Monday, June 29, 2015

The Mask, by Taylor Stevens

Taylor Stevens is back with another Vanessa Michael Munroe story, The Mask.  After fighting pirates in Djibouti, Munroe takes off for Japan, for a rendezvous with her old lover Miles Bradford.  He's working a corporate security job there, and she comes to hang out and recover.  Soon she asks Miles to put her to work, wanting to help him with his assignment at the biotech company where he's employed.  He demurs, until he's framed for murder.  Frustrated with his lack of communication before his arrest, Munroe finds a trail he left for her, enabling her to step into his old job, track down who framed Miles, and uncover layers of corruption, theft, and betrayal in the company.

The Mask is certainly a stand-alone novel.  The back story of Miles and Munroe, her inner demons, her upbringing and abusive "training," her language ability, and her knife fetish are all there and familiar to Stevens's readers, but they take a back seat to the plot.  Stevens very effectively piques interest in Munroe's past, enough that readers will want to revisit prior novels, without retelling her story or distracting the reader with lots of flashback scenes.

As usual, Stevens immerses the reader in Munroe's world.  I found her observations of Japanese corporate culture to be very interesting, as well as her descriptions of Japanese street life, home life, and domestic culture.  In terms of the story, the reader is kept as much in the dark as Munroe is.  Slowly Munroe pulls the pieces together, leaving us with a powerful, bloody, justice-serving climax.

This is one of Stevens's best efforts yet, due, in part, to the foundation she has built with the prior novels.  Munroe is well-developed and powerfully written.  I don't know where she will go from here, but I have a feeling I'll enjoy the ride.

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

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Road to Character, by David Brooks

Like the individuals profiled in The Road to Character, David Brooks's book is flawed, but not without its redeeming qualities.  Brooks wants to recover the "eulogy virtues," noting that the "resume virtues," while they tend to be more highly valued in modern culture, tend not to produce "deep satisfaction."  To this end, he profiles a wide variety of individuals.  It's a varied group; I wonder if there's ever been a book to feature St. Augustine, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, and Joe Namath?  As you might expect, if you've read Brooks's other books or New York Times editorials, he is a colorful story teller and brings the subjects to life.

The variety and quality of the individuals about whom Brooks writes is the first problem I have with The Road to Character.  As individual pieces, the biographical essays are okay, but they didn't adhere to one another the way I think Brooks wanted them to.  The result is a loosely assembled structure, not a finely honed argument.  Further, while his subjects demonstrated admirable character traits, too many of them had an overall character that I would not want to emulate (and some that I definitely would reject as an example).  That's part of his point, too.  As he says, "The good news of this book is that it is okay to be flawed, since everyone is." 

There are plenty of bright spots, worthy of reflection, in The Road to Character.  One of my favorites, since it reminded me of something my parents always told me, the third of four children, was "The more you love, the more you can love.  A person who has one child does not love that child less when the second and third child come along. . . . Love expands with use." 

So in spite of writing about some people I didn't end up liking, Brooks's overall project comes through.  Dignity, love, self-control, and, most of all, selflessness are character traits anyone can agree are worthy of pursuing, no matter your cultural or religious preferences.  By focusing on the eulogy virtues--kindess, bravery, honesty, faithfulness--we can build the kind of character that might be written about in a book about character.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Orc Warfare, by Chris Pramas

I have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  I've seen the movies.  I thought I knew all I needed to know about orcs.  Chris Pramas revealed my ignorance in his book Orc Warfare.  Pramas acknowledges J.R.R. Tolkein, author of the aforementioned classics, as the one who "set the template of the orc in modern fantasy."  But since Tolkein, role-playing games, video games, fantasy novels, and movies, have expanded the view of the orc.

Pramas covers the different types of orcs, their characteristics, and their strategies and tactics.  He then relates the tales of some important orc battle victories.  As you might expect, he describes their lifestyles as nomadic, reliant on raiding (and occasionally trading with other orcs) for supplies.  They do have limited skills, like tanning hides, but have not developed metal working, due to their nomadic lifestyle.  They are meat eaters exclusively, so they must move around to hunt or raid settlements.

