Thursday, September 21, 2017

Night School, by Lee Child

Lee Child's 2016 novel Night School takes us back to Jack Reacher's days in the Army.  After a medal recognition ceremony, Reacher is assigned to night school.  When he arrives, he and the other "students" quickly realized that the "school" is simply a cover to get them off the radar so they can jump into another investigation.  Reacher heads out to Germany, where middle-eastern terrorists and neo-Nazis compete for Reacher's attention.

Unlike most Reacher books, which feature Reacher as the reluctant vigilante and one-man force for justice, Night School has Reacher collaborating in a more traditional investigation. Intelligence comes in, as it tends to do, in bits and pieces.  The phrase, "The American wants a hundred million dollars" raises lots of red flags.  What could be worth $100 million?  Reacher and his colleagues are chasing a mystery, and the bad guys are chasing each other but they don't really know what.  The implications turn out to be much larger than Reacher, or even some of the bad guys, could guess.

The way Child puts it all together is interesting and altogether believable--way too believable.  As much as I enjoy the Reacher novels, I have to admit this one did not rank up there with my favorites.  I liked it, but it was a bit flat compared to earlier books.  Still, with plenty of suspense and a compelling mystery, plus some scenes of Reacher being Reacher, taking out a bunch of bad guys, Night School is fun to read.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Wake Up! by Chris Baréz-Brown

Do you ever find yourself on autopilot, going through life thoughtlessly and automatically?  Christ Baréz-Brown has some suggestions for you.  In Wake Up! A Handbook for Living in the Here and Now, he offers "54 playful strategies to help you snap out of autopilot."  In a sense, this is a book about mindfulness, but not meditation and yoga.  He is in favor of those things, but his ideas are more active and forward moving.  He encourages us to "deliberately . . . bring in new and different experiences to our lives that will provoke a heightened sense of consciousness as we engage with them."

Baréz-Brown's suggestions range from the silly to the commonplace, from the obvious to the surprising.  Physical needs play a part.  He's in favor of experimenting with cutting sugar, caffeine and alcohol, with cutting bread and dairy (at least for a time), and with making your own food rather than relying on packaged food.  He recommends turning off the TV, taking walks, standing while working, and dancing.  He encourages creativity, drawing and writing about one's day, writing an original song, or taking on someone else's identity just for fun (not identity theft, just being a fictional character, for instance).

He's into simplicity.  Try spending less than $5 a day.  Wear the same clothes several days in a row.  Enjoy nature.  Turn off your devices.  My favorite suggestions relate to other people.  Make amends with someone.  Write someone a letter.  Say yes without hesitation when someone asks you to do something.  Most of all, "make a pact with yourself to try to make everybody you meet smile."  I love that plan!

Wake Up! includes lots of space to journal, jot down ideas for action, draw pictures, make lists, and keep track of your decisions.  Baréz-Brown doesn't want you to sit and read this book straight through, but to read a challenge or two, do it, and keep a record of your results.  He offers a wide variety of activities.  I think any one of them will be challenging and will transform your day.  Do them all, it may just transform your life.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Trick, by Emanuel Bergmann

Emanuel Bergmann strikes all the right notes in his first novel, The Trick.  It's moving, funny, nostalgic, sweet, and thoughtful.  Bergmann artfully weaves together the stories of two young boys from different eras who hope for more than what life seems to offer.  Moshe, the son of a rabbi in Prague, runs away to join the circus, leaving behind his family and his faith.  He learns the magical arts from a seasoned showman before striking out on his own as the Great Zabbatini, a decidedly non-Jewish identity, a necessity under Nazi rule.

Max, a little boy in modern-day southern California finds a record in his dad's old things that includes a love spell by the Great Zabbatini.  He hopes that this can bring his divorcing parents back together, so he goes out in search of the old magician.  The intersections of these two disaffected lives results in both comic and profound situations.

Bergmann's best bits capture the wide-eyed wonder of these two boys as they step out of their familiar surroundings.  We share young Moshe's first glimpses of the drama of magic and the circus, especially the stunning beauty of the magician's assistant (who later becomes his assistant and life companion).  We see Max's exposure to the realities of aging, of grown-up problems, and the darkness of certain periods of the past.

Bergmann balances the humorous, sometimes slapstick story with sensitive treatment of Max's feelings about his parents' divorce and Moshe's experiences performing for Nazis while hiding his identity and his survival of the death camps after he is exposed.  I enjoyed Bergmann's story-telling style, as he flipped back and forth from Moshe's youth to today.  The Trick is a real treat to read.


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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Blood and Faith, by Damon T. Berry

With some trepidation I picked up Damon T. Berry's Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism.  Why the trepidation?  As a white, conservative, Christian man, I prepared myself for the assault.  I fit every politically incorrect category.  I anticipated that he would be assaulting me by implication, assigning labels of racist and white supremacist to me.

