Monday, September 26, 2016

Razor Girl, by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen has done it again.  Razor Girl continues Hiaasen's streak of hilarious mystery? crime? suspense? romance? action? novels.  OK, his books are not easily classified.  They stand in a class by themselves, in spite of occasional attempts to emulate him.

His newest foray revisits the world of Andrew Yancy, the former Key West detective demoted to food inspector whom we met in Bad Monkey.  Through a confusing and convoluted chain of events, he meets up with Marry, a.k.a. Razor Girl.  Merry makes her living by purposely rear-ending other drivers.  When her targets come to chew her out, they see that she apparently hit them because she was in the midst of shaving her, uh, "bikini area."  When they see her exposed, shaving cream covered, uh, area, they inevitably fall into her trap, which involves kidnapping or extortion.

But she's not really a bad girl.  She and Yancy team up to find Buck, a reality TV star who has disappeared, and Buck's manager, whom Merry had mistakenly targeted earlier.  But it looks like Buck has been snatched, and the thugs who hired the man who hired Merry to snatch the other guy she meant to snatch when she snatched Buck's manager are tangled up with Yancy's next-door neighbor, the sleazy lawyer who is in the middle of a class action lawsuit while making himself a victim of the questionable product he's going after.

Confused yet?  Hiaasen, as is his custom, turns the most convoluted, interconnected story line into the most reasonable, believable chain of events you have every laughed your way through.  His world is full of bumbling criminals, dimwitted characters, Florida zaniness, random coincidences, greedy goofballs, and satisfying endings.  I am pleased to report that after 20 (or so) novels published over the last 30 (or so) years, Hiaasen has not lost his touch.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Man I Hate Cursive, by Jim Benton

Take laugh-out-loud humor, mixed with a bit of existential bleakness and modern angst, and you get a taste of Jim Benton's humor.  Pretty much every page of Man I Hate Cursive: Cartoons for People and Advanced Bears made me laugh to a greater or lesser degree (usually greater).  Some of his themes: love and romance, robots, modern art, family, comic book heroes, and the meaning of life.  Plus some other stuff.  Let's just say he will take your negative thoughts and make you laugh about them.  That may not inspire you to turn your negative outlook around, but laughing is (almost) always a step in the right direction.  

(Just a note: in case you know Jim Benton from his many books for children, be forewarned: many of these cartoons are for adults.  Not to say there aren't some you can share with your kids, but you may want to be selective, mostly for language.)


And silliness:

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

Friday, September 23, 2016

In the Shadow of Liberty, by Kenneth C. Davis

We know the biographies and histories of the presidents.  Or at least we think we do.  But what about the men and women who serve the presidents?  What about the men and women whom the presidents owned?  We may not like to think of the Founding Fathers, who shaped American freedom, as slave holders, but the fact is, many of them were.  Kenneth C. Davis tells the stories of some of the enslaved people owned by presidents in In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives.

An uncomfortable fact: twelve U.S. presidents were slave owners.  Many other Founding Fathers owned slaves.  Davis writes, "These men fought for independence and were true believers in concepts like liberty and equality.  How could such men keep other human beings as slaves, denying their freedom and basic rights?" This is a great irony of history.

On George Washington: "For a man who had fought so long and hard for freedom, it is astonishing Washington could not comprehend that an enslaved person might want the same right."

On Thomas Jefferson: "Jefferson wrote about the ideals and principles of equality and even proposed some small steps toward ending American slavery.  But he also owned people and was completely dependent on them for his livelihood and personal comfort until the day he died."

On James Madison: "James Madison, the political leader and revolutionary, knew that slavery was wrong.  But Madison the slaveholder was ruled by fear and self-interest. . . . Madison hoped for an end to slavery.  But . . . he also believed that America could never be an integrated society, with whites and blacks living together under one government."

Davis tells the stories of slaves who were owned by U.S. presidents, illustrating and emphasizing this irony.  William Lee, Ona Judge, Isaac Granger, Paul Jennings, and Alfred Jackson's names are remembered because of their proximity to power.  But millions of other slaves' names are forgotten to history because of the obscurity of their owners.  While in many cases slaves of prominent individuals were well treated and faithful to their owners, this doesn't change the fact of human bondage and the injustice of the system.  And even heroes of American history, like Washington and Jefferson, had enormous blind spots as they callously treated their slaves like chattel, merchandise, currency, or tools.

Some of their slaves ran away.  Others served faithfully throughout their lifetimes.  Davis is careful not to demonize their owners, but he does not sugar coat their actions and attitudes.  There is no question that our early presidents are worthy of honor for their work and inspiration in the early days of our nation.  But we must not forget the costs.  Davis reminds us of the inhumanity and assaults on human dignity and freedom that formed the background of the founding years.  There's no getting around the fact that slavery was an ugly, terrible institution.  And there's not denying its place in our history.  Davis does us a service by bringing these enslaved individuals' histories to light.

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, by Joseph Loconte

Years ago the organization I worked for frequently invited Joe Loconte to speak at our conferences.  An entertaining and engaging speaker, I wished I had been in his college classes.  Currently professor of history at The King's College in New York City, Loconte's latest book is A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.

