Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Giving It All Away . . . and Getting It All Back Again, by David Green

David Green, founder of Hobby Lobby, is one of the richest men in America.  What separates him from most billionaires is the acknowledgement that everything he has belongs to God.  In Giving It All Away . . . and Getting It All Back Again, Green tells his story of giving, and encourages all of us to join him on a journey of generosity.

I love the fact that Green doesn't give because he's wealthy, but he gives because he loves to give.  His parents provided the example.  His father was a pastor, always in very small, rural churches.  When church members brought gifts in kind, such as a basket of produce, his mother would carefully estimate the monetary value of the basket and tithe accordingly.  David and his siblings discovered late in his father's life that he gave much of his salary right back to the church.

As Green's business found more and more success, he heard very clearly from God that the business belongs to God.  Green's goal, then, is to honor God in the way the business is run, and to use the profits to spread the gospel.  He writes, "If we don't use Hobby Lobby's earnings to touch people for the Lord, I really don't see the reason for me to be in business at all."

Green writes about his passion for the business, and it's clear that he delights in making Hobby Lobby profitable, in providing products that people want, and in providing jobs for thousands of people.  But his passion for the gospel is even greater.  He sees every ministry contribution as an investment in eternity.  Anticipating the impact that the works he supports will have, he says, "I think the most satisfied and joyful person in heaven will be Jesus as he looks around at all those who have been saved from a life of misery."

Clearly very few of his readers will ever be able to give like Green and his family can and do.  But whether you are blessed with a fortune or get by week to week, the principles he presents and models are worth emulating.  He gets inspiration from the British missionary C.T. Studd, who had great inherited wealth but gave his money and his life toward the spreading of the gospel.  Studd wrote a famous poem which says, in part, "Only one life, 'twill soon be past, only what's done for Christ will last."

I'm pretty sure I'll never share a spot with Green on Forbes's billionaire list.  But he and I can stand side by side as stewards of our resources for God's glory.  I appreciate his example and inspiration.

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

Opening Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turteldove is the master of the "what if" novel.  What if the South won the Civil War?  What if Hitler prevailed in WW2?  What if the Korean War developed into a full-fledged global nuclear war?  Turtledove's 2007 novel Opening Atlantis is built around the question, What if there were a continent called Atlantis between Europe and what we now know as North America?

An English fisherman follows his Breton counterpart and competitor to new fishing grounds, where the cod are larger than any he's ever seen.  The fishing is great, and the land is even greater, fertile and untouched by human habitation.  So begins his quest to settle this new, rich, and wondrous land.  I enjoyed the story of the early settlers as they established towns and adapted the land to suit their needs.  Their independent streak and quest for self-determination parallels our own nation's history.  Their revolt against the English nobleman who decides to make Atlantis a kingdom of his own, their defeat of the pirates who raided the sea trade, and their cooperation with the British navy to defeat the French, resembled U.S. history (with, of course, lots of key differences).

As is always the case with alternative history stories like this, the deeper the divergence from actual history, the more I tend to lose interest.  I enjoyed the early parts of the book more than the latter parts.  I would like to have heard more about what was going on in Terra Nova, the land the the west of Atlantis.  Turtledove alludes to the Spanish, but barely.  I would like to know what happened to Columbus.  The English came to Atlantis decades before Columbus came to the New World.  Did he end up as a trader?  An explorer?  What about the conquistadors?  Perhaps those are novels for another time.

I would also like to know why Atlantis has such unusual flora and fauna.  Turtledove spends a lot of time talking about the unusual animals that are unlike any the settlers have ever seen, and trees and plants that grow larger and look different than any others.  Terra Nova has the same sorts of animals and vegetation that the Europeans are accustomed to, so how did Atlantis develop so differently?  I kept thinking that Turtledove would come up with some explanation, but he leaves this piece of the puzzle hanging.

Turtledove develops memorable characters.  In Opening Atlantis, he follows a couple of families over many generations.  This makes it an enjoyable novel with an epic feel, but I didn't love it.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Natural Wonders of Assateague Island, by Mark Hendricks

If you're like me, you may have heard of this island on the east coast where wild horses run free, but that's about all you know  about it.  My curiosity was piqued when I saw Mark Hendricks's new book, Natural Wonders of Assateague Island.  I learned that there is much more to this little barrier island than I imagined.

Hendricks, a seasoned nature photographer, captures the wide array of flora and fauna on Assateague Island, especially the fauna.  The most well-known feature of the island, the horses, may have been washed up in a shipwreck, but probably are descended from horses brought to the island to graze.  Other non-native species are nevertheless highlights of a visit to the island, like the sika, a small East Asian elk.  As you might expect, the variety shore life and bird species is vast.  Hendricks's love for life on the island comes through in his pictures.  As his narrative explains, many of the photos represent hours or even days of patiently seeking out and waiting for the animals' elusive appearance.  To read about his encounters with a river otter and a snowy owl is to read the joy and passion Hendricks brings to his work.

I couldn't help wanting to pay Assateague Island a visit after reading this book and enjoying Hendricks's photographs.  Maybe the reality is that I wouldn't see many animals; he alludes to crowds and a huge number of visitors to the island.  Hendricks's work is a reminder to slow down, take time to get away from the madding crowd, and patiently find opportunities to look nature in the eye.

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

Always with Us?, by Liz Theoharis

When Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you," did he mean that poverty will always be an issue no matter what?  According to many Christians from across the ideological and theological spectrum, the answer is yes.  According to Liz Theoharis, the answer is definitively no.  In Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor, she argues that Jesus did not teach that poverty was inevitable, and that, in fact, the eradication of poverty is possible.

Her work and life have been built around this hope.  As a pastor and activist, she has worked with and on behalf of poor people, addressing structural poverty and developing solutions for poverty in the U.S.  The stories she tells and hope that she offers are encouraging, inspiring, and challenging.  Her focus is not so much on charity or redistribution of wealth, but on the unacceptability of poverty and the structures of society.  She writes that "God hates poverty and wills it upon no on.  We understand that it is not enough to affirm that God loves the poor, but it is the collective responsibility of Christians and all people of faith and conscience to eliminate poverty."  The elimination of poverty is Theoharis's driving theme.

I had to part ways with Theoharis for much of the book.  She is very clearly a liberation theologian, and embraces all that entails with her view of structural sin.  First of all, she asserts that poverty is a sin.  The existence of a poverty is a result of structural sin in society.  No doubt this is sometimes true, but this view rejects the fact that in a fallen world, poverty is arguably a normal state.  Without labor and organization, all of us would fall into poverty.  Throughout human history, most people have been what we would consider poor.  To Theoharis, the causes of poverty are structural.  She rejects a view of poverty that places its cause on personal volition (or lack thereof).  She spends lots of time with poor people.  Surely she can recognize that poverty in many cases results from the choices that individuals make.  I don't accept her all-in for structural poverty position.  To address the problem of poverty, societal structures and individual choices have to be addressed.

