Monday, May 30, 2016

Street of Eternal Happiness, by Rob Schmitz

Rob Schmitz is an American from Minnesota working as a financial journalist in China.  During his stay in Shanghai, he has taken the time to get to know his neighbors, his neighborhood, and the street-level history of his adopted country.  In Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road, he tells their stories, and in doing so tells the story of China in the 20th and 21st century.

Schmitz lives in the former French Concession, where European architecture mixes with traditional Chinese culture.  In Shanghai, city dwellers mix with immigrants from rural areas.  Some of Schmitz's friends are among those immigrants, and tell stories of life as hukou system.  Under this system, Chinese were forever tied to their hometown.  Their travel and employment opportunities were limited.  Schmitz points out that "the hukou system may have treated millions of people like illegal immigrants in their own country," even comparing it to apartheid in South Africa.

Depending on the generation, Schmitz's friends have different memories of the Cultural Revolution.  Some of his neighbors had their livelihoods taken away and their families split up due to Mao's policies.  In hopes of making China a progressive economic force, the Chinese government implemented hukou, the one-child policy, and various propaganda campaigns to accomplish their goals.  As a result, "the Chines had evolved into a people who had learned to detect the slightest ideological shifts in the ruling hierarchy so that they could quickly recalibrate their positions, protecting themselves and their families."  I was surprised at the extent to which some of Schmitz's subjects wanted to avoid talking about the past.  They thought all that was best forgotten.

One former neighbor he met, through a series of letters he found in an antique shop, had immigrated to the U.S.  He moved to New York and tried to find work, get his GED, and enjoy life in the United States.  "He has spent his childhood learning about the evils of capitalist America from his school textbooks, but when he arrived in New York, he discovered its capitalists treated their poor much better than the Communists did back home."  I wonder how common this sentiment is among Chinese who come to America, realizing that however much they love their country, its culture, and its people, their government and its policies and propaganda are pretty messed up.

I will probably never have the opportunity to travel to China.  Even if I do, I am sure I will not have the opportunity to build relationships over time with Chinese neighbors the way Schmitz has.  I appreciate his story telling, the sense of culture and history he captures in these stories, and the street-level view of Chinese life and culture he portrays in Street of Eternal Happiness.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about a country or city

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Inspired by the National Parks, by Donna Marcinkowski DeSoto

Rocky Mountain N.P.
I love the boundless beauty of our national parks.  And who doesn't love a great quilt?  Donna Macinkowski DeSoto shows how those two loves can come together in Inspired by the National Parks: Their Landscapes and Wildlife in Fabric Perspectives.

For this project, quilt artists were recruited to create quilts inspired by, you guessed, national parks.  These quilts are not your grandma's quilting bee quilts, but real works of art.  (I'm sure your grandma made some nice quilts, but, well, they probably don't compare to these.)  Each chapter features reflections from a park ranger or other park employee, as well as reflections by the artists.  But the real attraction is the quilts themselves.

The quilts are gorgeous and varied.  Some are a bit abstract.  Most are representational, including both landscapes and wildlife.  You will definitely find some favorites.  My next vacation may be inspired by Inspired by the National Parks!

Oh, by the way, these all look great in the book.  I bet they look even better in person.  They may be on display in your area.  The schedule is on this web site:

Saguaro N.P.  One of the more light-hearted entries.

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

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Blessing of Humility, by Jerry Bridges

Few writers have had the impact on contemporary Christianity that Jerry Bridges had.  I first encountered Bridges in college, when I read The Pursuit of Holiness.  Through that book and dozens of others, plus his work with the Navigators, he touched millions of lives.  He died in March, and NavPress has posthumously published Bridges's last book, The Blessing of Humility: Walk Within Your Calling.

Bridges reads the Beatitudes through the lens of humility, which "is the second-most frequently taught trait in the New Testament, second only to love."  I had never thought of the Beatitudes as a teaching on humility, but Bridges makes a convincing case.  He writes,
Only those who are poor in spirit and who mourn over sin will hunger and thirst after the righteousness we have in Christ.  And only those who are poor in spirit will recognize how far short they come in attaining experimental righteousness.  The awareness of our absolute dependence on the righteousness of Christ and of our failure to attain more experiential righteousness will produce humility in us.
One of the most powerful sections was the chapter on mourning.  "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. . . ." What are the blessed mourning?  Mourning over our sin.  When we mourn over our sin, we acknowledge our need for Jesus and his forgiveness.  That is one part of the humility we ought to have as Christians.  As we grow in Christ, we become increasingly aware of our need for him.

Bridges will be missed.  But he has left a tremendous legacy in his writings, not least this newest title.  The Blessing of Humility is a short book that packs a powerful punch.  Christian readers from any generation will be blessed by Bridges's work.

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Crippled America, by Donald J. Trump

A year ago, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy, very few people gave him a chance.  Many thought he was simply seeking publicity.  After a few months of primary elections, a Trump nomination seemed inevitable.  Now he's neck and neck in the polls with Hillary.  If you haven't been following his campaign, and wonder where he stands on key issues, pick up Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.

Trump is the Republican nominee, and has been criticized by many for not being Republican enough or not being conservative enough.  But if you read Crippled America, you'll see that for the most part, Republicans and conservatives will be comfortable with Trump's positions.  He is more stringent on immigration than some Republicans, but many, many more Americans are on board with Trump.  On health care, he calls for a complete repeal of Obamacare, which most conservatives love.  However, I'm not sure how his health care solutions will sit with conservatives.

The big question is, no matter how good Trump's ideas are, can he get anything passed?  I'd seriously like to see him try.  While he's mostly conservative in his views, his positions in Crippled America are better described as common sense populism.  Trump is a guy who has gotten things done in business.  Now he's identifying problems in the U.S. and he's ready to offer solutions.

