Friday, August 29, 2014

Kids Gone Wild, by Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle

I have 3 kids, ages 15, 13, and 12.  So don't you think I'm a little bit interested in protecting them from the insidious influences that surround them?  But wait, what's really out there?  In Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex, Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle examine the much-publicized trends of sex bracelets, rainbow parties, and sexting.  Their bottom line: these media-driven artificial crazes should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Playing on the fears of parents of teens, who assume the worst and are easily convinced that kids these days are much more sexual active than prior generations, the media takes isolated stories, runs a few uncritical "news" stories, and creates an artificial crisis.  Best and Bogle review media coverage, which becomes news stories reporting on news stories, repeating each other without adding to the body of information.  They also review social media and other internet sources to determine attitudes and occurrences of teen sexual behavior.  Despite the breathless, titillating news reports, Best and Bogle conclude that although there may be isolated examples of kids participating in sexual behavior due to the sex bracelet game and rainbow parties, there is no basis to believe that it is as widespread as the media hype would suggest.

The media has more basis for reporting on sexting.  However, the media would have adults believe that every teen with a smart phone is sexting.  Again, the media reports what other media reports, repeating the same stories again and again.  They couple "the most extreme examples to statistics indicating that sexting was widespread" creating a misleading picture.  Although it is a problem when teens do it, "the problem of teen sexting was not nearly as dire as the media's portrayal suggested."

When you think about the implications of these so-called teen sex trends, it makes sense that they are overblown.  Do they happen?  Sure.  Teens are interested in sex, and sometimes act on their interest.  Does the media help by airing these stories?  Yeah, they give ideas to kids, creating self-fulfilling trends.  Yet, as Best and Bogle demonstrate, many demographic studies show that kids today are no more sexually active than teens in the past, perhaps less so.

Their arguments ring true, although their writing is unnecessarily repetitive and their tendency to dismiss a concern about teen sex as completely unwarranted.  Parents should not be sucked into the hype about these supposed trends, but that doesn't mean they should not be concerned, as parents of teens of every generation ought to be, about their teens' sexual knowledge and activities.  I do like their admonition for parents not to assume the worst about their kids: "The younger generation deserves better than how we talk about them."

Kids Gone Wild is more about analyzing media coverage of sexual trends than it is about being a parent of a teen.  I'm glad to know that these trends are not as widespread as the media would have us believe. No matter how widespread they might be, I am no less convinced that I have a tough job as a parent hoping and praying that my kids will reach adulthood with their innocence, morality, and virginity intact.

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chimpanzee, by Darin Bradley

It's the New Depression.  The economy is in the tank.  What is an unemployed PhD in rhetoric to do?  Well, go to work for the Homeland Renewal Project, of course.  And if he can't pay off his student loans, he'll have to go to "Repossession Therapy" and surrender the knowledge that he has yet to pay for.  This is the near-future America that Darin Bradley creates in Chimpanzee.

Benjamin Cade dutifully reports for his homeland renewal assignments, and doesn't fail to attend his repossession therapy sessions.  But seeking a teaching outlet, he decides to start giving free lectures at a public plaza.  His following grows, and soon he finds himself swept up in an underground counterculture that he was only dimly aware existed.

Bradley's future America is believable, if a little exaggerated, developing current trends of a shrinking middle class and subsequent government expansion in social welfare.  He takes the lessons of the Great Depression and portrays an America that has forgotten said lessons.  I was reminded throughout of Chuck Palahniuk's fiction, only more coherent and with less of a twist at the end.  Chimpanzee is much more enjoyable to read than Palahniuk, and it does have a nice twist, but ultimately it's not as satisfying as some of Palahniuk's endings.  Also, I haven't seen 12 Monkeys in a while, but the underground movement in Chimpanzee reminded me of that movie, and not just because of the monkey imagery.

Bradley develops the action from Cade's lectures, interspersing academic lectures with action and political commentary. The result is interesting, intelligent fiction, sort of sic-fi-ish.  I enjoyed Chimpanzee somewhat, but I wouldn't call it an absolute page turner.