Part of the structure of society that she doesn't spend enough time developing is the market.  The most effective anti-poverty program is a job.  When people can get and keep a job, the way out of poverty is much clearer.  In any given geographical area, the availability of a wide variety of jobs is the best measure of the elimination of gravity.  Again, jobs and a thriving economy alone don't guarantee the elimination of poverty.  But not to focus on the job market is a blind spot in the fight against poverty.

I don't know if poverty can be eliminated.  I agree that when Jesus declared "the poor you will always have with you," he did not mean, in that context, that poverty is inevitable and ineradicable.  I especially admire Theoharis's work among the poor.  She is critical of charity--throwing money at the problem of poverty is no way to eliminate the larger issue--and advocates for people in poor communities banding together to address their communities' larger issues.  Theoharis and I would find plenty to disagree about theologically, politically, and economically, but I appreciated her portrayal of Jesus as one who has a preferential option for the poor, and I enjoyed reading about her work alongside the poor.

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Most Misused Stories in the Bible, by Eric Bargerhuff

Much like he did in The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, pastor and professor Eric Bargerhuff brings clarity and interpretive assistance in The Most Misused Stories in the Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories are Misunderstood.  Like a dedicated pastor, Dr. Bargerhuff writes what could be read as a sermon series on stories you probably know, if you have read the Bible or sat through church services and Sunday school.  But if you've been around long enough, you have probably heard some not-so-great teaching on these familiar stories.

Bargerhuff writes from a solidly evangelical, biblical perspective, as you might expect from someone with a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  If your perspective is different, e.g. if you are a Catholic or Pentecostal, you might have some differences with Dr. Bargerhuff, especially in his chapters on the Lord's supper and the Samaritan Pentecost.  For the most part, his take is non-controversial.  For instance, he points out that we don't have any idea how many wise man came to visit Jesus, and that however many came, their visit was closer to Jesus' toddlerhood than to his infancy.

The larger point that Bargerhoff makes throughout the book is that the focus of these stories should be on God, not on the human actors.  The story of David and Goliath is "not about overcoming fear and facing your giants as much as it is about the power and character of God to deliver."  The story of Jonah isn't about Jonah's rebellion as God's rescuing and redeeming Jonah.  The parable of the sower isn't about monetary contributions and financial rewards (as "health and wealth" preachers might teach) but about preaching the gospel and the fruit it bears or fails to bear in the hearers.  The story of Zacchaeus is not primarily about his seeking out Jesus, but about Jesus seeking out Zacchaeus.

Bargerhuff is refreshingly straightforward in his presentation.  He has the tone of an earnest pastor whose heart is for his flock to have a proper understanding of scripture.  He concludes, "Let us never miss the main point God wants us to get lest we make the Bible into a practical how-to guide instead of a book that highlights the glory and character of God and his saving plan for us. . . . Remember that the Bible is primarily a book about God."  I'll buy that.

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Words from the Hill, by Stu Garrard

For many years, I have loved the worship music of Delerious!  So I figured if their guitar player and song writer Stu Garrard had written a book, I ought to check it out.  Stu has been working on The Beatitudes Project, which includes a film, some new music, and his book Words from the Hill: An Invitation to the Unexpected.

Stu takes each of the Beatitudes and tells stories of his friends and others he has met whose lives reflect each one.  The Beatitudes, he writes, "are predominantly blessings of God's presence for people in bad situations, and not a list of spiritual virtues to attain. . . . they're about being, not doing."  He personalizes the Beatitudes in a way that leads you to see others with Jesus' eyes and to see your own life through God's eyes.  The message is that you are blessed, and God is on your side, no matter what you're going through.

Stu's work is less Bible study than life study.  He does have some illuminating thoughts about the meaning of each Beatitude.  More than that, he tells the stories of people for whom God's blessing and mercy have been vital and real.  His exposition is, frankly, a bit disjointed, and he seemed pretty loose theologically.  A good bit of the narrative involves his friendships with Jewish and Muslim friends.  All that to say the stories bring the Beatitudes to life and will call you to reflect on your own response to Jesus' teachings.

As he points out, we Christians have historically focused on our creeds, careful to get our beliefs right but sometimes neglecting application to life and relationships.  "What if," he asks, "like the earliest Jesus followers, we began to see the Beatitudes as the Jesus Creed?"  Words from the Hill can begin to give us a vision of what a Jesus Creed would look like.  I like Stu's music more than I like his book, but his book, like his music, points me to Jesus.  That's worth the price of admission.

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection Perverts: Hunter's Point, by Danny Hellman

Danny Hellman's Resurrection Perverts: Hunter's Point tells the story of Harry Homburg, "America's last porn mogul," trying to resurrect his career by publishing compromising photographs of the president.  Things don't work out so well for him.  Hellman is making some commentary on fame, sex, politics, the media, but don't worry, it's nothing too profound.  Actually, not profound at all.

The art is pretty cool.  But the story didn't grab me, and the cliffhanger left me with a yawn, not a hankering for more.  I'll skip whatever the next installment is.

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers introduced the world of the Wayfarer, a long-haul spaceship, in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  The story of some of the characters from that novel continues in A Closed and Common Orbit.  We don't see or hear from the Wayfarer in this second installment.  Pepper, a friend of the Wayfarer's crew, returns, along with Lovey, the Wayfarer's ship AI who is embarking on a new life in a body.

The story jumps back and forth between Pepper's childhood and Lovey's acclimating to her body.  Pepper escaped from a labor camp and spent her formative years being taught and cared for by the AI in an abandoned ship.  I enjoyed the parallels of the two lives, a ship AI learning to live in a body, and another ship AI teaching a body how to live.

I kept wondering how these parallel threads would converge, and when they finally did, it made perfect sense.  As in The Long Way, Chambers spends a lot of time developing the alien species and cultures.  A Closed and Common Orbit has stronger emphasis on the story, as we see these two characters develop.  The scope of Common Orbit is smaller than that of The Long Way.  I think that helps Chambers tell a better story.  She also leaves me wanting to read more of her stories and to learn more about the Wayfarer and Pepper and Lovey's futures.  I hope Chambers continues this series.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Void Star, by Zachary Mason

I rarely start a book without finishing it.  Unfortunately, I didn't get all the way through Void Star by Zachary Mason.  I should have followed the clues on Amazon.  "The best and most beautiful book about computers since Neuromancer."  I really didn't like Neuromancer.  "Void Star utilizes a deliberate, predatory pace more common to the most exquisite horror novels."  I am no fan of horror novels.  "The hallucinatory beauty of the prose . . ."  Yeah, those hallucinatory sequences unmoored my mind from the book . . . and got me hallucinating about reading something else.  "His language delights . . ."  True, he does have some nice language and colorful prose (plus some vocabulary I had to look up).  I just didn't get into his style.  Or the story.

