Saturday, April 30, 2016

Loaded, by Heather King

I've read many books on money, particularly money and Christianity.  Heather King's Loaded: Money and the Spirituality of Enough is the most unusual one I've read.  Her target audience is people who have chosen voluntary poverty or asceticism.  King's perspective is that Christians shouldn't feel compelled to underearn.   She says Loaded is about "how to detach from the idea that our identity could possibly lie in how much or how little money we make or have."

King says she wants to "explore how we might spend as much of our days as possible doing what we love." When we "follow the deepest desires of our heart. . . . the money will come. And we'll want to share it."  I appreciate that sentiment, but I didn't feel like that is really what the book accomplished.  The main message I took away from Loaded is to be okay with having enough and spending what you have on what you need.

King and some of the individuals she profiles in Loaded come from a perspective of voluntary poverty, where they underearned and struggled with guilt if they spent money.  She talks about going through twelve step programs to find freedom in earning money and using it.  Don't get me wrong, King is all for living simply and is definitely not in favor of the excesses of American consumer culture.  But neither is she in favor of choosing poverty as an end rather than a means to an end.  She concludes, "We help poor people not by compulsively staying poor ourselves, but by sharing our material and emotional riches with them."

King knows her audience, people like her who have been involved in the Catholic Worker movement, or who have otherwise lived lives of voluntary poverty.  That is a pretty small audience.  Most Christians in mainstream America come from an opposite place.  But for her audience her writing is relatable and, at times, moving.  Whether we have a little or a lot, live in a slum or a suburb, King reminds us to do what you love and be generous with what you have.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by a female author

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Seven Laws of Love, by Dave Willis

Pastor and relationship expert Dave Willis and his wife are committed to helping couples have stronger marriages, as founders of the aptly named  In his book The Seven Laws of Love: Essential Principles for Building Stronger Relationships, Willis expands his scope beyond marriage to help the reader strengthen relationships with family, friends, and others.

Willis is a lover of lists.  In Part 1 he discusses the Laws of Love:
Love requires commitment.
Love selflessly sacrifices.
Love speaks truth.
Love conquers fear.
Love offers grace.
Love brings healing.
Love lives forever.
He develops each law with examples, scripture, and more lists.  Lest you think someone who specializes in strong marriages would only write about marriage, he expands these principles in Part 2, applying them to loving your: spouse, family, neighbor, friends, enemies, yourself, and your creator (again with lots of lists).  I don't want to sound like I'm completely dismissing his lists.  He's a preacher, after all.  Lists help people remember and apply a sermon.

The lists and stories are great and show Willis's insight into relationships.  He shows his insight into readers by wrapping the book up in the Afterword with a specific assignment.  Knowing how quickly a book's content may leave our minds as soon as we put down the book, he insists, before you put down the book, think of someone specific and apply the seven laws.  Then he gives a refresher on each.  I thought this was a great way to end.

Willis has a pastor's heart for his readers to have strong relationships, and a preacher's gift for communicating with warmth, humor, and practical application.  In a way, The Seven Laws of Love is an easy read, with quick chapters, neatly listed points, and discussion questions at the end of each chapter.  But in a way it's hard.  If the reader takes Willis's admonition to heart and thinks about specific people and ways to apply these principles in specific ways, it will have a tremendous impact on his or her relationships.

Thanks to Mr. Willis and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about relationships or friendship

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Players, by Matthew Futterman

In my living memory, whenever I have thought "professional athlete," I have thought "gazillionaire." OK, maybe just millionaire.  The money in professional sports today is simply outrageous.  Have you ever seen a picture of Tom Brady's house?  But that has not always been the case.  In Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution, Matthew Futterman tells the story, or rather stories, of how we got here.  (I guess I shouldn't say we.  I'm just a fan with no money, not a gazillionaire athlete.)

In the not-so-distant past, professional athletes were either nonexistent or were very poorly paid.  An occasional superstar or media darling might get some endorsements or command a higher salary due to his fame, but it wasn't until a lawyer named Mark McCormack signed up Arnold Palmer as the first client of his fledgling company International Management Group (IMG) that the keys to the treasure chests began to be found.  With IMG's sponsorship and promotional assistance, Palmer went from being one of the world's best golfers to being a very rich golfer.  McCormack changed the game and his company still represents some of the world's best (and richest) athletes.

McCormack also pioneered the televising of events like Wimbledon.  He converted this little tennis event, viewed by a few elite tennis aficionados, into a major television event, viewed by millions.  As a result of the increased exposure, the popularity of tennis soared, as did the prize money for players.

Futterman describes the rise of free agency in sports, starting with Catfish Hunter.  As free agents, players "could prove to everyone in baseball--and every team-sport athlete on the planet--the value of the open market."  Free agency "was an opportunity to allow the market to determine a player's value instead of some crony general manager trying to line his owner's pockets."

Futterman would agree that the professionalization of sports has raised the quality of play and the level of competition.  However, he isn't necessarily a fan of the increased players' salaries.  "Too many athletes forgot that performance was supposed to serve as the foundation for their success on and off the field, and that the object of sport is to win, not to become famous."  Television, and, later, cable television, added to the revenues sports could generate, so "the purpose of a sports team had morphed from an entity that could provide joy and a sense of community to a city or a region to a commodity that could be used to create vast wealth. . . ."  Futterman concludes, "Money in sports isn't, on its own, a bad thing.  But when money becomes the motivating goal and main purpose in sports, that is a bad thing."

