Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Pornography Industry, by Shira Tarrant

It's no secret that pornography is more ubiquitous than ever.  But it's also true that erotic art and writing have been around pretty much forever.  So how did we get to where we are now, where porn is readily available anywhere there's an internet connection, and the industry generates billions in sales every year?  Shira Tarrant explores the subject in The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know.

First of all, given that The Pornography Industry is published by Oxford University Press, I expected a more scholarly approach.  However, it's part of OUP's "What Everyone Needs to Know" series, which, now that I look at the titles, sounds like their version of ". . . For Dummies" books.  Tarrant's topical chapters are laid out in a Q&A format, giving brief explanations and answers to a variety of questions.  This makes it an easy reference source, but on controversial topics or topics which have divisive positions, just as Tarrant got started with presenting both sides, the section ended.

Although Tarrant skips over topics like a rock skipping across a pond, she at least deserves credit for bringing the reader's attention to some of these topics.  Her subject is not frequently treated in an evenhanded manner.  Most writing about pornography goes to one extreme or the other, defending it wholly, or calling for its prohibition.  Suffice it to say that both sides are guilty of exaggeration to make their points, or glossing over facts that don't support their position.

Tarrant herself tends to gloss over the negatives of porn.  She acknowledges that it can be harmful to relationships.  She does not deny a link between sex trafficking and pornography.  She notes the toll it can take on the performers, both physically and emotionally.  Yet she tends toward a positive, nonjudgmental position in favor of porn.  These negatives are part of the "porn wars," things we have to move past.  She prefers a more positive view, and provides examples of companies and individuals who are working to make porn less sexist, less racist, and more fair trade (but no less porny).

The Pornography Industry would purport to be a scholarly approach to the history and impact of pornography on culture.  It is that, but in a watered-down way.  It's probably more than you really want to know about porn, but, at the same time, if you really want to know about porn, you will likely need to look elsewhere.

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

Monday, March 28, 2016

Cold Barrel Zero, by Matthew Quirk

Who would want to read Cold Barrel Zero, by Matthew Quirk?  Anyone who likes novels with lots of action, lots of technical descriptions of weaponry, medical details, and elaborate fighting and battle scenes.  Cold Barrel Zero has all that and more.

Quirk loves plot twists, cliffhangers, and keeping the reader guessing about who's on whose side.  One key character, Thomas Byrne, starts and finishes as the good guy.  We know this because the portions of the novel that focus on Byrne are written in the first person from his perspective.  There are some unquestionably bad guys, as well as some more ambiguous characters.  Their portions are written in the third person.  I don't want to make too much of the shifting perspectives and voices, but I wasn't that big a fan of the style.

Byrne, a veteran who is working as an ER doctor and trying to forget about the trauma behind him in his time of service, has the bad luck of being close by when some of his former buddies rob an armored truck.  Byrne comes under suspicion and doesn't know whether to trust his buddies or the military officials who come after him.  Quirk's plot is twisted, unpredictable, and, depending on your perspective may be either hard to follow or satisfyingly complex.  Several points of resolution caught me by surprise!

I am reluctant to compare Quirk to other authors.  There are definitely some with whom he shares the genre of military suspense fiction.  But he has his own voice; you can read those comparisons elsewhere.  Quirk's writing is fast-paced and realistic.  He clearly gets a thrill out of keeping the reader in the dark and on the edge of his seat, making for a darkly entertaining read.

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

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Surf NYC, by Andreea Waters

Surfing in New York?  Yes, why not!  The culture and waves may be different from surfing in Southern California, but surfers surf, and some of them live in the Big Apple.  Photographer Andreea Waters documents New York City surfing in her book Surf NYC.

Combining stunning photography and brief statements from New York surfers, Waters highlights the differences and similarities when comparing New York surfers and surfers from area more traditionally associated with surfing.  Like surfers everywhere, NYC surfers have an almost religious dedication to the sport.  (In some cases, there's nothing "almost" about it, like the surfer who mused, "Surfing is my religion, and the ocean is my temple.")  In New York, though, given the unpredictability of conditions, the weather, and the logistics of getting to the beach, the dedication takes on another level of madness.

One huge factor in NYC surfing is the weather.  Sometimes the best waves are in the winter.  In the pictures the surfers are almost always seen in head-to-toe neoprene.  This quote typifies the attitude of openness to whatever weather conditions come: "If you've ever dropped into a perfect wave, yet complained about the falling snow blurring your vision . . . then you know what it's like to surf in New York."  A little snow?  Big deal--if the waves are breaking, he's there!

