Sunday, January 31, 2016

I Like My Brown Skin Because . . ., by Julia A. Davis

When Julia Davis's grandson asked her if her brown skin made her sad, Davis (after the shock wore off) was inspired to write a book about her pride in her brown-skinned forebears.  When culture seems to degrade or devalue those with brown skin, all of us, children especially, need reminders of the great people of the past and present who have brown skin and to whom we can look as role models.

Davis goes all the way back to Africa, describing the accomplishments and culture of Africans before Europeans colonized their lands and enslaved their people.  She tells of the strength of black people who suffered under slavery, and the bravery of those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement.  She describes the accomplishments of black war heroes, inventors, entrepreneurs, educators, doctors, politicians, engineers, and more.

With each chapter, she concludes with an admonition to the readers to look to what these people accomplished and an encouragement to follow their lead.  She writes, "No matter what negative comments others make about you, don't let their thinking stop you from reaching your goals and your full potential."

I love her positive attitude and the constant refrain that black people don't have to let unjust laws, societal pressure, racist attitudes, and the like keep them from living their lives well.  She acknowledges what many perceive as current reality: "'White privilege' still exists in most American institutions."  In my opinion she takes this a little too far (She says we live in "a nation that preaches equal opportunity for all, while practicing a policy of white privilege and black suppression.")  She's correct that suppression and restrictions in the past have lasting effects today, in terms of family wealth, education, and geography.  My own experience, and the experience of many of the contemporary African-Americans she profiles in the book, tell me white privilege is on the way out.

I Like My Brown Skin . . . will inspire young readers (old ones, too!) and instill an appreciation for the hard work, sacrifices, and accomplishments of black people throughout American history.  It's a hall of heroes; pick your role model.  Hopefully Ms. Davis's grandson, and kids of all ages with brown skin, can join her in saying, "I like my brown skin!"

(I do have to add one thing, concerning her admiration for Obama.  I know it's historically significant that he is the first African-American president.  But her praise of him was really over the top.  I laughed out loud when she called him "a brilliant African-American constitutional scholar."  Sure, he taught some classes at the University of Chicago law school, but he has never published any scholarly articles, on the Constitution or anything else.  This is one of many reasons I believe Obama was judged and elected based on his color not on his character or qualifications.  And before you accuse me of "resent[ing] his occupation of that office due to the color of his skin," just know that no matter his race, I don't like his politics and policies.  All of this is to say, after reading about the heroic, accomplished African Americans in I Like My Brown Skin Because . . ., I understand you have to include Obama because of his historical place, but the hagiography and skewed accounting of his record as president tainted the presentation.)

OK, political rant over.  It's a great book!  Buy it for your kids!

To read a sample and to purchase the book,
visit the Epps-Alford web site.

Friday, January 29, 2016

i-Minds, by Mari K. Swingle

Look around, at the dinner table, on public transportation, at other drivers at a stop light (or driving on the road), at work, just about anywhere, and many, maybe most, maybe all of the people you see are transfixed by their smart phones.  A boon to communication and information?  A detriment to social interaction?  A signal of permanent changes in the structure of our brains and of society?  All of the above?  Psychoneurophysiologist Dr. Mari K. Swingle writes in i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing Our Brains, Our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species that, in fact, our brains can change as a result of what she calls i-tech, but that doesn't have to be the bottom line.

On one level, Dr. Swingle's point is self-evident: new technology changes the way we interact with each other and the world around us.  Written language, the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, photography, movies, television, computers, the internet, now smart phones and social media.  Dr. Swingle argues, based on her clinical observations of brain wave patterns, as well as on behavioral observations, that current i-tech takes it a step further, with actual rewiring of the brain.

Dr. Swingle is not all gloom and doom, nor does she take a Luddite position rejecting technology.  "True integration," she writes, is technology that "fits in, being integral to modern life, without overriding, or eclipsing, the development, or maintenance, of other healthy behaviors."  Her theme is "nothing wrong with a little, a lot wrong with a lot."

Parents and non-parents alike will nod in agreement with Dr. Swingle's assessments and recommendations to reduce i-tech usage, especially by very young kids.  Brain wave patterns aside, she describes the ways in which i-tech can alter the way people relate to one another, play together, and learn.  One troubling example relates to the online bullying.  She argues that given the zero-tolerance policies against physical violence at school, children have taken their bullying to i-tech.  In the past boys would fight and be done, or kids would taunt other kids as they passed in the hall.  Now boys and girls take their disputes and taunts to i-tech, where the audience is larger, the record is permanent, and the humiliation is more widespread and accessible.  The solution has become larger than the problem.