I enjoyed the way Futterman personalized each step in the process of monetization of sports, focusing on individuals and events that proved to be the turning points.  His writing is colorful and descriptive, and his research and interviews bring these stories together nicely.   Watching the NFL draft this weekend, watching the various commercials that feature athletes, watching my hometown team, the Cowboys, play mediocre football while raking in untold millions, I will think of Futterman's historical perspective.  Every year I think that sports salaries have gotten too high to sustain, but, as he said regarding the first forays into free agency, the players will earn what the market will bear.  Do I think anyone should be a multimillionaire because they are great football or baseball players?  In the grand scheme of things, no.  But people pay to watch them play.  Team owners and management pay their salaries.  More power to them.  Futterman explains why it all works and how it got that way.

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All, by Jonas Jonasson

Jonas Jonasson made a splash with his hilarious debut novel, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.  His new novel, Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All, has the same madcap tone, and some of the same elements (suitcases full of cash, bumbling criminals, misguided clergy).  Hitman Anders, a repeat criminal offender, is released from a stint in prison and takes a room at a sleazy hotel where Per Persson (the author makes a self-effacing joke about his own name) is the receptionist.

Per Persson has a chance encounter with a priest, who we learned never wanted to be a priest, doesn't believe in God, and whose congregation recently ran her off because she cursed her father, the church's former priest, from the pulpit.  The receptionist and the priest, drawn together by their thorough-going contempt for all of humanity, and by their desire to make a little money, become unlikely partners (and lovers).

Hitman Anders, not to smart or moral, likes to drink and doesn't have any trouble roughing people up, which he does for hire.  The priest and the receptionist become his agents, of sorts, soliciting much more lucrative contracts, of which they take a large cut.  Anders is perfectly happy as long as he has enough to buy drinks.  When the priest inadvertently inspires Anders to become a Christian, he declares that he will no longer be breaking arms and legs, but wants to give his money away.

Anders becomes well-known for his acts of benevolence, which leads the priest and the receptionist to set him up as pastor of a new church.  Of course, they take a hefty portion of the weekly collection. . . . Meanwhile, competing elements of the Stockholm underworld are determined, alternatively, to snuff Anders and his companions, or to make sure they live.

Hitman Anders is a fun read, full of unexpected twists and random (dare we say providential?) resolutions.  The hapless Anders remains oblivious to what all is going on around him, accepting both setbacks and windfalls with equal guilelessness.  So what is the meaning of it all?  For the receptionist, maybe "the meaning of life is to make other people happy as long as we have the financial means to make ourselves just a little happier?"  The priest keeps looking for a way to make a buck.  Anders rolls with it all.  And plenty of truly bad guys get their just rewards.

Maybe Hitman Anders doesn't pack the punch that The 100-Year-Old Man does.  But Jonasson's latest is full of absurd, irreverent story telling that kept me laughing.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A novel set in a country that is not your own

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hope Heals, by Katherine and Jay Wolf

Rarely have I read a book that moved me the way Hope Heals: A True Story of Overwhelming Loss and an Overcoming Love.  Katherine and Jay Wolf were college sweethearts just starting out life together.  He was weeks away from finishing law school.  She had a budding modeling career.  They had a 6-month-old baby.  When Katherine suffered a sudden stroke, everything changed.

In Hope Heals, they tell the story together of their romance and marriage, her life-shattering stroke, the weeks and months of recovery and rehab, and the new normal of post-stroke life.  As the book alternates from Katherine's voice to Jay's, we walk through the journey with them.  They both open up about their fears and doubts, but ultimately what comes through is the hope and faith that they find in the Lord.

From the beginning of their ordeal, while Katherine was in surgery, Jay was encouraged by scripture.  As he read Romans 8, he "released Katherine from my feeble grip and into God's.  I knew that, though Katherine may well lose her life, she would never lose the indomitable goodness and inexplicable love of God.  And neither would I."  Jay became convinced that in the midst of suffering, "God's presence remains the same.  He finds us in our hurts, if we want to be found.  His power to filter the worst that life has to offer, with goodness remaining, is our greatest hope."  That faith sustained him, even as Katherine continued to struggle first to survive, then to relearn how to talk, eat, and walk.  He realized, "Maybe healing just looks different from what we think it does. . . . Maybe she had already been healed as much as she would be--and if so, was that enough healing for me?"

Katherine, though grateful to be alive, says she "felt no comfort at all" in her miraculous survival.  "In fact, the whole miracle thing really stung because the 'miracle' had left me unable to live normally." In God's timing, though, he reminded Katherine that he does not make mistakes, and that he knows better than we do.  Jay reminds us, "Don't wait to celebrate the life you have been given, even if it looks different from the one you thought you would have."

Several things stood out about their story.  First, they have a remarkable network of friends and family who surrounded them and provided for them in many ways.  It's a reminder to me of the importance of family and church relationships in times of need.  Their son, James, never lacked a caretaker, Jay never missed a meal, Jay's sister come home from her overseas mission post to help out, their church group kept a 24/7 vigil at the hospital for weeks. . . . the list goes on.  Further, God's provision and timing were constantly evident, as was his hand in miraculous healing along the way.  She wasn't supposed to survive, wasn't supposed to be able to swallow, wasn't supposed to be able to walk, but God kept proving those predictions wrong.

For his part, Jay inspired me with his selfless servant's heart for his bride.  Sure, he vowed to be with her in sickness and health, but he never could have imagined the kind of care he would have to provide.  The worst I have ever had to nurse my wife through is a kidney stone attack.  Once that passed (haha), she was in good shape.  My wife's needs are different than Katherine's, but no matter what she needs, I aspire to show her the same selfless love that Jay does for Katherine.