The pictures sometimes look like they could be taken at any surfing beach.  Well, except for the ones with the high-rise apartment blocks.  Given that so much of the NYC surf scene is an experience of disappointing conditions and trying to avoid the "should have been here an hour ago" phenomenon, I wish she would have included more pictures of flat seas and disappointed surfers.  Granted, that's not as much fun to look at, but it would have given a fuller picture of the NYC surfing life.  Also, I was wishing she would have identified the locations of the shots, especially the ones that have no buildings. In her afterword she explained that she deliberately chose not to give locations, to protect the surf culture.  I guess there are still "secret spots" in the most densely populated region of the country!

Surfers everywhere will delight in Waters's pictures and descriptions of NYC surfing.  I'm guess Rockaway Beach is not destined to become a mecca for surfers from around the world, but those NYC surfers who lug their boards on the subway in the middle of winter in hopes of catching some waves know there's something special in NYC.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A photo essay book

Friday, March 25, 2016

Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham

I have read almost everything Grisham has written, and I have to say I have enjoyed every book.  Rogue Lawyer is no exception.  Sebastian Rudd is a creep, and tends toward the dirty side of the law, but Grisham makes him likable and gives him street integrity that I could cheer for.  He picks up cases no other lawyer wants, loves to get publicity, and doesn't mind defending despicable criminals.

Rogue Lawyer is less a complete novel than a snapshot of a few weeks in a rogue lawyer's life.  The book covers several cases, some of which end up being loosely related.  We see the courtroom drama and the back street deals that characterize Rudd's practice.  We meet his awful ex-wife and their remarkably sweet son.  We hear the ethical conundrums he gets himself into.  We feel the punches of the cage fighter he sponsors and ends up defending.

I'm not a lawyer, so I can't judge by personal experience, but this novel feels more real and gritty than many of his other ones.  The flip side of that is that it also feels more pedestrian.  It lacks a single thread of a story to keep me on the edge of my seat.  Furthermore, I felt like he left some loose ends unresolved.  Nevertheless, I kept reading, and enjoyed it.  I was just surprised.  I don't recall another Grisham novel that reads like this, a case book or short story collection.  Grisham is a talented enough writer to make it work, but I didn't like it as much as his other novels.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book on the current New York Times list of bestsellers

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Switched On, by John Elder Robison

As many people with autism, and their advocates, will tell you, although autism is considered a disability, it can also be considered a gift.  David Burns affirmed in his recent book, Do Lemons Have Feathers? that he considers autism "a gift and advantage."  So when people talk about a cure for autism, it seems misguided, perhaps even offensive.

John Elder Robison was not seeking a cure for his autism, but when he was asked to participate in a study treating autism with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), he jumped in.  I had read Robison's book Raising Cubby, about his and his son's lives with Asperger's, so I was familiar with Robison's brilliance and giftedness in music production, auto repair, and other fields.  Robison was particularly interested on the impact TMS might have on a trait he shares with many autistic individuals, social awkwardness.

Robison is not a doctor or neuroscientist, so Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Social Awakening should not be taken as medically prescriptive.  Rather, it's Robison's story of how having directed electrical impulses shot into his brain (to put it crudely) affected his very personality.  TMS is being used to treat people with depression; the treatment of people with autism is expanding, but is still experimental.

The results, for Robison, were astounding.  He gained levels of emotional awareness and connection with other people that he had never before experienced.  He also experienced music and color in a way that had escaped him.  Some of the effects, like the connections to music, ended up being temporary.  But the changes in his personality, in terms of interacting with people, having empathy for others, and reading emotions, expressions, and body language, stuck.  He concludes that he's "gone from being a machine person who interfaced with humans when he had to to a people person who understands technology."

As enthusiastic as he is for the promise of TMS for the treatment of autism, he acknowledges that there are dangers.  In his case, it led to his divorce.  On another level, he wonders if, had he been treated with TMS as a child, would he have been more social, thus stifling his interest in machines and music.  While TMS might help autistic people become more successful in relationships with others, could it cost them other traits, or cause them not to develop other gifts?  In telling his story, Robison raises these questions, while offering his perspective and experiences as a guide.

