Monday, October 31, 2016

The Servant, by James C. Hunter

James Hunter has made a name for himself promoting the idea of servant leadership.  His book The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership has sold millions.  Probably most of them were bought by companies to pass out to their managers or employees--like me!  I have read this twice, once when my manager had me read it, and more recently as part of a leadership training program.

First of all, Hunter wants to clarify the distinction between management and leadership. "You manage things, you lead people."  A leader meets the needs of those under his or her leadership so that they can effectively serve the customer.  A servant leader does so while treating others the way he or she wants to be treated.

Hunter makes some great points.  He flips the typical company hierarchy on its head.  The traditional top-down model, with the president or CEO at the top and the customer at the bottom, has everyone looking up, to serve the person or persons above them.  In a servant-leader model, everyone is serving those below, with the ultimate emphasis being on the customer.

Hunter exorts the reader to think of love as a verb.  Taking the biblical passage 1 Corinthians 13 as the model, he shows how each quality of love--patience, kindness, humility, respectfulness, etc.--is an action and a choice.  "Love is not how you feel toward others but how you behave toward others."  Ultimately, servant-leadership (love) is a skill that can be learned and practiced.

All of this is developed in the context of a fictional monastic retreat, led by a monk who is a former high-level executive.  The "story" part isn't particularly great, but it adds a level of interest and context to the meat of the book.  As Hunter notes in the introduction to the 2012 edition, servant leadership is growing as a leadership philosophy.  Of course, followers of the greatest servant leader have been familiar with his model for two millennia.  Now to put it into practice.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book you have read before

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Goodnight, Batcave! by Dave Croatto, illustrated by Tom Richmond

If you're like me, part of your childhood memories of bedtime involve the classic Goodnight, Moon.  Mad Magazine's Dave Croatto and illustrator Tom Richmond have given that classic the superhero treatment in Goodnight, Batcave!  Poor Batman just wants to relax and go to bed, when his lair is invaded by a team of his nemeses.  They wreck his night, they wreck his cave, but he wrecks them in the end.
Goodnight, Batcave! is full of short, clever rhymes in the style of Goodnight, Moon.  Kids who love Batman will be delighted to see him take care of the Joker, the Riddler, Harley Quinn, and other villains from the world of Batman.  Finally, he can get a good night's sleep, with all the bad guys in jail.  And faithful Alfred is there to clean up the mess.  Good night, dear Alfred. . . . Goodnight heroes everywhere.

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

Friday, October 28, 2016

Heart of a Dog, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Heart of a Dog is a strange little book.  It was written in 1925 by Mikhail Bulgakov, but it was decades before it ever saw publication.  The subversive, thinly-veiled social commentary did not meet the approval of Communist officials, who banned it.  It wasn't published in the Soviet Union until 1987.

What's so dangerous about this story?  Like many stories of its kind, it can be read on a number of levels.  A Russian scientist brings home a stray dog, who is grateful for good food and a comfortable home.  Once the dogs is healed up (he had been burned by scalding water) and given some good nutrition, the scientist tries a little experiment.  He transplants human testicles and pituitary gland into the dog.  To his surprise, the dog is transformed, taking on human form.  While this might have been a cause for celebration at the scientific breakthrough, the dog/man causes no end of trouble for the scientist.  He is not, shall we say, a model member of society or a welcome house guest.

Bulgakov reminds me of Kafka and H.G. Wells, although he's surely a notch or two below them in the quality of writing and social commentary.  The story overshadows any political message Bulgakov might have tried to make, and the story itself isn't that compelling.  However, Heart of a Dog is definitely worth reading, if nothing else because it's a cultural artifact, a rare voice of dissension from the early days of the Soviet Union.  

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by or about a Russian

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Why do we do what we do, and can we change it?  That is what Charles Duhigg asks in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  Duhigg, a New York Times business reporter, discusses the habit loop: our brains receive a cue, we follow a routine, and we receive a reward.  Advertiser Claude Hopkins mastered this in the first half of the 20th century in his promotion of Pepsodent toothpaste.  Cue: film on your teeth.  Routine: brush with Pepsodent.  Reward: minty fresh feeling in your mouth.  Hopkins was able to create the habit of tooth brushing.

