Saturday, September 23, 2017

Curious Encounters with the Natural World, by Michael Jeffords and Susan Post

Michael Jeffords and Susan Post must have a pretty cool marriage.  Both of them are biologists based in Illinois, but in their 34 years of marriage they have travelled the globe, observing and photographing the natural world.  Their new book, which includes essays and photographs from both of them, "is a lifetime of observations distilled into a single work. . . . The experiences we have chose to showcase range from encounters with unusual natural history phenomena in our own backyard to observations from the remote corners of the earth."

Curious Encounters with the Natural World: From Grumpy Spiders to Hidden Tigers features a wide variety of animals, as well as a sprinkling of landscapes, geological features, and plants.  Jeffords's and Post's love for their work and for the natural world oozes from every page.  Most of the book is one-page essays accompanied by a photo.  Their work is really beautiful, and the essays, which give some biological background as well as the circumstances of the picture, are enlightening.

The subjects are lean heavily to bugs.  I normally am not a big fan of spiders or swarming flies, but they make them somehow interesting and even endearing.  Post's essay on the mating habits of the crane fly and its connection to its setting will fill you with nostalgia and empathy for this little bug.  There are plenty of pictures of and essays about more picturesque and cuddly animals like beautiful birds, cuddly penguins, and majestic giraffes.

I appreciate the patience and commitment Jeffords and Post have exercised throughout their careers to capture these wonderful pictures.  The accompanying essays are informative, but the stars of this book are the photos.  I will never experience the natural world the way they have, but feel closer to it through reading Curious Encounters.

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

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bible Matters, by Tim Chester

UK pastor Tim Chester is one of the most straight-forward, reliably orthodox, and inspiring authors I have read in a long time.  In Bible Matters: Meeting God In His Word, he encourages love for the Bible, not as a book, but as a direct line to the voice of God.  He says that he wants readers "to realize that every time you read the Bible, you're hearing the voice of God--just as surely, more surely, than if you have some kind of dramatic experience."

Chester's deep love of the Bible comes across throughout Bible Matters.  It's not a matter of idolatry of a book, but love of Jesus.  "I love to hear [Jesus'] voice. . . . [The Bible] enables me to hear my Savior's voice."  He supports the use of Bible reading plans, but encourages us not to see them as a list to check off.  (I have been guilty of that!).  I love his suggestion that as we read, "turn what you read into prayer."  I have found this to be a great way to engage the scriptures and personalize God's word for me.

He takes a hard line against the tendency to reject the teachings of scripture in favor of cultural trends.  For personal and/or cultural reasons, Christians sometimes will selectively read the Bible, choosing what they want to obey or recognize as authoritative.  "Most Christians are happy to accept the authority of the Bible until it teaches something they don't like." 

Bible Matters is a great resource for reinvigorating your love of the Bible, and reminding you why you read it.  I enjoy Chester's style of communication and the unyielding faith and confidence in God and his word that he conveys.  I recommend Bible Matters for all Christians, no matter where on their walk of faith they are.

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

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Night School, by Lee Child

Lee Child's 2016 novel Night School takes us back to Jack Reacher's days in the Army.  After a medal recognition ceremony, Reacher is assigned to night school.  When he arrives, he and the other "students" quickly realized that the "school" is simply a cover to get them off the radar so they can jump into another investigation.  Reacher heads out to Germany, where middle-eastern terrorists and neo-Nazis compete for Reacher's attention.

Unlike most Reacher books, which feature Reacher as the reluctant vigilante and one-man force for justice, Night School has Reacher collaborating in a more traditional investigation. Intelligence comes in, as it tends to do, in bits and pieces.  The phrase, "The American wants a hundred million dollars" raises lots of red flags.  What could be worth $100 million?  Reacher and his colleagues are chasing a mystery, and the bad guys are chasing each other but they don't really know what.  The implications turn out to be much larger than Reacher, or even some of the bad guys, could guess.

The way Child puts it all together is interesting and altogether believable--way too believable.  As much as I enjoy the Reacher novels, I have to admit this one did not rank up there with my favorites.  I liked it, but it was a bit flat compared to earlier books.  Still, with plenty of suspense and a compelling mystery, plus some scenes of Reacher being Reacher, taking out a bunch of bad guys, Night School is fun to read.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Wake Up! by Chris Baréz-Brown

Do you ever find yourself on autopilot, going through life thoughtlessly and automatically?  Christ Baréz-Brown has some suggestions for you.  In Wake Up! A Handbook for Living in the Here and Now, he offers "54 playful strategies to help you snap out of autopilot."  In a sense, this is a book about mindfulness, but not meditation and yoga.  He is in favor of those things, but his ideas are more active and forward moving.  He encourages us to "deliberately . . . bring in new and different experiences to our lives that will provoke a heightened sense of consciousness as we engage with them."

Baréz-Brown's suggestions range from the silly to the commonplace, from the obvious to the surprising.  Physical needs play a part.  He's in favor of experimenting with cutting sugar, caffeine and alcohol, with cutting bread and dairy (at least for a time), and with making your own food rather than relying on packaged food.  He recommends turning off the TV, taking walks, standing while working, and dancing.  He encourages creativity, drawing and writing about one's day, writing an original song, or taking on someone else's identity just for fun (not identity theft, just being a fictional character, for instance).

He's into simplicity.  Try spending less than $5 a day.  Wear the same clothes several days in a row.  Enjoy nature.  Turn off your devices.  My favorite suggestions relate to other people.  Make amends with someone.  Write someone a letter.  Say yes without hesitation when someone asks you to do something.  Most of all, "make a pact with yourself to try to make everybody you meet smile."  I love that plan!

Wake Up! includes lots of space to journal, jot down ideas for action, draw pictures, make lists, and keep track of your decisions.  Baréz-Brown doesn't want you to sit and read this book straight through, but to read a challenge or two, do it, and keep a record of your results.  He offers a wide variety of activities.  I think any one of them will be challenging and will transform your day.  Do them all, it may just transform your life.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Trick, by Emanuel Bergmann

Emanuel Bergmann strikes all the right notes in his first novel, The Trick.  It's moving, funny, nostalgic, sweet, and thoughtful.  Bergmann artfully weaves together the stories of two young boys from different eras who hope for more than what life seems to offer.  Moshe, the son of a rabbi in Prague, runs away to join the circus, leaving behind his family and his faith.  He learns the magical arts from a seasoned showman before striking out on his own as the Great Zabbatini, a decidedly non-Jewish identity, a necessity under Nazi rule.

Max, a little boy in modern-day southern California finds a record in his dad's old things that includes a love spell by the Great Zabbatini.  He hopes that this can bring his divorcing parents back together, so he goes out in search of the old magician.  The intersections of these two disaffected lives results in both comic and profound situations.

Bergmann's best bits capture the wide-eyed wonder of these two boys as they step out of their familiar surroundings.  We share young Moshe's first glimpses of the drama of magic and the circus, especially the stunning beauty of the magician's assistant (who later becomes his assistant and life companion).  We see Max's exposure to the realities of aging, of grown-up problems, and the darkness of certain periods of the past.

