Friday, December 28, 2012

Of Thee I Zing, by Laura Ingraham

Perhaps if I had known what to expect of Laura Ingraham's Of Thee I Zing: America's Cultural Decline from Muffin Tops to Body Shots, I would have been less disappointed.  Based on the subtitle, you know there's going to be some humor here.  But this is really her attempt at stand-up comedy (on paper).  You know those comedians whose wry, observational humor is fun to listen to for a half hour or so?  It's funny to commiserate with them about the stupid, annoying things people do.  But Ingraham takes this basic idea, recycles it through a variety of themes, and comes off sounding like a whiny, elitist bore.

It's not that she didn't make me laugh occasionally, and it's not that I didn't share some of her contempt, but she just got to be dull and grating after a while.  Have you ever had a friend with lots of pet peeves, and at first when he's talking about them, you nod and laugh and say "Yes! I know exactly what you mean!"  But then when that's all he talks about, and just won't shut up, you really don't want to be around him any more.

That's how Laura Ingraham is in Of Thee I Zing.  She is perfect.  Everyone else in the world is just about intolerable.  Good luck getting through this one.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

God is More Than Enough, by Tony Evans

It's one of the most familiar passages in scripture.  Many Christians can quote it, and many who have never set foot in church recognize it immediately.  Psalm 23 is not only powerful scripture, it's a beautiful piece of poetry.  In his book God is More Than Enough, Pastor Tony Evans, of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, gives this beloved Psalm a new reading.

Even if you have memorized Psalm 23, it's probably been too long since you have taken time to read it and reflect on.  In what must have been a sermon series at Oak Cliff, Evans reminds us what profound truth there is in this passage.  Walking the reader through the Pslam, line by line, word by word, Evans points out the great truths and promises the Good Shephard makes to us.  He satisfies us in the midst of life's disappointments and our determination to be self-sufficient.  When we realize, sometimes belatedly, that we do need God, he restores us, forcing us to recognize our dependence on him.  In the valley of the shadows, often the shadows we create for ourselves, he offers guidance and protection.

As those who have read Evans's books or heard his sermons already know, his tone is deeply pastoral, and his content is solidly biblical.  God is More Than Enough will remind you, pastorally and biblically, that "Your God is bigger than your need."

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah and Edelwiess for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to Think More About Sex, by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton is a writer who, at least for me, defies easy description.  Although he has written novels, I think of him more as an essayist or public thinker.  He might be described as a philosopher, but he doesn't seem to fit the traditional category of philosophy.  Suffice it to say that his writing is a pleasure to read, thoughtful and though-provoking, timeless and relevant.

His recent book, How to Think More About Sex, places the emphasis on think much more than on sex, as you might expect from a writer of his caliber.  This is not a book of titillation, nor is it a sex manual, or a biological study.  De Botton takes this usually unmentionable subject and presents reflections that build appreciation for our relationships.

The book is filled with passages that made me smile and think, that's true, but I never thought of it like that before.  For instance, the attractive/revolting nature of the act itself.  "At the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission.  The privileged nature of the union between two people is sealed by an act that, with someone else, would have horrified them both."  He continues, "Lovemaking purifies us by engaging the most apparently polluted sides of ourselves in the procedures and thereby anointing them as newly worthy.  This is never more true than when we press our faces, the most public and respectable aspects of ourselves, eagerly against our lovers' most private and 'contaminated' parts . . . thus symbolically lending our approval to their entire selves."

Of course the subject of sex lends itself to humor, which he has plenty of, but it's more understated and observational than bawdy or tasteless.  "One of the difficulties of sex is that it doesn't--in the grander scheme of things--last terribly long.  Even at its extreme, we are talking of an activity that might only rarely occupy two hours, or approximately the length of a Catholic Mass."  And the sex act itself is not merely about physical intimacy; "rather, it is an ecstasy we feel at encountering someone who may be able to put to rest certain of our greatest fears, and whom we may home to build a shared life based upon common values."

Despite his non-religious perspective (he is an atheist who has an admiration for religious culture and values), his writing has sparks of religious themes and Christian morality.  He admires the monogamist impulse of religious ethics.  Against the temptation to stray, both physically and mentally (as with pornography), "we should be able to see for ourselves that untrammeled liberty can paradoxically trap us, and that . . . we might be doing ourselves a favor if we willingly consented to cede certain of our privileges to a benign supervisory entity."

Regarding adultery, he recognizes that "few marriages . . . perfectly fuse together the three golden strands of fulfillment--romantic, erotic, and familial," but that even in an imperfect or incomplete marriage, "it is impossible to sleep with someone outside of marriage and not spoil the things we care about inside it. . . . That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilization and kindness for which they ought both to feel grateful on a daily basis."

Manet's Bunch of Asparagus. My wife. 
Don't get me wrong; de Botton's sexual ethic may not pass muster for a Sunday school curriculum.  But, as he intended, we can all learn a bit more about ourselves and our relationships, thinking more about sex.  If nothing else, de Botton will help us not take sex, and our sexual partners, for granted.  I love his advice for the bored or complacent: "We might learn to effect on our spouse much the same imaginative transformation that Manet performed on his vegetables.  We should try to locate the good and the beautiful beneath the layers of habit and routine. . . . [We may] have forgotten that dimension in him or her that remains adventurous, impetuous, cheeky, intelligent and, above all else, alive."  The way I read that is treasure your spouse, view her with eyes that see her as no one else does.  Sounds like good advice to me.

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

Friday, December 21, 2012

God Gave Us Christmas, by Lisa Tawn Bergren

Lisa Tawn Bergren has written a series of lovely children's books featuring the polar bear family.  Mama and Papa and Grampa Bear teach lessons of life and faith to the little bears.  In Bergren's newest offering, God Gave Us Christmas, Mama Bear and Little Cub leave Papa at home with the baby cubs as they go on a trip to learn the meaning of Christmas.  Mama Bear, in her wisdom, does not disillusion Little Cub about Santa, but makes sure Little Cub knows that God, not Santa, invented Christmas.

Mama Bear takes Little Cub to see God.  They see the northern lights, and the power of glaciers.  But most importantly, they see Joseph and Mary and Jesus, and talk about the real meaning of Christmas.  As Mama Bear says, "Jesus is the best present of all. . . . Jesus is a present for everyone, grumpy or happy, mean or kind.  God gave us all Christmas."

God Gave Us Christmas will delight fans of Bergren's bear family books.  This new one features art by David Hohn, instead of Laura Bryant.  He maintains the style and characters recognizably, but I tend to like Bryant's work better.  Nevertheless, it's a cute story, with pretty pictures, and communicates the real meaning of Christmas in an engaging way.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Governor's Wife, by Mark Gimenez

Long-time readers of the Reading Glutton will remember the name Mark Gimenez.  I have reviewed several of his books here, and have not been disappointed in one yet.  His latest, The Governor's Wife, continues his streak of winners.  As Gimenez's readers have come to expect, he pays close attention to setting the stage, bringing the story's locations alive.  He develops the characters skillfully and draws the reader along, revealing just enough at just the right times, giving us people and a story to care about.

The governor in The Governor's Wife, Bode Bonner, bears an uncanny resemblance to our real-life governor for life, down to his connection to George W. Bush and his penchant for hunting small game while jogging (in self-defense, of course).  There are plenty of biographical differences to avoid a defamation suit, but the personality is certainly inspired by Perry.  (By the way, I couldn't help feeling like Gimenez is no fan of Gov. Perry!)  While he is trying to figure out how to get noticed on the national stage, looking to follow in GWB's footsteps, his wife is bored and neglected, aware of Bonner's affair with his aide, and seeking meaning outside of photo ops and the public eye.