This same cycle applies to many areas of life.  The key to changing habits is to change the routine.  You identify and "keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.  That's the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit.  Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same."  It's so simple, but as anyone who has tried to kick a habit can tell you, it's not so easy.

Among his many examples and illustrations, Duhigg discusses the way Hopkins's methods are used in the consumer industry.  The food we eat, the products we buy, the music we listen, all of it is being manipulated by businesses who want to change our habits to their benefit.  It's startling and humbling to hear these strategies described and realize how much even the most independent-minded among us are influenced by marketing and advertising.

From the perspective of business, Duhigg got me thinking about building productive habits at work.  We don't naturally have habits in place when we start a new job; we are applying skills or seeking outcomes that may have been previously unfamiliar.  So we have new cues and outcomes, and we have to shape the routine to respond to the cues and achieve the desired outcome.

Duhigg's thesis is sound and compelling, and his examples clearly show the path to changing habits.  At some points in his exposition, as interesting as some of his anecdotes were, he strayed away from the fine point of the first couple of chapters.  The chapters that deal with changing habits across an organization are probably the most important, but could use more development.  All in all, The Power of Habit is an interesting read that will force to you think about your own routines, and inspire leaders and managers to evaluate the motivations and systems they implement.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about productivity

Monday, October 24, 2016

God and Cosmos, by John Byl

Mathematician and astronomer John Byl has looked into the void of space, and has seen the revelation of God.  In God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe, Byl challenges some of the dogmas of modern cosmology and challenges Christians to give priority to biblical teaching  as they formulate their own cosmological views.

Byl debunks the Big Bang theory.  He's not even favorable toward Christian thinkers who see the Big Bang as reconcilable with the biblical account of creation.  The "concordist" position, which attempts to reconcile the biblical account with modern cosmology, tends to neglect the biblical reading.  Byl's position is that Christians should take the Bible seriously, and reject cosmologies that contradict the Bible.

He argues for a six-day creation.  This alone will turn off many readers.  But as biblical believer who is comfortable with concordism, I was forced to consider his arguments from the perspective of a high view of biblical authority.  One of his large points is that much of cosmology is theoretical, such as the Big Bang theory.  This is not observable or falsifiable; he calls it "the creation myth of naturalism."  When considering such theories, we must evaluate the cosmological, philosophical presumptions on which they are based.  What we may find is a foundation of speculation and, frankly, science fiction.

Even something as seemingly established as a geocentric or heliocentric universe can be challenged.  I did not read Byl as affirming heliocentrism or geocentrism, but he does point out the limitations of our perspective:  "The question of absolute motion can hardly be answered on scientific grounds. . . . all we can ever observe is relative motion, not absolute motion. . . . To see whether the earth is 'really' moving we must step outside the physical universe on to a fixed resting point.  This only God can do.  Hence, ultimately, it is only God who can adequately answer the question of absolute motion. . . . In short, the question as to whether it is really the earth or the sun that moves cannot be answered through scientific investigation."

Byl's persecutive probably will not persuade those who do not believe the Bible.  He may not even persuade biblical Christians.  I'm not sure I am persuaded to embrace six-day creationism, but I can certainly acknowledge that it's not an unreasonable position to hold.  Despite what you may think of his conclusions, I think one must acknowledge his admonition not to too quickly or fully embrace theoretical cosmological models, and to ensure that one is relying on that which can be observed and tested.  "The speculative nature of scientific theorizing cautions against placing undue trust in any particular model."  If the reader can overcome his biases against six-day creationism or someone who holds a high view of biblical authority, he will be rewarded with a thoughtful reflection on cosmology and the presumptions we bring to cosmological arguments.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book published by The Banner of Truth

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Overview, by Benjamin Grant

I don't know if I can even write a review of Benjamin Grant's Overview: A New Perspective of Earth. Seriously, you just have to see these pictures.  Grant has compiled pictures from his popular Daily Overview web site (Instagram feed, Facebook page, etc.).  Go there, check it out.  Be sure you don't have an urgent appointment, or you'll get caught up in the pictures and miss it.

