Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Unsportsmanlike Conduct, by Jessica Luther

Jessica Luther is a life-long, die-hard fan of Florida State University football.  Yet the revelations of sexual assault by star football players has left her feeling ambivalent about the program.  "The FSU fan in me is desperate to feel the high of cheering on my team without the weight of knowing the cost of the system that creates football champions."  In Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, Luther examines the "play book" for addressing accusations of rape, finds it lacking, and proposes a new one.

Luther has been tracking college football rape cases for many years.  She found that with few exceptions, press coverage, if there is any at all, is limited, regional, and short-lived.  She runs through a litany of rape accusations and the school, team, or police responses, making the argument that colleges, and we as a society, don't take such accusations as seriously as we should.  Some of her new "play book" responses are perfectly reasonable and doable.  Clarifying consent and promoting bystander intervention are a good start, but some of her other proposals are in the flimsy "wouldn't it be great" or "if everyone could just. . . ." realm.  We're not talking about values of football players, we're talking about values of society.

Maybe it's beyond the scope of her book, but to me, if we're going to address rape among football players, we have to examine sexual culture of young people, particularly on college campuses.  There are several issues which she does not mention.  First, today's college students have lived their entire lives immersed in readily available pornography.  Early exposure and easy access to depictions of explicit sex on their smart phones and computers shape the expectations young men (and women, actually) have regarding sex.  Yes, many men view pornography and do not turn into predators and have healthy sex lives.  But I can say with certainty that sexual predators, on or off college campuses, are fueled by and "inspired" by porn.

The increased sexual "freedom" of women (Thanks a lot, feminism and "free love.") has led to the hook-up culture, which is prevalent on college campuses.  Anonymous sex, sex outside of any kind of relationship, "friends with benefits," recreational sex are now hallmarks of campus party culture.  Luther alludes to this, in cases where players or recruits go to parties with expectations that everyone there will be having sex.

And speaking of parties, Luther says 40% of football player rapes are gang rapes.  It makes me wonder, is consensual group sex among these college kids de rigueur?  Are they getting together for group sex with willing female participants on a regular basis, and then when a young lady is unwilling they respond by pressuring her or forcing her to participate?  Is it common for teammates to share sexual partners?

My suspicion is that some students, including but not exclusively athletes, are awash in this culture of porn, casual sex, and group sex.  They come to relationships and social situations with expectations that are frequently met by willing participants.  They are not prepared for cases in which someone is uncertain or unwilling.  Luther's suggestions for change can make a difference, but unless this culture of cheap, casual, frequent sex is reversed, sexual exploitation will be inevitable.  I know this sounds puritanical, but I don't think it's too much to ask for football players to keep it in their pants!!

Luther makes some valid points and certainly has done her part to continue this conversation and raise awareness.  I appreciated her pointing out the hypocrisy of the "hostess" programs, where pretty coeds were used as bait to draw in recruits, in many cases having sex with them on recruiting weekends.  Their very presence seemed like an offer to the recruits.  The NCAA has sort of addressed this practice, but not very convincingly.

One thing that bothered me about Luther's treatment is her dismissal of exonerations at trial, and her lack of discussion about criminal convictions in contrast to Title IX rulings.  On the one hand, she hearkens back to lynchings of black men accused of whistling at white women: "Fears about powerful black men being punished via false accusation are not irrational or dramatic; they are borne of actual experience."  Yet she dismisses the idea that football players are sometimes falsely accused.  "The statistical odds are very high that the person reporting in these [rape] cases is not lying."  Worse, she seems dismissive of cases where the accused were found innocent in a court of law, implying that they are actually guilty despite what the court ruled.

She does not address a big problem with Title IX, that a student can be found simultaneously guilty under the lower threshold of Title IX ("more likely than not") and innocent in a criminal court ("reasonable doubt").  As many cases have demonstrated, this double standard has led to confusion, lawsuits against schools, and, importantly, disruption of the lives and education of the accused.  If Title IX is to continue as the law of the campus, reforms will be needed to avoid its being the unjust kangaroo court that it frequently tends to be.

A recurring theme in Unsportsmanlike Conduct is victims' unwillingness to report rape or to press charges.  They speak of fear of recrimination, harassment, and abuse.  Unfortunately, this is a reality for some victims.  For their sake, I hope that the greater awareness that Luther and others are promoting will create an environment in which a victim can report crimes against her with confidence and with the support of her community.

Like Luther, I am a life-long fan who has been disappointed by the predatory practices of a few, bringing unspeakable harm to their victims while making their whole team, not to mention their school and alumni, look bad.  Luther's presentation is incomplete, particularly by not addressing the sexualization of society, and of college life in particular, as the driving force behind the epidemic of rape on college campuses.  Her blind spot for men falsely accused, or accused and found innocent in court, is glaring as well.  May the conversation continue. . . .

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

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Children of Hurin, by J.R.R. Tolkien

If you are a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, and have read and re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you will certainly want to read The Children of Hurin.  Set between the events of The Silmarillion and The Hobbit, The Children of Hurin expands on the story of Turin, who gets a mention in The Silmarillion.  Significantly, Tolkien never completed The Children of Hurin during his lifetime.  His son Christopher gathered his father's notes and manuscripts to cobble the book together.

