Monday, March 31, 2014

The Women of Duck Commander, by Kay Robertson and her daughters-in-law

There is probably no family in America right now as popular and beloved as the Robertsons of West Monroe, Louisiana.  Their A&E TV show, Duck Dynasty, has set ratings records, and their books and merchandise are everywhere.  Now fans of the show can learn all they ever wanted to know about the lives and loves of Kay and her daughters-in-law.  In The Women of Duck Commander: Surprising Insights from the Women Behind the Beards About What Makes This Family Work, Kay, Korrie, Missy, Jessica, and Lisa tell stories of their childhoods, family histories, courtship, marriage, and lives as Robertson women.

The Robertsons have invited TV cameras into their homes and lives for several years now, putting their lives on display, so it's not surprising that they lay bare so much of their personal lives in this book.  Some of the stories they tell are pretty ugly.  The patriarch, Phil, spent many years early in their marriage as a drunk, and nearly tore apart their marriage and family with his terrible lifestyle.  But Kay was patient, and Phil met Jesus, transforming his life.  One of the daughters-in-law had an affair, but they chose reconciliation over divorce, and their marriage ended up stronger.

That hope and transformation forms the real theme of this book.  Each of them reveal personal stories of some bad choices they and the Robertson men have made, but in every case a commitment to family, a dependence on Jesus, and a hopeful outlook sustained them and redeemed their lives.  Duck Dynasty viewers will learn a side of this family that they might only have seen hints of on the show.  Everyone who picks up The Women of Duck Commander will be inspired by this close-knit family who enjoy each other, love their lives, and show a deep commitment to one another.

I did enjoy getting to know these ladies, but I should make a couple of objective comments, in order to be most helpful to interested readers.  The narrative jumps around among the authors.  Each time the voice changes, it's clearly indicated, but I got a little lost sometimes, having to remind myself who was writing when.  For fans of the show, this will be less of a problem; many fans know the Robertson family tree as well as they know their own!  Similarly, the stories they tell are very personal, but much of what they write would probably be of interest only to fans.

As you might expect from a book tied to a TV show, The Women of Duck Commander is essential reading for fans.  Those who are not familiar with the show will read some amusing and inspiring stories of family life, and good reminders that keeping Jesus first and each other second is a key to strong families.  But for non-fans, reading this would be like reading a whole bunch of Facebook posts from people they don't know.

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

Friday, March 28, 2014

Plastic, Ahoy!, by Patricia Newman and Annie Crawley

Perhaps you have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where plastics that have been dumped off of boats, washed down rivers, or tossed on the beach have gathered in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, author Patricia Newman and photographer Annie Crawley ride along on a scientific expedition whose purpose is to examine the garbage patch and evaluate its effect on sea life.

One thing that may surprise you about what they found is what the garbage patch is not.  If you picture it as a gigantic bundle of bottles and other recognizable plastic refuse floating like an island in the Pacific, you're wrong.  (So, contrary to the story line of this graphic novel, no one will be able to establish a colony on the garbage patch.)  There are, of course, bottles to be found, but for the most part the plastic has been broken down into tiny bits and pieces, suspended a few inches below the surface.

Newman and Crawley describe and illustrate the tasks of several members of the expedition while discussing the patch and its potential importance.  The presentation is quite balance, avoiding the hyperbolic scare tactics one might expect from a children's book about an environmental mess.  But they do make very clear that this patch has the potential to do some serious damage to the ecosystem, even at a distance of thousands of miles from land.

Plastic, Ahoy! doesn't shy away from introducing complex language and ideas, and includes a glossary, bibliography, and suggestions for further reading.  It would be appropriate for older elementary school readers and older.

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

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, by John Boyne

Sometimes the best wisdom and perspective on adult issues is best received from the point of view of a child.  Many know John Boyne's work from the moving story of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which was made into an award-winning film.  In his new book, Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, Boyne tells the story of the home front in London through the eyes of Alfie Summerfield.  He says he remembers the start of the war better than most, since it was on his birthday, and put a damper on the celebration.

The ruined birthday party was only the beginning.  His father signed up and went to the front.  His neighbor and friend, who was born in London and lived all her life down the street from Alfie, but whose father was from Prague, was sent to a relocation camp on the Isle of Man.  His mother worked a double shift at the hospital.  His male teachers went to war, so retired teachers came to fill in.  To help out his mother, who said they are "perilously close to penury," Alfie skipped school several days a week to shine shoes at the train station.