That's how this book is.  Every page is jaw-dropping.  First, disorienting, because the scale and beauty are so unbelievable.  Then inspiring, a reminder of how much beauty is in the world that we never see.  That is, unless you're an astronaut.  Grant was inspired by the overview effect reported by astronauts, whose perspective on our planet is transformed by seeing it from above.

Spend some time with Overview.  Your perspective will be transformed, too.

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

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Vader's Little Princess, by Jeffrey Brown

Imagine that instead of being whisked off to Alderaan as a baby, Leia was raised by her biological father, Darth Vader?  That's exactly what Jeffrey Brown imagined in Vader's Little Princess.  "Episode Three and Three-Quarters: VADER'S LITTLE PRINCESS.  Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, continues to rule the Galactic Empire and is out to destroy the heroic Rebel Alliance.  Meanwhile, he must raise his young daughter, Leia, as she grows from a sweet little girl--into a rebellious teenager. . . ."

Vader's Little Princess is not a story but a series of one-page vignettes of Vader's life as a single dad of a teenage girl.  She's growing up, getting a mind of her own, and dating boys that don't meet Vader's approval.  Leia shows typical teenage attitude, rebellion, and a desire for independence, but there are some tender moments, too.  Any dad of teenage girls will tell you life comes with both.  The inside jokes and movie references will delight Star Wars fans, and Vader's parental experiences will elicit nods of agreement from parents of teens.

It's silly, but great fun.  If you're a Star Wars fan and a parent, you will thoroughly enjoy this book.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Prone to Love, by Jason Clark

Remember that line from the hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing"? "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love."  Jason Clark, inspired by his grandmother, prefers to sing, "Prone to Love you, Lord I feel it, Prone to serve the God I love."  In Prone to Love, Clark develops this sentiment, admonishing readers to see ourselves as God sees us.

How does God see us?  He loves us.  Simple as that.  A passage in which Clark recounts a conversation with his son just about brought me to tears.  His son asks, "Dad, how do you know when God is speaking to you; how do you know his presence?" Clark answers, "Bud, our heavenly Father's presence is always with us and He is always speaking to us.  And He is always saying one thing: 'I love you.'"  He continues, "Son, if you want to become more aware of His presence, it starts with believing that He loves you."  What a powerful, simple message.

Clark reminds us that not only does God love us, no matter what, but he also has transformed us, implanting his nature in us.  Now that we are new creations, we are prone to love, not prone to wander.   We live in God's grace, which "releases us to see ourselves from His perspective and empowers us to live in agreement with how He sees us, as saints of the Highest one."  Like the woman caught in adultery, we are to "go and sin no more."  Grace is not a "license to sin," but an expectation that we are being transformed, becoming more like Jesus.

I love Clark's emphasis on grace and on seeing ourselves as God sees us.  However, although he addresses the question of ongoing temptation and sin, I didn't feel like he adequately addresses the eternal question of sin in the lives of saints.  I want to see myself as God sees me--a saint, prone to love--yet my life often looks like a sinner, prone to wander.  I'm challenged to change my perspective by getting to know God.  Clark writes, "If you know Love, you become love.  If you become love, you don't have to try to love, you just love."  How?  Keeping my eyes on God and His perfect love.  Spending time "in God's presence, in worship, prayer, and His Word."  Simple and profound.  Easy and hard.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book that has a fruit of the Spirit in the title

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Legacies, by F. Paul Wilson

Following the success of his 1984 bestseller The Tomb, F. Paul Wilson brought back the star of that novel, Repairman Jack, in a 1998 follow up, Legacies.  Jack is an intriguing character, worth bringing back.  In fact, Legacies is the second of at least fifteen Repairman Jack novels.

Legacies starts out with Jack's friend/lover Gia calling on him recover some Christmas gifts that have been stolen from the AIDS clinic where she volunteers.  Of course he recovers them in dramatic yet anonymous fashion.  Dr. Clayton, who runs the clinic, is impressed with his work and enlists him to help with a problem on her own.  She has inherited her father's house, but she wants nothing more than to destroy it.  She certainly doesn't want her good-for-nothing half brother to get his hands on it.