Cobble.  That sounds a little bit derogatory.  But the fact is, I did not enjoy The Children of Hurin very much.  At times, the phrase "fan fiction" came to mind.  At times, I was just bored.  I never got pulled into the story or the characters.  If I had a better memory, or was more of a student of Middle Earth lore, I'm sure I would have thrilled at some of the references and genealogies.  My conclusion: The Children of Hurin has its place in Tolkien's Middle Earth canon, but will be a disappointment to most readers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Story of Captain Nemo, by Dave Eggers

The ever-versatile storyteller Dave Eggers has taken Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and put a modern twist on it for young readers.  In The Story of Captain Nemo, young Consuelo gets to go on an adventure with his uncle, the famous oceanographer Pierre Arronax.  Together they will investigate the sinking of fishing boats around the world and the rumors of a giant sea monster that keeps bringing them down.

It's been decades since I read Verne's original story, so I can't authoritatively say how true to the story Eggers stays.  It's certainly updated to the context of today.  Eggers himself writes that this is not a "definitive distillation" of the original but a "personal and idiosyncratic take on it. . . . meant to intrigue a reader enough to bring them to Verne's inimitable text."  On that count, he succeeds.

It's a quick read, with some fun illustrations.  The sci-fi element is cool.  Just as in Verne's original, Eggers includes enough speculative science to be believable while emphasizing Nemo's mad genius.  The message of valuing human life above animal life while respecting the ocean environment fits somewhere between Greenpeace and a free market of the sea.  Killing humans on large-scale fishing vessels is not OK, even if they are depleting fish populations and destroying habitats.  But it's not OK to kill the offenders.

The Story of Captain Nemo is a satisfying and enjoyable reminder of the literary genius and scientific foresight of Jules Verne.  Pick it up!

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

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Cold Fusion, by Dr. Haggis-on-Whey

Are you interested in cold fusion?  Would you like to everything there is to know about cold fusion?  In that case, you'll want to look somewhere else besides Dr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey's Cold Fusion, volume 4 in Dr. and Mrs. Doris Haggis-on-Whey's World of Unbelievable Brilliance.  But if you couldn't care less about cold fusion, don't know what it is, or just want a few laughs, Cold Fusion is the book for you.

Enlightened readers who are familiar with Dr. Haggis-on-Whey's work will enjoy the nonsensical, random, and beautifully illustrated content.  She reveals the fates of "people who scoffed at cold fusion."  She warns of the "possible side effects of room-temperature nuclear reactions," including frogmen and Kevin Spacey movies set in Nova Scotia.  And, of course, "why birds are bad at building superconductors" and how noble gases became noble.

Cold Fusion contains plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.  But the ratio of laugh-out-loud moments per page seemed noticeably lower than previous H-O-W books.  You'll have to take my word for it.  By the way, some of the funniest parts are the captions and footnotes.  Don't skip the small print.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Everyday Supernatural, by Mike Pilavachi and Andy Croft

We read about the miracles of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament.  But we wonder if those things could happen today.  In Everyday Supernatural: Living a Spirit-Led Life Without Being Weird, pastors Mike Pilavachi and Andy Croft answer with a resounding YES!  They write, "It's possible for all followers of Jesus to see God's supernatural power at work.  Not once or twice in a lifetime, but everyday."

It's easy for teaching on the supernatural to focus on the supernatural (obviously).  Pilavachi and Croft are careful and passionate about keeping their teaching on the supernatural focused on Jesus.  It's not about tongues, healing, prophecy and words of wisdom, but about Jesus himself.  They write, "Our goal should be relationship with Jesus, not power from Jesus. . . . The key to living a life full of supernatural power is to understand that the power is in the presence.  As we are close to Jesus so we will see him move in us and through us."

As Pilavachi and Croft describe the gifts and their practical application, they provide some general guidelines that apply to all the gifts.  First, practicing the gifts is not about technique, but about relationship.  God uses prophecy and healing to bless those he loves.  Second, while some people may have a particular ministry, the gifts are available to all.  As they say, "Everyone can play!"  "All of us are . . . actively encouraged to hear God speak, pray for the sick and speak in tongues.  We are all able to play, so never rule yourself out of being able to use these gifts."  I'm glad they emphasized this, because it so often seems that the gifts are reserved for "professional" Christians.

Pilavachi and Croft write and minister in the tradition of John Wimber, to whom they refer frequently.  If you know Wimber, you know what to expect from Everyday Supernatural, including the good humor and personal touch that marked Wimber's ministry.  I think their emphasis is exactly where it needs to be: on intimacy with Jesus and the proclamation and demonstration of his kingdom.  "Our priority needs to be sticking close to Jesus.  Before being everyday supernatural is about miracles and healings, it's about intimacy and relationship."

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, business consultant Patrick Lencioni tells the fictional tale of DecisionTech, a two-year-old tech startup, which is floundering.  Kathryn, whose background is not in the technology sector, gets the call to come in as CEO and set the ship aright.  As she points out to her executive team, DecisionTech has "a more experienced and talented executive team than any of our competitors.  We have more cash than they do. . . . We have better core technology.  And we have a more powerful board of directors.  Yet . . . we are behind two of our competitors in terms of both revenue and customer growth."  She pins their lack of performance and market share to one thing: a lack of teamwork at the top.