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

Optical Illusions, by Gianni Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber

I remember loving these optical illusions books as a kid.  Gianni Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber have teamed up again in Optical Illusions: An Eye-Popping Extravaganza of Visual Tricks.  Many of these are fresh takes on classic illusions.  Some are wholly original, like this one:
Sarcone and Waeber classify the illusions in several chapters, and leave the explanations or solutions for the back of the book.  Some of these I didn't quite get until after reading the solutions.  I appreciated their explanations, especially as they discussed how the eye and brain analyze color and adjust for what we expect to see.  You will be tempted to return to these, with a straight edge, a ruler, and other means to help your brain make sense of what you think you are seeing.  Optical Illusions is a very interesting diversion.

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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Conjugal Union, by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George

Hardly a week goes by that same-sex marriage (SSM) doesn't make the news.  Unfortunately, Christians have done a poor job of holding up traditional marriage as society's norm.  As public opinion sways in favor of approval of SSM, Christians will soon find themselves in the minority as they defend traditional marriage.  To answer this lack, Patrick Lee and Robert P. George have written Conjugal Union: What Marriage is and Why It Matters.  This is not a book about SSM.  This is a book about marriage, an explanation of why marriage is, by definition, the union of one man and one woman.

Over the last couple of generations, marriage and sex have been coarsened and cheapened.  For many, sex has become "just a fun thing to do, without serious meaning or consequences." And with the rise of "no-fault divorce," divorce has become cheaper and easier and thus more common.  Both authors are conservative Catholics, and surely that perspective colors their thinking, but they argue from reason and natural law; they "do not presuppose here any revealed source of truth."

Their argument is carefully explained.  Their reasoning took me back to my years as a philosophy major.  The crux is this: "sexual intercourse is a unitary action in which the male and female complete one another and become biologically one, a single organism with respect to this function." Same-sex partners, "whatever the intensity of their emotional bond . . . cannot marry, simply because they cannot form together the kind of union marriage is."  The good of the marital union is violated in any "nonmarital sexual acts" because they "involve . . . a depersonalization of the bodily, sexual person."

When the state gets involved in defining marriage, the state is attempting to redefine it as "emotional connection, the exchange of sexual pleasure, and shared housekeeping," thus "abolishing marriage and replacing it with some other sort of arrangement--sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership to which the label 'marriage' is then reassigned."  Denying a same-sex couple the right to marry doesn't even make sense: "If Jones and Smith are denied a license to do X, their right was violated only if what they proposed to do really was X. The right or liberty to marry is fundamental, but it is a right to marry, not a right to the state's declaration that one's sexual relationship--which may be of various contours--is marriage."

I think Lee and George make an excellent case. The very definition of marriage is at stake.  A sophisticated defender of SSM would have a hard time poking holes in the logic and conclusions of their arguments.  Some may, however, object to some of their premises, thus rejecting their conclusions.    All in all, Conjugal Union is a valuable resource for those who want a thoughtful, logical, non-theological defense of traditional marriage.

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Undistorted God, by Ray Waddle

Read this book slowly.  Ray Waddle takes a breather from the world and reminds us to do the same in Undistorted God: Reclaiming Faith Despite the Cultural Noise.  Not exactly a devotional book, but not exactly a book of essays, Waddle's companionable style evokes a discussion with a wise mentor on a long walk.  He is, in fact, a big fan of walking: "Walking is the transportation industry equivalent of writing longhand--a way to slow down  your thoughts."  His text is sometimes scripture, but his text is also the world around him.

Waddle doesn't expound on contentious theological questions.  He doesn't make proclamations on the political hot buttons that Christians often take sides on.  And that makes Undistorted God particularly refreshing.  Waddle and I might disagree on many things politically and theologically.  He's a journalist, an Episcopal, and an Oklahoma Sooner.  I tend to be suspicious of all of those groups (unfairly, of course!).  But Waddle's writing transcends all that, directing the reader to be thoughtful, prayerful, meditative, and reflective.  Take time when taking communion to savor the meaning.  Soak in the canopy of stars or the stained glass at church.  Enjoy the space that worship gives your mind to turn to God.