Bergmann balances the humorous, sometimes slapstick story with sensitive treatment of Max's feelings about his parents' divorce and Moshe's experiences performing for Nazis while hiding his identity and his survival of the death camps after he is exposed.  I enjoyed Bergmann's story-telling style, as he flipped back and forth from Moshe's youth to today.  The Trick is a real treat to read.

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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Blood and Faith, by Damon T. Berry

With some trepidation I picked up Damon T. Berry's Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism.  Why the trepidation?  As a white, conservative, Christian man, I prepared myself for the assault.  I fit every politically incorrect category.  I anticipated that he would be assaulting me by implication, assigning labels of racist and white supremacist to me.

Thankfully, I was wrong.  Berry, who teaches religious studies at St. Laurence University, traces the roots of white nationalism, focusing on the post-World-War-2 era in the United States.  The big picture of white nationalism in the United States is that it rejects Christianity and conservatism.  One of the intellectual founders, Revilo Oliver, had written for National Review and was involved in the John Birch Society, but subsequently "abandoned any defense of conservatism or Christianity and argued strenuously that other whites should do so as well."  Another leader, William Pierce, taught that "to protect . . . the white race itself, Christianity must be rejected."  Many were drawn to pre-Christian European traditions, such as Odinism, while others rejected religion altogether.  Some even were in league with Satanism.  Christianity, with its non-European, Jewish roots, was considered "one of the primary causes of the decline of the White race."

But then, causing a bit of whiplash, Berry tries to tie white nationalists and the "alt-right" (which he never really defines) with white evangelicals and the Trump administration.  This final part of the book was remarkable because while the first five chapters were careful and deliberate biographical and historical accounts, the last chapter and conclusion devolved into specious correlations and journalistic speculation.  So is this a scholarly examination or a political op-ed?  This was the accusation that I originally anticipated.  Berry spends the whole book talking about white nationalism's absolute rejection of Christianity, then concludes that white evangelicals are hand-in-hand in support of Trump.

So as a historical study, Berry's contribution is welcome.  These movements and organizations, though largely forgotten and little known, are around, lurking on the edges of American public life.  Despite some his unwarranted associations in the conclusion, Berry provides ammunition for those in American Christian life who want to demonstrate conclusively that it is anti-historical and unfair to associate white, conservative evangelicals with white nationalism.  As Berry describes them, the white nationalists are small, culturally irrelevant, and insular.  Their recent public appearances have been disproportionately publicized; they should be marginalized and ignored, not covered with fleets of satellite news trucks.  I, for one, hope that the white nationalists survive--only in the history books.

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Broadway Baby: My Favorite Things, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, illustrated by Daniel Roode

The Sound of Music is one of the most beloved musicals and movies of all time.  You probably know most of the words to "My Favorite Things."  Those who love the musical and the song will enjoy passing it along to their children in this new children's book illustrated by Daniel Roode.  Broadway Baby: My Favorite Things puts the lyrics of the wonderful song into storybook form, with colorful pictures.
Even without the context of the musical, it's a wonderful, happy book.  The pictures themselves don't recall the movie, really.  The kids aren't so much Von Trapp as they are "It's a small world after all."  (I don't mean that as a criticism, but as an observation.)  This is such a fun way to introduce children to a classic movie.  I defy you to read it to your kids without singing along!

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Broadway Baby: Do Re Mi, by Rodgers & Hammerstein, illustrated by Miriam Bos

The Sound of Music is one of the most beloved musicals and movies of all time.  You probably know most of the words to "Do Re Mi."  Those who love the musical and the song will enjoy passing it along to their children in this new children's book illustrated by Miriam Bos.  Broadway Baby: Do Re Mi puts the lyrics of the wonderful song into storybook form, with colorful pictures.
Even without the context of the musical, it's a wonderful, happy book.  The natural teaching opportunity for music teachers is great, too, as the book can be paired with a recording of the song or singing by a teacher.  The pictures themselves don't recall the movie, really.  The kids aren't so much Von Trapp as they are a multi-cultural "It's a small world after all" group.  (I don't mean that as a criticism, but as an observation.)  This is such a fun way to introduce children to a classic movie.  I defy you to read it to your kids without singing along!

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

Friday, September 15, 2017

Make Me, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher gets off the train in a small town because he is intrigued by the name: Mother's Rest.  This is the set up for Lee Child's Make Me, the 20th Jack Reacher novel.  Reacher asks around, and no one knows where the name came from--or they won't tell him.  Of course Reacher can't leave well enough alone, so his quick one-day stop turns into an investigation.  He happens to meet a female P.I. who is in town looking for her missing partner.  They team up to uncover the nefarious secret of Mother's Rest.

Make Me follows the familiar model of Reacher exposing a tiny town's secret criminal underbelly.  Mother's Rest is far off the beaten path, well outside of cell coverage.  A town-wide conspiracy of silence protects a criminal enterprise, the nature of which Reacher and his P.I. friend slowly discover.  The initial discovery is horrible, very illegal, but, in Reacher's mind, perhaps justifiable.  However, the pieces still don't fit and the ultimate reveal is beyond anything he imagined.  Reacher brings justice with his trademark brand of justice: kill 'em all and then disappear.

One distinction of Make Me is that Reacher actually meets an opponent who is better than Reacher anticipated.  Reacher takes him out, of course, but he got some good blows on Reacher, including a blow to the head.  The effects linger through the rest of the book, impacting his ability to be Reacher.  It makes me wonder if, in future books, Reacher will have to slow down and admit he's getting older, or if he'll heal up and this won't bother him again.  In any case, it's a rare admission by Child that Reacher is human after all.

Make Me follows the Reacher formula, with enough twists and turns to keep fans coming back for more.  The "small town covering up pure evil" trope might be getting old, though.  I wondered about the logistics, the secrecy, the longevity of the scheme.  It just seemed like too much to have sustained for as long as they have apparently sustained it.  Apart from that, Make Me is a worthy addition to the life story of Jack Reacher.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Time to Stand, by Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow is a practicing lawyer and a veteran writer of legal fiction.  I enjoy the genre, so I thought I'd pick up A Time to Stand.  Whitlow has been called Christian publishing's version of John Grisham, so it's probably no accident that Whitlow's novel about a race-fueled conflict in the South echoes Grisham's novel A Time to Kill.  I've read a lot of Grisham, and Whitlow compares favorably in style and skill.

Whitlow displays the great story-telling chops that it takes to make enjoyable legal fiction.  The main character, Adisa Johnson, is a corporate lawyer in Atlanta, on her way up the legal career ladder.  She returns to her tiny hometown to visit her aunt and ends up sticking around.  A local lawyer, for whom she had worked as an intern many years earlier, asks her to help him with a case.  His firm is representing a white police officer who shot an unarmed black teenager.  Adisa, who is black, is torn between her convictions about black-on-white police violence and racism, and her desire to pursue justice and honor the law.  Under conviction from God, but to the consternation of the entire black community, she chooses to work on the case.