I was interested in her discussions of children with autism.  She writes that if you have an autistic child, "under no circumstances permit the child to engage with i-tech, any i-tech," arguing that the hyper-focus on i-tech with thwart social development.  She acknowledges that some individuals can "functionally use technologies for work and communication as needed when older," but doesn't say when "older" is old enough.  I personally have watched my non-verbal daughter, an i-tech lover, use her iPad and other assistive technology to communicate and interact with others.  I am delighted that we have i-tech tools to help autistic and other disabled individuals communicate.  Throughout the book, I was surprised that Dr. Swingle didn't encourage more use of i-tech for people with disabilities.

Much of Dr. Swingle's advice seems very old-fashioned and common-sensical.  (And I mean that in a complimentary way!)  She concludes with some great guidelines: set boundaries, play (she's big on play), get face-to-face with people, use i-tech purposefully and not for its own sake.  I don't know what permanent evolutionary changes we are bringing on ourselves.  Dr. Swingle does really, either.  But I can agree with her call to put down the phone and interact with the world around you.  I-tech is a tool, and can be useful, but we must not let it take over our brains and our world.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about psychology

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Seven Bad Ideas, by Jeff Madrick

Ideas have consequences.  Journalist and author Jeff Madrick describes the bad ideas that led to economic crises in the United States and the world, particularly leading up to the 2008 recession, in Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World.

In general terms, what Madrick calls "mainstream economics" includes conservative, free-market economics primarily.  To Madrick, Adam Smith's invisible hand "is a brilliant idealization of markets that shows how limited laissez-faire theory is in reality."  Yet the theory has been abused by economists to dictate a limited role for government.  Milton Friedman is the biggest villain to receive Madrick's ire in Seven Bad Ideas.  Madrick talks about "Friedman's Folly," which he says is Friedman's  "failure to define what we may owe each other beyond the Invisible Hand," the failure of which "has had a deep and almost unconscious influence over economists."

Madrick makes some good points about the reluctance of economists to look to economic historical models, rather than relying on mathematical theories.  Many economists want to believe that economic theories are universal and unchanging, like the laws of physics.  One the other hand, Madrick also accuses economists of basing their theories on faith rather than on empirical data.

Madrick's preference toward a communitarian, statist position really defines his concerns with "mainstream economists."  He writes that in the 1970s they began to "denigrate government rather than reform it" starting with, of course, the pernicious influence of Friedman.  By "emphasizing the laissez-faire philosophies of their discipline over more pragmatic and non ideological ones," these economists are "profoundly responsible for what has happened to America and the world."

I am neither an economist nor the son of an economist, but it's pretty clear to me that Madrick's ideological bent is just as pronounced as those he condemns for letting their ideological bent bend their ideologies.  As occasionally insightful as Madrick might be, I found his writing to be rather smug and critical.  Even though he is undoubtedly right on some points, he seems to lack the humility and objectivity that he thinks he has.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about money or finance

Monday, January 25, 2016

Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World, by Kristen Welch

I try to be grateful.  But there's too much entitlement culture in me; it leaks out.  Now I'm trying to raise my kids to be grateful, but I'm afraid culture is more entitled today than when I was a kid.  To help me and other entitled parents get their heads on straight, Kristen Welch has written Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World: How One Family Learned That Saying No Can Lead to Life's Biggest Yes.

Welch, author, blogger, and, most importantly, mother, compiles excellent wisdom on parenting.  She states up front that she's no psychologist, but between her own experiences and her sources, she puts together a worthwhile set of guidelines.

Of course it all starts with the parents: "Parents who want less entitled kids have to be less entitled themselves, and parents who want to raise more grateful kids need to start by living more grateful lives."  We all want our kids to be happy and safe, but "when we try to protect our kids from unhappiness, we make life down the road harder for them.  It can be summed up in one word--entitlement."

As it turns out, "Sometimes the best way to help our kids is to not help them."  They can learn to help themselves.  Another element of that is that we can help them learn to help others.  We need all the help we can get with that, because "When we focus all our time and attention on our own needs, it's really hard to see the needs of other people."  Welch points out that those who focus on other people are happier in the long run.

As I said, Welch is a blogger, and many of her sources are other bloggers.  So as you might expect, she has not written an academic treatise or psychology-based parenting manual.  What she gives us is practical wisdom, gleaned from a variety of families' experiences.  She is not shy about sharing her own family's mishaps and habits.  With her honesty, she encourages the rest of us to stop and think about the values we are instilling in our children.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about parenting

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Prez Vol. 1, by Mark Russell

In Mark Russell's alternative future, the voting public gets fed up with the candidates of the two major parties and rejects both of them.  Through a combination of brief YouTube infamy and a the elimination of the age requirement, Beth Ross, a 19-year-old corn dog chef, gets herself elected President of the United States.