She finds satisfaction in assisting a doctor in the colonias along the border.  Her training as a nurse and her compassionate spirit fit right in with the saintly doctor, who was born in the colonia, went to Harvard Medical School, and returned to the border to provide health care.  She happens to assist in saving the life of the son of Mexican drug lord, then her husband happens to shoot the same son, leading the governor to the national stage he has longed for.  At the same time, the Democratic party leadership think they've found the perfect candidate to oppose Bonner in the race for governor, a certain border doctor who happens to be falling in love with the governor's wife.

Gimenez weaves these connections into a believable, readable story, with, yes, some melodrama, but, hey, it's fiction!  Throughout we're also treated to more political and social commentary than I remember in Gimenez's other books.  Gimenez is pretty clearly a Democrat, but he gives enough time to the characters that other perspectives are treated fairly.  I especially liked the Mexican perspective.  As he conveyed the history of Texas and Mexico from the perspective of the Mexicans, he almost had me convinced that we should cede Texas back to Mexico.  OK, not really, but it's interesting to hear their side of the story, too.

All in all, The Governor's Wife is a highly enjoyable, can't-put-it-down thriller.  Highly recommended!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Leaper: The Misadventures of a Not-Necessarily-Super Hero, by Geoffrey Wood

A few months back, I reviewed Geoffrey Wood's second novel, The God Cookie.  All the good humor, quirky characters, and deeply-felt life lessons of the God Cookie were there in his first novel, Leaper: The Misadventures of a Not-Necessarily-Super Hero.  Wood does like his coffee.  Leaper, a.k.a. James, a recently-divorced, thirty-year-old, slightly neurotic coffee server (I can't bring myself to use the pretentious-sounding 'barrista.') suddenly discovers that he has the ability to instantaneously "leap" from place to place.  As he struggles to control and understand this new ability, he becomes convinced that it is a gift from God, and wonders if he is good enough for it.

That is the core of James's struggle.  He knows that God has given him this ability in order to use it for good.  But  he knows that he is not good of himself, and does not believe that he has the capacity to do good.  He thus makes up his mind not to leap.  Isn't this how many of us struggle with God?  I feel pretty certain that I'll never be faced with the question of how to handle my super powers, but I, and all of us, have gifts from God.  Will we bury them, or will we use them to God's glory?

Wood wraps these questions up nicely in an entertaining, fast-moving story.  There are plenty of laughs here, but there was too much poignancy--dealing with the question of good, dealing with the pain of divorce, and dealing with the loss of an acquaintance to suicide--to call this a comedic novel.  Nevertheless, it is definitely a well-written first novel, worthy of a read.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith

Just in time for Christmas, here's a novelization of the Christmas story that will, well, it will make you look at the Three Wise Men in a little bit different light.  Think less contemplative mystics and more Three Musketeers.  No surprise, Seth Grahame-Smith plays fast and loose with history in Unholy Night, but he does so in a way that respects the source.

This was my first taste of Grahame-Smith's work.  You only have to read the titles of his other novels, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to get the idea that he's not your typical writer of historical fiction.  In Unholy Night, we meet Balthazar, otherwise known as the infamous thief, "The Antioch Ghost."  He's captured, and thrown into prison with a couple of other thiefs, the three of them to be executed the next day.

True to his reputation as a notorious criminal, he escapes, bringing his two new companions with him.  On the run from Herod's soldiers, they flee to nearby Bethlehem, and seek refuge in a stable.  This is not how the New Testament seems to depict the three wise men's meeting with the holy family:
The wise men had poked their heads into the stable and surprised the breastfeeding girl.  With her scream still ringing in their ears, the carpenter had come out of nowhere and tried to stab them with a pitchfork.  Balthazar had, naturally, responded by grabbing the carpenter's throat and punching him in the face--blackening his right eye and bloodying his nose.
Balthazar and his friends stay the night with the holy family, and leave the next morning.  But at they are fleeing Bethlehem, Roman soldiers descend on the sleepy village.  Balthazar hears the screams from town as the soldiers, carrying out Herod's orders, attempt to kill all the male babies.  The three wise men return to the stable in the nick of time, killing some soldiers, and aiding Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in their flight from town.

Unholy Night mostly focuses on Balthazar's story: why he became a thief, his life mission of revenge, the love he lost.  His role as defender and protector of the savior of the world plays into all of that, as he is the leading man in the holy family's flight to Egypt.  This story isn't going to impress many biblical scholars, and you while you won't think, "This is what probably did happen," Grahame-Smith is a skillful enough writer, with enough attention to historical detail, that you might think, "It probably didn't happen that way, but it really could have!"

I have no idea if Grahame-Smith is a Christian.  I am quite sure this book will not be on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore.  (The frequent and graphic depictions of violence and the suggestive depictions of Herod's depravity would be enough to get it censored, theology aside.)  Regardless, I think Unholy Night is a novel that Christians can embrace and enjoy.  In my view, Grahame-Smith honors the Christmas story of the New Testament, respects Jesus, his birth, and his flight to Egypt, and gives credit to God for his miraculous role.  Plus he tells an exciting, rollicking story!

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

Perhaps some things are not meant to be combined.  I have read and thoroughly enjoyed several of Cory Doctorow's novels.  His free-wheeling, near-future stories present a believable tomorrow and strong social and cultural commentary.  I have struggled through a couple of Charles Stross's novels.  While his hard sci-fi future, including detailed conceptions of space travel and the colonization of space, have been solid and memorable, his stories tend to spin out of control.

These two have teamed up in a new novel, The Rapture of the Nerds: A Tale of the Singularity, Posthumanity, and Awkward Social Situations.  As the subtitle suggests, there's plenty of good humor and zany sci-fi fun here, including some friendly nods to the greatest comedy sci-fi writer, Douglas Adams.  But the end result of this mish-mash of humor and hard sci-fi ultimately disappoints.  Rapture is chock full of clever ideas, of both the scientific and the silly sort, and manages to weave a convoluted plot leading to the prevention of earth's destruction by an intergalactic, multi-species hive mind.

I really wanted to like this book.  I am certain that Doctorow and Stross had a ball collaborating on it, and it will surely hold some appeal for fans of both.  But I was happy to get to the end and be done with it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Oliver Twist (Radio Theater)

Radio theater may be a lost or dying art, but don't tell the folks at Focus on the Family.  They have produced some great programs over the years, including the long-running Adventures in Odyssey and the fantastic Chronicles of Narnia adaptation.  They have outdone themselves with this new adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic Oliver Twist.

With a wide-ranging, talented British cast, the voices are convincingly right out of 19th century London.  The sound effects and music add dramatic tension and draw the story along.  Although it's only about 5 1/2 hours long, this production captures the essence of the book.  I haven't done a line-by-line comparison, but my assumption is that much of the text and dialogue are Dickens's own words.

By updating this classic tale, while remaining true to the source, the Focus on the Family team has provided a terrific springboard for some moral and spiritual lessons.  In spite of great temptation and the threat of mistreatment, Oliver knows right from wrong and demonstrates the difficulty of making moral choices under duress.  The characters remind us repeatedly that we are not imprisoned by our past, whether choices or circumstances, and the redemption is available.

