Monday, November 30, 2015

J, by Howard Jacobson

I was looking forward to liking Howard Jacobson's J.  From the back cover, I'm told that Jacobson is a Man Booker Prize winner, and a Sunday Times review is quoted, saying J "invites comparison with George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World."  Wow!  Those two books were formative influences to me, so I just knew J would be a hit.

Well, J does invite comparison to those venerable novels, as in "Compared to the classic dystopian novels Brave New World and 1984, J doesn't hold a candle."  Jacobson's writing is unnecessarily obtuse and frustratingly evasive.  Many passages are lengthy, pointless dialogues which reminded me of those stage plays where nothing really happens but boy, do they ever talk a lot!

There's a love story in J.  SOMETHING HAPPENED IF IT HAPPENED.  What HAPPENED?  Some kind of genocide, even more successful than Hitler's.  I should probably read this again to get the whole social commentary.  But I don't want to.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for the complimentary review copy!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Alternative Movie Posters II, by Matthew Chojnacki

There is a sub genre of art that many of us see on a regular basis, but might not notice: movie poster art.  I personally never thought of it as a separate genre, but here it is, in Alternative Movie Posters II, Matthew Chojnacki's sequel to Alternative Movie Posters.  Chojnacki has collected, as you might expect, alternative movie posters, and presents them here, along with a bit of commentary from the artists.  The occasions for the posters vary: DVD releases, film festivals, anniversary releases of the movies, or just the artist's whim.  All of them share a love of the movie depicted.

They also share a sort of retro feel.  This wasn't true of every poster, but the overall sense of the book is retro, perhaps reflecting the artists' nostalgia for the films.  Not that all films featured are old.  They range from old to new, mainstream to obscure, American and international, kids' movies to rated R.  Many, like the two posters for A Christmas Story, are very busy, including characters and scenes from the whole movie.  Others, like the descending letters of "gravity" on the poster for Gravity give only the barest hint of the movie.  There are even some that do not name the movie at all, merely showing a character or the hint of a scene.

One thing to keep in mind is that these posters are all (as best as I can tell) after the fact, not intended to promote a movie.  These are tributes to the movies, more than anything.  The images serve as reminders to those who have seen them.  The headless horse on the The Godfather poster, the nesting-doll-like Bill Murray heads on the Groundhog Day poster, the shredded paper on the Argo poster all give hints about the movies, but reveal little about the actual content of the movie.

Some of the posters do fit a more traditional movie poster mold, with the name of the movie, key actors, and perhaps even a catch phrase.  These are the ones that feel the most retro.  In these cases, the art is so good that one wonders why this, or something like it, isn't used for the actual, original poster.  The artists included in Alternative Movie Posters II should have their phones ringing off the wall with calls from studios wanting their art.

Movie lovers will love these clever, cool, funny, inventive, and sometimes lovely posters, and will wonder why these are "alternative" and not the real thing.

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

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Fairy Extraordinary Christmas Story, by A.J. York

Here's a cute Christmas story to get you ready for the Christmas season!  A.J. York's A Fairy Extraordinary Christmas Story focusses on Tallulah, a Christmas tree topper.  After her first Christmas, she is stored in the attic with the other holiday decorations.  When the attic hatch closes, the decorations come to life and build a strong community, encouraging each as the seasons and holidays come and go.

After a few years, some toys arrive in the attic.  The decorations realize this means the kids have grown up.  When the Christmas decorations aren't taken downstairs, all the toys and decorations band together to bring the family together.  It's a sweet, charming story, perfect for younger readers.  Shades of Toy Story, The Velveteen Rabbit, and other children's favorites show up.  A Fairy Extraordinary Christmas will delight and make you smile.

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Daily Devotions for Die-Hard Fans: Baylor Bears, by Ed McMinn

Ed McMinn may not be a Baylor Bear, but Baylor fans will appreciate this Georgia grad's book of devotions.  Daily Devotions for Die-Hard Fans: Baylor Bears includes several months' worth of devotional readings featuring stories about Baylor games, athletes, and coaches.  McMinn, a retired pastor, culled through Art Briles's books, Alan Lefever's History of Baylor Sports, a wide range of newspaper accounts, and other sources to find stories from which the reader can draw inspiration.