Is Trump a perfect candidate?  Clearly not.  He has lots of baggage, and has said some dumb things.  There are several Republican candidates I would rather have seen as the nominee.  I will admit that I would vote for just about anyone rather than Hillary.  But Crippled America encouraged me; there were many points at which I was nodding along with him.  I hope Republicans and other conservative voters will get past their offense at Trump's (unfortunately numerous) offensive remarks and pay attention to his positions.  A Hillary presidency wouldn't be the end of the world, but I dread the way she'll expand the government and I dread her Supreme Court appointments.  I can certainly live with a Trump presidency over another Clinton presidency.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by a Presbyterian

Monday, May 23, 2016

How to Make White People Laugh, by Negin Farsad

Negin Farsad is a very funny lady.  An Iranian-American who grew up in Southern California, Farsad is a "social justice comedian" who believes making people laugh is far better than killing them.  In How to Make White People Laugh, Farsad tells stories of life as an Iranian-American Muslim female comedian-slash-filmmaker.  And really, when talking about race and ethnicity, I agree with her that "if people laugh, maybe they'll start fewer wars. . . . Laughter is the key to all sorts of conflict resolution."

A large part of her mission in social justice comedy is to assure Americans that Muslims aren't all that bad.  She made a movie called The Muslims are Coming! (check it out on Netflix).  In the book, she describes some of the "street theater" they filmed.  My favorite was standing outside the Mormon temple with a sign reading "Hug a Muslim."  She got some great hugs, with a couple taunts.  I think it's safe to say that despite the loudmouth critics of Islam, everyday Muslims (like the ones who live on my street in the Bible Belt) are welcomed and embraced like anyone else.!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/article_750/poster28n-1-web.jpgI also enjoyed reading about her subway poster campaign.  When an activist group ran a series of ads critical of Islam in New York's subways, one reaction would be anger and demands that the ads be removed.  Farsad chose a different route.  She created a series of posters light-heartedly pointing out contributions of Muslims and, more importantly, showing that Muslims are regular folks.

Like many Muslims in America, Farsad has learned to live among her neighbors in this mix of people that is the U.S.  In How to Make White People Laugh, however, she comes across as someone who still considers herself Muslim as cultural identity, but whose life reflects little adherence to actual Islam.  I was reminded of many Jewish friends I have, who identify as Jewish, but whose lifestyle, diet, moral code, and attendance at worship services does not indicate strong adherence to the Jewish faith.  Far be it from me to evaluate Farsad's religious beliefs based on this book, but I would say in general there is a big difference between someone who is nominally Muslim and someone who follows some of the very conservative groups.

Farsad also sent some mixed signals about Iran.  Of course Iran is a developed nation, with high levels of education, even among women.  The contrast to some of the Arab Muslim nations is stark.  But she still admits that in Iran "repression is in the air" and that "people in Iran are waiting for regime change."  Plus, if Iranians are so nice, it would help if they didn't say things like this:
Mohammad Khatami, the former president of Iran: “If we abide by real legal laws, we should mobilize the whole Islamic world for a sharp confrontation with the Zionist regime … if we abide by the Koran, all of us should mobilize to kill.”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “It is the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map of the region.”
Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of Hezbollah: “If they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.
So on the one hand, I completely embrace Farsad's message that we should laugh together and live together, no matter our faith, culture, or skin color.  Further, we should make a point to do so: "simply meeting people is the microrevolution that is  your mission."  However, I'm reluctant to accept that Islam is never a threat.  Would I go full Trump and preemptively keep all Muslims out of the U.S.?  No.  But if a devout Muslim from a country known to be supportive of terrorists wants to come to the U.S., I think he or she deserves extra scrutiny.

Sorry, Ms. Farsad, if that offends you.  I really think I would enjoy hanging out with you, and I'm sure I would enjoy your show.  I certainly enjoyed your funny, thought-provoking, and stereotype-busting book.

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

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Founding Fathers Funnies, by Peter Bagge

I have long enjoyed Peter Bagge's comics in Reason magazine.  Those typically comment on contemporary issues.  In his new collection, Founding Fathers Funnies, he applies his goofy illustrating and political insight to the Founding Fathers. 

Bagge isn't so much interested in a retelling of American history, but in telling stories from history that we might be less familiar with.  Some of the characters are ones we recognize--the Founding Fathers themselves.  But he also brings in lesser known figures from the Revolutionary Era, like John Laurens and Nancy Morgan Hart.  I particularly liked Hart's story.  She and her daughter Sukey slaughtered six redcoats in Georgia in 1779.  Bring it!  I also enjoyed the story of Ben Franklin's dueling with words against his rival almanack writer, Titan Leeds.  This must have been hilarious to their readers at the time.  It wasn't so hilarious to Franklin's wife, who thought "Poor Richards's" wife "Bridget" too nearly resembled her. . . . She did not appreciate the depiction.
Bagge assumes a basic knowledge of the Revolutionary Era by his readers.  But these comics can certainly be enjoyed by someone who remembers little from their history classes.  They are fun to read, but I should point out that Bagge does not whitewash the historical record; hagiography these are not.

By the way, when I picked up the book, I thought, "I'll share this with my kids!"  Then I opened the book and saw the title of the first selection: "Let's F--- Sh-- Up!"  As accurate as that may be of the revolutionary attitude, I prefer less profane language. . . . But that's as bad as it got.  The rest of the collection is not rife with profanity.

