Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Invincible: 2012 Baylor Lady Bears, NCAA Champions

Never in the history of college basketball has there been a season like the Baylor Lady Bears' 2012 season.  They went 40-0, winning a national championship and leaving no question in anyone's mind who was the best women's college basketball team in the country.  It was a season Baylor fans will remember for a long time, but just to jog your memory a bit, Invincible captures the season in book form.

Invincible includes a summary and stats from every game, profiles of all the players and coaches, and, of course, tons of great pictures.  I know Kim Mulkey will continue to put together great teams, and I am confident that we will see more conference and national championships, but I don't know that we'll ever have a team or a season to equal this one.  What fun, what memories, and what a great year to be a Baylor fan!  Every Baylor fan will enjoy having this book and reliving the season, game by game.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Exodus Towers, by Jason Hough

A few weeks ago, I posted a review of The Darwin Elevator, the first book in Jason Hough's Dire Earth Sequence.  As I noted then, I think it's pretty cool that he is releasing this trilogy in rapid succession.  Book 2, The Exodus Towers, picks up where The Darwin Elevator left off.  Hough continues the hard-hitting action, brings the aliens more into the picture, and presents a whole new set of human conflicts.

In a follow-up alien event, a second space elevator appears in South America.  Skyler and a few others separate from the Darwin Elevator to establish a new colony.  Soon they face a rogue band of immunes, who try to take over the colony.  Then a new form of subhuman, enhanced by alien technology, shows itself.  Facing these new foes and trying to figure out how the human race can survive adequately occupy the time of the Exodus colony.

Meanwhile, back in Darwin, the Jacobites, a religious cult, have taken over the whole place, first through wily political maneuvering, then by force.  Skyler and company are working against the clock, knowing the Jacobite's desire to control both elevators, and knowing that there are more alien events coming, in quicker succession than the last one.

In terms of forecasting technological and societal developments, an important part of any sci-fi, Hough makes a couple of interesting points, both of which play into the story.  First, I noticed that in Hough's future earth, technology as a whole didn't seem adequately advanced for a setting 250 years in the future.  The main reason for this is that Moore's Law, which predicts exponential growth of processing power, proves to have its limits, and processing power plateaus.  Second, China outpaces the West, leaving Western Europe and the U.S. in their economic dust.  Why?  Chine embraced nuclear power, developing safer, more powerful, and longer lasting forms of it, so that "while Europe and America struggled to attach a solar panel to every roof and burned every last drop of oil, China and the developing world suddenly had no energy problem to speak of."  Soon, "Europe was still in catch-up mode, America was a distant memory."

There are a couple of spots where the story drags or skips without a lot of explanation, and some convenient plot elements thrown in, but, hey, it's fiction.  Altogether this is an exciting page turner, and the story adds to the epic feel of the Dire Earth sequence.  And the great news: only 4 short weeks until book 3, The Plague Forge, is released!

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

Friday, August 23, 2013

This Beautiful Mess, by Rick McKinley

Among the many mysteries of knowing and following Jesus is the question of the kingdom of God, his "already and not yet" reign.  In his own pastoral, insightful way, Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon, explores our understanding of living in the kingdom in This Beautiful Mess: Practicing the Presence of the Kingdom of God.

You can't talk about the kingdom without talking theology, but McKinley makes it clear that his goal is not to write a systematic theology of the kingdom.  I like his comparison of systematic theology to grammar.  "Theology, especially the systematic kind, becomes more helpful when you think of it as grammar." Grammar is a tool, which helps us to read and write, but does not communicate understanding or beauty.  In fact, as in the case of some poetry, understanding and beauty are enhanced by the breaking of grammar rules.  In the same way, McKinley argues that rather than limit himself to hard and fast theological rules, Jesus used a theological framework but that his teaching "gave us a multifaceted picture that is full of shape and contour and texture and tension and beauty and mess," a picture of the kingdom that is to be lived, not defined.

The strength of McKinley's book, which was first published in 2006 and updated for this 2013 edition, is the stories of his unique church in Portland.  On the one hand, they are passionate about serving Jesus by being a transformative presence in their community.  Their impact, at least from what we read here, has been and continues to be far-reaching.  On the other hand, McKinley seems to be one of those pastors who says, "The church has gotten so much wrong, and is so far off track, that we need to jettison every tradition and start from scratch." I am struck by the arrogance of this attitude.  To be fair, I have never been to McKinley's church, and am making assumptions based on this book, but it seems there are times at which he and his church value novelty over tradition, experience over truth, and feeling over scripture.