The house holds terrible and wonderful secrets, but nothing but horrible memories for Dr. Clayton.  Along with Dr. Clayton's brother, a group of Arabs and a mysterious Japanese man have their eyes on the house.  Jack ends up at odds with all of them.  It won't surprise readers familiar with Jack that all of them die.  Jack is too hard to kill.

I expected that the house would have some kind of supernatural significance, like a portal to the underworld ready to unleash the creatures from The Tomb onto the streets of New York.  Legacies does not go that route.  Wilson does explore evils of real life, which are even worse: pediatric AIDS, the ravages of drug addiction, and child pornography.

Jack is the kind of hero who is more clever than his adversaries, just enough to make things interesting, but not so much that he doesn't get in plenty of scrapes of his own.  I do find it hard to conceive of his living "off the grid" in the middle of Manhattan, with no SSN, no bank account, not trace of his existence.  That adds to the mystery and intrigue of Jack's legend.  Legacies is a fun, dark thriller, with enough Jack to make readers want to come back for more.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book written in the twentieth century

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Family Well-Ordered, by Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather, a pastor in Boston in the late 1600s to early 1700s, is one of the best known Puritans of the American founding era.  He was a prolific writer, champion of education, man of science, and, most unfortunately for his legacy (not to mention for a number of victims), a key figure in the Salem witch trials.

Among his many writings, we find this little gem: A Family Well-Ordered, or An Essay to Render Parents and Children Happy in One Another.  Long before James Dobson got us to focus on our families, Mather communicated guidelines for the family drawn from scripture.

Mather's style will put off many readers.  Not to elevate his writing to the place of scripture or classic literature, but if a reader is not comfortable reading the King James Bible or the plays of Shakespeare, he will probably not enjoy Mather's verbosity.  For example: "Let our authority effectually keep our children from all their unruly exorbitances and extravagancies."  In my opinion, it's good for the brain to read things that will demand a bit more from you and perhaps expand your vocabulary.

Mather writes about the parents' duty to their children, and the children's duty to the parent.  Above all else, he writes, parents must do all in their power to see that their children come to know the Lord.  This can be done through teaching, but more important is parental modeling: "Parents, be exemplary. Your example may do much towards the salvation of your children; your works will more work upon your children than your words; your patterns will do more than your precepts, your copies more than your counsels."

From the children, they should know that they risk the wrath of God if they don't honor their parents.  They should treat their parents with reverence, obedience, and recompense.  He even extends this to treatment of teachers, bosses, and, in a section that is revolting to modern readers, slaves' treatment of their masters.  This section especially dates A Family Well-Ordered, but the overall message is as contemporary and timeless as the countless scriptural reference Mather sprinkles throughout his exposition.  It may not be as easy to read as a James Dobson book, but A Family Well-Ordered is relevant and challenging.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book written by a Puritan

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Darth Vader and Son, by Jeffrey Brown

Star Wars fans take note: Jeffrey Brown's Darth Vader and Son is a must-read!  This is absolutely hilarious.  It's full of parenting humor starring Darth Vader and his son Luke, and full of inside jokes and movie references for Star Wars fans.

In an alternative Star Wars galaxy, Vader is raising Luke.  "Episode Three and a half: DARTH VADER AND SON.  Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith, leads the Galactic Empire against the heroic Rebel Alliance.  Before he can take care of the Rebels, Lord Vader must first take care of his son--four-year-old Luke Skywalker. . . ."

The son and his black-clad father go on outings, go shopping, go on space-ship trips, hang out around the house, play together.  Luke is a typical four year old, and Vader is a typical harried parent of a four year old.  Brown cracked me up as he put his silly twist on Star Wars and Luke and Vader's strange relationship.  I do have to acknowledge that my teenage sons did not find this book as amusing as I did.  They are Star Wars fans to be sure; I suppose parents who are Star Wars fans will appreciate the book most.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Fast Fuel, by Renee McGregor

Renee McGregor, a nutritionist for leading athletes in the UK, wants to help you become a better runner.  Fast Fuel: Food for Running Success will give you information and recipes to fit your training plan, whatever your level of experience and whatever distance you are training for.  She covers more than diet.  She explores different types of meals and snacks eaten at different stages of a training week and during runs, discusses hydration, and emphasizes the importance of weight training and rest and recovery.