Things become more complicated when she becomes romantically involved with a local pastor who is a leader of the movement to prosecute the police officer.  Adisa struggles with her own race-based predispositions, while the community at large comes to terms with racial tension that few were aware had been swirling under the surface in the peaceful town.  Whitlow is, of course, pulling this story straight from the headlines.  He strikes an insightful balance between the attitudes of the black community and the white community, avoiding the extremes of the violent groups, black and white, that have poured gasoline on simmering racial fires in recent days.  Adisa's wise aunt Josie voices Whitlow's take on the matter: "The kind of love that removes bricks in the wall of prejudice only comes from above.  Anything else is like a Band-Aid on cancer."  Later on, the pastor preaches that "there is only one definitive, all-encompassing answer to what divides us, isolates us, and causes us to mistrust--transformation of the human heart through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Whitlow avoids lecturing about race and racism while telling a thoroughly enjoyable and believable tale.  Yes, it's fiction, but I felt like the dialogue, the courtroom scenes, and the church scenes were well-written and realistic.  I do wonder how authentic A Time to Stand would seem to black readers.  Robert Whitlow is a white male, well into his legal career.  Adisa is a black female on the early end of hers.  Beyond that basic issue, I wonder how a black activist would relate to Whitlow's presentation.  To me (also white), it seemed balanced and realistic.  I'm just very curious what a black person would think. . . .  Personally, I'm with Whitlow.  No matter the details and circumstances, blacks and whites need to shed their pasts and prejudices and come together in love, and the best--perhaps the only--way for that to take place is through the power of Jesus.

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

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Still Christian, by David Gushee

David Gushee has been through the gamut of the Christian culture wars.  As pastor, professor, activist, writer, and high-profile spokesman for evangelicalism, he has seen the Christian right, the Christian left, and plenty of not-so-Christian Christians.  In Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism he tells his own story as it intertwines with political and religious life in the United States.

I especially enjoyed Still Christian because I feel like a fellow traveler with Gushee.  He attended Southern Seminary, then went to Union Seminary in New York for his Ph.D.  Returning to Southern Seminary to teach, he was struck by the change in culture due to the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  He stayed at Southern for several years, but left when his more liberal positions were less and less welcome.  I am a few years younger than Gushee, but experienced the same sorts of changes.  When I was at Baylor, the historic Baptist university began the process of becoming self-governing to protect itself from the hard-line conservatism.  The semester I graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the conservative faction successfully drove the president away.  Much of the theology faculty followed shortly after--as soon as they found positions elsewhere.

Like Gushee, my faith in Jesus was not shaken, but my faith practice was impacted deeply, and my faith in other Christians was diminished.  He writes, "I haven't been able to stop being a Christian.  Despite all the fighting, culture warring, and general craziness that I've seen, I am still doing my best to be a follower of Jesus."  While my wanderings have been personal and unknown to the public, Gushee's struggles have been linked to his career, including his high-profile written work.  He's had to face the choice between following his conscience and providing for his family.  Thankfully, for him, things have worked out professionally, but not often without stress and difficulty.

Gushee is quite vulnerable and personal in his memoir.  Part of his testimony is that he found himself too intellectual and thoughtful for typical Baptist life.  Of course, he doesn't put it like that.  But the tone of Still Christian is largely intellectually arrogance.  He leaves the reader with the impression that if Christians were only more intellectual, well-read, educated, smarter, and more thoughtful, they would flee from the fundamentalist, narrow beliefs of their historic faith.  I don't sense in Gushee's attitude, or in the attitudes of others on the evangelical left, an openness to the idea that Christians with traditionally conservative theological perspectives (or conservative political convictions, for that matter) came to their conclusions due to thoughtful consideration, deep study of the scripture, and prayerful conviction.  I got the sense that Gushee holds people who share his theological and ethical stances in high esteem, while people to his left are worthy of his consideration, but people to his right are clearly lesser lights.

For instance, he writes that "the resurgence of a doctrinaire Calvinism in contemporary evangelicalism is among the most odious developments of the last generation.  I abhor its version of God and most of its version of Christian ethics."  He can't just disagree; it's a stain on the church.  Similarly, one of the main points of division in Baptist life is the role of women, specifically the question of whether a woman can be a senior pastor.  The conservatives at Southern Seminary made this question the line of demarcation; anyone who believed women could be pastors was shown the door.  I get the sense that Gushee would be just as exclusive--anyone who does not believe women can be pastors would be shown the door.  How about each individual church decides who can be their pastor?

The final and most contentious cause of Gushee's separation from evangelism was his outspoken advocacy for gay Christians.  It amazes me that in a very few short years the belief that homosexual activity is sinful has come to be so controversial.  I do not doubt that there are many gay Christians.  I also do not doubt that gay sex is sinful, as is any other sex outside of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.  The church's treatment of gays and the singling out of homosexual sex as especially sinful has been terrible, historically, and a corrective is welcome.  But to swing all the way to saying gay sex is part of God's wonderful plan is to jettison scripture, church history, and sociological experience all at once.

I respect Gushee's work and his convictions on several points, even as I disagree with him sometimes.  But his journey exemplifies the tendency of liberal Christianity.  The drift to the left keeps on drifting and the farther it drifts, the harder it is to stop.  While I was on the "anti-fundamentalist" side of the "Battle for the SBC," the controversy drove me away from Baptist life.  I go to a non-denominational church now, but many of my college and seminary cohort are in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches, which, as Gushee points out, no longer means SBC-style churches who might allow women to serve in church leadership.  The CBF has become "an uneasy coalition of moderates . . . and real-life liberals."  If they are not already there, they are moving rapidly toward the universalism and moral relativism that mark many mainline churches.

Gushee is still a Christian.  I have no qualms calling him a brother in Christ.  I know I could learn much from his devotional and reflective life.  But Still Christian left me wondering, how far can Gushee go?  How far from historic theological and ethical principles can he wander and still consider himself a Christian?  Unfortunately, the sense I get from Still Christian is this: Look to your right and to your left.  People to your right are unenlightened; pray that they will grow.  People on your left are further along in their journey; follow them.  I think I would like David Gushee.  But I won't be following him leftward.

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Personal Stereo, by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

Children of the '80s will enjoy the nostalgia trip in Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow's Personal Stereo, part of Bloomsbury Acedemic's "Object Lessons" series.  She succinctly follows the rise, influence, and lasting societal impact of the Sony Walkman.  Sony introduced the compact cassette player, paired with lightweight headphones, in the late 1970s, and seemingly overnight they were everywhere, the most coveted new invention in memory.

Imitators quickly followed, of course.  I think my first Walkman (the word became generic for all brands, not just Sony) was actually the Panasonic Way.  I don't know that it had any great advantage over Sony's, other than I thought it looked cool.  Even with the imitators, there is no question Sony was the pioneer.  Tuhus-Dubrow spends a lot of time on the fans and the critics of the new technology.  I remember well the warnings about hearing loss, and the frowns of others when a Walkman user went through life in his or her Walkman-induced isolation.

Her reflections on the differences between Walkman use and smart phone use are interesting.  While both can give the user a sense of isolation, there is something more pure about Walkman use.  It's a single-purpose tool, not prone to the interruptions and distractions from the music that smartphones give us.