President Ross handles the challenges of the presidency with aplomb, facing down the rampant cat flu, shutting down the robot soldier program, and angering politicians of the left and right.  Society subsequently breaks down, she goes on the run, and is targeted by cat flu virus defenders.

The art is decent, but the story is silly, the politics are very silly, and the overall reading experience is mediocre.  I'm sure President Ross will find some fans, but I won't be looking for the next issue.

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

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, by Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom can tell a story!  His fiction and nonfiction writing has been warmly received and widely read.  He tells another good one in The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.  Frankie, a Spanish orphan, becomes the star pupil of a reclusive, blind guitar player.  With the aid of some magic strings, a gift from a band of gypsies, he becomes one of the world's greatest guitar players and a top rock and roll star in the early days of the genre.

Frankie's life and times read like a guided tour of music history in second half of the twentieth century.  He jams with jazz greats, stands in for Elvis (fooling the crowd), parties with the Beatles, plays a legendary solo at Woodstock, and becomes teacher and guitar guru to other great guitar players.

But the magic strings are about more than music.  They teach Frankie how his life touches others.  After his inauspicious beginnings, his erratic lifestyle moves from continent to continent, with seemingly random meetings and coincidences shaping his life.  Albom doesn't dwell on the unlikely--no one can live like that (Can they?)--but delves into Frankie's character and the people and music that shape him.

Magic Strings primarily narrated by Music, the personified, omniscient entity.  Music shares plenty of musical wisdom and speaks lovingly of Music's disciples.  Throughout the book, other musicians who knew Frankie and played with him give their perspectives, as well.  I enjoyed the way Albom makes me believe Frankie was a real person, as real musicians make their cameos and tell their stories.

I was inspired by the music, which is weird to say since it's a book.  Albom's descriptions of Frankie's playing and performing brings the music alive, in away.  I was also moved by Frankie's life and love affair with music.  I have never loved music the way Frankie did, but I have been the beneficiary of that love as I have enjoyed the music of the Frankies of the world.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about music

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Absence of Guilt, by Mark Gimenez

It's a good day when I get an e-mail from Mark Gimenez announcing a new novel!  I look forward to each new legal thriller from this Texas writer, and he has yet to disappoint.  The Absence of Guilt is as fresh as the latest CNN news crawl and as suspenseful as a season of 24.  Fans of Gimenez's earlier novels will welcome the return of A. Scott Fenney, now a Federal judge.  We catch up with his daughters, some of his admirers (and detractors) in Highland Park, and his legal team.  We also learn the fate of his ex-wife in a cameo appearance.

More important than the reunion is the story of a terrorist threat to destroy the Dallas Cowboys's stadium during the Superbowl.  (This is how you know The Absence of Guilt is pure fantasy: Gimenez has Tony Romo leading the Cowboys to a Superbowl appearance!)  A bunch of local Muslims are rounded up and appear in Fenney's court.  The trouble is, the government can't present a single piece of evidence tying the Muslims to a plot.  Fenney has to rule on whether they can be held in custody, at least until after the Superbowl.

Gimenez's readers won't be surprised that he doesn't take a hard-line stance on the issues at hand. The Muslims don't elicit a lot of sympathy, but by presenting the extreme anti-Muslim point of view from some characters ("Islam is no longer a peaceful religion." "All Muslims are terrorists in waiting."), Gimenez gives Fenney the chance to take a more moderate view. Fenney even learns that a trusted member of his staff is Muslim.

On another issue, Fenney is called on to rule in an immigration decision. Should immigrants be granted amnesty?  On both cases, Fenney has to balance his own opinion and emotional responses with political considerations and constitutional questions.  Gimenez includes several lengthy passages of arguments and Fenney's decisions that make for thoughtful, informative reading, but he never lets these passages get in the way of the story.

Gimenez has a gift for tying together real-world, present-day issues with engaging stories in such a way that the reader has to think about multiple aspects of the issues.  What seems to be black and white in many contexts ends up being not so clear in his novels.  One thing is for sure: we can count on Fenney to make the right call.  If Fenney keeps up the good work, he will land a spot on the Supreme Court.

(One other note that lets you know The Absence of Guilt is pure fantasy: Gimenez has Obama apologizing for releasing terrorists from Gitmo and taking the blame for the former prisoners going back to their ways as terrorist leaders.  I just can't see Obama saying, "That was my bad."  Gimenez apparently thinks more highly of Obama than I do! I think real-life Obama would more likely apologize to the Muslims for their imprisonment.)