Besides absorbing the large amount of information McGregor provides (there were times when I got bogged down in the info, eyes glazing over, skimming to the bottom of the page), the great challenge of Fast Fuel is applying it to your own training.  I have always been an "eat what you want" runner.  Of course, I have always been a middle- or back-of-the-pack runner.  (OK, OK, I admit, more frequently at the back. . . .)  If a runner wants to take his or her sport seriously, paying more attention to what (and when) you eat is key.

Fast Fuel has examples of training/eating plans.  The best part is, she has dozens of recipes as suggestions to follow the plan.  She includes snacks, entrees, recover drinks, etc.  Some of them sound really good.  (I want to try the sweet potato brownies.)  American readers might wonder about some of the foods she talks about, like lolls, crisps, jelly babies, lemon squash, malt loaf, pork pie, or--this sounds really appealing--yeast-extract sandwich.  But for the most part the foods sounded familiar.

McGregor includes lots of charts and other text layout that didn't show up well on Kindle.  For this reason, and because of the recipes, you would probably want to get this in a paper version, not Kindle.  Fast Fuel is a good start for a motivated runner who is already good at planning his or her training and diet.  For a newbie, a casual runner, or a eat-whatever runner like me, Fast Fuel will be difficult to navigate in a useful way.  But it may very well be worth it.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book published by a UK-based publisher

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, known for New Journalism, non-fiction like The Right Stuff, and great fiction like A Man in Full and Bonfire of the Vanities, long ago established himself as one of the great American writers.  A new book from Wolfe is cause for celebration.  In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe puts on his intellectual historian/ academic journalist hat to take on intellectual icons and explore the origins of language.

Target #1: Charles Darwin.  Darwin's ideas about evolution were not wholly original.  He became the figurehead of a new movement due to his social status, his connections among the intellectual and cultural elite, and the support of activist atheists who saw evolution as a linchpin for their movement.  Wolfe recounts the tawdry details of the scheme to get Darwin publishing priority over Alfred Russel Wallace, essentially robbing Wallace of the acclaim due him.

Further, Wolfe asserts that Darwin's theories lack scientific support or evidence.  His origin story, starting with a few cells in muck, has as much scientific support as ancient creation stories involving dung beetles, praying mantises, or spiders.  Later, Darwin tried to explain the origin of speech, suggesting that early man imitated bird sounds, or attributed the fact that men have very little hair compared to apes to sexual preference.  Wolfe says Darwin's ideas had no more evidence than Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories.

Target #2: Noam Chomsky.  Chomsky's linguistic origin theories, in which he talks about a language organ which all people possess, came to monopolize the field of linguistics.  Wolfe describes Chomsky's rise to prominence, comparing him to other young, charismatic leaders who start cults of dedicated followers.  That's right: to Wolfe, Chomsky is a cult leader who spent decades bullying detractors to the point that he and his followers dominated the field.  When an anthropologist in the field, Daniel L. Everett, studied a very primitive language in the Amazonian jungle, his work discredited Chomsky's whole body of work.  Wolfe describes Chomsky's elaborate efforts to adjust his terminology and discredit Everett. 

Wolfe's point in all of this is to argue that language did not evolve.  Language is not something that comes from a specific organ located inside the brain.  Language is an artifact, a tool that people groups develop over time.  This development and use of language is what separates humans from the animals.  Besides the animal kingdom, vegetable kingdom, and mineral kingdom, Wolfe wants to recognize "the kingdom of speech, inhabited solely by Homo loquax."