Robison is a pleasure to read.  His quirkiness comes through, yet he communicates so well what the experience of living with autism is like.  If for nothing else, autistic individuals and their friends and family will want to read Switched On and Robison's other books for his unique perspective.  But at a greater level, they will want to read Switched On for a glimpse of TMS and what it may promise.  As Robison writes, "We are truly on the brink of a new era for treatment of the mind."

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A memoir

Monday, March 21, 2016

Fool Me Once, by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben has sold a ton of books.  His newest, Fool Me Once, captures all the elements that have made him popular: relatable, realistic characters, lots of twists and turns, and a story that could happen in today's headlines, or maybe in your own neighborhood or family.

Poor Maya Burkett lost her husband in a mugging in Central Park.  On top of that, she's dealing with the aftermath of a botched military mission; she struggles to sleep, fighting the flashbacks.  Maya is adjusting to life as a single mom, and, at the urging of her friend, sets up a nanny cam.  Her world is rocked when she sees, or seems to see, her late husband show up to play with their daughter, caught on film by the nanny cam.

Is she going crazy?  Is her husband alive?  Are her wealthy in-laws keeping something from her?  What about the car that's been following her?  And her sister's mysterious murder?  Does death simply follow her, or are there bigger questions here?  Maya sets out to unravel these mysteries on her own.  She will, of course, get to the bottom of it, but not in a way that I would have expected.

I enjoyed reading Maya's quest for truth and resolution.  Coben's plot verged over to the edge of the ridiculous at times, but never went over the edge.  Fool Me Once kept me guessing, just about to the climax, and Coben ties the various strings of questions together nicely at the end.  I have little doubt that this will be another best seller for Coben, and that his fans and new readers alike will not be disappointed.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A mystery or detective novel

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Through the Habitrails, by Jeff Nicholson

Jeff Nicholson says Through the Habitrails: Life Before and After My Career in the Cubicles really isn't autobiographical.  All the better for him.  His graphic novel, published serially and intermittently through the 1990s, presents a creepy, bleak, and dehumanizing picture of corporate life. protagonist slaves in his cubicle creating content, while the gerbils, who somehow run the place, run around in their habitrails.  People sneak up behind him and slap on tap on his head to sap his creative juices.  In one of the more depressing-sounding expressions of an attitude shared by employees everywhere, Nicholson writes: "The company won two-thirds of my life, and drained the juices from my driven flesh for its own needless product."

This sense of alienation from work, or rather from the fruits of one's labor, permeates Through the Habitrails.  Nicholson's office worker labors on, yet seeks means of escape, both literal and through food, entertainment, drugs, and drink.  The last is most memorable, in the form of a jar he encases his entire head in a keeps filled with beer.  Yes, it's as weird as it sounds.

This new re-issue includes an introduction by Stephen Bissette, who published Through the Habitrails in Taboo magazine, a comics anthology that specialized in horror and other edgy comics.  He rightly points out that Nicholson's work is a sort of mix of Kafka and Dilbert, although it's much more subversive and disturbing than Dilbert.  The tone is certainly Kafkaesque.  (Bissette bemoans the fact that "Kafkaesque" is used by people who have never read Kafka or know who he is.  But he never makes clear whether Nicholson himself read or was influenced by Kafka.  I'm curious whether or not this is the case.)

I was struck with thought, where are the positive, affirming depictions of labor, of business, of making a living in a traditional job?  Comics and other entertainment on this theme (think Office Space and The Office) draw on the perpetual, perceived struggle of labor versus management.  I guess people who are not disgruntled don't write comics.  It's just that many companies are great and make fantastic contributions to humanity.  Many employees of big companies are content or even enthused about the role they play in something bigger than themselves.  We simply don't see that state of things portrayed in comics, movies, or fiction very often.  

Through the Habitrails is an entertaining collection of weirdness that is probably more relevant today than it was in the early 1990s, when it appeared in Taboo.  Too bad Nicholson is not writing comics today.

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

Friday, March 18, 2016

Zero World, by Jason Hough

If you haven't read Jason Hough's Dire Earth cycle, you should.  If you have, you will be delighted to hear that his new novel, Zero World, is just as good.  Completely different, but just as good.

Assassin Peter Caswell has an implant that blocks all memories of his missions.  An assassin who can't remember ever killing anyone?  Interesting.  His new mission sends him on a recovery mission in space.  When they get to the abandoned ship, they find the crew all dead, except for one who is missing.  Caswell's implant kicks in, marking the beginning of the period in which he won't be able to remember anything.  He then kills the rest of his crew and takes a shuttle to pursue the one missing crew member.