McMinn found plenty of stories in recent Baylor memory, but draws on historical stories as well.  Many of the stories will be very familiar to Baylor fans; others will be new to readers.  McMinn starts each two-page devotional with a recommended scripture reading, with an excerpt from the passage.  Then he tells a story from Baylor sports (not limited to football) and applies the story to Christian life, leaving the reader with something to think about as he or she starts the day.

Anyone can enjoy these stories and draw inspiration from them, but Baylor fans will appreciate them most.  For non-Baylor fans, McMinn has written dozens of devotional books focussed on other schools.  

Thanks to Mom and Dad for the gift of this book!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas

I love watching football.  I go to all the Baylor games I can, and catch games on TV that I can't attend.  When Baylor's not playing, there are plenty of college games I'll watch.  I love the long pass plays, the plays where the runner breaks free, the scrambles and miracle catches.  But I also love the tough hits, the flattening of the quarterback, the open-field tackles.  However, as the players get bigger and the game gets faster, these big hits take a toll, more and more.

Dr. Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian doctor, came to the U.S. to pursue the American dream and wound up in the middle of a controversy that shook up the sport of football.  Using first-hand accounts, as well as lengthy passages in Omalu's own voice, Jeanne Marie Laskas tells Omalu's story in Concussion.  Dr. Omalu had never heard of "Iron Mike" Webster before his body arrived in the coroner's office where he worked.  Omalu began studying his brain and the brains of other football players, discovering in the process a brain disorder he labelled chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Needless to say, his findings were not popular with the NFL, whose hired researchers were busy debunking the idea that football leads to brain damage.  Omalu stubbornly continued his research and ultimately changed the landscape of football.  Despite the efforts to improve helmet technology, the movement of the brain inside the skull can't be prevented in a collision.  As the brain is jostled on play after play, damage accumulates and may not manifest itself until years later.

As long as the teams line up every weekend, I and millions of fans will be cheering them on.  Fans, the NFL, college coaches, and coaches and players all the way down to the peewee leagues need to evaluate the way they coach, the way they play, and the extent to which they value the individual player.  I don't see American's giving up on their favorite spectator sport, but the pattern of damage that Omalu exposed cries out for change in the game.

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Take It as a Compliment, by Maria Stoian

Maria Stoian's Take It As a Compliment is, potentially, a very important book.  Hardly a week goes by that we don't hear about some sexual harassment or rape case, often on a college campus.  Whether people are reporting it and talking about it more, or if society has become more flagrant and open about sexual impropriety I don't know.  Stoian has gathered stories from readers of her blog about their experiences as victims of sexual assault or harassment and illustrated them in this book.

One on level, reading these experiences shocks me.  Are there really men who treat women like that? My life has been sheltered.  These women tell stories of being humiliatingly harassed by strangers in public, both verbally and with groping and slaps.  Do some men really think it's OK to put their hands inside a girl's skirt on the subway?  Other stories are about abusive relationships, or encounters with friends and acquaintances who force them to do things they don't want to do.  (Most of the stories are about men mistreating women, but one or two are about women abusing men . . . )

As shocking as the stories are, I found myself questioning the victims as well.  Men are groping you on a crowded subway?  Why not yell at them to stop?  Do you have that little faith in humanity that you believe no one would have a sympathetic ear?  And those abusive relationships--I know they can be complex, but why are women compelled to stick around when a man is beating her or forcing her to do things she doesn't want to do sexually?  And when a boy threatens that if you don't perform a sexual act, he will spread rumors about you, do you really think he won't spread rumors anyway when you do?

This comment by a girl who tells the story of waking in a stranger's bed after getting drunk was particularly telling to me: "Of all the times I've ended up in regrettable sexual situations, the one that will follow me the longest will be the one I remember the least . . ."  All the times??  Is she a slow learner, or what?  After one regrettable sexual situation, wouldn't you learn to stay out of the circumstances and settings that get you into those situations?  Apparently not.  Girls, here's a free tip: don't get so drunk you pass out when you're at a party.  I'm not saying it's OK for a man to touch you when you're passed out, I'm just saying it happens a lot, and you can prevent it.

