Friday, December 30, 2016

Saffire, by Sigmund Brouwer

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the U.S. was involved in one of the greatest engineering projects ever, the construction of the Panama Canal.  In the midst of building, the new nation of Panama was undergoing political and social change, as they adjusted to their independence from Columbia and the strategic importance of the canal being dug through their land.  Sigmund Brouwer sets his novel Saffire in Panama during this time, bringing together the political and social movements while giving a sense of the grandness of the canal project itself.

Saffire centers around James Holt, a rancher from the Dakotahs who is beckoned to Panama to help with an investigation.  An old, trusted friend of President Teddy Roosevelt, Holt makes the trip as a favor, but with no intent to stick around.  Each day that passes draws him in, and two young ladies influence him to stay: one street urchin named Saffire, and one beautiful woman who stirs his soul like it hasn't been stirred in years.

Holt is no professional investigator, just a cowboy with common sense, a curious nature, and a keen, observant eye.  It doesn't take him long to draw the wrong kind of attention; on more than one occasion, his Panamanian friends bail him out.  Brouwer has Holt interact with several actual historical characters, adding to the fun and believability of the story.  He certainly moves around some dates and facts for dramatic purpose, and Saffire is not based on a true story, but Brouwer nicely captures the historical and geographical setting.

Saffire is written by a man, and centers on a strong male lead character, but has the feel of a romance novel written for a female audience.  I don't know if that's totally fair, but despite the political intrigue, Holt's investigative prowess, and a few scenes of peril, it still has a sort of feminine feel.  I don't say this as a criticism, just an observation.

I enjoyed the historical setting and Brouwer's attention to the period.  Credit him for sparking my interest in Panama and the history of the incredible canal.  I also enjoyed the way Brouwer stretched out the story, practicing the slow reveal, and offering details that I thought were extraneous but turned out to have significance.  Altogether, Saffire was enjoyable to read.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Paradime, by Alan Glynn

What would  you do if you ran into someone who looked just like you?  In Alan Glynn's novel Paradime, Danny Lynch spies his doppelganger, a customer at the high-end restaurant where he works. In Danny's case, his double is Teddy Trager, a billionaire venture capitalist.  Danny becomes obsessed with Teddy, following him, dressing like him, and even impersonating him.  Things get really interesting when Danny learns that Teddy had been stalking him in return, and then Danny becomes Teddy. 

The best part of Paradime was early on, when Danny stalks Teddy, treading closer and closer to Teddy's world.  Glynn builds the tension effectively, so that I felt like I was right there with Danny, waiting for the inevitable moment of recognition.  The plot lulls for a bit as Danny adjusts to his life as Teddy, but between his discontent and missing his girlfriend (who thinks he's dead), and the hints of revelations that things are not as they seem, the tension builds again.

Glynn spins a simple yet tightly woven tale that brings into question reality as we know it, and wonder about the people pulling the strings.  Paradime doesn't have a lot of action, like you might expect from a suspense novel, but the dramatic tension is palpable throughout.  Even when nothing is really "happening," Glynn moves the story along in an engaging way. 

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

Monday, December 26, 2016

The End Is Near and It's Going to Be Awesome, by Kevin D. Williamson

Kevin Williamson is calling for an examination of the role of the state and the preferred solutions to social problems.  In The End Is Near and It's Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure, Williamson challenges the role of government and offers  alternatives in several policy areas.

Williamson has a deep skepticism of the state.  He asks why do consumer goods continually get better and cheaper, while things the government touches--education, health care, etc.--get worse and more expensive.  Market forces dictate the lives of corporations, but government is the immortal corporation.  The key difference between corporations and the state is the state's monopoly on violence.  "Governments are in most cases the results of the very thing they promise to protect us against: the arbitrary use of a violent means in the pursuit of narrow self-interested ends. . . . Governments operate in very much the same way that organized-crime syndicates do."

Albert Jay Nock pointed out in 1939 that "the idea that the State originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completely unhistorical.  It originated in conquest and confiscation--that is to say, in crime.  It originated for the purpose of maintaining the division of society into an owning-and-exploiting class and a propertyless dependent class--that is, for a criminal purpose. No state known to history originated in any other manner, or for any other purpose."

If that seems harsh, well, I don't have an argument for you, except agree with Williamson and Nock that it's true.  When you get right down to it, the state will govern by the rule of law backed up with the threat of violence.  When you're a hammer, everything's a nail.  When you're a government, everything is legislateable.  "There is a deeply irrational tendency in democratic societies to believe that passing a law against problem x is the same as solving problem x, when obviously it is not."  Problem?  Pass a law.  And laws, of course, are enforceable by the threat of violence.

Wait a minute, you say, government is needed for the public good.  Who else will take care of the public good.  First of all, not necessarily the government.  "Two dollars out of every three dollars the federal government spends is spent on something that does not come close to meeting the definition of a public good. . . . The federal budget suggests that just over 20% of what the national government does involves the provision of public goods, and the rest involves taking from A and giving to B because politicians want it that way."

Meanwhile, the private sector can and does provide much of the public good, and could do more.  Williamson argues in chapters on social welfare, education, health care, and law enforcement that reducing the role of the state and allowing providers and consumers more input can lead to improved delivery of service and truly improve the public good.

Readers familiar with libertarian political theory will read much that is familiar in The End Is Near.  However, Williamson will appeal to many who are unsatisfied with the ineptitude of government at every level.  For the most part, I found Williamson's descriptions and prescriptions to be spot on.  My biggest complaint about the book: the title has little connection to the content.  It's a forgivable faux pas, and easily blamed on the editor or publisher.  But I prefer a book's title to have a bit more connection to the actual content.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book you borrow

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Adventures of Plonk, by Joan Davies

Joan Davies first published The Adventures of Plonk in 1944.  Her proud daughter has now republished The Adventures of Plonk to be enjoyed by a new generation of readers.  Before I realized the date of original publication, I thought Plonk had a distinctively retro feel.  Now it makes sense.

Plonk is a . . . I don't know what.  It looks sort of like an ant with long legs, but is the size of a horse.  Plonk wanders far from home, has some adventures, including some forced labor and friendship with a gnome and a fairy.  He learns some lessons and makes some friends.

The story is sort of cute, the drawings are sort of weirdly engaging, but as a whole the book didn't do a lot for me.  If Plonk  was part of your childhood, you might pick it up for nostalgic reasons to share with your grandkids.  Otherwise, I'm not sure it will grab you.

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

Friday, December 23, 2016

Star Struck, by David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey

There is a popular perception that science and religion are at odds, that believers in God are anti-scientific.  We can, of course, find religious people who hold anti-scientific views, but if you spend time talking with Christians, as well as with practicing scientists, you will find a large number of Christians who are scientifically knowledgeable and scientists who are practicing Christians.  A great place to start is David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey's Star Struck: Seeing the Creator in the Wonders of the Cosmos.