Personal Stereo is thoughtful, reflective, and honoring to the innovation that Walkman represented.  The Walkman spurred a revolution in the music industry, and, arguably, revolutionized the way we consume and enjoy music.  Tuhus-Dubrow fosters a deep appreciation for the Walkman.

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

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Wanted Man, by Lee Child

A Wanted Man concludes a sort of trilogy of "Jack Reacher wandering around the upper midwest."  In 61 Hours, he is in South Dakotah.  He's blown up at the end of that book, but survives and finds his way to a tiny town in Nebraska in Worth Dying For.  At the end of Worth Dying For, he's dropped off at the highway, where he's picked up shortly after at the beginning of A Wanted Man.  I'm sure some fan has done a timeline of these three books.  Let's just say it was a very eventful couple of weeks for Jack Reacher.

The people who pick him up seem to be a trio traveling together for business.  As long as they get him closer to Virginia, he doesn't really care.  But when he figures out that the woman is a hostage, and the two men might be the men the state troopers at the road blocks are looking for, his ride gets much more interesting.  Of course, Reacher's insatiable curiosity and personal quest for justice will not allow him to let anything go.  He commandeers a sheriff's car for a while, flees from justice when an APB goes out for him, and finally recruits a couple of FBI agents to help him take down dozens of criminals.

I enjoyed A Wanted Man because I love Reacher's character, his deliberate way of figuring everything out, and his skill at staying alive and getting the bad guys.  But for this book, the whole interconnected criminal enterprise seemed cobbled together and incomplete, and the big, final confrontation was too rushed and unoriginal.  This, of course, is in comparison to other Reacher novels.  A Wanted Man still ranks above most action-oriented fiction.  So Reacher fans will not want to miss this one, especially to fill in the gap between Worth Dying For and his arrival in Virginia, in Never Go Back.  When I say it's not Child's best, it's still pretty darn good.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Her Right Foot, by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris

The Statue of Liberty, one of the most enduring symbols of our great nation, has a story to tell.  A wonderful modern-day story teller, Dave Eggers, tells her story in Her Right Foot, with illustrations by Shawn Harris.  You may know all about the famous statue, that it was built in France, that its framework was designed by Mr. Eiffel, who later designed the famous tower.  You may know that it was disassembled and sent in crates to the United States, where it was reassembled.

Eggers tells that part of the story, but he also tells the part you may not know.  The statue's right foot is portrayed in mid stride.  She is walking, and chains on the ground show that she has been unshackled.  "She is going somewhere!  She is on the move!"  Eggers's theory is that she herself is an immigrant, and for generations now she has greeted immigrants from all over the world the our nation.  Now she is walking because she is striding to meet the next immigrants, to welcome them to our shores.

Her Right Foot is beautifully illustrated, and Eggers's humor and depth capture the real meaning of the Statue of Liberty.  What a great reminder that our nation is a nation of immigrants and a beacon of hope to the world.

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

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Atlas of Beauty, by Mihaela Noroc

Mihaela Noroc has travelled the world taking pictures of women.  500 of those picutres made it into her book The Atlas of Beauty: Women of the World in 500 Portraits.  She captures the faces of everyday women in their "native environment" whether on a city street or place of employment.  The wide variety and diversity of the women she captures is striking.  Many of her subjects fall into categories that are traditionally thought of as beautiful: young, slender, smooth skin, etc.  But the range of ages, skin color, hair style, and fashion is quite broad.  For every dancer, model, or media figure, there is a picutre of a refugee, an elderly woman, or a child.

Noroc's mission is to find and affirm the beauty in each woman.  She writes that some women did not want to have their pictures taken because they are not beautiful enough.  Noroc brings out their personality and features with her work, inevitably capturing their beautiful side.

While some of the women pictured look like me in terms of nationality, race or class, most did not.  She traversed Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America, photographing women on every continent.  Most of these women don't look like me, but picturing them here is a reminder that each of them is my neighbor, each is a part of my family, each is my sister.  I can always use a reminder that there is beauty in everyone, and that everyone is connected in the human family.

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

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Capitalist Code, by Ben Stein

Because of his memorable role in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Ben Stein is "the most well-known teacher of economics in the world." Many who know him only as an actor don't know that Stein is actually an economist and lawyer by education and training, or that he has authored or co-authored a shelf full of books.  In his latest, The Capitalist Code: It Can Save Your Life and Make You Very Rich, Stein covers some basic truths about investing and the economy, hoping to inspire young people to take the long view and prepare for their future.

Stein's advice is solid, and his good humor is unflappable.  I love how positive he is.  He starts out appealing indirectly to the social justice warrior, antifa, occupy young people, or anyone else who disparages capitalism.  The reality is that capitalism allows all of us, young and old, to be owners of businesses and take advantage of the stock market.  "The real story is that it's raining money . . . from corporate earnings, and if you don't put out your bucket, you are making a mistake."

Of course he advocates getting started early: "From the earliest possible age you can do so, buy and hold common stocks in a large variety of public corporations in the United States of America and hold on to them until you retire and need the income they provide by selling them."  The simplest, most efficient way to invest?  Index funds.  Compared to owning a business directly, or investing in real estate, index fund investing avoids the hassles, the overhead, the taxes, the liabilities, the payrolls, pretty much all the negatives of business ownership or landlording. 

Stein is a big advocate of doing what you love, but is frank about the need to have money.  When you're sick, have unexpected expenses, need income for retirement, one person you can depend on is the younger you who had the discipline and foresight to invest in stocks, a practice that can, in fact, save your life and make you very rich.  Sound advice, indeed.

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

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Blitzed, by Thomas George

Every year at the NFL draft, the most talked-about position is the quarterback.  Who's going to be the next star?  Who will be the franchise quarterback who will save the struggling team?  In Blitzed: Why NFL Teams Gamble on Starting Rookie Quarterbacks, veteran sports writer Thomas George examines the quarterback position, taking the reader behind the scenes into the toughest role in all of sports.

Reviewing a wide variety of NFL quarterback's careers, focusing on the past decade or so, George makes the case that there really isn't a case for the best approach to acquiring, training, and utilizing a new quarterback.  Are the number one draft picks successful?  Sometimes.  Is it best to immediately play a rookie?  Sometimes.  Is it best to have them sit and learn under more experienced players?  Sometimes.  Is trading up for a first-round draft pick to get a good quarterback worth it?  Sometimes.
For every example, there are plenty of counter examples.  Who could have foreseen Dak Prescott's rise from a late-round pick to an MVP?  Who could have predicted that RG3 would flame out so quickly?  NFL buffs will enjoy George's abundant interviews and back stories.  He traversed the league and talked to many of the biggest name players and coaches to gain valuable insights.  But conclusions?  Not really.

As to the question of the subtitle, why do NFL teams gamble on starting rookie quarterbacks?  They're looking for the magic.  "Without a franchise quarterback, you are on a train on a track to nowhere."  It's all about dynasties, championships, and Super Bowls.  Every team is looking for the one leader who will get them there.

