Friday, February 24, 2017

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, by Pamela Newkirk

It's hard to imagine that a mere century ago a human was on display at the Bronx Zoo in the primate house.  Let that sink in.  A young African man named Ota Benga was brought from the Congo to the zoo.  In a cage.  With monkeys.  I know about racism.  I know about people who view people from other races as less than human.  But this shocked me.  Pamela Newkirk tells Ota Benga's story in Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Newkirk focuses the story on Ota Benga's life, but sheds light on the larger picture of trade with Africa, King Leopold's terrible colonial policies in the Congo, and the state of race relations in the U.S. in the early 20th century.  She conveys the sense in which Ota Benga was a unwitting pawn in the lives of the traders and scientists who directed his fate for many years.  I loved the fact that he asserted his independence from time to time, escaping from his enclosure, chasing zoo patrons, and even letting loose with his bow and arrow.  Unfortunately, for many years his fate was controlled by his keepers, even in post-slavery U.S.

While black clergy and others in New York immediately recognized the injustice of keeping Ota Benga in a zoo enclosure, many, including the throngs who came out to gawk at him, did not.  He later spent some time in an orphanage, with children half his age, then moved to Virginia, where he worked in the tobacco industry and gained some education.  Despairing that he would not be able to return home to Africa, he took his own life.

I did not enjoy Newkirk's non-chronological narrative.  Maybe I'm too easily confused.  Other than that, Spectacle provides a nice picture of an ugly period of our nation's past.  There are plenty of kind souls, black and white, who play a positive role in Ota Benga's story.  The real culprit is the feeling, all too pervasive a century ago, that some humans are less human than others. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education (and Their Parents), by Wendy L. Moss and Denise M. Campbell

The world of special education can be mysterious and strange for the uninitiated.  If you're lucky, you will have an experienced guide to lead the way.  For special ed newbies, a good place to start is Wendy Moss and Denise Campbell's The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education (and Their Parents): Understanding What Special Ed Is and How It Can Help You.  This is the latest in Free Spirit Publishing's series of "survival guides."  Previous titles include survival guides for kids with physical disabilities, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, behavioral challenges, and others.

The fact that they have previously published these other titles explains what nagged me as a shortcoming of The Survival Guide for Kids in Special Education.  The above listed characteristics, which are commonly thought of as special ed qualifiers, are not addressed in this book.  This book is primarily written for kids with learning disabilities who, as a result, get help in special ed.

That said, the book gives some great tools and tips and coping mechanisms for those kids who get special ed help.  The authors talk about the importance of keeping a positive attitude about getting help.  "Having a positive attitude doesn't fix everything.  But it DOES make learning easier."  They offer strategies for talking about special ed with kids who are not in special ed, with an aim toward removing the stigma that it has in many kids' minds.  They recommend the ADS strategy.  "Act casual, cool, and confident. . . . Do what you need to do. . . . Say something that is quick, informative, and comfortable for you if anyone asks you questions or teases you."

The authors offer reassurance for kids who are sure what to think of the special ed process.  All those tests they take are "not trying to find out if you are stupid. . . . The tests are meant to help the specialists figure out what kinds of mistakes you make and why."  Kids should know that "having a learning disability does not mean that you can't learn.  It means that you learn differently from other kids."  Moss and Campbell want kids in special ed to know that they are not less than other kids, not stupid, just different.

For kids in special with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, or behavioral disabilities, some of the other books in the Survival Guide series would probably be more appropriate.  This book is best suited for kids who don't fit obvious special ed categories but who receive special ed services because of the more hidden issues.  Most kids won't want to read this book, but it can be used as a guide by counselors, special ed teachers, or parents to guide their student's understanding.

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

People of the Second Chance, by Mike Foster

Have you ever been discouraged?  Feel like you've messed up beyond redemption?  So has Mike Foster.  But he has good news for you--for all of us.  In People of the Second Chance, Foster wants us to know that God is on our side.  He is the God of second chances, and his opinion is the one that matters.

It's easy to start thinking you're worthless, but as Forster writes, "In spite of my deepest flaws and even beyond my own beliefs about myself, I am God's beloved." (1)  Many Christians allow themselves to imagine that they are too far gone for God.  But "if you think God feels disappointment when he looks at you, then you don't know God very well."  (99)  I have certainly found myself there. 