A radio or TV program is never a substitute for an original work of literature, but this audio program will enhance your family's enjoyment of Dickens's story.  Some listeners might have a bit of difficulty with the accents and occasional archaic language, but most children will be drawn into Oliver's world.  Thanks to Focus on the Family for this well-done, accessible production which beautifully captures the moral lessons and compelling story of Oliver Twist.

One more reason to like this: Focus on the Family is using proceeds from the sale of this audio program to fund its "Wait No More" adoption program.  Included with the audio CDs is a DVD with the documentary, "Modern Day Oliver," which focuses on children in foster care and adoption.

Click here for a preview.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary copy of this terrific program!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Blessed Church, by Robert Morris

If you live in the Fort Worth/Dallas area and have any awareness of churches, you probably know of Gateway Church in Southlake.  And if your church is anywhere near Gateway, some of your former members probably now attend Gateway.  This church, founded a mere 12 years ago, has grown into one of the largest churches in the nation.  Tens of thousands attend services every weekend at their shiny new multi-million dollar main campus, as well as several satellite campuses.   

In The Blessed Church: The Simple Secret to Growing the Church You Love, Gateway's pastor Robert Morris tells the story of Gateway, and gives insight into the principles that have shaped their church and fueled its tremendous growth.  There is much here that can benefit pastors and lay leaders of all kinds of churches.  I have visited Gateway a couple of times, and have friends who are active attenders (including several who used to go to my church!).  Based on my experiences and the reports of my friends, Gateway does accomplish one of their goals: excellence.  The teaching, worship, and childcare are top-notch.  From the start, Morris wanted Gateway to do these three things as skillfully as possible, and few would argue that the teaching is consistently solid, the worship and music are world-class, and the childcare is attentive, creative, and intentional.

While not a manual, The Blessed Church lays out some of the core values the have helped Gateway grow.  Morris is clearly a gifted communicator and leader.  His vision of leadership is feeding, and the focus of his work is his teaching role.  He strives to craft messages that will speak to new and mature Christians alike.  In terms of governance, he describes the church as pastor-lead with support and accountability from a group of elders.  He provides very practical examples for church leaders who seek to emulate the structure and culture of Gateway.

In spite of Morris's title, I didn't pick up any "simple secrets" here, and I kept thinking about factors in Gateway's growth that went unmentioned.  First of all, it helped that when seeking a place to start a church, he chose a part of the D/FW metroplex that has had a lot of population growth, and located the church in Southlake, which has one of the highest per capita incomes of any city in Texas.  He started with a core of wealthy, charismatic lay people.  No matter how great your vision or how passionate your leadership, it sure helps to have people with deep pockets to bankroll your work.  Morris talks about Gateway's culture of giving.  When that kind of culture is cultivated in a high-income community, you can do things like drop $86 million on 206,000 square feet of building.

Second, Morris himself is a uniquely gifted communicator.  His experience at Gateway and the message of the book support the growing trend of pastor-centered megachurches, which center on the pastor's teaching, to the extent of broadcasting his message electronically to satellite locations.  Run-of-the-mill preachers need not apply.  Third, the worship, as I said, is world-class.  The worship team has produced a number of CDs and gets radio airplay.  Listening to Gateway's talented musicians sure has a way of making the worship leaders at your smaller church sound second rate.

My take on the message of The Blessed Church is that if you follow the principles Morris describes, your church can grow, too.  I totally agree, especially if you have those other factors: a wealthy, highly educated congregation, a superbly gifted teacher, and fabulously talented musicians.  Unfortunately, Morris doesn't spend as much time on these other factors, and leaves the reader with the impression that if you're not growing, there's something seriously wrong with you and your church.  He repeatedly says, "not to boast" when talking about how great Gateway is, and constantly gives credit to God, but it's easy for the pastor of a smaller church with less growth (90-99% of churches) to feel rather inadequate.

My final thought: Morris writes that healthy things grow, so church growth is a sign of church health (thus a church that isn't growing must be unhealthy).  But what in nature continues to grow?  Healthy things grow to a certain extent, and then they multiply.  I don't know what constitutes a church that is too big, but it seems like a truly healthy church would be multiplying, not growing and growing.  Oh, and by the way, lest you accuse Gateway of stealing sheep, since it is full of people who used to faithfully attend other area churches, Morris has an answer: "I am not a sheep stealer.  But I do plant delicious grass."

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah for the complimentary review copy!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

It's been a good 20 years or more since I've read anything by Stephen King.  His 2009 book Under the Dome reminded me why he's one of the best-selling authors around.  Some might look at Under the Dome's 1000+ pages and scoff that no novel should be that long, or be put off by the length.  It is long, but I don't think there's a wasted page.  There's a huge cast of characters; King skillfully weaves their stories together into a cohesive, compelling story of a town trapped under a mysterious dome.

One of King's trademark themes is exposing the evil that people are capable of given the right conditions.  When the small town of Chesters Mill, Maine, suddenly comes to be enclosed by a force field of some kind, physically isolating the town from the rest of the world, the character of the townspeople is tested.  Selectman Jim Rennie had always viewed the town as his little fiefdom.  Being trapped inside the dome opened up the opportunity for him to become a vicious tyrant, willing to kill in order to gain and maintain control.  As he builds his personal army and orchestrates events to deepen his powerful hold on the people of Chesters Mill, we are reminded again and again that it could always be worse.

Another of King's trademarks is gore.  Under the Dome is not thematically a gore-fest; there are no mad dogs, possessed cars, or deranged hotel caretakers on a killing spree.  But when someone does die, King makes sure we get a detailed, colorful picture in our minds of brains splattered on the wall, blood spilled on the floor, eyeballs hanging out, people frying like they're on a barbecue.

I enjoyed Under the Dome thoroughly.  I could hardly put it down.  But I do have a beef with King's treatment of Christians.  I don't remember his animosity toward Christians showing up in other books (but like I said, it's been a couple of decades).  Big Jim, the town tyrant, is a Bible toting, scripture quoting guy.  He does not use bad language and insists on "getting knee-bound" to seek God's guidance.  Yet he has no qualms about killing people who get in his way, including his pastor.  He manipulates people, frames people for his own crimes, rules the town with an iron fist, and runs an illegal drug operation out of the Christian radio station.  The other major Christian figure is the female pastor of the Congregational church, who, by the way, doesn't believe in God.  I know it's only fiction, but what is King's problem with Christians?

King is a great story teller, with great insights into the stark divide between good and evil.  Spend some time under the dome getting to know the people of Chesters Mill.  You'll be glad you did.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Andrew's Gift and the Untold Miracles in Bethlehem, by D. Marietta Williams

Just in time for Christmas, here's a novelization of the Christmas story that will warm your heart, make you smile, and may get you to believe that Ms. Williams had a front-row seat to the events of the first Christmas!  Andrew's Gift and the Untold Miracles in Bethlehem, told primarily from the perspective of  the son of a certain Bethlehem innkeeper, beautifully fleshes out the gospel accounts.

I don't know about you, but for me it's easy to picture Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men, as wooden figures, only there to play their part in the incarnation.  Williams knows that each of those players has a backstory, a personality, and a life of his or her own, and she's determined to bring them to life.  In Andrew's Gift, we meet each of them for the first time.  We see in Mary's loving personality why God might have chosen her to bear and raise our savior.  We see in Joseph's patient, protective nature why he would be a suitable earthly father for Jesus.  We learn what a radical departure from tradition led the wise men to Bethlehem, and what risks they faced to go there.  We learn the origin of the first carved wooden manger scene.  We even meet the family of one of Jesus' first disciples!