I know I probably sound like a male chauvinist.  Someone might want to label me a predator, or at least a potential predator.  I'm not.  Guys, treat women with decency.  Treat them like you'd want your mom or sister to be treated.  Be respectful.  No means no.  Don't act like the guys in this book.

I hope readers of Stoian's book will take these stories as she intends them to be taken, as a warning of what might happen, an encouragement not to let these things happen to you, and as a comfort to victims of sexual abuse or harassment that they are not alone.  She ends with an admonition to listen to and support survivors of sexual abuse and harassment, to watch for signs of it happening or potentially happening, and to intervene to protect others before they become victims.  I can get behind that message, for sure!

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Losing Our Religion, by Christel J. Manning

The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is--no religion!  The "Nones" as they have come to be called are growing like crazy.  As a None herself, Christel Manning wondered about a little-discussed part of the lives of Nones, parenting.  In Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising Their Children, Manning asks, How are the Nones passing along their (non)religious views to their children, and what does this mean for the next generation?

Manning points out that the Nones are a diverse and scattered group.  The fact it, they're not a group at all, of course.  This makes coming to conclusions about the Nones difficult, and, unfortunately, leaves Manning's book without a very coherent flow.  She puts forth a good effort, though.  Manning conducted interviews with a wide variety of Nones and drew from a number of sociological studies.  The problem is that Nones defy categorization.  Some are religious believers who don't participate in organized worship.  Others are decidedly non-religious, explicitly atheist or agnostic, and pursue alternative philosophies or world views.  Many simply don't care about religion or non-religion.  Questions of God or theology don't factor into their day-to-day lives.

One strength of Losing Our Religion is the personal interviews.  Manning interviewed a variety of None families, included religious, non-religious, and indifferent families.  Hearing them talk about inculcating values, balancing family traditions with independent thinking, and educational and ethical considerations added richness to what could have been a dry, impersonal treatise.  I was surprised by how little time was spent talking about truth and salvation.  Much of the conversation about religion centered around rituals, milestones like bar mitzvahs, family holiday traditions, and cultural trappings tied to religion.  As an evangelical Christian, rituals and traditions are far less important to me than a relationship with Jesus.  Although Manning did interview some Nones who were former evangelicals, the interviews seemed to skew toward Catholic and Jewish families, for whom religion is more closely tied to culture.

Losing Our Religion made me sad.  As a Christian, I am saddened by the church's failures.  Whether hurt by headline-grabbing scandals, or simply having been let down by weak theology and teaching, when someone leaves church behind, I see a bit of the body of Christ being cut away.  The growing number of Nones makes me sad, too, for the future of our country.  Manning emphasizes that Nones as a rule tend to hold high ethical and moral codes (some more explicitly than others), but I am pessimistic as to what the lack of a moral, traditional, institutional authority will lead to in future generations of Nones.  Nones will find Losing Our Religion interesting, but it should really be a clarion call for pastors and church leaders.   There is a mission field in every city in every state: the Nones and their children.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Year of Living Prayerfully, by Jared Brock

Jared Brock, a twenty-something author and beard enthusiast, took a year to go on a "prayer pilgrimage, for all those who, for whatever reason, can't go on on for themselves."  He sets out on a year-long, globe-trotting adventure, exploring prayer and pray-ers all over the world.  With good humor and a bit of spiritual insight, he chronicles his year in A Year of Living Prayerfully: How a Curious Traveler Met the Pope, Walked on Coals, Danced with Rabbis, and Revived His Prayer Life.

Brock's book is first of all an entertaining travelogue, second, a personal, spiritual memoir, and third, a book on prayer.  If a reader were to pick up A Year of Living Prayerfully with the expectation of deep, detailed, systematic teaching on prayer, he would be sorely disappointed.  Brock writes in such a way that among his funny stories of travel and the interesting people he meets, he sprinkles in things he has learned about prayer, making the lessons learned much more effective and memorable.