Gimenez's readers will be delighted with The Absence of Guilt.  It's one of his best.  Fans of a good suspense novel with colorful, engaging characters and thoughtful, practical commentary on important current issues will similarly not be disappointed.  The only drawback is the wait for Gimenez's next book!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by your favorite author

Monday, January 18, 2016

Trouble I've Seen, by Drew G. I. Hart

Today (1/18/16) we, as a nation, celebrated the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Most of us probably just had a day off work (or grumbled about going to work on a government holiday).  Some African-Americans, and even some Americans of other ethnic groups, may have even had a special meal or gathering, went to a parade, or attended a public event.  Besides having the day off work, I read Drew G. I. Hart's book, Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.

The legacy of MLK and the civil rights movement is unquestionable.  Just ask my former manager (who has since been promoted).  Just ask the principal of the middle school where I once taught (who has since been promoted to the high school).  Just ask the young lady who is drum major of my son's high school marching band.  Just ask the policeman who lives around the corner.  Ask the many African American neighbors in my racially mixed, middle-class neighborhood.  They will attest to the opportunities that abound for African-Americans today that would have been unimaginable a generation or two in the past.

You probably don't want to ask many nationally-known African-American activists.  You probably don't want to ask the first African-American President of the United States. And you probably don't want to ask Drew G. I. Hart.  From them you would learn that American society is built on an irrevocably racist foundation.  That racism persists at every level of government, business, and society.

A fundamental issue is that American culture and economy is built on the theft of land, from Native Americans, and theft of labor, from African slaves.  Thus the United States is irretrievably racist.  Racism is entrenched in the very structure of our institutions.  Even with a black president, black CEOs, black millionaires, black doctors, lawyers, and university professors, white culture prevails.  Blacks succeed only to the extent that they embrace white culture.  This is Hart's perspective.

Trouble I've Seen is very personal and perceptive.  Besides his analysis of the inherent racism of society, much of what he writes is about his own experiences.  I appreciate hearing his viewpoint and have been challenged to reflect on my own views of race and my own interactions with African-Americans.  He writes that some of the worst racism he encountered was at the Christian college he attended.  Even in churches he has seen that intentionally include minorities on staff and in leadership positions, he perceives that white culture remains dominant, essentially drowning out any influence of black culture.

One episode that shaped him and epitomized the white dominant culture was a time he was pulled over by police.  He hadn't realized it, but his car's registration was overdue.  One policeman stopped him, then called for back up.  The two officers then approached his car with guns drawn, pointing them at him.  He literally feared for his life.  He kept his wits and recalled what he had been taught about how to behave when the police stop him.  They wrote him a ticket and left without incident.  He said that black youth are taught "to dehumanize ourselves in encounters with police just so we can stay alive."  So keeping your hands on the wheel and visible, speaking politely, and following officers' requests constitute "dehumanizing ourselves"?  To me that sounds like how anyone should respond when pulled over by police, black or white, guns drawn or not.

Hart refers to several well-publicized episodes in which African-American individuals have been targeted by police and others.  I wish Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were still alive.  Both may have initially been confronted because of their skin color; that is debatable and deserves to be considered.  But in both cases, evidence indicates that they are dead because they violently responded to the confrontation.  Both would be alive today if they had chosen differently.

I know Hart would immediately discredit my perspective because I am white.  He would talk about the centuries of unjust treatment that lay the foundation for the neighborhood patrolman and the police officer to confront Martin and Brown.  But focusing on race (which of course is a sociological construct) rather than the actions of individuals does not help.

Racism is alive and well in the hearts of sinful men and women.  I am thankful that, in large part because of the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others I can have black friends, neighbors and coworkers.  My black son and I can eat in whatever restaurant we want, and he can go to college anywhere his grades can take him.  I won't deny that Hart and many African-Americans encounter racism, maybe every day.  I pray that God will continue to change the hearts of men and women, as he has already done for so many, so that he (and my son) will see a day when racism is a dim memory.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book written by someone of a different ethnicity than you

Friday, January 15, 2016

Good Things, by Kevin Gerald

God is good.  He loves us.  He wants to bless us.  That and more is clear in the scripture.  Kevin Gerald, pastor of Champions Centre in the Seattle area, wants you to know the goodness of God and claim his favor in your life.  Good Things: Seeing Your Life Through the Lens of God's Favor starts out with an audacious promise: once we become more aware of "the extent of God's favor" we can "begin to experience immediate benefits and blessings" (emphsis added).

The strength of Gerald's book is his emphasis on God's goodness.  God is for us!  God loves us more than we can understand; that is a constant theme of scripture.  Jesus paved the way for us to receive not only God's mercy, but also God's unearned favor.  I like the way Gerald draws the distinction between favor and mercy: "God's mercy doesn't give us what we deserve [the consequences of our sins].  God's favor gives us what we don't deserve [God's abounding and endless goodness on our lives]." (There I go adding emphasis again.)

