Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Long Walk, by Brian Castner

Some soldiers come home from the war with injuries you can see.  Far too many have lost hands, feet, limbs, or their very lives to the IEDs of the current, prolonged wars in the Middle East.  Others, like Brian Castner, come home with injuries no less life changing than those that require prosthetic limbs or wheelchairs, yet that remain invisible.  In The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, Castner writes of his experiences on the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in Iraq.  His tours in Iraq forever changed his mind, with the images seared onto it of the bloody mess in an explosion's aftermath, of a foot in a box ("Because why not?  Where else would you put it?"), of his Brothers lost or injured in duty.  His mind was also forever changed by blast-induced traumatic brain disorder; each explosion he was near, and he was blowing things up on a daily basis sometimes, jarred his brain and disrupted its connections.

Jumping between various time frames (sometimes with little warning!), Castner tells his story.  He describes his job and his love for it, while detailing the ways his life is still affected by BITBD.  His detailed and deeply personal account is the best description I've read of what the heck U.S. soldiers are doing in Iraq.  However, it raises the question for me: What the heck are U.S. soldiers still doing in Iraq?  When Castner and his crews headed out to investigate a car bomb or IED, it was likely either targeted at U.S. troops, or it was the result of some internal conflict between Iraqi ethnic groups.  In the latter case, I see no justification for putting American lives at risk.  Why the U.S. even maintains a presence there is beyond me.

I do thank God for men like Castner who are willing to risk their lives to serve their country in the armed forces.  But I would have to question the policies that put our men and women into potentially deadly situations in dozens of countries around the world.  Is what we're accomplishing there worth the price paid by Castner and others like him?

Thanks to NetGalley and Doubleday for the complimentary electronic copy for review.
Read more about Brian at his personal blog.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Living Rich for Less, by Ellie Kay

The first thing to say about Ellie Kay is that she grew up in Fort Worth!  So of course I'm going to love a book by a Fort Worth girl!  In her book, Living Rich for Less, Kay provides practical insights for people living on a budget, that is, just about everyone.  If you're a fan of Dave Ramsey, Ron Blue, and their ilk, you'll enjoy Kay.  True to her experience as a columnist for Family Circle, Women's World, and USA Today, she's a bit more feminine and more casual and breezy in style than her male counterparts, but no less valuable to read.

Kay starts off with her priorities in the right place: the first chapters of the book are dedicated to giving.  She encourages a 10-10-80 plan, in which you give away 10%, save 10%, then plan and spend wisely the remaining 80%.  It's significant that it's not the 80-10-10 plan or the 10-80-10 plan.  Giving comes first, no matter what.  Even families with low incomes can give.  Kay lays out some principles of wise giving.
Click on the picture to go to her web site.

Then of course there's saving.  Hopefully if you're picking up a book like Living Rich for Less, you don't need a lot of convincing that saving is important.  The last portion covers the 80%, which is of greatest concern to most families.  She encourages getting out of debt, but doesn't hammer on it the way Ramsey does (but maybe she should).  There are plenty of practical ideas here for saving, which can add up to a significant difference in the family budget.  She spends a seemingly disproportionate amount of space on couponing (good advice) and saving money on cruises (OK advice if you're going on a cruise, but a whole chapter?  Seemed like a bit much).

Kay gives a lot to think about here, which is her goal: think about where your money goes and make it work for you.  The end result is a little superficial, but the book lays down some principles to get you pointed in the right direction.

Thanks to the Fort Worth Library and the good people of Fort Worth for the free use of this book.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Seal of God, by Chad Williams

I have never doubted that Navy SEAL training was hard, but reading Chad Williams's blow-by-blow account of his life as a SEAL convinces me that those guys are toughSEAL of God follows Williams' journey from rebellious kid to dedicated recruit to exemplary SEAL, and, ultimately, to a follower of Jesus and enthusiastic evangelist.

Chad Williams
Williams was a good candidate for not making it as a SEAL.  He was more concerned with partying than sticking with anything, especially anything as difficult as SEAL training.  Under the guidance of former SEAL Scott Helvenston, Williams prepared physically and mentally.  He never thought of quitting.  Even though only 13 of his class of 173 became SEALs, Williams made it, thinking of his training as a prison from which he could only escape by graduating as a SEAL.

Part of his motivation was to avenge Helvenston's death.  Helvenston was one of the Blackwater contractors who was ambushed in Iraq, dragged through the streets, mutilated, and hung from a bridge.  Seeing those images on TV gave Williams the fuel to drive his commitment.  However, after graduating from SEAL training, Williams gave his life to Christ.  His driving passion now was not revenge but following Jesus.  He began to have doubts about whether the SEAL lifestyle was for him.

