Thursday, June 30, 2016

Grace, by Randy Alcorn

At a conference a debate arose about "what belief, if any, was unique to the Christian faith."  C.S. Lewis chimed in: "That's easy.  It's grace."  Grace.  Amazing Grace.  Grace that is greater than all my sin.  There's no question that grace is central to the theology and experience of the Christian life.

Randy Alcorn has been chewing on grace and has gathered his own ruminations, as well as those of many other Christians, in a new 203 day devotional, Grace: A Bigger View of God's Love.  (Why 203 days?  That's 29 weeks.  If there's a significance to the number of days, I totally missed it.)  Each day's reading consists of a verse (or two or three) of scripture, a paragraph or so from Randy, and a quote from a pastor or writer.  The reading is certainly short enough to read over your morning cup of coffee and have plenty of time left to reflect.

I like Alcorn, and have enjoyed his thoughtful and challenging work through the years.  While I welcomed the opportunity to reflect on grace, and to be reminded of God's amazing grace and love for me, I was a little disappointed in this book.  I picture him gathering quotes about grace over the years, and when he has another book manuscript due he puts them together, slaps together some comments, and ships it off to his publisher.  There are certainly worse ways to spend five minutes each morning, but Grace wasn't all that amazing.

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Poverty Industry, by Daniel L. Hatcher

This book makes my blood boil.  University of Baltimore law professor Daniel Hatcher has exposed a perspective on the welfare state that is as disgusting as it is unsurprising.  In The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America's Most Vulnerable Citizens, Hatcher examines the widespread practice of federal and state governments working with providers and private firms to siphon off funds intended for the poor and elderly to fund other government budgets and agencies.

Put crudely, a target population, e.g. foster children or elderly nursing home residents, qualify for federal grant money.  State governments contract with private firms for "revenue maximization" to discover what sources of additional funding individuals may qualify for.  Then the state accesses those funds, such as by being named as payee for a minor in foster care, and absorbs those funds into the general state budget.

Hatcher gives example after example of the various ways state and local governments accomplish this.  The resulting "poverty-industrial complex" results in "Medicaid funds . . . often not used for Medicaid purposes." "Child welfare agencies . . . obtain foster children's Social Security benefits for state use," while "states and their revenue contractors seek out loopholes and illusory schemes to maximize and divert the aid to other uses."

I don't share Hatcher's absolute opposition to the use of contractors to maximize revenue.  It's the practice of diverting funds to uses other than the benefit of the children, disabled individuals, or retirees for whom the funds are intended that troubles me.  The fault lies less with the contractors than with the government agencies that are directing the funds, reflecting the inevitable corruption caused by the centralization of power with people who have a great deal of access to other people's money.

I also wonder about Hatcher's blanket assumption that the funds are misdirected.  He makes a solid case, but when, for example, funds intended for a foster child are put into the general fund, is it possible that these funds rightly go toward the bureaucracy that supports the foster care system?  In that case, the conversation should center around the role of such a bureaucracy and its necessity and effectiveness.  Granted, this may be beyond Hatcher's topic, but I think it should be addressed.

Lawmakers, agency heads, state and local government officials, please take note of this book.  Activists for foster children and disabled individuals, please hold the government to account.  To the extent Hatcher is right, the practices he describes must stop.  It's unconscionable, and a violation of public trust.

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

Monday, June 27, 2016

My Year of Running Dangerously, by Tom Foreman

When TV news correspondent Tom Foreman's daughter suggested they run a marathon together, it didn't come completely out of the blue.  After all, he was a decent runner in his youth, and had run some marathons.  But now that he was on his second half-century, running a marathon was not on his current list of superpowers.  In My Year of Running Dangerously: A Dad, A Daughter, and a Ridiculous Plan, Foreman tells the story of their training, their race, and his ongoing running and racing experiences.