One quick example: several times each year, the church has outdoor Worship Learning Experiences, where they "lead people in an experience of creation that draws them to worship the King and celebrate their connection to His kingdom." One day a group cleared out some vines on a hillside and planted some trees.  One of the leaders "pointed around the circle at the muddy knees, sweaty brows, and scratched arms.  'This is the gospel,' he said."  I have to say, respectfully, that is not the gospel.  It's a nice sentiment, I guess, but I think that sort of view of the gospel cheapens and obscures what the gospel actually is: the good news of Jesus' saving work.  Creation care can be an expression of our experience of the gospel, but planting trees is decidedly not the gospel.

So if you pick up This Beautiful Mess, do so with the expectation of some good stories, some thought-provoking and inspiring nuggets, and the possibility of some insight into life with Jesus.  But be prepared for some sentimentality and iffy theology.  You'll want to look elsewhere for an understanding of the kingdom.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for the complimentary review copy!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Autism on the Farm, by Linda Davis

Parents of individuals with disabilities do not need to be reminded that once their children age out of school programs, finding a place for them can be fraught with challenges.  Where should they live?  Can they or should they have a job?  Will their living arrangements and job situation help them to develop, preserve their dignity, and fulfill them?  Linda Davis, whose son has autism, has grappled with these questions.

In Autism on the Farm: A Story of Triumph, Possiblity, and a Place Called Bittersweet, Davis tells the story of Bittersweet Farms, which since the 1970s has serves autistic individuals with residential and day programs in rural Ohio.  As a working farm, Bittersweet provides, in the words of founder Bettye Ruth Kay, "an opportunity and program for our residents and day students to learn real work skills, become more social beings and control their behavior in the process of doing meaningful work as partners with our staff."

Resisting the stereotype of "funny farm," and resisting the increasingly negative perception of institutions for the disabled, Bittersweet's leadership is committed to serving autistic adults with dignity and integrity.  Autism on the Farm gives an honest account of life at Bittersweet, not a perfect place but an attractive and inspiring alternative for the families of autistic adults.  As Davis points out, since the Olmstead decision in 1999, institutionalization of the disabled has been discouraged, and in some states eliminated.  Farms like Bittersweet struggle not be viewed in the same light as impermissible institutions, and have at times, from the perspectives of funding and policy making, been the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

Davis's interest in Bittersweet Farms is not detached.  She was inspired by Bittersweet to establish the SAGE Crossing Foundation in Massachusetts, which has similar goals.  I believe Davis's goal in writing Autism on the Farm was not only to celebrate the work of Bittersweet, but to draw attention to the rapidly growing need for programs for adults with autism, and to inspire parents of children with disabilities to think ahead about finding, or, as she did, creating programs for their children.  I don't like to think about it, but my 11-year-old daughter is growing fast.  Questions of placement, work, and independent living will arise sooner than I think.  I know she would love a place like Bittersweet.

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

Monday, August 19, 2013

The United States of Paranoia, by Jesse Walker

Jesse Walker, books editor at my favorite magazine, Reason, has written another book of his own.  Readers of Reason will recognize him as a reasonable (pun intended, of course) voice discoursing on popular culture and movements.  In his new book, The United States of Paranoia, Walker examines the  historical American tendency to seek to discover more mysterious or insidious plots and machinations behind events of the day.

Even as far back as colonial times, Americans have credited, or blamed, at different times, enemies above, below, within, and/or without for manipulating the workings of society and history.  While many observers (who may be conspirators themselves [insert evil, hand-wringing laugh here]) "tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames . . .  They're wrong.  The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as the extremes."

With good humor and a broad grasp of history, Walker takes the reader on a tour of conspiracies through American history.  For the most part, his perspective remains that of an outsider, leaving the reader to ask himself how much of any given conspiracy theory is based on truth.  Ultimately, a quote with which he opens the book seems to encapsulate his perspective: "Secret societies have not had power in history, but the notion that secret societies have had power in history has had power in history."

There were points at which I wished he had been more bold in his statements, but for the most part he let the facts speak for themselves.  He also spent more time on the presentation of conspiracy in fiction and film than seemed necessary, but he makes a salient point about people's perception is shaped by suggestive fiction.