I would have liked for Pramas to provide some sources for his stories and data.  I'm not Tolkein expert, but much of this material seems to be outside the scope of Tolkein's Middle-Earth.  I wonder if he drew on specific novels or other materials, or if this is original material?  I suspect there is some of both.

Orc Warfare is a fun read that may not satisfy the purist, but Pramas provides enough information here to entertain and expand the reader's view of the orc.  Orc Warfare is not a picture book, but it is generously illustrated, adding to the value of the descriptions.

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

Dream Again, by Isaiah Austin

The recruitment of Isaiah Austin to Baylor was a milestone for the Bears: the highest-ever rated recruit for Baylor basketball.  As a top player out of high school, and a solid performer at Baylor, he was looking at being drafted in the first round of the NBA draft.  Then, days before he was to travel to New York for draft day, he got a positive diagnosis for Marfan syndrome.  He would never play competitive basketball again.

Austin writes of his love of basketball, or, better said, his life of basketball, in Dream Again: A Story of Faith, Courage, and the Tenacity to Overcome.  I was aware of his story in broad strokes, as a Baylor fan.  A friend at work whose son played with Isaiah in high school told me what a great kid he was.  He was of course a big story at Baylor, and won the hearts of Baylor fans with his play (and distinctive glasses).  We loved hearing him tell his story of learning to play while blind in one eye, and not letting the opposition know it! 

Dream Again is deeply personal.  He writes with a sense of opening up his heart and letting the reader into his private thoughts.  I especially enjoyed reading about his parents' faith.  Their faith in God and their faith in their son worked together to give Isaiah a solid foundation.  When he was losing his vision, and ultimately his sight in one eye, Isaiah's mother encouraged him.  "She told me that I had two choices with my vision impairment: I could quit basketball or I could work to overcome my limited vision. 'Isaiah,' she said, 'you only have two choices here: you can make this your excuse . . . or you can make it your story.'"

Make it his story he did.  ESPN did a feature on him, raising his exposure and giving him a platform to inspire many.  Then with the Marfan diagnosis, his mother's advice was even more relevant.  Now it wasn't about learning to play the game he loves differently, it was about learning to live without playing the game at all.  He has remained positive, and says he "learned that God's plan is always about helping people find ways to dream again."

Isaiah is young.  He's got a lot of life to live.  But his story is worth telling now.  I have been impressed with him watching him on the court and in the press.  I was impressed with his kindness when I ran into him with my kids at the mall (I was trying not to be obnoxious. . . . It must be tough being recognized to easily. . . .).  Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin, who wrote the book's forward, was impressed: "I tried to encourage him through that time [after the Marfan diagnosis], but in true Isaiah form, we found that he was too busy encouraging us.  Even with his lifelong dream crashing down around him, Isaiah was focused on others."  Austin's coauthor, seasoned writer Matt Litton, was impressed: "his heart is full of more joy, passion, and genuine faith than any young person I've ever met."  You'll be impressed.  Let Isaiah inspire you to dream again!

Read about Isaiah's foundation here:

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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Elgin Park, by Michael Paul Smith

Michael Paul Smith is a master of models and time travel.  Using models, he travels through time to take pictures from another era.  The effect is truly amazing.  In his new book, Elgin Park: The 1/24th Scale Creation of a Fictitious Mid-20th Century American Town, Smith takes us behind the scenes of his remarkable photographs.

Using his collection of die-cast model cars as the centerpiece of his photographs, Smith sets up scenes that evoke the mid-20th century.  Using his hometown and current home in the Boston area as inspiration, Smith sometimes uses existing buildings, and sometimes builds detailed model buildings.  The trick is trying to decipher which are real and which are models!  He also peppers the scene with detailed miniatures.  Using jewelry parts, found objects, wood cut precisely with an x-acto knife, and other materials, he constructs objects and scenes that fool even a careful eye.

Smith's trademark process is to place the cars and other buildings or objects on a board, set up on a card table, with the rest of the scene in the background a block or so away.  The perspective trick is quite effective.  In Elgin Park, he shows several examples of the final product and the set up, revealing his secret methods.  Looking at the final product, it's hard to believe that it's in miniature.