The bulk of the book, about two thirds, deals with Williams's life before and during SEAL training.  I haven't read much about the SEALs, but Williams's detailed descriptions of the grueling, intense training gives a great picture of what someone has to go through to be a SEAL.  The most disturbing portion was Williams's account of the persecution he endured as a result of his being a Christian.  Many of his fellow SEALs were indifferent to his newfound faith, but others actively harassed him for his choice not to get drunk or go to strip clubs with them.  The hazing he endured as a result led him to seek assignment to another team, and led to broken relationships with his fellow SEALs.

I was greatly encouraged by Williams's faith and conversion story, but was discouraged that he struggled so much during his service.  I know the military is full of strong believers, but it seemed like Williams was surrounded by apathetic, nominal Christians, people who didn't care about faith, and, tragically, some who openly ridiculed him for his faith.

Seal of God will strike a chord with military readers, and Christians will be challenged by the passion with which he shares the gospel.  Bonus for Fort Worth readers: Williams' co-author is David Thomas, formerly a columnist for the Star-Telegram!

Thanks to Tyndale Press for the complementary review copy!
Tyndale promotional video.
Tyndale's book web site.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Blind Hope, by Kim Meeder and Laurie Sacher

What's not to like about a sweet blind dog?  I dare you not to fall in love with Mia, Laurie Sacher's dog.  In Blind Hope: An Unwanted Dog and the Woman She Rescued, Laurie and her friend Kim Meeder tell Laurie's story and how taking in a neglected little dog changed Laurie's life.  Meeder is no stranger to animals changing people's lives.  She and her husband Troy founded Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch, where they take in horses in need of rehab and where young people come for some rehabbing of their own.  (I reviewed Troy's book, Average Joe, last year.)

Laurie had been running from God most of her life, and had come to have little self-esteem and felt distant from God.  As she grew more attached to Mia, she began having insights into God's character, and began to understand the ways God relates to us.  Mia, quite unhealthy when Laurie adopted her, had continual health problems, including losing her sight.  She and Mia worked out a system where, by voice and touch, Mia could get around with her, including at the beach and running on trails.  Kim summed up the relationship: "What faith, to follow a master you cannot see."

Their story is told simply, but with each chapter Laurie learns a little bit more about God by watching and interacting with her new mentor, Mia.  How encouraging that we serve a God who loves us in spite of the offensive mess we've made of our lives, who comes back to pursue us when we wander away from him, and who helps us to see in spite of our blindness.

The ideas are sweet, without being sappy.  I enjoyed the simple truths they conveyed by the illustration of dog and master.  I will say the narrative tended to be a bit on the chick-lit side.  The arrangement of the book had Laurie telling Kim about Mia as they had coffee together, rode horses together, skied together, etc.  Some of the descriptions of the two women's interactions made me feel like I was reading a book written just for ladies, but the message of the book has a much broader appeal than that.  

All in all, Blind Hope is an enjoyable, quick read, with some nuggets of truth and inspiration that will give you some new ways to think about your relationship with God.  Enjoy!

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for the complimentary review copy.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Q: A Novel, by Evan Mandery

What if your future self met you for lunch and told you not to marry your fiance?  Or to change jobs?  Or to travel?  Would we really benefit from hindsight?  In his highly imaginative novel Q, Evan Mandery asks those questions and more.  In Q, the narrator, a professor and author (not unlike Mr. Mandery himself), falls madly in love with Q.  They are all set to get married when he gets an invitation to lunch from his future self, who tells him he "must not marry Q!"  Convinced, he begins sabotaging their relationship, finding a natural way to break it off.  Various manifestations of his future selves begin making regular appearances, guiding him toward or away from certain life paths.

As the advice from the future selves continues and escalates, frequently contradicting what the last future self said, the narrator becomes more confused.  We learn that time travel is invented at some point in the future, and an industry has arisen in which many people head to the past to make things right, or, as they perceive it, better.  Things don't always work out like they think, like when one man traveled back in time to give $10,000 dollars to a young Warren Buffett.  The timing was not quite right; rather than invest it, young Warren bought a ukulele and fulfilled his dream of becoming a well-known ukulele player.

Mandery has given us a story that is first of all hilarious.  His characterizations, dialogue, and situations come together beautifully for a laugh-out-loud read.   But more than a good laugh, Q is thoughtful and reflective, and tells a captivating tale.  I liked Mandery's funny novel First Contact, but with Q he takes his writing to a much higher lever.  It's still marginally sci-fi (after all, he deals with time travel) but mostly it's a novel about love and life.  I felt a connection to Q and the narrator, was entertained and even a little inspired.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

BodyPrayer: The Posture of Intimacy with God, by Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill

This is an interesting little book.  I have actually thought about prayer postures before, thinking about the different ways people in the Bible pray (hands lifted, kneeling, prostrate, eyes uplifted).  In BodyPrayer: The Posture of Intimacy with God, Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill do cover those, in a way.  With thirty examples of prayer postures, they offer a short reflection, a poem, and a description of each posture, illustrated by Colleen Shealer Olson. My big disappointment was that, although they offered scripture for the content of the prayers, they did not consider at all actual biblical examples of prayer posture.  Their book, their choice.