I could read Bagge all day.  He's so funny, yet so smart and insightful.  I only wish there were more of his political and historical oeuvre to read!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

It's Not a Perfect World, but I'll Take It, by Jennifer Rose

Jennifer Rose is a college student who has high-functioning autism.  She has written a delightful book, It's Not a Perfect World, but I'll Take It: 50 Life Lessons for Teens Like Me Who Are Kind of (You Know) Autistic.  Rose, a bright, self-aware young lady, has much to offer for other teens who are living with autism.  I enjoyed her personal, practical insights.

A solid, fun-loving family gave her a strong foundation on which to grow.  She has confidence and self-assurance, and the ability to take life as it comes.  Her mom was a great advocate for her.  Rose's comment about her mother, after meeting "glamorous" autism advocate (and former model and Playboy playmate) reminded me of my wife: "All autism moms are glamorous in their own way because they work hard for their kids."

Rose discusses the mixed messages about "overcoming" autism in It's Not a Perfect World.  She seems to be aware of the movement celebrating the gift of autism, but adds a dose of reality.  She writes, "While it's great to celebrate the talents of autistic kids, you also have to deal with the hard issue of autism itself and its less pretty features."  We love the stories of autistic kids who have unique talents, "but we can't forget about the autistic kids who don't have special talents."  In other words, autism may be wonderful for some kids, but we shouldn't forget that "autism is very difficult for most kids."

Rose herself says she has "overcome" autism, to the extent that she now is enrolled in college.  Her target audience is other high-functioning kids like herself, to whom she offers a ray of hope and a path to a fulfilling future.  She writes with good humor and fun.  (Speaking of humor, I thought it was funny that this Jewish girl has fond memories of watching Veggie Tales, a favorite of evangelical Christians.)  The structure is a bit random, but isn't that how the minds of teenagers work?  Teens with autism and their parents will enjoy this uniquely insightful book.

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

Friday, May 20, 2016

Seven, by Jen Hatmaker

Is it possible to write a self-indulgent book about fasting?  Jen Hatmaker has done it.  Hatmaker, a popular author, conference speaker, and pastor's wife, chose seven areas in which she imposed on herself a month-long fast of sorts.  In 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, she describes her chosen fast, keeping the seven theme.  For example, for the food month, she limited her diet to only seven foods.  For the spending month, she chose only seven places to spend money.

Most of 7 is spent with Hatmaker humorously yet annoyingly talking about what a challenge it is to live this way.  Yes, I understand that only wearing seven pieces of clothing for a month can be a logistical laundry and fashion challenge.  But she spent much more time talking about the challenge than the lesson.  This was the pattern for the book.  Each chapter was about 80-90 percent Hatmaker's chatty, self-indulgent reflections, and (maybe) 10-20 percent spiritual reflection.

To her credit, some of the reflections and lessons learned were worth reading, if a bit shallow.  For someone who's never read a word about justice, fasting, or self-sacrifice, I'm sure 7 will be full of profound revelations.  Mostly, though, it's a blog-style memoir of some arbitrary life choices that will make you laugh a little while asking, so what's the point?

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by or about a pastor's wife

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Weighted Blanket Guide, by Eileen Parker and Cara Koscinski

If you have autism, or have a child who is autistic or who has sensory issues, you know the importance of deep pressure.  Eileen Parker, an adult living with autism and sensory processing disorder (SPD), and Cara Kosinski, an occupational therapist who specializes in autism and SPD, have written The Weighted Blanket Guide: Everything You Need to Know about Weighted Blankets and Deep Pressure for Autism, Chronic Pain, and Other Conditions.

This is a very practical guide for someone considering using a weighted blanket.  While they are proponents of the use of weighted blankets, they acknowledge that their use is supported by anecdote and preference, not scientific evidence.  "There is no scientific proof that weighted blankets work.  But a great deal of anecdotal evidence supports that they do work."  The authors provide a great deal of anecdotal evidence, as well as guidelines for the use of a weighted blanket.

Ms. Parker has owned a company that sold weighted blankets.  She provides guidelines for buying and selecting an appropriate blanket.  They also give detailed instructions for making a blanket, should the reader have some sewing skills (and some time).  I was convinced to consider trying a weighted blanket with my son who has SPD, and tempted to try it myself.  They say "many patients who used the blankets feel calmer, more grounded, safe and secure, with improved concentration and decreased stress and anxiety, as well has having improved sleep."  How's that for an endorsement!

Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

How Would Jesus Vote?, by Darrell Bock

If Jesus were walking the earth today, for whom would he vote for president?  That is, assuming he was in the U.S. and able to vote.  Assuming he even would vote.  On the one hand, we have a professing Christian who thinks it's OK to kill unborn babies.  On the other hand, we have a professing Christian who is married to his third wife and is not sure whether he needs to ask God for forgiveness.  Far be it from me to definitively determine whether someone else is a Christian or not, but, well, neither of these characters is very inspiring to me.

But what about Jesus?  In How Would Jesus Vote? Do Your Political Positions Really Align with the Bible?, Dallas Theological Seminary professor Darrell Bock looks at several policy areas and provides a solid, biblical discussion of each.  Does he tell us how Jesus would vote?  No.  Not at all.  What he does is help followers of Jesus to examine their political views in light of Jesus' teachings and the Bible as a whole.  His thoughtful examinations will challenge believers to think outside of party politics of left and right, and to think in terms of mutual respect and valuing human life.