Katherine and Jay turned to scripture and faith in God for hope and healing.  They are honest in Hope Heals about their struggles and doubts.  Their narrative brought me to tears on several occasions. More importantly, their story brought me to my knees.  I am grateful for their witness, and am reminded to lean on that "special kind of Christian peace that doesn't quite make sense."  Katherine writes, "believing in God is not possible without also believing God.  He says He is my hope and strength, and I am taking Him at His word."  Amen.

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

You ought to check out their web site, particularly the video they made of their story:

You might also enjoy this interview with James Robison on LifeToday:

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about suffering

Monday, April 25, 2016

Subversive Jesus, by Craig Greenfield

Craig Greenfield wants to shake you up.  In Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World, Greenfield challenges the typical American middle-class version of following Jesus.  It's tempting to sit in a comfortable Sunday school class and "embrace a respectable Jesus, an agreeable teacher with pleasant stories to tell about how to be good."  We would "invite this Jesus over for a cup of tea and a chat about the weather."  But Jesus was a subversive, who came to "bring down rules from their thrones" and "fill the hungry with good things."  Maybe the way many of us are following Jesus isn't really the way Jesus would have us follow him.

"Radical hospitality" is a major theme of Subversive Jesus.  Greenfield wants us to reconsider the way we practice hospitality, community, and charity.  Greenfield and his wife lived for several years in a slum community in Cambodia.  Most of the book is about their years spent in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighborhood, where Greenfield's family lived communally with some other Christians and fostered a sense of community with their poor, addicted, and homeless neighbors.

Practicing "radical hospitality," the Greenfields opened their home on a daily basis.  Dozens would show up for dinner and fellowship, some even staying with them for extended weeks of "pre-hab," detoxing in preparation for rehab programs.  Greenfield calls on us not to distance ourselves from the poor.  He quotes Gustavo Guitierrez, who said "You say you care about the poor.  Then tell me, what are their names?"  Greenfield got to know the poor in his neighborhood, unlike many Christians who have "outsourced hospitality to charities."  He writes, "Instead of welcoming the poor ourselves, we rely on soup kitchens and institutions.  Instead of opening our churches and homes to the hungry, we are taught to 'leave it to the professionals.'"

This type of attitude not only causes us to "miss out on the subversive sharing that Jesus invited his followers to taste as they ate a meal with strangers," but it also harms the poor.  "Traditional charity can foster a 'taking mentality' that creates dependency and strips recipients of their dignity.  Even worse, charity often violates the Golden Rule of community development: Never do for someone what they can do for themselves."

Greenfield and his family demonstrate incarnational ministry.  He points out that "too many churches see mission as something done to strangers during an annual trip to a 'foreign' place, rather than something to be lived every day as part of a lifelong, place-based vocation."  When a church group wanted to visit the neighborhood and pass out scarves, Greenfield helped them out, but quickly regretted it.  He observed that "relationships of mutuality empower the poor, whereas one-way acts of benevolence may disempower them."  Jesus, of course, is the ultimate model of incarnational ministry.  He was "known as a friend of the broken--not just a visitor."

At times Greenfield wanders into leftist economics, as you might expect, but I can forgive him that.  Economics aside--even as I type that, I hear him saying you can't put economics aside.  Put a different way--on a personal level, Greenfield challenges me to examine my own life of Christian community and my own relationships with poor people in my community.  I would love to live a life of radical hospitality much more like Greenfield's family, but my current lifestyle of working too many hours, not making enough money, spending too much time on school activities, and homework, seems to leave little room for much hospitality of any sort.  He clearly states that not everyone will be called to move to the poorest neighborhoods.  But we are all called to love our neighbors. 

If you're comfortable in your middle-class or wealthy Christian life, you might want to avoid Subversive Jesus.  It's impossible to read without conviction.  It may be that God has you just where he wants you.  God may not be calling you or me to pick up and move, but I can almost guarantee that he's calling all of us to live more like Greenfield and his family than we are today.

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

Sunday, April 24, 2016

An Armadillo in Paris, by Julie Kraulis

"Arlo feels it.  The twitch in his left claw.  The twitch that only stops when adventure begins. . . ."  Arlo, the Brazilian armadillo, comes by his wanderlust naturally.  He grandfather Augustin left journals of his travels, which Arlo now wants to follow.  First stop in Julie Kraulis's children's book series: An Armadillo in Paris.

Arlo makes many stops on his visit to Paris, at a street cafe, the Louvre, and a bookstore on the Left Bank.  He sees famous sites like the Arc de Triomphe, Notre-Dame, and the bridges over the Seine.  Throughout, he's looking forward to meeting the Iron Lady, which turns out to be none other than the Eiffel Tower.

Arlo is as cute as can be as he explores Paris.  Kraulis's illustrations bring the city to life in a soft, intimate way.  Most of the pictures show the armadillo-level perspective, rather than broad views or cityscapes.  If you don't already long to visit Paris (who doesn't?), An Armadillo in Paris will give you a little extra inspiration, just as Augustin's journal inspired Arlo.

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

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Help My Unbelief, by Barnabas Piper

Barnabas Piper grew up listening to one of today's best preachers and teachers, John Piper, who also happens to be his father.  Barnabas embraced all he was taught, at home and at church.  Even with a solid foundation of knowledge, as a young adult he had a crisis of faith.  He writes about his own doubts and belief in Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith.

Piper's title is based on the story of the father whose son was possessed.  Jesus came along and the father asks about healing his son.  Jesus says, "Everything is possible to him who believes."  The desperate father replies, "I do believe; help my unbelief."  This was Piper's cry.  He believed on one level in the promises of scripture, but did not truly believe.  He offers encouragement for Christians who find themselves feeling and thinking the same way.