Good Things alone does not give sufficient evidence to conclude that Gerald is a health and wealth, name it and claim it pastor.  I had never heard of him before picking up this book, and have never heard him preach.  A few minutes on the internet will reveal that he is pastor of a large, thriving congregation, and he is associated with other megachurch pastors, several of whom have received negative publicity for their large salaries and luxurious lifestyles.  I hesitate to draw conclusions based on the pastors with whom he associates.

In practical terms, Good Things is equal parts "power of positive thinking" and "name it, claim it."  You see, it's all about changing your perspective and attitude.  The challenges in your life don't mean you aren't receiving God's favor.  It may be that favor is "not yet visible, hidden by a process that can be painful."  In light of trouble, problems, setbacks, "Turn your mind toward favor and watch how favor data starts to appear. . . . An avalanche of ongoing favor that comes by consistently thinking favor!"  You have to "think favor-oriented thoughts."  We need to "use our prophetic voice to predict God's goodness," speaking "words of confidence in God's goodness and favor."

None of this is to say that I am totally disagreeing with Gerald.  I agree, God is good!  He loves me!  He wants to bless me, he has, is and will bless me!  But Gerald seems to be implying that if we don't experience God's favor, it's because we're not claiming it or acknowledging it.  This leaves the experience up to us, to our own attitudes and actions.  What is the difference between that and completely humanistic, pop-psychology self-affirmation?  God is bigger than that.  I guess I might as well try it so I can get some of those "immediate benefits and blessings" Gerald talks about.

(I do have to say, props to Gerald for including Isaiah Austin as an example of someone who proclaimed God's goodness and faithfulness during what could have been the darkest days of his life.  Isaiah is a great representative of Christ, of Baylor, and of the sport of basketball.  Sic 'em, Isaiah!)

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book published in 2016

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy

There's a place called Ghettoside.  It has a culture and geography all its own.  People who live south of the Ten in L.A. know their world is different from the rest of America.  Here, black men murder black men, at a rate astronomically higher than the rest of the country.  Here, the law is the the law of the street; the LAPD has a herculean task to enforce the laws the rest of the country follows.  Into this mix journalist Jill Leovy embedded herself.  Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America is her account.

Leovy gives a fly-on-the-wall look into the LAPD's investigative unit in South Los Angeles.  She introduces the detectives, recounts their office politics and personal struggles, takes the reader into the interrogation room and the court room, and rides along on the city streets.  Her focus is the LAPD, but in the course of her telling, she gives insights into gang culture and street life.  For most readers, this alone will be enlightening.

Her story centers around the murder investigation of a detective's son.  While many LAPD cops in South Los Angeles chose to commute from the suburbs, Wally Tennelle lived right in the neighborhood he patrolled.  After years of investigating gangs, his work hit home when his own son was killed in a gang shooting.  Due to the dogged determination of his colleagues, the killers were found and sentenced.

Leovy tells personal stories, putting names and faces to statistics and stereotypes.  Reading something like this should be myth-dispelling.  But I found it to reinforce much of what is popularly believed about South L.A. and the monster of black-on-black violence.  Black men kill black men indiscriminately.  There's no way around it.  Their gangs are idiotic.  Murderous feuds get started over the most petty offenses: walking down the street with the wrong color bandanna hanging out of your pocket.  Wearing another team's baseball cap.  And they don't quit; conflicts escalate way out of proportion to the original offense.  It's incredibly stupid.  I fail to understand why these gang members fail to understand that the retaliatory way of life comes back to them.  They cause mourning; they will mourn.  Innocent victims get killed.

The strength of Leovy's book is that she focuses on the detectives who work amid this reality.  Tennelle's perspective was shaped by one detective's comment about a murdered prostitute: "She ain't a whore no more.  She some daddy's baby."  That became his philosophy.  "The homicide detective's call was to treat each victim, no matter how deep their criminal involvement, as the purest angel.  The murdered were inviolate."

Leovy reports instances of racism and indifference to residents of South LA among the LAPD.  But the main players in Ghettoside display a remarkable commitment to their jobs and, more importantly, to justice.  They share Tennelle's philosophy and express a desire for people who live Ghettoside to have the best police and best investigators as possible.  Just because a black man kills a black man doesn't mean the victim's family doesn't deserve compassion and a dogged determination to find the killer.

Ghettoside is eye-opening to readers who don't live in Ghettoside.  Leovy's attention to detail and sharp journalistic skills, not to mention her compassion and sense of justice, put the issue of black-on-black violence on the front burner.  Like the dedicated detectives of LAPD, we must not ignore the monster.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about a current issue

Monday, January 11, 2016

Be You. Do Good, by Jonathan David Golden

Jonathan David Golden is a pastor, life coach, entrepreneur, and a bunch of other stuff.  He wants to be, in a limited way, your life coach.  In Be You. Do Good: Having the Guts to Pursue What Makes You Come Alive, he writes about many of his experiences and endeavors, especially the Land of a Thousand Hills coffee company.