I am not an academic or scholar in the fields of biology or linguistics.  But I have spent enough time in the world of the academy to be frustrated by the controlling nature of the dominant theories that hold certain fields in their grip, treating alternative views like heresy and shunning dissenters as harshly as the Spanish inquisition.  Wolfe isn't worried about the shots he might take for his view.  I appreciate his uniquely iconoclastic, witty style.  The Kingdom of Speech won't go down as one of Wolfe's more popular books, but it may be one of his most substantial and important.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about language

Monday, October 10, 2016

More Than Enough, by Lee Hull Moses

Like many Western Christians, North Carolina pastor Lee Hull Moses struggles with the contrast between the abundance in which she lives and the needs of the world around her.  In More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess, she pokes and prods the question.  In a world marked by genocide, hunger, low wages, and unsafe working conditions (this list could go on, of course), "how do we live . . . in a way that honors God and shows gratitude for the good life we are living." 

I have read a number of books on this general theme.  I was pleased the she made no reference to sharing a lawnmower with your neighbors or to checking out books from the library instead of buying them.  Her goal isn't really to give practical tips for simple living, but to reflect on living in these United States of Abundance.

She does address the simple living perspective to which I referred.  She points out that "there's something significantly different between choosinga simple life and having one forced upon you. . . .  The choice to live simply is, in many ways, another by-product of privilege."  What a great point.  While Americans may choose ways to live more simply, doing so while surrounded by abundance, without a larger purpose, can become the opposite of simple.

Moses makes some great points about short-term missions.  She is a friend and fan of missionaries and their work, and writes with fondness about visiting her missionary friends in Nicaragua.  But she warns that short-term mission trips often "serve to reinforce stereotypes, increase dependency on foreign assistance, and serve as a sort of 'poverty tourism' for the travelers."  Churches interested in missions should not be satisfied to "fly in for a week and paint a house and come back with pictures to share at the church supper on Wednesday night."  Ideally, churches won't "stop at for but move toward with."

Moses also makes some great points about hunger.  "We've somehow created a system in which we know how ot produce more than enough food for everyone, but still there are hungry people in the world."  "In a country where we have the resources and the technology and the know-how to grow more food than we can possibly eat, how come there are hungry people in the first place?"  She points out that government agricultural subsidies lean heavily toward crops used for making processed foods, resulting in relatively higher prices for fresh produce and other non-processed foods.

Moses doesn't offer much in the way of solutions.  Her forte is reflection.  Her reflections are personal, in some cases reprinted from blog entries, giving the book the feel of a loosely-related collection of essays around a broad theme.  Personal though they are, her reflections easily translate to the rest of us. 

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

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Husband, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Husband is very funny, but I didn't find it to be to be as funny as the Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Mom.  Maybe I took it too personally.  I don't know if Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris are dads themselves, but they hit the mark frequently.  Like the Guide to the Mom, they have a couple of simple sentences describing a husband, accompanied by pictures in a nostalgic, old-fashioned style.  Some of my favorites:
  • "The husband has a very big memory.  He can remember football scores, all his old car license plate numbers, and most of Caddyshack.  But he cannot remember what his wife asked him to bring back from the store."  (Guilty.)
  • "The husband finds some things very difficult.  Being wrong is one of these things." (Hmmm.)
  • "Jimbo works hard all week and has only a few hours on the weekend to spend with his family.  He spends these hours watching sports." (Ouch.  This one hits close to home.)
  • "Jim and Rebecca have been husband and wife for thirty-one years and he still does not know what she likes." (Can every man relate to this?)
And there's more, including multiple references to husbands having a wandering eye and, of course, being unwilling to stop and ask for directions.  This is funny stuff, but much of it is unoriginal, getting laughs out of tired stereotypes.  Still funny.

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

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Mom, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Mom cracked me up on just about every page.  Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris have written what looks like a nostalgic children's book from the 1950s.  With a couple of sentences per page and pictures that hilariously describe the life of a mom.  Some examples:
  • "This is a mom.  A mom has two very important jobs to do.  One is to look after her children.  The other is to do everything else as well."  
  • "Being a new mom is full of wonder.  [Pictured: a nursing mother.]  Sally wonders if her left shoulder will ever stop smelling of puke."
  • "Bella's mother [who has not had time to do laundry] wonders what the record is for the number of days someone has worn the same bra."
  • "When she was single, Debbie had nightmares about being left alone and unwanted.  For the last three years, someone has called for her every two minutes and watched her every time she has taken a bath or sat on the toilet.  Debbie now dreams of being left along and unwanted, even for just a few minutes." 
It's silly humor, but the kind of humor that will have mothers nodding and laughing in recognition of themselves, or at least of "other" moms.