First of all, we must recognize that this is a good place to start.  "Our belief is imperfect, so we cry out for help.  But that cry comes from a place of belief."  Even when faced with doubt, we can start with even the slightest intellectual assent.  Piper makes the important distinction between "believing doubt" and "unbelieving doubt."  Believing doubt is rooted in obedience and leads to repentance and belief.  The goal of unbelieving doubt is to disprove, attack, "erode the asker's belief," stemming from and leading to "complete and total refusal to believe in God or His way."

Piper writes with passion and thoughtfulness, with the zeal or immaturity of youth, depending on  your preference.  I thought he fell short of his goal.  Or perhaps he met the goal, but was aiming too low.  If the goal was simply to encourage Christians whose faith journey is like his, by explaining that doubt is OK as long as we come back around to faith, the goal is met.  But if a Christian is really struggling with questions of faith, he might come a way empty after reading Help My Unbelief.  Piper seems to say, "Look, if you're stuck in unbelief, you need to repent.  I'm afraid your doubt is 'unbelieving doubt.'"

I do appreciate Piper's laying his soul bare with Help My Unbelief.  Many doubting Christians will be helped and encouraged.  Overall, though, the book is incomplete and insufficient.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book whose title comes from a Bible verse

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells

"Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching."  C.S. Lewis

"The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching."  John Wooden

The sentiment of the above quotes has been spoken and written plenty of times.  J.C. Watts, Tony Dungy, and others have said similar things.  Scripture reflects the same principal.  The book of Proverbs reminds us that "Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper."  The prophet Isaiah writes, "Woe to those who . . . do their work in darkness and think, 'Who sees us? Who will know?'"

I thought of this when I was reading H.G. Wells's classic The Invisible Man.  Griffin was a brilliant young scientist who became fascinated with altering the refractive properties of matter.  Viola, he stumbles upon invisibility, only he has not been able to figure out how to reverse it.  He is cursed to exist unseen by anyone.  He almost immediately begins a spree of trouble making, crime, and mayhem.

I don't know what I would do were I in Griffin's place.  I would like to think I would handle it better than he did.  I would also like to think I'd have the foresight to make some clothes invisible so I wouldn't have to go around naked if I wanted to be unseen and warm.  But I have to be honest and admit I'd probably be like the kid in that 1980s movie The Invisible Kid and go in the girls' locker room.  At least when I was a kid.  Now that I am mature, I'm sure I would only use my invisibility power to do good.

Wells's prose is strong, especially keeping in mind that he reflects his time and place (late 19th century England).  The story is sparse, but fresh, in spite of the dated prose.  Like any good science fiction, or really any fiction, it raises questions larger than the story itself.  The Invisible Man remains a book that deserves revisiting.

2016 Reading Challenge: A classic novel

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Domestic Scenes: The Art of Ramiro Gomez, by Lawrence Weschler

Ramiro Gomez, a young artist in Los Angeles, captures a perspective of LA life in his collage-like art.  Domestic Scenes: The Art of Ramiro Gomez provides examples of his distinctive works, along with commentary by Lawrence Weschler.  Gomez, the son of Mexican immigrants, has worked as a domestic in LA and counts among his friends "the very people who make . . . the look of L.A. possible . . . our fellow humans, who we ordinarily prefer not to see."

Much of his work is homage to the artist David Hockey.  Gomez adds a twist to Hockney's LA imagery by adding cut-outs or painting in the Latino domestic workers, cleaning houses, working in yards, or maintaining swimming pools.  He draws attention to class issues, ironically displaying his pieces for viewing and purchase by wealthy art patrons who employ immigrants as maid, yard workers, and pool cleaners.  Weschler asks Gomez about "possible dissonances in the acquisitional fate of his pieces."  Gomez remarks that he's not throwing rocks, but "softly, quietly, . . . provok[ing] that moment of recognition."

Weschler's text adds much to the context and background of Gomez's work.  He clearly writes as a fan, and Gomez gave him lots of time for interviews and interaction, giving the reader lots of biographical background and insight into influences on Gomez.  Is Gomez's work great art?  I'll leave that to the art experts.  He's clearly striking a chord with many collectors and dealers.  In my humble opinion, the aesthetics take a back seat to the provocation.  That's OK, it's just not work that I would pay big money to put on my walls.  (As if I had big money.  But you know what I mean.)

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about art

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

David McCullough's name has become synonymous with bringing history to life.  Several of his books have won major awards, including his biographies of Presidents Truman and John Adams, which won Pulitzer Prizes.  His latest book, The Wright Brothers, tells the story of these two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who changed the world with the power of hard work and great ideas.

Everyone knows Wilbur and Orville Wright pioneered powered human flight.  McCullough tells their story, emphasizing the power of their achievements in an era when people all over the United States and Europe were trying to accomplish the same thing.  Some other efforts were well-funded with government money and major investors.  It's simply remarkable that "they had no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own."   The fact that, all of that being true, they managed to accomplish what no one else had, and, in doing so, change the face of human civilization, boggles the mind.