Like any good running memoir, Foreman writes with contagion.  The reader can't help but be swept up in his renewed love of running and commitment to training.  Even though he had lots of natural speed and ability as a teenager and into his twenties, when he starts training for the marathon, he's way out of shape.  He hadn't run in years.  His rebirth as a runner is encouraging to those of us who have never been runners or have been avoiding the starting line and training routes for a long time.

Further, he writes about fitting in his training in a busy schedule.  Sure, he had to sacrifice time with his family and doing other activities as he mileage increased, but he managed to train for a marathon and then a 50-miler while not completely alienating his family and while working actively as a TV journalist.  His experience is a reminder that, even though it can get challenging, it's possible to fit your training in.

Trust me on this: Foreman's book is not as boring as my review.  I enjoyed his style and light-hearted comments.  Examples:

  • On the popularity of half marathons: "If you finish well, you can brag about it, and because the word marathon is in the race title, non-runners will take notice."
  • On staging ultramarathons "out in the woods": "First, it cuts down on road closures."  Second, the courses aren't as boring as road races. "And third, if you're going to do something this stupid, you don't want many witnesses." 
  • On an easier portion of the 50 mile race: "It was pleasant, in the same sense that even in prison some cells are better than others."

As I've said in many a review of running books, the best measure, to me, of a good one is whether it inspires me to put on my shoes and go run.  Foreman's book passes that test.  He's a regular guy running like a regular guy--I can relate to that.  And he reminds us that, no matter the time or skill level or experience of the runner, no matter what else has changed, "The formula for success never has: Step to the road, bend your knees, and run."

Friday, June 24, 2016

Edward Adrift, by Craig Lancaster

It has been about three years since Edward's father died, and now Edward finds himself . . . adrift.  Craig Lancaster has followed up his first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, with Edward Adrift.  Edward isn't quite as fixed in his routines as he used to be.  Even though his father left him a nice trust fund (he's f---ing loaded), he has enjoyed working at the newspaper.  At least he did, until he was let go.  With time on his hands, he makes plans to go visit his former neighbors, who have moved to Boise, and then to Texas to spend Christmas with his mother.  He hits the road--and the adventure begins.

Equipped with his new "bitchin' iPhone," loaded up with all of R.E.M.'s music, he heads west in his dad's Cadillac.  On the way he gets punched in the nose, nearly runs off the road due to texting while driving, and subsequently gets his first traffic ticket.  In Boise, things go poorly, and when he leaves earlier than expected he gets a stowaway--his troubled, teenage friend.  They continue the road trip together, venturing to a Colorado town he remembers visiting with his dad, years ago.

In Edward Adrift, Edward continues with his growth and increasing independence.  He gives up some of his routines, and improves his ability to develop relationships.  In fact, he may finally have found love. . . .  Lancaster's fans who loved 600 Hours will find the same type of humor and quirkiness in Edward Adrift that made them fall in love with Edward.  His perspectives on life, shaped by his OCD and Asperger's autism, might be different from those of neurotypical readers.  But we can see plenty to relate to and enjoy in Edward's adventures and observations.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Uniquely Human, by Barry Prizant

Dr. Barry Prizant has consulted with countless families and schools who have children with autism, becoming one of the world's experts in the field.  In Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, he wants the reader to see, first of all, that "autism isn't an illness.  It's a different way of being human."  Working with children and adults with autism isn't a matter of healing, changing, or fixing them.  "We need to work to understand them, and then change what we do."

Dr. Prizant draws from his years of experience, telling stories of families and individuals with whom he has worked to illustrate his perspective.  Anyone who works with people with autism, whether in a professional, personal, or social capacity will benefit from Dr. Prizant's insights.  Per his major theme, that autism is not an illness to be cured, he is gently critical of parents who "harbor the belief that somewhere out there is a mecca of autism services.  There's a school or a doctor or a therapist that just might be able to rid their child of all of the challenges associated with autism."  There is no "magical place" or treatment that will "render a child 'normal' so that families can put autism behind them and move on with their lives."