Williams certainly uses creative license--lots of it, to be frank--but she does so with reverence.  Her love and appreciation of the biblical account of Jesus' birth, while highly speculative at times, never wanders close to blasphemy or disrespect.  She brings alive the people and setting around the birth of Jesus in a memorable, creative way.  Pick it up and get ready for Christmas!

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


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Chicken with Plums, by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi gained attention with her autobiographical graphic novels, Persepolis and Persepolis 2.  These stories, based on her childhood in Tehran in the 1970s and 1980s, gained critical acclaim and led to an award-winning film adaptation.  In Chicken with Plums, she turns from autobiography to biography, telling the story of her great uncle, Nasser Ali Khan. 

Nasser was a renowned Iranian tar (a Persian stringed instrument, like a lute) player whose music was his life.  In a heated argument, his jealous wife destroys his tar.  When he can't find a suitable replacement, he despairs unto death.  As the days pass, Nasser loses more and more of his will to live, while reflecting on some good memories from his life.

Satrapi tells the story with sensitivity and humor, but it did not move me like perhaps it should have.  Ultimately I was not moved, and not terribly impressed with the stark, minimalist black and white presentation.  I was left with the feeling that Chicken with Plums was an admirable labor of love by Satrapi, who wanted to honor the memory of her great uncle.  Chicken with Plums is worth a look for Satrapi fans, and for fans of graphic novels, but the general audience, me included, can probably take it or leave it.

A sample page:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, by Fred Burton

Jack Bauer, step aside.  Mitch Rapp, sit down.  Make way for Fred Burton; he's the real deal.  Books, TV shows, and movies about the fight against terrorism fill the shelves and airwaves, but none can hold a candle to the Fred Burton's experiences.  As he tells the story in Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent, Burton joined the counterterrorism division of the Diplomatic Security Service in the mid-1980s.  This small office of 3 men, stuck in a basement, served as the clearing house for the fight against terrorism.

Attention terrorists: don't mess with this guy.
Burton puts the reader in a front-row seat, as he gives his account of such events as the Beruit hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra scandal, the hunt for the first World Trade Center bombers, and the plane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.  (Interesting side note for Vince Flynn readers: you will recall that Mitch Rapp was inspired to make a career of fighting terror as a result of the Lockerbie bombing.  His girlfriend was on the flight with a group of Syracuse University students.  I didn't realize that there actually was a Syracuse group on the flight.  Burton describes the pain of interacting with the families of the victims, and may share some of Rapp's desire for revenge.)  Burton's accounts are pretty low-key compared to fictional accounts, but his matter-of-fact style adds to the intensity.  I found myself stopping and recalling what I could of the news coverage of those events, and reflecting on how little the public knew about what all was going on, and how intense these crises are for someone like Burton, whether he's on the front lines or behind the scenes.

Burton left me with the unnerving impression that the world is far more dangerous than it seems.  He's now an analyst for Stratfor, a private intelligence firm.  Ghost shows the growth of the role of counterterrorism intelligence, from the 1980s to 9/11, presenting a convincing case that the world needs people like Fred Burton, Jack Bauer, and Mitch Rapp.  Burton did not wear a military uniform, but his efforts, and the efforts of his colleagues, do as much to preserve the safety and security of Americans as anyone in the armed forces.  A very interesting read.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Notes from the Underground, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

With this review, I'll probably reveal myself to be an unthinking boob, but I have to be honest.  I didn't particularly enjoy Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground.  The writing is sometimes brilliant, the language (in translation, of course) is compelling at times, and the depth of the main character is occasionally intriguing.  But the story, well, there really is no story.  I am such a simple-minded reader of fiction that I like to see some semblance of a plot thread.  I enjoy seeing the transformation of a character or the resolution of the problem.  But I didn't see that here.

The novel, if we can call it that, is a rambling, first-person, account of an embittered, self-loathing civil servant.  His self-loathing leads him to, seemingly intentionally, attempt to make the lives of others miserable.  The first portion of the book, about a third, is his own reflection on misery.  It's not until almost halfway through that anything actually happens, when he becomes obsessed with an officer who refuses to give way when they pass on the street.  He then imposes himself uninvited on a social gathering of acquaintances, who clearly despise him (and whose antipathy the narrator seems to relish). He leaves them for a brothel, where he convinces the prostitute to leave her life there and come to him.  But when she does, he turns her away, continuing to spread his misery around.

I'm no Dostoyevsky scholar (obviously), but I know some of his other works are much better than this. It's almost as if he decided to try something new and experimental, which, arguably, he did.  Notes was first published in 1864, and can be seen as a precursor to the existentialism which gained wider readership in the works of Camus and Sartre (but those two writers actually told stories).

In the last paragraph, the narrator writes, "Why, to tell long stories, showing how I have spoiled my life through morally rotting in my corner, through lack of fitting environment, through divorce from real life, and rankling spite in my underground world, would certainly not be interesting. . . ."  Amen to that.  Not interesting, indeed.  Call me ignorant, call me stupid, call me obtuse, just don't call me to read this boring, depressing book again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Last Man, by Vince Flynn

Readers of The Reading Glutton have heard me gush about Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp novels.  Mitch Rapp is a hard-core agent, the kind of agent Jack Bauer tries to be, and the kind of man you definitely want to have on your side.  As we read in Flynn's newest Rapp novel, The Last Man, Mitch Rapp is the last man you want to come after you if he's not on your side!

Flynn's two prior novels, American Assassin and Kill Shot, took readers back to the Rapp's roots, setting up the background for Rapp's career and solidifying the reputation he comes into in the first novel (third chronologically), Transfer of Power.  The Last Man takes place at the end of the series, following Pursuit of Honor.  Not only does it bring us up to date with Rapp, it brings us right up to date with today's headlines.

Rapp is called in to assist with the investigation of the disappearance of a deep-cover operative in Afghanistan.  His disappearance gets the attention of the CIA due to their fear that, if the secrets in this one agent's head were revealed, many agents in the field would be compromised.  The whole thing seems fishy to Rapp from the start, and as he continues his investigation, he is targeted by an assassin and gets in the middle of an intragovernmental mess.  But true to what we know of Rapp, he overcomes injuries and setbacks and doggedly pursues truth and justice.

Flynn doesn't disappoint with his detailed fighting action, believable political intrigue, and plot twists to keep the reader guessing.  I can relate to Rapp's intolerance for terrorist coddling, and his frustration with bureaucratic garbage.  Sure, he makes rash decisions, but he's always right in the end.

Fans of Mitch Rapp will be delighted by The Last Man.  Readers who have never read Flynn's books will love it and will want to go back to the beginning to read them all.  All will wish and hope that the USA has someone like Rapp to call on when we need him.

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

Simply Jesus, by Joe Stowell

Joe Stowell, well-known author, pastor, and now university president, knows that when all is said and done, all that matters is Jesus.  In his book Simply Jesus, originally published in 2002, Stowell reminds Christians what it means to put Jesus first in life.  Every Christian, by definition, knows Jesus.  But many Christians, maybe most Christians, do not experience knowing him intimately.

