Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Witness to a Trial, by John Grisham

You've got to hand it to John Grisham.  Of course anything he writes will be a runaway bestseller, but on top of the sales of his latest novel The Whistler, he will surely also sell millions of copies of the short story prequel Witness to a Trial.

It's not that this is bad writing.  It's not that there's something compelling about it.  It's a decent Grisham effort that builds some suspense.  You just need to know what to expect.  Witness to a Trial provides some background for and introduces some characters from The Whistler.  If you are planning to read The Whistler, Witness to a Trial is worth the time to read it.  But if you don't read, Witness you're not going to be missing much.  Further, Witness to a Trial is not a stand-alone story.

Bottom line: I can take it or leave it.  There are worse ways to spend 99 cents.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Poor No More, by Peter Cove

President Trump! HUD Secretary Carson!  Whoever else in the administration who needs to listen!  Get Peter Cove on the phone right now and put him in charge of everything having to do with entitlements, welfare, poverty, etc.  Cove's new book Poor No More: Rethinking Dependency and the War on Poverty changes the paradigm of poverty programs and seems to fit with the tone and priorities of the Trump administration.  More importantly, the ideas Cove writes about are proven to work--unlike many of the failed policies of several decades of the War on Poverty.

Cove is no right winger.  He started out like many in the 1960s with great ideals and a passion for helping the poor through government programs.  His influence reached to Clinton's welfare reform measures, as well as to Newt Gingrich and the Republicans.  His primary outlet now is a job placement program called America Works.

Cove's early experiences in the War on Poverty demonstrated to him that much poor support does not lead to a reduction of poverty.  "Though I began as a true believer in the War on Poverty, the more time I spent in the field, the more aware I became of just how miserably our efforts had failed."  He has come to the conclusion that the United States should "eliminate all welfare programs except those geared toward people who truly cannot work due to physical or mental problems. . . . We [should] scuttle all poverty programs, including everything from Head Start to Food Stamps."

The bottom line for Cove is this: replace dependency with work.  The best fix for poverty is work.  The "best way to get clients off welfare was to find them paid work immediately."  Simple cash transfers, job training programs, the disparagement of low-paid work, all have combined to actually make things worse for the poor.  The stigma of dependency has been erased.  "We have edged toward a moral cliff where the shame of being dependent on government aid has been replaced by a breezy bonhomie for entitlement."  Programs that should focus on "lifting individuals out of poverty" instead end up "making them more comfortable in poverty." 

Cove's experience with America Works, an employment agency that specializes in placing traditionally hard-to-serve populations in jobs while providing support and training, has demonstrated that a "work-first" approach has far better success than a job-training approach.  Cove proposes "support for work and if there are some social needs that must be met, they will be done in the context of a job, not as a handout for staying at home."  Part of his plan includes putting former welfare recipients to work on infrastructure jobs.  This is where Trump's campaign rhetoric can dovetail with the great needs of the nation's unemployed.  Trump!  Call Cove!  Work this out!  Republicans might object to the spending that an infrastructure jobs plan would require, but I would rather pay people to build roads and bridges than pay them to sit at home and collect a check!

Will this be easy?  No.  Will there be opposition?  Always.  But Cove has data on his side.  On a relatively small scale, he has the great success of America Works.  On a larger scale, he has the evidence from the 1996 welfare bill.  The work requirement directly led to the reduction of the welfare rolls.  The rolling back of the work requirement since then increased them.  Simple as that.

Is a work first plan insensitive to the poor?  No.  Work improves mental health and self-esteem.  It improves family life.  It improves community life.  It improves interpersonal relationships.  Most importantly, the culture of dependency that we have built has devastated poor families and communities.  Cove's ideas and plans are right, and their implementation can't come soon enough.

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

Sunday, January 29, 2017

It's All Absolutely Fine, by Ruby Elliot

Ruby Elliot has lived with depression, an eating disorder, bipolar disorder, and other struggles.  To cope, she draws.  She has shared her drawings and musings on the internet (rubyetc.tumblr.com), and now in an actual book, It's All Absolutely Fine: Life Is Complicated So I've Drawn It Instead.

Elliot's reflections on life are achingly honest.  She describes her feelings as a teen, just beginning to deal with depression:
No one wants to feel so desperate that they end up in a psychiatric ward being asked to rate their mood on a scale of 1-10 as they watch their laces being yanked out of their shoes and taken somewhere out of reach. But these were all things that happened to me because I was depressed.
For other young women who are struggling with some of the same issues, It's All Absolutely Fine will be therapeutic and empowering.  Elliot wants the reader to recognize that depression isn't just a matter of being in a bad mood, bipolar isn't just mood swings, and you can't tell by looking that someone has an eating disorder.