After building a successful business consulting and coaching practice, Golden added pastor and church planter to his list of titles.  Then, after meeting a bishop from Rwanda, Golden worked with coffee growers in Rwanda to build "the only coffee company in the world . . . that is completely vertically integrated.  That means we tend the coffee form the bean to the barista, from farm to cup and every moment in between."  In doing so, he not only has built a thriving company, but he provides employment for hundreds of Rwandans (and a few Americans).  It's an admirable model of service and ministry, not to mention business.

As he tells the story of his path to get to where he is today, Golden has words of encouragement and motivation for the rest of us who may not have found God's calling in our lives.  God wants to work with what we have, where we are, who we are.  Golden writes, God "doesn't demand that we do something but rather says, 'Come along, and let's see who this goes.'"  I especially like that Golden emphasizes that there's not one secret plan for our lives, and if we miss it we might as well give up.  "Rather, God's Spirit offers countless entry points to the adventure you were made to live."

Golden tells great stories, and he certainly has had some adventures.  I appreciate the solid guidance he offers, such as pursuing your passion and developing those inklings of ideas that we get.  He reminds us that there may be big breakthroughs and a flurry of events to bring change in our lives, but "more often you'll be plodding bahora bahora [little by little], lurching in the right direction."  The slow, faithful obedience is more often the normative way of life.

I may be exactly who Golden is writing for: someone who once had big dreams of what he might do for the kingdom or in his career, but finds himself in a work-a-day job, falling short on every measure of the expectations of his training, background, and education.  Golden would say, "Be yourself, find your passion, and flesh it out."  I might say, "My passion's dead, I just got home from work, and I have to be in early again tomorrow."  To be honest, from where I am (and where I think many people are) to where Golden is and wants me to be is a chasm that seems impassable.  I know Golden's purpose is to encourage me to get through that chasm, but I found it hard to relate.  A better audience would be another Type A, entrepreneurial spirit like Golden.  Besides his own example, he gives examples of individuals who have been successful in their careers yet are unfulfilled.  Maybe I get tired of the "I've made a lot of money but my life feels empty" stories, when, for most of us the story is "I'm barely getting by and my life feels empty."  That's cool that Golden's client was able to quit his job and garden all the time (and then start hosting a gardening show on TV. . . .), but most people in mid-career can't do that (unless of course they have enough disposable income to hire a "life coach").  Maybe I'll get there, bahora bahora, if I ever have the guts to do what makes me come alive.  (And if I don't get out of an unsatisfying rut, that means I have no guts, right?)

Forgive my autobiographical rant.  I really like the concept and execution of Land of a Thousand Hills coffee.  If I liked coffee, I'd make a point to buy their products.  I'm very impressed with Golden and that fact that he accomplished the dream of establishing this thriving company while serving as a pastor (and other business endeavors).  There are plenty of people out there who will latch onto Be You. Do Good and totally relate to Golden.  I'm afraid I wasn't one of them.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A self-improvement book

Sunday, January 10, 2016

To the Stars!, by Carmella Van Vleet and Dr. Kathy Sullivan, illustrated by Nicole Wong

It seems like another age, and, truly it was.  When Kathy Sullivan was a little girl, people expected her to aim at being a mother, a nurse, or a teacher.  Kathy had other ideas.  She wanted to see the world, to fly, to do something exciting.  Thankfully, she had boldness and support of people around her to pursue her dreams.

To the Stars! The First American Woman to Walk in Space introduces kids to Kathy.  Her dreams were always bigger than the world around her.  She decided she wouldn't let gender roles determine her career and life choices.  Against the odds, she ended up flying in three space shuttle missions, including one in which she became the first woman to walk in space!

To the Stars has lovely illustrations by Nicole Wong which capture Dr. Sullivan's love of life, even from an early age.  Girls and boys alike can draw inspiration from Dr. Sullivan's determination and, most of all, the enthusiasm with which she pursued her dreams.  Mothers, nurses, and teachers are vital roles, and I hope little girls everywhere will continue to pursue these occupations and be the best they can be.  But I am glad that women like Dr. Sullivan have paved the way to broaden opportunities for women, giving girls more to aim for.

Kathy always wanted to see the world . . .
And one day, she really did. . . .

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book for children.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Supernotes: A Thriller, by Agent Kasper and Luigi Carletti, translated by John Cullen

There are spy novels, and there are real-life spy stories.  Former spy Agent Kasper teamed up with Italian novelist Luigi Carletti to write Supernotes: A Thriller, a novel based on his experiences as a spy.  Kasper was an airline pilot, an Italian agent, and a CIA asset.  While living in Cambodia, the CIA recruited him to help with their investigation into counterfeiting of US currency in southeast Asia.  That didn't work out so well for him, as, in the course of events, he was arrested (kidnapped? detained? renditioned?) and spent more than a year in Cambodian prisons.