The reason may be simple.  For instance, "as long as there is residual sin in our hearts, there will always be a distance."  The solution for that, confession and repentance, is fairly simple (notice I said simple, not easy).  But a bigger barrier remains for most of us: self-absorption.  We have a hard time setting our selves aside and placing Jesus in first place.  "If your heart is full of complaining or self-pity--or of self-congratulating applause--you won't experience His nearness."  We have to "learn the sweet skill of boasting in Him, regardless."

When we value Jesus above everything and surrender to him, we can meet him in a fresh way.  And he will meet us, in our suffering, in temptations, and in our surrender.  Stowell's pastor's heart is evident in this brief, powerful book.  You will be encouraged to reflect on Jesus and the place you are holding him in your life.

Click here for more info.

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Every Day is an Atheist Holiday, by Penn Jillette

A year ago, I posted a review of Penn Jilette's book God, No!  Jillette is back this year with more hilarious stories and more atheistic musings in his new book, Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!  As was the case in God, No!, Jillette continues to be thoughtful, funny, and honest, as well as profane and offensive.  The chapters use various holidays as a springboard for some of Jillette's stories.  And he does tell a good story.

Some of my favorites: A reflection on Father's Day, in which he laments that he "will never experience sending and receiving a Father's Day card on the same day."  He speaks lovingly of his parents, causing me to pause and be thankful for my own, as well as to reflect on my role as a father.  For Groundhog Day, he compares Bill Murray's experience in the movie Groundhog Day, in which he lives the day over and over, to the life of a performer, doing the same routine over and over, relishing in the fact that he gets to say and do something over and over, and for the audience they see and hear it for the first time.

I love Jillette's humility about show business.  At several places he acknowledges that show business is nothing compared to "real" jobs.  He would much rather spend hours and hours working on a movie set or perfecting a routine for his live show, than sit at a desk, answering to a boss he can't stand.  He tells the story of meeting Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine.  "I just kept looking him in the eyes and trying to imagine what it felt like to help save that many lives. . . . Doing card tricks for a living is stupid no matter who you're talking to, but look Jonas Salk in the eyes, and it seems everyone else is doing stupid card tricks for a living."

Every Day is mostly about telling stories.  Any fan of Penn and Teller will love hearing about their early days together and some of their experiences along the way.  But true to the title of the book, Jillette makes his case for atheism.  For Jillette, honesty and integrity rate high.  He just doesn't see much of those qualities in religious people he meets.  Not that he doesn't admire certain religious people: "I like the drag-priests and drag-nuns, and turban/beard guys, and yama yama Jews.  I like that they dress so that they can't back down from that part of who they are."  Jillette just doesn't see the need for God in his own life, and is far from convinced by any philosophical arguments in favor of the existence of God.

Jillette closes the book with some observations of his young son.  He sees his son's reasoning through behavioral decisions, and argues that children know morality isn't determined merely by someone's word.  "They understand that right and wrong are separate from authority."  His son learns to control his temper and refrain from hitting his sister "from the inside because it's the right thing to do.  That's morality outside god, and if there's morality without god, we don't need god for morality."  He acknowledges that religion may support morality, but that "some of the rules religion adds in, like kill gays and atheists, wear magic underwear, and don't eat certain stuff on certain days is not morality.  It's just nutty cult rules. . . . Morality is outside religion.  Morality is above religion."

I wonder if Jillette knows that he has hit on a classic argument for the existence of God.  The presence of similar moral codes across various religions can be seen as evidence for an ultimate source of morality (see C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man, for instance).  I feel certain that Jillette is familiar with the natural law argument, so it's curious that he doesn't mention it, if nothing else to debunk it.

This is a must-read for Penn and Teller fans.  Many readers will be offended by his foul language, his frank sexual descriptions, and his demeaning of religion.  But for the most part, Every Day is hilarious and highly entertaining.

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

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Louder Than Words, by Jenny McCarthy

I have such mixed feelings about this book.  Jenny McCarthy, Playboy playmate, MTV vj, actress, and now best-selling author, is well know for her comedic TV roles, and, let's face it, for her Playboy appearances.  She again bares herself (figuratively) in her books, where she tells funny stories about her life as a mom and wife.  In Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism, her usual material takes a different turn when her son is diagnosed with autism.  The result is a book not without some laughs, giving her honest description of her personal struggles and her fight to get her son the best care possible.

First, the good.  McCarthy is a model for parents in her determination not to give up.  When she felt like the doctors were off in their assessment, ignoring signs she was seeing, or brushing aside her complaints, she pressed on, finding other doctors and doing research on her own.  As doctors have told my wife, they may be the medical experts, but she is the expert on her child.  Parents and doctors have to work together to find answers.

Jenny McCarthy with her clothes on.
So using her celebrity (such as it is), McCarthy can be an inspiration to many parents who might not pick up a medical book or a book by someone they don't know, and will find some good help here as they seek answers for their own child's autism.  One of her big themes is diet.  She found that feeding her son a gluten-free diet made a world of difference for him.  She also suspects that vaccines may have contribute to his autism.  I like her common-sense approach here.  She is not calling for everyone to stop giving their children vaccines.  She simply wonders why, when there is some evidence that certain children may have a negative reaction to a vaccine, there can't be a test for allergies or an option to wait until they are older.  That seems reasonable enough to me.

For all the good sense and inspiration, McCarthy still comes across as a spoiled Hollywood bimbo.  She  whines that people think celebrities don't have struggles in life.  Has she seen supermarket tabloids lately?  They have struggles and make sure their publicist tells us all about it!  Then she talks about dropping $5000 for a heart monitor to use at home, setting up an elaborate video monitoring system, which includes a 40" TV by her bed, for watching her son, and waving her credit card around to charter a $7000 one-way plane trip to go home when her son was having a seizure.  She lists all the expenses for therapy and medical care, and bemoans the fact that she has to flash her cleavage for a photo shoot to pay the bills.  Give me a break.  Then after her husband moves out and she's back on the dating scene, this almost-40-year-old mom starts pining over some guy she meets, sounding like a teenager.  She can't wait for her son to get over the flu so she can go make out on the couch with dream boy.  By the way, several times she refers to her nanny.  Sorry, Jenny, many of us can relate to what you're going through with your son, but most of us don't have the resources you take for granted.

I also felt a little sorry for her mixed-up religious attitude.  Raised a Catholic, she is constantly praying to God for help, as well as a few prayers to Mary and Michael, the archangel (or maybe it was another angel).  But when things get really bad, she has some Indian shamans do some kind of chanting, and invites Mormon missionaries to pray for his healing.  She also refers to Tarot cards for guidance.  I don't know, it sounds like she might need her priest to come over and give her a refresher course!

So there's good her and bad here.  If she reaches some of her fans with a message of hope for their children with autism, more power to her.  But there are much, much better resources out there for parents.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O'Connor

As I've said before, I really do try to like Flannery O'Connor.  I just don't.  The Violent Bear It Away doesn't do anything to help me like her more.  In this short novel, Young Tarwater lives out in the middle of the wood with his crazy old great uncle.  He's never been to school and rarely sees another human, much less town.  When his great uncle dies, Tarwater is faced with life on his own.  He decides to head into town to live with his uncle, a school teacher, and his cousin, who has an intellectual disability.

The problem is, great uncle was a nut, a self-proclaimed prophet who instilled his nuttiness in young Tarwater.  The boy decided it was his mission to baptize his disabled cousin, but the uncle would have nothing of it.  He tried his best to educate young Tarwater and help him see the futility of their uncle's crazy ways, but the boy, well, he stays crazy, with tragic results.