McCullough writes about their start in Dayton, going into business together with a bicycle shop (which was quite cutting edge at the time), then developing their glider, and adding motorized flight.  They were known for their personal integrity, their humility, and their hard work.  Even living in Europe, treated like royalty (and in some cases, hanging out with royalty), they never seemed to lose the grounding of the Midwestern pastor's home in which they were raised.  I thoroughly enjoyed McCullough's detailed, colorful telling of these two amazing men's story.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by David McCullough

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Raising the Perfectly Imperfect Child, by Boris Vujicic

Several years ago I first read about Nick Vujicic, a man born with no limbs, and have read several of his books, such as Life Without Limits, his first book, and Love Without Limits, is which he and his wife write about their courtship and marriage.  For another perspective on Nick's life, his father, Boris Vujicic, has written Raising the Perfectly Imperfect Child: Facing Challenges with Strength, Courage, and Hope.

Vujicic tells some of the same stories that Nick tells in his books, but coming from the point of view of the father, the stories take on a different vein.  All parents will appreciate Vujicic's book, but parents of children with disabilities will especially benefit.  Vujicic begins with an honest admission.  Any parent who has a child with a disability, whether the disability is discovered in utero, is evident at birth, or develops or is discovered later on, can relate to the Vujicic's shock and surprise upon seeing newborn Nick with no arms or legs.  They had no indication of Nick's condition during the pregnancy.

The Vujucics were devastated.  They had no framework for processing this.  They had serious doubts about whether they could care for a child with a disability.  Some counseled them to consider adoption, which they did in earnest before making the decision to keep him.  With some regret and pain they told Nick this story later on.

Vujicic has a lot to offer for parents raising disabled children.  Although Nick's condition is rather unique, there are plenty of aspects of living with disabilities that are shared no matter what disability a child has.  Speaking of Nick's relationship with his siblings, Vujicic writes that having Nick first helped his younger siblings to be comfortable with Nick and not bothered by his disability.  They never knew life without Nick.  Vujicic said that he and Nick's mother had to be careful not to show favoritism, though.  Just because he might have difficult doing chores doesn't mean they can't find something for him to do around the house!

I especially appreciated the Vujicic's stubborn insistence that Nick attend mainstream classes with his peers, rather than being in a segregated school or classroom.  The Vujicic family began a movement in Australia which led to desegregation of schools, placing disabled children in mainstream classes everywhere.  Vujicic's thoughts on inclusion are short and sweet: "Sooner or later, Nick would have to live and work among the general population. Our feeling was the more he learned to deal with the real world, the better."  Amen, brother!  Thank you for standing up for the rights of children.

Raising the Perfectly Imperfect Child has great parenting advice for any parent.  Parents of children with disabilities, however, should take note.  Nick is now a much sought-after speaker, traveling the world, inspiring people to live a "ridiculously good life." A major factor shaping him into the inspiring leader that he is, is the no-nonsense way in which he was raised.  Parents of a child who has a disability should especially consider Vujicic's practical wisdom.

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

Monday, April 18, 2016

Avenue of Spies, by Alex Kershaw

I never get tired of reading about people sticking it to the Nazis.  Who's with me?  One of the greatest manifestations of human evil in modern history--who doesn't love to see these guys lose?  In his book set in Paris during the Nazi occupation, Alex Kershaw shows the dark side of Naziism (with, admittedly, some brighter spots among the Germans).  He tells the story of Sumner Jackson, an American doctor whose heroism during the war, assisting the Allies, rescuing Jews, and aiding the Resistance should be remembered.

In Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family's Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris, we meet Dr. Jackson.  After heroically serving in the Great War (WW1), he and his Swiss wife settle in Paris, where he is director of the American hospital.  They live on Avenue Foch, home to many elites from France, Europe, and around the world.  As the Nazi occupation moves in, the Germans descend on Avenue Foch, taking over the mansions of the wealthy, most of whom have fled.  So the Jacksons end up as neighbors to the Germans, included the headquarters of the SS.

Kershaw paints a bleak picture of the French tendency to lay down and let the Gerrmans take over.  They occupied France without having to fire a shot.  Thankfully, many Germans were francophiles, enamored with Paris.  As a result, the famous sites and structures of the city were spared.  Inevitably, however, the Jacksons were not spared.  Allowing their apartment to be used by the resistance as a safe house to exchange information and harbor fugitives, the occupiers finally saw through their cover.  They were sent to concentration camps, experiencing the worst horrors of the war first hand.  Dr. Jackson's wife, Toquette, saw in a guard named Kratz "the embodiment of Nazism, utterly involved, sociopathic, sadistic, taking perverse pleasure in women's terror," as he gloried in telling the women and the following day "everyone will go on the transport to Germany. . . all to die . . . all to die."

One thing that probably shouldn't have surprised me but did is the amount of time it took for the Allies to liberate Paris.  I guess in my mind, after D-day the war was pretty much over.  But it was a couple of months after D-day that Paris was liberated, and several months beyond that that the German's surrendered.  In the meantime, people like the Jacksons suffered in camps, and the Germans became even more sadistic, want to eliminate evidence of the war crimes committed in these camps.

Not only did Jackson serve heroically in Paris, treating people in the American hospital even as the Germans invaded, he assisted Jews, downed Allied pilots, and other enemies of the Germans by helping them to escape.  In the concentration camp, he continued to treat patients, at risk of his own health.  He did not survive when his prisoner transport ship was shot.  Thankfully his son lived to tell the tale, and thankfully Kershaw has brought the tale to life in such a compelling way.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about the Second World War

Sunday, April 17, 2016

An Armadillo in New York, by Julie Kraulis

Arlo the armadillo is world traveler. His grandfather Augustin paved the way, leaving some journals for Arlo as he sets out on adventures of his own.  In Julie Kraulis's An Armadillo in New York, Arlo follows his grandfather's advice, seeing the most famous sites in the city that never sleeps. His visit culminates with a date with New York City's most famous lady, Lady Liberty.
Arlo visits Central Park, the Top of the Rock, the Brooklyn Bridge, and many other famous sites.  Kraulis's illustrations perfectly capture New York, in an idealized, softened way, the way we picture it in our imaginations (and the way the New York City Office of Tourism wants us to picture it!)  Just as Grandfather Augustin shows Arlo the way, Arlo shows us the way.  I'm ready for a visit to the Big Apple!