My personality is very different from Waddle's.  I tend to rush through a book like this, like I rush through most everything else.  Undistorted God deserves to be read slowly, not just because Waddle's writing is worth reading, although it is, but also because God deserves to be pursued patiently and deliberately.  Waddle calls for slowing down, taking "the long view, a consoling sanity, a renewed search for the undistorted God."

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Season of Saturdays, by Michael Weinreb

If you're like Michael Weinreb, the best days of the year are Saturdays watching your favorite college football team play.  If they're not playing that day, watching other college games is a close second.  If it's the off-season, you can watch your favorite games on YouTube, DVR, or even on an old VHS tape.  If you're like Weinreb, some of your best childhood memories are going to a college football stadium, taking in the pageantry, the crowd, and, of course, the game.  If you're like Weinreb, you will really like his new book, Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games.

Weinreb grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, where he became a fan of Penn State.  As he selects, for this book, the 14 games that best encapsulate the key moments in college football history, he tends to lean toward Penn State and Big 10 games.  I won't fault him his bias; he makes a good case for each of the games covered.  Each of them are important games, and most of them had a role in altering the game in key ways.  It's actually a very clever and interesting way to track the history of college football.

As he points out, college football is at a turning point.  The BCS has given way to the playoff.  Paying players--legally--looks to be a real possibility.  Programs are bigger and more professional than ever.  The "haves" (the Power 5 teams) and "have nots" (all the rest), seem to be separating more each year.  Weinreb shows that these trends are not new, although they are coming together in an unprecedented way.

As a true college football fan, Weinreb much prefers Saturday to Sunday.  Even as a child, watching college football in his parents' basement, he began "to buy completely into the irrational faith that college football engenders."  College football is full of underdogs and unpredictable plays: "Sometimes, crazy sh-- happens, . . . and the best team doesn't win at all, and it's bizarre and glorious. . . .  It's not that we're pining for the upset; it's that we're pining for the possibility."  The difference between the NFL and college football is paralleled in the video game world.  Madden's NFL game "is for hyperactive perfectionists, just like the NFL."  EA's NCAA video game "is for sentimental nostalgists who still believe in the flukish potential of the double reverse and the triple option."  It's true that college football has unique pageantry and atmosphere, and the fan base, being made up largely of students and alumni, is more secure and dedicated than that of a professional team.  But Weinreb emphasizes this larger distinction of possibility and unpredictability as that which most sets college football apart.

Weinreb's enthusiasm is infectious, so much so that I can forgive him for his tendency toward hyperbole.  Examples: "Other than the automobile, [the forward pass] was the single most important American invention of the early twentieth century."  After Miami beat Notre Dame 58-7 in 1985, "college football never looked quite the same again."  The end of the 1982 Cal-Stanford game--"The Play"--was "the most unforeseeable single moment in the history of American sports."  The missed field goal run back by Auburn against Alabama last year "is the most holy-sh-- touchdown in the long history of holy-sh-- touchdowns. . . . the most surprising sequence in the history of college football."  I know a lot of sports writers get caught up in the moment and make these sorts of comments.  As he points out, "no sport has repeatedly co-opted the term 'Game of the Century' like college football."

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Season of Saturdays for the reminders of memorable games, bits and pieces of college football history, and the perspective Weinreb brings to the current state of impending change in college football.  Now to hunt down videos of some of these historic matchups on YouTube. . . .

(Baylor fan note: I know that despite their recent success, Baylor's football program does not have the same historical significance as programs like Penn State, USC, and Alabama, so I wasn't surprised that Weinreb didn't feature any Baylor games.  The Bears did make a cameo appearance, however.  It seems Arkansas coach Frank Boyles earned the nickname "Pooch Kick Frank" in the 1960s because of a Baylor game.  Tied 0-0 near the end of the game, Coach Broyles called a pooch kick.  The center snapped the ball over the punter's head and Baylor picked it up and scored a TD, winning the game 7-0.  Sic 'em Bears!)

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Lovesick Skunk, by Joe Hayes, illustrated by Antonio Castro L.