Looking after the kids' pets.

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

Friday, October 7, 2016

My Face Is Black Is True, by Mary Frances Berry

Born a slave in the latter years of slavery, Callie House deserves to be remembered for her work on behalf of former slaves.  In My Face is Black is True, historian Mary Frances Berry tells the story House's efforts seeking reparations for former slaves.  Even while working as a washerwoman, supporting her large family, House travelled about to enlist other former slaves in the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association.  It was, in part, a mutual aid society, providing for burial and health care for its members.  In a larger sense, it was a lobbying movement, seeking to obtain pensions for ex-slaves, much like soldiers' pensions.

The military pension comparison was apt, since many slaves were recruited to serve the Union army as laborers, but received little if any pay.  For funding, House targeted a large pool of proceeds from the sale of confiscated cotton.  It was logical: the cotton was cultivated, harvested, and processed with the coerced labor of slaves.  The proceeds from the sale of the cotton should reasonably be returned to those responsible for its production.  Would that life were so simple. . . .

As you might expect, House and her colleagues faced opposition in the South.  More surprising to me was the repression she faced from the federal government.  Using laws against mail fraud, the postal service restricted her use of the mail to promote membership in her organization and to collect dues.  They claimed, falsely, that she was promising pensions when, in fact, she spoke about the efforts to persuade congress to enact a pension.

It's not clear to me that House accomplished anything tangible.  She was a role model, an inspiration, a pioneer seeking equal rights long before the equal rights movement, to be sure.  Unfortunately for her, the opposition was simply too strong.  Later leaders took up her mantel, but I think the reparations movement should be put to bed.  There are no living slaves or slave owners.  (I know there is modern slavery around the world.  I'm talking about U.S. slavery-era slaves.)  Determining who is eligible for reparations and who should pay is impractical.  Many blacks and whites in the U.S. are descendants of immigrants who arrived after the Civil War, thus would have no connection to slavery.  Some blacks perhaps should pay reparations, like Barack Obama, who is likely descended from slave traders in Africa and slave owners in the U.S.  I appreciate House's campaign, and am sickened by the treatment ex-slaves received after emancipation.  But the reparations movement has no place in the 21st century.

Berry does a wonderful job of telling House's story and placing her in context.  My Face is Black is True is a rich resource for both a personal and a political history of the decades after the end of the Civil War.  I especially enjoyed Berry's personalization of the story.  She grew up in the same area of Nashville where House raised her family.  The citizens and the government of the United States did not uphold the ideals of our nation in the post-Civil War era.  Reading about House and her co-laborers for justice should inspire us to look forward, seeking to leave our world more just and free tomorrow than it was yesterday, every day.

2016 Reading Challenge: A biography

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Shoot the Moon, Nicolas Dupont-Bloch

I have to admit, the reason I picked up Nicholas Dupont-Bloch's book Shoot the Moon: A Complete Guide to Lunar Imaging is that I wanted to look at pretty pictures of the moon.  There are few of those, but this book is much, much more than that.  If you desire to take pictures of the moon, this is an invaluable resource.

Dupont-Bloch covers a wide array of shooting scenarios.  For the amateur hobbyist on a budget, he has plenty of suggestions for using your smartphone, basic camera, or digital SLR to get interesting pictures.  For photographers with sophisticated equipment (or a budget to get some sophisticated equipment) he has more tips and techniques.  The portions that might be most helpful are his methods to rig equipment and repurpose items for filming or storage of images.

A coffee table book for the casual reader Shoot the Moon is not.  But for the budding photographer who wants to take the time and put forth the effort to capture coffee-table-book-worthy images, Shoot the Moon should be in his or her photographic library.