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

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Eighth Day, by Joseph John

Shawn Jaffe isn't who he thinks he is.  But who is he?  Joseph John finally answers that question in The Eighth Day, but not before the bodies start piling up and Jaffe goes on the run.  From New York to Texas and back, Jaffe wants to find answers, but the men in black suits keep showing up.  The more Jaffe discovers about himself, the more he realizes he has the physical and mental abilities of a super human. John writes with a fast-paced, action-packed style that made me think of the Jason Bourne books, but had enough weirdness to remind me of Philip Dick (But not as weird as his books.  Only as weird as some of the popular movies based on his books.  Dick readers will understand.)

John's story telling is efficient, packing more action and development into 250 pages than most 400 page novels.  It's a style that leaves the reader a little breathless.  Some of the jumps in action are jarring, but John fills in the backstories and blank spaces adequately.  As enjoyable as The Eighth Day is, it did have a bit of a derivative feel, as if scenes were pulled from a blockbuster movie.  I don't mean this as a huge criticism, just a note that The Eighth Day reflects and fits into a particular genre.

As complete as John's ending is, I could see Jaffe taking off into a series of novels.  He is an unusual person with no background and super powers, the perfect set up for a vigilante or superhero.  I, for one, hope John continues to hone his writing skills and treats us to a sequel.

Thanks to Mr. John for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, April 15, 2016

To the Left of Time, by Thomas Lux

Here's what I hope for when I read poetry: words that capture and convey emotion in a way that prose simply can't.  Descriptive passages that describe nature in ways that bring flora and fauna and landscapes to life, again in a way that prose can't or simply doesn't.  Turns of phrase that use language in unexpected ways.

Thomas Lux's new poetry collection, To the Left of Time, hints at some of that, but only in a tepid way.  The dominant theme, if there is one, is the humor of daily life, with a touch of nostalgia.  One example is "Ode to the Fire Hydrant," in which Lux reflects on his summer of painting fire hydrants to pay of a juvenile debt to society.

Lux's poems are cute, sometimes memorable, but not anything I'd want to read over and over again.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book of poetry

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Anything for a Vote, by Joseph Cummins

Turn on the news, listen to talk radio, open the papers, watch the debates, and I can guarantee you will not be impressed with the field of presidential candidates from either party.  You might ask, "How did it get so bad?"  As Joseph Cummins reminds us in his book Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, it didn't get this bad.  It's pretty much always been this bad.

Cummins doesn't aim to make the candidates look good.  (However, it may have just been my own bias, but he seemed to take more pleasure in making conservatives look bad. . . .)  Presidential campaigns have long been full of lies, dirty tricks, and bad character.  Cummins takes each presidential election, from George Washington (unopposed) to Obama v. Romney.  (The book was first published in 2007, updated in 2015.)

Anything for a Vote is history as anecdote, written more as entertainment than as history.  Cummins definitely delights in the tawdrier elements of campaigns; that's no surprise.  He makes some entertaining observations and asides, like, "Warren G. Harding was the most libidinous candidate to run for president until Bill Clinton waltzed in from Arkansas seventy years later."  (Although I wonder where JFK ranks among libidinous presidents?)

Have some fun with history.  Anything for a Vote won't take the place of serious histories of presidential elections.  But who wants to read one of those?  Cummins reminds us that presidential candidates are just as flawed as anyone else, probably more than most.  Whether you lean red or blue, you will find plenty not to like about your favorite presidents.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A historical book

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Inner Runner, by Jason Karp

In my mind, the chief measure of a good running book is whether it inspires me to get out and run.  Jason Karp's The Inner Runner: Running to a More Successful, Creative, and Confident You passes that test.  Karp is a runner, a running coach, and writer of books about running.  While his prior books tended to be more about training and racing strategies, there's little to none of that in The Inner Runner.  Here he writes about motivations, goals, and meaning.  I enjoyed his perspective and priorities.

Karp writes for runners of all abilities and all types.  His chapter on better runs illustrates this:
"Better runs are slow runs. . . ."
"Better runs are fast runs. . . ."
"Better runs are long runs. . . ."
"Better runs are those that are all about your breath. . . ."
"Better runs are those during which you're aware of your movements and everything going on around you and inside of you. . . ."
"Better runs are emotional runs. . . ."
"Better runs are cross-country and trail runs. . . ."
"Better runs are track runs. . . ."
"Better runs are treadmill runs. . . ."
"Better runs are morning runs. . . ."
"Better runs are social runs. . . ."
"Better runs are solo runs. . . ."
"Better runs are coached runs. . . ."
"Better runs are races. . . ."
Obviously some of these are contradictory.  To Karp, better runs are those that you are running instead of sleeping in or sitting on the couch.  One time when he was running with Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the gold medal in the first women's Olympic marathon, he asked "where her favorite place to run has been. 'Right here, right now,' she said."  I think Karp would endorse and expand that.  What's the best run?  The run you're running now.  The best place?  Where you are right now.

Karp, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, provides a great deal of information about how the body works while running.  He wrote his dissertation on how runners breathe while running, and his insights on that are very interesting (and probably easier to read than his actual dissertation).  Mostly, though, the strength of The Inner Runner is Karp's inspirational wisdom.  We all have our own purposes for running, and our own goals, but to runners running is "a very special, even holy, process that blends the physical with the philosophical, the egotistical with the emotional."  To a non-runner that sounds overblown.  But a runner will understand.