Even though Smith does not include any people in his shots, every picture tells a story.  In captions, he sets the scene, personalizing each picture.  Elgin Park also includes his lively dialogues with fans who comment on his internet postings.  I love how old-school Smith is.  He does not photoshop his pictures. He makes all the miniatures by hand.  He relies on around-the-house lighting and natural lighting.  He claims not to know much about photography, using the camera's automatic settings ("I literally point and shoot.")  But his wonderful eye and eye-catching details make the shots remarkable and memorable.

Since he takes many of his pictures around his neighborhood, his neighbors have become accustomed to see him.  "I am now seen as the quirky old guy who photographs toys. . . ."  More that just taking pictures of toys, Smith takes the viewer back to an admittedly idealized past, preserving and recalling a slice of life in America.  The pictures are great, and the descriptions of his methods are fascinating.  Elgin Park is a fun, interesting book.

Learn more about Smith at his site:

Lots of photos on Flickr:

The publisher's web site:

His first book (photos without the behind-the-scenes and other additional material):

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

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God, by Jep and Jessica Robertson

If you're a fan of Duck Dynasty, then you know Jep, the youngest Robertson son, and his wife Jessica. In The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God, Jep and Jessica bare their hearts and souls, showing a depth and complexity in their relationship that may not come through on the popular TV show.  Both of them had struggles of different kinds before--and after--they got together.  By telling their stories, they give encouragement to people who have struggled (and I think that includes all of us!).

Jess and Jep tell their stories separately, alternating between overlapping chapters.  They never met until they were out of high school, but when they did, it was love at first sight.  Jep went home and told his roommate that he had just met his future wife!  They were both in need of stability and healing.  Jessica had recently divorced her husband of less than a year.  Jep was coming out of a brief period of drug abuse and rebellion.  Eventually they found each other and, as they write, "a girl from town met a boy from the woods.  And you know what?  They lived happily ever after."

Like the whole Robertson clan, Jep and Jessica are, unsurprisingly, down to earth and honest.  They have learned to deal honestly with each other and figured out how to move on in their mistakes and weaknesses.  They will admit that while they haven't always dealt with their issues the right way in the moment, they have come around to rely on their commitment to each other, and, most importantly, their shared commitment to God.  "We finally put God at the center of our marriage, and He not only restored our love for each other, but he made that love deeper and stronger than ever."  Good words for any married couple, no matter what stage of life they are in!

One thing to note about The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God.  Don't expect too much.  They do write openly and honestly about their struggles, and they do provide encouragement for couples.  However, you won't find here great wisdom, nor will you find exceptional stories or character.  I don't say that to slight them, but the fact is the only reason their story is worth telling is that they are on a popular TV show.  And that's OK.  It's just a reminder of the power of TV.

I know and have met couples who stories are much more dramatic, compelling, and inspiring, but who are unknown people in the pews or the neighborhood.  Their stories will never get in print.  I'm happy for Jep and Jessica that they are in a position to share inspiration with others, but I am reminded to look around my circles and see the good, the bad, and the grace of God in the lives of others I bump into every day.

Fans of Duck Dynasty will definitely want to read The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God.  If you don't know the family through the show, you will definitely get to know them through the book.

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The President's Shadow, by Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has a love of arcane historical information and events.  The President's Shadow, book three of his "The Culper Ring Series," picks up with archivist Beecher White looking for answers about his father's mysterious military career.  Part of the answer seems to be gripped in the hand of a severed arm, dug up by the First Lady in her garden, only steps from the Oval Office. . . .

Meltzer somehow makes the bizarre and improbable sound sort of believable.  His vision of Washington, the presidency, and the Secret Service is filled with secrets, schemes, obsessions, insanity, stealth, and double-dealing.  I know some of that goes on in the highest levels of power, whether in the U.S. government or elsewhere.  But in Meltzers's world it all takes on an air of cartoonish silliness couched in earnest actors and perilous actions.