A few quibbles aside, Walker's walk in the shadows of history, real or imagined, makes for an interesting read.  In his reading of history, he gives us a framework through which, as we watch the evening news and read the morning paper (OK, as we read the news on the internet), we can ask, what, if any, invisible forces are directing the course of events?

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bad Monkey, Carl Hiaasen

The release of a new novel by Carl Hiaasen is always cause for celebration.  I have to admit, I love every novel he's written.  (His golf book wasn't that great, to me.)  Bad Monkey came at a great time, shortly after I read a new novel by that other funny south Florida columnist.  (I won't name names, but he should stick to his humor columns and leave the humor novels to Hiaasen!)

Bad Monkey, Hiaasen's first adult novel since 2010's Star Island, opens with a honeymooning couple's snagging an unusual catch on their fishing trip in the Florida Keys: a human arm.  We meet Andrew Yancy, who has been demoted from detective to health inspector due to a very public mini-vac attack on his lover's husband.  Yancy, determined to resurrect his career by pursuing the killer of the owner of the wayward arm, gets himself into a convoluted mess that, in his inimitable style, Hiaasen weaves together and ultimately, improbably, sorts out.

Believe it or not, in spite of the very Hiaasen-esque cast of characters, this may be a little more straight that some of his other novels.  Nevertheless, Hiaasen fans won't be disappointed.  Mystery fans with a sense of humor will enjoy Hiaasen's convoluted plotting.  And restaurant inspectors everywhere will find a new hero in Yancy.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Raising Respectful Children in a Disrespectful World, by Jill Rigby

If you're like me, you can use all the help and reminders you can get when it comes to parenting.  And if you're like me, you've read plenty of parenting books and still feel like you will never master the art of raising kids.  Jill Rigby, well-known for her character education curriculum "Manners of the Heart," has updated her 2006 book Raising Respectful Children in a Disrespectful World and has plenty to say to parents of children of all ages.

Rigby does not seem to be any more encouraged today about the level of disrespect in the world today than when she first published this book in  2006.  To be clear, she does not buy into the false respect of the self-esteem strand of education and parenting.  True self-respect is other-centered, and is grounded in parental discipline and guidance.  The task is made more difficult by the fact that whereas in the past, "parents could raise their children with the assurance of support from the culture norms," by contrast "today, parents must raise their children in opposition to the cultural norms."  This includes, of course, media, but extends beyond that to the ways in which people interact.

I should point out that Rigby's emphasis on manners (at least in this book--I have not seen the curriculum her organization produces) is not all about which fork to use and how to address a visiting dignitary.  She writes, "When we teach our children to be well-mannered, we are teaching them to focus on others, and on how others feel and what others need.  Manners help kids to grow up believing it's more about others and less about me."

I appreciated Rigby's tone, her use of scripture (She is clearly a Christian, but the principles she writes about apply to all children.  I would not think a non-Christian would be put off by her message.), and her practical guidelines.  Some readers, especially those who have read a few parenting books, will feel like they've read some of this before, but I think parenting experts as well as newbies will benefit from Rigby's book.

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

Monday, August 12, 2013

Breaking the Line

When the 2013 college football season kicks off in couple weeks (I can't wait!), the players we cheer for are just as likely to be black as white.  According to the NCAA, in 2010 45.1% of Division I football players were white, 45.8% were black.  In the NFL in 2010, 67% of players were black.  For football fans born in the 1960s or later, seeing black players on college or pro teams is not an issue.  But for our parents' generation, color mattered on the playing field, as it did everywhere else.

In Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, Samuel Freedman tells the story of the historic meeting, in 1967, of two storied football programs, when the Grambling Tigers met the Florida A&M Rattlers in the Orange Blossom Classic.  Eddie Robinson, Grambling's legendary coach, had a long-term goal of sending a quarterback to the NFL.  FAMU's Jake Gaither worked for years for the chance to play his team against a white college team.  Both men recognized that until black colleges faced white colleges on the gridiron, and unless black quarterbacks call the signals in the NFL, black colleges and black players would always be considered second rate.

For alumni and fans of Grambling and FAMU, breaking the line will be a walk down memory lane.  Drawing on contemporary accounts, as well as extensive interviews with a huge cast of characters, Freedman recreates the world of 1960s black college football in way that made me wish I were there.  The play-by-play of the games (he lists game film in the bibliography) have the potential to bog down the narrative, but Freedman artfully works the games into the broader story.