Karp also emphasizes not comparing yourself to other runners.  Most of us don't have the DNA to compete at a high level.  We can compete with ourselves and push ourselves to accomplish our goals, giving our very best.  He writes, "When you pin that race number to your shirt, you make a promise to yourself and the other runners around you to give your best effort.  And when you cross that finish line, you'll know whether or not you kept that promise."  I love that and will try to remember that next time I race.  He concludes with wisdom that all runners can live by: "Running teaches us that we are better than we think we are and capable of going further that we thought we could . . . in running and in life."

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about sports

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Jasper John Dooley: Public Library Enemy #1, by Caroline Adderson, illustrated by Mike Shiell

Jasper John Dooley really does try to stay out of trouble.  But sometimes his efforts only make it worse.  In his latest series of mishaps, Jasper John Dooley: Public Library Enemy #1, Jasper and an accomplice--his father--murder a library book.  They didn't start out with murder in mind, but sometimes things spin out of control.

This is Caroline Adderson's sixth Jasper John Dooley book, the second one illustrated by Mike Shiell.    Jasper is a fun and funny little boy.  I like Adderson's style, telling the story consistently from Jasper's perspective.  His little boy logic for taking care of the damaged book, his misunderstanding of the price on the book cover, his schemes to raise money to pay for the book, and his fear of the consequences are amusingly silly.

Jasper John Dooley may not be the brightest kid on the block, but he's funny and creative.  Readers will enjoy reading about his problems with his library book and will want to read about his prior mishaps as well.

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

Friday, April 8, 2016

Glad You're Not Me, by Jonathan Harnisch

I don't have a lot to say about Jonathan Harnisch's autobiographical stream of consciousness book Glad You're Not Me.  First, this short book offers a window into the mind of someone "diagnosed with several mental illnesses from schizoaffective disorder to Tourette's syndrome."  I would assume that most people with these conditions have difficulty communicating their feelings and thoughts.  Harnisch says he writes "to attain an ounce, a moment of seemingly impossible peace of mind, through complete honesty and selflove, by any means necessary."

He is a writer and self-described "all-around artist" so his developed ability to express himself must be a gift for him, a release.  He also says he has helped on a couple of movies to train actors to pretend to have Tourette's.  To me that shows a high level of self-awareness that many with mental illness don't have.

One of the best things about Glad You're Not Me is its brevity.  Despite the potential for insight here, it's almost unreadable.  I am glad I'm not Hamisch, and I appreciate his self-effacing writing and striving for understanding.  But I wasn't all that glad to be reading Glad You're Not Me.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book with 100 pages or less

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Sin of Certainty, by Peter Enns

Peter Enns spent many years in a religious tradition that valued certainty, right beliefs, and a sense of defending the faith against those who believe differently.  Through a series of personal revelations, he came to let go of that attitude of certainty and toward an attitude of trust.  As the subtitle implies, his book The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs, Enns tells his story and encourages other Christians to trust in God, not in their carefully constructed theological systems.

I'm all for intellectual humility, so I felt an immediate connection with his position.  He also writes about being driven from the seminary where he was educated and taught for many years.  A new wave of "theological certainty" took hold at the seminary and didn't deem him certain enough, so he was shown the door.  I felt a further connection with him, as the seminary I attended went through a similar purge while I was there.  After a large number of professors were shown the door or fled on their own volition, I left the Ph.D. program.  So I can relate to his being on the wrong side of theological certainty.

Enns's large theme here is that God wants us to trust him, not our own dogmatism.  Our faith should be in God, not in denomination, biblical interpretation, or confessional statement.  He sums it up like this: "trust means letting go of the need to know, of the need to be certain."  He came to embrace the contemplative traditions in the church, concluding that "trust in God, not correct thinking about God, is the beginning and end of faith, the only true and abiding path."

So far, I'm on board with him.  We see through a glass darkly.  We can't know it all.  But my problem with Enns is his calling out Christians who do have certainty in their traditions.  Can such a tradition "sell God short by keeping the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend"?  Can a set of beliefs become an idol?  Do some people trust their beliefs more than they trust God?  All of these may be true for some people, in some traditions.

Enns says he's "not against creeds," but his book, for the most part, says otherwise.  What I would like to have heard from him is whether there is anything for which he would claim certainty.  That Jesus is an historical figure?  That he lived and taught as the Bible says?  That he died and was resurrected on the third day?  I suspect Enns would say he's certain about these things.  Is that sinful certainty?  I am not certain.

He also touches on subjects like the problem of evil, the absurdity of believing in a literal creation as told in Genesis, and difficulties with the character of God in the Old Testament.  Unfortunately, he doesn't have very good answers for these questions.  He likes the fact that these questions lead to doubt, which "strips away distraction so we can more clearly see the inadequacies of whom we think God is and move us from the foolishness of thinking that our god is the God."  So whose god is the God?

As much as I felt an affinity for Enns and his perspective, ultimately I came down not liking what he had to say.  He has a very friendly, conversational, even jovial tone, but he's a smiling bomb thrower.  He creates straw men and brings them crashing down.  He has a high degree of tolerance for any theological perspective--except for those who have a low degree of tolerance.  He writes, "I value challenging older orthodoxies and gaining new insights.  That's neither good nor bad in and of itself."  Yet if you are one who values older orthodoxies, and value insights of those who lived many generations before, that's certainly bad.  Enns implies that you may be living in sin!  Certainly.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book from a theological viewpoint you disagree with

Monday, April 4, 2016

Honestly, by Daniel Fusco

As Christians know, but have a hard time grappling with, the Christian life is not always "neat or tidy or straightforward.  The Christian message says that life is, and always will be, exceedingly, frustratingly messy."  So writes pastor Daniel Fusco in Honestly: Getting Real about Jesus and Our Messy Lives.