Lencioni uses the story to illustrate his five dysfunctions of a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results.  In the final thirty pages or so, he develops this model, discussing the way these dysfunctions build on each other and offering suggestions for overcoming them.  This portion of the book is the real meat.  The story seemed like a waste of pages, although in retrospect it provides illustrations of the dysfunctions and solutions he discusses at the end.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is an OK read, but I think a lot of readers, especially busy executives for whom Lencioni is writing, will be impatient to get through the story part of the book.  To oversimplify, it could be summarized in one short sentence: Work as a team.  There's more to it than that, though.  If your team is having a hard time with that concept and all that it entails (setting ego aside, taking an interest in the tasks of other team members, focusing on results rather than career advancement), then spending some time with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team might help you point them in the right direction.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about leadership

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Enemy, by Lee Child

The Enemy is Lee Child's eighth Jack Reacher novel, but the first that takes place during his time as an Army M.P. major.  The first seven books gave many hints about his time in the Army.  The Enemy features the same Jack Reacher we have come to know and love, who does what is right, even if he knows there will be consequences.  The Reacher who always seems to bed beautiful women, but never gets attached.  The Reacher who "said nothing."  The Reacher who puts the pieces of the puzzle together against the odds.

The differences are striking, and sometimes amusing.  This Reacher in The Enemy is under command.  He goes where he's told--except for those times when he doesn't go where he's told.  This Reacher will sometimes throw out clothes rather than wear them again, but, since he's serving in active duty and all, he actually carries luggage when he travels!  (Readers of other Reacher books will get that this is a big deal.)

In The Enemy, Reacher investigates the death of a general--until he is told not to.  But he does anyway.  Then a soldier is murdered on base, and he investigates that--until he's told to falsify the investigation.  But he doesn't.  His new superior officer tracks him down to have him arrested for going AWOL, even though he really wasn't.  But Jack, being Jack, manages to escape their clutches.

The Enemy shows Jack as the other books don't, as an official investigator, rather than a lone operator, vigilante type.  I won't be giving anything away when I tell you Jack figures it all out in the end, and is vindicated for his disobeying orders, for the most part.  Jack's conclusions lead him to a great deal of disillusionment with the Army.  Even though he's still in at the end, Child set him up for a break at some point.  I noticed the new Reacher novel, to be released in November, is set before Jack leaves the Army.  I look forward to seeing what else we learn about Reacher in uniform.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Pigskin Rapture, by Mac Engel

It's August in Texas and I'm counting the days until kickoff!  Mac Engel, who covers sports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has been in Texas long enough to get it--football rules in Texas!  One weekend last fall, he decided to take in as much Texas football as he could in one weekend.  He didn't get a lot of rest, but he saw some great (and not-so-great) football in a four-day stretch.  The result: Pigskin Rapture: Four Days in the Life of Texas Football.

Engel covers four big games: Houston Texans v. Indianapolis Colts, Midland Lee v. Odessa Permian, Texas v. Oklahoma, and Dallas Cowboys v. New England Patriots.  The game coverage is adequate, giving the flow and outcome of each game.  Of the four, the only real football drama was Texas-OU, where Texas pulled off a big upset.  But Pigskin Rapture is not about the play-by-play.  It's about the people and culture of football.

At each stop, Engel takes in local dining spots, the tailgate and bar scene, and checks out other local football programs and hot spots.  This is what I enjoyed most about the book.  Engel likes the side roads, the little programs, the mainstream fans, the back stories.  He drops by Rice Stadium and Andrew Luck's high school alma mater in the Houston area.  He checks in at The Bar in Odessa, where Permian fans and former players mingle and relive the glory days.  He samples the deep-fried glory of the State Fair of Texas.  He gawks at the fine art around the palace that Jerry built--and wonders at the armed brawl in the parking lot that left a fan dead.

Texas football fans, especially fans of the teams he covers, will love Pigskin Rapture the way they might enjoy a college yearbook.  Texans and non-Texans alike will get a great glimpse into Texas football life and history.  As much as I enjoyed Engel's writing, the real star of the book (no offense, Mac) is Ron Jenkin's photography.  It's worth the price of the book.

Engel observes that "Texas-OU is what gives college football its color, character, tradition, and ultimately, its distinction from the National Football League."  The NFL "can't replicate the inborn tradition of this game, or the disdain that comes from a real rivalry."  I think this applies to college football as a whole.

I've had some real beefs with Engel's recent coverage of Baylor football.  But I'm with him in Pigskin Rapture.  His love of football and love of Texas is contagious and exuberant.  Kickoff can't get here soon enough!

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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Animals of the Ocean, by Dr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey

Under the sea lie secrets that can only be revealed by "the only scientists ever to explore what is in and under the sea," Dr. and Mr. Doris Hagis-on-Whey.  This is what they do in Animals of the Ocean, in Particular the Giant Squid, volume III in their series, The Haggis-on-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance.  And fortunately for me, as the cover states, this volume as been translated into Texan.