Supernotes tells the story of Kasper's arrest and time in prison, with extended flashbacks of his career.  He also has a girlfriend in Italy who hires a lawyer to try to get him out.  His government refuses to help, the CIA only makes demands, and the Cambodians extort money from Kasper's family simply to keep him alive.  Kasper becomes obsessed with trying to escape; he'd rather die trying to get out than die of malnutrition, illness, or lack of medical care after extensive torture.

As with any "based on a true story" work of fiction, the reader is left wondering where reality ends and fiction begins.  I googled one character (Victor Chao, owner of the Marksmen Club and the Manhattan night club) and found him to be just as Kasper described him.  The prison where Kasper was held is an actual prison in Phnom Penh.  I'm sure other characters and events could be easily corroborated.  But I'm curious to know how true to life were the depictions of the events themselves.

Does this matter?  Novels frequently build stories around actual people and events without the story itself being true.  It probably doesn't matter, except that I felt like this would have been a better book had it been written as a non-fiction account of Kasper's imprisonment and events leading up to it.  The narrative is choppy as it shifts time frames.  I think it would read better as a non-fiction account rather than elaborating on events to dramatize them.

Kasper clearly led an interesting life.  He is the type of character that you might think only exists in movies, but he and others like him are out there.  Supernotes gives a glimpse of what life is like for some of those who "in silence and far away from any spotlight, contribute to the security of the society we live in."  If you've watched spy movies, you'll see some of the same themes in Kasper's account.  It's no mistake that Supernotes has been optioned for a movie.  True, fictional, or somewhere in between, Kasper's story has all the drama, action, and intrigue that you expect in the life of a spy.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book with a one-word title.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Defenders of the Unborn, by Daniel K. Williams

Sure, after Roe v. Wade (1973) there was a lot of pro-life activism.  But where did these people come from?  As Daniel K. Williams writes in Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Plus Some After) (that's my addendum to the title), anti-abortion activism was alive and well before Roe v. Wade, and it may not have looked like what you would expect.

In the first half of the 20th century, pro-life activism began "as a defense of human rights for the unborn."  The first activists, according to Williams, were not political conservatives, but "people who supported New Deal liberalism and government aid to the poor, and who viewed their campaign as an effort to extend state protection to the rights of a defenseless minority (in this case, the unborn)."

Many of those favoring fewer restrictions on abortion did so on utilitarian grounds: women die because of illegal abortions, poor women don't have access to safe abortions, women should have the option to abort a baby with birth defects, families who can't afford to raise children should be able to choose to abort, etc.  Williams makes little of the inherently racist and classist attitude that drove much of the abortion rights movement, but it's there.

Catholics were the most vocal in resisting the move toward more liberal abortion laws.  They prophetically pointed out that therapeutic abortion would inevitably lead to elective abortion, or abortion on demand.  There were many supposedly well-meaning doctors and religious leaders who promoted repeal or reduction of limitations on abortion for health reasons, but the justification of "harm to the mother" became less and less meaningful, and the pro-abortion voices came to be dominated by feminists who wanted abortion to be available to all women all the time.

The swiftness with which abortion became more acceptable to the American people is truly remarkable.  What would have appalled one generation became commonplace to the next.  Almost as remarkable is the ground the pro-life movement was able to gain back.  They figured out that using visuals was the most effective argument they could make.  Images of small but fully-formed babies that had been aborted had a huge impact on public awareness and attitudes.

Williams doesn't speak in these terms in Defenders of the Unborn, but I couldn't help thinking about spiritual warfare in the battles over abortion.  Satan must be giddy with the victory of convincing people that the killing of an unborn child is a good thing.  After getting a foot in the door with cases of rape and saving the mother's life, abortions became more and more common until it was a mildly inconvenient form of birth control.  The fact that many churches, including one I once saw celebrating the anniversary of Roe v. Wade on its marquee, embrace abortion is an ultimate victory for the powers of darkness.

Defenders of the Unborn is heavy on political maneuverings, the formation and dissolution of pro-life and pro-choice organizations, and the tracking of legislative actions and court rulings.  Williams emphasizes the shifting of the center of the pro-life movement.  Given the Democratic Party's emphasis on human rights, the pro-life movement initially had a home there.  But voices calling for individual rights and equal rights for women eventually deemed that the rights of the unborn take second place, and pro-life voices were no longer welcome.  The Republican Party became the party of choice for pro-lifers, to the point that Republican candidates were forced to take increasingly pro-life positions.  This shift is a source of interesting paradoxes, as we see Jesse Jackson and Teddy Kennedy articulating strong pro-life messages, while prominent Republicans were consistently pro-choice, then both groups backtracking and "growing" in their views.