I know it may not be fair to review a book I didn't read all of.  I just felt like moving on to something else.  I'm giving this a middle-of-the-road 3 out of 5, recognizing that readers who like this genre will probably like the book.  It just wasn't for me.

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Sex Effect, by Ross Benes

Similar to the way the authors of Freakonomics offer insights into life by looking at the world through an economic lens, Ross Benes looks through the lens of sex.  In The Sex Effect: Baring Our Complicated Relationship with Sex, Benes examines the relationships of sex with culture, economics, politics, religion, and life.  He writes that "many of the ideas our society holds to be self-evident about monogamy, affairs, divorce, rape, porn, abstinence, STDs, contraception, fertility rates, and reproductive technologies are often far from empirical truth."  In ten topical chapters, Benes draws from a wide array of sources to get to the truth and clarify misconceptions.  His writing is entertaining and informative.

Depending on your feelings and beliefs about sex and sexuality, you may not be comfortable with Benes's conclusions.  He does like to be a provocateur.  For example, he argues that monogamy was introduced for political and martial reasons; religious preferences toward monogamy are cultural responses.  He makes an interesting point, but Christians and Jews, who tend to think of monogamy as God's plan from the dawn of time, might want to add something to the argument.

Some other interesting conclusions he draws:
  • We shouldn't give presidents grief about their sexual liaisons; they are powerful men, and men with the disposition to be in a powerful role want/need/deserve outlets for their desires.  
  • The policy of prohibiting homosexuals from serving in the armed forces had the unintended consequences of solidifying gay identity, creating gay-friendly areas in port cities like San Francisco, and introducing young people to the concept of homosexuality.
  • Struggling urban centers like Detroit should look to the success of other cities' gay neighborhoods and actively recruit homosexuals to move in and lead urban renewal.
  • We may not want to admit it, but as porn has proliferated, rape has declined.  ("For every ten-percentage-point increase in Internet access, reported rape declined 7.3 percent.")
The most powerful chapter, in my estimation, dealt with the AIDS epidemic in Africa.  As you might have gathered, Benes does not harbor puritanical views about sex.  The tone of most of the book is "anything goes."  But in the AIDS chapter, he points out that biomedical solutions--condoms and drugs--have either worsened or at least not improved AIDS rates.  What solution does he recommend?  The tried and tested "ABC" method: Abstain, Be faithful, or use a Condom (in that order).  Education campaigns with this model were by far less expensive and more effective at reducing AIDS rates in African countries.  But when the U.S. groups came in, backed by pharmaceutical firms and condom manufacturers, the ABC campaigns were jettisoned.  So profit motives and ideology ("The condom coalition condemns anyone advocating for anything resembling a sexual restriction.") trumped what actually worked better, costing lives in the fight against AIDS. 

Benes's arguments are thoughtful and thought-provoking.  He leans toward a pragmatic sexual ethic.  Actually, he might balk at my even referring to a sexual ethic.  Benes's concern is what impact sexual behaviors have, what economic ties sexuality invokes, and what policy decisions impact sexual behavior and vice versa.  He's more of an observer than an ethicist.  He definitely gets some conversations started.

(On a technical note, I read The Sex Effect on my Kindle.  Benes uses tons of footnotes and endnotes, many of them quite lengthy.  Most are informative and/or entertaining, but the flow of the text on the Kindle was disrupted terribly.  I hope the publisher has fixed this for the final version.  One word: hyperlink.)

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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Brave New Girl, by Lou Hamilton

"Big dreams start in play."
Lou Hamilton has a message for girls and women everywhere: Be brave.  In her new book of inspiration, Brave New Girl: How to Be Fearless, she wants you to "start to imagine being anything you want to be."  With her simple pen-and-ink drawings and brief words of wisdom, encouragement, and inspiration, she spreads positivity and confidence.

Some of the quotes are tried and true ("Reach for the stars."  "Take the road less travelled.")  Others, if not original, are less commonly heard.  ("Step out from your hiding place."  "Embrace the loop-the-loop.")  By the way, I know many of the challenges girls and women face in the world are different from those that men and boys face, but there's not a thing in here that couldn't inspire a guy.

Brave New Girl is cute and inspiring.  Give it to a girl you know who could use a pick-me-up.
"Spread the love."

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Robota, by Doug Chiang and Orson Scott Card

Doug Chiang has worked on some great movies as an artist and production designer, most notably some of the Star Wars movies.  His book Robota features his original art, paired with a story by Orson Scott Card.  The art ranges from stunning and beautiful to interesting.  Among the larger-format concept paintings, he included pen-and-ink sketches and concept art.

None of the art in Robota is from Chiang's Star Wars work.  The similarities in style are unmistakable; at times you might think, "Did I see that in The Phantom Menace?"  The story takes place on the planet Robota, which was developed by a robot race before conflict with the humans led society into disarray.  Now the robots hunt humans and animals, and enhanced, sentient animals work with the humans.

Card's story is decent, but is really second-rate, compared to his major works and compared to the first-rate illustrations.  My recommendation is to soak in the art, but don't worry about the story.

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

Big Agenda, by David Horowitz

If you know David Horowitz,  you know he is no fan of Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama.  It will also come as no surprise to you that in Big Agenda: President's Trump Plan to Save America, he touts President Donald Trump, and holds him out as a beacon of hope to right much that is awry in the United States.  To be clear, Horowitz is not writing as Trump's mouthpiece.  Rather, he is writing as one who hopes Trump will listen and will fulfill the promises that he made during his campaign.

Horowitz paints a bleak picture of the impact that Obama's administration had on the U.S.  He reminds us that, in spite of the heroic efforts by the mainstream media to get Clinton elected, the American people, at least enough of them in key states, showed that they were fed up with the direction Obama and Clinton wanted to take our country and they were ready for someone to take our country back.

Just when you think Horowitz is hard on the Democrats, he jumps onto the Republicans.  This is really the core of Horowitz's argument.  Republicans need to show that they are sick of Democrats setting the agenda, show some fortitude, and bring the fight to the Democrats.  During the Obama administration, the Republicans capitulated and played nice, failing to stop his liberal agenda, even when they had a majority in the legislature.  And do Democrats care?  As we can see now, no.  Capitulation by the Republicans under Obama is met with obstructionism by the Democrats under Trump.

I don't mean to make Horowitz sound like nothing more than a loudmouth.  He has substantive chapters and specific talking points that Trump and Republicans in the legislature should consider.  Don't let Democrats have the upper hand on race.  How about pointing out that under Obama, the economic status of black Americans declined?  How about pointing out that under half a century or more of black leadership in some of our largest cities, those cities have been crumbling?  How about pointing out ways, as Trump did during the campaign, that a Republican agenda produces more hope and change for minorities and the poor than Obama ever could?