Bradstreet, who holds a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Pennsylvania, teaches astronomy and physics at Eastern University.  Bradstreet is a theistic creationist, which he describes as meaning that as he studies the heavens, he sees "the work of a divine Creator."  He says that "belief in a Creator God makes more sense than believing that everything happened through impersonal processes of time and chance."  Bradstreet has nothing bad to say about six-day creationists, but he makes it clear that he believes they are wrong about the time frames of creation.

Star Struck is much more than an argument against six-day creationism (that's actually only a passing concern).  Bradstreet's mission, not just in Star Struck but in all of his writing and teaching, is to encourage Christians to broaden their understanding of the physical world and God's majesty expressed in it.  We need to get beyond a "Sunday school comprehension of science" and look to all that is revealed about God's creation in astronomy.

Bradstreet has no doubt that the Bible does not contradict the findings of modern science, and that modern science does not necessitate a non-theistic worldview.  He doesn't talk down to the non-scientist reader, but makes it readable, bringing in scripture and science fiction to relate to the lay reader.  I may never get time on a large telescope to study the heavens and heavenly bodies.  But Bradstreet has encouraged me to take time to "consider all the worlds Thy hand has made . . . to see the stars . . . Thy power throughout the universe displayed . . . and there proclaim, 'My God, how great thou art!'"

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about astronomy

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Si-renity, by Si Robertson

Fans of the TV show Duck Dynasty know and love Uncle Si and his crazy stories.  Like his previous book, Si-cology 1, Si-renity: How I Stay Calm and Keep the Faith combines biographical stories with silly anecdotes and the wise reflections of a seasoned citizen.  The catch is determining the difference between the biographical anecdotes and the tall tales.  Si-renity has a good number of laugh-out-loud moments; he tells some funny stories.  Some of his stories even have a lesson!

How about this for marriage advice: "In India the men don't know their wives until the day they're married.  Let me tell you something: that's the case everywhere in the world, Jack!" Sounds about right to me.  On a more serious note, I like his perspective on giving: "Now, you might be thinking, 'How is giving my money away going to help me?'  First of all, you shouldn't be thinking that way.  You're doing it because it's our Christian duty and it's the right thing to do.  BUt you might be surprised to learn that it can help you in more ways than you can imagine." Amen to that.

Here's what comes through in Si-renity Si Robertson is a man who loves his family, loves the outdoors, and loves his Lord (not necessarily in that order).  He may seem silly and goofy, but Uncle Si seems like a pretty great guy to me.  Sure, Si-renity is not great literature or deep reading, but it's enjoyable to hear some personal words from Uncle Si.

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

Monday, December 19, 2016

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose

I admire and enjoy good writing.  And I've read plenty of books where I thought, "That's just bad."  But recognizing good and bad writing and being able to say why it's good or bad are two very difference levels of reading.  The aptly-named writer Francine Prose has written Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.  Her discussions of character, dialogue, sentences, paragraphs, narration, and other elements of writing encouraged me to read more thoughfully and to evaluate what I read more critically.

As a book on writing should do, Prose provides selections from a wide variety of sources, focusing on literary fiction, to exemplify her points.  At times I thought her analysis got carried away.  When her discussion stretched on for two or three times the length of the passage, she often sounded like she was reading way more into a passage than the author ever thought about.

Prose also likes to talk about rules for writing, then promptly argue that the rules are meant to be broken.  On several occasions, she said, she corrected flaw in her students' work, then realized that Chekhov (her favorite writer) did, in his stories, exactly what she tells her students not to do.  Like any art form, one must learn the rules before one can disdain them.

Speaking of disdain, I wonder if she disdains best-sellnig authors.  Many of the authors she quotes are the kinds of books that most people only read in a college literature class.  I certainly would not say that John Grisham, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy are in the same class as Jane Austen, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway.  But there are reasons that people love to read the former, and many people do not like to read the latter.  Those reasons certainly have to do with refined taste (more people drink Miller Lite than drink gourmet craft beer), but I would like Prose to have applied her criticism to popular authors.  After all, if I'm going to be a writer, I want to write something that people actually want to read!

In my fantasy life, I would be a great writer.  I am certain that will never happen.  With Prose's help I may not become a great writer, but I know I can be a better reader.  Whether reading a Grisham best-seller, a sci-fi space opera, a spy novel, a classic novel, or contemporary literary fiction, Prose's guidance will help me be more reflective.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about writing

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Contemporary Texas Architecture, E. Ashley Rooney

Get your Christmas wish list ready.  Here's a healthy does of house envy!  In Contemporary Texas Architecture, E. Ashley Rooney has assembled a collection of Texas homes that showcase the best examples of recent architectural trends and might make you feel like your house is a little bit (or a lot) dated and shabby.

The examples Rooney selects lean heavily toward angular and boxy, as you might expect, but there is a nice mix of more traditional styling as well.  The book description says the houses "vary in style, scale, budget, and site."  Style: check.  Scale: mostly ranging from big to very big, but there are a few smaller homes thrown in.  Site: city and country, large lots and small.  Budget: I would love to see a price per square foot on some of these houses.  I have a feeling most of these fall into the "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" category.  Even the smaller examples show their pedigree.

And pedigree is really the point of a book like this.  The design innovations the architects featured here use work their way into less expensive homes.  More importantly, each of these builders use a variety of creative ways to economize on energy and water use, land use, natural landscaping, and the use of materials.  Some are more "green" than others, but nearly all of them have features that can be emulated by builders looking to be more environmentally friendly.

Design innovation and thoughtful environmental features make for an interesting book, but the main focus of Contemporary Texas Architecture is the jaw-droppingly impressive homes.  Rooney includes plenty of photographs of each home, emphasizing the beauty of the design, the integration of the design into the site, and, in many cases, the views each design takes advantage of.  You will enjoy some of these houses more than others, but I'm sure there will be many of which you'll say, "Yeah, I could live there!"

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Perfect Pass, by S.C. Gwynne

For kids growing up today, football's pass-happy offenses are natural and expected.  That hasn't always been the case.  As S.C. Gwynne chronicles in The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, the passing game has evolved through a variety of streams, but one man is chiefly responsible for shaping the passing game as it is played today: Hal Mumme.  Called by some the most influential football coach of the modern era, Mumme is not remembered for championships but for the way he re-envisioned the game and has influenced a generation of coaches and players.

From the start, passing was considered a sissy option in a hard-hitting game.  Even as Mumme expanded his game plans to a pass-first offense, he met resistance.  Coaches were slow to pick up his ideas.  He put on coaching clinics where no one showed up, or if they showed up they walked out early.  Eventually his genius was recognized, as he transformed small, previously noncompetitive football programs into record-breaking passing machines.