As you may know, if you are familiar with the HOW series, very little of what you may find in this book is useful or true.  But it's sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Some of the information herein is pretty close to reality.  For instance, in the diagram on the eleven layers of the sea, the description of layer five sounds like it's probably absolutely correct: "This is where the animals of the ocean emit feces and then swim among their feces." This reminded me of the lyric from the Surf Punks's timeless classic, "Bird Bathroom," in which they declare, "The ocean's nothing but a fish toilet, watch out!" (In case this cultural reference is too obscure for you, feel free to enlighten yourself by clicking here:

Every page of Animals of the Ocean is worth a luck, and elicits at least a chuckle.  It's truly mind-boggling, the amount of random inanity that can be crammed into one colorful, oversized hard-cover book.  I especially appreciated the guide to which deep-sea research is deducible.  (Neither a plastic ficus nor a bejeweled throne is deductible.  Sombreros and printer cartridges are.)  I was disappointed by one glaring omission: Animals of the Ocean did not feature any information about Madagascar.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Two Hours, by Ed Caesar

Will anyone ever be able to complete a marathon in less than two hours?  That is the question Ed Caesar contemplates in Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon.  Given the history of the four minute mile, it's hard not to compare it to the two hour marathon.  Until someone actually ran a four minute mile, many experts said it was impossible.  Once that threshold was broken, four minute miles became almost commonplace among top runners. 

But is two hours the right threshold for the marathon?  There are limits to what a human body can do, even an ideal, perfectly trained body.  One researcher, accounting for things like "lactate threshold, running economy, and VO2 max" determined that "Given ideal conditions, and the ideal runner, . . . the best time in which a marathon could be completed was 1 hour, 57 minutes, and 58 seconds."  Over the last few decades, as African runners, particularly Kenyans, have come to dominate the marathon, record times have tumbled.  In 1988, the world record was 2:06:50.  In 2014, Dennis Kimetto of Kenya broke 2:03 for the first time, running 2:02:57 in Berlin.

Caesar covers the history of the marathon, particularly the last few decades.  Much of his narrative follows the career of Geoffrey Mutai, who finished the Boston Marathon in 2:03:02 in 2011, at that time the fastest recorded marathon finish anywhere.  To Mutai's frustration, the Boston course doesn't qualify for world record consideration.  Mutai's career since then has been marked by frustration that the world record has eluded him.  Two Hours ends up being two books in one: a history of the marathon and the pursuit of ever-faster times, and a running biography of Geoffrey Mutai.  Caesar draws the two together nicely, using Mutai as a case study in the quest.  I suspect many of Mutai's peers' stories would have been similarly suitable and interesting.

Whether the two hour mark will ever me reached remains an open question.  Like the four minute mile, the conditions will have to be carefully planned and the course carefully selected.  One thing is for sure: whoever does break two hours will need to have been born and raised in the right conditions, will need generations of the right genetic formation, and will need to carefully train for years.  Caesar made a believer out of me that it's possible.  He writes, "Whatever science or common sense one uses to rebut the possibility of a two-hour marathon, we still cannot resist its lure.  Everest was unclimbable until somebody climbed it.  The four-minute mile was impossible until it wasn't.  However evanescent the prospect, the two-hour marathon will not leave us alone."

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Boy Who Runs, by John Brant

When we watch the Olympics this week, or anytime we watch coverage of a major marathon or track event, it's hard not to notice the dominance of African runners.  Unless you have some reason not to, you might assume you know their stories, and assume that their stories are all pretty much the same.  In some ways, Julius Achon fits the stereotype of the African runner who quickly rises to the ranks of world-class athletes.  But as John Brant writes in The Boy Who Runs: The Odyssey of Julius Achon, Achon's story diverges from the stereotype in many ways.

Achon grew up in the tiny village of Awake, in northern Uganda.  His family was so poor they couldn't afford a plastic jerrycan to fetch water.  Julius used to run away from school when the teacher asked him to pay his school fees.  He expected that he might join the army or the police, or, more likely, become a farmer like his dad.  When Julius was a boy, Joseph Kony was beginning  his reign of terror in Uganda.  A band of Kony's men raided Awake, kidnapping Julius and some other boys.  Forced to march cross country and serve at the behest of one of the "captains," Julius spent several months as a boy soldier.  Finally, during an attack on Kony's men, Julius was able to escape and return to his family in Awake.

At school, Julius began to distinguish himself as a runner.  When he qualified for a meet forty miles away, he could not find anyone to drive him there.  So he ran the forty miles, and the next day swept the three events in which he competed.  (He was thrilled with the prize: a jerrycan to carry water!)  He then won at a national meet in Kampala, accepted a scholarship to an elite prep school there, and became an elite runner.  The world running community took notice, and he went to George Mason University, where he set an NCAA record and led his team to an indoor national championship.  His appearance at the Atlanta Olympics was a disappointment, but, for a while, he was among the best middle-distance runners in the world.