Lest you think I'm completely slamming The President's Shadow, if you've read the first two Culper Ring books, you won't be a bit surprised by my assessment.  Fans of the first two will enjoy The President's Shadow.  If you haven't read them, you may feel lost from time to time.  From the discovery of the arm in the first pages, through the marginally believable climactic scene on Devil's Island, the reader just has to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Your Legacy, by James Dobson

Everyone leaves a legacy.  James Dobson challenges us to think about what kind of legacy we're going to leave.  In his book Your Legacy: The Greatest Gift, Dobson introduces the reader to his forebears.  Several generations back, Dr. Dobson's great-grandfather began praying for his children and their children to come.  Decades later, we see Dr. Dobson's reach as a Christian teacher and author, his father's work as a pastor and evangelist, and his children's work as authors and speakers.  That legacy has reached millions with the gospel.

Your Legacy is not only about Dobson's family, but also inspires us to look at the legacy our ancestors have left us and act to leave our own legacy.  It's never too early or too late to teach our children about God's love for them and salvation through Jesus.  Your Legacy is full of stories from Dobson's life, other families' lives, and practical, helpful guidelines for interactive with and loving our families.

I was especially reminded to seek every opportunity to talk about Jesus and my own experiences as a Christian, and to pray frequently and specifically for and with my kids.  If you've read any of Dobson's books, or listened to him on the radio, you've heard much of this before in one form or another.  But it's still worth picking up and taking his challenge to leave a legacy for your family.

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

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Exit Wounds, by Jim Lommasson

General Sherman famously said, "War is hell."  But as one Iraq War veteran says, "Coming home from war is hell."  His story is one of fifty told in Jim Lammasson's book Exit Wounds: Soldiers' Stories--Life after Iraq and Afghanistan.  As the title might suggest, the largest focus of Exit Wounds is PTSD and other post-war maladies (mental, social, physical).  Most of the fifty soldiers chosen are also solidly in the "anti-war war veteran" camp.  Several have been involved in anti-war organizations and protests.

Many of the voices in Exit Wounds are completely disillusioned about war, and specifically about the role of the United States in conflicts around the world.  Fighting for freedom?  Not when they "incarcerated people [in Iraq] for printing anti-American propaganda."  This soldier goes on to say, "We need to understand that the U.S. government is the biggest source of terrorism in the entire world and it has been for a long time. . . . The fact that anyone in the military has fought for an honorable cause is a complete fallacy.  It hasn't happened in a long f------ time."

Another soldier calls the military "state-sponsored terrorism" and criticizing "the nauseating freak show that is puffed-up, chicken hawk patriotism."  One Marine believes in the Marine code of "honor, courage, and commitment," but is critical of the United States's "colonial conquest."  He says, "The most honorable and courageous act you can do is to lay down your arms and refuse to fight."

Not all are embittered and cynical.  Many want civilians to remember the role of the military and are proud to serve.  "I make going to war for your freedom a duty that I will die for. . . . I make myself get out of bed at 3 a.m. to risk my life to preserve your freedom.  Today I might make the ultimate sacrifice to save your life."  Pro- and anti-war vets are often proud of their service, however they may feel about war.  "I'm honored to be a U.S. Marine, always."

The portraits of the soldiers, typically in civilian clothes and everyday settings, remind the reader that soldiers are regular people who have chosen to serve.  Reading the stories of these fifty soldiers will encourage empathy with returning soldiers.  Have never served in the armed forces, I need to read perspectives and gain some understanding of the complex issues soldiers face when returning home from combat.  They serve on behalf of all of us; we owe it to them not to ignore, neglect, or forget them after their service is over.

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

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Quiet Revolution, by Jay Hein

Jay Hein has had a front row seat to a quiet revolution in the United States.  Having served as George W. Bush's director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Hein participated in one of Bush's trademark ideas: charitable choice, the idea that private charity can and should be funded on an equal footing with government programs.  In The Quiet Revolution: An Active Faith That Transforms Lives and Communities, Hein tells the story of charitable choice, gives examples of private charity in action, and argues the case for this modern partnership between church and state.