To his great surprise, he finds himself on a world eerily similar to Earth, a parallel world with familiar geography and whose inhabitants speak a close proximation of English, yet with many odd differences.  The technology of this world is a century or two behind Caswell's Earth, and he learns that the missing crew member has been introducing technology, making her powerful and rich in this new world.

Caswell's mission takes a twist when he and Melnie, an agent who has been spying on Caswell's target, end up as an unlikely team.  Just when I thought I saw where the story was going, Hough inserts a twist that changed my perspective--and Caswell's mission--completely.  Then that pesky mission-forgetting implant gets in the way at just the wrong time. . . .

Hough's writing is crisp, his pace is breakneck, and the alternative world building is captivating.  His Dire Earth novels are epic in scope, with a huge cast of characters.  Zero World focuses on Caswell, but the scope is still enormous.  The implications of all that Caswell experiences open up a new future for humanity (and, hopefully, some sequels).  If you like sci-fi with lots of action, lots of cool tech and lots of parallel world speculation, Zero World is sure to satisfy.

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

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Moonlighting on the Internet, by Shelby Larson

Looking for a get-rich-quick scheme?  Hoping for the magic bullet that will make you as rich as the infomercial stars who are selling magic bullets?  Keep looking.  That is not what you'll find in Shelby Larson's Moonlighting on the Internet: Make an Extra $1000 Per Month in Just 5-10 Hours Per Week.  The subtitle is actually unfortunate.  In my opinion, it makes the book sound like a scheme.  But it's not.

Shelby Larson is an experienced entrepreneur who has updated Yanik Silver's 2008 book of the same name (with his blessing). She covers several business lines, what she calls "Profit Paths."  Step one is to decide what Profit Path is best for you.  Most of these businesses assume a fair amount of pre-acquired skills or talents: writing skills, technical knowledge and skills, artistic/graphic skills, business acumen, etc.  Thus, much of her discussion is about marketing and using the internet to find and develop opportunities.  Some Profit Paths are much less skill-oriented, so the marketing and internet knowledge is key.

At times, I thought she was pretty cavalier about what it takes to do well in these businesses.  Her primary internet business has been freelance writing.  I would guess the majority of readers would not be candidates for this; writing well is a rare and specific skill.  Further, she talks about publishing ebooks on Amazon.  I have known some authors, and success in publishing is about much more than setting up an Amazon acct.  (Although she acknowledges that the best book ever written will never be read if no one knows about it!) 

All in all, this is a great resource for people who are interested in having a go at an internet-based business.  She is realistic and motivational, and provides a lot, I mean a lot, of internet resources in each chapter.  Don't be deceived by the possibly click-bait-ey sounding subtitle.  Moonlighting on the Internet is a serious resource for entrepreneurs serious about making some (potentially) serious money online.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about business

Monday, March 14, 2016

Faith in the Voting Booth, by Leith Anderson and Galen Carey

Have you ever seen the "Christian voters guides"?  Usually it's laid out in chart form, comparing candidates' stances on a variety of issues important to Christians (at least it reflects the guide's publisher's perception of what Christians are supposed to care about).  If you're looking for something like that, keep looking.  This book isn't it.  Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Galen Carey, vice president, government relations, of the NAE, have written Faith in the Voting Booth: Practical Wisdom for Voting Well.

If you know anything about the NAE, or about evangelicals in general, you won't be surprised to hear that these guys are not left wingers.  But if you make assumptions about what they, as evangelicals, have to say be voting and political issues, you may be a bit surprised.

Anderson and Carey start out with the basics.  I mean really basic.  How to vote, how to register, where to go to vote, etc.  These chapters seemed almost childish, but the statistics tell us that among Western democracies, voter turnout in the U.S. is inexcusably low.  So there are plenty of people for whom a remedial education on the voting process is necessary!

Most of the book is taken up with a variety of issues.  The authors discuss each from a Christian, biblical perspective, not in a dogmatic way but in a way that encourages asking lots of questions and, especially, reading lots of scripture.  They express their dismay that Christians, when surveyed, reveal that they get guidance on political issues from non-scriptural sources much more than from scripture.

Anderson and Carey make it clear that their faith is in God, first and foremost, and that service to Him takes precedent above all else, no matter the country or party in power.  However, they display a high faith in government as well, specifically in the role government can and should play in our lives.  There are passive roles: "it can establish laws and resources that contribute to healthy families and support strong marriages."  And there are more active roles: "While charity is crucial, we also need the government to step in and fulfill its responsibility to care for the poor."  They make good arguments on both counts, but won't make libertarian readers happy with their conclusions.