Gwynne's account is a delightful stroll through recent football history.  Although he sees Mumme as a distinctive genius, he does place Mumme in appropriate context, describing Mumme's use of ideas from BYU's passing attack (especially when he beat BYU as a major underdog, using their own plays against them!), the West Coast offense, and other approaches, shaping those ideas into his own Air Raid offense.  Gwynne makes a strong case that the passing game we see today, especially in the Big 12, but really across college and pro football, owes its nature to Mumme's Air Raid.

Mumme had moments in the limelight, but for the most part is an unknown figure to many football fans.  (Today he's coaching at Bellhaven University, which plays in the NAIA.)  But fans who love where the game has come, with an emphasis on passing and spreading the field, should take a break between games to read The Perfect Pass and pay homage to one of the true geniuses of the game.  The Perfect Pass is essential reading for football history aficionados.

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

CEO, China, by Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown has been covering China as an academic, a diplomat, and a journalist for decades, including many years living in China.  His optimism about the future of China is hard to miss in CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping. Ostensibly a biography of Xi, the current president of the People's Republic of China, Brown's treatment wanders far and wide across the political, cultural, and economic landscape of modern China.

Brown's comprehensive narrative lost my interest from time to time.  I came away with some broad impressions about Xi and about China, but felt like I had just dipped my toe into the subjects.  First impression: China's government operates like a large, nepotistic corporation.  (No big surprise, given the title.)  How do you rise to the top in China, specifically in the Chinese Communist Party?  Have the right family ties, know the right people, do what you're told, and go to work in places where you may not want to go.  The most telling part of this formula is the practice of sending regional governors to serve in areas where they have no connection.  Like at my company, when a new director comes in having had no experience at our site, Xi was sent to a region where he knew no one and had no natural ties.  It's another step up the ladder, but in a democratic or republican system would make no sense.

Another impression is that unlike other Communist countries, China leans more toward oligarchy than toward dictatorship.  Xi is the leader, but he leads at the mercy of a central committee, not on his own like Castro or Stalin.  Yes, he's the man in charge, but he's not the end-all of the state.  He's the guy for now, but when his time comes, a suitable replacement will be appointed.  It's that central committee that pulls the strings.  Brown doesn't have much to say about suppression of dissidents, persecution of Christians, or the persistence of one-party rule.  Given that the Communist leaders have overseen great economic growth over the last couple of decades, they have managed to fend off criticism, even from many Westerners.

Brown may be right, that China is poised to take huge steps forward in building the middle class and expanding their economic footprint around the world.  Xi could very well be leading China in that direction.  Brown's book will be of interest to Sinophiles and those who want a decent, balanced perspective on modern China.  The insights on Xi himself are limited and distant.  I assume that, for obvious reasons, Brown had no access to Xi, his family, or other intimates.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A biography of a world leader

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Seeking Heart, by Francois de Salignac de La Mothe Fenelon

One of my friends, whose spiritual life I respect, told me that Francois Fenelon's The Seeking Heart changed his life.  I had never heard of Fenelon, but with an endorsement like that I figured I should check it out.  Fenelon (1651-1715) was a French Catholic archbishop.  The Seeking Heart reads like a collection of excerpts from his correspondence.  The short selections, some as short as a couple of paragraphs, none longer than two pages, admonish the reader to trust God, endure suffering, and pray earnestly.

Although no context for the selections is given in the Seed Sowers Library of Classics edition, one can often easily discern hints of the back stories of these letters.  Here are some typical examples of the first lines:
"I am truly sorry about all your troubles."
"Let the ups and downs of your spiritual life come and go."
"I am sorry that one near you is an invalid."
"Do you wonder why God has to make it so hard on you?"
"I am happy to hear you are well . . ."
"I hear you are having problems sleeping."
It would be interesting and enlightening to know what prompted these responses, but, as you see, it sounds like his correspondents had experiences similar to all of us.  Nothing of the lessons is lost by the omission of personal details.

The Seeking Heart is bits and pieces, without a continuous narrative or development.  Each short selection can be read independently.  However, Fenelon returns to several themes throughout.  He would have little patience for a soft, entitled Christianity, such as is so common today in the United States.  Some of these quotes give a taste of Fenelon's style and attitude:

"How do you bear suffering? Silently before God. Do not disturb yourself by trying to manufacture and artificial sense of God's presence....learn to bear ....sufferings and patients and meekness."

"The greatest profit which you can gather from an experience of your weakness is to let your frailties help you become more humble and obedient."

"Say little and do much--without wondering if you have been noticed or not."

"God will teach you more than even the most mature Christian could. He will teach you better than all the books in the world could."

"You can often help others more by correcting your own faults than theirs.  Remember . . . that allowing God to correct your faults is not easy.  Be patient with people--wait for God to work with them as he wills."

"Do you really think that God cannot completely satisfied you? . . . You were made to love God and be loved by Him. . . . In His mercy He fills you with dissatisfaction for everything so that you will turn to Him alone."

"Of course you will suffer problems, illness, and disappointment as other people do, but your attitude toward everything for bearing these difficulties will be very different from those who do not know God. You can see God in all things, but never so clearly as when you suffer."

"Real prayer is nothing more than loving God. Prayer is not made great by a lot of words, for God knows your inmost feelings before you say them."

As you can see, Fenelon's call to faith is a call to share in the suffering of Jesus, not to enjoy the riches of the world.  Satisfaction in God and fellowship with Jesus in his suffering are marks of a Christian life.  I wouldn't call The Seeking Heart life-changing on my first reading of it.  But this is a book meant to be read slowly and repeatedly, which, I imagine, is how my friend approached it.  I am glad he introduced me to Fenelon.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book someone tells you "changed my life"

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Detroit Is No Dry Bones, by Camilo Jose Vergara

If you love Detroit, you will love Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age, by Camilo Jose Vergara.  Detroit is past its prime.  No question about that.  As Vergara so brilliantly depicts with his architectural photography.  My favorite sections of the book focused on the classic 20th century architecture that reflects the great wealth Detroit experienced the first half of the 20th century.  Sadly, much of it is in ruins.  But it makes for stunning pictures!  The amount of the properties, both commercial and residential, that are undergoing renovation is encouraging, but for most of them, the wrecking ball is inevitable.

Vergara is optimistic about the future of the city.  Unfortunately, others place too much focus on the burnt-out ruins, abandoned factories and skyscrapers, and brown fields that litter the central city.  But the region itself is in good shape economically.  Vergara believes the city holds promise.  If I'm honest, much of the book won't make many people want to pick up and move to Detroit.  The folk art, reclaimed buildings, and bar-covered windows don't scream "This city is on the rise!"  But they do hint at life that remains and livability that is returning.

I don't know if Vergara's optimism is misplaced, but it does tend to be contagious.  He captures the echos of the prosperous past, when Detroit ranked up there with New York and Chicago, while looking ahead to a prosperous future.  Even if you don't love Detroit, pick up Detroit Is No Dry Bones and get a glimpse through the eyes of someone who does.

