Friday, October 31, 2014

Right for a Reason, by Miriam Weaver and Amy Jo Clark

Miriam Weaver and Amy Jo Clark, a.k.a. Daisy and Mock on their radio show, are a couple of midwestern moms who have decided that conservatism needs a makeover.  On their website, Facebook page, and radio show, these "chicks on the right" have made a name for themselves promoting conservatism with a feminine touch.  Now they have put their ideas into book form, in Right for a Reason: Life, Liberty, and a Crapload of Common Sense.

On one level, they're about what you'd expect from this title: they're funny, brash, outspoken, a bit irreverent, and probably a little bossy.  (They object to the campaign against the use of that word, so I thought I'd throw it in for them!  They write: "It damages us all when a campaign showcasing women of influence recommends banning a word simply because it hurts their feelings.")  I will not comment on their looks, as that might be construed as sexist (see the section in which they berate a Republican congressman who stated that a reporter was "beautiful," noting that he "couldn't manage to make points about policy and ideology without resorting to commenting on [her] appearance.")

Besides being entertaining and provocative, Weaver and Clark demonstrate a savvy understanding of conservative issues.  Covering gun control, politically correct speech, the free market, racism, feminism, American exceptionalism, and other areas of policy and culture, they argue that conservatives are right about these issues.  They are right to defend capitalism, to reject a culture of government handouts, to uphold the right to own guns, to reject speech codes, and to be pro-life.  None of these positions will surprise conservative readers, and Weaver and Clark present them in an engaging way.

One of their strengths in Right for a Reason is the acknowledgement that not all conservatives are the same.  "Just because we pull the Republican levers at the polling booth doesn't mean that we necessarily toe the party line on every single issue, nor does it mean all Republicans in general are in lockstep on every single issue."  They demonstrate their independence from the positions of many conservatives as they discuss the hot-button sexual issues of the day.  They have no objection to equal rights for gay couples and individuals.  They call on conservatives not to be concerned about who someone is sleeping with, and to focus on issues that really matter.  To gay people, they say, "That's great that you're gay, but no one cares.  Just be gay and stop making it the cornerstone of your entire existence already."

They are more in line with most conservatives on abortion, and are decidedly pro-life, but realistically accept the fact that overturning Roe v. Wade is not in the cards.  Abortion, especially late-term, is a horror.  They object to the use of abortion as birth control, and the risks to women's health that abortions pose.  However, unlike many conservatives, they have no objection to birth control pills and morning after pills.  Their position on birth control will alienate some conservatives, but it is well-reasoned and ultimately pro-life.

Weaver and Clark have a perspective and voice that is frequently lacking in conservative circles.  They are passionate, inclusive, reasonable, and persuasive.  When too often Republicans are on the defensive (which is most of the time, in this world of liberal-dominated media), the Chicks on the Right provide a positive, forward-thinking message, presenting conservative ideas in a way that is appealing and even cool.  More power to them!


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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Kid Presidents, by David Stabler, illustrated by Doogie Horner

There has to be something remarkable about a person to be elected resident.  But as remarkable as some of our presidents have been, they all started out as little boys.  (Not to say there isn't some little girl out there who will someday be president!)  In Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America's Presidents, David Stabler has gathered stories from the early years of our presidents.  Sometimes inspiring, more often amusing, Stabler shows the human side of future residents of the White House.

The stories are definitely kid-friendly, aimed at the pre-teen or young teen set.  Doogie Horner's illustrations add just enough visual levity to make it interesting while not distracting from the text.  Stabler starts out by debunking the George Washington and the cherry tree myth, but many of the stories he goes on to tell sound like they are surely myths, too.  He provides an extensive reading list, so I'll assume his sources are sound.

I was mostly struck by the stories of the heroism, determination, and resourcefulness of many of the earlier presidents.  It's hard to imagine a kid being raised today in rural poverty or without a proper education becoming president.  But that's the hope Stabler offers.  I do like Stabler's cheery optimism.  "See these men who, as children, had huge obstacles to overcome?  You can do the same!"  Perhaps money, connections, and political deal-making played as big a role back then as now, and perhaps, even now, kids who start out without money and connections can work their way to the White House.

Stabler is decidedly non-partisan and gives a very positive portrayal of each president.  He avoids any reference to scandals and personal proclivities that mark some presidents' administrations.  However, I was amused by an anecdote he told about Bill Clinton.  In fourth grade, he was chosen to sing a duet with "the prettiest woman Billy had ever seen: his fourth-grade music teacher." As he sang, he "was actually courting the beautiful, sweet-smelling woman standing beside him. . . . From then on, he would be known as one of the most musical kids in his school."  But he was also known for his womanizing, which apparently started in the fourth grade!

Kid Presidents is a fun book that will be a delightful addition to a typical U.S. history curriculum.  Don't count on it contextualizing these stories much into the larger historical picture, but do count on it helping kids to see U.S. presidents as more than men in suits making important decisions as they lead the country, but as boys being boys and learning to become men.