Knowing that Bock teaches at Dallas Seminary, which is very conservative theologically, I expected his conclusions to lean to the right.  While his analysis is decidedly nonpartisan and leans on scripture, not party platforms, his conclusions have a much more Democratic than Republican flavor, tending toward the evangelical left.  On almost every issue, Bock comes down on the side of--no side.  "Be willing to listen."  "Sorting through competing concerns demands a civil and respectful conversation to find a way through."  "The to-and-fro of genuine debate and reflection with mutual respect is what we need."  "Lets' give space to conscience in how we resolve to live together in light of our differences. . . ."  Talking about how Jesus would have voted, Bock is talking about "having fruitful conversations that are helpful and in the right tone."

So voters looking for a "Jesus voters' guide" will be sorely disappointed in How Would Jesus Vote?  But voters seeking a thoughtful examination of hot-button political topics from a biblical perspective will be enriched.  Readers just need to be prepared to be challenged; it may be that Bock will shake up what you thought was the "Christian" position.  So, D or R?  God help us all.  I'm so glad the He is in control.

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

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Slow Kingdom Coming, by Kent Annan

Kingdom work is slow work.  Like good barbecue, we can't rush it.  We have to wait for God's timing.  Kent Annan has worked in the third world, especially in Haiti, for "deep instead of shallow change."  In Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly in the World, Annan discusses five "faithful practices" for kingdom building.

OK, here's the spoiler.  The five practices are: attention, confession, respect, partnering, and truthing.  Without going point by point, here are some highlights that stood out to me.  We want to resist "poverty tourism."  While short-term mission trips make for great slide shows and stories, and can be life-changing for the participants, "if the primary takeaway of being with people who are suffering is that we feel better about our own lives, we are disrespecting them."  Great point.  Annan encourages churches not to "date" missions focuses, but to "marry" one target where they can direct their resources and partnership.

When we do partner in mission, we need to get beyond "rescue partnership" and "fixit partnership" (those terms are self-explanatory) and aim for "equal agency partnership" and "partnering together with God."  Partnerships, especially between American churches and third-world Christians, need to be based on mutual respect and listening.  Americans must avoid the arrogance and preconceived notions that have marked missions.  Take the long view.  Don't force things.  Above all, listen.  And make sure that God is a partner in every endeavor.

Annan concludes, "Slow Kingdom Coming is a declaration of hope.  It's not here yet, but we believe and are willing to give our lives to living out this belief."  We have to remember that "the blessing is, in fact, that we do get to participate with God in making this change happen."  Annan has certainly lived the life, working long-term in Haiti and other countries, and encouraging believers to work for justice.  His five practices are worth reflecting on.  Before your next missions trip, church outreach, missions committee meeting, etc., Slow Kingdom Coming is worth a read.

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

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist

Depending on what part of the United States you grew up in, your views of the history of slavery in the U.S. are probably distorted.  Cornell University historian Edward E. Baptist knows those distortions, and has done his part to clarify the historical record in The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

The biggest takeaway is that the foundation of the US economy built on slavery.  This can't be emphasized enough.  Baptist writes that in 1832, "cotton made by enslaved people was driving US economic expansion.  Almost all commercial production and consumption fed into or spun out from a mighty stream of white bolls.  Politicians and entrepreneurs used the force of cotton's flood like a millrace to turn other wheels."  Moving forward a few years, "more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by the million-odd slaves . . . who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery's frontier."

In economics and in the United States's international standing, "Slavery's expansion was the driving force in US history between the framing of the Constitution and the beginning of the Civil War.  It made the nation large and unified."  And to those who say that slavery would have fizzled out eventually even without the Civil War, Baptist writes, "this is mere dogma.  The evidence points in the opposite direction."  Slavery was brutally efficient and expanding, and slave owners--and the nation--had every reason to continue the practice.

The question for modern Americans is what, if anything, is to be done in response?  Put simply, our nation and our economy were built upon theft.  Our forebears stole labor and lives, and we all benefit from the economic structures they built.  Even with the discrimination and racism that blacks still experience, they, too, benefit from the American system.  Baptist's arguments could inform an argument for reparations, but I don't believe there is a way to measure who would get what and from what source they would be paid.

As a side note, as someone who grew up in Texas and has felt the disparagement from northerners who believe they hold some sort of moral high ground on the question of slavery and racism, I would point out with Baptist that northerners are no less culpable than southerners.  Both north and south benefitted from and enabled slavery.  Northern banks loaned the money to enables southerners to buy slaves and land.  Northern textile mills bought up the cotton produced by southern slaves.  Aside from the very small number of abolitionists, no one in this system escapes guilt.

Besides the economic argument Baptist lays out, he frames this history in the context of many slave narratives.  He tells the larger story through the eyes of individual slaves and their experiences.  Suffice it to say that any slave history that portrays slaves as happy workers who are considered part of the family of the plantation owners, with a few bad apples who whip a slave every now and then, has the story reversed.  Doubtless there were some slaves who were treated well.  But Baptist describes the brutality of the labor camps, the heartlessness of slave owners who split up families and ship slaves off, and the commodification of the slaves themselves.  His accounts of the dehumanizing and demeaning ways slaves were treated will disabuse the reader of any notions of some idyllic workers' paradise.

The story as Baptist tells it is powerfully condemning of the slave system--as if any of us need convincing.  He demolishes any popular perception of slavery in the American South, especially in the cotton producing work camps, as some sort of benevolent employment.  He demolishes any thought that slavery was a dying institution that would have disappeared, and that the Civil War was necessary.  I know some historians may disagree with Baptist's conclusions.  I'm no historian, but I think Baptist presents a compelling case.

Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Star Trek: Manifest Destiny, by Mike Johnson, Ryan Parrot, and Angel Hernandez

Star Trek fans don't have to endure the long wait between movies for new Star Trek stories.  Star Trek Beyond comes out in July (The trailer looks awesome, although it reflects the changing character of the franchise under J.J. Abrams.).  In the meantime, check out Star Trek: Manifest Destiny.