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

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Invoice, by Jonas Karlsson

Like his earlier novel, The Room, Jonas Karlsson's The Invoice is Kafka-lite.  His writing isn't as dark or complex as Kafka's, but it is funnier and more fun to read.  When Karlsson's protagonist receives an invoice for 5,700,000 kronor (about US$625,000), he thinks it's a scam or a joke.  When it turns out to be somewhat legitimate, he enters a Kafka-esque world of bureaucracy and frustration.  The figure is an actual "cost of living," calculated on the basis of the amount of happiness he has experienced.  He had no idea he was that happy!  He asks the helpful telephone representative, "But how can it amount to so much?" She replies, "Well, being alive costs."

Even though he lives a simple life--unmarried and childless, he works at a video store and lives alone--it's uncomplicated and, more than he realized, privileged.  A number cruncher at the mysterious firm from which the invoice came considers his file: "Besides the welfare premium, whiteness premium, male premium, there's also . . . let's see . . . No problems sleeping.  Workplace compatibility one hundred percent. . . . no social obligations.  In other words, nothing but positive attributes."

It's never really clear what this firm is, how it came to be, or where this revenue goes.  But that's not really the point.  In a light-hearted way, Karlsson pokes fun at bureaucracy and legalistic, hard-nosed accounting and evaluation.  More importantly, Karlsson raises the question of the value we place on happiness, and what constitutes a truly happy life.  It may be that the simple, even mundane, lives we live give us happiness beyond what we can ever measure monetarily.

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Reformation: A History, by Patrick Collinson

For many Americans (who are not Catholic), church history begins with the founding of their church or denomination.  Non-Catholics can trace their church's roots to the Protestant Reformation, and even Catholics can identify ways in which the Reformation impacted Catholic theology and worship.  For all of us, it's important to have a sense of that history.  For a primer or refresher on the Reformation, I recommend The Reformation: A History by the late University of Cambridge historian Patrick Collinson.

Collinson places the Reformation in context, emphasizing both its importance and, in a sense, its inevitability.  He covers the movement on continental Europe, of course, with Luther and Calvin and the others, but spends a fair amount of time on events and movements in England.  As a historian, Collinson doesn't dwell a lot on the theological questions that marked the Reformation.  In fact, he almost deemphasizes them.  I was particularly interested in his linking the development of language and  printing, which led to and made possible the Reformation.

The printing press sparked a movement of literacy and put the Bible into more hands than ever.  The Reformers rode the wave of literacy and printing, producing volumes of sermons and treatises and pamphlets to disperse their ideas.  The availability of the Bible and the Reformers' writings solidified their respective languages, making them more uniform and standardized.

According to Collinson's account, what we call the Reformation is much more widespread, multi-layered, broad, and far-reaching than Luther and the 95 theses and Calvin's Geneva.  He covers these elements, debunks some myths, and gives a full picture of Reformation history.  Collinson's The Reformation is thorough without being dry or inaccessible.  Whether you call yourself a Lutheran or a Calvinist, or whether those names mean nothing to you, The Reformation: A History will give you a good understanding of this crucial period of church history.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about the Reformation

Monday, December 5, 2016

God's Answer to the Growing Crisis, by Mike Bickle

Mike Bickle believes that Psalm 2 points to the growing crisis for the church.  But the man of prayer and faith that he is, he points Christians to a powerful response.  God's Answer to the Growing Crisis: A Bold Call to Action in the End Times uses Psalm 2 as a springboard.  The first two verses of Psalm 2 read: "Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?  The kinds of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed."

Taking recent reports of persecution against Christians around the world, Bickle sees this escalating so much that all nations join in the persecution, banding together against the Lord and his anointed.  "A rage against Jesus and His Word will begin with the public ridicule of people who value God's Word.  It will grow to include hate-crime legislation that results in economic penalties for these believers . . . and finally will culminate with violent persecution against them that includes prison and martyrdom."

The good news amid growing persecution is that "things will get progressively worse and better at the same time.  Opposition to and hatred for Jesus will continually increase. . . . As the darkness grows, so will the light; we as the church must know what the Holy Spirit is saying and how He is guiding us during these times."  As we have seen throughout history, persecution fuels the spread of the gospel; Bickle says this will continue to be the case in future persecution.

The solution is that "the Psalm 2 crisis requires a Joel 2 response ["Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill . . . ], resulting in an Acts 2 outpouring of the Spirit."  Based on his study of the scripture, as well as on some visions he had, Bickle believes "the Lord is warning us of great trouble coming to America.  It will be a time of unrest that most people never thought possible in our land.  And the Lord is sounding this alarm to let the church in particular know that turmoil is coming.  Yes, revival will come, but so will trouble."

I never know how to take apocalyptic warnings.  I respect Bickle's ministry and have benefited from his teaching and writing.  When it comes to end times talk, I choose to focus on his solutions, which apply to every time, end times or not.  Like in every period, God is calling the church to a deeper commitment to prayer, to attention to purity and rejection of immoral cultural trappings, and rejoicing no matter what the circumstances "because the altogether worthy One is our true refuge."  If I'm wrong to dismiss or ignore Bickle's warning, I feel like if I heed his call to prayer and turning to God, I'll be in good shape no matter what kinds of persecution comes my way.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about theology

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Wildlife Spectacles, by Vladimir Dinets

Vladimir Dinets is a professional animal watcher.  If you're like me, you don't get to see many animals, except your pets, zoo animals, and the occasional squirrel or raccoon in your neighborhood.  Lucky for us, Dinets has spent his lifetime observing wildlife.  In Wildlife Spectacles: Mass Migrations, Mating Rituals, and Other Fascinating Animal Behaviors, Dinets describes a wide variety of animals and their habits.  As a bonus, he tells us where to go to see for ourselves!

A couple of themes show up throughout Wildlife Spectacles.  First, the danger man poses to wildlife and the subsequent impact on animal habitats and populations.  It's a reality that we use lots of land for living and farming.  Without moaning about overpopulation or misanthropy, Dinets simply describes the ways that migration patterns, mating habits and species survival has been impacted.

A more interesting and compelling theme is the interaction between species.  For instance, in North America the passenger pigeon is extinct.  That alone is tragic, but: "Since the passenger pigeon's extinction, tree species they depended on the bird for spreading their seeds, particularly the white oak, have gone into decline."  Who would have predicted this relationship?  Not me.  Similarly, salmon has a huge impact on the forest through which their rivers run.  "Salmon runs transport a significant amount of nutrients from the ocean to the coastal forests." The magnificent forests of the northwest are made possible by salmon sacrificing their lives. 

You might not like bats much, but many of our crops depend on them to eat invasive insects.  A decline in bat populations can impact our food supply.  "Fungus causes a disease called white-noise syndrome, which dan wipe out entire colonies of bats in just one winter. Within a few years it killed eighty percent of bats in the Northeast (causing billions of dollars of damage to agriculture)..."