Have you ever had a pair of shoes you couldn't bear to part with?  The little boy in The Lovesick Skunk has a pair of black and white sneakers that he loves wearing, and won't quit wearing them no matter how stinky they get.  His mother banishes them from the house.  Then on a camping trip he and his buddy are awakened by a skunk just outside their tent, showing some amorous interest in the smelly shoes.  After the skunk's attentions, the shoes are too smelly even for this boy to want to wear them.  Maybe he'll try those new sneakers after all.

Joe Hayes writes a nostalgic, amusing tale that timelessly captures little boys' attitudes about their clothes and the world around them.  Who has time to change clothes when there's a whole world to discover?  Antonio Castro L.'s illustrations complement to the story nicely.  It's a good-looking skunk that visits the boys' campsite, and the facial expressions, the boys' and the boy's mother's, are perfect.

The Lovesick Skunk is ideal for an entertaining elementary-age story time.  The story is engaging, and the illustrations are well-done.  Recommended!

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Beating Goliath, by Art Briles

Art Briles's career has been all about beating Goliath--and then becoming Goliath!  In his new book, Beating Goliath: My Story of Football and Faith, Coach Briles, with the able assistance of co-author Dan Yaeger, tells the story of his rise as a Texas high school football coach and as a nationally-recognized top college coach.

Briles and Yaeger cover much of the same territory as last year's book, Looking Up.  The casual football fan will be pleased to know the in Beating Goliath, Briles does not spend much time with game summaries and play-by-play.  Beating Goliath is a much more personal book.

Baylor fans have been ecstatic to see the new prominence Briles has brought to the Bears' football program, included four consecutive bowl games, ten-win seasons, a Heisman trophy winner, and Baylor's first Big 12 Championship.  Our expectations have been raised.  Five years ago, we were excited to be in a bowl game.  Now we'll be sorely disappointed if Baylor is not one of the final four teams in the college playoff.  That's the kind of impact Briles has wherever he goes.

When Coach Briles took over at Stephenville, the football program was in the dumps.  Four state championships later, he left for the college ranks.  When he took over at Houston, the football program was in the dumps.  After taking the Cougars to bowl games in four of his five seasons, he left for a power 5 conference job.  When he took over at Baylor, the football program was in the dumps.  Are you beginning to see a pattern?

Briles doesn't say much about his future at Baylor in Beating Goliath.  He does sing the praises of many college coaches who have successful careers in the NFL.  Briles's goal at Baylor is nothing short of taking the Bears to their first ever national championship.  He has the team and the fans believing that he can do it.  I can only speculate, but I believe that if he can accomplish that feat, he will be hungry for a greater challenge, maybe looking for a Superbowl ring.  I hope he will stick around for a few more conference championships, and that national championship trophy will sure look nice on Baylor's campus.

Beating Goliath is part of the inside story of Baylor's rising from the athletic ashes to become a national power.  We hear a lot from Briles himself, of course.  It's written in a conversational style that captures Briles's tone.  (If there's ever an audio version, Briles must record it, not some actor!).  I was a bit surprised not to hear more about Briles's faith.  I didn't expect it to be 50% football, 50% faith, but it ended up being more like a 95/5 split.  I suspect Briles is not someone who is comfortable with vocal, explicit expressions of his faith, but I don't know.  I simply didn't feel like the book opened much of a window into his personal spiritual life.

Baylor fans will thoroughly enjoy Beating Goliath.  College football fans in general can appreciate the man and what he's done for the game of football and for the programs he has coached, but this is a fan's book.  Coach Briles, as a life-long Baylor fan, I am grateful for your work at Baylor!  May we see you on the sidelines of McLane Stadium for many years to come!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Same-Sex Marriage, by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet

For those of us over the age of 30 or so, the rapid cultural embrace of same-sex marriage (SSM) has been nothing short of stunning.  Approval of SSM would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.  Liberal President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and as a presidential candidate, super-liberal Obama endorsed natural marriage as the legal norm.  Both have reversed course.  The majority of teens and twenty-somethings see no reason not to legalize SSM.  The church, sad to say, is not far behind in accepting SSM, and has not, in most cases, made a convincing case for natural marriage.

Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet present a compassionate, biblical, and distinctively Christian view of SSM in their book, Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God's Design for Marriage.  Both McDowell and Stonestreet have extensive experience communicating a Christian worldview to wide audiences, McDowell in his work in apologetics and university teaching, Stonestreet in his work with Chuck Colson and Eric Metaxas.  Their writing is accessible and well-reasoned.

Readers will not find a judgmental or critical spirit in this book.  Their largest theme is the need for the church to repent and present a better picture of marriage.  "Christians helped same-sex marriage happen," they argue, by neglecting to hold up the uniqueness and intent of natural marriage.  Marriage has been "culturally compromised" and the church has, for the most part, stood by.  Christians must repent of their acceptance of a sexualized culture, including easy divorce, pornography, promiscuity, and premarital sex, all of which are just as far outside of God's plan for marriage as SSM.

Another theme is the importance of showing compassion for homosexuals and defenders of SSM.  There is no room for demonizing those with whom we disagree.  Christians must actively demonstrate that "we are against homosexual acts and same-sex marriage because we are for people.  We say no because God does, and He says no because He offers a much better yes."

McDowell and Stonestreet's description of the cultural shift towards SSM and their challenge to the church to demonstrate an alternate path is worth reading.  I'm not convinced that someone who favors SSM will buy into all they are saying, but this book can certainly be a good starting point for conversation.  Even if you're not an activist, chances are you will be confronted with the issue of SSM by a co-worker, neighbor, family member, or perhaps even a member of your church.  Same-Sex Marriage can be a valuable resource for your own thoughtful response.

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

The New Filmgoer's Guide to God, by Tim Cawkwell

I have noticed a recent trend of sermon series based on movies.  My own pastor preached a series last year titled "God On Film."  I've noticed sermon series at other churches like "God at the Movies" or similar titles.  These sermons take popular movies, show some clips, and draw lessons from them, hopefully with a dose of scripture to back up the lesson.  Tim Cawkwell's book The New Filmgoer's Guide to God is not one of those sermon series.

The basic idea is similar to those well-meaning, seeker-friendly sermons.  But Cawkwell's approach is a bit more esoteric.  The first hint is in the title: it's a guide for "filmgoers" not "moviegoers."  He covers a few movies that achieved some level of popularity, but most of the them are art house and/or foreign films that have reached a very limited audience and that probably did not make it to the local multiplex.

The New Filmgoer's Guide to God is for the filmgoer, and the reader, who wants more from a movie that a couple hours of escapist entertainment.  Cawkwell encourages careful thinking and deep reflection on the movies he introduces.  He unpacks the symbolism, analyzes the style, and probes the theology of a wide array of films.  Whether it's his personal taste or simply the nature of the genre, most of the films he writes about tend toward the dark and brooding.  I had to laugh at his description of one of the films, that I think applies to a great many of the films covered in the book: "If we allow ourselves not to be bored, we are fascinated."  He calls slow scenes with little action and no dialogue "an appeal to us to take time to relish the image, and to ask ourselves what is going to happen."   An extreme example is "a meditative documentary--so meditative it is over five hours long. . . ."  Don't count on finding that one at Redbox.

Although I enjoy the latest superhero summer blockbuster movie as much as the next guy, I have to agree that for the most part in Hollywood "an addiction to speed and 'one d---ed thing after another' has produced a surfeit of violent action and violent explosions, alongside wordy romantic comedies . . . and other kinds of genre cinema."  It doesn't necessarily take a lot of theological skill or depth to find a spiritual lesson in a Superman movie or Transformers, but for Cawkwell the bar is a bit higher.  "To qualify for the description 'religious cinema,' we need some active ingredients: salvation, atonement, faith rewarded, trust in God, the operation of Grace, the healing operation of compassion."  He doesn't bother with Billy Graham films, or the new crop of Christian movies like Facing the Giants.  The movies he discusses arguably take on theological questions with much more depth, not to mention with more cinematic skill.