With his running career faltering, he supported himself by running small races around Portugal for cash.  Eventually his old college coach invited him to be a pacer for runners he was training in the U.S.  That job got Julius back to the U.S,, working out on the Nike campus in Portland, and selling running gear at the Nike employee store.  For a runner who had aspirations for world championships and Olympic gold, and realistic potential to get there, all of this was a let down.  In his doubts, "the means by which he had temporarily escaped Uganda--running around in circles faster than the next guy--suddenly seemed like a pathetic sham."

However, during all this time of running for cash prizes and working for subsistence wages, he faithfully sent a large portion of his earnings back to Uganda.  He bought land for his family, where they built a compound, keeping them relatively safe from the unrest around them and enabling them to care for war orphans.  Eventually, with the help of a partner in the U.S., Achon not only supported orphans but built a clinic in his old hometown.  He began to realize that none of the good he was able to do would have been possible without his running.  "For a long time he had felt bad about his running, as if he had failed to make full use of the gift God had given him.  But as the foundation grew, he concluded that his disappointments with running were all part of God's plan."

Achon's life turned out to be a strange series of contrasts between life in Uganda and outside of it.  In Portugal he lived in borrowed space in the basement of an athletic club, but it was a palace compared to his family's living conditions.  In the U.S. he made so little money, with no benefits, that most high school graduates would scoff, but he still sent half his salary home, where it was a small fortune.  As he neared the opening of the health clinic, he reflected that "Here in Uganda, he may be courted by the president.  In America, however, Julius had been just another migrant from an unlucky country, hustling back to the storeroom to fetch a pair of size nines."

The Boy Who Runs does not sugar coat the life of the athlete.  Nor does it idealize life in Africa--far from it.  Brant does show, in the remarkable life of Julius Achon, that even when life doesn't seem to be going your way, there may be a bigger plan than what we can see in the short term.  Achon achieved that bigger plan through his hard work, his devotion to his family, his devotion to God (about which I would like to have heard more), and his discipline to get up and run.

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

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen

It sounds sexist, I know, but Jane Austen's books are simply not for me, a middle-aged married guy.  I have seen a couple of movies based on her books, and sometimes they're OK.  Maybe if I saw a movie version of Mansfield Park I would like it more.

Fanny, who is one of the oldest children of a poor family, goes to live with her wealthy cousins, the Bertrams.  Through her eyes we gain insight into the lives of the idle rich.  They talk and talk.  They gossip about marriage and arranging to marry the right person.  They ride horses.  Except for Edmund, the Bertrams don't treat her well.  I was so bored and annoyed by the Bertrams and their peers.  So was Fanny, actually.  It turns out that Fanny has more virtue than most of the high-class women around her, and it turns out she gets the best catch of all of them for marriage.

Austen is, of course, a talented writer, who captured this English era and class of people beautifully in her books.  Despite her recognized importance and legions of fans, I do not count myself among them.

(I did get a kick out of one passage about the life of the clergy: "It is . . . indolence and love of ease; a wont of all laudable ambition, of taste for good company, or of inclination to take the trouble of being agreeable which make men clergymen.  A clergyman has nothing to do but be slovenly and selfish--read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. . . . the business of his life is to dine."  This is a bit stronger than the "Pastors only work on Sundays" line!)

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by Jane Austen

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Strangers at the Manger, by Lisa M. Hendey, illustrated by Jenn Bower

In Katie and Patrick's latest "Chime Travelers" adventure, The Strangers at the Manger, the plucky twins travel to Bethlehem to witness the real Christmas story.  While they are helping their parents get the church cleaned up for Christmas Eve service, the bell choir starts rehearsal.  When the bells chime just right, they are whooshed into a strange, yet strangely familiar land.

The twins meet Mary and Joseph while they are on the road to Bethlehem, and end up staying with them for a long period of time.  They get to witness Jesus' birth and the visits from the shepherds and wise men.  They also work hard to help the Holy Family with household chores and babysitting.  From Mary they learn the importance of kindness to strangers, and when the return home they immediately put that lesson to work.

The Chime Traveling twins remind me of the kids in the Magic Treehouse series.  Lisa Hendey brings the story of the first Christmas to life in a cute and breezy way.  Jenn Bower's illustrations match Hendey's tone perfectly.  The Strangers at the Manger is great for all kids (and grown-ups).  Hendey is Roman Catholic, so some of the words may not be familiar to non-Catholics.  Nevertheless, it's a fun read, getting me in the Christmas spirit and reminding me of the joy and miracle of Jesus' birth.

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

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Your Disgusting Head, by Dr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey

Dr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey has continued her major contributions to the world of scientific knowledge.  That may be true; but it won't be found in Your Disgusting Head: The Darkest, Most Offensive--and Moist--Secrets of Your Ears, Mouth, and Nose.  This second book of "The Haggis-on-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance" is, like the other books in the series, full of unbelievable brilliance.

Your Disgusting Head stays largely on topic.  For instance, you will learn the location, function, and nicknames of "the sickening fluids that fill your skull."  You will read about "the lunatic who designed your ears (It was Fernando de la Mancini-Goldfarb, in case you're wondering.).

Here's what you'll want to keep in mind when perusing Your Disgusting Head.  Do not expect any connection to reality.  This isn't one of those books that has sort-of true stuff that is written in a funny way.  This is completely random, absurd, and hilarious.  Do not read this if you don't have a sense of humor.