Dinets emphasizes the interconnectedness of life, as well as the mystery of it.  We think scientists know everything, but much of the natural world is still a mystery.  Dinets talks about the mystery of insect migration.  Sometimes the patterns are very clear, but in some cases, we don't know where they go when they migrate.  So much is unknown.

Wildlife Spectacles is enjoyable on many levels.  Just flip through it and enjoy the gorgeous photography.  Read more closely and be astounded by the miracles of wildlife.  Take it with you on your next road trip to observe the wonderful world of animals first-hand.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about the natural world

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Cure, by Athol Dickson

What if one pill could cure alcoholism?  Should the cure be sold, or given freely?  Athol Dickson's thoughtful novel The Cure asks just that question.  When former missionary and current drunk Riley Keep hears rumors of homeless people in his hometown being cured of alcoholism, he treks back from his self-imposed exile to see it for himself.  Not only is he cured, but he soon finds himself in possession of a sample of the cure and, more importantly, the formula to produce it.

When he secretly tries to get it produced and marketed, he causes nothing but trouble for his town, his ex-wife, and just about anyone else involved.  This is one of those stories where I kept thinking, "You are so stupid." But to Dickson's credit, by the end of The Cure, the seemingly unreasonable actions of Riley and others make a lot more sense.  So if you're half-way through, and think, "I can't stand any more of these people's dumb choices," stick with it.

Dickson seems to have a good grasp of alcoholism and the grip it can have on people.  I couldn't help but ask some of the same questions Riley asks himself.  What do you do with such a cure?  Can you justify profiting from it?  Should I give it away?  I wish Dickson would have developed this question more realistically.  There are commercially available drugs that are both sold and given away.  I don't think it would be that hard to propose a means by which a drug to cure alcoholism could be both commercially viable and could be made available to poor alcoholics.  Develop a foundation, distribute through Medicaid, something. . . .

In spite of my frustration with some of the development, I enjoyed the book overall, and, even if a pill to cure alcoholism is only a figment of fiction (for now), The Cure still has a great message for alcoholics.  Check it out.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book you own but have never read

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Viral, by Leonard Sweet

Leonard Sweet may not have been born a digital native, but he has fully embraced the digital life.  In Viral: How Social Networking Is Poised to Ignite Revival, Sweet details the differences between the Gutenbergers and the Googlers.  The differences are, in part, generational, but as Sweet himself demonstrates, reach across generational lines.  Sweet doesn't go so far as to say the printed word and the long-form written work are dead, but he calls on the church to embrace Googlers: "the primary challenge of the church will be to incarnate the gospel in a Google world."

Googlers are characterized by TGIF culture: Twitter, Google, iPhones, and Facebook.  Those who resist should just stop resisting.  Sweet writes, "It is time for all of us to move into the TGIF world, and to move the TGIF world toward the gospel.  Social networking has created a culture that breeds virility.  And this virility could easily become the virtual petri dishes of Christian revival."

The strength of Viral is Sweet's emphasizing the many positive qualities of TGIF culture and contrasting it with Gutenberger culture.  Tools like Twitter and Facebook have been criticized for trivializing or diminishing personal relationships, but Sweet points out ways they can be used for discipleship and evangelism.

While the sociological descriptions are spot-on, and surprisingly relevant even now, four years after the original publication, the leap from "this is culture" to "this is revival" seems too bold.  "The TGIF world could be the impetus for an infectious epidemic of monumental proportions."  No doubt he's right.  We have seen, obviously, major movements in the last few years that have been fueled by TGIF.  Now, whether a major move of God will be fueled by TGIF, time will certainly tell.  Sweet's case in Viral is more for the medium and the culture itself, not what it spawns.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about revival

Monday, November 28, 2016

Furious, by T. R. Ragan

Faith McMann is Furious.  Coming home from work with her two kids, she thought she was going to have an uneventful evening preparing for her son's birthday party.  The minor frustrations of the yard needing mowing and her sister's cooperation with the party preparations fade away when she enters her home to see her husband and terrified children bound by gun-toting strangers.  She witnesses their murdering her husband before they slash her throat and leave her for dead.  After a stay in the hospital, she awakes to find that her children are missing.

Determined to find her children and frustrated by what she perceives as a lackluster effort by the police, Faith and some new friends dig into the dark world of organized crime and human trafficking. Sensitive readers may find T.R. Ragan's story to be too realistic and gritty.  She does not sensationalize the subject matter, but it is tough material.

Faith is a heroine we can relate to.  She's not ex-special forces.  She has no combat training or super powers.  She is a mother and a wife and a school teacher who suffers an incomprehensible loss and fights back every way she knows how.  Tough moms will empathize with her unyielding instinct to protect her children.  Readers will cheer her on and will want to pick up book two of the Faith McMann trilogy to see how she continues the fight.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book written by an author with initials in their name

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Catology, by Adrian Searle and Oliver Ninnis

Adrian Searle and Oliver Ninnis have observed that "cats are every in the venal, self-serving, indolent and utterly ruthless domestic squatters that they're made out to be," but "that's why we love them."  In Catology: Inside the Twisted Mind of Our Feline Friends, Searle and Ninnis reveal the inner workings, secrets plotting, and ulterior motives of cat personalities.  Their simple black and white illustrations, accompanied by the cats' narratives reveal what we have always known.  For example, of course our cats plot to eat us while we sleep.  And in case we survive, they will annoy you by sitting your face, keyboard, or wherever is least comfortable and convenient for you.

The illustrations and cat quotes are an uneven batch, ranging from very funny to ho-hum.  Cat lovers will enjoy Catology, but the real audience is cat owners who are cat haters, or maybe lovers of cat owners who can't understand why the cat lovers love cats.

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Platonic Tradition, by Peter Kreeft

Philosopher A.N. Whitehead famously said that the European philosphical traditino is a "series of footnotes to Plato."  Hyperbole, perhaps, but there is no doubt that Platonic thought is fundamental to philosophy.  Boston College professor Peter Kreeft discusses the content and repurcussions of Platonism in a series of lectures, The Platonic Tradition.

Kreeft is a great popularizer of complex ideas.  The Platonic Tradition is a bit heavier than some of his other works, such as his dialogues, but he definitely makes philosophy accessible to the non-philolospher.

As a Christian, Kreeft emphasizes the impact of Platontism on Christian philosophical and theological traditions more so than, I would suppose, a secular philosopher might.  But the strongest part of these lectures is Kreeft's descriptions of Platonism in Augustine, Aquinas, and other Christian thinkers.  On a different note, he attrubutes the more recent philosophical movements like nihilism and existentialism to the abandonment of Platonism.

Kreeft is dealing with bid ideas in The Platonic Tradition.  But he makes them approachable by providing context and multiple layers of explanation and illustration.  Highly recommended.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about philosophy

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman

Jan Zabinski was the zookeeper at the Warsaw zoo.  He and his wife Antonina lived on the grounds of the zoo.  When the Nazis occupied Warsaw, the Zabinskis, like many Poles, refused to sit by while their neighbors were forced into the ghetto or dragged off to work camps.  Diana Ackerman's book The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story, tells of the bravery of the Zabinskis and some of their countrymen in harboring and assisting Jews during the occupation.