The challenge of The Quiet Revolution is this: there are thousands of organizations around the U.S. doing great work for the poor, as well as serving other groups in our communities.  These organizations are staffed by millions of volunteers, dedicated employees, and talented directors.  Reading Hein's stories forced me to reflect on what I am doing on behalf of my neighbors and community.

My biggest problem with Hein's argument is this: he spends little time (maybe none at all, but I may have missed it. . . .) analyzing the potential impact of government funding on religious and other non-governmental organizations.  He celebrates the fact that effective charitable organizations qualify for government grants.  I wonder, though, if the fact that they have taken government money would inhibit the very qualities that make them effective.  Once an organization long dependent on local donors, grants from foundations, and creative fund raising turns toward dependency on the decisions of  Washington bureaucrats, the culture and priorities of the organization will inevitably begin to change.

What I can whole-heartedly agree with is Hein's call for more emphasis on private charity.  He points out that "people, not bureaucracies, solve problems."  Washington culture's focus on bureaucratic solutions neglects the role of private, community-based efforts in every corner of the nation.  He may be right that "President Bush's faith-based initiative and larger compassion agenda proves that government can be a catalyst for solving some of society's biggest human needs," but I remain just as suspicious of government choosing one charity over another as I am about government choosing one business over another in corporate welfare.

I especially appreciated Hein's larger point.  This revolution is quiet.  Bush isn't given enough credit for it.  The small armies of compassion are noticed from time to time, but the larger impact tends to be overlooked by political pundits and the press.  Hein does a great service by pointing them out and encouraging all of us to be a part.

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Baptists in America, by Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins

From outcasts and outsiders, to power brokers and insiders, Baptists in America have run the gamut.  Baptist historians Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins have described that gamut in Baptists in America: A History.  From the pre-colonial era right up to the 21st century, Kidd and Hankins examine the character, theology, and role of Baptists in American history.

The first half of the history of Baptists in America made me proud to call myself a Baptist.  We all know that many of the early colonists came to America for religious freedom.  What is often forgotten is that some of them only wanted freedom for their own kind; Baptists were excluded from enjoying that freedom.  Some New England Baptists wondered "whether their liberties were safer under the king of England than under colonial authorities."  Baptists were imprisoned, beaten, and forbidden from meeting.  They were compelled to pay taxes to support state churches.  Yet as the colonies won their independence from England, the Baptists' insistence on religious liberty won the day.

Other parts of the history of Baptists in America gave me mixed feelings about being a Southern Baptist.  In the growing nation, slavery became a more and more contested issue.  Southern Baptists eventually split off from their northern brethren.  They unconscionably defended slavery using scripture.  They believed that slavery was sometimes an occasion for sin, but that the institution itself was OK.  In spite of this terrible oversight (not exclusive to Baptists, of course), the Southern Baptists retained a more Orthodox theological position, in contrast to their counterparts up north, who succumbed to the liberal influences of the Social Gospel and higher criticism.

The final portion of Baptists in America reminded my why I no longer attend a Southern Baptist church.  Mirroring the earlier conflicts over higher criticism, Southern Baptists in the late 20th century began narrowing the definition of Baptist, and actively excluding those who did not fit the bill.  Kidd and Hankins give a nice summary history of this period of Southern Baptist life, but I felt like they were too kind to the movement.  The witch hunt mentality, the outright lies that were told, the careers that were derailed, not the mention the institutions that were weakened and the personal relationships that were destroyed, all set in motion a further dissembling and weakening of the Southern Baptist Convention.  This controversy led, in part, to my departure from the SBC, as well as many other Baptists.

I wish they would have covered a parallel controversy, which also played a role in many Baptists' departure for other churches.  I found it interesting that, according to Kidd and Hankins, some of the early Baptist movements in America were accompanied by signs and wonders and spiritual manifestations.  At some point along the way, however, Baptists became cessationists, claiming that manifestation gifts (tongues, healing, words of knowledge) were only practiced during the apostolic age and are no longer valid.  About the same time the witch hunt for "liberals" was in force in the SBC, a charismatic movement was sweeping through American denominations, including Baptists.  While a few churches embraced the movement, the Convention as a whole rejected it, calling home (firing) missionaries and other denominational workers who were reputed to be exercising these gifts.  I wondered what Kidd and Hankins might say about this, but it wasn't addressed.  (Perhaps my personal experience has inflated in my mind the importance of this expression of Baptist life!)