So Mr. Mega-Church seeker-friendly pastor, you probably won't pick up Cawkwell's book as you prepare for your next "At the Movies" sermon series.  But Christians who want to explore some lesser-known movies that will challenge them to think about their faith will enjoy the book and will be heading to the special order department of the video store to find some of these films.

(One minor note: I would love for Cawkwell to have included an index of movies covered in the text.)

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Movies and TV Top Tens, by Sandy Donavan

Of the making of lists there is no end.  Sandy Donavan puts together a few of her own lists in Movies and TV Top Tens, a book for kids and young teens.  Her list of lists is decidedly short:

  • Highest-earning movies of all time
  • Most watched reality TV shows
  • Youngest Academy Award winners for best actor or actress
  • Highest-paid actors
  • Highest-paid TV personalities

There are not too many surprises here.  The movies have all, except for Titanic, come out in the last decade or so.  Of course higher ticket prices means a fatter bottom line for the movies.  I still don't understand why these lists are based on dollars rather than ticket sales.

Kids won't recognize many of the Best Actress winners or the movies they starred in, but perhaps this list will spur them to seek out some oldies but goodies.  The list of highest paid actors covers 2012-2013, and the dollar amounts are astronomical.  No wonder ticket prices have gone up. . . .  Kids will recognize many of the TV personalities, but likely won't care about the incomes of Judge Judy, Rush Limbaugh (He's a TV personality?  He hasn't had a TV show since the early 1990s, if memory serves. . . .), and Glenn Beck.  (Glenn Beck made $90 million last year! Holy smoke!)

Movies and TV Top Tens is a breezy little book, sure to be popular with kids browsing in the school library or book fair.  The lists are illustrated with lots of pictures of the stars and images from the shows and movies.  The good thing about these lists is the criteria are completely quantifiable, not a matter of opinion.  There are, of course, any number of things Donavan could have chosen to include, but she picked these five.  If the reader wants more lists, she offers some suggestions and points the reader to web sites and books to use as a resource.

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

Friday, August 8, 2014

Romantic Conflict, by Brad Hambrick

Pastor and counselor Brad Hambrick has one big message in his short book Romantic Conflict: Embracing Desires That Bless Not Bruise.  He takes Jesus' words in Luke 9:23-24 and applies them to marriage.  Hambrick writes that "there is no such thing as a good, married Christian who is a bad spouse. . . . A good Christ-follower is, by definition, a good spouse-lover."

Having a successful marriage, and working through inevitable conflicts in marriage, is a function of the extent to which we deny ourselves and follow Jesus.  It is all too easy to focus on finding fulfillment in our spouse and the gift of marriage "rather than in our relationship with God."  We want the abundant life "in the good things he provides for us rather than in the simple and transforming privilege of knowing him." 

Hambrick encourages the reader to "eliminate the life-seeking (but death-creating) patterns we fall into as we serve our overgrown desires."  Rather, we should serve and love our spouses selflessly, and as we do, "you will find that God is fulfilling his promise to you at the same time. . . . You will discover that you have found the "life" (enjoyment) you thought you were sacrificing."

Living a life sold out to following Jesus, and being a husband sold out to selflessly serving my wife, results in full life and a happier marriage.  Simple, yes.  Easy, no.  True, for sure.

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Sign Painter, by Davis Bunn

Davis Bunn's latest novel, The Sign Painter, starts out as a touching story about a homeless mother and her daughter trying to get back on their feet.  Amy Dowell and her daughter have been living on the road for months, since her husband died of cancer and they lost their home to foreclosure.  Through a Florida church's ministry, they find a home, a job, a place to worship, and a circle of friends.  What she did not expect was to get caught up in the investigation of a major drug running operation.

Amy's new home is an apartment in a converted motel owned by the church across the street.  The church itself is in a transitional neighborhood and has made deliberate moves to reach out to the poor and homeless in the community.  Unfortunately, the drug dealers in the neighborhood drug house aren't pleased with the church's interest in their commercial activities, especially when a bunch of retired police and military affiliated with the church start patrolling and bringing the attention of the police to their trade.

