Friday, October 19, 2018

Past Tense, by Lee Child

In Lee Child's latest Jack Reacher novel, Past Tense, Reacher once again demonstrates his knack for finding the worst kinds of trouble dwelling in a random small town.  As the story begins, Reacher starts out on the long trek from Maine to San Diego.  He doesn't get far.  His ride drops him in the middle of nowhere.  Not that Reacher minds.  After he's dropped off, he notices a sigh to a small town--the very town where his father was born!  Curious to see what he can discover about his father's past, he decides to check it out.

Of course, it's never easy for Reacher to get in and out of town without getting into trouble.  When he helps a young lady by beating the tar out of a stalker, it turns out that the stalker is the son of a Boston crime boss, who sends his goons to teach Reacher a lesson.  (They don't succeed.)  When a local man takes Reacher out to see where his grandparents live, it turns out that a local family is squatting on nearby land.  They don't take kindly to strangers, and want to teach Reacher a lesson.  (They don't succeed.)  Meanwhile, a distant relative of Reacher's is a few miles outside of town preying on unsuspecting travelers.

Reacher is Reacher.  Have toothbrush, will travel.  In Past Tense, Child says very little about Reacher's peculiar habits.  I don't remember a single shopping trip where he leaves his clothes in a trash can.  Another unlikely story element: even though Reacher befriends the pretty cop and the pretty county employee, he doesn't end up in bed with any women!  Maybe he's getting old and losing interest.

Speaking of losing interest, does he lose interest in some of the things he's encountered in the past?  When he discovers what his distant cousin is up to, I wonder if he thinks, "Wow, this reminds me of that insane human torture operation I saw in Make Me"?  Or, "This reminds me of that human smuggling ring I discovered in Worth Dying For"?  This is simply to say that, as rule, Child likes his Reacher books to be stand-alone stories like Past Tense.  But that sometimes makes Reacher seem static and not self-aware.  Every now and then a book will have a returning character or a bit of story line that continues from a prior book.  Not this one.  That being said, we do learn new information about Reacher's father, revelations that surprise Reacher but don't prompt him to make any changes in his life.

I'm definitely a fan of Lee Child's Reacher novels.  I love this kind of book, that stays on my mind when I'm not reading it and to which I am eager to return.  Past Tense was a little big quirky and somehow different from some prior books, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, by Michael Mather

Michael Mather is pastor of a church in inner city Indianapolis.  But forget whatever stereotypical image comes to mind when you read that.  In Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places, Mather writes of the changes he went through to re-imagine what it means to be a pastor in a poor community.  When he started out in ministry, he "began by seeing scarcity, seeing only the need and the things that seemed to be missing in the neighborhoods in which I pastored.  What I learned . . . was how to see abundance--I learned to see the love and power that was overflowing in even the most economically challenged neighborhoods."

Over time, Mather has developed practices that enrich and empower his neighbors, building up the community in which the church is placed.  Rather than looking upon the people in this poor neighborhood as needy people needing assistance, "We were practicing the theology of abundance by looking for and naming the gifts of people who are thought of as poor and needy."  When someone came to the church, or when the met someone in the neighborhood, Mather asked what they have to offer.  What gifts do they have?  What gives their life meaning?  Is there some skill they have that they can teach someone else to do?  They began to focus on people's capacities rather than their needs.

Over time, they discovered talented chefs, who the church would pay to cater events.  They discovered skilled bicycle repairmen, who the church assisted with setting up a repair shop.  Photographers, tutors, artists, mechanics, health care workers, gardeners all had something to offer, to teach, to contribute the community.  The church shifted from a mentality of helping people with material needs to helping people by recognizing their gifts and finding places where they are valued.

Mather resists "the paternalism that comes from controlling the purse strings" and rejects long-practiced "anti-poverty efforts" that "offer solutions that have been proven not to work."  The church focuses on the neighbors, their interests and needs and gifts, rather than programming from above.  "Doing things for people and involving neighbors in what 'we' (as institutions) do hasn't been effective.  At our church, we experiment with ways to invest in the good things our neighbors are doing before we ask them to be involved in what we're doing."

None of this should be a radical idea, but, unfortunately, it is.  I love the use of staff and interns whose tasks consist of walking around the neighborhood listening to people.  They build bridges of relationships across common interests, bringing people together in such a way that their gifts are used, shared, and passed on.  I love the model of ministry and community Mather presents.  I wish he would have said more about tying it all in to the gospel.  He talks about not forgetting Jesus, and he talks about community, but he says little about bringing neighbors into communion and relationship with Jesus.  After all, the church is not a community center, a social club, an educational resource, or a supper club, but the body of Christ, Jesus' witness to the world. 

