Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Liberty Intrigue, by Tom Grace

Where is Ross Egan when we need him?!

Talk about a timely novel.  Tom Grace's The Liberty Intrigue is set during election season.  The sitting president is liberal and corrupt, but the Republicans have a wide array of candidates, beating each other up in the primaries, none of them rising to the top.  A few short weeks ago, this was the story for the Republicans; for what it's worth the nomination has been sealed up by Romney by now.  Back to the novel: over in Africa, Ross Egan, a somewhat obscure American electrical engineer has risen in prominence and leadership in a nation that has just come out of a civil war and is now instituting American-style democratic reforms.  He and the president of the African nation become co-recipients of the Nobel Prize.  Unable to come to a consensus at their nominating convention, the Republicans draft the independent Egan.

Egan is exactly the candidate tea-party, free-market, freedom-loving Republicans long for, without the baggage that so many candidates bring, and with a practical means to solve America's energy problem.  That's a weakness of the book: the reader ends up frustrated by the end, faced with the reality of the candidates he has to hold his nose to choose among.  While Egan is wholly fictional, one character in The Liberty Intrigue is immediately recognizable.  Conservative talk-show host Garr Denby is a completely unveiled tribute to Rush Limbaugh.  I think some of the phrases must have been taken directly from the show.  Oh, and the sitting president?  Let's just hope that Grace isn't privy to some insider information; the picture he paints does not compliment Obama!

Besides conservative politics and talk-radio hosts, Grace also gives a not to Ayn Rand.  You may recall the catchphrase from Atlas Shrugged, "Who is John Galt?"  In several scenes in that novel, the phrase shows up by surreptitious means.  Similarly, throughout The Liberty Intrigue, the phrase, "Who is I" appears, accompanied by selective blackouts and computer hacking.

As much as I loved the message of the book, I will admit that after the opening scenes, I got a bit bogged down.  It seemed like Denby's monologues got a bit too long. . . .  But after the halfway point or so, the story recovered and became a fun read.  Now if we could only find a real Ross Egan!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fearless, by Eric Blehm

Just in time for Memorial Day, Waterbrook Press sent me a copy of Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown.  We hear all the time about the men and women of the armed forces in general, the sacrifices they make, and the many ways they preserve freedom around the world.  Fearless tells the story of one such seaman, who gave everything he had every day in the service of his country.

Adam grew up in rural Arkansas, the all-American boy, loved by everyone, the athlete who made sure other kids didn't get picked on, the good-looking popular kid who asked the wallflowers to dance, the buddy who never let his buddies down, the fun-loving risk taker who respected authority.  That changed after he graduated from high school; Adam spent several years as a lost soul and ended up hooked on crack and heading to jail.  Through the love of his girlfriend and ever patient and forgiving family and friends, he became stable enough to join the Navy.  A close friend's dad was an officer in the recruiting division; without his recommendation, Adam would probably have been accepted.

While he was in prison, Adam became a Christian.  He certainly had some rough times overcoming his addiction, but as a Navy recruit and trainee, as a new husband, as a high-achieving SEAL, and as a father, Adam grew in his faith to the point that his faith in Christ shaped every part of his life.  As a SEAL, Adam excelled in everything he tried.  Even with injuries that would have sidelined many seamen, much less one on top of another as he had (losing an eye, severing several fingers and having them reattached, assorted leg and foot problems), Adam insisted on staying on, having to work extra hard to compensate for his injuries.  He won the admiration of everyone around him for his dedication to his work as a SEAL, his dedication to his family, and his faith.