Kidd and Hankins's overall theme is compelling.  Baptists have, in just a few hundred years, progressed from being a tiny, persecuted minority, to being a huge, diverse, and powerful force in the global church and in American life as a whole.  Yet at the heart of Baptist life is a feeling of outsider status.  While few Baptists hold to the Landmarkian belief that only their little strain of Baptists are true Christians, Baptists tend stubbornly to believe their way is the right way (as evidenced by the countless schisms among Baptists as they disagree about what the right way really is).

I enjoyed Kidd and Hankins's readable, engaging history.  Baptists in America follows the contours of Baptist life, and is chock full of anecdote after anecdote of the activities of our Baptist forebears.  I had some seminars with Hankins as student at Baylor and remember well the passion for engaging his subject; that passion comes through in Baptists in America.  (I don't know Kidd, but I suspect he shares Hankins's passion and engagement.)

Kidd and Hankins conclude that there is little that defines what a Baptist is, other than "evangelism and schism." They write, "Historically, a Baptist church is a local body of baptized believers who come together and call themselves Baptist."  I would think that many churches (like my own) who have eschewed denominational labels would trace their roots to Baptist denominations and would still be included in the Baptist family.  Even though the word Baptist is nowhere found on my church sign, and even though my church doesn't participate in any Baptist denominational life, Kidd and Hankins have reminded me that perhaps I am still a Baptist after all.

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Mark Twain's Guide to Diet, Exercise, Beauty, Fashion, Investment, Romance, Health and Happiness, by Mark Dawidziak

Surely there's no greater example of great American literature that the writings of Mark Twain.  Mark Dawidziak has culled through Twain's opus and put the pieces together to concoct Mark Twain's Guide to Diet, Exercise, Beauty, Fashion, Investment, Romance, Health and Happiness.  Drawing from his books, speeches, letters, interviews, and various other sources, Dawidziak compiles examples of Twain's trademark wit and wisdom.

On one level, Mark Twain's Guide seems like the product of someone's running key word searches on Twain's collected works and putting the results into book form.  But that's really OK.  The selections are apt, nicely organized, and each chapter includes an appropriately witty introduction.  If you're a reader of Twain, you'll find some expected favorites.  If you're only slightly acquainted with Twain's work, you'll find quotes from books you've never heard of.  Some of the best quotes are from speeches and letters, which may not have been seen frequently before.

Some of Twain's advice is terrific: "The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up."

Some is contrarian: "The lack of money is the root of all evil."

Some is cheeky: "Suppose you were an idiot.  And suppose you were a member of Congress.  But I repeat myself."

And some just sums it all up: "Let us endeavor to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."

Whatever your previous exposure to Twain, Mark Twain's Guide is sure to point you back to your favorites or to explore some of his writing you haven't explored before.

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

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Wizzywig, by Ed Piskor

If you were a teenager or older when the first PCs came out for home use, you might get a kick out of the graphic novel Wizzywig.  I never had the brains, resources, or patience to get into the world of hacking.  The closest I came was seeing Matthew Broderick hacking away on War Games.  Ed Piskor's (autobiographical??) hero Kevin Phenicle, aka Boingthump, is living the hacker dream, exploring (and abusing) the limits of hacker culture.

He rigs electronics, pirates games, and sets a computer virus on the loose.  Piskor captures the culture of the 70s and the growing subculture of hackers and BBS users (that's bulletin board system users).  Many of them were punks, up to no good.  But, frankly, we owe much about the way we work and communicate to the trails these guys (almost inevitably guys) blazed for us.  Wizzywig might be a walk down memory lane for computer nerds, but it's a history lesson for everyone else.

Just a harmless, annoying little virus. . . .

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

Friday, June 5, 2015

What Works, by Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas has been a conservative voice of reason and insight in culture and politics for many years.  His new book, What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America, presents material from some of his columns and speeches, as well as new material, in plans for what works in our changing world.