Don't let Democrats continue to drive a liberal agenda in universities and local schools around the country.  Don't let them limit school choice, barring poor Americans in failing school districts from educational success.  Republicans control the federal legislature and most state legislatures around the country.  How about they systematically reverse the exclusion of conservative ideas from campuses?  How about they expand school choice so more kids will have opportunities to learn?

Democrats have a greater tendency to march in lockstep than Republicans.  I don't recall Democratic congressmen blocking Obama's agenda during his first 100 days in office.  Yet some Republicans are doing their best to oppose everything Trump proposes.  Republicans need to bring the fight to the Democrats, not to each other.  Horowitz's agenda should be read by Trump's aids and put into practice.  Republicans have the White House and both houses of congress (and soon, probably, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court).  Now DON'T SQUANDER THIS OPPORTUNITY!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Unwanted Advances, by Laura Kipnis

If you follow college news, you might think that there is a rape epidemic on American college campuses.  Large gangs of men, mostly athletes and frat boys, are stalking young women, willfully forcing them to have sex with them.  Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis is no fan of rape, but in her book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus she exposes the anti-feminist, police-state attitudes and tactics that reveal what she sees as backwards progress for feminism and academic freedom.

Kipnis was drawn into this issue when a philosophy professor on her campus came under Title IX investigation due to an allegedly inappropriate relationship with an undergraduate student.  Note that the allegations surrounded a night on the town; the pair did not have sex.  Kipnis responded with an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she argued that adult students should be treated like adults.  She subsequently came under a new Title IX investigation because she offended some of the women alluded to in the article.  Most of the book details the case against the philosophy professor and Kipnis's subsequent case.  It left me in disbelief that a campus bureaucracy could be so . . . for lack of a better word, stupid!

She writes, "rampant accusation is the new norm on today's campus; the place is a secret cornucopia of accusation, especially when it comes to sex."  Kipnis is especially offended by the anti-feminist attitudes behind campus sex codes and the ineffectiveness in preventing violence against women.  "Policies and codes that bolster traditional femininity . . . are the last thing in the world that's going to reduce sexual assault."  Title IX is being used by women to "remedy sexual ambivalences or awkward sexual experiences, and to adjudicate relationship disputes post-breakup."

Since Kipnis's offense was writing an essay, her case was a bit different from others.  But she studied the philosopher's case extensively.  After the essay was published, she became an outlet for people all over the country who sent her stories of their own Title IX investigations.  In the course of these interactions, she became an expert on Title IX procedures--or the lack of them--and in the many ways Title IX is abused.  The process is heavily weighted against the accusee.  "Typically the accusee doesn't know the precise charges, doesn't know what the evidence is, and can't confront witnesses."  Accusations are encouraged for encounters that happened months before, and that, at the time, seemed to be consensual.  Kipnis states that Title IX has created "an accusation machinery so vast and indiscriminate that it becomes a magnet for neurotic schemes, emotional knife play, and monstrously self-exonerating agendas."

She never denies the reality of rape, but bemoans a system in which virtually any sexual act can be considered rape.  The definition of rape, under Title IX, has become broader and broader.  A Title IX case doesn't even have to include physical contact.  It could include gestures, words, or, as in her case, an essay.  And universities are often happy to settle with the accusers.  In a passage that is sure to make her even less popular among Title IX activists, she writes, "the premise that accusers don't lie turns out to be mythical.  By sentimentalizing women in such preposterous ways, aren't Title IX officials setting schools up as cash cows for some of our more creatively inclined women students?"  I've seen this happen at my own alma mater, which has been writing some big checks and, as a result, attracting lawyers like ants to honey.

In another more extended discussion that will make Title IX activists apoplectic, she addresses drinking by college students.  College women want to show their equality with men by drinking like them and partying with them.  She tells stories of frat parties (that make me want to be sure my kids never get near one) that inevitably lead to, in fact are designed to lead to, women passed out drunk and readily available for sex.  But "anyone who suggests that women should drink less to avoid sexual assault will be 'disemboweled upon arrival into the gladiator arena of public discourse.'"  Title IX training programs steer clear of addressing this important element of women's safety.  She again reflects on the anti-feminist attitudes that Title IX espouses, which says that "Women don't drink; men get them drunk.  Women don't have sex; sex is done to them."  She argues, "This isn't feminism, it's a return to the most traditional conceptions of female sexuality."

Don't misunderstand.  In case you haven't figured it out, Kipnis is no male chauvinist right-winger.  She's a liberal feminist whose sexual morals are far from Puritanical.  ("I don't have anything against escapism and irresponsibility, and you certainly won't hear me arguing against drunken hookups.  'F--- all the guys you want' would be my motto.  Just don't f--- the ones you don't want . . .")  What Kipnis does have something against is kangaroo courts, people being accused of things and not being permitted to defend themselves, accusees suffering consequences without even an opportunity to respond to accusations, the rights of some people being sacrificed for an illusory, deceitful goal of women's safety.

Unwanted Advances should be required reading for any faculty member or administrator who is responsible for Title IX implementation.  Of course we want students on campus to be safe, and we want a means for them to seek justice if they are victims of a crime.  But before college administrations double down on Title IX, as my alma mater has done, they should take Kipnis's perspective and concerns into consideration.

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

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How to Lose a Marathon, by Joel Cohen

Joel Cohen was an out of shape, lazy guy who got winded climbing the stairs.  In How to Lose a Marathon: A Starter's Guide to Finishing in 26.2 Chapters, he tells the story of becoming an out of shape, lazy guy who successfully finished a marathon.  Cohen, a writer for The Simpsons, fills every chapter with lots of laughs, but he actually gives a pretty decent guide to training for and running a marathon.

I relate to him on so many levels.  He's a guy who couldn't imagine getting up at five something to run.  ("Wait there's actually a 5 in the morning?")  He loves his junk food.  He doesn't have much patience for pretentious runners and their pretentious gear.  He'd rather run alone.  Knowing how hard it would be to find "the perfect match in pace, distance, and disposition," he (like me) chose to "run on my own, lonely and ignorant."

He says he wrote this book because he couldn't find any books for the "beginner grinder runner."  I'm pretty sure if he'd spent ten minutes at he would have found a few dozen.  Nevertheless, Cohen's book is unique.  It's hilarious to read, yet provides actual informative content.  Short of giving a detailed daily running plan and meal plan, Cohen's book is a great starting point for training for a marathon.

The humor is solid and wide-spread.  It's even clean; I wouldn't have problem with kids reading it.  Some pages had as many as three laugh-out-loud lines.  Some just had a chuckle or two.  On average, there were about two chuckles or one laugh-out-loud per page.  But the important measure is the one I use for any running book I read: Does How to Lose a Marathon inspire me to get out and run?  Yes, it does.  Let's go!

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

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Energy Bus, by Jon Gordon

A coworker of mine asked me the other day if I had read Jon Gordon's The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy.  I had never heard of it.  Turns out my local public library has the audio book, so on his recommendation, I decided to check it out.