With the help of his wife, Adam passed out
hundreds of pairs of shoes to Afghan children.
The title of the book refers to Adam's "ultimate sacrifice," so I'm giving nothing away by revealing that he was killing in the line of duty.  Blehm does a tremendous job of showing Adam's character, so that the reader mourns right along with his faithful wife and his brothers in arms.  Many of us have know people who have had an untimely death, and whose character and gifts lead us to question God, "Why him?  Why now?  Why not that worthless so-and-so next door?  Why take such a great guy, in the prime of life, with young kids at home?"  In a story like Adam's, that is even more true.  I have to wonder, is our military's prolonged presence in Afghanistan really worth the lives of more like Adam?  Sure, they're saving lives by hunting down the insurgents and preventing them from building more IEDs.  But they wouldn't be building IEDs if our military wasn't occupying their country!  If, as a fellow SEAL said at Adam's funeral, "This is a struggle between the forces that would protect and nourish human dignity and freedom, and those that would destroy it," who can argue against such a struggle.  But when that translates into occupation of another country, of virtually taking over that country's governance, and staying in country with a military presence in the tens of thousands for a decade, it starts to become more murky.

In spite of my reservations about U.S. military policy, I can't help but admire Adam and respect his level of commitment to training, the excellence he strove for in his role, the love and commitment he had for his family, and the dedication he showed in turning his life around.  His children were old enough when he died that they will have many good memories of their time with him, but what a gift Eric Blehm as given them in this beautifully written account of their daddy's life.  Adam is a hero his children--not to mention the rest of us--can be proud of and look up to.

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah for the complimentary review copy of Fearless.

Click here for the book's official web site.
Click here for the Adam Brown Legacy Foundation.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

I love to be pleasantly surprised by a book!  I must admit, I did not have very high expectations for Code Name Verity.  It's published by Disney Hyperion Books, an imprint I (incorrectly) thought had more to do with movie adaptations, teen star books, or some crummy little books in a series.  I also knew that the primary audience to whom they're marketing the book was teen girls, a demographic to which I decidedly do not belong.  But Elizabeth Wein does such a wonderful job telling this story, with heroic female characters, historical authenticity, and a plot that takes you in, breaks your heart, and inspires, that I have to give Code Name Verity a big thumbs up.

Verity, code name for a young lady from an aristocratic Scottish family, and Maddie, a working-class English girl, meet during World War 2, becoming best friends.  Maddie is a civilian pilot, Verity, a spy.  On a mission to deliver Verity to France for some clandestine activities, they crash.  Verity is eventually captured, while Maddie is taken in by some members of the French Resistance.  In prison, Verity agrees to divulge information to her Nazi captors.  Her written account of her spy activities make up the bulk of the book.  Maddie's flight journal, the remainder.

Taking what could have been a predictable, maudlin, run-of-the-mill story, Wein captures the times, the setting, and the feelings and attitudes of the ladies, in their 20s but wise and experienced beyond their years.  Although the story is fiction, it is one of those historical novels that very well could have happened, and if it did, it would have been exactly as Wein tells it.  She put a ton of effort into making the story as authentic as possible, down to every historical, geographic, and aviation-related detail.  It doesn't scream at you as you read, but once I finished, reflecting on the historicity, I was amazed.

I'm not saying that I will start reading all the YA girls' fiction published by Disney.  But I will be a bit more open-minded about the genre now.  Check out Code Name Verity.  It's a good read.

Thanks to Netgalley and Disney Hyperion for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

No, They Can't, by John Stossel

The title of John Stossel's new book, No, They Can't: Why Government Fails--but Individuals Succeed, sums up Stossel's philosophy and the message of the book succinctly.  If you have seen his work on television (the "Give Me a Break" segments on 20/20, his one-hour specials on ABC, and, most recently, his show on Fox Business), you won't be surprised to hear that he is in favor of smaller government, free markets, and individual liberty.  In short, he is a libertarian.
Stossel's 20/20 segments were a breath of fresh air,
but he became too libertarian for them; they showed him the door.

No, They Can't reads like a series of his pieces on T.V.  As he addresses a particular issue, Stossel presents both anecdotal evidence and the research and opinions of experts to describe and defend the libertarian position.  The chapters cover policy areas you might expect from any book on public policy, such as health care, education, environmentalism, and the war on drugs.  I particularly like a device he uses throughout the book to shift to a new idea within the chapter, a statement of "What intuition tempts us to believe," versus "What reality taught me."  For example, intuition: "Disabled people need governmental protection."  Reality: "Such protection hurts the disabled."  Like a segment of his T.V. show, each section boils down an idea to its essence, giving a brief but solid defense.