And the story is much broader than football.  The experiences of the players and coaches during this tumultuous time in our nation's history demonstrate the bravery and dedication it took for these men simply to live their lives and pursue excellence in the classroom and on the field.  As they heard from their coaches, parents, and teachers, they had to be twice as good to succeed in a white world.  I came away from the book with a renewed admiration for black Americans who struggled to live peacefully during the Civil Rights era, and an appreciation for the impossibly fine line they had to tread between cooperation with white establishment and advocacy for black advancement.  The subtitle may have overstated the importance of the events in the book, but, at the very least, the experiences of these colleges and their football programs are representative of the times.

The irony of the book, and of the Grambling and FAMU football programs, is that the coaches succeeded, all too well.  While racism will likely survive as long as there are mean and evil people, institutional racism is on the wane.  No longer does a talented black athlete have only Grambling, FAMU, or some other black college to play for.  The most talented athletes have their pick, even playing at colleges which were most grievously racist in their admissions policies.  And black quarterbacks, well, as a Baylor fan, I am delighted that RG3 chose to play for Baylor, not a black college.  So now we witness games like the one I went to last fall, where a moderately talented TCU team wiped the turf of their newly remodeled stadium with the Grambling Tigers.  (Grambling's band was better, though!)

Gaither recognized this problem, noting that, in Freedman's words, "integration was the solvent for dissolving every institution black people had created for themselves."  Few would disagree that racial integration has, on the whole, made our country a better place.  But for black people in the United States, the weakening of great black institutions, not least the Grambling and FAMU football programs, has been a tough price to pay.

Whether you are football fan or not, whether you are black, white, or other, Breaking the Line is a terrific read and an enlightening look at race relations in the U.S.  Pick it up.

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

Friday, August 9, 2013

Animals Talking in All Caps, by Justin Valmassoi

Give Justin Valmassoi credit: the title of his book, Animals Talking in All Caps, tells the reader exactly what to expect.  As if that were not enough, the subtitle confirms the title and should remove any doubt from the reader's mind: (It's Just What it Sounds Like)

This is a silly book.  It has silly pictures of animals, with captions (in all caps, of course) quoting the silly things that the silly author imagines the silly animals might be saying.  This silly author has a silly imagination.  If you, too, have a silly sense of humor, you will laugh yourself silly.

(By the way, if you think, like I did, based on the cover, that this would be a fun book to share with your young children, please don't.  That is, unless you and your kids watch movies like The Hangover together.  These animals swear a lot, talk about getting drunk, and some have sick, twisted minds.  This book is Rated R.  Not appropriate for children.)

Spend a few minutes browsing  If you enjoy those few minutes,  you will enjoy the book.  If not, well, then I don't know what to say to you.

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Breaking Fat, by Kevin Wichtendahl

If you're an American, odds are you're carrying around more weight that you want to.  In fact, if you're an American, there are pretty good odds that your are downright obese.  According to the CDC, 1 in 3 U.S. adults are.  Kevin Wichtendahl was one of those, until he made some life changes and lost 120 pounds in 18 months.  In his new book, Breaking Fat: Make Five Decisions and Break the Fat Habit for Good, tells his story and share the principles that helped him lose the weight.

Wichtendahl writes not as a dietician, doctor, or scientist, but as a guy who's been there and has some practical experience that he wants to share.  The book is short and sweet, with practical ideas that anyone can embrace, if they want to.  The biggest obstacle for people wanting to lose weight is mental. Wichtendahl writes that "in order to lose weight and keep it off, I simply had to change my mental relationship with food.  I needed to stop looking at food as a lover, a friend, and as a mind-altering drug.  I needed to realize that food was simply a source of fuel for my body--nothing more and nothing less, and that it was I who had made food out to be so much more in my mind."

Easier said than done, obviously.  But he offers some practical ways to train our minds to think differently about food.  When he started on his path to weight loss, he would visit fast food restaurants, buffets, or the food court at the mall and watch people eat.  Compare the ways that fat people and skinny people eat: size of bites, time spent eating, portion size, whether any food is left uneaten.  His observations gave him, if nothing else, a mental picture of what he did not want to be.

Most of his advice is pretty much common sense, and probably things you have heard before if you have ever thought about losing weight: eat more fiber, fruits and vegetables, don't fill up on sugary drinks and desserts, park a couple rows farther from the door and take the stairs instead of the elevator, leave a bite or two on your plate at every meal.  "The reason you are overweight," Wichtendahl writes, "is because you over eat."