Based on a sermon series Fusco preached on the book of Ephesians, he reminds us of the grace the gospel offers in light of our messiness (sin).  None of us is beyond hope, and we can rejoice in the good news, not that Jesus makes us good, or better, or moral, but "that Jesus makes dead people alive."  We were dead in our sin; Jesus gives us life.  And it's not from what we do: "God does not love you because you're good; God loves you because God is loving."

In light of that hope, Fusco calls on us to pray, "all the time, in every circumstance," not just when things are messy.  And we are to "walk the way Jesus walked," which he says would make our lives "unpredictable" but "good."  From the start, we know "we're not saved by good works, we're saved for good works."

Honestly is an encouraging read, a helpful reminder that Jesus is sufficient for us, and that our salvation is not up to us but up to him.  Fusco's style is very conversational, by design.  He'd love the reader to imagine a conversation with him over a cup of good coffee.  He says the book is like "improvised music" based on the sermon series he preached at his church, and refers readers to the series at the church web site if they want a more orderly presentation.  Count me in; I think I would have enjoyed that more.

As much as I appreciated his message and theme, the presentation in the book was too scattered and disorderly for me.  Plus, I'm not a big fan of using a too-casual tone in writing.  For instance, on several occasions, he introduced a scripture like this: "Paul was like, "But now . . ."  It's one thing for "was like" to slip out in conversation or extemporaneous speech, but when you add it in writing, presumably approved by you and multiple editors, ugh.  Please, stop it.

(One thing I loved about the Kindle version: the footnotes actually worked as hyperlinks!  For some reason, this is exceedingly rare in the Kindle books I read.)

Not to end on a down note, Fusco is clearly a terrific communicator.  I'm sure his sermons are entertaining, inspiring, and encouraging.  At the same time, it sounds like he's realistic about the Christian life and positive about the promise of the gospel.

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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

That's Not Fair!, by Danielle McLaughlin, illustrated by Dharmali Patel

When is a good age to introduce kids to the concept of individual rights and freedom?  Hopefully principles of respect for others and self-determination will be instilled very early, but getting to nuts and bolts legislative questions might come later.  Danielle McLaughlin can make a case for the preteen years being good time.  Her book That's Not Fair! Getting to Know Your Rights and Freedoms, with illustrations by Dharmali Patel, introduces questions of civil liberty in a humorous, easy-to-understand that will be appreciated by students as young as 7 or 8.

McLaughlin sets these stories in a fictional city with an activist mayor and city council.  Each story follows a similar storyline.  A problem arises, the mayor and/or members of the city council come up with a legislative solution to the problem, their rule or law steps on someone's rights, and they backtrack to make sure to treat everyone fairly.

The townspeople cover such topics as freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, unreasonable search and seizure, public safety, and freedom of the press.  At the end of each chapter, the readers is asked to think about how the mayor or council addressed the problem, whether the solution worked, and what were the consequences of the solution.

The solutions never are as simple as they seem.  Together the townspeople realize that "Treating everyone the same way isn't always fair. . . . Sometimes we have to be treated differently to give everyone the same opportunities."  McLaughlin encourages her young readers to think about freedom and the law with both the effectiveness and the consequences in mind, and to speak up if they think a law is unfair.  She writes, "It is only when some brave person . . . says, 'That's not fair!' that things can begin to change."  Young children may not grasp the concepts of freedom and fairness that McLaughlin is encouraging here, but it's never too early to start planting those seeds.

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

Friday, April 1, 2016

Simple Pleasures, by Marianne Jantzi

Have you ever wondered what life is like in an Amish household?  If so, you will be delighted to read Marianne Jantzi's Simple Pleasures: Stories from My Life as an Amish Mother.  Jantzi, the mother of four little ones, has plenty of stories to tell of her life in a Canadian Amish community.  If Jantzi didn't eschew technology, she would be a mommy blogger.  Instead, she writes a column for an Amish magazine, participates in a circular letter with other Amish mothers, and now has collected her stories in this book. 

The most remarkable thing about reading Jantzi's stories is how absolutely normal their family life seems.  Jantzi faces the same day-to-day battles with laundry, kids' messes, and lost shoes that virtually every parent of young children faces.  She also has a catalog of cute stories, mispronounced words, pet adventures, and tender moments which any parent can relate to.  It's only every now and then, when she mentions expanding from a buggy to a carriage to accommodate their growing brood, stabling the horse after a trip to the store, or walking to the community telephone hut to make a phone call, that the distinctiveness of her family's Amish life surfaces.

Simple Pleasures certainly speaks well of the simple life of the Amish, with their close families, connection to nature, and community of faith.  I was left wondering if Jantzi has edited out conflict or darker times.  Her husband is merely a background presence, and most of her narrative is home life while he's away working.  I'm assuming that marriages are more stable and families are more harmonious as compared to typical modern families, but I would also assume that Amish are human and subject to the fall as well.

Jantzi's stories are cute, but the overall book is quite bland.  It has the feel of "a year in the life" of a typical Amish family, giving a window into their lifestyle.  It's just that not much interesting happens at the Jantzi house.  And that, one might argue, is exactly the point.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book targeted at the other gender