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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Small Talk, by Amy Julia Becker

As Bill Cosby said in one of his album titles, "Those of you with or without children, you'll understand." Amy Julia Becker is not a stand-up comedian, but parents and non-parents alike will enjoy her tales of raising three very different and sometimes challenging children.  In her book Small Talk: Learning from My Children About What Matters Most, Becker tells sweet, amusing, and heart-warming stories about her children.  But more importantly, she uses her experiences as a springboard to reflections on spiritual truth.

Like many parents, Becker quickly learned that children can be a gift, a blessing, and, sometimes, a prophetic presence.  "For a long time, I though my children were a distraction from the work God was doing in my life and in the world around me.  I am starting to realize they are the work God is doing in my life."  Becker is at her best when reflecting on how to communicate spiritual truths to her children.  When she attempts to communicate theological ideas, simplifying and and clarifying for her preschoolers, she turns the questions to herself, clarifying for herself what she really believes and why.

I especially enjoyed Becker's writing about her daughter Penny, who has Down syndrome.  When doctors discussed Down syndrome with her, it was always a list of "everything defective, disabled, and broken about" Penny.  But over time, she "went from thinking about her as my disabled daughter to my daughter, [she] started to realize she was no more broken than anyone else. . . . Some of what I had assumed was evidence of brokenness--a lower IQ than a typical child, a longer time learning to walk--was simply evidence that she, too, is a human being dependent on others to grow and enjoy the world."

Small Talk has quite a bit more spiritual depth and thoughtfulness than you would normally expect from this sort of book.  Her reflections are not just for moms or parents, but for any Christian who struggles with how to relate to God and the work of Jesus in our lives.  (And isn't that all of us at one time or another?)


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

Friday, October 24, 2014

What I Wish My Mother Had Told Me About Marriage, by Greg and Julie Gorman

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: a married person can't read too many books about marriage.  I can't speak for husbands everywhere, but I know I need all the help I can get.  Greg and Julie Gorman offer some help in What I Wish My Mother Had Told Me About Marriage: Unlocking 10 Secrets to a Thriving Marriage.  By looking at their own marriage, at lots of scripture, and at solid wisdom about marriage relationships, the Gormans offer their take on improving and loving together.

The first "secret" (it's not really a secret) is "the key to experiencing a thriving marriage is our complete surrender to God."  This is the non-negotiable starting point for all the rest of what they say.  In marriage, as we surrender to God, we commit to serving one another: "Marriage requires us to exchange our selfish nature for Christ's servant-like nature."  That commitment is not easy, and takes a deliberate effort.  They write, "Just because two Christians marry does not mean they'll automatically have a Christian marriage."  Both partners must "cultivate and practice servanthood within your marriage relationship."  If you master that point, the rest of the book is unnecessary.  But it's still helpful.

Without "revealing" the other 9 "secrets" I thought I'd add some general thoughts about the book.

Some things I liked about WIWMMHTMAM:
-- The Gormans are honest and open about their own marriage and struggles they've had.  Julie discusses the abuse she suffered, they talk about their blended family, and they recount the knock-down, drag-out fights they had early on.
-- Each chapter includes "A Letter from the Father," which takes scripture and mashes it together in letter form pertaining to the theme of the chapter.  It's very effective in bringing scriptural thoughts to a first-person divine voice.  
-- The book is primarily written by Julie, but each chapter includes "Greg's Turn," in which Greg corrects all of the errors Julie makes.  Just kidding, of course.  He affirms Julie's piece and provides the male perspective.

What I didn't like as much about WIWMMHTMAM:
 -- "Secrets" is overused in book titles.  The 10 "secrets" promised in the subtitle aren't secrets, but age-old, time-tested truths.  This will surprise no one.  Nobody picks up a book like this thinking that they will find among the pages some previously hidden secret formula.  So why do publishers insist on putting this in so many book titles?
-- Many books with "secret" in the title are in the self-help/motivational genre.  Julie makes her living as a motivational/inspirational speaker.  Some of that tone carries over into the book, in both her style and in her selection of writers from which she quotes.  This is a taste issue as much as anything.  The more you sound like Tony Robbins, the more turned off I get.

Whether you've been married for decades or just starting out, you will glean some truth from and be challenged by WIWMMHTMAM.  The Gormans and the couples they discuss here have probably been through whatever you're going through and will help you remember that marriage is worth the effort to make it work and thrive.


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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

We live in a great country, founded on freedom and equality and justice for all.  I believe that, and I believe those principles form the core of our justice system.  But, as Bryan Stevenson demonstrates all too clearly in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption our system, like every human system is far from perfect.  Not only is it not perfect, there are elements of evil lurking within it.

Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has dedicated his legal career to defending "the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned."  He became convinced that "the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."  EJI defends innocent people who have been condemned to death, minors and disabled individuals who have received unjust sentences, and others who have been overlooked or mistreated by the courts.  His clients are largely poor and minority, because of "our system's disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions." 