Gordon tells the story of a businessman whose career is on the ropes.  His marriage is unhappy, and he has run out of fixes.  His car is out of commission for a couple weeks, so he has to take the bus to work.  The bus driver, Joy, recognizes his despair and, along with the other passengers, introduces him to their 10 rules.

Gordon's main point is that we should have a positive attitude and convey that to the people around us.  Managers set the tone for people who work under them, and should insist that no one stay "on the bus" if they won't buy into the positivity.  As Gordon tells the story, the reluctant bus rider implements changes at his workplace with outstanding results.

The Energy Bus is an overly simplistic business fable, just as you would expect from this sort of book.  But the broad points are important and are presented clearly and effectively.  Attitude is so important, and the tone set by a manager or director is inevitably passed to the team.  "Energy vampires" impact team productivity and unity.  Gordon is so positive and encouraging it's contagious.  The Energy Bus can give you a boost as you think about being more positive at work, working with more purpose and enjoyment, and passing those attitudes along to your coworkers.

Monday, April 3, 2017

30 Days a Black Man, by Bill Steigerwald

In 1948, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ray Sprigle went undercover.  He pretended to be black and traveled through the South, in order to get a first-hand look at life under Jim Crow.  His serialized reporting made a splash, exposing readers in the North to the horrors and injustices of Jim Crow.  Bill Steigerwald revisits Sprigle's audacious project in 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South

In a very short time, even with the knowledge that he could go home to his white family in Pittsburgh at any time, he embraced his temporary identity as a black man.  It didn't take him long start feeling alienation from whites and hatred for the South.  "He had just taken his first steps on pure Jim Crow soil.  But already he found himself feeling contempt for the white race and starting to think like a black man."  The longer he stayed in the South, and the more he saw of Jim Crow in action, the more he became "used to thinking of himself as black--and resenting the white race."

As an outsider, "the many absurdities--idiocies might be a better word" of Jim Crow were glaring to him.  White people wouldn't eat or drink after a black person, even after the dishes were washed.  Yet who prepared all the food?  Black people.  They couldn't sit next to a black person on the bus.  Yet black dentists and doctors treated white patients.  White parents would not allow their children to play with black children.  Yet many white children were raised by black domestics.

Sprigle acknowledged that racism was alive and well in all parts of the country.  But Jim Crow was entirely difference; it's "the important difference between de jure and de facto segregation. . . . In short, discrimination against the Negro in the North is usually in defiance of the law.  In the South it is enforced and maintained by the law."

Sprigle's series of stories sparked a national conversation, including commendations and rebuttals from North and South.  He was way ahead of his time, maybe too much so.  Steigerwald writes, "There's no evidence Sprigle's series dramatically changed history or radically influenced the people who where shaping it in 1948."  But his exposure of the sick and dying system of Jim Crow, "he'll go down in history as the first journalist--white or black--to strike a serious blow against segregation in the mainstream media."

Steigerwald's account is readable and enjoyable, placing Sprigle's project in historical context and giving him well-deserved credit for his work.  30 Days a Black Man is not a comprehensive history of the Jim Crow South in the post-World-War-2 era, but Steigerwald's account of Sprigle's experiences give us a unique perspective on a period of history many would like to forget.

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

I Love You with All My Butt, by Martin Bruckner

Here's a sure-fire hit: take the super-cute things little kids say, illustrate them imaginatively and colorfully, and viola, you have a fun book that will make your kids laugh out loud.  I say this from experience, because I heard my son laughing himself silly, and when I came to investigate he was flipping through Martin Bruckner's I Love You with All My Butt: An Illustrated Book of Big Thoughts from Little Kids.

Bruckner started with his own kids' funny quotes, then solicited others.  They said cute things like this:
"Volcanoes are the earth's butt.  That's how the earth gets the gas out!"
"I'm sorry.  Will you please respect my apology?"
"If you see a snake in a fruit tree, don't believe him!"
"I need a tissue to wipe my feelings."
Now imagine how you might illustrate the above.  Even better, pick up I Love You with All My Butt! and see Bruckner's illustrations.  I guarantee you'll get some smiles out of it, and, if you're anything like my son, some belly laughs, too.

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

I would be remiss not to include some examples:

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lunarbaboon, by Christopher Grady

Schoolteacher and dad Christopher Grady writes poignant and hilarious cartoons about life as a parent.  He has collected some of the best in Lunarbaboon: The Daily Life of Parenthood.  If you're a dad, you will totally relate to his everyday dad stories.

Like many dads, Grady sometimes gets annoyed with his family.  But those moments are quickly and regularly outweighed by the delight he enjoys by simply being together.  I know I have been there.

For a young guy (Grady is in his 30s), he conveys a high degree of angst at seeing his family time fly by.  Kids grow up fast, and those memories fade.  He reminds us to cherish every day and experience life together with relish.

Families are weird.  They laugh when we fart.  (OK, I'm including myself and Grady in that 'we' but I strongly suspect you are right there with us!)

Check out Grady's cartoons, and you might see yourself, your dad, and your family here.  His cartoons are funny and moving at the same time.

More cartoons at

PSA for parents: kids are listening to everything.  And they remember.

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

Powder Burn, by Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano

Before Carl Hiaasen started writing his south Florida comedy/crime novels, he and Bill Montalbano write a series of three unfunny crime novels, the first of which is Powder Burn.  Like all of Hiaasen's solo novels, Powder Burn is set in Florida and features the shady side of the Sunshine State.

When accomplished architect Chris Meadows unexpectedly runs into his ex-lover and her (his?) daughter, his world is rocked when, a few short minutes later, he watches helplessly as they are killed by an out-of-control driver on the losing end of a car chase.  As he runs to the scene, he sees a man get of the chase car and shoot the driver and passenger in the other car.  He then turns to shoot Meadows in the leg.

As he recovers, he vows revenge on the killer and the network that spawned him.  Quickly Meadows embeds himself in the drug dealing culture of Miami in the 1980s.  The Columbians and the Cubans are in a turf war, drugs are flowing from Columbia, and body counts are building.  Designing his plans for revenge as meticulously as he designs his buildings, Meadows schemes to bring down the men responsible for his friend's death.

Powder Burn is an interesting cultural artifact, as Hiaasen captures the reality of drugs and crime in Miami.  The drugs that flowed from Columbia, through the Cubans, into professional offices and luxury homes throughout south Florida.  Meadows embraces this culture a bit too heartily, obviously going after the murderous elements but enjoying the highs, sex, and money.  It's ugly, and, to me, shows the indivisible connection between supposedly victimless vices and the crime that surrounds it.

