Monday, April 24, 2017

Opening Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turteldove is the master of the "what if" novel.  What if the South won the Civil War?  What if Hitler prevailed in WW2?  What if the Korean War developed into a full-fledged global nuclear war?  Turtledove's 2007 novel Opening Atlantis is built around the question, What if there were a continent called Atlantis between Europe and what we now know as North America?

An English fisherman follows his Breton counterpart and competitor to new fishing grounds, where the cod are larger than any he's ever seen.  The fishing is great, and the land is even greater, fertile and untouched by human habitation.  So begins his quest to settle this new, rich, and wondrous land.  I enjoyed the story of the early settlers as they established towns and adapted the land to suit their needs.  Their independent streak and quest for self-determination parallels our own nation's history.  Their revolt against the English nobleman who decides to make Atlantis a kingdom of his own, their defeat of the pirates who raided the sea trade, and their cooperation with the British navy to defeat the French, resembled U.S. history (with, of course, lots of key differences).

As is always the case with alternative history stories like this, the deeper the divergence from actual history, the more I tend to lose interest.  I enjoyed the early parts of the book more than the latter parts.  I would like to have heard more about what was going on in Terra Nova, the land the the west of Atlantis.  Turtledove alludes to the Spanish, but barely.  I would like to know what happened to Columbus.  The English came to Atlantis decades before Columbus came to the New World.  Did he end up as a trader?  An explorer?  What about the conquistadors?  Perhaps those are novels for another time.

I would also like to know why Atlantis has such unusual flora and fauna.  Turtledove spends a lot of time talking about the unusual animals that are unlike any the settlers have ever seen, and trees and plants that grow larger and look different than any others.  Terra Nova has the same sorts of animals and vegetation that the Europeans are accustomed to, so how did Atlantis develop so differently?  I kept thinking that Turtledove would come up with some explanation, but he leaves this piece of the puzzle hanging.

Turtledove develops memorable characters.  In Opening Atlantis, he follows a couple of families over many generations.  This makes it an enjoyable novel with an epic feel, but I didn't love it.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Natural Wonders of Assateague Island, by Mark Hendricks

If you're like me, you may have heard of this island on the east coast where wild horses run free, but that's about all you know  about it.  My curiosity was piqued when I saw Mark Hendricks's new book, Natural Wonders of Assateague Island.  I learned that there is much more to this little barrier island than I imagined.

Hendricks, a seasoned nature photographer, captures the wide array of flora and fauna on Assateague Island, especially the fauna.  The most well-known feature of the island, the horses, may have been washed up in a shipwreck, but probably are descended from horses brought to the island to graze.  Other non-native species are nevertheless highlights of a visit to the island, like the sika, a small East Asian elk.  As you might expect, the variety shore life and bird species is vast.  Hendricks's love for life on the island comes through in his pictures.  As his narrative explains, many of the photos represent hours or even days of patiently seeking out and waiting for the animals' elusive appearance.  To read about his encounters with a river otter and a snowy owl is to read the joy and passion Hendricks brings to his work.

I couldn't help wanting to pay Assateague Island a visit after reading this book and enjoying Hendricks's photographs.  Maybe the reality is that I wouldn't see many animals; he alludes to crowds and a huge number of visitors to the island.  Hendricks's work is a reminder to slow down, take time to get away from the madding crowd, and patiently find opportunities to look nature in the eye.

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

Always with Us?, by Liz Theoharis

When Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you," did he mean that poverty will always be an issue no matter what?  According to many Christians from across the ideological and theological spectrum, the answer is yes.  According to Liz Theoharis, the answer is definitively no.  In Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor, she argues that Jesus did not teach that poverty was inevitable, and that, in fact, the eradication of poverty is possible.

Her work and life have been built around this hope.  As a pastor and activist, she has worked with and on behalf of poor people, addressing structural poverty and developing solutions for poverty in the U.S.  The stories she tells and hope that she offers are encouraging, inspiring, and challenging.  Her focus is not so much on charity or redistribution of wealth, but on the unacceptability of poverty and the structures of society.  She writes that "God hates poverty and wills it upon no on.  We understand that it is not enough to affirm that God loves the poor, but it is the collective responsibility of Christians and all people of faith and conscience to eliminate poverty."  The elimination of poverty is Theoharis's driving theme.

I had to part ways with Theoharis for much of the book.  She is very clearly a liberation theologian, and embraces all that entails with her view of structural sin.  First of all, she asserts that poverty is a sin.  The existence of a poverty is a result of structural sin in society.  No doubt this is sometimes true, but this view rejects the fact that in a fallen world, poverty is arguably a normal state.  Without labor and organization, all of us would fall into poverty.  Throughout human history, most people have been what we would consider poor.  To Theoharis, the causes of poverty are structural.  She rejects a view of poverty that places its cause on personal volition (or lack thereof).  She spends lots of time with poor people.  Surely she can recognize that poverty in many cases results from the choices that individuals make.  I don't accept her all-in for structural poverty position.  To address the problem of poverty, societal structures and individual choices have to be addressed.

Part of the structure of society that she doesn't spend enough time developing is the market.  The most effective anti-poverty program is a job.  When people can get and keep a job, the way out of poverty is much clearer.  In any given geographical area, the availability of a wide variety of jobs is the best measure of the elimination of gravity.  Again, jobs and a thriving economy alone don't guarantee the elimination of poverty.  But not to focus on the job market is a blind spot in the fight against poverty.