The Zookeeper's Wife is a great account of Warsaw during the Nazi occupation.  In contrast to Austria, where the Nazi's were welcome and the Germans had more kinship with the Austrians, the Poles tended to be less welcoming.  The Nazis purged many Poles with money and/or an education.  If you need more reason to hate the Nazi ideology and governance, you will find plenty in The Zookeeper's Wife to keep you occupied (pun intended).

I was surprised by the seemingly low-key manner in which the Zabinskis harbored their Jewish guests.  They had some close calls, but for the most part it was a matter of hiding in plain sight.  It's hard for me to fathom the constant stress of war time while defying the occupying force, who seemed to have eyes and ears everywhere.  The stamina and wit of these heroic families is remarkable.  Ackerman sprinkles plenty of anecdotes about life among the surviving zoo animals to remind the reader that life goes on, even when surrounded by so much death and oppression.

The Zabinskis' level-headed approach is reflected in Ackerman's descriptive yet even-toned prose.  I felt right at home with this remarkable family, while humbly admiring their quiet dedication to the survival of their friends and neighbors.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book based on a true story

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Residential Solar Energy, by Vince Hough

Like anyone else, I'd like to save some money on my utility bills.  I have wondered from time to time if I would benefit from solar energy at home.  I see the panels on houses here and there but don't know much about it.  Then along came Vince Hough's Residential Solar Energy: Your Guide to Whether Solar Will Save You Money.  That sounded like just what I needed!

Hough has done his homework, and we get the benefit.  He covers how solar works, which was really more than I wanted to know, but it's important to have some understanding if you're considering a major commitment like installing solar panels.  More importantly, he discusses the variety of regulatory and financing issues to be considered.

The problem is that every state is different, and regulations may even vary on the local level.  The good news is that Hough's treatment will give you an understanding of the options that are out there.  Once you begin to research what is available in your area, you will have the knowledge to compare programs.  The bad news is that with the variety of programs that exists around the country, finding what you need on the local level can be a challenge.  Hough gives some tools to get there, including web sites, books, and other resources.

At this point, I'm not sure solar makes sense financially for my house.  Hough says "a very rough rule of thumb says that you should adopt solar if the local utility retail rate is more than $.12 per kWh."  My last bill shows I pay $.1161, so it's probably a wash.  Plus, I would have to consider the initial outlay of purchasing a system, versus leasing or renting a system.  But, as Hough points out, solar power is becoming less expensive, and is the "most cost-effective clean energy alternative for replacing the residential energy provided by fossil fuels."

Solar power keeps getting cheaper and more efficient.  I suspect it won't be long until many of us power our homes from the abundant energy of the sun, and Hough will be leading the way.

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

Impossible People, by Os Guinness

Os Guinness may be an import from the UK, but he has his finger on the pulse of American culture.  In Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization, Guinness calls on Western Christians to stand against the "four infamous S factors that have built up over several centuries: Secularism, . . . secularization, . . . separationism, and . . . statism" that have contributed to the widening cultural gap between Christians and the wider culture.

The West is becoming, or has become, a cut flower civilization.  "The West is cutting off its Jewish and Christian roots and destroying the entire root system of tis culture."  Just like a cut flower can only last so long, no matter how many times you freshen up the water in the vase, so is the survival of the beauty and strength of our culture at risk as long as it is cut off from its Judeo-Christians roots.

As one important example, Guinness offers the idea of equality.  The American ideal that "all men are created equal" is demonstrably not true from a genetic, evolutionary, purely secular perspective.  By contrast, "The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a directly created soul, and that all people are equal before God."  Without the moorings of faith, equality drifts away.

Guinness doesn't place the blame for the loss of our roots on atheists, but on the church itself.  "the sad truth we must bear on our hearts is that we who follow Jesus are often the leading argument for the rejection of our Lord."  Chruches have been too concerned with cultural relevance and appealing to popular tastes and trends, so that "churches resemble a field of quick-growing, quick-disappearing field of mushrooms rather than a longstanding forest of oaks."  His solution?  "What we need above all in the church today is for each Christian to have a profound personal knowledge and experience of God himself, and a deep knowledge of the Scriptures as his authoritative Word."

These are hard truths, but Guinness's tone is not judgmental or angry.  He is a modern-day prophet, calling the people of God to turn back to him.  God is looking for "impossible people--Christians with hearts that can melt with compassion, but with faces like flint and backbones of steel who are unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable and unclubbable, without ever losing the gentleness, the mercy, the grace and the compassion of our Lord."

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book written by an Anglican

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Altars Where We Worship, by Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, and Mark Toulouse

Observers of religious life in the United States have long noted the decline of religious commitment.  Church attendance and professions of faith, while still substantial, have declined precipitously for a couple of generations.  But as Juan Floyd-Thomas, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, and Mark Toulouse write in The Altars Where We Worship: The Religious Significance of Popular Culture, what we observe is not so much a decline in religion but a redirection of our religious affections.  They write, "decreasing numbers at the altars of organized religious has not meant the cessation of worship."

Following Paul Tillich, they show that religion, as understood as "the 'ultimate concern' of a person," is expressed through culture, through those things that give people fulfillment.  Reflecting on body and sex, big business, entertainment, politics, sports, and science and technology, the authors demonstrate that, for some people, these expressions of culture have become a replacement for religion.

It is important to note that, although they are writing as Christians, they are not writing about Christianity and popular culture, or religion in popular culture.  Rather, they describe popular culture as religion.  Each chapter describes the rituals, icons, apostles, morality and ethics of popular culture.  For example, sports fans have their "cathedrals" where they "worship" on game day.  The players and fans have rituals they go through.  The rule book provides the guidelines, administered by the priests in black and white stripes.  As a college football fan, this hits home with me.  During football season, I must be honest, I look forward to attending games more than I look forward to Sunday worship.  The enthusiasm with which I sing and worship on Sunday morning pales compared to the exuberance with which I cheer for my team on Saturday afternoon.

In a similar way, we find escape through music and film, satisfaction through work and business (and with the "conspicuous consumption" that comes along with it), and communal faith through civil religion.  Each of the chapters is thought-provoking and forced me to examine the extent to which I place my "ultimate concern" in these areas.  The authors' treatment is descriptive, not prescriptive; their aim is to "suggest a new direction in the study of American religion that would make room for a broader understanding of how religion and religious experiences hidden within American popular culture actually shape the lives of nearly all Americans."