On winning and losing, Anderson and Carey are eminently practical.  They don't come out and say it doesn't matter who wins an election; clearly it matters who is writing, enforcing, and interpreting our laws.  But, they point out that "just as the promises of a candidate often remain unfulfilled, so too the doom and gloom predicted if the other side wins often does not materialize."  Campaign rhetoric is only rhetoric, and governing is much more difficult than campaigning.

So what is a Christian to do?  On the one hand, Anderson and Carey provide a nice package of questions to ask as we consider who we vote for.  The problem is, there is no one who will have all the right answers.  So we hold our noses and vote for the least bad candidate.  (That's my view, not necessarily theirs.)  More than that, we vote and participate in the political, electoral process as "an act of faithful stewardship of our citizenship."  Further, in our care for our neighbors, for creation, and for our families, and in our civil discourse, we demonstrate the gospel of Christ in our lives, as we pray with Jesus, "your kingdom come, your will be done."

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Quotations from Chairman Trump, ed. Carol Pogash

It is an election year, so there will be a flurry of publications by authors looking to capitalize on a candidate's popularity, and, in some cases, a candidate's hilarity.  In Trump, we get growing popularity, and a hilarity that we will, at some point, have to take seriously.  In the meantime, Carol Pogash has thrown her hat in the publishing ring with her little collection of cherry-picked Quotations from Chairman Trump.

If you've followed the presidential election this round, none of this will be new to you.  I do like the fact that she focuses on quotes from his announcement last summer going forward.  I said cherry-picked, and I did get the feeling that Pogash set out to paint a less-than-complimentary picture.  Not that Trump needs a lot of help to sound bad. . . .

Quotations from Chairman Trump is mildly entertaining and minimally informative.  It's looking more and more like he will be the Republican nominee.  If he is, I hope and pray he can beat Hillary.  I'd rather have a clown than a criminal in the White House.

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

Friday, March 11, 2016

Campus Sexual Assault, by Lauren J. Germain

Sexual assault on college campuses is not a new problem, but public discussion about it is certainly on the rise.  Unfortunately, this has come at the expense of the reputation of my alma mater.  Due to publicity surrounding rape convictions of a couple of student athletes, and subsequent ESPN coverage of those cases and others on campus, my university has had a spotlight on it, and awareness of sexual assault has skyrocketed.  Even as I was reading this book, a fraternity president was arrested for sexual assault.  Surely the young lady involved would not have come forward were it not for the heightened awareness.

In Campus Sexual Assault: College Women Respond, Lauren J. Germain reports on her extensive interviews with college women who have experience sexual assault while in college.  (I hesitate to use the words victim or survivor, as she and her interview subjects have mixed opinions on those terms.)  She conducted her interviews exclusively with women at a single, unidentified college in the eastern United States, but their experiences are certainly similar to college students' experiences everywhere.

Simply getting these conversations into the open air is important, not just for the victim/survivor, but for the culture as a whole.  As Germain talks with the women about their responses and actions after their experiences of sexual assault, several themes arose.  Most did not take formal action: "Twenty-two of the twenty-six women I met with for this project decided not to press charges through the school or anywhere else."  The feeling is, Why should they?  They believe, with good reason, that the University doesn't punish perpetrators.  The victim has to speak about an unspeakable experience in front of strangers (and in front of the attacker), who grill her about her sex life and body.  All the time, she would know the University is much harsher in cases of cheating (expulsion) than rape (see you in class on Monday).

Further, most of the cases involved friends or acquaintances, or at least people in the same social, academic, or fraternity/sorority circles.  Some victims even felt pressure from peers not to report the crime, in the interest of maintaining good relations among their Greek clubs, for instance.  On a personal level, the victim sometimes thought "if she did press charges, it would ruin his life.  He would never be able to get a job."

I appreciated the honesty which Germain was able to bring more light to this subject through the voices of the victims/survivors.  Even though almost all of them spoke of their reluctance to speak publicly or press charges, surely elevated awareness will help other victims speak up.  More importantly, projects like these can help move our culture away from an environment of acceptance.  "Kids do these things in college. . . . They were both drunk. . . . So some wild oats. . . ."  It's never OK to have sex with someone against their will.  No matter what.  And if it happens, the perpetrator must be held accountable.