Even when it feels like you've blown it, the game isn't over.  "Never is like a period. It ends the sentence. It closes discussion. But not yet its like a comma. The sentence continues. The process is not complete. You are never a never. You are a not yet in process. You are a story that has yet to be finished." (73) 

Part of the process is giving yourself away in love.  Building up others is a great way not to let yourself get down.  "Use your words to affirm people.  Not just who they are but also who they can become. . . . Be rich in love. Be rich and words of affirmation." (88)  Foster promotes "Prodigal Parties."  Just as the Prodigal Son was welcomed back into his family, so should we welcome people with celebration, whether they are long-lost family members, released prisoners, or someone who has wandered from fellowship.

Mike Foster is the founder and "Chief Chance Officer" of People of the Second Chance (  People of the Second Chance is full of encouraging stories and words of encouragement for Christians.  Maybe there are Christians out there who never experience the kinds of discouragement that Foster talks about.  But I suspect all of us need reminders of the value and worth that God has placed on our lives.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and the publisher for the complimentary review copy!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Abandoned Faith, by Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez

Focus on the Family has long been know as a great source of parenting resources.  In a new FOTF/Tyndale House book, Alex McFarland and Jason Jimenez offer help for parents of adult children who have wandered from their faith.  Abandoned Faith: Why Millennials are Walking Away and How You Can Lead Them Home examines trends among the young adult demographic and encourages parents in connecting with their millennial children.

In a sense, Abandoned Faith is a "horse out of the barn" book.  In spite of the authors' encouraging words to the contrary, I could see some parents reading this with regret and despair, wishing they had some something differently.  But it's not too late.  Just as parents' examples influence young children, so can they continue to do so: "When parents strive to model a pattern of Christianity to their millennial children, those children are far more likely to follow in their parents' footsteps. . . . There is nothing more compelling and persuasive than a parent living out his or her faith with great boldness and conviction."  (xiv)

The flip side, and what may discourage parents, is the obvious link between their own failures and their children's loss of faith.  McFarland and Jimenez put it in sociological terms: "Prior to the mass exodus of millennials from the church, there was a mass exodus of fathers leaving their families.  Before millennials stopped attending church, their fathers had already stopped making church a priority.  Before the doubts took hold of millennials, fear and doubt were already embedded in their parents' lives." (35)  If Mom and Dad aren't going to church, they should not be surprised when Junior opts out as well.  What they want to see is faith that makes a difference in their parents' lives, actions and attitudes, reflecting their stated beliefs.  "The compelling proof millennials truly seek is found in an authentic life." (60)

One way that even committed parents can drive their children away is to try too hard and be too controlling.  Some parents "think that by enabling their kids, they are doing them a favor. . . . Millennials raised by enabling parents are far more likely to rebel, abandon church, and hang with the wrong crowd." (17)  We want to smooth the road for our kids, and sometimes try to do too much. 
McFarland and Jimenez's advice for the fixer-upper parent is to repeat this mantra: "When I interfere, my child will not persevere." (195)

Abandoned Faith won't give distraught parents a magic bullet.  I don't want to minimize the amount of research and sound guidance they offer, but the best takeaway from the book is simply to love much, be patient, and model grace.  Jimenez gives an acrostic for "what every member of the family needs."  L.O.V.E.  Laugh.  Open.  Value.  Encourage.  If a house is full of laughter, if relationships are honest and open, if children feel valued, and if parents abound in encouragement for their children our homes will be much better places.

It's hard not to read a book like this without regret.  I'm about to send my oldest son to college, and can think of many ways I've failed him and opportunities missed.  I would imagine every parent has similar feelings, whether sending their child to preschool, college, or anywhere in between.  Abandoned Faith is descriptive, but also encouraging for those of us who have regrets.  It offers good news and encouragement for moving forward.  Love your kids more.  Value and cherish them.  Pray for them--this especially.  I was moved and challenged.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary review copy!

This is my 1000th Reading Glutton review!  Thanks for reading!

A couple other quotes from the book that are worth preserving:

"Perhaps the one leadership trait that will cause a young leader to stand out from others is the ability to endure. . . . When we choose to keep going when others will not, we stand out from the crowd and truly become the leaders whom others look to for influence." (139)

"With the average teenager spending the equivalent of a full-time job each day on media, a person can quickly move from online gamer to an online entrepreneur, online college student, or digital missionary, changing lives and growing in the ability to provide for his own needs and help others." (181)

Monday, February 20, 2017

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow

I have enjoyed many of Cory Doctorow's novels.  He is entertaining, insightful, and sometimes nothing short of prophetic. Because I have been such a big fan of his, I wish I had not read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  This was his first novel, so I have to give him a bit of a break. But if you have not read Doctorow before, please don't start with this one.