As the subtitle says, Brock did meet the Pope, who asked Brock to pray for him.  (If Brock was a fan of Pope Francis before meeting him, he was a die-hard super fan afterwards.)  He didn't get to meet Billy Graham, even after stalking him at his secluded home. . . .  Much the worse for Reverend Graham.  Brock has a skill for meeting folks and finding places.  Well, skill and a fair amount of luck.  Readers will envy the adventures and opportunities he writes about.

Well, what about prayer?  I was most impressed by the fact that after galavanting around the world, he discovered that one of the most important spiritual movements in the last few centuries had its origins, in part, in his own Canadian town.  It made me wonder about the natural impulse to seek the distant and exotic for inspiration, when what we are seeking might be right in our neighborhood.  I can read about prayer warriors from centuries past, but I can probably meet awesome prayer warriors in my own church.  I can visit the site of a famous revival on another continent, but there is probably much to learn about the history of the church in my own town.

One method of prayer Brock picked up along the way is holding someone in the light.  As a Quaker lady described it to Brock, "To hold someone in the light is to picture that person in the light of God's grace. . . . We try not to say anything or add our agenda.  Just by holding people in the light, God can do whatever He needs to do in their lives."  To me that sounds like a beautifully perfect, God-centered means of praying for someone.

I also liked his description of prayer as "hanging out with Dad." Brock laments that most Christians view God in prayer as "a needs-and-wants fulfillment service."  By contrast, he describes a teenager who comes home from school "and flops down on the couch in his dad's study."  He doesn't talk about his day or ask for anything, he "just wants to sit there--to be in his dad's presence."  Sometimes sitting silently in the presence of God is the best kind of prayer.

I don't think I'll be able to take a year off to explore the world and see what I can learn about prayer.  But I enjoyed vicariously living Brock's year of living prayerfully through his book.  He meets some remarkable people, and picked up plenty of practical wisdom about prayer to pass along to us.  No matter what kind of prayer life you currently have, it will be enriched by sharing Brock's experiences.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary review copy!

Monday, November 16, 2015

All Dressed in White, by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke

Mary Higgins Clark, best-selling author of dozens of mystery novels, has recently teamed up with Alafair Burke for a new series, the Under Suspicion novels.  In the second title, All Dressed in White, the titular TV show, Under Suspicion, features the cold case of the Runaway Bride.  Five years ago a wealthy bride-to-be disappeared from the resort where her elaborate destination wedding was to take place in mere hours.  No body ever turned up, but the mother of the bride had never given up searching for her. The groom, on the other hand, married the missing bride's best friend two short years later.

The reality TV show gathers the family and wedding party together at the same resort, revisiting the scene, asking hard questions, and seeking answers that investigators never were able to find.  Clark and Burke cleverly build the story through the show's interviews with the friends and family, and with carefully placed conversations and interactions.  Like any good mystery, they spread the suspicion around liberally, but carefully conceal the identity of the real culprit to the very end.  (If I read more mystery novels, or maybe if I were just more clever and/or devious, I probably would have figured it out earlier.)

I like the way Clark and Burke tell the story.  They include very little action for most of the book.  The story is told through the interviews and investigation.  Building toward the climax, the action climbs exponentially.  I thought of those indoor bike races, where it looks like the races are cruising along easily for most of the race, all keeping a similar pace, until the last little bit where they furiously race to the finish.  All Dressed in White is an entertaining, suspenseful read.  I enjoyed the Under Suspicion characters and would definitely look forward to meeting them again next time Clark and Burke decided to put their minds together.

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Jesus is Born, by Sophie Piper, illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Can there ever be enough Christmas books?  New ones are always welcome, especially when they are as beautifully written and illustrated as Jesus is Born.  Sophie Piper has retold the Christmas story, in its most classic, nativity scene, Christmas pageant glory.  Anne Yvonne Gilbert's illustrations provide the perfect accompaniment, recalling Sunday school lessons and flannel boards from childhood.

Piper's text loosely paraphrases the Bible story, while remaining faithful to the text and original intent.  She captures the heart of the story and reflects the message of Mary and Joseph's faithfulness and the hope our Savior brings.

Jesus is Born is not original, but I mean that in the best way.  Piper and Gilbert capture the spirit of Christmas and point readers young and old to God's best gift, his son Jesus.