That Thomas is a conservative will surprise no one who has read his columns (much less anyone who remembers that he was vice president of the Moral Majority).  There is probably very little that he and Rush Limbaugh would find to disagree on.  But as entertaining as Rush and other conservative radio commentators are, Thomas brings a level of logic and good will that sets him apart.

Thomas has little patience for over-reliance on government for social policy, especially with regard to poverty relief.  He writes that government has been come a first resource rather than a last resort.  Contrary to a welfare state mentality, "real compassion consists not in endless government checks but in helping those less fortunate become 'unpoor' by moving them away from government dependence."

In another section, I enjoyed his take on criminal justice.  (Here he breaks from the typical "tough on crime" red-meat conservative.)  He calls for "alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, nondangerous offenders" which "have a better chance of transforming lives."  He emphasizes restitution to victims and rehabilitation for criminals.  He makes a strong case and makes me wish some of this thinking could be put into practice right now.

So if you're wondering what works to solve problems of the economy, health care, crime, family issues, and governance, Cal Thomas has some good answers.  He's frank, principled, and well-grounded.  We can only hope that someone in Washington is listening.

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Riding the Bus with My Sister, by Rachel Simon

I first encountered Rachel Simon in her powerful novel The Story of Beautiful Girl.  As great as that story is, real life can be even better.  In Riding the Bus with My Sister: A True-Life Journey, Rachel introduces her sister, Beth.  Beth is Rachel's younger sister, by less than a year.  She lives alone in an apartment in a nearby city.  She doesn't have a job, but spends all day riding the city buses around town.  And she is intellectually disabled.

Rachel spends a year going to Beth's town to ride the bus with her.  She discovers the community Beth has found--and built--among the bus drivers and other bus riders.  Through flash-backs to their childhood, interactions with others, and their love/bickering (in other words, sisterly, relationship), Rachel learns much about her sister and herself.

While Riding the Bus with My Sister is a personal memoir, dwelling on these sisters' relationship, it ends up being much more.  It's not a handbook for dealing with adults with disabilities, but it covers much that such a handbook would cover.  Dealing with finances, making provision for communication and emergencies, maintaining health and grooming, teaching about relationships and, well, reproductive choices, all factor in to Rachel and Beth's story.  I appreciated Beth's take on her jobs at sheltered workshops.  Putting bolts in a baggie?  She didn't want any of that!  Parents and siblings of individuals with disabilities would do well to start with Riding the Bus if they have questions about what the future may hold.

Don't get me wrong, their story is very entertaining and, at times moving.  But once the glow of the story is over, the lasting questions linger--what will I do when my little girl is a grown up?  Will she want to live independently?  Have a job?  Ride the bus?  I hope I have the grace and wisdom to release and support my daughter the way Beth's family has.

Monday, June 1, 2015

F, by Daniel Kehlmann

F is a strange little novel by German author Daniel Kehlmann.  After a hypnotist suggests/convinces/coerces Arthur Friedland to pursue his dream of writing, he leaves his family, disappearing.  His three sons don't hear from him for years.  One grows up to be a priest who is an atheist.  One has an investment firm specializing in pyramid schemes.  One is an art dealer who builds a mediocre artist's reputation on forgery and manipulation.  Their three stories intersect and blend, while their father, now a famous writer, lurks in and out of their lives.

I enjoyed their stories on a certain level, for the questions pondered by Kehlmann.  To what extent can a priest effectively minister if he himself does not believe in God?  Is there ever a point at which pleasing one's customer takes precedence over strict adherence to bookkeeping and market regulations?  Who are the arbiters of beauty and the determinants of value in the art world?  In a sense, the questions are easy, and the three brothers are all scoundrels.  But Kehlmann gives them each enough complexity and sympathy that the questions are at least interesting.

I didn't find anything to hate in F, but I didn't find much to love.  In spite of the somewhat interesting lives of the three brothers, and the way Kehlmann interwove their days, there wasn't enough her for me to really like the novel.  F will appeal to a certain sort of reader, but I'm not really one of them.

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