Stevenson tells many of his clients' stories in Just Mercy, but the one narrative that drives the book is Walter McMillian's conviction and death sentence for a murder he didn't commit.  The entire groundless accusation, botched investigation, and joke of a trial boggle the mind.  If ever there was someone who was put on death row for no reason, McMillian was.  Stevenson was finally able to get him freed after many years, but the damage to McMillian's business, family, and mental and physical health had been done.

I tend to have a positive view of law enforcement and the justice system.  I want to believe that cases like McMillian's are few and far between.  But to hear Stevenson tell the story, his case load is beyond what he and the EJI lawyers can handle; the prisons are full of people placed there by a corrupt, racist, biased system.  I wish he would spend a little time talking about people who are in prison for life because they deserve to be there.  I appreciate his sentiment that we should not "reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them."  People can and do change, and the justice system should have a strong element of reform.  But if someone rapes and murders, terrorizes their neighborhood, and completely disregards human life, long prison sentences are in order.

As hard on crime as I want to be (as if my opinion makes any difference) I will still stand with Stevenson's objection to the death penalty.  Some may argue that if we wrongfully execute one innocent person for every hundred executions, the deterrent effect is worth that price.  But to me that price is to high.  (Not to mention the deterrent effect of the death penalty is questionable at best.)  Just Mercy will definitely get the reader thinking about our justice system, and make us a little less eager to believe in someone's guilt when we hear about their crimes in the news.  I am thankful for Stevenson and other lawyers like him who sound the trumpet for justice and mercy for the poor and marginalized. If I were a younger man, this book would inspire me to go to law school and follow in Stevenson's footsteps.


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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rush of Heaven, by Ema McKinley

I believe in miracles, and believe that God still heals today.  But every now and then I'll hear a story that takes me from a theoretical belief to "Wow!  We worship a mighty God!"  Ema McKinley's story is one of those.  In Rush of Heaven: One Woman's Miraculous Encounter with Jesus, McKinley tells her story of her injury due to a freak accident at work, her two decades of debilitating pain, and her miraculous healing experience.

While crawling around among the rafters in the stock room at work, McKinley fell and hung upside-down, unconscious, for hours before someone found her and got her down.  As a result of her injuries, she developed reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), which caused her immense constant pain and forced her to use a wheelchair and need constant medical care.  Then after nearly 20 years of suffering with RSD and a host of related medical issues, she fell off her wheelchair.  She was home alone and helpless.  After several hours, Jesus appeared to her, straightened her distorted joints, and helped her to her feet.  She walked for the first time in years.

A story like this is bound to raise questions from doubters.  McKinley, perhaps anticipating objections, provides copious medical reports from throughout her illness, along with doctors' evaluations after her healing.  There is no question that what happened to her was nothing short of an incredible, miraculous healing.

While the story of McKinley's encounter with Jesus and miraculous healing give her story a bigger audience, perhaps the real story is her trust in Jesus through all the pain.  Her faith and trust in Jesus and his word are, to me, miraculous.  She relied on scripture, her "tasty bread and butter."  "Chronic pain had . . . wound its way into every fabric of my being. . . . My pain definitely forces me to turn to God." "The pain was constant in inescapable.  It stalked me wherever I went.  Even the smallest things could set it off." Yet she constantly turned to the Bible and prayer for comfort.  It makes the little things that irritate me seem petty and insignificant.  What an inspiring spirit!

There were times when reading about McKinley's pain and suffering that the book seemed to slog on and on.  But she went through it for years and years!  When the healing finally comes, the reader gets sense of sharing with her in her joy, after she has shared her suffering.  She doesn't dwell on questions like, Why aren't other people healed of chronic illness?  Why couldn't Jesus have come along around year two or three rather than year eighteen?  What is the meaning of it all?  She simply found a way to rejoice in her suffering, and was fortunate enough Jesus chose to take away some of her suffering in this life.  Christians everywhere can learn from her example and find hope in the "rush of heaven" that we can look forward to, whether in this life or the next.


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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hello, Devilfish! by Ron Dakron

What a premise: the story of a giant stingray's attack on Tokyo, told from the perspective of the stingray!  Great props for the effort.  Ron Dakron's Hello Devilfish! stretches the boundaries of story telling, with his stream-of-consciousness sort-of narrative.  It's flat-out crazy, sometimes funny, frequently profane, and was particularly difficult to enjoy.  I know this is more of a taste issue.  Some people don't appreciate the art and craft of a good Japanese monster movie (I like them).  And some people won't appreciate what Dakron is doing in Hello Devilfish! (I didn't like it that much.)

His literate monster (who consumed shipping containers full of novels) can be amusingly descriptive: ". . . shredding car lots and freight trains into aluminum salad.  And after torching another freeway into smack-up soufflĂ© I reached my radiant goal.  Meaning this classic snack midway riddled with disco prepubes and gawking rubes." But it became tiresome.  Over the top.  Too clever by (at least) half.

Don't take my word for it.  Read the sample pages at Amazon.com and you will see exactly what I'm talking about.  You'll love it or you'll hate it.  A plot does develop after the frenetic first pages, and the "punch line" is pretty funny (I won't give it away), but overall it was sort of like a reading equivalent of listening to music I don't like, way too loud.


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