If there is a weakness here, it is that: he doesn't leave a lot of space for the full development of an argument, much less a complete rebuttal.  But that's not his intention.  He does include plenty of references to get you started with your own rebuttal, or to do your own reading to confirm his point.  I think he accomplishes what he set out to do, that is to provide an alternative to Obama's "Yes, we can" attitude.  When Obama and his followers say "Yes, we can!" what they're really is saying is "Yes, the government can."  Stossel demonstrates the futility and destructiveness of relying on government for solutions to the needs of society.

It may be bad form to give away the ending of a book, but I do love the way Stossel closes No, They Can't.  "There is nothing that government can do that we cannot do better as free individuals--and as groups of individuals, working together voluntarily, not at the point of a gun or under threat of a fine.  Without big government, our possibilities are limitless."  A good word that I wish would be heeded by politicians in both major parties (but I'm not holding my breath!).

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Disabled God, by Nancy Eiesland

In order to shape a theology of disability, one need not necessarily be disabled, but it's hard to imagine that anyone without a disability would be able to have the insight that Nancy Eiesland had. Through her book The Disabled God as well as many other writings, Eiesland, who suffered from a congenital bone defect, became a preeminent spokes-theologian for people with disabilities.  She died in 2009 (see this obituary in the New York Times).

In The Disabled God Eiesland draws on the disability rights movement as part of the larger civil rights movement, on liberation theology, and on the experiences of people with disabilities, including herself, to suggest a view of God who not only loves but identifies with people with disabilities.  Unfortunately, the church has not always been a place of welcome for them.  Part of the problem, Eiesland points out, lies in biblical and theological views of disability.  In the Old Testament, is someone was "blind or lame . . . a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes," he was prohibited from offering sacrifices in the Temple.  Eiesland offers modern examples of churches preventing people from entering the clergy because of their disabilities.  In the New Testament, the message is mixed: disabilities are variously seen as signs of sin or judgment, an opportunity for God to show his power, a matter of "virtuous suffering," or an object of charity.  These attitudes have led to "marginalization and discrimination" in the church.

Eiesland offers a concrete example of institutionalized discrimination in the church.  The American Lutheran Church adopted a document which "wholeheartedly embraced the concerns of persons with disabilities and encouraged systemic change."  Yet, a short time later, the same denomination barred "people with 'significant' physical or mental handicaps" from ministry.  The more powerful stories are the personal experiences, such as those of Diane DeVries, who was born "without lower limbs, and with above-elbow upper extremity stumps."  When she sought to sing in the choir at church, the pastor refused, primarily for aesthetic reasons.  When Eiesland went to one church, she was told that she "need not go forward for the Eucharist."  Rather, she "would be offered the sacrament at [her] seat when everyone else had been served."  So for her receiving the Eucharist "was transformed . . . from a corporate to a solitary experience; from a sacralization of Christ's broken body to a stigmatization of my disabled body."

The important point here is the response of church leadership:
Rather than focusing on the congregation's practices that excluded my body and asking, "How do we alter the bodily practice of the Eucharist in order that this individual and others with disabilities would have full access to the ordinary practices of the church?" the decision makers would center the (unstated) problem on my disabled body, asking, "How should we accommodate this person with a disability in our practice of Eucharist?"
The difference here is subtle, but crucial.

The central argument of the book, that God showed himself as disabled, is not as strong, in my opinion, as Eiesland would have wanted.  She points out that when Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, he still bore the holes in his hands, feet, and side.  His body was broken, incomplete, not whole; he was disabled.  By appearing this way, Eiesland argues that Jesus "repudiates the conception of disability as a consequence of individual sin."  He "alters the taboo of physical avoidance of disability."  This is liberating for people with disabilities, giving them hope and reminding them "than even our nonconventional bodies . . . are worth the living."

Eiesland's book serves as a thoughtful reminder to church leaders who don't give a second thought to giving a place to people with disabilities in their congregation.  Most churches are reactive; if someone with a disability shows up, they will try to accommodate him or her.  But how much better and more reflective of God's intent if we fostered a spirit of worship in which people of all abilities would feel welcome?