Fans of Hiaasen's later fiction might enjoy Powder Burn, but it lacks the fun, the colorful characters, and the absurdity that mark his fiction and make it so enjoyable. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Ice-Cold Heart, by KS Augustin

The Takamo universe is vast and familiar to those who play this role-playing game.  To the unfamiliar, a new series of novels and short stories introduce and explore the history, politics, and geography (planetograpy? galactography?) of Takamo universe.  KS Augustin's The Ice-Cold Heart follows the career of Benaltep, a Naplian co-emporer.  In a series of vignettes that bounce between Benaltep as an old man writing his memoirs, and different stages of his career, Benaltep's story unfolds.  For the most part, his reflections surround his rivalry with his co-emperor, the arrogant and manipulative Bonate.

I did not particularly enjoy The Ice-Cold Heart.  The characters were cardboard cutouts of power hungry emperor-villains.  Benaltep and Bonate were distinguished only by their scheming.  Nothing about their character showed that they were qualified to rule more than a tiny village.  Their hand-wringing and back biting made me think of rival warlords of Indian tribes or something, not rulers capable of overseeing sophisticated, far-reaching, technologically advanced worlds.  Speaking of worlds, Augustin spent very little of the story actually developing these worlds.  It was just these two guys, talking and talking, and plotting against each other. 

The story does give some background on the political history of the empire and some of the major events.  I would anticipate that it would shed some light on the other Takamo stories, and hope that they start fitting together, building a cohesive history.  But as a stand-alone novel, my heart is cold toward The Ice-Cold Heart.

Thanks to Takamo Publishing for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Never Enough?, by Ron Blue

On the short list of Christian financial experts, Ron Blue is always going to be near the top.  With nearly a half century of experience as a financial advisor and a shelf full of books he's written, Blue is definitely the go-to guy for Christian financial planning.  In his new book, Never Enough?3 Keys to Financial Contentment, Blue, with coauthor Karen Guess, introduces simple principles to apply for financial sanity, stability, and commitment.

Blue tells plenty of stories and anecdotes to illustrate his points, but the principles he teaches are so simple that they can be summed up in a page or two.  Responding the the question of the title: what is enough?  Blue writes, "Scripture teaches that the answer to the 'how much is enough' question is what I have right now."  I hadn't thought about contentment quite like this before, but he's right.  No matter what my status is, the only right attitude is contentment.  That's a good word.

Whatever our financial condition, Blue has provided some principles to follow:
  1. Spend less than you earn because every sucess in your financial life depends on this habit.
  2. Avoid debt because debt always mortgages the future.
  3. Give generously because giving breaks the power of money.
  4. Plan for financial margin because the unexpected will come.
  5. Set long-term goals because there is always a trade-off between the short-term and the long-term.
If you are already doing all of these things, you probably don't need to read this book.  OK, even if you are doing these things,  you will benefit from Blue's insights.  If you are not doing these things, well, you are Blue's target audience.  He doesn't go into a ton of details procedural depth with these goals, but gives some guidelines to help you get there.

I liked his pie chart method to see where your money is going.  There are basically four places our money goes: live, give, owe, and grow.  One slice of the pie, usually the largest, goes to living expenses.  The next slice, which Blue encourages us to make bigger than it probably is, is give.  He believes in a lifestyle of giving to church, to other causes, to help out friends and family.  Third is owe, both debt and taxes.  Finally, grow, saving and investing for the short-term and long-term future.  I know most people need this slice to be larger.

The first step in growing slices of the pie that we want to be larger, like give and grow, is to work on making the live and owe slices smaller.  Blue helps with that, and gives examples of clients and others who have applied these principles.  This is actually the part of the book I didn't like.  One the one hand, it's inspiring to read about families who give sacrificially, and then receive abundantly later on.  Blue talks about giving to a ministry even though it meant giving up a summer vacation that year.  Well, "God in his grace provided not one but three all-inclusive vacations . . . We did not pay for a vacation for years after that experience."  The problem is making something like this normative, where we give expecting God to deliver like that.  It's dangerously close to the "health-and-wealth," vending machine type of gospel.  I believe God blessed the Blues, and he can bless my family, but I'm uncomfortable with a theology that teaches this as the norm.

There's no question in my mind that, whatever your view of God's provision for your life is, if you follow the basic principles in this book, you will be financially better off.  And trusting in God, being content in his provision for your life, is never a bad idea.  Never Enough? is a good kick-start for you to make sure your financial life is on track and focused on God.

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

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The World's Greatest Collection of Dad Jokes, by Glenn Hascall

Dad jokes.  I have been accused of telling a few.  Now, thanks to The World's Greatest Collection of Dad Jokes: More Than 500 of the Punniest Jokes Dads Love to Tell I have plenty more ammunition.  The title tells it like it is.  This is a bunch of jokes, ranging from one-liners and riddles, to more extensive stories.  Some are classics.  All of these, I expect, have been passed down through a few generations of Dads, now lovingly preserved and organized into a dozen categories by Glenn Hascall. 

This collection is published by Barbour Publishing, a Christian publishing house, so you can be sure that the jokes are clean and, for the most part, inoffensive.  Just to be sure you know this is a Christian book, each chapter starts with a scripture.  I love the Bible, but the scriptures didn't add much to the book.

Hascall included some old favorites, like "repaint, and thin no more," "shave it," "the reception was great," and "no one can play it, and we really need more light."  If you don't recognize those punch lines, well, you'll have to read the book!

True to the publisher's roots, there are good number of church-related jokes, like church bulletin gaffes and funnies.  ("The class on prophecy has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.")  I particularly enjoyed the "funny things kids say" jokes, too.  (The little boy at the tiger exhibit at the zoo: "Daddy, if the tigers escaped and ate you . . . how would I get home?")

I've tried some of these out on my teenage boys.  Reaction?  "Stop, Dad, just stop."  Mission accomplished!

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Talking with God, by Adam Weber

Adam Weber is pastor of one of the fastest-growing churches in America, Embrace Church in, of all places, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  His new book Talking With God: What to Say When You Don't Know How to Pray is for everyone who doesn't "have prayer figured out . . . who is curious about prayer . . . who wants to talk with God."  When Weber asked his friend, retired pastor Roger Fredrikson, how he would describe prayer, Fredrikson replied, "Talking with God."  And that, my friends, is all there is to it.