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

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Affair, by Lee Child

Even though The Affair is the sixteenth Jack Reacher book in Lee Child's popular series, it is set early in the Reacher timeline, as his time of service in the Army is coming to an end.  Jack is sent to a tiny Mississippi town with an Army base nearby to investigate a murder.  Tasked with going in undercover, Reacher attempts to take on the role of a drifter.  He sets out with only the clothes on his back, no bag.  He discovers the wonder of the pocket toothbrush.  He begins his habit of buying new clothes and throwing away the dirty clothes.

Once in town, he's immediately made by the local sheriff, who is a former MP in the Marines.  She initially tells Reacher to get lost, but he quickly makes himself indispensable to the investigation (and doesn't take long getting the beautiful sheriff in bed).  Despite stonewalling and misinformation from the Army, Reacher eventually cracks the case.  As we've come to expect, Reacher is a one-man department of justice, doing things his way, figuring stuff out and getting the bad guys.

This isn't the earliest book in the Reacher chronology, but it's an origin story of sorts, establishing some of his habits and lifestyle and ending immediately before Killing Floor begins.  Besides buying his first pocket toothbrush, he also learns about Western Union's ability to get him cash wherever he is in the country and introducing the logic of throwing away dirty clothes rather than laundering them.  Lee Child fans will love this addition to the Reacher series more than most.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Last Christians, by Andreas Knapp, translated by Sharon Howe

Andreas Knapp, a German priest in the order of the Little Brothers of the Gospel, has spent a great deal of time among Iraqi Christians in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, as well as in Germany.  His new book The Last Christians: Stories of Persecution, Flight, and Resilience in the Middle East tells many of their stories.  Many of these Christians speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.  Kurdistan includes northern Iraq, parts of Turkey, and Syria, which Knapp points out is the "birthplace of the first Christian churches."  Yet, as he listens in to some of their worship services, he wonders if these are "the last Christians, singing their last song with their last breath."

With the rise of the Islamic State in Kurdistan, Christians have been increasingly persecuted and driven from the region.  Knapp meets them in refugee camps and secretive worship services.  The opposition that IS gets from the west, including the U.S., puts a target on the backs of the Christians there.  They pay for Western politics with their blood.  He's not a big fan of George W. Bush's "oil-stained war."  Knapp wonders, "How could the United States or Britain be so indifferent to the bloodshed of innocent Christian minorities for the sake of their oil-driven politics?"  His perspective will force Western Christians to evaluate the impact of their words and policies.

However, he is no defender of IS.  IS has been responsible for brutal, murderous, oppressive acts against Christians (and, in fairness, against Muslims with whom they disagree).  Millions of Christians have been killed for their beliefs, while others have been forcibly converted to Islam.  They will destroy whole towns, and attempt to destroy "anything that harks back to Islam's acestry: age-old churches and monasteries that stand as testimony to Christianity's influence on Islam are blown up and bulldozed into the ground."

Knapp holds out hope for Muslims to live peaceably with Christian neighbors, calling on Christianity and Islam "to come together in a practical demonstration of the peacemaking power of religion."  He is not one to encourage Muslim immigration to the West, however: "Europe is under the illustion that the Muslim masses pouring into the continent are peaceable and tolerant.  By contrast, Saudi Arabia and Qatar won't take any refugees even though they share the same religion, language, and culture--precisely because they fear unrest and terror.  Bishop Petros adds: 'The Saudis are smarter than your government.'"

What stands out most in The Last Christians is the accounts of persecution.  These Christians' worship and practices look very different from mine, with their Eastern liturgies and ancient languages.  Yet they are my brothers and sisters, and are being systematically persecuted even now.  I know I need to pray for them and advocate for their freedom.

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

Monday, September 4, 2017

Auma's Long Run, by Eucabeth Odhiambo

Eucabeth Odhiambo grew up in Kenya.  While she now lives in Pennsylvania, where she teaches in the teacher education department of Shippensburg University, she returns to her home country in her debut novel, Auma's Long Run.  Auma is a teenager in rural Kenya whose village is being ravaged by AIDS.  She is torn between her responsibility to her family and her desire to become a doctor.

In many ways, Auma is just like girls anywhere in the world.  But her lifestyle is foreign to most Western readers.  She has to walk to the stream to fetch water, she lives in a mud house with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and has cows in the yard.  Her father works in Nairobi and sends money home to the family.  Everything changes when he arrives home earlier than expected.  Soon both he and Auma's mother have died of AIDS.

Auma loves to run and has become a local star, winning most of her races.  She wants to earn a scholarship for her running so she can study to become a doctor.  With her parents' sickness, her mother's efforts to marry her off, and her responsibilities caring for her younger siblings, it starts looking like she won't get to follow her dreams.

Auma's Long Run is a touching story that brings the realities of poverty and sickness in rural Kenya into focus, personalizing village life in a way that statistics and new items can't.  The target audience may be young girls, but boys and adults will be enriched and will enjoy this story of Auma's coming of age in Africa.

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

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Engineered!, by Shannon Hunt, illustrated by James Gulliver Hancock

Is there a young, budding engineer in your life?  Check out Engineered! Engineering Design at Work, by Shannon Hunt, with awesome illustrations by James Gulliver Hancock.  Kids (and many adults) might wonder, what exactly does an engineer do?  Engineered! explains: engineers "use their math, science, and technology skills to find creative solutions to problems."  The problem solving flow chart is quite clear and impressive, and the examples Hunt provides really make engineering seem practical and incredible at the same time.

Need to land a delicate piece of equipment on another planet?  The engineers can help.  How about better ways to get from here to there?  Engineers show the way.  Maximize caribou habitats?  Call the engineers.  Update the sewer system?  Thank goodness for engineers.  How about printing skin grafts for burn victims?  Incredible, but truly some great work by engineers.

With the colorful pictures and pithy explanations, Hunt and Hancock will inspire their readers to think bigger about the problems in their world, to pay attention to the engineering solutions they see around them every day, and maybe, just maybe, think about engineering as a field of study and career.

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

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Where Oliver Fits, by Cale Atkinson

Everyone fells a bit out of place from time to time.  Some people really struggle to figure out where they fit in.  In Cale Atkinson's Where Oliver Fits, Oliver is a little puzzle piece who simply cannot find his place.  He tries and tries, but he doesn't seem to fit anywhere.  He goes to great lengths to change his color and shape, becoming someone he's not, but that doesn't work out.  Eventually he realized that lots of other puzzle pieces were just like him, trying to be something they're not in order to fit in.  When all the pieces are just themselves, they discover that they fit together nicely!

It's a simple message, but one that everyone needs to hear at some point in their lives.  The earlier kids learn to be themselves and accept their physical characteristics and personality quirks, for better or for worse, the happier they will be.  In an age of bullying and body shaming, kids need to hear that they are unique and fill a spot in their world that no one else can fill.

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

Friday, September 1, 2017

Man vs. Child, by Doug Moe

I don't know Doug Moe, but I think I'd like hanging out with him.  Besides being an actor, comedian, and writer, he's a dad, and has compiled some wisdom and tips for new dads in Man vs. Child: One Dad's Guide to the Weirdness of Parenting.  This is by no means a comprehensive how-to guide.  I mean, is there ever such a book?  Kids are complicated and are all so different, who can really write down all you need to know?  No, this book is just fun and funny.  (But there are some practical bits, for sure.)