Mather's model is not a template to be replicated, but the questions he and others in the church ask can be asked anywhere.  The time spent discovering people's gifts is valuable time in any church and community setting.  Having Nothing, Possessing Everything got me thinking a lot about discovering and empowering the gifts of people in my church and neighborhood. 

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Nobody's Girl, by Barbara Amaya

Barbara Amayah spent many years as a teenage prostitute, working for a pimp and strung out on drugs.  If that sentence brings to mind a stereotypical picture, you're not too far off Barbara's reality, but it's only a snapshot.  The full picture of who she is is more tragic, painful, and redemptive than that nutshell can convey.  In Nobody's Girl: A Memoir of Lost Innocence, Modern Day Slavery, and Redemption Amaya tells her story.  Reading this book will change the way you view sex workers and sex slavery.

Every woman's story is different, of course, but Amaya provides a template that has likely been followed many, many times.  She did not become a prostitute overnight.  She never really chose that occupation and lifestyle.  The amazing, tragic, beginning of this path began at her ostensibly normal home.  When she was a little girl, her father began sexually abusing her.  Then her brother raped her.  She ran away from home multiple times.  While she made some friends out on the streets, plenty of people came along to take advantage of her.  Her "friends" sold her to a pimp who took her to New York, where she walked the streets, had sex with multiple men every night, and brought her earnings home to her abusive pimp.  A friend of hers got her hooked on heroine, so she became even more needy, sometimes only earning enough money for the next fix.  She finally had enough of her pimp's abuse and fled, eventually settling down to a more normal life.

Amayah's story is raw, violent, painful, and hard to read.  She dispels any notion of romanticism or appeal one might have about the life of a prostitute.  The good news is that she has a happy ending, as a mother and as an advocate for young women.  But some things will never change.  The reality is that her own family started her down the path she followed.  I can't fathom the mentality of a father treating his daughter the way he treated Barbara.  A mother willfully ignoring it.  A brother joining in the abuse.  I can't fathom the mentality of people who take advantage of young women--no, little girls--to make money off selling their bodies.  Slavery is the word for it, for sure.  It's appalling.

How many times is Barbara's story being played out in our streets every night?  How may men excuse the occasional fling with a prostitute without considering the story of their companion?  How many families drive away their children through abuse?  How many women are desperate for a way out of the lifestyle they have been forced into and are trapped in? 

Nobody's Girl is not a fun book to read, but Amaya's story should provoke us and open our eyes to reconsider the way we view prostitutes we see in our streets.  Chances are, they are crying out for help.

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Hello, My Name Is, by Matthew West

A couple years ago it seemed like every time we got in the car Matthew West's "Hello, My Name Is" was playing on the radio.  He has expanded on the message of that song in Hello My Name Is: Discovering Your True Identity.  With inspiring stories and abundant scripture, West reminds the reader to find his or her identity in Christ.  As the song says, "Hello, my name is child of the one true king."

As Christians, we have been saved, changed, and set free, but we don't always live like it.  West's songwriting gift, it turns out, translates beautifully into a gift for story telling.  Hello My Name Is is chock full of heart-warming, faith-building stories that encourage readers to remember to live like they're saved, changed, and set free.

I enjoyed hearing the back stories not only of this song, but of others West has written for and about people.  Clearly West has a passion for seeing lives changed and inspired through his music.  On the radio and in live shows, his songs have touched lives in deep and lasting ways.  Even if you don't enjoy his music (although, how could you not, it's very easy to like) you will enjoy hearing about how this man uses his gifts to touch others.  Read this book and his stories will touch you, too.

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

Monday, October 15, 2018

Hold Texas, Hold the Nation, by Allen B. West

As the bumper stickers say, Allen B. West is not a Texan but he got here as fast as he could.  Lieutenant Colonel West represented a Florida district in the U.S. Congress after a twenty-two year career in the Army.  He was the first African-American elected to congress from Florida since the 19th century and has continued to promote conservative and Republican ideals as a Fox News commentator and as a researcher for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis.