Down and Out is set in Disney World. It's a future Disney world in which the rides are run by collective groups, some members of which carry on a multi-generational presence on the ride. The group that runs the Hall of Presidents is making drastic changes and is attempting to spread their influence to the Haunted Mansion.  There is more to the story than that, such as a murder mystery and plenty of discussion about regenerative bodies and memory back ups. But neither the characters nor the story as a whole grabbed me. This book was a bit of a chore to get through. 

Doctorow has done enough great work in his other novels as well as in his nonfiction writing that I will not throw him out completely. He is without question a brilliant writer.  But In my opinion, Down and Out should be at the bottom of the list of his works. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Little Kids and Their Big Dogs, by Andy Seliverstoff

Andy Seliverstoff is well known as a dog show photographer in Russia and throughout Europe.  But once he started taking pictures of little kids and their big dogs he saw the "endless joy and mutual confidence between the children and the animals."  His first collection of these pictures, Little Kids and Their Big Dogs conveys this message loud and clear: "Love for dogs and children make people kinder."  Just try looking at these pictures and not break out in a big grin.

The first thing you notice about this book is how huge these dogs are!  I rarely see dogs this big.  (Of course, I don't spend my time at dog shows like Mr. Seliverstoff does.)  And the kids are so cute and little.  The contrast between the two, as you would guess from the title, is striking.  But on a deeper level is the way Seliverstoff has captured the relationship between the kids and the dogs.  It's evident each enjoys and adores the other.

I will resist the temptation to run out and find a giant dog to bring home.  I'm sorry, but as wonderful as they look in the picture I know they will eat copious amounts of dog food and leave enormous deposits on my lawn.  Hopefully these cute kids are also learning to care for and clean up after their large friends.

Dog lovers and kid lovers will enjoy every page of this beautifully photographed book.

Dogs playing in the snow is one of Seliverstoff's favorite themes.

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

Rebuilding the Foundations, by John Brueggemann and Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann has long been known as a leading Old Testament scholar.  His son John Brueggemann is a rising scholar in the field of sociology. Together they have written Rebuilding the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture.  In a call and response style, the Brueggemanns discuss the decline of the moral tradition of the United States. They write, "The problems of our time are not simply the result of some elemental evil force, but rather reflect a complicated historical moment in which the structural arrangements and cultural circumstances have been aligned to disastrous effects."  

The Brueggemanns base their book on Jonathan Haidt's moral foundation theory. Haidt identified six moral foundations: care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion, and sanctity versus degradation.  

Each chapter includes John's reflections from a sociological perspective and Walter's biblical analysis of some Old Testament passages. (Forgive my familiarity using their first names; I'm just trying to be efficient.)  I enjoyed the way they linked their perspectives.  For example, they talk about the reality of poverty in the United States, while describing the prophetic tradition as equating "knowledge of God with care for the poor and needy."  They talk about the inequality of wealth, and compare the current situation to King Solomon whose "enterprise is the process of making some rich at the expense of many others."

Unsurprisingly, the Brueggemanns' perspective is decidedly on the left.  Their left-leaning perspective only bothered me a few times, like when their anti-market perspective shined through ("Market fundamentalism provides the foundation. Profit is the goal.") or when the unnecessarily and rudely called President Trump "the great defiler."  (Don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to criticism or mocking of politicians.  But in this book it seemed out of place.)

The bigger problem with their liberal perspective came when they tried to bring biblical ideals into a real-world scenario.  They make an argument against the commodification of food, emphasizing "the abundance of food assured by the Creator" and the "triangle of the God who gives, the producer-distributor-consumer who enjoys food, and the neighbor with whom the abundance is shared."  That is a compelling perspective, but it completely ignores the necessity of price signals, supply and demand, and consumer choice.  Parts of their work illustrate the dangers and shortcomings that are inevitable when a sociologist and an Old Testament scholar venture into the world economics and policy.

The strongest parts of Rebuilding the Foundations are Walter's forays into Old Testament passages. Overall, the book isn't particularly insightful or inspiring, and their perspective on society is rather bleak: "Everyone can see that our current sociopolitical, economic culture is on its way to a death in which humanness shrivels."  This book must have been a joy for the father son team to write; that interaction and interplay of their ideas makes it worth reading.

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