Williams's book examines a very important issue in a crucial era of American politics.  As the Catholic bishops argue, all other issues take second place to the issue of the sanctity of life.  As one who has grown up in the post-Roe v. Wade era, I find it hard to imagine a world in which abortion is not viewed as the killing of a baby.  I still have a hard time understanding the cavalier way in which abortion is accepted in some circles.  Although I've never been an activist, Williams has helped me to see where pro-life activism has come from and the ways it has, to a limited extent, succeeded, in spite of its failures.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about abortion

Monday, January 4, 2016

Amish Zombies from Space, by Kerry Nietz

A couple years ago, Kerry Nietz wrote Amish Vampires in Space.  It started out as a joke with his publisher but ended up as a really good space adventure.  So why not write a sequel?  Nietz has followed up AViS with Amish Zombies from Space.  This story, primarily based on a new Amish settlement planet, introduces a new peril to the Amishers: zombies.

AZfS takes place a few years after the events of AViS.  Some of the Amishers from Resolve have settled in on Miller's Crossing, reestablishing their community.  A mysterious ship lands, bringing with it a new threat that reminds them of the vampires they faced on the Raven.  But this time it's different.

As he did in AViS, Nietz takes familiar sci-fi/horror themes and shapes a fresh and original story.  Flesh-eating zombies?  Yawn.  But Nietz turns the zombie cliche on its head (in a way that I won't go into in the interest of not giving away spoilers. . . .).  Amish Zombies is solid sci-fi with well-written action scenes and a great story.  While not the focus of the book, Nietz also engages faithfulness to Amish values, challenges to living the Christian life, and the call to live as a witness to people around us.  I know, you don't often see that in a sci-fi novel!

Readers who liked AViS won't be disappointed with the follow-up.  Although it stands alone, there are enough ties to AViS that I would recommend reading AViS before reading Amish Zombies from Space. Nietz's voice is original and welcome.  Amish Zombies is listed as Book 2 in the "Peril in Plain Space" series.  I hope to see a book 3!

2016 Reading Challenge: A Christian novel

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Knight Rider: Knightstrikes, by Chuck Dixon, et al.

KITT.  Knight Rider.  Any child of the 80s will be taken back by those names.  In the TV show, Michael Long, played by David Hasselhoff cruises around in his artificially intelligent supercar KITT fighting crime and being cool.  Now the duo has returned in graphic novel form.  Knight Rider: Knight Strikes features six "episodes" in which Micheal and KITT win the day while exchanging their trademark banter and displaying some new technologies.
Because "We're going to run into a tree and this bomb will blow up!" would be too simple.
The story elements and plot lines will be familiar to those who remember the TV shows.  The comics do seem to amp up the action and explosions, if for no other reason than that it's much easier to draw stuff blowing up than to actually blow something up.  These stories update the Knight world with some modern technology, but also indirectly demonstrate how far ahead of the technological curve the original show was.

These stories would be fun to see as TV episodes, or perhaps incorporated into a movie revival (which has been rumored from time to time).  In my opinion, Michael in this book doesn't look that much like Hasselhoff.  Maybe that's just me.  In any case, Knight Rider: Knight Strikes will delight Knight Rider fans, and stands on its own even for readers who never saw the show.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A graphic novel

Friday, January 1, 2016

And West is West, by Ron Childress

Behind the headlines, the lives and loves of today's young people look a little different than they used to.  In Ron Childress's And West is West, two young people in positions that were unimaginable just a generation ago have to recreate their lives after they are pushed out the door in their respective positions.  Ethan writes the code that helps his bank make billions on arbitrage trading of foreign currency.  A decimal error (or a planted decimal error) loses the bank millions in seconds, and he finds himself jobless.  Jessica sits in a desert warehouse in Nevada flying drone missions in the Middle East.  When one mission goes wrong, she leaves the Air Force and lives under the radar.

Childress brings these two parallel stories together in an interesting way.  Readers will dwell on consequences, family histories, and the realities of the fast-moving, accelerated way the modern workforce can become distant from their actual work.  Part of me became frustrated that Jessica and Ethan's stories had so little to do with each other.  Even though Childress introduced the personal link rather late, he ultimately makes it work.

The story of the characters' lives does not to be as epic as the roles they played, or potentially played, in their careers.  Childress focusses on the drama of relationships and family, not on the global implications of the buttons Ethan and Jessica pushed.  As the world becomes more interconnected, and as finance and warfare become more impersonal, linking consequences to our actions and faces to our interactions becomes more tenuous.  And West is West illustrates that reality well.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book written by a first-time author