There is no question that O'Connor is a great writer.  Not a page of the story goes by without a remarkable phrase or sentence that bears rereading.  But O'Connor drives me crazy with her depiction of Christianity.  The only Christians are completely bonko, and the reasonable people in the story reject Christianity.  I know there are several layers of symbolism in O'Connor's religious themes, but my simple mind doesn't read her as someone who is a faithful Christian with an important message about her faith (although she supposedly was a faithful Catholic) but as someone who has serious issues with Christianity.  (Here I go again, revealing my shallowness. . . .)

I don't like to read O'Connor.  But she strangely draws me in and compels me to read her work.  Maybe one of these days I'll actually enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Power Play, by Ben Bova

Six-time Hugo Award winner Ben Bova has written a ton of sci-fi, but I somehow have never read any of his work.  My guess is that his 2011 novel Power Play is a bit of a departure from his usual work.  There is a sci-fi touch, as the story revolves around a politician's promotion of a new method of power generation as a campaign platform, but mostly it's a political thriller.  Well, I use "thriller" loosely; there's a bit of suspense, and isolated action scenes, but it's really too mild for the "thriller" moniker.

Speaking of thrilling, while the novel was nicely crafted, and the story moved along at a respectable pace, I wasn't that thrilled with it.  The characters were flat and not very likable.  The plot felt like it was trying to be more than it was, hinting at conflicts and revelations that never really came.  The climax seemed contrived.  All that said, I read to the end, but felt the book fading away like a mist when I finished.

So I have to ask Bova's many fans: Should I take some time to read Bova's space adventures, for which he is best known?  Or will I be disappointed?  I just don't want to write off a great sci-fi writer too quickly. . . .

Perhaps I'll add some of these to my "books to read" list:

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Damned, by Chuck Palahniuk

I think Chuck Palahniuk's career peaked before it started.  Fight Club was fresh, brilliant, and surprising.  He keeps trying different voices, and going for the surprising twist.  In Damned, the voice is a precocious and pudgy 13-year-old girl, and the twists aren't all that surprising or compelling.  Madison dies and goes to hell, but with her addiction to hope she refuses to give in to despair and sets out to make hell a better place.  She even recruits people to join her via her telemarketing job.  (That's right, those annoying "market research" calls you get at dinnertime come from condemned souls calling from a phone bank in hell.)

But Madison gets annoying.  Her narration is sort of cute at times, but mostly she's an annoying teenager.  Palahniuk's descriptions of hell started out a little clever, with his hills made up of fingernail and toenail clippings and waterfalls of poop, but that got old, too.  The theology/demonology/soteriology is meant to be silly, of course, but it was almost too silly to be funny.  Madison learns that people are condemned based on, for instance, how many times they say the f-word or how often they have peed in a hotel swimming pool.

As you might expect from Palahniuk, Damned is good for a few laughs, some entertaining social commentary, and some off-beat creativity.  I kept hanging on, waiting to see what Palahniuk might do with the story, but frankly I was glad when this one was over and wished I'd headed for the exit sooner.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Walking on Water When You Feel Like You're Drowning, by Tommy Nelson and Steve Leavitt

It's a touchy subject, one many Christians would rather avoid: anxiety and depression.  In many (most?) segments of Christian culture, anxiety and depression are perceived as signs of weakness, sin, spiritual inferiority, etc.  In Walking on Water When You Feel Like You're Drowning: Finding Hope in Life's Darkest Moments, Christians who are suffering from anxiety and depression can find comfort, encouragement, and help from two men who have walked that road.  Tommy Nelson, the well-known and well-loved pastor of Denton Bible Church, tells his story of being overwhelmed by the stress of his work and the months it took to get back on track.  Christian counselor Steve Leavitt shares honestly about his depression triggered by the loss of his wife to cancer and his ongoing struggles.

Nelson and Leavitt are the perfect team to explore this topic, having biblical, pastoral, and counseling knowledge and experience, coupled with their own experiences.  Walking on Water succeeds for two reasons.  First, it reminds Christians to lean on scripture and God in times of trouble.  Have you ever thought about how frequently scripture mentions anxiety, being anxious, downcast, distressed, etc.?  A lot!  But hopefully you have thought more about the hope that scripture offers.  Time spent reading scripture can be a first step to healing, as it will remind someone who is anxious or depressed that he is in good company, and that "peace, rest, joy, contentment, and hope are found in the Bible."

Second, Walking on Water can be a catalyst for Christians who are wavering or dead-set against seeking help for their anxiety and depression.  Nelson and Leavitt remind us, through their experiences, that while "anxiety/depression is a hybrid condition--it is spiritual, mental, emotional in its causes but physical and medical in its symptoms and manifestation."  Seeking treatment from counselors and/or physicians is not a sign of weakness of lack of faith, but can be a necessary step toward healing.  In addition, both men have taken advantage of pharmaceutical treatments in the healing process.  Again, Christians may have a bias against using prescription drugs, but they can provide crucial help.

Thank you, Tommy and Steve, for your honest and knowledgeable resource.  May this book be a source of hope and strength for many, and an encouragement for many others to seek further help.

And thank you, Tyndale House Publishers for my complimentary review copy.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Kingdoms Apart, ed. Ryan McIlhenny

Do the following words mean anything to you?
Neo-Calvinism -- New Calvinism -- Two Kingdoms -- Abraham Kuyper -- sphere sovereignty -- natural law -- dual citizenship -- church and state

If you are one who studies Reformed theology and ethics, these terms, and this book, will pique your interest.  If not, well, you'll want to move on.  Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective, edited by Ryan McIlhenny, is not a book for the casual reader or for the lay Christian seeking inspiration.  It is best viewed as collection of academic theological essays, which, for the most part, will not be of interest to many outside Reformed circles.

This is not to say the essays are not important, well-written, or accessible to the non-specialist.  They are.  But, as is fitting for a scholarly collection, they have the feel of a very small group of scholars swapping ideas.  Speaking of scholars swapping ideas, I enjoyed seeing an old friend, Stephen Grabill, favorably quoted.  He's done some good work in natural law as a source for Reformed theological ethics. 

I have done some academic work in this field, but still gave in the temptation to skim over large sections of the book.  As a reference, or as a resource for the researcher, as a collection for the specialist in the New Calvinism, Kingdoms Apart fits the bill.  For a more casual reader, not so much.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary review copy.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Embracing Obscurity, by Anonymous

A while back, while I was on a long run, I conceived a book called I'm Nobody (and So are You).  As I recall, I had several chapters outlined and a pretty good theme going, but, like most things I come up with during a run, it never became anything.  That's OK, because the anonymous author of Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in Light of God's Everything developed the idea behind my book in a much more redeeming way.  Whereas my book was sort of a beat-down, the goal of the author of EO is to remind the reader that his ultimate worth is in God, and any glory and riches we might gain in this life pale in comparison to what we might gain in the next.

Anonymous is simply identified as a "an experienced author who shall remain anonymous given the topic of the book at hand" but I don't think his thesis would have been weakened by his revealing his identity.  In any case, his writing is engaging and affirming.  I agree with him (or her, for that matter) that many of us long to be known, for our efforts to be recognized, and to accomplish things that would bring us the respect of others (or at least of our disappointed parents).  But the question to ask ourselves is "Are our lives marked by service, sacrifice, love for others, abandonment of self, dependency on  God or genuine passion to see the lost saved?  Or are we more preoccupied with the things of the world?"  