In spite of their nonjudgmental academic detachment, readers who identify as Christians and who take seriously a life a discipleship will grapple with the realities that the authors identify.  They draw from a variety of academic disciplines as well as from current events as they link fulfillment to culture.  If we are honest with ourselves, our professions that we sing on Sunday, that we "surrender all" to Jesus or that "All I need is you, Lord," fall a little flat as we worship through the week at a variety of other altars.  For Christians, may our prayer be that our ultimate satisfaction would come from the only one who can ultimately satisfy.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book used as a seminary textbook

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Miraculous Movements, by Jerry Trousdale

Jerry Trousdale's Miraculous Movements is a book that will leave you speechless.  Normally any time I hear about the Middle East or other majority Muslim parts of the world, it's suicide bombers, beheading of Christians, oppression of women, etc.  Not here.  Trousdale, director of International Ministries for CityTeam International, has traveled and ministered throughout the Muslim world.  The stories he tell, in contrast to what I'm accustomed to hearing, are of a vibrant Christian witness and miraculous encounters drawing Muslims to Jesus.

The core of the work Trousdale describes is the Disciple Making Movement, consisting of Discovery Bible Studies and obedience-based discipleship.  They turn discipleship on its head.  As I've normally been taught, discipleship looks something like this: a person becomes a Christian, then through a combination of individual Bible study and prayer, mentorship, and participation in communal prayer, worship, and Bible study, the new Christian is discipled into increasing maturity.  Under the DMM model, discipleship is a process that leads to conversion.  As Trousdale describes it, it's much more like Jesus practiced with his disciples.

Trousdales examples are amazing to read.  In many cases, DMM gains entry into a community as a result of a miraculous healing or encounter.  The stories are so encouraging, reminding jaded Western Christian readers like me that God is very much at work in the world.  Even better, Trousdale presents a model that can be replicated even in the American Bible Belt.  The cultural milieu is very different, and the risks of persecution in the U.S. are minimal.  But lost people are just as lost.

Like other books about missions, Miraculous Movements encouraged me with the stories of God's powerful work in the Muslim world.  But Trousdale doesn't let me stop with thinking that all of this doesn't apply to me.  DMM can be implemented anywhere, and miraculous movements know no boundaries.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book your pastor recommends

Monday, November 14, 2016

Hiding from Myself, by Bryan Christopher

A rift is growing in the American church, even among otherwise like-minded conservative evangelicals.  The question: can someone be a homosexual and a Christian?  OK, the easy answer to that is yes; no Christian is perfect, so a Christian can be a liar, thief or philander.  So put more precisely: is homosexual behavior a sin?  And related, should churches recognize and bless marriages between people of the same sex?

Bryan Christopher has dealt with this question all his life.  In Hiding from Myself: A Memoir, he writes about the denial, his years of trying not to be homosexual, and his ultimate acceptance of himself.  Contrary to the stereotype, Bryan was not abused or raped, and he had loving, supportive parents.  No trauma made him homosexual.  He recognized from adolescence that he simply was not attracted to women.

Most of Hiding from Myself deals with Bryan's efforts to escape homosexuality first through heterosexual debauchery, then through Christian discipleship and therapy.  Of the latter, he is no fan.  Bryan is a huge critic of ex-gay therapy.  He believes it's dangerous and abusive.  Obviously, it can be, but despite his own experiences, I am not willing to discount the power of God to change lives.

He writes of his frustrations: "The world is full of miraculous accounts: if a cancer patient given six months can baffle doctors by mysteriously becoming cancer free, or a paralyzed patient inexplicably walks again, why can't a patient suffering from same-sex attractions one day wake up craving the succulent center of the playboy centerfold?"  I wonder the same thing.  After all the prayer, he "can't help but wonder if God is even listening." 

I will give away the ending and tell you that, as of the book's publication, he had been in a committed relationship with another man.  That conclusion is not satisfying for Christians who believe that God's plan for us is heterosexual relationships.  But even the most conservative Christians should listen to Bryan's story.  If there is not someone in your life who is homosexual, I'd be surprised.  In my case, I have several people close to me who are Christians and homosexual, most of whom believe the two are not mutually exclusive.  Even though I may disagree with them (and with Bryan), reading Bryan's story helps me to empathize with their plight, and even to share in their joys.

I appreciate Bryan's willingness to expose himself in his memoir.  Even though it made me uncomfortable at times (By the way, some of his descriptions and language are very frank.  The book is not for children.), I am glad to have read his story.  If someone close to you is homosexual, I encourage you to read it as well.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about homosexuality

Friday, November 11, 2016

Hebrews, by D. Stephen Long

We used to joke in seminary that we should read the Bible every now and then so we can see what the commentaries are talking about.  For Hebrews, I took the opposite approach.  I was reading Hebrews in my devotional time, reflected on some of the difficult passages, and picked up D. Stephen Long's Hebrews, from Westminster John Knox Press's Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.  Long, a Methodist theologian, is Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University.

The first thing you'll notice in reading Long's commentary is that a theological commentary is very different from what I think of as a traditional commentary.  This is not a verse-by-verse commentary such as one might use in sermon preparation to glean grammatical insight, historical background, or structural help.  Long treats Hebrews as a unit, as single sermon, and examines theological themes with a broad view. 

The theological breadth is a strength and a weakness.  By bringing in resources and perspectives from far afield, Long helps the reader to see Hebrews in the wider picture of theology and philosophy.  But it can be distracting for a reader who is more interested in a historical, contextual treatment of the book.  Long appreciates that Hebrews can be one of the most difficult and frustrating books in the New Testament.  He writes, "I continually wonder why Hebrews continued to write after his first sentence.  He tells us God has definitively spoken in the Son such that no more needs to be said, and then goes on to say a great deal more for thirteen chapters." 

Just as the writer of Hebrews can expand our understanding of the work of Jesus, so can Long, in a different way, expand our understanding of the book of Hebrews.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A commentary on a book of the Bible

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Food: A Love Story, by Jim Gaffigan

Funny man Jim Gaffigan loves food.  And I love to hear him talk about food.  In Food: A Love Story, Gaffigan puts together some of his best stand-up routine jokes about food.  His hilarious stories and attitude kept me laughing out loud from start to finish.

He wants to be clear: he's not a foodie.  He writes, "I think of myself as an 'eatie.'" Unlike foodies, who are "on a never-ending search for new restaurants and interesting dishes," Gaffigan believes "there is plenty of regular food I still want to enjoy."  Gaffigan has one credential to present: his waistline.  You don't want to take food advice from a skinny person.  However, you don't want to take advice from someone who is too fat.  "If they are morbidly obese, then  you can conclude that they will probably eat everything and anything and do not have discerning taste."

Apply this logic to tacos.  "When a thin person announces, 'Here's a great taco place,' I kind of shut down a little.  How you they know it's so great?  From smelling the tacos?"  If they loved a taco but only ate one because of their diet, "A taco that won't force you to break your diet just can't be that great."  By the way, Gaffigan shares my love of Mexican food: "Anyone who doesn't like Mexican food is a psychopath. . . . Even bad Mexican food is better than 90 percent of all other foods."  Amen, brother.