Bunn drags Amy right into the mess of the neighborhood, where she quickly becomes a target of the drug gang and a key player in their takedown.  I loved Bunn's portrayal of the church and their outreach ministry.  A faction of the members resist the ministries to the poor, fearing that it will bring more bad elements into the area.  Others argue that the bad elements are there and the church can stem the tide, as they already have been, providing positive change.

Interestingly, the church calls on the services of a retired federal agent to lead their people in a shaking the bushes and thwarting the drug gang's work.  I'm curious how many churches choose a similar strategy, using military and law enforcement techniques to patrol the area around the church.  That's not an evangelism method with which I am familiar.  Nevertheless, it's refreshing to read about a church that is making an impact on their community, even if it is fiction.

I enjoyed the story, enjoyed the description of the church's outreach in their city, and enjoyed the interactions of the characters and their expressions of faith.  The Sign Painter is a quick, entertaining read, but it left me with a feeling that it was rushed, that the characters inadequately developed, the police and military procedures and action seemed superficial, and the criminals were stereotypical.  Most importantly, though, it's a solid plot with a strong faith component.  I recommend it.

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

Monday, August 4, 2014

My Conference Can Beat Your Conference, by Paul Finebaum and Gene Wojciechowski

Is it football season yet? I am counting the days.  If the preseason polls, recruiting reports, and various season forecasts haven't whetted your appetite, pick up Paul Finebaum's My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football.  Fans of SEC teams will love the book for the title alone.  Every other college football fan in the country will hate the book for the title alone.  But trust me, college football fans of all stripes will enjoy Finebaum's writing, even when he makes you want to scream at him.

Finebaum, a sports talk radio host and ESPN contributor, takes the reader through the 2013 football season, focusing primarily on the SEC, but with plenty of reference to other teams and games around the country.  As the title might suggest, he is a big fan of the SEC.  He is convinced that their dominance is here to stay.  Sure, they've won 7 of the last 8 national championship games.  You can't argue with that sort of success.  Finebaum does a nice job of arguing for SEC rule, forever and always and into the future, but I have to think that everything has cycles.  The SEC is hot, and has been for a while, but there is a lot of good college football in the USA.  So while he gives SEC lovers plenty of reason to love, he only adds kindling to the fires of SEC hate that burn in the other conferences.

Why do other conferences hate the SEC?  Envy. Fatigue from seeing them win, win, win.  At the end of 2013, "It was open season on the SEC . . . all because it was too successful. . . . The rest of the country was sort of pulling for Florida State only because FSU had the lone chance to end the SEC's glorious title run.  This is what it's come to."  Even though the SEC lost the 2013 championship game, Finebaum believes they will continue to dominate other conferences.  Auburn's victory over Alabama "ended a dynasty," then the Crimson Tide was humiliated by OU in the Sugar Bowl, but Finebaum believes "the foundation is too strong for Bama not to remain a top-flight program, with or without Saban."  And down the line, he argues that even middle-tier SEC teams are better than the best of other conferences.

As a Texan and a Baylor fan, I was interested in Finebaum's take on Texas A&M.  He writes that "of all the programs in the SEC, I think A&M poses the greatest long-term threat to Alabama's dominance."  They have the recruiting, the fans, the facilities, the money, the buzz, the coach.  I personally don't see it, but Finebaum knows the SEC better than just about anybody.  Maybe he's right.  Speaking of A&M, I think it's interesting that A&M and Missouri, coming off mediocre seasons in the Big 12, entered the SEC as competitors.  A Heisman winner, defeating Alabama, Missouri nearly running the table.  Sounds like Big 12 football might be successful in the SEC to me.

Finebaum is hilarious to read.  I have never heard his radio show (It is widely syndicated, but mostly in Alabama and around SEC country.), but would love to tune in.  He manages to make lots of fans angry.  When he goes to games, he is alternatively adored and cursed.  I didn't feel like cursing him, but I though he might deserve a cream pie in the face.  I enjoyed his self-effacing humor (He says ESPN wanted him on GameDay because "they were looking for a balding, nerdy-looking, middle-aged guy"), his boldness in his predictions and willingness to eat crow when he's wrong, and his unabashed affection for the greatness that is college football.