Weber wants Christians to understand that, in spite of what you might hear during Sunday morning prayers, one need not learn a new vocabulary in order to pray.  Perhaps little kids are the best example: "When it comes to talking with God, what can we learn from kids? Pretty much everything. Keep it short, simple, and honest." (53)

Sometimes we feel inadequate, unprepared or unworthy to talk to God.  Weber writes, "Instead of being discouraged or feeling disqualified, start talking with God today. . . . He's not looking to scold you.  He's just so glad to talk with you.  He delights in you.  Whenever you start talking with God, he's glad to be with you, as any good father would be." (65)

Weber spends a good chunk of the book helping us to know "How to pray when. . . ."  With entertaining examples from his own life and church family, and with actual, simple model prayers, Weber writes about praying when:

  • You face storms.
  • You're discouraged.
  • You're stuck in the mud.
  • You're exhausted.
  • You need an anchor.
  • You want to be used by God.
  • You're trying to extend grace.
This last chapter on extending grace was particularly moving to me.  "Extending God's grace to someone when we've been hurt at the core is impossible on our own. . . . It's only possible as a result of praying. . . . Prayer empowers us to extend grace to the person who has hurt us more than anyone else on the planet."  Anyone who has been hurt and tried to forgive and be reconciled on his own will attest to the difficulty of this.  "When I read Paul's description of grace and his challenge to 'distribute' God's grace, all I can think of is an overwhelming amount of grace. . . . I picture us handing out mass quantities of grace to everyone.  I picture crates and crates stacked with bottles and bottles of grace, God's grace. . . . there's an endless supply. . . . We get to generously hand it out" to spouse, family, coworkers, strangers, enemies, through our words, actions, time and money, and forgiveness.  "Grace is an undeserved gift.  We have received it.  Now it's ours to give."  That is such a powerful image to me.  I want to prayerfully pack my backpack every morning with these bottles of excess grace and seek opportunities to empty them every day, keeping in mind that there's more where that supply came from.  But I can't do it on my own; I have to let God fill up my supplies.

For some readers, Talking With God will probably be annoying.  The prose is so conversational and informal that it was, at times, almost insulting.  I know, that sounds snobbish.  I'm just being real.  Plus, his end notes (he calls them "field notes") were a mix of scripture references and other secondary sources, as you would expect, along with autobiographical side bars, shout outs to his friends and favorite haunts, and other assorted silliness.  The notes are sort of fun, but sort of distracting.

Like any book on prayer, Talking With God is worthless unless it's put into practice.  To learn and grow in prayer, we have to pray.  Weber observed the fruit of his friend Roger's life.  "Perhaps this is why Roger's faith was so deep.  He learned about God from God.  Through years of conversations. . . .  The best way to know God is to spend time with him." (179)  Give Talking With God a bit of your time, and you have some framework and models to get you started.  Weber's model prayers probably aren't any that you'll want to pray verbatim, but they give a good idea of the conversational, personal prayer that should be a part of our walk with God.

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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Where Will I Live? by Rosemary McCarney

Just as she did in The Way to School, Rosemary McCarney captures the experiences of children around the world in Where Will I Live?  McCarney, Canada's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the U.N., spotlights countries around the world where refugees have been displaced due to war and conflict.  What a scary experience, especially for children.

McCarney's photographs capture both the uncertainty and fear of the children, and the joy and optimism that many share.  Even in the worst of circumstances, children still forge friendships with their peers and find time to play.  Most kids never have to endure the kinds of experiences the kids in Where Will I Live? go through.  For that vast majority of children (and adults) Where Will I Live? provides colorful examples to inspire us to be thankful for national and residential stability.  More importantly, McCarney inspires us to think about how we, individually and as a nation, might be able to help refugee families.

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

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

I think cats are great.  I don't own a cat.  But then again, can anyone really own a cat?  Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris are full of advice and insight about cats.  Their book The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat may be just the thing to convince you that you need to get a cat.  Or that you should never even consider such a thing.

Cats and humans have a long history:
"Over thousands of years, we have developed a special relationship with the animals that share our homes.  Dogs have evolved to serve many sorts of human needs.  And humans have evolved to serve many sorts of cat food."

Cats are helpful to have around when you are reading:
"A cat waits until its owner has indicated which books and magazines might be interesting by opening them.  Then the cat sits on the book and reads through its bottom."

Also, "They may seem selfish and pampered, but cats can be very useful around the house.  If Zara did not have a cat, she would have to shred this duvet herself."

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat has much of the same humor as other Fireside books, but this one takes a more bizarre, absurdist twist to the humor.  It's a combination of great cat-lover humor and stuff that's just a bit weird.

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

Friday, March 24, 2017

An American Conscience, by Jeremy L. Sabella

At one time in the not-so-distant past, Reinhold Niebuhr was a household name.  A pastor, professor, and prolific writer, Niebuhr was one of the most important and widely-read theologians of the twentieth century.  In conjunction with an upcoming documentary about Niebuhr, Jeremy Sabella's An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story presents a nice introduction to the man and his ideas.

Following in his preacher father's footsteps, Niebuhr attended Yale Divinity School, then served as pastor of a church in Detroit.  After more than a decade in the Motor City, where his church and his reputation as a preacher and writer grew, he was invited to join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary, where he spent most of his career.

Sabella tells Niebuhr's story in large part through Niebuhr's books.  His time in Detroit, the Great Depression, the turmoil in Europe, the United States's involvement in World War 2, the post war economic boom and religious revival, the onset of the Cold War, all framed and directed his writing.  Sabella gives more than a summary of each of Niebuhr's major works; he places them in the context of Niebuhr's life and of world events that direct Niebuhr's thought.  Sabella accomplishes what a good biography of an intellectual should: he whets my appetite to pull out some Niebuhr books and read them myself.

Niebuhr did not confine himself to the classroom or an ivory tower.  He constantly engaged politics and culture in his writing, speaking, and activism.  To Niebuhr, "faith and activism are not separate spheres: rather, faith spurs and deepens activism, and activism enables faith to touch down in everyday life." (46-47)  In his public stances, he was willing to be unpopular, but had the prescience and wisdom to be proven right.  For example, he favored American involvement in WW2 before Pearl Harbor, when many Americans favored isolationism.  Of course, after Pearl Harbor, the public overwhelmingly supported the war, and Niebuhr became a sort of war-time theologian.

One thing that has always bothered me about Niebuhr is his distinction between individual and social sins.  He argued that most people treat people in their immediate circle well, but the kindness and selflessness that may dictate your close relationships often don't translate to interactions between groups, leading to racism, bigotry, and violence.  I see the truth in that to an extent, but I don't go as far as Niebuhr, who, like many liberal theologians, was more concerned with social systems and justice then with individual salvation.  He would later criticize Billy Graham's "pietistic individualism."  The distinction is perhaps too simplistic, but part of the conservative/liberal divide in 20th century theology was a result of this individualistic versus social approach to justice and the gospel.

Much of An American Conscience is a teaser that tells just enough to make the reader want more.  The contrasts of Reinhold with his brother H. Richard.  His public disputes with another theological giant of the age, Karl Barth.  His ongoing influence no such luminaries as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Carter, and Billy Graham.  The lasting legacy of his publications.

I am trying to think of a 21st century figure that might match Niebuhr's stature.  I am certain we haven't seen any one yet, less than two decades in.  I hesitate to even mention any influential pastors or theologians; no one living, that I know of, compares to Niebuhr's writing, preaching, and activism.  It's only right that this book and documentary honor him and remind us of his legacy.