Gaffigan is hilarious and fun to listen to.  And, as a bonus, I can actually listen to him with my kids!  That's a rarity among stand-up comics.  As a fellow eatie, Food: A Love Story cracked me up and would be worth listening to or reading again.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about food

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare

Call me what you will, but I simply don't enjoy Shakespeare.  I have been to seen some plays at Shakespeare in the Park, watched a few with an English class in college, tried to read some, and have seen some modern film adaptations.  The other day I pulled out my DVD of A Midsummer Night's Dream and read along in my copy of the play.  (Years ago I bought a boxed set of all of Shakespeare's plays and poems.  Why?  I don't remember. . . . I must have had a reason. . . . )

First of all, the movie (this was the 1999 version with Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, et al.) sticks very close to Shakespeare's script, but not exactly.  Several long speeches are truncated, a few bits of dialogue are out of order, and I think the filmmaker actually added a few lines hear and there.  I wonder about the gall and hubris of editing the greatest playwright in history (supposedly).  For a dumb and silly story, spoken in archaic language the is difficult to follow, it's actually a decent movie.  It was almost enjoyable.

This reminds me of what my college English professor said: Shakespeare wrote plays.  Plays are meant to be performed and watched, not read from a book.  Amen to that.  Is A Midsummer Night's Dream great literature?  In my admittedly limited view, I don't think this is one of his better plays.  I'm probably in the minority, because it's quite popular.  If anyone has seen anything by Shakespeare, they probably remember Puck and the dude with the donkey head.

2016 Reading Challenge: A play by William Shakespeare

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Rendez-Vous in Phoenix, by Tony Sandoval

Tony Sandoval grew up in northwestern Mexico and dreamed of becoming a comic book illustrator.  When he fell in love with an American girl who was living in Mexico, his fate was sealed.  Now he had to figure out a way to move to Portland to be with her.  He had no luck getting a visa, so he resorted to an illegal crossing.  He tells the story of that adventure in Rendez-Vous in Phoenix.

I really loved the personal perspective Sandoval brings to the story.  It's not just his story, it's the story of the dad who's been crossing back and forth for years, and finally has brought his family.  It's the stories of the Central Americans who cross into Mexico and ride the train north so they can cross.  It's the story of the constant stream of immigrants looking for a better life in the U.S.

I didn't love the complete disrespect for the laws of the U.S. that Sandoval and his companions display.  I know the vast majority of border crossers are innocent people seeking a better life (or a reunion with a lover), but there are good reasons for a country to know who is taking up residence within its borders, and good reasons why we don't like people illegally crossing over.

The ethics and politics of illegal immigration aside, Rendez-Vous in Phoenix is nicely illustrated and the story is well-told, making personal the realities of dealing with coyotes, border crossing, criminal gangs, and the heartbreaking separations that families and loved ones experience.  Sandoval's account makes me very happy for him that he was able to reunite with his girlfriend, but it does not convince me that a porous border is a good thing.

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

Friday, November 4, 2016

Kolbe, A Saint in Auschwitz, by Desmond Forristal

Perhaps you've heard the story of the Polish Catholic priest at Auschwitz who, when a fellow prisoner was selected to be executed, took the place of the prisoner and was killed.  That priest was Maximilian Kolbe.  While that sacrificial act is what Father Kolbe is primarily remembered for, there was much more to his life.  Desmond Forristal wrote a biographical account of Kolbe's life and martyrdom, Kolbe: A Saint in Auschwitz.

Kolbe's parents were devoted Catholics, so it was no surprise that he and his brother decided to pursue the vocation of priesthood.  They served together in the Franciscan Order.  Maximilian Kolbe became a leading figure, opening monasteries and creating periodicals to spread the message of the Church.  He particularly promoted devotion to Mary, the Immaculate.  I am not Catholic, but I think even Catholics might have a problem with Kolbe's take on Mary.  When she appeared at Lourdes, she is reported to have said: "'I am the Immaculate Concetion'" . . . by which Kolbe believes "she meant something more than that she had been conceived without sin: she meant that she was the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, so completely one with him and filled by him that she could take his title as her own."  Mary as the third person of the Trinity?  Or married to the third person of the Trinity?  Hmmm…..

But much more important than this theological quirk was Kolbe's selfless service to others, which he demonstrated throughout his life.  This became especially true during the occupation of Poland and during his internment at Auschwitz.  As an ethnic German he could have received special privileges, but "He refused the invitation, saying that he was a son of Poland and would always remain so."  In the camp, he constantly ministered to other prisoners, giving up his own rations and supplies to others.  Finally, in the ultimate act of selflessness, he submitted himself for death in the place of another prisoner.

I am humbled not only by Kolbe's sacrifice, but by his sacrificial lifestyle and the energy with which he served the church throughout his life.  He is one about whom we ask, "How did one man accomplish so much?" Forristal's account is quite sympathetic to Kolbe, inspiring the reader to study Kolbe's life and emulate his ministry.  Kolbe was justifiably recognized by the Church as a martyr and a saint.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by or about a martyr

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Answering the Call, by Ken Gire

Few missionaries have typified a lifetime of laying down one's life for others more than Albert Schweitzer.  Texas writer Ken Gire tells Schweitzer's story in Answering the Call: The Doctor Who Made Africa His Life.  Gire's passion is story telling and he has an eye for film, so Answering the Call has a cinematic feel, as Gire moves from scene to scene in Schweitzer's life.  Gire clearly has a great admiration for him and wants to keep his name alive.

Schweitzer was born near the French-German border in 1875.  By the age of 30, he held doctorates in theology and philosophy, and was known as one of the world's leading experts on Bach's organ music.  But the theologian/philosopher/concert organist had made a commitment to spend his life in the service of humanity.  So he trained as a doctor, and at the age of 38 he and his new wife left Europe for Africa, where he would serve the rest of his life as a doctor.

He ended up in Gabon (equatorial Africa, on the west coast--I had to look it up).  No other doctor practiced within a thousand miles.  He started up a clinic from nothing and grew it into a hospital that is now one of the most highly regarded in all of Africa.  Schweitzer overcame obstacles such as sickness, lack of funding, lack of supplies, and being sent to a prisoner of war camp during World War 1. One can't help but admire Schweitzer's untiring labor on behalf of the people of Africa, and his unwavering faith in Jesus.

Gire's admiration for Schweitzer causes him to gloss over the theological controversies surrounding Schweitzer's work.  Gire did point out that the missions agency that sent Schweitzer was at first reluctant to send him, given his liberal theological views.  But once he arrived in Africa, that subject never came up.  When the needs are great, theological debates tend to seem less important.  Nevertheless I would have like to have read more about his theological views.  One of his themes was "respect for life." Obviously this is in keeping with a gospel perspective.  But it can also be derived from a strictly humanistic, naturalistic perspective as well.  We don't learn a lot about where Schweitzer falls in these distinctions from Answering the Call.  For someone who questioned the divinity of Jesus, Schweitzer was certainly devoted to service in His name.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by or about a missionary