Accordingly, the best thing to do for someone with autism is "get the child out in the world."  I appreciated Dr. Prizant's advocating inclusive education.  One big reason: "Children learn as much from watching and engaging with their classmates as they do from the formal classroom learning experiences."  Every case is different, but children with autism can learn behaviors from their typical classmates, such as "social and language modeling," they can't learn from their autistic classmates.

Parents and teachers of children with autism will especially benefit from reading Uniquely Human.  All of us, especially those among us with an autism diagnosis, will benefit from Dr. Prizant's perspective that autism isn't something to be healed of, but a different way to live.

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

Monday, June 20, 2016

It's Dangerous to Believe, by Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt would acknowledge that it's not as dangerous to be a Christian in the U.S. as it is in, for instance, ISIS-controlled regions, where terrorists cut the heads off Christians.  Nevertheless, as she points out in It's Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, American Christians are increasingly being pushed to the margins of culture, academia, and politics.

Eberstadt writes of "the mounting toll of a widespread and growing effort to shame, punish, and ostracize people because of what they believe."  The root of the issue is a new form of Puritanism.  The first commandment of the new secularist orthodoxy "is that no sexual act between consenting adults is wrong--possibly excepting cases of adultery."  People who hold traditional Christian views of sex "are seen as a threat . . . [to] laissez-faire sexual morality."

Like their Puritan forebears in Salem, the orthodox secularist Puritans are on a witch hunt.  Their standard of proof and quickness to judge and accuse offenders also resembles the Salem witch trials.  "'You're a bigot if I say you're a bigot' is today's equivalent of 'you're a witch if I say you're a witch.'" For all their talk of diversity, the new secular Puritans have no tolerance for "traditionalists and non-progressive scholars."

Eberstadt's book is chock full of examples, some of which I had seen wide coverage.  Traditionalist Christians are faced with the daunting task of figuring out how they fit in among the secular Puritans.  Just try to get a teaching position at a major university if you don't support gay marriage.  For their part, "Secularist progressivism must find a way to coexist with affronts to its own orthodoxy, not suppress them." Eberstadt offers a couple of glimmers of hope, but I'm not particularly hopeful.  When a professor at a Catholic university can be chastised for defending a traditionalist view of marriage, when a Baptist university seemingly softens its prohibition of homosexual activity, when religious expression is continually excluded from public spaces, it's easy to start feeling like Christians have no option than to pull away from society.

Eberstadt breaks down the societal divide cleanly between those who say anything goes sexually and those who uphold traditional, heterosexual, marital monogamy.  The witch hunt will continue until further notice.

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

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Caleb's Healing Story, by Kathleen Chara and Tasha Lehner

The thing to remember when reading Kathleen Chara and Tasha Lehner's Caleb's Healing Story: An Interactive Story with Activities to Help Children to Overcome Challenges Arising from Trauma, Attachment Issues, Adoption, or Fostering (whew, how's that for a subtitle?) is that this is not a typical children's book designed for independent reading, bedtime reading, or traditional story time.  Rather, it's a therapeutic tool.  Read through that lens, Caleb's Healing Story can be help children interpret and cope with some of the challenges they face.

Caleb was removed from his birth mother's home at age 4, and adopted by the Smith family.  He loves the Smiths, but still has fond memories of his birth mother and sister.  Unfortunately, there were plenty of bad memories of neglect and abuse, too.  He recognized that "simply removing me from a scary place would not make the fear (and all the problems that came with that) go away."  Caleb's Healing Story is for the Calebs out there who have similar stories.

Each chapter tells part of Caleb's story, and offers discussion questions and activities for the child to process all that he or she is going through.  In conjunction with counseling and family interaction, these discussions, worksheets, and activities can certainly help a child move forward.  I don't know of many resources like Caleb's Healing Story.  If you are a parent, counselor, or teacher of children who have been through foster care or traumatic family issues, check this book out.  It might be just what you're looking for.

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