Embracing Obscurity offers encouragement to those of us who are nobodies to look at the larger purposes of God in our day-to-day obscure lives, a challenge for those who aren't exactly obscure (although, as my book would have said, they're all nobodies, too) to have an eternal perspective with a dose of humility, and a good word for all of us that we are highly valued in the eyes of God.  Thanks for the good word, whoever you are!

And thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon

One of the great roles of fiction is the opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes.  In the story of Beautiful Girl, Rachel Simon gives a voice to some who are literally voiceless and tells the stories of people whose stories are never told.

This novel, which spans several decades, opens with Lynnie, or Beautiful Girl, and her friend #42 arriving one rainy night at the home of Martha, an elderly widow whose reclusive life is mostly taken up by corresponding with her far-flung former students.  The rain-soaked couple have a newborn baby with them, wrapped in blankets. Number 42 is deaf and mute; Lynnie does not speak either, and seems to have an intellectual disability.  Martha realizes that Lynnie has just given birth to the baby, but is able to learn nothing more about them.  As quickly as they appeared they disappear, Lynnie taken away by officials from the institution from which they had briefly escaped, and #42 disappearing into the night.  But the baby had been hidden. Her existence was completely unknown to the school. So Martha raised her, keeping her identity a secret.

The rest of the story follows three strands: of Martha and the baby as they move about, evading those who would link her back to the school; Lynnie, as she returns to the school and her life after the school; and as #42, Homan, tries to get by in a world where he cannot hear or speak.  It's pretty melodramatic and contrived at times, but Simon draws the reader into the characters' worlds, making you care about them and the course of their lives.  Martha's heroic choices, Homan's steadfast determination, and Lynnie's unfailing hope will inspire you.

Simon tells the story against the background of the experiences of people with disabilities in the second half of the twentieth century.  The "school" where Lynnie lives much of her life, the State School for the Incurable and Feebleminded (the name sounds silly to us now, but is typical of institutions founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries), is fictional, but is based on schools Simon has researched and seen first-hand.  (Her sister has an intellectual disability.)  Lynnie witnesses and suffers from unspeakable abuses by school staff, an expose by local and national media, subsequent reforms, and the eventual closing of the school.  When the school closes, she deals with living in a group home, finding work and getting around in daily life, and becoming a self-advocate, attending conferences and testifying before lawmakers.

In Homan's story, Simon gives us a view to the life of an uneducated deaf man, who spent much of his life totally unable to communicate with most people.  He had learned a dialect of sign as a boy, but it was years before he began to learn ASL and speak with other deaf people.  Homan's character was inspired by the true story of a deaf boy who was arrested and dumped in an institution simply because officials didn't know what else to do with him.  His story is told in God Knows His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24, which I haven't read, but will add it to my list!

Simon doesn't preach or shake her fist at the treatment of people disabilities.  The Story of Beautiful Girl is, first of all, a story, but there is no question that Simon has a bit of an agenda here.  She educates about the history of disability services, she gives the reader insight into the world of people with disabilities, and she helps the reader understand the perspective of people with disabilities.

I was particularly interested in Simon's treatment of religion.  Lynnie has dim memories of her family's Jewish heritage; at one point we learn that her family was shunned from the synagogue because of Lynnie's disability.  After #42's impromptu funeral, Martha "could not help but wonder how there could be a God if people treated this man as they had, and Lynnie was forced to live in a place like the School--and this child could be doomed to a life of desolation."  One of my favorite characters was Kate, who worked at the school and became a friend and advocate for Lynnie.  She "found her work an act of penance," a way to live out Jesus' admonition to "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."  She also remembered Jesus words in Matthew, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."  In her own family, "she taught her children that every person. . . deserved kindness."

Lynnie had some reflections of her own at her friend Doreen's funeral.  When the minister "moved on to talk about her finding eternal happiness now that she was home with the Lord, Lynnie stopped listening.  Doreen had never said a word about God, and Lynnie was far from certain she believed in God herself.  People who did talk about God, like Kate, said they felt His presence deep in their heart.  In Lynnie's heart, she felt nothing.  If there was a God, why did Doreen have to die to go home?  If there was a God, why did Doreen's father give her money but never visit?  If there was a God, why could Lynnie barely see Buddy and Julia in her mind? . . .  If there was a God, [Doreen's] parents would have come--eventually.  But never had come first."

Besides telling a great story, Simon gives us a lot to think about in our own relationships with people with disabilities.  Whatever someone's ability or disability, everyone has hopes and dreams and longs for friendship.  Everyone has a story to tell.  When we encounter someone with a disability, let's wonder, with Kate, "How many others are out there?  How many other lives are hidden, and hearts are seeking?"


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cleaning House, by Kay Wills Wyma

I got this book on audio from the library out of mild curiosity, and so I could put a review of it on Blogging for Books.  It didn't take long for me to smile along with Kay, thinking "Kelly has got to hear this!"  Then she mentioned that she lives in Dallas--a fellow Texan!  Then she mentioned that she went to Baylor--a fellow Bear!  I decided I need to buy this book for Kelly!

But the Texas-Baylor kindredness I felt with Kay was just the beginning.  Kay, mother of 5 kids, came to realize that her kids were spoiled and had a sense of entitlement, and worse, that she was their enabler!  So she birthed a one-year experiment in which each month she would add a skill or focus for them to build on, in hopes of building independent, self-sufficient, and unselfish kids.  The resulting book, Cleaning House: A Mom's 12-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement, will make you laugh while challenging and inspiring you.

Her initial list of goals is worth reproducing here, her "Top Twelve Things a Kid Should Know Before Flying the Wyma Coop."

  1. how to make a bed and maintain an orderly room
  2. how to cook and clean a kitchen
  3. how to do yard work
  4. how to clean a bathroom
  5. how to get a job . . . outside our home
  6. how to do laundry
  7. how to do handyman jobs
  8. how to host a party
  9. how to work together
  10. how to run errands
  11. how to put others first through service
  12. how to act mannerly

I figured the litle ones in my house (and the big ones, for that matter) could benefit from learning or brushing up on these skills.  Cleaning House started out as a blog for Kay's friends to read, with some input from guest bloggers and friends.  The book retains some of the breezy, folksy tone you might expect from such a blog, but has very practical tips and strategies for teaching kids life skills.  I came to admire her persistence, her kids' attitudes, and her honesty.  They are a bunch of kids, after all, so every "suggestion" wasn't met with enthusiastic glee.  But, as you might expect, by the end of the tasks and by the end of the year-long project, they seemed to have grown closer.  I think she reveals a simple truth: a cleaner, more orderly, and  less selfish household takes a little work, but the benefits to the family relationships are worth every second of effort.

I was a little surprised by the small role Dad takes in this story.  He makes a few cameo experiences, especially around the handyman and work together projects, but mostly he's the guy who spends his life at work, while Mom runs the household.  I'm guessing this is just the reality in their life, but I couldn't help wondering if he really was as tangentially involved in all of this as it seemed.

Pick up Cleaning House, take on some of the projects and challenges that Kay's family took on.  I think your family will be better for it!

Kay blogs at

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Amateur, by Edward Klein

If I let myself think about it (which I try not to do) I get really angry that an ignorant 53% of Americans actually voted for this guy, Barack Barry Hussein Soetoro Obama or whatever his name is.  This guy had little legislative experience, no executive experience, scarcely any management experience, and 53% of my fellow countrymen want to put him in the White House?  I couldn't believe it.  Still can't.  Sure, the election of the first African-American president is a milestone, I get it.  Good for the U.S., racism is dead and buried. (Ha!)  Every time he comes on TV I regret that I turned on the TV in the first place.  Please, someone shut him up!