The postures are illustrated throughout.
I'm just not sure what to do with this book.  I think there's some inspiration from other meditative traditions.  Some of the descriptions sound as if a yoga instructor wrote them (not that I know anything about yoga).  There's lots of relaxation, breathing deeply, etc.  Take these examples: "Feel the pressure between you and the ground, created by the weight of your body."  "Feel the rhythm of God in your muscles as they strain."  "Permit your body's looseness to echo your submission to God."  "Hold on to the feeling of relaxation in your face.  Let that ease guide you in blessing all who share the world with you."

I'm sorry, but I just can't help picturing some frumpy, middle-aged, hippie yoga instructor here.  I admit, I've never been accused of being a contemplative.  But some of the postures and instructions are just silly.  Now, some of the short example prayers are nice.  But I don't buy the whole package.  I think if some church leader started directing my congregation or prayer group in some of these, I would either leave in exasperation or have to leave to hide my laughing.

If you're a Christian who likes to pray while walking in one of those labyrinths, or love the pseudo-ancient church practices of the "emerging church," you'll probably love BodyPrayer.  Jump right in.  But it's not a book for me.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Gospel of Yes, by Mike Glenn

I have to admit that when I picked up Mike Glenn's The Gospel of Yes, I was immediately skeptical.  I like the title, but the statement on the top of the cover bothered me: "We Have Missed the Most Important Thing About God.  Finding It Changes Everything."  So after 20 centuries of church history, Glenn has finally found the Most Important Thing About God.  Hallelujah!

Mike Glenn apparently grew up in a tradition that I have long thought only occurred in stereotyping, a church tradition that only emphasizes what Christians don't do.  He believes that Christians focus too much on the negative: "most churches focus so much on sin . . . Christianity has been narrowed down to sin management," resulting in score-keeping, works-based faith.

In The Gospel of Yes, Glenn explores a positive approach to Christian faith and life, not just in terms of Christianity as sin avoidance, but in the yes and amen of Jesus: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ.  And so through him the 'Amen' is spoken by us to the glory of God." (2 Cor. 1:20)  God gives good gifts to his children.  God has good plans for his children.  God desires each of us to join him with purpose and confidence in his love for us.

So my initial suspicions about Glenn's book were unfounded.  I suspect an over-eager editor or someone from the marketing department affixed the boastful claim on the cover.  I'll give Glenn the benefit of the doubt on that.  The Gospel of Yes is positive and encouraging, but not in the feel-good, prosperity gospel sense.  Glenn wants the reader to see God as the God of love who pursues his children and desires to help them in the kingdom.  To that I can say "Yes and Amen!"

Thanks to the publisher, Waterbrook Press, who provided an advance reading copy for review.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lunatics, by Dave Barry and Alan Zwiebel

I have to read anything with Dave Barry's name on it.  He's one of the funniest writers ever.  I had never heard of Alan Zwiebel, but he wrote for Saturday Night Live back when it was funny, so he must be funny, too.  Lunatics is the first collaboration for these two writers, and the third novel for Dave Barry, after his two solo efforts, Big Trouble and Tricky Business.

So, as expected, Lunatics is funny, at times laugh-out-loud hilarious.  The story begins with Philip Horkman calling Jeffrey Peckerman's daughter offside at a youth soccer game.  A chance meeting the next day and a snowballing sequence of misunderstandings, coincidences, and luck take Horkman and Peckerman on a journey that includes becoming wanted terrorists, traveling on a clothing optional cruise, overthrowing Castro, feeding starving refugees, bringing peace to the Middle East and democracy to China, and running against each other for President.  Along the way they become the most famous and revered figures in the world.
Barry and Zwiebel
At first, the unlikely events are just believable enough that, as crazy as the outcomes are, I can almost see them happening.  But about the time they board a cruise ship, fleeing a manhunt for them in Manhattan, the story gets shakier and shakier.  It's still funny, but gets into the silly, outrageous, stupid, and gross form of humor.  If you've read Dave Barry, you know that's to be expected, and if you like Dave Barry, you will love his silly and stupid humor.

I enjoyed Lunatics, because I love Dave Barry and his silly, stupid humor.  However, if all I read was his novels, I'm not sure how impressed I would be.  His non-fiction books and columns are brilliant, classic, hilarious, and can be read over and over.  Lunatics, not so much.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon

Gentlemen of the Road, by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon, not only takes the reader to another time, the 10th century, but, although it was published in 2007, it feels like a novel from another time.  Following the travels of Zelikman and Amram, the gentlemen of the road, Chabon takes us on a journey on which they will survive tight scrapes, overcome long odds, and ultimately restore a kingdom.

Beautifully and colorfully written, Gentlemen almost seems as it it were written in the 18th or 19th century, fitting right in with The Three Musketeers or Arabian Nights.  Time will tell if it has the staying power of those books, but I think it's definitely one worth reading again.