The artwork is great, reminiscent of the Abrams movie style.  The story so far--well, it's classic Star Trek, but with more violence and action.

This story is sent in the Abrams timeline, presumably after Into Darkness.  The crew responds to a distress signal (what else is new) and ends up meeting a group of Klingons more vicious and hostile than any they've met before.  It will be fun to see how this story plays out.

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

You Had One Job!, by Beverly L. Jenkins

Do you get a kick out of the "You had one job!" memes on the internet?  Just google that phrase, and you'll turn up lots of silly pictures of goofed up jobs, sloppy projects, silly signs, and dumb mistakes.  If you're not online, you can see a nice collection of these pictures in Beverly Jenkins's book, titled, appropriately enough, You Had One Job! Hilarious Pictures of Jobs Gone Horribly Wrong.

Some of these are pretty hilarious.  A few are un-hilarious enough that I wondered why they made it into the book.  Many of them make you think, What exactly what were they thinking?  What's the story with that?  These pictures don't stand head and shoulders above what you might find in a random internet search.  But it's fun to have them all in one place.  Jenkins does add a bit of commentary, employing a wry sense of humor and irony.

Besides being a fun little book you can keep on your coffee table or bedside to flip through for a laugh (no electricity or wi-fi needed), You Had One Job is sort of like a time capsule.  Long after these web sites are shut down, after the click-bait links are dead, this book will preserve a little bit of what we laughed at in the second decade of the 21st century.

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


Friday, May 13, 2016

The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell

It's tempting to view Ian Caldwell's The Fifth Gospel as a Dan Brown knock-off.  That's not really fair. They're in a similar genre--a mystery surrounding ancient texts in a religious setting--but The Fifth Gospel stands on its own.

When a curator of a new exhibit at the Vatican museum is murdered on the grounds of a papal retreat, his close friends, two priests who are brothers, get involved in the mystery.  One is accused of the murder; the other, Father Alex, wants to exonerate his brother.  Add in the subject of the exhibit, the Shroud of Turin and a Fifth Gospel, and motives, controversies, and mysteries will abound, even among the holy confines of Vatican City.

In my opinion the mystery part of The Fifth Gospel really dragged and did not keep me on the edge of my seat.  As Father Alex uncovers clues and hits against walls of silence, my interest was only mildly piqued.  The resolution of it all was a let down.  What really interested me was Caldwell's description of life inside the walls of the Vatican.

Alex grew up in the Vatican and has a young son (as an Eastern Catholic, he can marry).  Living in a place so steeped in history and religion, while doing mundane things like grocery shopping and raising a child, must be strange.  Caldwell portrays it like a small town where everyone knows everyone else, which must not be too far from the truth, as the population is only a few hundred.  Further, the conflict of the story revolves around the schism between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.  As a Greek Eastern Catholic, Alex's allegiance is to Rome, but his tradition is a sort of bridge between the two groups.  At issue is whether the events of the book can reunite the two traditions or further alienate them from one another.

I enjoyed The Fifth Gospel for the elements of religious, historical, cultural, and geographical education.  That is enough reason to like a book.  But it would have been even better if I had really been able to get into the story.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book recommended by a family member

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Speaking Well, by Adam Hamilton

If you ever find yourself speaking in front of groups of people, you will want to pick up Adam Hamilton's Speaking Well: Essential Skills for Speakers, Leaders, and Preachers.  An experienced preacher and speaker, Hamilton has lots of practical advice to heed before you take the platform.

His logistical tips are especially welcome.  For many readers, these may be self-evident, but it doesn't hurt to mention even the obvious.  For instance, have water available, but room temperature, because "cold water restricts throat passages."  Make sure there are fresh batteries in your microphone, if you are using a cordless.  Limit the use of technology.  To the extent that you do use it, make sure it supports your point.  And, given that snafus are inevitable at one time or another, "make certain your talk works without the technology, and be prepared to deliver it that way!"

In terms of preparation and content, Hamilton starts out by saying, "There's one ingredient that is vital to most effective talks: illustrations. . . . Speeches, talks, and sermons should nearly always include illustrations to touch people's hearts."  Further, a good speech will have focus.  "Choose on central idea and focus on that, giving . . . hearers a simple, straightforward takeaway.  That takeaway should include an action point, "a clear answers to the question, 'So what?'"  A speech has the most impact "when you directly ask the audience to do something, to take a next step, or to make a change."

As you might have discerned from the above paragraph, Hamilton writes from the perspective of a preacher.  Speaking Well does seem to be directed most to preachers, at times explicitly so, but if you are a non-preacher speaker, don't be put off.  Most of what he writes will be applicable in speaking to general, secular audiences as well.  Spend a few minutes with Hamilton's book.  No matter what kind of speaker you are, you will find plenty of ways to improve your speaking.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about public speaking

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Daniel Prayer, by Anne Graham Lotz

Anne Graham Lotz knows something about prayer.  And she knows something about evangelism.  When your daddy is Billy Graham, and your brother is Franklin Graham, it is part of the family tradition.  As a speaker (dare we say preacher?) and writer, she carries on her father's tradition of clear, thoughtful, and challenging messages about the gospel and the Christian life.

In The Daniel Prayer: Prayer That Moves Heaven and Changes Nations, Lotz challenges us to follow the example of Daniel.  As a captive exile in a foreign land, Daniel remained faith to his God, refused to bow to the foreign gods, and gave an example of prayer, found in Daniel 9, that we can follow today.