This is what Obama thinks of himself.
All of the vague negative feelings I have about President Obama, and all of the suspicions I have had that he is not fit for the office of the president, were confirmed in my reading of Edward Klein's, The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House.  Drawing largely from interviews with Obama associates, coworkers, friends, and others who have know him well, Klein paints a picture of "a president who is inept in the arts of management and governance, who doesn't learn from his mistakes, and who therefore repeats policies that make our economy less robust and our nation less safe."

One striking (but not surprising) feature Klein discusses is Obama's vanity.  His delusions of grandeur and megalomania led him to believe "he was qualified for the most difficult job in the world . . . even though he had never held a real job in his life."  As one Chicago acquaintance notes, "You can explain it with any number of words: arrogance, conceit, egotism, vanity, hubris. . . . But whatever word you choose, it spells the same thing--disaster for the country he leads."  As Klein documents, this attitude is manifested in the fact that wherever he is, whoever he's meeting with, Obama thinks he's the smartest person in the room, and his willingness to listen to other voices is limited by his arrogant self-centeredness.

There's plenty new here, but none of it surprising.  Each revelation only confirms what we suspected about his character: Michelle's darker, temperamental side, Obama's alienation of black leadership, Jews, and other democratic would-be allies, and, most of all, the amateurish way he is running the White House and the country.  Read Klein's book, for that matter just read one chapter of his book, and you'll be beating a path to the polls to vote for Romney and counting the days until Obama is sent back to Chicago or Hawaii or wherever he wants to go.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Devil in Pew Number Seven, by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo

You've probably heard stories of church conflict and embattled pastors.  Chances are, if you've gone to church very long, you've experienced some yourself.  I remember one former pastor of mine describing how every Sunday when he got up to preach, he had to face a contingent on the first row, glaring at him, sending the message that they wanted him gone.  Well I can almost guarantee that you haven't heard stories like the one Rebecca Nichols Alonzo tells in The Devil in Pew Number Seven: A True Story.

Rebecca's father was a pastor in a rural North Carolina church in the 1970s.  Shortly after he took the pulpit, it became clear that one attender, Mr. Watts, the local Henry F. Potter (like the It's a Wonderful Life character), wanted to maintain control of the church.  Most everyone in town owed him money, and he liked to be in charge.  He was not a church member, but was there every Sunday, and his wife was the church clerk.  When, under Rebecca's dad's leadership, the Watts were removed from their positions of influence, they didn't take it well.

That's when the terror began.  Threatening phone calls and letters led to sabotage of the heating and water at the parsonage, and a series of destructive bombings around the parsonage.  Even though no one in the church or community had any doubt that Mr. Watts was behind the threats and terroristic attacks, he was wily enough--and well-connected enough--not to be pinned for any of it.  The terror went on for several years, eventually wearing away Rebecca's father's sanity.

In simple, straightforward prose, Alonzo tells the story and its impact on her and her family.  Although repentance, redemption, and forgiveness finally prevail, I had a feeling of too little too late.  The cover quotes Romans, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse."  During all the years of Mr. Watts's persecution of Rebecca's family, her parents stuck by this admonition.  This story is a reminder of just how difficult that can be, yet how redeeming it is in practice.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Disability History of the United States, by Kim E. Nielsen

In writing A Disability History of the United States, Kim Nielsen takes on a difficult but very interesting task.  She examines the history of our nation from the perspective of disability, specifically the experiences and treatment of people with disabilities in the United States.  Given the changing perspectives of and language surrounding disability, it would not have been easy to trace that thread through historical documents, but Nielsen gathers plenty of anecdotes and primary sources to bring together a "wide-ranging chronological American history narrative told through the lives of people with disabilities."

Like many historians in today's black studies, gender studies, gay studies or feminist studies field, Nielsen looks at history and events through a particular lens, in her case the lens of disability.  She demonstrates the extent to which ableism has prevailed, stigmatizing disability and equating disability with dependency.  To a certain extent, in the lives of Native Americans and in colonial America, disability was only an issue when it prevented useful work.  Nielsen may be guilty of idealizing some of the Native American groups, but the attitude she attributes to them, that everyone has a unique contribution to make, no matter what physical limitations they have, is certainly commendable.

The treatment of slaves and women receives special attention, as these groups were considered disabled simply because of their race and gender.  As they were by definition disabled, they required extra care--and of course extra measures of control.  With the establishment of a new nation, new forms of organization and bureaucracy emerged, one expression of which was institutions for the disabled.  In some cases, these were successful, such as schools for the deaf.  In others, however, disabled people "whose bodies or minds were believed to be beyond redemption were variably warehoused or removed."  This remained the case well into the twentieth century, when activists and reformers exposed horrific conditions at certain institutions, leading to a movement promoting deinstitutionalization and independent living.  This work continues to be necessary even today.

One of the many devastating outcomes of the Civil War was the huge number of soldiers disabled during the war.  Nielsen points out that every war leads to improvements in prosthetics, starting with the Civil War.  One Confederate veteran who had his leg amputated during the war, James Hanger, began a prosthetics company that survives even today.  (We have gotten orthotic foot braces for my daughter from Hanger.)  On the other hand, not only disabled veterans but others who were "diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object" were prohibited from appearing in public or from begging on the street by "ugly laws" imposed in San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, and other cities.

The reader, disabled or not, can be heartened by the progress made by disabled people, starting in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Although the disabled rights movement doesn't get the attention that  racial equality and feminism get, groups of disabled people fully embraced the civil rights movement as their own.  We tend to take for granted the fruit of the disability rights movement like wheelchair ramps, TTY phones, and countless other means by which life has become more accessible for people with disabilities.

Just as blacks, women, and other minorities have experienced subjugation and worked toward equality, so have people with disabilities.  Nielsen writes, "There is no question that the power to define bodies as disabled has given justification, throughout US history, for subjugation and oppression."  Far too often "ableism defines disability and people with disabilities as defective and inadequate, and . . . disability is used to create and justify hierarchies."  By telling the stories of disabled people in history, she points out the stigma while pointing toward the pride emerging in spite of ableist ideology.

Thanks to Edelweis and the publisher for this complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America, by Charles J. Chaput

It's a familiar tale, at least to Christians who care about the fabric of American society: the Christian faith shaped the American character from its founding, but as Christianity has lost influence, American culture has crumbled.  In A Heart on Fire, Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, challenges American Catholics to "recapture the nobility of the human story and the dignity of the human person" by starting a "revolution of love."

Chaput argues that the principles that have made America great are derived from a Christian worldview.  He writes, "The American experience of personal freedom and civil peace is inconceivable without a religious grounding and a predominantly Christian inspiration."  The trouble is that dying spirituality and increasing materialism have, as John Courtney Murray said, "given citizens everything to live for and nothing to die for."  The problem is that "without the restraints of a moral consensus animated and defended by a living religious community, the freedom of the individual becomes a license for selfishness." 

A Heart on Fire is Chaput's prophetic call to Catholics and all Christians to renew the nation's life of faith.  It's a short essay, more an extended magazine or journal article than a stand-alone book, but worth reading for a reminder of where we've come from as a nation, where we've ended up, and a challenge not to continue the way we've been going.

Thanks to Edelweis and Waterbrook Multnomah for the complimentary review copy.