Even if you don't love the SEC, and even if you don't love Alabama, if you are a fan of college football, you will love My Conference Can Beat Your Conference.  Now to count the days until kickoff. . . .

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

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Remaking the John, by Francesca Davis DiPiazza

If there's one modern convenience we wouldn't want to live without, I think the flush toilet would have to be it.  Sure, we love our refrigerators, TVs, microwaves, computers, cars, but the flush toilet has to rank above all of those.  In fact, as Francesca Davis DiPiazza points out in her new book, Remaking the John: The Invention and Reinvention of the Toilet, indoor facilities are not only convenient, a 2007 survey of doctors concluded that of all medical advances since 1840, "toilets and sewers beat them all.  The sanitary revolution won as the most important leap forward in health since 1840."

DiPiazza covers the history of toilets, or the lack of, beginning with the first indoor toilets in Skara Brae, in present-day Scotland, dating to about 5,000 years ago.  As long as towns were small and most people lived in rural areas, holes in the ground, using water sources such as streams, rivers, and man-made ditches to carry the waste away worked out OK.  But the more populations concentrated in cities, the more the waste accumulated and bred disease.

When addressing the reinvention of the toilet, DiPiazza describes various modern efforts to handle human waste in innovative ways.  The toilets we use today have been basically unchanged for a century or more.  But as populations grow, and water becomes more precious, some inventors are seeking ways to use less water in toilets.  It's a little shocking how many people around the world still don't have access to toilets, using the same kinds of methods that our ancestors used hundreds of years ago.  In order to spread the use of toilets and find new ways for toilets to function, groups like, the World Toilet Organization, and the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge raise funding and cultivate ideas.

Remaking the John is brief, and is written in an accessible style, and, despite the subject matter, does not resort to potty humor.  It can be easily read in one reading period at school, yet covers a lot of ground and offers suggestions for further reading.  Remaking the John would be a perfect addition to any elementary school or junior high library.

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Every Reason to Leave, by Vicki Rose

If ever there was a marriage that shouldn't have made it, it was the marriage of Vicki and Bill Rose.  They married for all the wrong reasons, suffered through drug addiction, workaholism, affairs, and years of contentious separation, but through the grace of God, they reconciled, turned their lives and their marriage over to Jesus, and became examples and mentors to couples everywhere.  In her book Every Reason to Leave: And Why We Chose to Stay Together, Vicki tells the story of their marriage and how through the grace of God they are still married.

Neither Vicki nor Bill grew up in a Christian home.  Both were nominally Jewish, but had little to do with religion of any kind.  They had not been married long when their drug addiction and Bill's constant absence from their home became more than Vicki wanted to tolerate, and she asked Bill to pack his things and leave.  Vicki spent several years as a single mother, for all practical purposes.  During that time, she became a Christian and began praying for Bill's salvation.

The fact that Bill moved back home, reformed his life, and became a devout follower of Jesus is nothing short of a miracle and an example of the power of prayer.  Every Reason to Leave is not a marriage manual, but by their example Vicki and Bill demonstrated that no conflict or offense is too big for a committed married couple to overcome.

Vicki's keys to a healthy marriage may not fit your typical model, but they get to the heart of the matter.   When struggling in marriage, Vicki writes, "I want to encourage you to do the following: seek God, bathe yourself in His Word, hold fast to his promises, and pray according to his will." Too often couples try their own efforts, counseling, or other methods of reconciliation, if anything at all.  But reliance on God, prayer, and God's word will trump all.

Even though the Roses travel the country together speaking about marriage, Vicki acknowledges that they are not perfect and that marriage is not always easy.  They had to fight to salvage their marriage, and "are still in a battle today for our marriage. . . . We fight to keep our marriage strong and to keep Satan from trying to destroy it."

Every Reason to Leave is much more about the Rose's life together than I thought it might be when I picked up the book.  In fact the first 1/4 of the book is quite depressing, as Vicki recounts their lives before they became Christians and reconciled.  But their experiences and the lessons they learned can encourage couples struggling in their marriages to turn to God to help them overcome their differences and seek reconciliation.

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