Daniel's prayer is a prayer of repentance and restoration, calling for God to restore Israel.  Lotz believes "God's patience may be running out" for the United States, because of the nation's tolerance of abortion, embrace of gay marriage, and "our abandonment of the nation of Israel."  In Daniel's case, God's people were taken into exile.  I don't know what God has in store for us, but Lotz is right.  We do need to repent, individually and collectively, of our sin, and plead with God for restoration, for the glory of God.

The Daniel Prayer is about prayer for national restoration, but much more than that, it's about prayer in general.  She discusses Bible reading and worship as foundations for prayer, practical issues like determining the proper time, place, and preparation for prayer, and keeping a central focus of prayer "that God's name be cleared. Exalted. Glorified."  And we should never forget that prayer is warfare.  When we pray, "we are entering into the realm of spiritual warfare with the enemy."

It comes as no surprise that Lotz, who had one of the great evangelists as her model, would be a great communicator.  She has honed her gift and developed her own style.  She's a sought-after speaker, and The Daniel Prayer is an example of why.  However, as powerful as parts of her message were, I sometimes felt that, like many speakers, she drew points out a bit too far, squeezing 15 minutes of content in a 45 minute sermon, so to speak.  It also lost focus overall, as the book morphed from a book on the Daniel Prayer to a general book on prayer.

But that may just be me.  The larger point is that she leaves the reader with much to chew on.  Her challenge to a more consistent, focused life of prayer is compelling.  The model prayers in the final section are at once intimidating (I can't pray that articulately! Or that long!) and encouraging (Here's a prayer I can learn to pray from.).  Now, to get American Christians praying Daniel Prayers. . . . May God's name be glorified as he restores his people to his place of blessing.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by a woman conference speaker

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Dispatches from the Front, by Tim Keesee

Tim Keesee has one of the coolest jobs ever.  As executive director of Frontline Missions International (FMI), he travels the world supporting church planters and missionaries spreading the gospel in some of the most gospel-hostile environments.  He tells the stories of his travels in the Dispatches from the Front film series, and in his book Dispatches from the Front: Stories of Gospel Advance in the World's Difficult Places.

The travels in the book span Europe, Asia, and Africa, including much of the 10/40 window.  Keesee gets up close and personal with Christians serving in these countries, many under the threat of persecution.  Some of his friends are Westerners, others are indigenous Christians, some are even missionaries to their own people, such as some Chinese who have moved from one part of China to another to share the gospel.

The brief vignettes are almost overwhelming, as we read one story after another of heroic Christians loving their neighbors around the world.  What an honor for Keesee to be a part of all of these works.  I am assuming that the people he visits are affiliated with FMI, but he scarcely mentions his organization or identifies his friends as FMI missionaries.  I am curious about the structure and support of FMI missionaries.

The scattershot nature of Keesee's narrative was a bit of a deterrent to my enjoyment of the book.  It was one visit after another with no narrative thread (save for the obvious story of God's work in the world).  Also, in keeping with the travel journal style, he starts almost every section with a sentence fragment, like "Arrived in Tirana about noon," or "My last day with Aashish."  I know, it's a picky style issue, but it just annoyed me. 

Toward the end, he writes of his experiences in Central Asia, where Islam is militant and Americans are constantly in danger.  He tells of a missionary who works as a physical therapist and who was shot down on her way to work.  Another friend of his was killed shortly after his visit.  I appreciated his stark, yet realistic, conclusion.  In Afghanistan, "Where are the Iranians with their universities and wealth?  Why have they not sent doctors and nurses here?  Where are the Saudis, the Egyptians, or the people of the Emirates awash in oil and designer islands?  These countries are sending fighters and suicide bombers, but not doctors and nurses.  Out here among the poorest and neediest, it is Christians--not Muslims--who are caring for the sick and dying.  It is not because we are better than they are.  It is because our God is better than their God." (221)  This is quite a contrast to the "we worship the same God" crowd.

Yet, he doesn't let Christians off the hook.  In Iraq he was detained by some Iraqi military.  Some American military stationed nearby came to their aid, noting that the Iraqis had likely been preparing to turn them over to some Iranian militants.  Keesee and his party were thankful for the providential intervention.  Yet he asks, "All these businessmen I flew in with four days ago are still here--risking their resources and even their lives in order to make money.  Why can't Christians risk at least as much for the gospel?" (233)  Why, indeed.  Reading Keesee's stories will inspire you to ask exactly that.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book that won a ECPA Christian book award

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors, by Josh Chetwynd

Years ago, when my kids competed in judo tournaments, I had a revelation.  I had heard the phrase "no holds barred" and didn't really have a grasp of what it means.  As I learned about my boys' chosen sport, I realized that certain "holds" are "barred" in judo, and that a "no holds barred" match might reach a conclusion more quickly, but would be risky and dangerous for both parties.  Thus the phrase applies to "no-restriction efforts in most everything else" besides judo, wrestling, and other combat sports.

In The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors: A Compendium of Competitive Words and Idioms, Josh Chetwynd points out how many of these types of phrases have worked their way into everyday language, so much so that we are often ignorant of the phrases' origin in sports.  Chetwynd takes the phrases or words sport by sport, providing a bit of history, etymology, and, in some cases, discussing competing claims.  This is great for someone interested in the language, but also for lovers of sports trivia.

My favorites were the "unexpected phrases" from sports.  "Flake" and "jazz" are baseball terms?  Who knew?  Not me.  "My bad"?  I always associated that with basketball, but didn't know its origins from a Dinka tribesman who played in the NBA.  How about "there's the rub"?  Shakespeare, right?  Yes, but where did Shakespeare get it?  Lawn bowling!  That's just a sampling, of course.  A nice feature is the handy index.  Is there a phrase or word you suspect is derived from sports?  Check the index.  The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors is a treasure trove for lovers of the English language, as well as for lovers of sports.