She also challenges me, as an able-bodied reader, to reconsider my view of what human perfection and completion is.  I have always imagined that in heaven, our bodily ills would disappear: the blind will see, the lame will walk, etc.  But Eiesland would call on us to "reject the image of the 'perfect body' as an oppressive myth."  Eiesland is who she is because of her disability; in the N.Y. Times piece cited above, she states that without her disability, she would "be absolutely unknown to my self and perhaps to God."  The psalmist reminds me that God "formed my inmost parts, [he] knit me together in my mother's womb. . . . I am fearfully and wonderfully made. . . . My frame was not hidden from [him]."  That holds true for all of us, whether "temporarily able-bodied" or disabled.  Jesus, as the disabled God, affirms and connects to all people, disabled or not.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Kill Shot, by Vince Flynn

If I had lost a loved one on 9/11 or some other terrorist attack, I would love Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp character.  After losing his girlfriend in the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing, Rapp's life takes a turn toward revenge.  In last year's American Assassin, Rapp goes through his training in an elite, off-the-books hit squad, and takes part in his first mission.  In Flynn's latest, Kill Shot, Rapp continues to knock off the terrorists on his list, exacting revenge with every kill.
Mitch Rapp is a figment of Vince Flynn's imagination.
Rapp's victim is the Libyan oil minister, a key player in terrorist circles.  He enters the minister's hotel suite, gets a clean kill, but then is ambushed by a hit squad.  Realizing he's walked into a trap, he takes out four of the gunmen and escapes; the gunmen's leader survives.  Knowing that somehow he's been betrayed by someone in his inner circle, he strikes out on his own, refusing to follow protocol and check in with his handlers.  His enemies in the unit decide he's gone rogue and that Rapp needs to be taken out, leading to a confrontation which not everyone will survive.

True to form, Flynn has written a tight, fast-paced thriller, using an economy of words and just enough suspense to make you want to keep reading to the end.  In my case, listening to the book on CD, I frequently had to force myself to turn off the car, putting of the story until my next car trip.

It's easy to cheer for Rapp.  He's driven by a pure desire for revenge, and gets his revenge through cold-blooded, calculated killing.  I was reminded of Arnold Schwarzenegger's line in True Lies, when his wife, finding out for the first time that he's a secret agent, asks if he's ever killed anyone. "Yeah, but they were all bad."  Rapp only kills the bad guys.  In fact, he's torn up with guilt when he is indirectly responsible for the death of an innocent man.  But for all the ostensibly justified killing, I'm forced to think about the kind of worldview in which targeted assassination is the norm.  In Flynn's world, Rapp is a one-man Seal Team 6, taking out the terrorists before they can plot any more attacks on innocent targets.  In the real world, I'm not comfortable with a code of revenge.

Moral quandaries aside, Flynn's books make for an exciting read.  Movies are in the works, too; I'll line up for a ticket.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Accused, by Mark Gimenez

I recently re-read Mark Gimenez's terrific debut novel, The Color of Law, quickly followed by the sequel,  Accused.  I don't know if sequel really is the right word; it's a completely new story with the same main characters in a new setting.  In between these two, he published 3 other great novels, then returns to the characters of The Color of Law.  Clearly his writing continues to improve, in style and substance.

In The Color of Law, one of Scott Finney's many troubles is that his pretty young wife ran off with the golf pro from their country club.  Accused opens with Mrs. Finney waking up with her golf pro boyfriend, now a millionaire PGA star, stabbed to death in their bed.  She calls the best lawyer she knows, Scott, to defend her.

Everything points to her guilt, but Finney refuses to believe that, despite her many faults, she is not a murderer.  He finds plenty of other suspects and plenty of reasons to draw suspicion away from his wife.  In doing so, he peels back layers of pro sports, the community of Galveston, judicial politics, and other realms, showing the dirtier undersides that some would love to keep covered.