Moe loosely organizes the book by subject and stage of development, sharing some of what he has learned during his years of being a dad.  One broad principle came through loud and clear: go ahead and accept the fact that being a dad means you must be willing not be cool, maybe even totally uncool, and that you just shouldn't worry about maintaining your dignity.  The good news is, what you do as a dad is much more important and rewarding that being cool or dignified.

Moe takes the reader from considering having a baby up to being dad to a big kid.  He offers some pretty good practical advice.  For instance, he points out that you will probably be expected to buy a changing table to match the crib.  But wait: remember that the floor is simply a very large changing table, and one off of which a baby won't roll!  I know I did some diaper changing on a changing table, but I have changed a lot more diapers right on the floor.  Maybe we could have done without the changing table. . . .

Man vs. Child reads like a book sometimes, and like a stand-up routine sometimes.  That makes sense, given the author.  It's funny and any dad is sure to share a laugh with Moe.  And who knows, the new dad who reads it might even learn a little about being a dad.

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bear Country: The Baylor Story, by Ken Starr

Ken Starr had a distinguished political and legal career, but didn't become a household name until he served as special prosecutor in the Whitewater investigation, most remembered by Monica Lewinsky's blue dress.  After that unfortunate episode in American political history ended, he faded back into the relative obscurity of academia, eventually becoming president of Baylor University, my alma mater.  A rape scandal at Baylor and his subsequent firing as president vaulted Starr back into the headlines.  He tells the story of his time at Baylor and the events surrounding his firing in Bear Country: The Baylor Story.

A couple things really stood out in A Baylor Story.  First, Ken Starr loves Baylor.  It was evident to any observer during his tenure, whether he was running onto the field with the Baylor Line at football games, greeting students on campus, or speaking publicly in his role as president.  He loves Baylor's history, Baylor's mission, Baylor's students, Baylor's campus, Baylor's alumni, Baylor's hometown--seriously, everything about Baylor.  If any other evidence is needed, how about this: a guy who's lived in various places around the country, who has the means to live just about anywhere he wants, who has a high profile public presence, and whose last place of employment before Baylor was at Pepperdine, in the picturesque community of Malibu, California, has chosen to stay in Waco!  I love Waco, too, but I don't have the means and connections that he has.

The second thing I noticed is that, just like his public personality, Starr is ultra positive and encouraging.  He has great difficulty saying anything negative about anyone or anything.  Most of the time he's full of praise and superlatives.  This is certainly consistent with anything I've seen from him during his time at Baylor, but is especially commendable considering that his treatment was sometimes less than stellar and his dismissal from his role was abrupt and unexpected.  While he mentions a few people with whom he had disagreements, his attitude is consistently gracious and conciliatory.  I'm not sure my attitude, toward Baylor, the media, and other critics, would be as positive were I in his position.

About 3/4 of Bear Country is about Baylor itself.  He does a great job of capturing the personality of the school and campus life, especially commending Baylor's commitment to be a highly-ranked research university while retaining its commitment to the Christian faith.  But the occasion for the book, and the sections that will be of greater interest to readers outside of Baylor circles, is his recounting of the events surrounding the 2016 rape scandal that led to his firing.

One thing he's clear about: despite what many have reported, "at no time did Baylor University fail to have a high-level Title IX coordinator in place.  Never.  Not for one instant."  He objects to the idea that "Pat Neff Hall [where Baylor's top administrative offices are housed] was oblivious to student safety concerns."  He details Baylor's efforts to educate and protect students, even dating from before the "Dear Colleague" letter was issued.  I'm glad to read his descriptions and defense.  There were personal failures and inconsistent applications of policy, but those are human errors more than institutional errors.

Starr, football Coach Art Briles, and other officials who were fired in the wake of this scandal have been smeared forever by inaccurate, or, at the very least, incomplete reporting of the events in question.  If I were Starr, I'd probably be bitter and defensive.  In The Baylor Story, Starr is generous in his assessments of other people, gracious in his recounting of his time at Baylor, and matter-of-fact in his recollections.  I know some will object to his perspective and find fault with his version of events, but, in fairness, his perspective is important and should be considered in light of the agenda-driven and inflammatory reporting that has come out of Waco.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Strange Beauty, by Eliza Factor

No one plans to have a child with disabilities.  When Eliza Factor's son began missing developmental milestones and exhibiting atypical behaviors, it dawned on her that his childhood was not going to be like most kids.  In her book Strange Beauty: A Portrait of My Son, she chronicles the challenges and joys of life with Felix, her oldest child.  Felix, who lives with cerebral palsy, autism, and endures self-destructive fits of slapping and hitting himself, has been a puzzle for Factor and her family to unravel.

Other parents of children with disabilities will cry and laugh with Factor as she describes the slow realization that Felix has a disability, the mix of pain and pleasure she experienced when a label was finally placed on him, and the challenge of finding the right doctors, specialists, and therapists.  Navigating the health care system is tough enough, but when a child has a variety of disabilities, it can be especially tough.  She writes, "Even I, in New York, with a good insurance plan, extra money when our insurance plan refused to cooperate, and a flexible schedule, could not perform up to par."  I was reminded how thankful I am for my wife who, like Factor, has had to fill out countless forms (repeating the same information about medical history again and again), spent long hours on the phone with insurance companies and social service agencies attempting to get the right care and benefits, and keeping up with the various programs for which our children qualify. 

One of their great challenges was finding the right educational setting for Felix.  After some truly horrible experiences, where the schools had no idea how to handle his dangerous fits, they found some schools that supported him well.  They worked with the Department of Education, which of course has bureaucratic challenges galore, but also with private schools, as they have the means to pay tuition if needed.  Yet finding the right fit was still a great challenge.  As the book ends, Factor determined that the schools Felix has attended aren't the best place for him, and home school isn't a good option, so she has found a residential school a few hours drive from home.  Given the tone of the rest of the book, I was surprised when she even started considering residential placement for Felix.  But as she describes the school where he ended up, it sounds like a place where he will thrive.

A large part of Factor's story is creating a space where Felix and other kids with disabilities can socialize and play in a setting that suits their unique needs.  She created a new organization with play rooms that feature large swings, ball pits, bean bag chairs, and other equipment on which kids with sensory integration issues, mobility issues, autism, and other disabilities and challenges can play, relax, and socialize.  In this setting, she has taken the challenges she has faced as a parent and directed her knowledge and energy to enrich other families.  I love the idea.  It's inspiring and encouraging.  (If you're interested, check out

Factor doesn't hold much back as she describes her life with Felix.  Parents who have children living with disabilities will be encouraged by her steadfastness and her determination to find what is best for Felix and to let her experiences spill over into other families' lives. 

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

Monday, August 28, 2017

Worth Dying For, by Lee Child

With the cliffhanger ending of 61 Hours, a rarity for Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, I was eager to pick up the next book in the series, Worth Dying For.  Clearly Reacher survived the catastrophic explosion at the end of 61 Hours.  (Was there ever a doubt?)  As Worth Dying For unfolds, Reacher reveals what happened, solidifying what we already know: Reacher is equal parts super human and super lucky.