Friday, August 12, 2016

How Jesus Saves the World From Us, by Morgan Guyton

Morgan Guyton, a United Methodist campus pastor in New Orleans, writes engagingly, with a talent for looking at theology and church life with a unique and challenging perspective.  In How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes for Toxic Christianity, he "provides antidotes for the toxicity that has infiltrated Christian culture."

I hate to start with a criticism, but I hope an editor slapped this title on Guyton's book.  I think it's more provocative than the actual content, and the subtitle seems more glib and commercial than Guyton's style would call for.  OK, I just had to get that out of my system.

Guyton's strength is perspective.  He takes scriptures or ideas that we think we have figured out, and puts a new spin on them, broadening our preconceived or long-ago-conceived notions.  Granted, even though Guyton and I share Southern Baptist roots, he has taken a more liberal turn than I have, so I found some points of disagreement.  But before I grumbled too much about his liberalism, I came across the most memorable image in the book, when he compares Christians to jazz musicians.

Because of the improvisational nature of jazz, one song may sound different every time it's played.  Whether it's played by different musicians, with different instruments, in different settings and time periods, one song might have a different sound while being recognizably the same song.  He writes that for jazz musicians, "it's more important to find the right groove with the other musicians on the stage than to play the exact notes of the original recording.  You need communion, not correctness."

The jam session can be ruined by one musician insisting on too much solo time, taking away from the contribution of the other musicians.  Even more so, if one musician stops the song, insisting that the other musicians conform to his perception of the correct way to play.  This is how Guyton views the church.  "The goal of theology is to make it possible for a wide range of human personalities to find God's groove and experience communion together.  It's more important for the song to be playable for millions of people than to be perfect so only a few can play it right." 

I may be devoting too much review space to this idea.  I don't know that Guyton would say this is the central theme of his book.  But to me, it tied everything together.  When I disagree with him (and, now, by extension, other Christians) about something, I would ask, Are we playing the same song, in a different style or on a different instrument?  Or is he playing a different piece of music altogether?  Most of the time, I would have to agree with this: "Even if I have strong theological differences with another Christian, it's not because one of us has been completely abandoned by God and possessed by a demon.  Both of us are partly wrong and partly right, in different ways, but God is revealing truth to both of us."  Part of the problem with insisting on theological purity is when you do so, you must "say that all those other churches out there are doing it wrong." 

All of this said, How Jesus Saves the World From Us contains much more that I agree with than disagree.  On a personal note, Guyton recognizes his grandfather as an important personal and spiritual influence.  Guyton's grandparents were my neighbors, close family friends, and pillars of my home church.  His huge, strong grip and booming voice, and her rose perfume are indelible memories.  They knew how to love and serve others selflessly as well as anyone I have known.  I, too, remember his love of Jesus and theological curiosity.  I know they would be proud and delighted with Guyton's ministry and writing.

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

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Outcry, by Ryan Romeo

Ryan Romeo has been a point person in organizing a series of large-scale worship concerts featuring some of the biggest names in Christian music.  His book OUTCRY: New Voices Speak Out About the Power of the Church could have been a promotional puff piece for his concerts and the artists.  It is that, to a limited extent, but it's actually much more than that.

The OUTCRY artists, including Crowder, Bethel Music, Rend Collective, and others, play the "big rooms," sell lots of records, and get plenty of radio airplay.  They could easily see themselves as aloof from the local church, existing on a plane superior to the weekly ins and outs of average congregations.  Far from that, both Romeo's text and the shorter selections written by the artists wholeheartedly embrace and endorse the local church, large and small. 

Romeo write that OUTCRY isn't a movement in itself.  "The next big thing is here.  But it's been here for two thousand years.  It's the local church."  He calls us to love Jesus by loving his bride.  He calls us to service to the church in order to make a "meaningful impact on friends, family, and community."  The local church is "a worthy and significant calling to give your life to." 

Beyond that, Romeo calls on the church to enjoy our unity.  He acknowledges that there are theological differences among denominations, but that our similarities should drive us toward communal worship and fellowship.  The OUTCRY worship concerts are a perfect setting and expression of unity: drawing diverse Christians together for worship, while affirming the many expressions of worship and varied theological perspectives in local churches.  I like his take on Jesus' prayer for unity: "Will we see a perfect unity in the church one day?  Yes, because Jesus prayed for it.  Do we have it yet?  No, because Jesus prayed for it."

OUTCRY challenges readers to embrace the local church and pour themselves into it.  Romeo also tells stories of the unity and fellowship the OUTCRY artists enjoyed while on tour, a model for our interactions with other Christians.  These artists play on a big stage, and lots of people know their names, but they are playing for an audience of one, glorifying the name of the one who knows all of our names.

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

How Should We Then Live?, by Francis Schaeffer

Francis Schaeffer first published How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture in 1976.  Forty years later, it remains insightful and relevant.  In a relatively short space, Schaeffer traces the intellectual trend lines from ancient times to the 20th century.  His bottom line is the shift from belief in an ordered universe to a belief in relativism and disorder.  This has resulted in "modern man's loss of meaning and values."