Two of the twentieth century's greatest writers, Tolkien and Lewis had much in common.  Their eventual friendship shaped them both, personally, professionally, and spiritually.  Loconte places them in intellectual and historical context, describing how the forces around them shaped them and their writing. 

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Tolkien (1892-1973) and Lewis (1898-1963) were coming of age.  It was a time of optimism and hope that technology and culture had advanced to the point that mankind was on the verge of a new utopia--or so many thought.  The Great War changed all that, creating a deep skepticism about the nature of man. 

Tolkien and Lewis could both have been sucked into the intellectual darkness of the war.  They both spent time in the trenches, experiencing the worst of the war on the Western Front.  Given the mortality rates in general, as well as in their immediate units, they were lucky to survive.  Loconte points to many passages in both of their books that clearly reflect the brutality and ugliness of war as they experienced it.  On the other hand, they focused on the positive traits they saw in their fellow soldiers, such as Sam Gamgee's persistence and faithful service.

As Loconte clearly demonstrates, without their friendship, neither Lewis's or Tolkien's literary careers would have amounted to as much as they did.  They read passages of works in progress together, encouraged each other to continue writing, and promoted one another's work.  And, most significantly, Tolkien was instrumental in Lewis's conversion to Christianity.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is a must-read for fans of Lewis and Tolkien's fiction.  Loconte ties their work directly to the influences of their cultural and intellectual milieu, as well as the awful experience of the Great War.  Even for non-fans, the first-person accounts of the war are worth reading.  The literary contribution each of these great writers has made and continues to make is immense and worth examining.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by a speaker at a conference you have attended

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends, by David P. Gushee

David Gushee, a Christian ethicist and Mercer University professor, wants his anxious Christian friends to be less anxious.  In A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times, Gushee writes that he wants to "help American Christians to see our reality more clearly, assess that reality more thoughtfully, and act more faithfully."  I'd be the first to acknowledge that many "Christian" perspectives on political issues are far from being genuinely Christian.  Many Christians have difficulty recognizing that Christians disagree on issues--and that it's OK!

After a bit of background, in which he points out that American democracy is not an inherently Christian style of government, Gushee offers his perspective on a number of issues ripped from the headlines: race, sex, police, money, climate, war, the death penalty, health care.  With succinct, thoughtful chapters, Gushee briefly discusses these issues and some of the implications for Christians.  For those most part, the anxious Christian friends to whom he writes are those who hold to more conservative political views and who are anxious about the leftward tilt of the nation.  Don't be anxious, Gushee says, here are some Christian defenses of liberal policy positions.

To be fair, he's not a hard-core liberal.  But he advocates acceptance of the institutionalization of gay marriage.  He would allow for the legalization of abortion in extreme cases (although he is reluctant to draw a line).  He calls for increased government action in environmental issues, education, and the economy.  Most Republicans would think Gushee is too liberal.  Some Democrats will think he's too conservative.  Most readers will appreciate that he's not particularly prescriptive in his policy positions, but descriptive, challenging readers on several points.

Am I less anxious than I was before I picked up Gushee's Letter?  Not really.  But I do appreciate his short, pointed treatment of policy issues from the perspective of someone who strives to be biblically and faithfully orthodox in his perspective.  The conversation continues. . . .

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

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: A Spoon too Short, by Arvind Ethan David, illustrated by Ilias Kyriazis

From my teen years forward, Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker trilogy has been a book series I could read over and over again without getting tired of it.  His Dirk Gently books were not quite as memorable, but were brilliant and worth reading again and again.  Now, years after Adams's untimely death, Dirk Gently lives on, in TV productions and in comics.

In Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: A Spoon too Short, Dirk investigates mysterious losses of voice.  Whole families, and, in Africa, a whole village, who now can't make a sound.  He somehow makes random connections, leading to a rather ludicrous conclusion that somehow makes a little bit of sense.

David and team capture the personality and randomness of Dirk Gently in a way that honors Adams's character.  While I don't believe they measure up to Douglas Adams's humor and brilliance, this comic series is fun.  I think Adams would be pleased.

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

Friday, September 16, 2016

Amazing Truths, by Michael Guillen

All too often I hear people say that science and religion are in conflict.  Inevitably, those who say this do so because they reject religion.  Contrary to those opinions, though, are plenty of scientists who are believers and who hold to the compatibility of scientific thought and Christian thought.  Dr. Michael Guillen has a Ph.D. from Cornell and has taught at Harvard.  He was science editor for ABC News.  And he is a committed Christian.

In Amazing Truths: How Science and the Bible Agree, he brings together modern science and scripture, showing that not only do they not exclude one another, but that on many points they create a wonderful conjoining of ideas in which each enriches the understanding of the other.

Dr. Guillen writes Amazing Truths for lay people.  Even when he is writing about terribly complex scientific concepts, eh shows that he understands that many of his readers are non-scientists.  Of course his many years of working in television taught him how to set up the shot and keep the viewers (readers) engaged.

In describing scientific questions and dilemmas, Dr. Guillen points out how many scientific principals are, in fact, articles of faith.  And even in modern history, scientists have held to beliefs about the natural world based on speculation, only later to have their assumptions completely rejected.  In each chapter, Dr. Guillen provides a biblical perspective, not to explain scientific principles, but to add perspective.  Amazing Truths is at times fascinating, at times illuminating, and at times inspirational.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about science