West sets up Texas as an example for the rest of the country to follow in Hold Texas, Hold the Nation: Victory or Death.  Texas's great strength, as one of the strongest economies in the nation and in the world, is a business-friendly, low regulation environment.  "Texas benefits from low taxes, a fair legal system, and leaders who know how to close a deal with incentives."  West gives example after example of businesses that have relocated from California, New York, and other locales, describing the various financial and practical motivations for their moves.

West spends the most time comparing California and Texas.  Both started with conservative, frontier self-determination.  But now, while Texas leans pro-business, suspicious of federal government control, and promoting individual liberty, California has become a haven for centralized, top-down control, leading to deficits and hoards of people and businesses leaving the state, many to come to Texas.

Texas's economic success and welcome mat for businesses and workers has led to those very people--Yankees and Californians--bringing along sets of non-Texan values.  It's no coincidence that the Austin area, a hub for tech migrants from California, is one of the most liberal parts of the state.  West calls on all Texans, whether descended from Texians or recent arrivals from blue states, to recognize and acknowledge what has made Texas an economic powerhouse and to resist the temptation to move Texas away from its conservative roots.  (This means you, Beto, and your progressive socialist fans!)

On a couple of points West's arguments do fall a little flat.  His discussion of health care hits a lot of the right notes, but he's got some work to do on articulating his argument to people who are reliant on government health care.  The disabled and elderly have few options, and most rely on the largess of various government agencies for their care.  I know other fellow conservative Texans for whom this issue is life-or-death, and platitudes (as they see it) about a free market in health care don't cut it.

West is calling on Texans to stand strong for conservative Texan principles.  "Progressive socialists want to turn this great state blue, but I'm drawing the line in the sand.  The conservative principles that have helped us succeed are worth fighting for."  Take a long look at Texas, compare Texas to California, and take a stand with West.  Don't let the progressive socialists win.

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Don't Let the Penguin Drive the Batmobile, by Jacob Lambert, illustrated by Tom Richmond

The goofy crew at MAD magazine have put together another hilarious parody of a popular children's book.  Of course they would reimagine Mo Willems classic Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus as Don't Let the Penguin Drive the Batmobile.  Writer Jacob Lambert and illustrator Tom Richmond mimic Willems's distinctive style while bringing in the characters from Batman.  They go with the campy TV show rather then the darker movies in the style of the characters.

Batman has gone on a crime-fighting errand, and wants to be sure no one lets Penguin drive the Batmobile in his absence.  Robin and Commissioner Gordon won't cooperate with his wishes.  The Riddler, the Joker, and Batgirl taunt him.  In the end, he has a great imagination and throws a tantrum, but the Batmobile is safe.

I would imagine that kids who grew up on Willems's books would not be familiar with the old TV show, but their parents will appreciate this pop culture mash-up.  It's fun times with the Penguin!

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

Friday, October 12, 2018

Welcoming the Stranger, by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang

Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang both work for World Relief, which started as a branch of the National Association of Evangelicals to provide assistance for refugees.  This tells you two things you can assume about their book Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate.  First, you know they have a big heart of compassion for immigrants.  Second, their perspective is biblically and theologically sound.  Both assumptions would be true.

Their case for biblical compassion for immigrants is clear and pretty much irrefutable.  Who can argue with treating others with dignity and grace, no matter their place of birth?  The scriptural basis for loving the alien is plentiful.  But more than that, Soerens and Yang speak from their own experience, telling the stories of individuals they have known, to put a human face on immigration.  They also spend a lot of time debunking persistent myths about the economic productivity (strong) and criminality (unusual) of immigrants, legal and illegal.

On one level, Soerens and Yang have me wholly in their corner.  (Full disclosure: I have directed fund raisers for World Relief at my local church.)  Yet here's where they fall short.  For all their arguments for the economic benefits of immigration and the general lawfulness of immigrants, they didn't convince me that there should be no limits on immigration.  Does my personally welcoming a stranger to my home or church or neighborhood necessarily mean I must support policies that welcome all comers to live in the U.S.?  That sort of policy is unsustainable. 

I know there's a tension here.  I believe I can treat an undocumented immigrant family with love and neighborliness while seeking political answers to end illegal immigration and promote legal, limited immigration policies.  It's a hard balance that requires turning some people away, but there is no way all the huddled masses can fit in the U.S.  (What's the alternative, you ask me?  Promoting democratic capitalism across the globe.  That's a topic for another book.)  Soerens and Yang bring sanity, facts, and compassion to this controversial conversation.

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