It's a whirlwind tour, but well worth the ride.  At times, due to the vast scope of the subject matter, he breezes through important eras and ideas, like a tour bus that barely slows down enough for you to get a snapshot of an important landmark.  However, he provides an extensive bibliography for those who want to get off the bus and take a more leisurely tour.

The overall argument is unassailable, and he makes many other important points throughout that are worth noting.  On the Industrial Revolution, productivity increased like never before, leading to major demographic shifts and, for many, and increased standard of living.  However, it was also marked by moral blindness on "race and the noncompassionate use of wealth."  Christians missed an opportunity in this era to claim moral leadership and shift society's direction.

Even though he was writing four decades ago, Schaeffer was rather prescient on many points.  Does this sound like something you might read today?  I think so: "Random and indiscriminate terrorism is even more frightening [than political terrorism].  Similarly alarming are the indications that terrorist organizations from all over the world have in some way coordinated their efforts.  We have already seen indications of how people give up their liberties when they are faced with the threat of terrorism."  Random terrorism. . . . Giving up liberties. . . .  We can relate.

In the most sobering statement of all, Schaeffer paraphrases Edward Gibbon's conclusions in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Gibbon wrote that the end of Rome was marked by five attributes: affluence, wealth disparity, "obsession with sex," "freakishness in the arts," and "an increased desire to live off the state."  As Schaeffer pointed out forty years ago, and any casual observer today can attest, these five attributes are alive and well.  How will this play out in the 21st century?  Time will tell.  But Francis Schaeffer, from beyond the grave, can say, "Don't say I didn't warn you!"

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by Frances Schaeffer

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

How to Graduate Debt-Free, by Kristina Ellis

My oldest son is about to begin his senior year in high school.  He is already filling out college applications, and I am wondering how we will pay for it!  Kristina Ellis's book, How to Graduate Debt-Free: The Best Strategies to Pay for College #notgoingbroke, came at a good time.  Ellis, a graduate of Vanderbilt University, dispenses wisdom for high school and college kids who aim to get an education without the burden of debt.

Ellis doesn't present any revolutionary ideas.  The tips and information in How to Graduate Debt-Free can be found in other books and web sites.  Ellis does present it in a succinct, organized way, in an approachable, encouraging tone.  Ellis is probably exceptional, as you might expect, since she was accomplished enough to be accepted to Vanderbilt.  As she points out, like many highly-ranked schools, Vanderbilt has a large endowment and a commitment to helping qualified students afford attendance.  I dare say most college students' experiences will be quite different from hers. 

Nevertheless, any college student, no matter what their high school class rank, SAT score, or athletic prowess (or lack of) can benefit from Ellis's advice.  I will certainly keep this book close at hand as my son and I plan for his college years.

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

Monday, August 8, 2016

Home and Away: A World War II Christmas Story, by Dean Hughes

Home and Away: A World War II Christmas Story, by Dean Hughes, takes the Greatest Generation on a nostalgia trip, and gives us young folks a taste of life during the Second World War.  The Hayes family, like much of the country, is struggling to get by.  Money is tight, and worries about their oldest son, a paratrooper on the front lines, monopolize their thoughts.  The middle child longs to follow in big brother's footsteps, if for no other reason than to gain the elusive approval of his father.  Mom tries to keep the family together, and prays that her husband will turn to God and come to church with them.

Hughes's story is touching, not quite a tear-jerker for me, but there are some tender moments.  He portrays the reality of life during WW2, especially the way the community comes together to support the war effort and each other.  Successive generations have no idea what a huge impact the war had on the home front (I include myself here.)  Subsequent conflicts have been smaller scale, yet have been brought closer to us in the 24 hour news cycle.  May we never have such a world war again, and may we, at Christmas and everyday, remember the treasure that we have in our homes and families.

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

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Reading is for Idjits, by W. W. Rowe, illustrated by Charles A. Filius

Not knowing how to read can really get a kid into trouble.  Martin is a good reader, but his twin brother Morton thinks "Reading is for idjits!"  In W.W. Rowe's book Reading is for Idjits, we see the trouble that Morton gets into as a result of his not being able to read.  After several increasingly dangerous episodes, Morton's parents finally said he could have no TV, video games, or caramel-swirl ice cream until he learns to read.  When he does, he finds out that he not only enjoys it, but it can be a helpful skill!

Rowe's story is silly and simple, with a message greater than the telling.  Charles Filius's colorful, cartoonish illustrations add to the story.  Reading is for Idjits isn't destined to be a classic of children's literature, but it's a fun little story with a good message.

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

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Giraffes? Giraffes!, by Dr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey

So you think you know something about giraffes?  Ha!  You don't know anything about giraffes.  That's OK, Dr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey has all the answers you need in Giraffes? Giraffes!  This is volume 1 of The Haggis-on-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance.  They key to appreciate this series of books is to accept the fact that every word in the book is absurd and has little, if any, connection to reality.