As with all of his books, Gimenez conveys a genuine sense of place.  With Accused, he returns to his hometown of Galveston.  After reading this I felt like I could find my way around town and recognize the landmarks.  While he does present many of Galveston's charms, I suspect he made some of his former neighbors a bit uncomfortable with some of his unflattering descriptions.

Gimenez builds the plot well, following Finney's path as he grows the list of suspects, hoping that he can find the one who committed the murder so his daughter won't have to grow up visiting Mom in jail.  There are plenty of twits and turns as suspects come and go.  The final, brilliant twist made me laugh out loud! (But I dare not reveal it here. . . .)  Accused is a great mystery story with a great ending.  Highly recommended!

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Color of Law, by Mark Gimenez

Long time followers of the Reading Glutton will recall that in 2010 I reviewed a couple of novels by Mark Gimenez, a lawyer-turned-author who lives right here in the Fort Worth area.  I recently re-read his first book, The Color of Law, which I first saw reviewed in Texas Monthly when it was released in 2005.

As I noted in my other reviews (here and here), Gimenez falls solidly in the same legal fiction genre as John Grisham, but he tells a much better story than Grisham.  I like Grisham (see my recent review of Grisham's latest here).  I read all his books and will likely continue to do so as he churns them out.  But they are not as satisfying and substantial as Gimenez's.

The Color of Law, Gimenez's debut novel, set the standard for his later works.  Here we meet A. Scott Finney, a lawyer in high-powered Dallas law firm, making big bucks representing Dallas's big bucks clients.  He grew up poor, but was a football star at exclusive Highland Park High School and posh S.M.U.  Remembered for his on-the-field heroics, he has managed to become a part of the establishment he always looked up to: he has the Highland Park mansion, trophy wife, expensive sports car, club memberships, the whole bit.

All of this perfection begins to fall apart when he is appointed to defend--I know this sounds a little over the top--a black prostitute accused of murdering the son of a Highland Park denizen.  Of course, the prostitute turns out to be a great mom in spite of her circumstances, and the victim is a spoiled, good-for-nothing playboy whose powerful father, a U.S. senator, is a favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, and Finney goes through a rapid conversion from a rich lawyer driven by money to a lawyer with integrity, driven by justice.

Maybe there is some stereotyping here, and maybe the morality is a little bit too black and white, but none of that stops Gimenez from telling a richly satisfying story.  Highly recommended!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Necessity of an Enemy, by Ron Carpenter, Jr.

You gotta love a title like this: The Necessity of an Enemy.  Ron Carpenter, Jr., pastor of Redemption World Outreach Center in South Carolina, says to welcome the enemies in your life.  He takes this seemingly contradictory idea and runs with it, stretching it out to book length.  I really do like the idea of the book, but it seemed like he was trying to extend a sermon to be long enough to justify a book.

Here's the central theme: "enemies are indicators, announcements, clues, that there's something great inside you yet to be born."  David faced his enemy, Goliath, and went on to greater glory.  Moses faced Pharaoh, leading to his leading the Israelites out of Egypt.  Jesus faced Satan in the desert, subsequently launching his ministry.  The appearance of the enemy in these cases indicated a new, greater stage of ministry than they had before.  The enemy could be internal, or it could be opposition or oppression from outside.  The greater the opposition, the greater the opportunity to grow, learn, and be more powerfully used by God.
Hello, my name is Ron.

Throughout the book Carpenter weaves an account of his own experience, in which he and his church got bilked by a scam artist who ran off with over a million dollars of his church members' money.  He was excoriated by the press, shunned in the community, and rejected by many in his own church.  He writes that the whole ugly, painful situation gave him a great opportunity to learn, to correct his own priorities, and to expand his ministry.

All things to work together for the good of those who trust God, and in our trials and tribulations we are refined and perfected.  While the message is on target, Carpenter manages to dilute it with his disjointed exposition and his Joel Osteen-like self-help tone.  While Carpenter is, apparently, seen around the world on TBN, I have never seen his show or heard of him; I would be interested to know whether his teachings tend toward the prosperity Gospel, or are more theologically and biblically sound.  Based on this book, I suspect the former.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for this complimentary review copy.

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