At first, Alfie's father wrote letters from his training camp, then from the front.  Alfie's mother said the letters stopped because his father was on a secret mission.  But Alfie discovered disturbing letters that his mother had hidden, giving a bleaker picture of the war and of his father's state of mind.  When he learns that is father is in a hospital a train ride away from his home, he makes it his mission to bring his father home.

Boyne powerfully communicates the horrors of war, not through graphic descriptions of life and death at the front, although he does touch on that, but through his portrayal of life at home.  It has been 100 years since the outbreak of World War 1, but Boyne reminds us, in a timeless way, of the lessons of that conflict, and the human story of families touched by the terrible finger of war.  This is a book written for young audiences, but, like much great children's literature, deserves to be read by adults as well.

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

Monday, March 24, 2014

Someone Else's Wedding Vows, by Bianca Stone

Disclaimer: I don't read a lot of poetry.  Does that make me unqualified to review a book of poetry?  I don't know.  I see poetry as lyrics without music, a chance to saw something in a way that transcends the limits of prose, and to offer turns of phrase that force the reader to examine the lenses through which he or she reads.  Bianca Stone's new collection of poems, Someone Else's Wedding Vows, does just that, but left me a little flat.

These poems contain snippets of powerful imagery, and snapshots of insight, but didn't congeal into much coherence for me, either individually or as a collection.  I was reminded of a song with a few good riffs but that never really goes anywhere.  Someone Else's Wedding Vows felt a little like someone else's stream of consciousness, or someone else's inside stories to which I am not privy. 

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

Friday, March 21, 2014

Big Fat Beautiful Head, by Stu Heinecke

You may have seen Stu Heinecke's cartoons in the Wall Street Journal.  He's got great insight and wit, and distills some his best in his new book, Big Fat Beautiful Head: A Book of Cartoons by Stu Heinecke.  Each of the 50 cartoons is accompanied by a few sentences of background, explanation, or (sometimes only marginally related) commentary.

The sly humor of his cartoons combined with the personal, political, and economic points of view he reveals in the commentary make me think Stu would be a great guy to shoot the breeze with.  Speaking of breezes, you'll breeze through this book.  But Stu is a marketing guy; he'd probably agree that you should always leave the customer wanting more.  You will definitely want some more laughs from Stu.

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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How to Fight Presidents, by Daniel O'Brien

In case you were wondering what you would do if, by some remarkable coincidence, you manages to travel backwards through time, and, for some reason, found yourself face-to-face with a U.S. president and felt the need to fight him, well, you are in luck.  Daniel O'Brien has your answer.  In How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country, O'Brien examines the strengths and weaknesses of our commanders-in-chief, and gives some tips on how to defeat each.

The first thing to understand is that every president is crazy.  You'd have to be, to want the job.  "The desire to be president is a currently undiagnosed but very specific form of insanity."  With that in mind, O'Brien tells stories from the presidents' lives to show how crazy, how strong, how smart, how headstrong each is.  Although I get the feeling O'Brien did a great deal of historical research, he does play fast and loose with the truth, and his use of hyperbole distracts from the actual facts.

For example, he states that the story of Washington's wooden teeth "isn't technically true.  In truth, it wasn't his teeth, it was his testicles, and it wasn't wood, it was stone-cold steel."  But his stories of the hardships suffered by various presidents, and the strength of body, mind and will to overcome them, are pretty inspiring, even if occasionally padded.

My one disappointment is that he doesn't cover any living presidents.  I would be curious to see how he would treat our wimpy presidents Carter and Obama.  O'Brien seems pretty liberal, so he would probably find some reason to laud them (Carter can swing a hammer, after all).  I'm also disappointed he didn't spend at least a couple of chapters on presidential throw downs.  Reagan versus Ike, Teddy Roosevelt versus Ford, something like that.

All in all, this is a funny book with lots of historical (and, alas, certainly a few pseudo-historical) tidbits.    (By the way, it's funny, but rated-R funny.  Please don't order a bunch of copies for your kid's social studies class.)

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

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Global War on Christians, by John L. Allen, Jr.