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

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Living God and the Fullness of Life, by Jürgen Moltmann

God is alive.  Life in his is full.  Jürgen Moltmann is deep.

Moltmann's new book, The Living God and the Fulness of Life, straddles an awkward space between academic theology and devotional literature.  During my reading, at times my Christian spirit was moved and inspired, at times my academic, philosophical mind was challenged.  Sometimes both at once.

Long a fixture at the University of Tübingen, where he taught systematic theology from 1963 to 1994 (I think I had a couple of professors who studied under him, so I guess I've been indirectly influenced by Moltmann), Moltmann writes from a Reformed, evangelical perspective, but I have a hard time pinning him down within that tradition.

I'm no theological scholar, and certainly have not extensively studied Moltmann's full body of work, but I like the way he seems to challenge core theological positions without wandering into the woods of heterodoxy.  For example, he challenges the idea of God's unchangeable, immovable nature.  "It is impossible to consider God as being unchangeable and immovable without declaring God to be dead.  But the living God is free to move and change."  God can also suffer: "The living God cannot be a God unable to suffer, because God is not a God without relationships."  This idea of God in relationship, in community, is central to Moltmann's understanding of the trinity.  After some of his early writings, Moltmann was criticized as a non-trinitarian.  His discussion of the trinity in The Living God is worth studying, and, I think keeps him well-placed in orthodox, trinitarian theology.

I must admit that I sometimes felt out of my league when reading The Living God, but I think that's a good thing.  It's been too many years since I've read serious theology, too many years of reading popular pastors' sermon series turned into inspirational but light-weight books.  My mind and my spirit need to be challenged by theologians like Moltmann.  I'll close with an apt summary of Motlmann's theme.  "The experience of God will become the experience of being loved and affirmed from all eternity.  That is the fullness of life."  Amen to that, brother Motlmann.

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Fifth Man, by John Olson and Randall Ingermanson

In Oxygen, a crew of four American astronauts overcome peril and hardship to become the first to walk on Mars.  In John Olson and Randall Ingermanson's sequel, The Fifth Man, the crew faces the complexities of life on Mars, made more difficult by sickness, one crew member's madness, and another inexplicable presence.

As they did in Oxygen, Olson and Ingermanson craft a scientifically and logistically plausible sci-fi novel, with more drama and romance than you'll find in most sci-fi stories.  Take that as I stated it: it can be good or bad, depending on your taste.  In my opinion, they overdo the melodrama and romance.  The characters come off as emotionally immature; I wondered what they heck they were doing on a Mars mission.  On the other hand, I've never met an astronaut; perhaps Olson and Ingermanson's characterizations were spot on.  Astronauts are, after all, mere mortals, just like me.  They can be just as subject to romantic feelings, paranoid delusions, and fits of rage or panic as anyone else.

More than the melodrama, I enjoyed the portrayal of the mission.  Olson and Ingermanson do not downplay or overlook the perils of working on Mars.  They write in such a way that I could be convinced that if a Mars mission left today, it might look like their Aries mission.  I'm sure they take liberties--it's fiction, after all--but for a non-professional like me, The Fifth Man is an effective portrayal of what the first Mars mission might look like.  As to the fifth man himself, well, not to give anything away, but they do find life on Mars.  However, it's nothing like a fifth man.  While the mystery of the fifth man is a part of the story, I didn't really picture it as the central part.

The Fifth Man is an enjoyable sci-fi novel, published by a Christian publisher.  Other than a few explorations of faith by the characters and a possible implied theme, there's not much here to call it Christian.  I don't mean that as a criticism at all; it's refreshing to read characters who actually have faith, and who, when in trouble don't use God's name in vain but actually pray for God's help!  I just mention this for Christian readers as well as unbelieving readers: this is not a stereotypical "Billy Graham film" type of novel with a big conversion scene at the end.  It's a legitimate, entertaining sci-fi novel in which some of the characters are Christians.