(On minor quibble on the Kindle edition.  Some of the phrase were discussed in block quotes, separate from the main text.  In the electronic version, sometimes these did not show up correctly, causing abrupt shifts in the text and wild goose chases to resume the correct paragraph.  I have an ERC; perhaps the Kindle version for sale will have corrected this.)

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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Winners, by Anna Ehrlemark

Anna Ehrlemark's art is dark, stark, and creepy.  All of those elements and more describe her collection Winners, ten "stories" told in graphic novel form.  Her images are stark black and white, her themes are bizarre, and the art ventures far into the realm of the abstract and surreal.

I found the "stories" (I use that term loosely) to be strange and, in some cases, nonsensical.  Ehrlemark uses text in some of the stories, but the majority of the work is wordless, broadening the Eastern European artist's appeal.  The images range from unappealing to gross.   I have pretty diverse tastes, but there just isn't anything about Winners that appealed to me.

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

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Heart of the Fight, by Judith Wright and Bob Wright

As experienced marriage therapists, Judith Wright and Bob Wright know a thing or fifteen about fights married couples have.  In The Heart of the Fight: A Couple's Guide to Fifteen Common Fights, What They Really Mean, and How They Can Bring You Closer, the Wrights write about fifteen common fights and help couples identify the yearnings that lead to fighting.  The hope, of course, as the title says, is that the fight can bring couples closer.

They write, "Couples don't get divorced because they fight; they split up because they don't know how to use conflict to create a new depth of intimacy."  Their goal is to help couples to see that "their fights aren't about the fight and dig deeper to see what it is that they truly yearn for, [so that] they are able to go into the metaphorical woods and use their bliss skills."  The jargon about yearnings and bliss makes much more sense in the context of the whole book.

For me, the book didn't feel like something I could relate to.  I couldn't relate to the couples the Wrights introduced, and the scenarios they described just didn't click with me.  My marriage isn't perfect, but my wife and I don't really fight.  The Wrights would probably say that's a big problem!  I have no doubt at all that were we to sit under their care for several sessions, they would help us uncover issues in our marriage and help us strengthen our bonds.  But the book didn't do it for me.

Not to say there's not useful information and techniques here.  I especially liked the advice on touching: "Never underestimate the power of the human touch to help get you through the fights in ways that are productive and growth oriented.  By touching, you trigger the feel-good hormone of oxytocin.  It increases the sense of well-being, trust, and being calm and connected."  My wife doesn't often read my book reviews.  But just in case she's reading this one, honey, I need some oxytocin!  Bring it on!  Let's cultivate some well-being, trust, calmness, and connection!  How about it?

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about marriage

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Jezebel Remedy, by Martin Clark

Virginia circuit judge Martin Clark must have heard some good stories in his law career.  He writes some, too.  His latest, The Jezebel Remedy, follows the case of Lettie VanSandt, a nutty woman in a small Virginia town.  She is a serial legal client of Joe Stone, who listens to her crazy tales, and has for many years helped her with her patents, trusts, and silly lawsuits.  He tolerates her oddities, much to the chagrin of his wife and law partner Lisa Stone.

When Lettie is apparently blown up at her home, all signs point to a meth lab explosion.  Joe knows that's unlikely, but the community nods and thinks they finally know why she was so odd--it was the drugs.  When a scientist from a drug company shows up claiming that Lettie had developed a ground-breaking pharmaceutical treatment, the Stones get caught up in questions about Lettie's estate, the truth of the stranger's claims, and the mysterious meddlings of one of the world's richest men.

As you might expect, The Jezebel Remedy is good beach-read fiction.  It's a fun fast-paced story, which I can recommend to readers who enjoy legal fiction in the vein of Grisham et al.  I hated two things about the book, though.  First, after 20 years of marriage, Lisa starts sneaking around, dating another lawyer.  She even rendezvouses with him for a weekend in the Bahamas.  As a result, I hated her.  Her betrayal seemed so pointless and evil.  I know, it's just a character in a novel, but I was so angry with her that it seriously tainted my reading experience.  I guess I relate to Joe.  I'm a boring guy who is lucky to be married to a gorgeous woman who would be a catch for anyone.  Not that I suspect she is as duplicitous as Lisa.  I just felt for poor, boring, faithful Joe.

The second thing I hated was that this crazy woman, Lettie, would have actually come up with a viable and potentially very lucrative pharmaceutical product.  Again, it's fiction.  Works of fiction are full of fictional things.  And part of reading fiction is suspending belief.  It's a minor quibble, I know, but it added a scrim of silliness that slightly obscured the otherwise good story.  All of that said, even though I hated some things about The Jezebel Remedy, I enjoyed it and wouldn't mind reading some of Clark's other books.

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

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Consumed, by David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg has directed some movies that I found to be weird, memorable, and unlikeable, so I should not have been surprised that I would find his first novel, Consumed, to be weird, memorable, and unlikeable.

A French philosopher on the run, under suspicion for killing--and eating--his wife.  Their former students, whom the couple regularly invited into their bedroom.  A couple of international journalists who are covering the philosopher and the students, and who tend to get invited into their subjects' bedrooms.

Consumed is, at times, a clever, literate novel, but tries too hard on both counts.  Too clever by half, too literate by half.  When it's not clever and literate, it's tiresome.  Really tiresome.

Some subset of readers will like Consumed.  But it wasn't for me.

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

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A Little Handbook for Preachers, by Mary Hulst

I'm not a preacher nor the son of a preacher, but I am a seminary graduate.  I've taken a few preaching classes and sat through my share of sermons.  Mary Hulst's A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday is great for preachers, but people in the pew will benefit as well.  I know I can use some help to be a better listener to sermons.