The biggest lacking element in Germain's book is actually outside of the scope of the book, but I felt like it should have been addressed to a greater degree.  Writing as a woman interviewing women, she says she did not question the women's stories, and cites one study that concluded that a very small percentage of reported rapes by women are false.  Speaking as a man, I would like to hear the man's side given more weight.  The women in Germain's study are right when they say the physical evidence of rape is usually quite limited, and the case comes down to "he said/she said."  Men and women are both capable of lying, misremembering, or misinterpreting a situation.  Women are given the benefit of the doubt.

Are there not men whose lives have been turned upside down irrevocably due to false accusations of rape?  The Duke lacrosse team?  The Univeristy of Montana quarterback, whose assault of a classmate was the centerpiece of a popular book, was acquitted and received a settlement from the university that has given him the boot.  He's not alone.   Universities are in a catch-22.  Expel an accused rapist, and face a lawsuit if he turns out to be found innocent?  Allow an accused rapist to continue to attend class, and face a lawsuit from the victim if he is convicted?

So I finished Germain's book with mixed feelings.  She tells important stories, but only part of the story.  We must listen to these women.  We must be a part of changing the culture to build greater respect for women and for personal boundaries.  Another thing that she doesn't talk about is the culture of sexual freedom on college campuses now.  Mixed-gender dorms, condoms available everywhere, alcohol-fueled party culture, open talk of sexuality, university-sponsored sex weeks, and other hyper-sexualizing trends in culture aid and abet rapists everywhere.

I am certainly happy to see a guy who preys on women get thrown out of school and put in jail.  Women who are their victims need justice and the support of their communities.  They need to know that when they speak up, they will find support and action, not accusations, suspicion, and marginalization.

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Under Our Skin, by Benjamin Watson

Shortly after the announcement that the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri had chosen not to indict officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, Benjamin Watson's response showed up in my Facebook feed. It may have shown up in yours, too. Watson, a black NFL player, found the words to express what many Americans, black and white, we're feeling and thinking. Watson has developed that original post and his subsequent blog entries into a book, Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race--and Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us.

Watson writes as a black man, but his perspective is definitely a moderate one.  I don't think the Black Lives Matter movement would embrace Watson.  Neither would the hosts of shows on the Fox News Channel.  He is much too reasonable, asking questions like this:  "Could it be that Michael Brown both did something wrong and did not deserve to be shot six times?  Could it be that Darren Wilson both was just doing his job and responded inappropriately to a perceived threat?"

He is also writing as a Christian.  The problem is not skin.  After all, we are all human.  The amount of melanin in our skin shouldn't make a difference.  The problem is sin.  We are all flawed, we all are shaped by the values of our communities, we all fall short.  He is, of course, correct, but the shame of it is that most slave owning, segregationist, racist bigots were and may still be active members of otherwise very conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing Christian churches.  Every Christian knows that even the most faithful church member has sin that needs repenting of.  For many, racism is one of those sins, and much repentance is called for.

I was especially interested in his view of the police.  He writes that the view of the police is the biggest divide between black and white.  Not that he doesn't respect the police.  He does.  But he is very frank about that fact that black people have good reason to fear the police.  Getting pulled over for a minor traffic violation may be no big deal for a white man.  But for a black man, in his own view, it may be a matter of life and death.  Even as a successful NFL star, he harbors this fear, this "assumption that, in getting stopped by the cops, I would likely not get a fair deal because I am black."  Unfortunately, our entire criminal justice system is, statistically, skewed against black people.  Incarceration rates and conviction rates are way out of proportion.

I was a little disappointed in his favorable quoting of journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Coates writes about the "specious hope" that Americans felt after seeing the picture of a black boy hugging a white police officer.  Watson writes, "I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that we live in an America that wants to believe in a dream that doesn't exist.  I agree that in our search for hope, we tend to reach for what is too easy, sentimental, false, and cheap. . . . I have no reason to believe that things will change in my lifetime. . . . Often it feels as if not much has changed since my granddaddy's day and my dad's youth."  I appreciate what he says here, but hearing this from a guy who's at the top of his game, presumably making millions, winning the respect of black and white football fans and others, rings hollow.  It doesn't take long to name the many ways things have changed since his father's and grandfather's youth.  Would I argue, as some do, that there is no racism?  Of course not.  But let's not allow the persistence of racism (sin) to cloud the reality of the progress we have made as a nation.