Thankfully, I was wrong.  Berry, who teaches religious studies at St. Laurence University, traces the roots of white nationalism, focusing on the post-World-War-2 era in the United States.  The big picture of white nationalism in the United States is that it rejects Christianity and conservatism.  One of the intellectual founders, Revilo Oliver, had written for National Review and was involved in the John Birch Society, but subsequently "abandoned any defense of conservatism or Christianity and argued strenuously that other whites should do so as well."  Another leader, William Pierce, taught that "to protect . . . the white race itself, Christianity must be rejected."  Many were drawn to pre-Christian European traditions, such as Odinism, while others rejected religion altogether.  Some even were in league with Satanism.  Christianity, with its non-European, Jewish roots, was considered "one of the primary causes of the decline of the White race."

But then, causing a bit of whiplash, Berry tries to tie white nationalists and the "alt-right" (which he never really defines) with white evangelicals and the Trump administration.  This final part of the book was remarkable because while the first five chapters were careful and deliberate biographical and historical accounts, the last chapter and conclusion devolved into specious correlations and journalistic speculation.  So is this a scholarly examination or a political op-ed?  This was the accusation that I originally anticipated.  Berry spends the whole book talking about white nationalism's absolute rejection of Christianity, then concludes that white evangelicals are hand-in-hand in support of Trump.

So as a historical study, Berry's contribution is welcome.  These movements and organizations, though largely forgotten and little known, are around, lurking on the edges of American public life.  Despite some his unwarranted associations in the conclusion, Berry provides ammunition for those in American Christian life who want to demonstrate conclusively that it is anti-historical and unfair to associate white, conservative evangelicals with white nationalism.  As Berry describes them, the white nationalists are small, culturally irrelevant, and insular.  Their recent public appearances have been disproportionately publicized; they should be marginalized and ignored, not covered with fleets of satellite news trucks.  I, for one, hope that the white nationalists survive--only in the history books.


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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Broadway Baby: My Favorite Things, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, illustrated by Daniel Roode

The Sound of Music is one of the most beloved musicals and movies of all time.  You probably know most of the words to "My Favorite Things."  Those who love the musical and the song will enjoy passing it along to their children in this new children's book illustrated by Daniel Roode.  Broadway Baby: My Favorite Things puts the lyrics of the wonderful song into storybook form, with colorful pictures.
Even without the context of the musical, it's a wonderful, happy book.  The pictures themselves don't recall the movie, really.  The kids aren't so much Von Trapp as they are "It's a small world after all."  (I don't mean that as a criticism, but as an observation.)  This is such a fun way to introduce children to a classic movie.  I defy you to read it to your kids without singing along!


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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Broadway Baby: Do Re Mi, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, illustrated by Miriam Bos

The Sound of Music is one of the most beloved musicals and movies of all time.  You probably know most of the words to "Do Re Mi."  Those who love the musical and the song will enjoy passing it along to their children in this new children's book illustrated by Miriam Bos.  Broadway Baby: Do Re Mi puts the lyrics of the wonderful song into storybook form, with colorful pictures.
Even without the context of the musical, it's a wonderful, happy book.  The natural teaching opportunity for music teachers is great, too, as the book can be paired with a recording of the song or singing by a teacher.  The pictures themselves don't recall the movie, really.  The kids aren't so much Von Trapp as they are a multi-cultural "It's a small world after all" group.  (I don't mean that as a criticism, but as an observation.)  This is such a fun way to introduce children to a classic movie.  I defy you to read it to your kids without singing along!


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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Make Me, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher gets off the train in a small town because he is intrigued by the name: Mother's Rest.  This is the set up for Lee Child's Make Me, the 20th Jack Reacher novel.  Reacher asks around, and no one knows where the name came from--or they won't tell him.  Of course Reacher can't leave well enough alone, so his quick one-day stop turns into an investigation.  He happens to meet a female P.I. who is in town looking for her missing partner.  They team up to uncover the nefarious secret of Mother's Rest.

Make Me follows the familiar model of Reacher exposing a tiny town's secret criminal underbelly.  Mother's Rest is far off the beaten path, well outside of cell coverage.  A town-wide conspiracy of silence protects a criminal enterprise, the nature of which Reacher and his P.I. friend slowly discover.  The initial discovery is horrible, very illegal, but, in Reacher's mind, perhaps justifiable.  However, the pieces still don't fit and the ultimate reveal is beyond anything he imagined.  Reacher brings justice with his trademark brand of justice: kill 'em all and then disappear.

One distinction of Make Me is that Reacher actually meets an opponent who is better than Reacher anticipated.  Reacher takes him out, of course, but he got some good blows on Reacher, including a blow to the head.  The effects linger through the rest of the book, impacting his ability to be Reacher.  It makes me wonder if, in future books, Reacher will have to slow down and admit he's getting older, or if he'll heal up and this won't bother him again.  In any case, it's a rare admission by Child that Reacher is human after all.

Make Me follows the Reacher formula, with enough twists and turns to keep fans coming back for more.  The "small town covering up pure evil" trope might be getting old, though.  I wondered about the logistics, the secrecy, the longevity of the scheme.  It just seemed like too much to have sustained for as long as they have apparently sustained it.  Apart from that, Make Me is a worthy addition to the life story of Jack Reacher.