Hulst's Little Handbook is not as simplistic and "check-list-y" as it sounds.  The cover makes it look like she's offering quick fixes to touch up a sermon before delivery.  But Hulst gets to the heart of sermon content and preparation.  She makes a crucial distinction between "Christian speeches" and sermons.  I have certainly heard a few Christian speeches on Sundays.  She describes a Christian speech as "a spoken address on a particular topic that may or may not refer to Scripture."  By contrast, "a sermon is an oral event in which the speaker humbles him- or herself before the grand narrative of Scripture and, after seeking to understand what God is up to in a particular passage, invites the hearers to know God more."  Rather than using Scripture to prove our point, preachers should "read the text to hear what God has to say."  Amen to that.

In that same vein, Hulst draws a distinction between Bible class and the sermon.  "The difference between a Bible class and a sermon is that while a Bible class can impact what we know, a sermon needs to also impact how we live."  The art of preaching is to "create in our hearers a deeper desire to know and love God more."  To meet that goal, sermons should be "grace-full," talking less about "this is what you need to do" and more about "this is what we get to do" because of what God has done.  We relate to our listeners by being compelling, contextual, relevant, and embodied.  We should draw on the lives of our listeners, and not so much on our own lives, for illustrations of the message.

A Little Handbook is highly practical, and, properly applied, will give a preacher much to think about when preparing a sermon.  For my part, sitting in the pew, Hulst gives me much to think about, not in a critical way but in a constructive way.  I won't be preaching any time soon, but I will show more appreciation to my pastor and be sure to give him positive feedback.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about preaching

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood earned a touch of literary immortality with the oft-read The Handmaids Tail.  Since that award-winning novel was published in 1985, she has continued to write award-winning, sociologically challenging speculative fiction (a term she prefers to "science fiction").  Her 2015 novel The Heart Goes Last continues some of the themes of her earlier novels, but doesn't quite deliver the punch that her readers are accustomed to.

The Heart Goes Last is set in a company town.  Residents who have run out of luck in the economy at large are invited to move into Consilience, a secure compound in which they will work, have a place to live, and lack for nothing.  The catch is that for one month they will live and work freely at home, but every other month they have to be locked up in the prison on the grounds.

Things work out swimmingly for Stan and Charmaine for a while--until they don't.  Charmaine has a forbidden fling, and works hard to cover it while she keeps it going.  Meanwhile a rebellion is brewing in Consilience, and Charmaine gets wrapped up in it.  When they do leave Consilience, the weirdness and randomness spins too far out of control.

I did not enjoy The Heart Goes Last as much as I have some of Atwood's other fiction.  As original as she has been in her novels, this one felt more derivative, as if she had hopped on the bandwagon of post-apocalyptic teen fiction.  Granted, many of her novels can be classified as post-apocalyptic, but I hadn't felt the Hunger Games vibe in the others like I did with this one.  I also wasn't a big fan of her characters.  Charmaine's fling is so out of character.  Her lover and his co-conspirators seemed unconvincing to me.  Charmaine's husband, Stan, poor guy, has a rough time.  Justice is finally done, sort of, but I didn't particularly enjoy the path to get there.

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

Monday, May 2, 2016

Praying Together, by Megan Hill

It goes without saying--well, it should go without saying--that Christians ought to pray.  In Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities, and Churches, Megan Hill calls Christians not only to pray, but to pray together.  Hill reminds us that prayer is a communal experience.  When we pray together, "we nurture our relationship with our triune God and with his people--a relationship that will never end."  When praying together, we are following the example and exhortation of the New Testament, which "tell us to pray together.  With everybody.  Everywhere.  About everything."

The fruit of praying together is "love, discipleship, and revival."  Hill tells stories of answered prayer and revivals sparked by prayer that you may not have heard of.  By its very nature, corporate prayer does not draw the same sort of attention that other forms of Christian activity might.  Hill points out that "contemporary Christianity is plagued by unbiblical elitism.  We esteem Christians who do stuff."  And we don't really look at prayer as doing something.  When we gather we tend to want to have more of an agenda than just "pray."

Praying Together is practical and convicting.  Many prayer meetings I have been in have been about prayer in name only.  Fellowship is important, as is teaching and preaching, but we need to pray together, too.  Hill writes that one benefit of structured corporate prayer time is the regularity of it.  Even if you don't feel like praying, you can show up and agree with the others.  She describes how to pray when you are the one speaking, and how to pray when you are listening to someone pray.

Prayer can be hard.  It's a discipline to learn and to practice.  But it's something we learn by doing together.  Children learn from their parents, praying at home.  We learn from each other in our prayer meetings.  Corporate prayer can bring us together with Christians from other traditions.  And most importantly, prayer brings us together into the presence of God.  Let us pray.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book on prayer

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Failure, by Karl Stevens

The first thing to say about Karl Stevens's new collection Failure is that I really enjoyed his art.  He realistic, sketch-based style is appealing and approachable.  Failure contains examples of a comic strip he wrote for a Boston alternative weekly paper, as well as some of his sketches and other art.  He's an artist with a gift.

On the other hand, most of the actual subject matter content of Failure I could do without.  His target audience is hip, urban 20-somethings.  I'm a few years (OK, a couple decades) out of that age group, and I never really was "hip" or "urban."  If you consider yourself hip, urban, slacker-intellectual, artsy, weed-smoking, heavily drinking, sleeping around, and use lots of foul language, then Failure is a collection you will relate to and enjoy.  It just wasn't for me.

But I did get a kick out of Pope Cat.

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