In spite of that bit of hopelessness, Watson does offer a great deal of hope and encouragement.  He has a great heritage of support and strength in his family, and he's on the way to passing that on to his five children.  As a believer, he is also hopeful in Jesus and the power of the gospel to change hearts and minds.  He writes that "individually we may feel as if there's not much we can do" about racism.  "But maybe we underestimate what God can do through us."  I'm praying with you, Benjamin, for the healing of America.

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

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, by Rajan Menon

When a people group is being oppressed or is suffering persecution or even genocide, the global community sometimes calls for humanitarian intervention.  But what are the limits?  What are the guidelines?  Is it even practical, possible, or effective?  In The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, City College of New York professor Rajan Menon argues that "the terms of peace and justice proffered by humanitarian interventionists withstand neither ethical nor practical scrutiny."

Menon reviews instances of humanitarian intervention (and lack thereof) in the late 20th and 21st centuries, including in Libya, Grenada, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere.  Those who call for humanitarian intervention claim a "commitment to transnational moral responsibility, human rights, and justice," yet Menon is cynical about the purity of the motives, at least in practice.  The inconsistency with which the principals of intervention are applied show the poverty of the argument.

The doctrine of "responsibility to protect" (R2P) provides cover for a wide array of government interventions, but "despite its egalitarian allure and homage to justice, in practice R2P will simply reinforce existing hierarchies."  Menon cynically dismisses much intervention as self-serving: "Governments will engage in humanitarian intervention when it serves their interests or when the price that they expect to pay is tolerable."

Even the International Criminal Court has proven ineffective, or at least severely limited.  The countries who agree to its terms don't really need it, and the countries that need to be policed don't agree to it, and it is subject to political biases.  "The presentation of the ICC as a neutral organization--above politics, guided only by law and the pursuit of justice--does not withstand scrutiny."  Although there have been plenty of opportunities, "the ICC has yet to bring to justice any top leaders connected to atrocities."

Menon recognizes the importance of humanitarian intervention.  If today there are not innocents being slaughters, governments treating their people unjustly, atrocities and genocide, just give it time.  Great evil is committed around the world, almost continually, by governments and quasi government groups.  Menon is not satisfied with the ICC, R2P, and the current state of humanitarian interventions.  He does not, unfortunately, offer much in the way of a solution, other than to recognize the state of things.  Perhaps that is his next book.  For now, perhaps his harsh, cynical assessment will jostle decision makers toward change.

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

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Great Carp Escape, by Irish Beth Maddock, illustrated by Lucent Ouano

Paul and Beth live next to a large, lovely lake, and spend their days in and out of the water, exploring their world.  One day they see an ugly fish, a carp, but their wise father reminds them, "God thinks this fish is wonderful.  God thinks you're wonderful, too."  When the lake rises, it floods their lakeside world.  As the water recedes, a pond is left behind by the weeping willow.  Paul and Beth see that the pond is full of carp, and as the pond dries up, the carp have no way to get back to the large lake.  So that the carp don't die in their shrinking pond, the children work together with their father and some friends and neighbors to dig a trench, allowing the carp to swim back to the lake and live.

Irish Beth Maddock's The Great Carp Escape has all the elements of a memorable children's book.  Lucent Ouano's artwork is colorful and cute, with details that little eyes will delight in finding.  Maddock gives the children a sense of adventure and wonder which young readers will embrace as they share Paul and Beth's fascination with the world around them.  And Maddock teaches strong moral lessons.  Paul and Beth see a problem: the carp will die if they stay in the shrinking pond.  Along with their dad, they develop a solution, bring the community together to dig the trench.  The larger lesson is even more important.  Even the ugly little fish matter to God, and should matter to us.  And guess what?  We matter to God, too!

Thanks to Irish Beth Maddock for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, March 4, 2016

I am N, by The Voice of the Martyrs

Around the world, Christians are being targeted for persecution by their Muslim neighbors.  In I Am N, the Voice of the Martyrs organization has gathered some of their stories.  With the rise of ISIS, we began to hear more about the persecution of Christians in the Muslim world.  ISIS has targeted Christians, giving the an ultimatum: "convert to Islam, pay an outlandishly high tax, or be killed."  In some areas, they mark the homes and businesses of Christians with an N for Nazarene, marking them as followers of Isa (Jesus) the Nazarene.