I don't know if poverty can be eliminated.  I agree that when Jesus declared "the poor you will always have with you," he did not mean, in that context, that poverty is inevitable and ineradicable.  I especially admire Theoharis's work among the poor.  She is critical of charity--throwing money at the problem of poverty is no way to eliminate the larger issue--and advocates for people in poor communities banding together to address their communities' larger issues.  Theoharis and I would find plenty to disagree about theologically, politically, and economically, but I appreciated her portrayal of Jesus as one who has a preferential option for the poor, and I enjoyed reading about her work alongside the poor.

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Most Misused Stories in the Bible, by Eric Bargerhuff

Much like he did in The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, pastor and professor Eric Bargerhuff brings clarity and interpretive assistance in The Most Misused Stories in the Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories are Misunderstood.  Like a dedicated pastor, Dr. Bargerhuff writes what could be read as a sermon series on stories you probably know, if you have read the Bible or sat through church services and Sunday school.  But if you've been around long enough, you have probably heard some not-so-great teaching on these familiar stories.

Bargerhuff writes from a solidly evangelical, biblical perspective, as you might expect from someone with a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  If your perspective is different, e.g. if you are a Catholic or Pentecostal, you might have some differences with Dr. Bargerhuff, especially in his chapters on the Lord's supper and the Samaritan Pentecost.  For the most part, his take is non-controversial.  For instance, he points out that we don't have any idea how many wise man came to visit Jesus, and that however many came, their visit was closer to Jesus' toddlerhood than to his infancy.

The larger point that Bargerhoff makes throughout the book is that the focus of these stories should be on God, not on the human actors.  The story of David and Goliath is "not about overcoming fear and facing your giants as much as it is about the power and character of God to deliver."  The story of Jonah isn't about Jonah's rebellion as God's rescuing and redeeming Jonah.  The parable of the sower isn't about monetary contributions and financial rewards (as "health and wealth" preachers might teach) but about preaching the gospel and the fruit it bears or fails to bear in the hearers.  The story of Zacchaeus is not primarily about his seeking out Jesus, but about Jesus seeking out Zacchaeus.

Bargerhuff is refreshingly straightforward in his presentation.  He has the tone of an earnest pastor whose heart is for his flock to have a proper understanding of scripture.  He concludes, "Let us never miss the main point God wants us to get lest we make the Bible into a practical how-to guide instead of a book that highlights the glory and character of God and his saving plan for us. . . . Remember that the Bible is primarily a book about God."  I'll buy that.

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Words from the Hill, by Stu Garrard

For many years, I have loved the worship music of Delerious!  So I figured if their guitar player and song writer Stu Garrard had written a book, I ought to check it out.  Stu has been working on The Beatitudes Project, which includes a film, some new music, and his book Words from the Hill: An Invitation to the Unexpected.

Stu takes each of the Beatitudes and tells stories of his friends and others he has met whose lives reflect each one.  The Beatitudes, he writes, "are predominantly blessings of God's presence for people in bad situations, and not a list of spiritual virtues to attain. . . . they're about being, not doing."  He personalizes the Beatitudes in a way that leads you to see others with Jesus' eyes and to see your own life through God's eyes.  The message is that you are blessed, and God is on your side, no matter what you're going through.

Stu's work is less Bible study than life study.  He does have some illuminating thoughts about the meaning of each Beatitude.  More than that, he tells the stories of people for whom God's blessing and mercy have been vital and real.  His exposition is, frankly, a bit disjointed, and he seemed pretty loose theologically.  A good bit of the narrative involves his friendships with Jewish and Muslim friends.  All that to say the stories bring the Beatitudes to life and will call you to reflect on your own response to Jesus' teachings.

As he points out, we Christians have historically focused on our creeds, careful to get our beliefs right but sometimes neglecting application to life and relationships.  "What if," he asks, "like the earliest Jesus followers, we began to see the Beatitudes as the Jesus Creed?"  Words from the Hill can begin to give us a vision of what a Jesus Creed would look like.  I like Stu's music more than I like his book, but his book, like his music, points me to Jesus.  That's worth the price of admission.

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection Perverts: Hunter's Point, by Danny Hellman

Danny Hellman's Resurrection Perverts: Hunter's Point tells the story of Harry Homburg, "America's last porn mogul," trying to resurrect his career by publishing compromising photographs of the president.  Things don't work out so well for him.  Hellman is making some commentary on fame, sex, politics, the media, but don't worry, it's nothing too profound.  Actually, not profound at all.

The art is pretty cool.  But the story didn't grab me, and the cliffhanger left me with a yawn, not a hankering for more.  I'll skip whatever the next installment is.

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers introduced the world of the Wayfarer, a long-haul spaceship, in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  The story of some of the characters from that novel continues in A Closed and Common Orbit.  We don't see or hear from the Wayfarer in this second installment.  Pepper, a friend of the Wayfarer's crew, returns, along with Lovey, the Wayfarer's ship AI who is embarking on a new life in a body.

The story jumps back and forth between Pepper's childhood and Lovey's acclimating to her body.  Pepper escaped from a labor camp and spent her formative years being taught and cared for by the AI in an abandoned ship.  I enjoyed the parallels of the two lives, a ship AI learning to live in a body, and another ship AI teaching a body how to live.

I kept wondering how these parallel threads would converge, and when they finally did, it made perfect sense.  As in The Long Way, Chambers spends a lot of time developing the alien species and cultures.  A Closed and Common Orbit has stronger emphasis on the story, as we see these two characters develop.  The scope of Common Orbit is smaller than that of The Long Way.  I think that helps Chambers tell a better story.  She also leaves me wanting to read more of her stories and to learn more about the Wayfarer and Pepper and Lovey's futures.  I hope Chambers continues this series.