American Christians like to talk about the culture wars and the persecutions they suffer.  Every year, especially around Christmas time, we hear about the horrible abuses Christians face, like having a creche removed from a courthouse lawn display, a child forbidden from passing out "Jesus Loves You" pencils at school, or a city council member who is asked not to say "Jesus" in his council meeting invocation.  These are certainly worthy of discussion in our pluralistic society, but John Allen brings light to what can more truly be described as persecution.

In The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution, Allen tells story after story from around the world of Christians killed for their faith, of churches firebombed, of pastors assassinated, of Christian aid workers killed, and on and on.  So the city is prohibiting your church from building that much-needed parking garage because of zoning issues?  At least your church isn't being attacked by gunmen when you meet.  At least you have a church to meet in!

Allen, a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, tends toward coverage of persecution of Catholics, but he certainly includes protestants as well.  In fact, he makes a great point: persecution brings Christians together.  The "ecumenism of the martyrs" causes Christians of all stripes to share common cause; when a church is attacked or a clergyman killed, Christians are inclined to share in their concern no matter what theological differences they might have.

Reading The Global War on Christians is rather overwhelming.  Allen gives page after page of examples of persecution, with names, dates, and places identified, and most within the last 10-15 years. A few of these make the mainstream news, but for the most part, unless they are attached to a larger conflict, they go unnoticed by the rest of the world.  Persecution is a real, persistent problem, and Allen is right to draw our attention to it.  As the back cover of the book says, "It's time to wake up."

One quibble I had with Allen was his attribution of persecuted status to Christians who were killed for apparently non-religious reasons.  When a person of faith opposed a political regime, confronts hostile business interests, or in simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, that didn't seem to me to fit the model of religious persecution.  But Allen points out that persecution is a two-way street; the motives of the persecuted and of the persecutors should be considered.  Perhaps the government couldn't care less what the religious faith of an anti-government activist is, but the activist may be driven by his or her faith to oppose government policies.

I am grateful to be able to practice my faith without government or other opposition.  Allen reminds me and other complacent, comfortable Western Christians to pray for and support our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.

Thanks to Waterbrook/Mutlnomah for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Crazy Stories, Sane God, by John Alan Turner

There are some parts of the Bible that leave even the most committed Christian scratching his head, and that even the most biblically committed preachers avoid.  John Allen Turner is not afraid to take on those Bible stories that everyone else wants to pass over.  In Crazy Stories, Sane God: Lessons from the Most Unexpected Places in the Bible, Turner mines scripture for stories that many may never have heard, or wished they never had heard, and draws important lessons out of them.

As he points out, VeggieTales may not take on incest, prostitution, and forced circumcision.  But the stories Turner covers are in the Bible for a reason.  As he retells the story, he carefully draws a lesson, often in such a way that foreshadows the redemptive work of Jesus.  Turner is a gifted teacher, emphasizing that "these stories are [not] about the people of God. . . . These stories are about the God of the people."

He's refreshingly honest as he talks about his own faith journey.  He writes, "God is the most frustrating being I have ever met in my life.  I used to have this idea that following God would get easier as I got older; I could not have been more wrong."  He goes on: "Following Jesus is not relaxing.  It's the most exhausting, nerve-wracking, nail-biting experience imaginable.  But this is what we are called to do--follow him."

Turner's teaching is solid, even if the line he draws from the story in question to the spiritual application is sometimes a bit shaky.  I also would have liked him to spend a bit more time on the overarching question behind the book: why would God behave that way.  Many of the stories are about people's choices, but many reveal a part of God's character that sometimes seems irreconcilable with the character of God revealed in Jesus.  He touches on the problem of God commanding the Israelites to kill babies, for instance, but his arguments are ultimately lacking.

Overall, Crazy Stories, Sane God is fun to read, insightful, and occasionally challenging.  I would guess that Turner is equally engaging even when he teaches about some of the more run-of-the-mill, more well-known passages in the Bible.

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

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

Given the fact that the promotional quotes and even the cover itself compare Pierce Brown's new book Red Rising to The Hunger Games, it's hard not to read it with that comparison in mind.  Having read The Hunger Games and its sequels, I did try to read Red Rising objectively.  But the comparison is simply too strong.

In Red Rising society is radically stratified, even stronger than India's caste system, and across the solar system, not in one isolated culture.  The story is set on Mars, where Darrow, a member of the Red caste, is swept away by a rebel group and transformed in such a way that he can pass for a Gold, the highest caste.  Due to his natural abilities and brains, as well as his augmentations and trainings, he not only passes for a Gold, but gains acceptance to their highest academy.