In Worth Dying For, Reacher has hitchhiked toward Virginia but doesn't get very far.  He ends up in another tiny town, this time in Nebraska, which, of course, is full of corruption, crime, and hidden secrets.  The town is so small it doesn't have police of its own.  The Duncan family, three brothers and one son, rule the town with an iron fist.  No one dares to offend them or their henchmen, a bunch of former Nebraska football players.  Of course it doesn't take Reacher long to see the Duncan's power.  On his first night in town, he drives the drunk town doctor to assist the younger Duncan's wife, who has a broken nose.  He then tracks down her husband, breaks his nose in revenge, and the war is on.

The Duncans are more than a local family who forces all the farmers in the area to do business with them or suffer the consequences.  They are part of an international smuggling scheme.  They have kept their highly profitable business a secret from the townspeople, but when a shipment is late, one of their customers gets impatient and sends his muscle to help.  Then a couple other criminal gangs in the pipeline come to town to assist.  Between their internecine fighting and Reacher's overpowering wit, brains, and muscle, all the bad guys end up dead.  (Sorry about the spoiler.  But if you ever read a Reacher book, you would probably have guessed that.)

The set up of Worth Dying For seems artificial and contrived.  It's hard to conceive that the conditions of this town and the power the Duncans hold over it could actually occur.  But once you hurdle that barrier, the story is quite enjoyable.  Reacher is in fine form as a one-man army and bringer of justice.  He's one bad dude who's fun to root for.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Be Like Bill, by Eugeniu Croitoru and Debabrata Nath

Maybe you've seen Bill on the internet.  Bill is a stick figure, popular on Facebook.  He meme messages implore you to be like him.  He conveys simple messages: life lessons, etiquette, online rules, relationship advice.  His creators, Eugeniu Criotoru and Debabrata Nath, have gathered some of Bill's (and his friend Bella's) best bits for the appropriately titled book Be Like Bill.

Bill is smart, he is not a douche, he is not immature, he is respectful of others, he has manners, he is polite, he is friendly.  Bill isn't an attention seeker, a show-off, or a whining moron.  If all of us were like Bill, the world would be a better place.

Be Like Bill is good for some laughs.  You will probably read this and think of lots of people who are not like Bill.  But I have a feeling that as much as you think you are like Bill, you will have to admit that you are not always like Bill.  Read Be Like Bill and be more like Bill.

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

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Texas Monsters, by Anne Paradis, illustrated by Sanaa Legdani

When I saw my city's own Stockyards Station on the cover of Anne Paradis's Texas Monsters, I had to check it out.  As it happens, I have been to all the stops on her monster's tour of Texas!  Paradis takes kids on a cartoonish tour of familiar Texas locales.  Sanaa Legdani's illustrations include cute monsters hiding around each scene.  As the kids get a taste of Texas landmarks, they will enjoy finding the monsters in their hiding spots.  (No scary monsters here.  These are more like the cuddly monsters of Monsters, Inc.)

Texas Monsters is a fun, colorful seek-and-find book, perfect for Texans, lovers of Texas, and people who wish they lived in Texas.  (That covers everyone, right?)  Find the monsters and plan your next road trip!

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Adopted, by Kelley Nikondeha

Kelley Nikondeha, an adoptee and an adoptive mother, tells her story of adoption and offers reflections on adoption in the aptly named Adopted:The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World.  Adoption is not only a lifestyle choice for families and individuals, but is reflective of our relationship with God and the body of Christ.  In the biblical message, "we belong by believing, not by biology."  Paul writes of our adoption as sons and daughters, which Nikondeha ties to the Greco-Roman view of adoption, through which the elite would "secure succession, legacy, and inheritance."

Nikondeha explores a theological view of adoption, interwoven with her own family's experiences and, more broadly, adoption as the rescue of orphans and growth of a family.  Adoption speaks to the larger body, as a testimony of inclusion.  "Adoption isn't only for or about orphans.  Adoption is about enacting shalom for all of us."  The question to ask in adoption is "How might we best contribute to God's shalom initiative?  We have in common the biblical imperative to increase the well-being not only of our families, but of our communities."

Adopted has moments of inspiration and insight, although it felt at times like a stream of consciousness.  Rather than read it straight through, it might be better enjoyed, at least by me, in little chunks.  I just didn't enjoy her style.  Though she wandered far astray from what most of us normally think about when we think about adoption, she inspired me to think more broadly about my own family's adoption experience and to expand my view of family.  Like Nikondeha and her family, who have experienced chronic illness, loss, and redemption, my family, "so full of redemption, yearns for more.  We live between the now and the not yet of resurrection."  Adopted will give you something to think about and pray about.

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

61 Hours, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher fans will be familiar with the set-up of Lee Child's 61 Hours.  Having hitched a ride on a bus tour with a group of senior citizens heading to Mount Rushmore, Reacher helps out when the bus slides off the road after hitting a patch of ice.  Reacher, along with the bus load of tourists, is stranded in a strange little South Dakotah town for a few days.  Of course, he arrives in a moment of crisis, and the town is embroiled in a major criminal enterprise.

Jack can't leave well enough alone.  The local cops quickly learn of his background as an Army investigator, and he pitches in with investigations and protective detail for a local woman who is a witness in a drug trial.  Although at first it seems simple, with a biker gang coming in and dealing meth.  But it turns out to be much larger than that, involving a Mexican drug lord and his Russian customers, a long-forgotten Air Force facility, and some corrupt locals who are under the gun.

Reacher, no surprise, gets to the bottom of it.  His kill number is actually pretty low in 61 Hours.  He only kills two, but, like all his kills, both of them totally deserved it.  One surprising element is that Child doesn't end 61 Hours with Reacher riding the bus into the sunset.  This is the only Reacher book I remember with a cliff hanger ending. . . .  As if I wasn't already eager to pick up the next book in the series.  These books are addicting.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Violated, by Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach

As a Baylor alumnus, life-long Baylor football fan, and now a Baylor parent, the last couple of years have been really tough to stomach.  The firings, the scandals, the abhorrent behavior by football players and other students, the responses of coaches and university officials to reports of rape and other crimes, and the bumbling PR treatment the university has put together has been painful and disheartening.  If you follow Baylor news closely, little in Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach's new book Violated: Exposing Rape at Baylor University Amid College Football's Sexual Assault Crisis will be new to you.  If you have not followed the news and fan message boards and rumor mills about Baylor closely, consider yourself lucky, but if you want a comprehensive treatment of the scandal, Violated is a good place to start.

Lavigne and Schlabach, ESPN reporters, have been at the forefront of the national media's coverage of Baylor.  They were instrumental in bringing broader attention to the scandal and churning out stories about it.  I felt like they had a vendetta against Baylor and was prepared to hate Violated.  I am forced to admit, however, that while they definitely have an agenda, their treatment is, for the most part, even-handed.  Many of the facts are indisputable.  There were predators on campus, including some on the football team.  Many women did not feel comfortable working with campus judicial affairs because of what they perceived as a judgmental culture.  Coaches, judicial affairs employees, counselors, and other university employees responded inadequately and, in some cases, offensively, to reports of rape.