The stories are arranged around several themes: sacrifice, courage, joy, perseverance, forgiveness, and faithfulness.  I am forced to ask myself, would I be willing to sacrifice under persecution?  Can I rely on Jesus for my joy in spite of circumstances?  Could I truly forgive those who have persecuted me, even taking the lives of my family?  I honestly don't know.

Many of these persecuted individuals spoke of the support they received from other Christians.  But I was surprised by a few who were turned away.  One new Christian, a former Muslim, had a hard time finding a pastor to baptize her.  Pastors she asked feared retribution.  Another fleeing family was turned away by their friends, who feared that they, too, would be targeted.  At the same time, there were some who received help from Muslim neighbors, demonstrating that there are some Muslims who are truly peace-loving and able to coexist with Christians.  I wish the authors had explored this nuance more.  As a Christian living in the U.S., I find it difficult to discern among Muslim groups.  I don't fear the Muslim family across the street in my Texas neighborhood.  But who, among their associates and fellow Muslims, should I be leery of, if any?

The most shocking stories, to me, are the Christians who are tortured and beaten by their own family.  Who would torture his own daughter because she became a Christian?  Who would poison his own wife because she assisted their Christian child?  How about the Christian housekeeper who was beaten by her Muslim boss:  "Fatima [a wealthy Muslim woman] called for her two daughters and husband to join her in beating Parveen [their Christian maid].  They accepted her invitation without hesitation." What kind of people live like this?  Evil people.  These are stories of evil.

Every one of the stories in I Am N falls way, way outside of my experience as an American Christian.  I have never been called on to give up home, family, security, wealth, or my life because of my faith, nor do I ever expect to in the United States.  These stories remind me that in some parts of the world, following Jesus has a high cost.  I pray with the Voice of the Martyrs that Jesus will continue to strengthen Christians under persecution and reward them for their faithfulness.

You can commit to join with The Voice of the Martyrs in prayer for the persecuted church here:

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

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Clarence Olgibee, by Alan Kessler

Two words come to mind when I try to describe Alan Kessler's Clarence Oligbee.  Ambitious, and rambling.  It's the story of race and family, spanning from the 1950s into the 1970s and 1980s.  Clarence Oligbee, an African-American young man living in Ohio, befriends Todd, a white classmate whose liberal parents have moved from Manhattan into Oligbee's middle-class black neighborhood.  As their friendship grows and then falls apart, Kessler explores race in America.

Clarence joins the Navy, and learns that equality is a distant dream.  In spite of his high aptitude scores and heroic deeds, he's stuck shining shoes and serving dinner to white officers.  He learned that "education, intelligence, even heroism, couldn't life a Negro past where a white man thought he should go."  Back in Ohio, Todd fell under the influence of white supremacists with plans to eliminate blacks and Jews from the United States.

Kessler places some interesting insights about race relations during this era in American history.  Clarence gets a preview of racial equality at a college football game, where he witnessed "the color and sound of 100,000 people linking their fate, hopes, and dreams to the actions of eleven young men on a field. . . . There were not black or white people . . . only crimson and gray. . . . Clarence had felt close to God, to a world perfect in its equality where effort, not race, mattered."  However, a white man sitting nearby destroyed his vision: "Maybe someday you'll play here, too!  A big buck running back with a white quarterback for the brains!"  It was a reminder that white people "wanted him to play by their rules."

Religion also plays a role in Clarence's story.  He learns from his mother that church is not about God, but about community.  "There is no divine being listening to the choir sing and the reverend preach. . . . But when we put on Sunday clothes and walk together to church to sit side by side in pews, we are strengthened by a shared spirit."  I wonder how common this sentiment is in the black church.

I said Clarence Olgibee is ambitious and rambling.  Ambitious, in Kessler's scope.  The setting of the story seems to keep growing, as does the impact.  Clarence falls in with some interesting characters in the Philippines, giving him a sense of history larger than himself.  In Ohio, some businessmen expand their impact on history well beyond what I would have expected, even touching the biggest historical events of the era.  All of this is tied together in a rambling style.  The personal connections become a bit mind-boggling after a while.  I didn't quite need a flow chart to keep track of who was related to whom, but the random connections piled up a bit, some in very important ways.

I enjoyed Clarence Olgibee in spite of Kessler's rambling style.  The prose didn't flow all that well throughout, giving it a rough-cut feel.  But the characters are memorable, and the arc of the story keeps it very interesting.

Order here:

Thanks to Mr. Kessler for the complimentary review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book with at least 400 pages