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Rhats!, by Kerry Nietz

Kerry Nietz's book Rhats! A Takamo Universe Novella is my first expedition into the Takamo Universe.  For the uninitiated, Takamo Universe was a play-by-mail game that has now evolved into a web-based multi-player adventure game.  I know nothing about such things.  But I do know that a couple of my favorite sci-fi authors are now writing stories based in the Takamo Universe.

In Rhats!, Nietz follows the adventures of Frohic, young muto, or rhat, from a sentient species which, to another race that mutos call Uman, look much like rodents.  Mutos are known for their scavenging skills; in fact, their entire economy is based on scavenging.  Frohic ends up, rather against his will, on a scavenging ship run by Umans.  His tale (no pun intended. . . mutos have tails of course) reminded me of some of Heinlein's young adult stories: the kid who goes into space for the first time, facing conflict, seeking out a mentor, coming of age and become a man (or a grown-up muto).

This is book 4 of the Takamo Universe.  I will be interested to read some of the others to see how the mutos and their world fit in among other stories and worlds.  Nietz is in his element, with the tech, the world-building, and even some hints of spiritual themes (that I hope he can expand upon in other stories).  Rhats! is an enjoyable stand-alone story, but hints at many more stories to come.

Thanks to Takamo publishing for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Have you ever been on one of those scenic train rides where you take in some pretty scenery, maybe have a nice meal along the way, and enjoy the company of your fellow riders, but you just go in a loop and end up where you started?  It's a nice ride, but it doesn't really go anywhere.  That's how I felt about Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  This is a fun, colorful, imaginative sci-fi novel, but the plot doesn't go anywhere.  The good news is, even though it was going nowhere, I enjoyed the ride.

The crew of the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that bores holes through the fabric of space, is made up of a rag-tag bunch of characters from many corners of the galaxy.  They are essentially a road-building crew, creating new routes for space travel.  They have been hired for a potentially dangerous but extremely lucrative job to build a new route connecting a small, angry planet to the friendlier parts of the galaxy.  Since there's no route yet, it's a long way there.

Along the way, they have a few adventures, getting boarded by pirates, caught in a swarm of gigantic cricket-like creatures, and navigating the politics of the Galactic Commons.  Much of the story involves descriptions and histories of the various species and the social dynamics between the species in the crew.  Chambers demonstrates the open-mindedness of the crew by pairing up the characters in various inter-species relationships, including a tech who is in love with the ship's AI. 

While the mission to the small, angry planet gives a semblance of direction to the book, the various events and character development don't form much a story arc.  It almost feels like an origin story or the pilot of a TV series, where we are introduced to the characters with the promise of new adventures each week.  Chambers mixes standard sci-fi elements with original ideas, alien stereotypes with her own creations, and stock characters with fresh faces, giving The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet a familiar, yet refreshing, feel. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hazard, by Margaret Combs

Margaret Combs's life was drastically changed when her little brother Roddy was born.  This is true for most older siblings, but for Combs's family, the change was more pronounced.  Her brother was different.  Some labelled him retarded.  At least one doctor diagnosed cerebral palsy.  But few people knew the term by which his condition came to be known: autism.  In the 1950s and 1960s, when Combs was growing up, ignorance reigned.  She and her family got by as best they could, but struggled with fitting Roddy into their lives and community.  Combs tells her story in Hazard: A Sister's Flight from Family and a Broken Boy.

Because of the ignorance of the time, teachers and doctors didn't really know what to do with Roddy.  At one point, he went half a school year in a class for deaf students before Combs's mother figured it out.  Combs writes, "my brother was a small but clear dot on one extreme end of the autism spectrum, the opposite end of high-functioning so-called Asperger's.  None of us knew the: not my parents, not even Roddy's teachers at the Wallace School for the Handicapped."

Combs captures her mother's depression and helplessness.  Parents of disabled children, even with the knowledge and support systems that are available today, often feel isolated, judged, and rejected.  Even more so a generation or two ago, when awareness and compassion were future hopes, and stigma and exclusion dominated.  In Combs's case, her parents were from Appalachia, "where belief prevailed that the kind of people who bred retarded children were low and uneducated, whose bad behavior and foul natures led to illness and plague, who were careless and unscrupulous, whose children were ignorant and soiled."  On a visit to Combs's parents' hometown, they encountered a severely disabled teenager, accompanied by his family who appeared to fit the above description to a T.  Combs's mother "was a born-again, devoutly Christian, clean, educated woman and, still, she had birthed a retarded child, just like this behemoth of a woman with her piteous boy."

This faith struggle defines Combs's understanding, as well as her mother's.  The difference is that her mother seems to come to grips with it, while Margaret completely rejects it.  I had hoped to hear more of a theological reflection from Combs, but she never gets beyond her childish faith, where she "believed what my parents had taught me: Jesus held the tickets to everlasting life and now that I was baptized, I had one in my hand."  That's a pretty accurate description of many young Christians' experience in Baptist churches.  But that's not the end of the Christian life; faith must become one's own.  In a church that emphasizes discipleship and Christian growth, childhood faith blossoms into mature adult faith.  But for Combs, Christian faith never became her own, and she "jettisoned Baptist dogma and, along with it, the idea of souls dwelling anywhere after death."

It makes me sad to hear stories of people leaving their faith like she did.  Certainly her parents had their weakness and cultural shortcomings, but I couldn't help but wonder if their shared faith and consistent church involvement played a role in the stability of their marriage, which lasted at least until the writing of this book.  Combs, on the other hand, left her faith behind, and married and divorced two different men of another faith.  Perhaps if she had internalized the fact that Easter was more than "celebrating the tortured death of a prophet" and celebrated that fact that Jesus' resurrection gives hope for all of us, her adult life and marital happiness would have turned out better.  (I am not judging her, simply recognizing the fact that couples who are involved in church together have lower divorce rates than the general population.)

Given the ostensible purpose of the book, I was also a bit disappointed in the limited amount of insight into disability.  I was hoping for a memoir about growing up with a sibling who had a disability.  Hazard is a memoir about a woman growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, with occasional references to her brother who has an intellectual disability.  At several points I lost interest as Combs's "writer's" pen took over her "storyteller's" pen, resulting in some nicely written passages or whole chapters that did little to advance the overall point of the memoir.  But I guess that's what memoirs tend to do.

On having someone with a disability in the family, there were a few thought-provoking and challenging statements.  As she observes her brother in middle age, she writes, "The truth about disability is that it lasts.  And it doesn't get better; it grows worse and more complicated with age."  Many families who have a disabled family member can relate to her statement that "Growing up with a disabled boy in a time of ignorance had wracked my family, crippling our rhythms and feeding our sense of shame."

Combs doesn't offer a lot of solace for parents and siblings of people with disabilities.  She does offer a point of reference for people to relate to, but if readers are seeking inspiration, guidance, or hope, they should keep looking.

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