Lavigne and Schlabach, as well as other journalists, exposed deep cultural and administrative problems that had persisted for a long time.  Thankfully, the light has been a disinfectant and things have been cleaned up and are in the process of being reassessed and restructured.  Interim president Dr. Garland may have been a little over exuberant when he claimed that Baylor would now be "the safest place on the planet," but I have not doubt that Baylor is becoming "a model for the rest of the country, of how to address these issues," as he said.

Given their mission--exposing rape at Baylor--it was unsurprising that Lavigne and Schlabach leaned hard toward believing every word any victim said and casting doubts on anyone associated with Baylor.  When there are two sides to any testimony or recollection of an event or conversation, the benefit of the doubt goes to the accuser.  The other side might be mentioned, but parenthetically or as an after thought.  In my limited knowledge of the events, I know that in many cases it's not as cut-and-dried as they imply.

I like the fact that they include in the subtitle "Amid College Football's Sexual Assault Crisis."  While the bulk of the book is focused on Baylor, they briefly place Baylor in the larger picture.  They write, "In fairness, Baylor wasn't alone when it came to college football's sexual assault crisis."  But then, sort of contradicting themselves, they assert that "the depth of its problems and sheer number of cases--and victims--set it apart from other schools" while also claiming that "if there were indeed seventeen incidents over five years, then Baylor's numbers are actually close to other college athletic programs recently studied."  I know "it happens everywhere" is a weak defense, and I don't want to diminish what was clearly a series of terrible events at Baylor.  But I still believe that if other schools were put under the microscope the way Baylor has been over the last couple of years, many of them would look as bad or worse.

What I hated most about the book, as an alumnus and now especially as a parent, was the characterization of student life.  Sure, there are parties, and kids drink and have sex.  To read their account, you might think that every weekend in Waco, there are house parties where people engage in gang bangs, and that every frat party has frat boys dropping drugs in girls' drinks so they can have sex with them.  Interviewees have testified that such things happen, but I object to the impression given that these activities are widespread.  I hope readers will recognize the limited scope of the book, and realize that much of Baylor's culture, even among student athletes, is wholesome, Christ-centered, and life-giving.

As much as I hated reading Violated, and as sick as these allegations against my alma mater make me, I have to acknowledge that Lavigne and Schlabach have done a service by bringing light to these events.  They pull no punches and spare few details.  I felt like I needed to take a hot shower after reading some of their accounts.  I think Baylor has taken great strides in student safety and engendering a culture of respect, and I continue to pray that Baylor will exemplify the ideals upon which it was founded for the sake of my son and other students, now and in the future.

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Single, Gay, Christian, by Gregory Coles

Gregory Coles's voice is one I have not heard enough of in the conversation about sexuality and Christian faith.  Gregory, a gay, celibate follower of Jesus, tells the story of his faith and sexual identity in Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity.  As he grappled with his young faith and his emerging knowledge that he was attracted to men and not women, he found "two kinds of gay Christians: the ones who revised the traditional interpretation of the Bible's stance on homosexual behavior in order to pursue committed same-sex relationships, and the ones who repented after years of promiscuity and became straight. . . . Neither category included me."  He says he was "unconvinced by revisionary theology on homosexuality, [yet] unable to conjure even the slightest heterosexual desire."

Ruling out the acceptance of homosexuality and the possibility of attraction to women left Gregory with a single option: celibacy.  In no way does he make his choice sound easy.  Anyone, gay or straight, can tell you that it can be a tough choice.  What I love about Gregory's perspective is that he has made the choice in light of his deep love for Jesus.  He doesn't lament the fact that he's choosing never to experience sexual intimacy, but he rejoices in the intimacy he has with Jesus.  While Gregory is not a pastor or priest, I am sure my friends who are priests would say the same thing.  Gregory challenges me to evaluate my priorities and my own willingness to alter my lifestyle in order to fall more in love with Jesus and follow him more closely, even to the point of self-denial and suffering.

I appreciated the honesty and openness with which Gregory shared his story.  I have to admit, parts of it made me uncomfortable.  He gives me a lot of hope, though, for my friends who have struggled with homosexuality.  The choice isn't between being gay or Christian; the choice is between following Jesus or not.  Even after reading this, I have a hard time seeing the value of identifying as gay if one is celibate.  If anyone, whether a priest or a confirmed bachelor or celibate gay man, is committed to a life of celibacy, does gay or straight still matter?  Clearly, to Gregory, it is part of his identity, and I respect his choice in declaring it.  As a result, he is equipped to reach a population that I, as a married, straight male might not reach.  He concludes that he is "a guy who's gay and loves Jesus and isn't ashamed to admit either of those things."  Thank you, Gregory, for your boldness and your call to follow Jesus, no matter the cost.

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Biggest Story ABC, by Kevin DeYoung, illustrated by Don Clark

I love this!  The Biggest Story ABC is more than a colorfully illustrated, biblically-themed ABC book.  Pastor Kevin DeYoung tells the story of the Bible in twenty-six short selections, with illustrations by Don Clark.  Starting with Adam and ending in the new world of Zion, DeYoung covers the creation, the history of Israel, the incarnation, and the resurrection.

Even using the ABC structure, the story doesn't feel contrived at all.  For example, "God gave them Judges, but the Israelites didn't listen.  God gave them Kings, but they kept on rebelling.  God gave them the Law, but they disobeyed.  They needed a Messiah to make things right.  (OK, I guess the law [with the illustration of stone tablets, presumably the Ten Commandments] should have come before the Kings, but it still works.)

Can there be too many ways to tell the story of the gospel?  Can a child hear too many stories about God's work among his people?  Maybe.  But DeYoung and Clark's book is a welcome addition to anyone's collection of story books.  What a great springboard to deeper spiritual understanding.

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Refugees and Migrants, by Ceri Roberts, illustrated by Hanane Kai

It's important for children to gain a good understanding of the world around them.  Ceri Roberts's Refugees and Migrants (Children in Our World), with illustrations by Hanane Kai, introduces children to the concept of families being forced to leave their homes by war, natural disaster, famine, or other circumstances.  Being a children's book, those circumstances are not described in much detail.  But Roberts adequately describes the pain and difficulty of leaving home with few possessions or money and trying to make one's way in a new place.

This book would be especially valuable for children who have neighbors or classmates arriving from elsewhere.  In my part of the world, we had a large influx of domestic refugees fleeing New Orleans after Katrina.  My children have also had classmates from a variety of countries in Asia and Africa, not to mention from Mexico and points south.  Refugees and Migrants will help children like mine, who have lived in the same house for virtually all of their lives, have some sympathy and understanding for their newly arrived classmates.

Roberts doesn't get political.  Immigration is a human phenomenon before it is political.  And she doesn't address the terrorism Europe, and the U.S. have experienced, directly or indirectly as a result of immigration.  Children who read this book are too young to learn about rape and other crimes that have risen in some immigrant communities.  They will learn about those things eventually.  For now, make new friends, learn about other cultures, and be kind to others no matter where they are from or how they got here.

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