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.