As a sequel to Oxygen, The Fifth Man could stand alone, but is better read after reading Oxygen.  Both are fast-paced, fun to read, and leave me wondering, Why didn't they make this a trilogy?  Surely there are more stories to tell from this crew.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Transforming Homosexuality, by Denny Burk

An amazing revolution in society and the church has taken place over that last few decades.  Homosexuality, including homosexual marriage, has been normalized and accepted to a degree no one could have anticipated a generation ago.  The church, as a whole, has been slower to accept homosexuality as acceptable behavior than secular society, but condemnation of homosexuality as sin is becoming rarer.

Denny Burk takes Christian talk about homosexuality beyond behavioral and ethical questions.  In Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change, Burk argues that Christian teaching on homosexuality is too focused on behavior, and not focused enough on orientation.  That homosexual behavior is sinful is a given for Burk.  He points out that many churches that still agree that homosexual acts are sinful will grant that homosexual orientation is not, in itself, sinful, and that many who identify as gay choose to live celibate lives but are still homosexual.

Burk takes what I thought was a common, widely accepted view of temptation--that being tempted is not a sin, it's acting on the temptation that is a sin--and turns it around.  He aims to "establish from Scripture that desires for a sinful act are sinful precisely because the desired act is sinful."  He "carefully define[s] same-sex attraction and show[s] from the Bible why it is sinful." I agree with him that the goal of the Christian life is holiness, and that we all have a sin nature.  I'll even buy his assertion that homosexuality is outside of God's design, celibate or not.  But he seems to go way to far in naming temptation or desire itself as sin.

On the plus side, Burk's concern is for those who are tempted by homosexuality.  Churches have approached homosexuality as an ethical question, not as much as a pastoral question.  All Christians are called to pursue purity and holiness.  All sins require repentance.  And all of us can change: "The same power that Jesus had to be restore to life is the same power that Christians have for moral change." What a great reminder.  It's a powerful truth in an otherwise unnecessarily broad understanding of sin.

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

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Santa, Is It Really You? by Marilyn Harkrider, illustrated by Hannah Newsome

Here's one Christmas tradition you may have wondered about.  Most of us sat on Santa's knee at some point, telling him our Christmas wishes.  But how did the practice of people dressed like Santa, greeting children at the mall or in department stores, come about?  Marilyn Harkrider has an idea, and she writes all about it in Santa, Is It Really You?

Years ago, Santa realized that he had become distant from his target audience.  All his time was taken up with his Christmas duties that he never had an opportunity to actually spend time with the children.  So he made it a practice, every Christmas Eve, to wake a child or two and visit.

He craved more time with the children, so at the suggestion of a helpful child, he started showing up at a department store, talking to the children there.  That kept him too busy and away from his duties at the North Pole, so, at the suggestion of that same helpful child, he recruited substitute Santas, who would appear on his behalf and relay the messages from the children to the North Pole.  To this day, those recruits work on his behalf.  But you never know when he might make an appearance himself. . . .

Santa, Is It Really You? is a perfect story for those kids who are on the brink, trying to decide whether or not Santa is real.  Harkrider has the answer to their questions about all the Santas they see during the Christmas season.  Hannah Newsome's illustrations have a simple, classic look, sure to appeal to young readers and listeners.  Harkrider's text is a bit wordy, which may put it out of reach for the toddler audience, but older preschoolers and younger elementary school children will delight in realizing the mystery of the multiple Santas around town at Christmas time.

Thanks to the publisher for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Angel in Aisle 3, by Kevin West

If you're choosing a mentor, what sort of characteristics would you look for?  How about someone professionally accomplished, a leader in his or her church and community, with a great marriage and terrific kids?  Or how about someone who's all but homeless, poorly groomed, jobless, divorced, has little contact with his children, and doesn't smell good?  Most of us would choose the former over the latter.

Kevin West probably would have chosen the same way, but when Don walked into his grocery store, everything changed.  West had recently resigned from his position as a bank executive.  He had participated in some illegal loan practices and was anticipating legal action against him, perhaps even prosecution and jail time.  In the meantime, he spent his days running a small grocery store he had bought as an investment.

Don became a regular fixture at the store, and to Kevin's surprise, he looked forward to Don's visits.  Not only did they become friends, Don became a spiritual mentor and life coach for Kevin.  He had abundant wisdom as well as knowledge of the Bible, which he shared freely with Kevin and others.