But this academy doesn't resemble Oxford or Harvard, where our elite go to train.  It more closely resembles the arena of The Hunger Games.  Rather than kill each other, though, the students are to team up and make war against the other teams.  And, incidentally, quite a few students are killed.  This is the biggest problem I have with Red Rising.  In The Hunger Games, the combatants were taken from the lower classes as fodder for the entertainment of the ruling class.  This has historical precedent in the Roman arena.

But in Red Rising, the ruling class takes the children of their most elite members, and children with the most intellectual and physical promise, and sets them against each other.  Half of them are immediately killed, and many more are killed along the way.  Sure, they have natural selection, and the game is rigged to make sure certain kids have a better chance to live.  I understand, but I have difficulty buying the whole moral premise behind this.

Red Rising is the first of an expected trilogy.  Hopefully Brown will successfully develop Darrow as the leader of a movement to break down class barriers and bring democratic reform.  But so much of Red Rising was taken up with the academy war that it was easy for me (and, in fact, for Darrow) to lose sight of the purpose of it all.

Red Rising is not poorly written.  I especially enjoyed the first portion, before Darrow began his transformation to a Gold.  I probably would have liked it more if I had not read The Hunger Games first.  The battle scenes seemed tiresome, and the overall story was neglected.  In the end, I realized I didn't really care if Darrow won the battle, freed the Reds, or remained a Gold.  Ho hum.

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

Monday, March 10, 2014

The School Revolution, by Ron Paul

Let me preface this review by stating that I am a proponent of home schooling (although I believe that public school can be a good choice for some families) and that I admire Ron Paul.  So when Ron Paul writes a book about education, primarily promoting home schooling, I am sure to be inclined to appreciate it.

Ron Paul is developing a comprehensive curriculum for use by home school students.  In The School Revolution, he provides some of the political and educational foundation for home school.  More than that, though, the educational principles he advocates can apply to students at any school.  Above all, he writes, students must, as early as possible, become self-educators.  The lecture method of instruction was great, when there were no printed books, but in the post-Gutenberg age, there is little call for a teacher to stand in front of a class and lecture.  Even more so, in the internet age, there is so much information, so easily accessible, that students can educate themselves on any topic effectively from their computers.

I am over-simplifying his argument, of course, but he makes a great point.  I thought about my kids, who are in public school.  My oldest is learning Mandarin Chinese from a native speaker.  I know I could never teach him that at home, but surely there are endless resources on the internet, and in our large metro area, plenty of native speakers available for tutoring and conversation.  He is also in band.  By the same token, there are plenty of private lessons available, and home school and community bands in which he could play.

I am confident in my family's decision to enroll our children in public schools, although I do agree with Paul on several points.  Public (and private, for that matter) schools are full of terrible peer influences, mediocre teachers, and absurd standardized testing policies.  But, at the same time, there are opportunities for great friendships and exposure to families from other ethnic and economic groups, some terrific teachers, and programs that will give my kids a head start in college and/or life after high school.

Paul will challenge the dedicated home schooler as well as the committed public school family.  While I won't be pulling my kids out of their great (for now) public schools, he did challenge me to give some thought to how well I am supplementing their education, leading them to be independent thinkers who will be responsible enough to face the challenges of college and adult life.

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

Friday, March 7, 2014

Faith in the Fog, by Jeff Lucas

Jeff Lucas has a realistic approach to doubt: it happens.  Sometimes even the most faithful Christians face times of fog, when faith demands more of us than times of clarity.  In Faith in the Fog, Lucas reflects on the experience of Peter and the other disciples, who, after the death of Jesus, went back to their boats, fishing in the Sea of Galilee.  One foggy morning, a stranger tells them to toss the net to the other side of the boat.  Of course, it turns out to be Jesus, who shares breakfast with them in one of their last meetings with him on earth.

Faith in the Fog took a while for me to get into.  Especially early on, it's part memoir, part rambling faith journey, part Bible study.  The fog did begin to clear, but by the end of the book, I was left thinking, Well, that was pleasant to read, and Lucas has some nice thoughts and keen insights, but what was the point overall?  I concluded that Faith in the Fog is best read with that sort of attitude: a devotional reading journey, not a systematic teaching.