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

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Religious Affections, by Jonathan Edwards

Is there any question that Jonathan Edwards is one of the United States's greatest religious thinkers and writers?  No.  Don't argue with me; it's true.  Now, why don't people read his books all the time, instead of Joel Osteen or Rick Warren or some other popular, megachurch pastor?  Probably because it's a lot harder to read Edwards.  Edwards wrote A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections in 1746, and the verbosity and vocabulary reflect that of a learned 18th century clergyman.  His style doesn't resound with most 21st century readers.

Archaic style and language aside, The Religious Affections is worth the time it takes to wade through (especially for readers who tire of the breezy, superficial books churned out by popular pastors today).  Edwards wants to make the point, still valid 270 years later, that religious "affections," or outward expressions of religion, do not make one a Christian, but should be present in Christians.  In fact, "they who have but little religious affection, have certainly but little religion."

What are the affections or signs that someone is a Christian?  By their fruits you know them.  humility, a changed life, Christ-like attitude, tenderness, an interest in spiritual growth, etc.  Edwards encouraged a spiritual striving and a life devoted to the pursuit of holiness.  He writes: "The more a true saint loves God with a gracious love, the more he desires to love him, and the more uneasy is he at his want of love to him; the more he hates sin, the more he desires to hate it. . . . The more he mourns for sin, the more he longs to mourn for sin. . . . The more he thirsts and longs for God and holiness, the more he longs to love, and breathe out his very should in longings after God."  Archaic or not, passages like this in The Religious Affections ought to stoke Christians' fire and encourage them to pursue the religious affections.

Read The Religious Affections in small chunks.  Like a gourmet meal, it takes longer to eat, and some may be unfamiliar, but it's delicious and worth the price.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book more than 100 years old

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Isabella: Girl in Charge, by Jennifer Fosberry, illustrated by Mike Litwin

Isabella and her family are gearing up for a big trip.  In Jennifer Fosberry's
Isabella: Girl in Charge, precocious Isabella insists she's not Isabella.  She is Susanna, the first female mayor, she is Jeannette, the first female member of congress, she is Nellie, the first female governor.  As they continue their trip, she embodies several more firsts, until her family reaches their destination, Washington, D.C.  It's a big event: the inauguration of the first female president!

Following Isabella's story, Fosberry includes an informative timeline with many more firsts for women in political life.  Isabella is energetic and impassioned.  Mike Litwin's pictures capture her passion and hint at the history behind each of her proclamations.  Someday, Isabella, we'll see a woman president!  I vote for Condolleeza Rice!  (Let's just hope it's not someone who got there simply by hanging onto her philandering husband's coattails, leaving a wake of corruption and scandal behind her as she pursued her self-serving, power-grabbing ambitions.)

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

Saturday, October 1, 2016

How to Talk to Your Cat about Gun Safety, by Zachary Auburn

Imagine a collection of pamphlets covering a number of social and religious issues, published by a right wing political or religious organization.  Now imagine such pamphlets written as a parody featuring cats.  Zachary Auburn has done it.  Under the auspices of the American Association of Patriots, which was formed by Douglas Auburn "in response to an illegal raid by the county sheriff of his home so as to rob him of the thirty-four cats he kept for protection."

Auburn's AAP covers hot to talk to your cat about gun safety, evolution, abstinence, online safety, drugs, puberty, post-apocalyptic survival, and satanism.  I generally have a good sense of humor, and although I am conservative, can get a good laugh at conservatives.  But I didn't find Auburn's book all that funny.  He has a few good lines, like addressing young cats' addiction to catnip, and cats "using their owners' credit cards without their permission, attempting to buy cans of illegally caught bluefin tuna."

I didn't like his completely unsubtle criticism of conservative views, especially his anti-Christian tone.  For this sort of humor to be funny, it should be done with a bit more subtlety and good nature.  Maybe I'm misreading him, but the parody seemed to heavy-handed.  Even more than that, Auburn's feline word plays were cute at first, but got really annoying.  (E.g., impurrative, "pawse for a meowment," "Don't procatstinate," "Purrotestant, Catholic, or a Mewslim," and on ad nauseum.)

It's sort of a funny book, but the jokes get old and the humor was not all that humorous.  It's litter box reading at best.

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