comfortably travel before taking a break.

Word lovers will get a kick out of Lost in Translation.  The lovely drawings and lively commentary bring these obscure foreign words to life.  They may not make it into your everyday vocabulary, but you can file them away for when your own language doesn't have quite the right word for what you want to say.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Story of Santa Claus, by Joseph McCullough

I know Christmas is still a few months away, but I wouldn't be surprised if we see Christmas trees at Wal-Mart soon.  Looking ahead to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, I read Joseph McCullough's The Story of Santa Claus.  McCullough traces the origins of the the Santa Claus legend from St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, through Kris Kringle and Sinterklaas, up to the Americanized Coca-Cola/Nast Santa we know and love today.

The best part of The Story of Santa Claus is the compilation of biography and legends (and of course, these mix and mingle) about the original St. Nicholas.  Drawing on centuries-old writings, he makes the  case for a real, saintly person who loved to give gifts.  His saint's day, December 6, was frequently celebrated with gift giving, but eventually, after the Reformation, the gift giving in his memory was moved to Christmas Day.

It's interesting how several other traditions merged with the legend of St. Nicholas to give us the Santa Claus figure that we now recognize.  Is it a bad thing that pagan legends have a part in the story of Santa Claus?  I don't think so.  But Christians who want to "keep the Christ in Christmas" would be well-served to remember the example set by St. Nicholas himself.  He embodies the spirit of Christmas and the sacrificial, self-giving character of Christ.  Happy reading, and a way-to-early merry Christmas to all!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mindset List of the Obscure, by Tom McBride and Ron Nief

Perhaps you have been reading an old novel or watching an old movie or TV show, and some cultural reference passes you by without your getting it.  It happens.  Ron Nief and Tom McBride want to help out citizens of the 21st century by bringing to their attention some long-forgotten tidbits of life and culture.  In The Mindset List of the Obscure: 74 Famously Forgotten Icons from A to Z, Nief and McBride have selected a few dozen of those tidbits, bringing them back to life, and placing them in their history and context.

As a reader in my 40s, some of these were quite familiar, either through first-hand experience or second-hand awareness.  I actually made collect calls, listened to 45s on my sister's record player, enjoyed the smell of mimeographed worksheets at school, played with my father's slide rule (although I never figured out how to actually use it), and saw Liberace on TV (with rabbit ears).  But kids today, well, they don't know what all those things are.

Most of the items on McBride and Nief's list were from well before my time, although the names might ring a bell.   The alphabetical arrangement gives The Mindset List the feel of a reference book, and it certainly can be, but I think I would rather have seen the items listed chronologically or by type.  Plus, although the list is wide ranging, it is by no means comprehensive enough for this to be considered a go-to cultural reference work.  Ironically, just as the authors say World Book Encyclopedia has been rendered obsolete by online alternatives, so their book may be already obselete because of Wikipedia and the like. Still, it's fun to read about these relics of the past.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, September 8, 2014

People I Want to Punch in the Throat, by Jen Mann

There are mommy blogs, and then there are the anti-mommy-blogs.  (I mean blogs opposite of the usual mommy blogs, not blogs against motherhood. . . . Although perhaps there are those, too.)  Jen Mann has a mommy blog with attitude, and has collected some of her rants and observations in People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges.

Social niceties aren't really Mann's thing.  She doesn't have a lot of patience for the "perfect mothers" who surround her in her suburban neighborhood.  I'm no PTA mom and I don't have as much experience in the carpool lane or neighborhood book club as Mann does, but, like any parent of school-age kids, I could relate to her wild tales of confrontation and disputation.  I am not as confrontative or disputative as Mann, but I loved living vicariously through her.

Mann has an attitude and a potty mouth to go with it, but I couldn't help but laugh with her.  I'd love to be a fly on the wall at her next teacher-parent conference or PTA meeting.  She's a riot.

For more from Mann, follow her aptly-named blog,

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

I Need a New Butt, by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Ross Kinnaird

If there is a need for silly, pointless, entertaining children's books, Dawn McMillan and Ross Kinnaird have found that niche.  Their new book, I Need a New Butt definitely fits the bill.  Their hero has discovered his butt crack, decides that it must have happened when he farted, and speculates over getting a replacement.

He weighs the virtues of different types of butts he might get (wood, armor-plated, chrome, rocket-powered, different colors) but resigns himself to his fate.  He's stuck with the butt he has, and is somewhat comforted and disturbed to discover that his dad's butt has a crack as well.

I Need a New Butt reminded me of I Wish That I Had Duck Feet by Dr. Seuss.  I could speculate that McMillan and Kinnaird have a lesson here about kids discovering how their bodies work, etc.  But mostly it's just a silly book.  This is one for dads to read to their boys.  Little boys will enjoy the silly humor, but mothers who forbid their children to use the "F-word" (fart) will not appreciate it.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Dear Friends, by Christopher L. Webber

Here's an ambitious project: how about an updating of the letters of Paul for the church in the United States today?  That's exactly the task Christopher L. Webber, Episcopal pastor and writer, takes on in Dear Friends: The Letters of St. Paul to Christians in America.  With a great sense of Paul's style and theology, Webber gives a modern take on Paul.

The result is not quite what I expected, but was enjoyable nonetheless.  Webber's book is more than a new translation or paraphrase of Paul's writing, but not a whole lot more.  He retains the essential structure of the epistles, with much of the same phrases and wording that Paul uses, yet with Webber's own voice, so the text was constantly familiar yet fresh.

Some of the best bits were the modern cultural references, but even then, as you might expect, the concerns are timeless.  For instance, Paul writes, "You cannot drin gthe cup of the Lord and the cup of demons, too." (1 Cor. 10:21, NIV)  Webber's parallel is convicting, if not exactly equivalent: "You cannot pay more for sports events than you give to your church or spend more at restaurants than you give to the poor."  Ouch.  Tough reminders of our tendency toward idolatry.

Another example from 1 Corinthians:  In chapter 14, Paul reminds his readers not to focus on their own edification when exercising the gifts of tongues and prophecy.  Expanding on that idea, Webber writes: "You measure a congregation by attendance and provide convenient parking, comfortable seating, and the music of the secular world yet your divorce rate is growing, poverty is increasing, and anger and divisiveness are more evident every year.  I see little difference between the lives Christians live and the lives of those around you."

I cringed a couple of times, as Webber allowed his liberal (read: more liberal than I am) tendencies to come through.  In his version of 1 Corinthians 7, on marriage, Webber has Paul clearly endorsing same-sex marriage.  "As to faithful marriage between two men or between two women, I find no guidance in scripture. . . . Why should the church not ask God's blessing on that relationship?"  I find it hard to believe that Paul would agree.

He later rejects a legal ban on abortion, in Galatians 2, which deals with Jews who want Gentile Christians to follow Jewish customs.  "Are you not also returning to the bondage of the law when you deny all access to medical help for those who cannot face the difficulties of childbirth? . . . I wish all abortion clinics could be closed this very day, but I cannot force my opinion on others whose circumstances and motives are unknown to me. . . . I will not turn to the law to compel them against their will."  Molech is alive and well, and accepting sacrifices daily.

Sorry if it seems I'm unfairly focussing on some quibbles.  All told, Webber stays very true to Pauline theology.  Reading Dear Friends is much like reading the Bible.  I think most of us take Paul in little doses.  I can't think of when I've ever read Paul's letters straight through in a couple of sittings.  That's really the best feature of Dear Friends.  It points the reader back to scripture, encouraging all of us to pick up the Bible and reflect on God's message for today in these ancient pages.  Webber is to be commended for that, if nothing else.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!