Don't read that as too critical; there really are some good tidbits here.  I especially enjoyed his perspective on experience versus faith.  Sometimes Christians tend to rely on "epic encounters with God," but "discipleship is not just about us craving big moments and major encounters; it involved our slow, sometimes painful growth in the day-in, day-out experiences in the academy called life."  Faith demands "holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods."  Faith is the "miracle of endurance, when we feel little or nothing."

Pick up Faith in the Fog and you will likely see a bit of yourself in Lucas's pondering.  He has a gift for colorfully telling these stories from the Bible, and for drawing their lessons into our lives.

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

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Butler: A Witness to History, by Wil Haygood

I was a little disappointed to learn that the new movie The Butler wasn't actually based on the life of Eugene Allen.  He did serve as a butler in the White House during the course of time portrayed in the movie, but the movie is fiction.  One writer stated that "The Butler has virtually nothing in common with its source material, the life of White House butler Gene Allen, except for the fact that the main character of the film and Allen were both black butlers in the White House."  I was even more disappointed that Wil Haygood's The Butler: A Witness to History isn't a book based on the movie, but a book loosely related to the story of the inspiration for the movie.

In this book, Wil Haygood describes his search for an African-American who had served at the White House over several administrations, in order to interview him or her during the lead up to Barack Obama's election.  He found the perfect candidate in Eugene Allen, and wrote a Washington Post article about him.  Lee Daniels (who, for some odd reason, insists that his name be a part of the title of the movie) read the article and decided to make his movie.

I haven't seen the movie, but I'm sure it's terrific.  I haven't read the article, but I think it should have been included in this book.  The book is quite slime; there would have been plenty of space in which to include the article.  This book recalls the friendship that grew between Haygood and Allen, and tells some snippets of Allen's life before, during, and after his service in the White House.  Then it goes on to talk about black actors and their changing role in cinema, and briefly discusses race policies and views of several presidents under whom Allen served.

There is some interesting material here, but it's haphazardly put together in what is still a rather short and disappointing volume.  This will provide a bit of background to the movie, and to Eugene Allen's story, for the curious, but the movie and Haygood's original article are probably better places to start.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Farnham's Freehold, by Robert Heinlein

When I was growing up, I read pretty much anything Robert A. Heinlein had written.  Of course, most of his great books had been around a few decades by then.  When I was reading Heinlein, he had begun to enter his "dirty old man" stage (late 70s and early 80s).  I think his greatest fiction was the earlier works that are accessible to all ages without the rated-R material of some of his later books.

Farnham's Freehold, first published in 1964, is both a product of the time and a product of Heinlein's great vision.  At the height of the Cold War, Hugh Farnham's concerns about an impending nuclear disaster lead him to build and equip a fallout shelter in his basement.  When bombs start falling, Farnham and his family, along with a friend of Farnham's daughter and a household employee, descend to the shelter and lock up.  Once stillness returns to the world, they find their surroundings completely altered, but somehow familiar.  They learn that they are in the same place, but have been bumped hundreds of years into the future.

The first half of the novel details their adaptations for survival.  Hugh's admirable preparations pay off, and the six of them begin to settle in, making the best of their isolated existence.  But that all changes when human visitors arrive with technologies far advanced of anything they have ever seen.  They learn that in the 2000 years since the war they took shelter from, civilization in the northern hemisphere has fallen apart, and white people exist largely as slaves in a rigidly hierarchical society ruled by blacks.

Heinlein, writing in the midst of the civil rights movement, takes the opportunity to make some observations about race and racism.  Yet the fiercely independent Hugh Farnham isn't willing to accept a life of slavery, no matter the skin color of his captor.  My edition calls Farnham's Freehold "Science Fiction's Most Controversial Novel" right on the front cover.  I suppose Heinlein's views of racial equality were quite a bit more controversial in 1964.  More problematic is the eventual revelation that not only did the black slave owners keep a stable of slaves for sexual purposes, but that some of them ended up on the dinner table.  I can see how that would not go over well with certain readers. . . .

Reading Heinlein is always a delight.  Farnham's Freehold is not one of his best novels, but does exemplify his trademarks: a grand vision of the future, a philosophy of political freedom and individual self-sufficiency, and a story the includes characters to cheer for and villains to hate.  The fact that this is still in print 50 years after its first publication is no mistake.  Heinlein remains one of the great masters of the genre.