Kevin West tells the story of his relationship with Don in Angel in Aisle 3: The True Story of a Mysterious Vagrant, a Convicted Bank Executive, and the Unlikely Friendship that Saved Both Their Lives.  The subtitle says it all.  These two men, whose lives up to the point of their meeting were so different, found common ground in their need for God and for each other's friendship.  The writing's not the greatest.  The recreated dialogue and flat story-telling style left a bit to be desired, but the genuineness of the story trumps any literary shortcomings.

Angel in Aisle 3 is a neat story of friendship.  More importantly, it is a potent reminder to look past appearances and take time to get to know people.  West might have looked at Don's unkempt appearance and closed himself off from a relationship with Don.  Who in my life, in my city, could be a friend and mentor, but who is invisible to me now, or who I might avoid if our paths crossed?  I pray the Lord will open my eyes, as he did for West and Don, to see the friends and mentors he has for me.

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

It's Great Being a Dad, by Jay Payleitner, Brock Griffin, and Carey Casey

It's great being a dad.  That sums up the new book from the National Center for Fathering (, It's Great Being a Dad.  Carey Casey, Jay Payleitner, and Brock Griffin have put together a collection of their essays on fatherhood to help us fathers be more effective in our role.  Covering a wide array of subjects, It's Great Being a Dad has something for every dad to improve as a father and to enjoy his children more.

The good: In their work with NCF, these three writers have gathered anecdotes and academic studies to illustrate their points and encourage fathers at every stage of life.  In 93 short chapters, they have plenty of wisdom to share.  Some of the high points and recurring themes: be intentional, make your kids a priority, pray for your kids, take time for them, be committed.  The chapters can be read in any order, and take just a couple of minutes to read.

The bad: With the bullet-point nature of the 93 chapters of the book, there's not much flow to it.  I suspect these chapters were written as e-mail or newsletter updates, for which they would be perfect.  Gathered into book form, they read like, well, a random collection of e-mail or newsletter updates.  I realize that sounds like a petty criticism, but I read the book cover-to-cover, which is the wrong way to read this book. . . .

In terms of the actual content, I fully endorse the authors' message.  Their advice and encouragement is spot-on.  Each father who reads It's Great Being a Dad will find at least a few essays that hit home.  Almost all of them will ring true with any dad.  I appreciate the NCF and this book, because even though it's great being a dad, it's not always easy being a dad.  It's Great Being a Dad is full of great reminders for me as I try to be the best dad I can be.

Thanks to NetGalley for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

God's Servant Job: A Poem with a Promise, by Douglas Bond

Poor Job.
The story of Job is not one of my favorite books of the Bible.  It raises questions about Satan's role in our lives and God's complicity with which I am not completely comfortable.  The overall message is awesome, but the set up is troubling.  Nevertheless, it's there, in the Bible, and I acknowledge God's sovereignty in including it in the canon of scripture.  Thus I, and my children, need to read it and seek what God has to say for us in it.

Douglas Bond has taken the book of Job and retold it in a poem, with illustrations by Todd Shaffer.  God's Servant Job: A Poem with a Promise faithfully retells the story of Job in kid-friendly verse and cartoonish illustrations.  (I hope that doesn't sound critical.  Shaffer is an animator, and the illustrations look like they're from a cartoon to me.  So I mean that in a good, observational way.)  The pictures reflect biblical-era dress and lifestyle, but in an interesting twist, Satan is more of a modern, steam-punk type character.

Bond's emphasis, and the emphasis that we should take from reading the book of Job itself, is that Job was faithful in the midst of his awful circumstances ("I'll bless you Lord, though, come what may.") and that God is sovereign ("If I guide all without your aid,/ And by My power all things have made,/ Why then my will do you degrade/ And whine that you are underpaid?")

There are spots at which the meter and rhyme are a bit too forced, but this is not uncommon in poems for children such as this.  The sum total is successful, though, in faithfully presenting the story of Job for young ears and eyes.  I need to get over my reluctance to embrace Job.  Bond and Shaffer present the troubling book in the best manner possible.  Perhaps their readers will not share my ambivalence!

Steam-punk Satan

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