The first thing to understand about giraffes is their origin: "Giraffes first came to this planet nearly five-hundred thousand years ago, on a conveyor belt."  What, you didn't know that?  No, however, they live in Terre Haute, although they could move anytime by way of conveyor.  In case you're wondering what kind of shoes they wear, they don't wear shoes.  But if they did, they would wear espadrilles.  You might be interested to read the story of the giraffe who removed all of his hair (with Nair, of course) and tried to pass himself off as a human.  Or the giraffe "with a love in  her heart for zinc."

Giraffes? Giraffes! is pure silliness, a funny, silly, absurd good time.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Next Door as It Is In Heaven, by Lance Ford and Brad Brisco

As many pastors have pointed out, sometimes we as Christians, focused on mission trips or mission needs around the world, fail to notice those who live right next door.  So true.  Lance Ford and Brad Brisco challenge Christians to be good neighbors in Next Door as It Is In Heaven: Living Out God's Kingdom in Your Neighborhood.

Rehashing some of our cultural history, Ford and Brisco point out how separated we are from our neighbors.  For many of our parents or grandparents, church, neighborhood, school, commerce, employment, and recreation all had a great degree of overlap.  This is less true today, especially in our scattered suburbs.  Many of us spend more time in our cars than getting to know our neighbors.  Interestingly enough, they point to commercialism and consumerism as major culprits in creating the image of the family as an isolated, individualistic unit.

I like the quote they used from Frederick Buechner: "If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors."  We should be practicing biblical hospitality (which, they point out, is distinct from entertaining) and inclusion, "loving strangers and welcoming people into our lives."  And above all, look for Jesus in your neighbor: "We desire to be in the presence of the Lord.  What we so often miss is that his very presence is available right now, through the presence of those made in his image."

Next Door is practical, yet convicting.  They don't beat the reader over the head, but they do want to snap us out of our too-often insular existences.  I tried to justify myself.  "I know my neighbors. . . . I am connected to others on my street. . . ."  But I have to face up to it.  My neighbors will be blessed (and my life will be enriched) to the extent that I "neighbor" better.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about evangelism

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Short Life of Martin Luther, by Thomas Kaufmann

Most Christians know, at least vaguely, who Martin Luther is.  But I'm guessing most Christians don't know that much about him.  I am thankful for Thomas Kaufman's book A Short Life of Martin Luther, for presenting Luther's life and theology in an accessible, readable book.  Kaufmann, professor of theology at the University of Gottingen, follows Luther's life and career, including his context and influences.  But he spends more time on Luther's theological work.

Of course we all (OK, maybe not all, but many of us) know the story of his nailing his "95 Theses" to the Wittenberg door.  It was dramatic and historical, but maybe not quite as dramatic as we may have thought: "Luther at first shared them only with some of his close colleagues at Wittenberg as well as, by attachment to a letter, Archbishop Albrecht, the ecclesiastical authority responsible for Wittenberg.  He made them known to the wider academic community of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, probably by hammering them onto the church doors, which functioned as the university bulletin board."

 Here's what I took away from A Short Life.  Luther wasn't just a brilliant thinker and innovative theologian.  He was that, and more.  But his was not dry theology.  He was a passionate follower of Jesus and lover of God's word.  He brought grace and the Bible back to the center of the church.  Even though the church he loved rejected him, his influence was felt in Rome.  And the rest of us--non-Roman Catholic or Easter Orthodox Christians--can thank him for blazing the trail for us.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by or about Martin Luther

Monday, August 1, 2016

10,000 Reasons, by Matt Redman

Matt Redman's worship songs have been sung by Christians for years.  In 2013, he won two Grammy awards for his song "10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)."  But more than record sales or awards, Redman treasures the stories he hears from people around the world about how the song has blessed them.  In 10,000 Reasons: Stories of Faith, Hope, and Thankfulness Inspired by the Worship Anthem, Redman, with coauthor Craig Borlase, tells a bit of his own story, and the stories of many who have been touched by the song.

These stories are worth hearing.  The cancer patients who sing "10,000 Reasons" during treatment, the man who sang it during the operation to remove a tumor in his brain, the many who sang it on their death bed, at the side of their dying loved ones, and at countless funerals.  (My Corpus Christi friends will be interested in the first example.  In Max Lucado's introduction, he tells Jonathan McComb's story, who had "10,000 Reasons" sung at the service a few days after his family died in the Blanco River flood.) 

If you know this song, take time to reflect on the lyrics, which remind us to "be singing when the evening comes."  Whatever sickness or other struggles we are going through, the song encourages us: "When my strength is failing . . . and my time has come, still my soul will sing your praise unending . . ."  Redman writes, "When things are at their toughest, when life feels at its most frail, that's when we really find out what kind of worshippers we are." 

I also enjoyed Redman's reflections on the songwriting process, and the responsibility he feels to convey sound theology and to glorify God in his songs.  Some of his heroes, such as Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, and others, have left a legacy of thousands of songs, many of which we still sing, and which shaped generations of Christians' perspectives on God.  He says "it's always humbling to see the music accomplishing what I was hoping for when it was written and leading someone to connect with Christ in a special way."

If you enjoy the song, you'll enjoy the book.  If you love to worship, you'll love to read Redman's perspectives as a worship leader and song writer.  Now when I sing "10,000 Reasons," I'll sure pay closer attention to what I'm singing, and think about the Christians around the world who are singing along with me.

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