I do wish he would have placed more emphasis on exercise.  His experience dictated that: "I lost over 120 pounds and did not exercise for a single minute."  He does discuss the fact that when we exercise our appetites and body's needs change, so that if we exercise to lose weight, adjust our diets according to the increased activity, then stop exercising but keep those new dietary habits, we gain the weight back.  Plus, he would probably acknowledge that most overweight people are not going to become active exercisers, so he focuses on food habits.

All in all, this is a practical, non-technical guide book for people seeking to lose some weight.  There's no magic bullet, no secret plan, just steps and changes anyone can do to lose some pounds.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, August 5, 2013

RG3, by David Sheinin

There is no question that during his time at Baylor, Robert Griffin III brought Baylor football to a higher level than it had been for decades.  Not since the end of the Grant Teaff era had Baylor fans had much reason to celebrate.  Now, with three consecutive winning seasons, recruiting on the upswing, a new stadium being built, and better and deeper talent than ever, Baylor football looks like it's here to stay.

Could it have happened without RG3?  Maybe.  But probably not.  His talent on the football field was backed by his leadership of the team, his charisma on campus and in front of the camera, and his inspiring back story.  He was the right man at the right time to turn the Baylor program around.  Now Washington Redskins fans have put their hope in RG3 to turn their team around.

This is the story that David Sheinin tells in his new book, RG3: The Promise.  For Baylor fans, RG3's influence continues, but his work is done in Waco.  For Redskins fans, "the promise" describes their outlook for Griffin.  In his rookie season, he won rookie of the year honors while leading Washington to their first playoff berth in years.  But, as Sheinin reminds us with excruciating detail, RG3's knee hobbled their playoff run.  The question is, will the knee be the downfall of RG3 and the crux of a losing bet by the Redskins' leadership, who traded away future picks for the chance to draft Griffin?

RG3 is definitely a fan's book, bordering on hagiography.  Sheinin, a writer for the Washington Post, compiles press accounts and his own observations, as well as interview material from Griffin's friends and family (unfortunately not much from RG3 himself).  You won't find tell-alls and dirt in this book.  I'm not saying there is any dirt, but if there is, Sheinin didn't go looking for it and/or didn't see fit to write it.  The best parts of the book, for me as a Baylor fan, were the recaps of his key games during his Baylor career.  The most painful parts to read, of course, are the reminders that he is human after all, and that his knee is very vulnerable.

It's too early to say if RG3 is going to live up to his hype.  He certainly did at Baylor.  Sheinin points out that RG3 has won the hearts not only of Redskins fans and Baylor fans, but of football and nonfootball fans alike, all over the country.  For RG3 fans, RG3 is definitely worth a read.

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

Friday, August 2, 2013

Playing with Purpose: Football, by Mike Yorkey

Mike Yorkey, a prolific author who has authored or co-authored dozens of books, has written as series of books discussing the Christian faith of pro athletes.  The newest title in the series, Playing with Purpose: Inside the Lives and Faith of the NFL's Most Intriguing Players--Jared Allen, Colin Kaepernick, Drew Brees, and Others, tells the stories of several NFL stars, some unfamiliar names and some household names.  Yorkey is clearly a guy who loves football, and loves to see guys who love the Lord playing the game.

I enjoyed hearing the back stories of some of these players.  Whether overcoming obstacles in their personal lives or simply living out their faith on a larger-than-average stage, Yorkey reminds us that NFL players are like the rest of us in many ways, living out their faith in a secular world, seeking to find Christian fellowship with co-workers and to be a witness in a workplace full of doubters.

I find it a little hard to feel sorry for the players' having to face such temptations as having to manage the huge piles of cash they earn, and having to fend off the hoards of beautiful women constantly throwing themselves at them.  But the reality is that in that kind of environment, a young man in his 20s playing in the NFL has to have a solid faith and some great support and accountability to remain true to his calling.

Yorkey's writing is straightforward and highly readable.  Playing with Purpose is sure to be a winner especially for young athletes looking for role models.

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

On a personal note, NetGalley originally had the following cover and subtitle posted:
Of course, I was hoping to read a bit about RG3's faith.  I don't know if Yorkey wasn't able to get the interviews he wanted, or if there was some other reason not to include RG3.  It may have something to do with the fact that there are not one but two books on RG3 being published this month.  Whatever the case, RG3 on the cover certainly would have helped Yorkey's sales!