The odd thing about the book is how hilarious she is when writing about some pretty grim experiences and feelings.  Mental health is complex and, for some people, very fragile.  Elliot's work is entertaining for anyone, whether or not one struggles with mental health issues.  But more than that, I think it can be therapeutic for those who are depressed, bipolar, have body image problems, are self-destructive, deal with anxiety, etc., especially if they are women in the teen-to-twenty-something demographic.

Elliot succinctly describes her battle:
I forget that I'm a capable human who just happens to have a very thinky brain, and see myself instead as this awful, ineffectual lump of idiot. It's a very horrible and isolating place to find myself. And like all these things, it's an uphill battle developing insight into what's going on and in trusting that insight enough to harness it positively.
She has harnessed her self-awareness positively for the great benefit of her readers--as well as for a few laughs!  Carry on, Ms. Elliot.  You're doing great work.

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

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Scholarship Game, by Luke Arnce

Luke Arnce is attending Emory University on a full-ride scholarship, so he obviously knows something about getting into and earning a scholarship for one of the top universities in the U.S.  He has written a book to share the wealth of his knowledge with aspiring scholars: The Scholarship Game: A No-Fluff Guide to Making College Affordable.

My son is a high school senior, so we've been down this track together.  I was interested to read what Arnce might have to contribute.  Perhaps my other son, who is now a sophomore in  can benefit. . . .  First of all, the majority of The Scholarship Game is focused on the application and college selection process.  It's useful, but not terribly original.  If a student has not read something like this, Arnce's book would be a good place to start.

The balance of the book addresses the school-based scholarship selection process that centers on a weekend visit.  Arnce gives some tips for the weekend, especially the interviews that occur during the weekend.  Again, useful if not terribly insightful information.  The problem is, in our experience the kids who are invited to these scholarship weekends are already top candidates vying for scholarships, some at a variety of schools.  If you are not in the highest sliver of your high school class, and didn't score near-perfect scores on the ACT or SAT, don't be surprised if you are not invited to these weekends.

That's the bottom line of Arnce's book.  One might easily be left with the impression that if you're not in that highest echelon of college-bound students, you are out of luck.  Yes, it's a game.  But the reality is, lots more kids can play than the kids for whom Arnce writes.  There are plenty of better books out there, I'm sure, that cover the pursuit of scholarships for a wider slice of students.

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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

One Pulse: Cradle 2 Grave, by Tetiana Aleksina and Tony Single

Tetiana Aleksina and Tony Single have swapped poems and compiled them in a little book: One Pulse: Cradle 2 Grave.  The poems are surreal and dark.  If you aren't sure what the tone of the poems is, the illustrations throughout will tip you off.  Scattered through the book are simple pen and ink drawings of the grim reaper.  He might be playing the bongos, posing for a picture (giving rabbit ears to the person next to him), or painting graffiti while smoking a cigarette.  While the focus is the text, these pictures illustrate the light-hearted yet morose feeling of the collection.

I enjoyed the interplay between the two authors, as they explored related themes and even echoed each other in the poems.  Here are a couple of examples of some lines that struck me:

"The red Sun sinks in the sea.
The blue Moon changes its regular phase.
Life's carousel spins . . . not with me."

"let me fly now, let me fly
a host of angels by my side
my end's nigh now, my end's nigh
soon to see times other side"

Unlike much contemporary poetry, Aleksina and Single's work doesn't completely jettison things like rhyme and meter; I found that refreshing.  But they are not married to it.  Sometimes the words just flow.  Poetry fans, especially those with gloomier tastes, will enjoy this collection.

Thanks to the authors for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Adoption at the Movies, by Addison Cooper

Lots of people have questions about adoption: parents, adopted kids, their friends, their extended families, people considering adoption, and strangers.  Addison Cooper has a suggestion for delving into those questions.  Have a movie night!  In Adoption at the Movies: A Year of Adoption-Friendly Movie Nights to Get Your Family Talking, Cooper reviews 63 movies that can spark a conversation about adoption.

Cooper wants families to "move from Secrecy into Confidentiality and from Silence into Conversation" when talking about adoption.  Discretion and proper timing are called for, especially when talking to children about adoption, but secrecy and silence aren't healthy.  Some of the movies Cooper discusses will suggest just the right starting point to work toward productive conversations.

The movies he has selected represent a broad range, from kid-friendly cartoons, teen-friendly sci-fi, to dramas and documentaries for adults.  Many of them are not about adoption at all, but cover themes and family dynamics to which adoptive families can relate.  Cooper includes handy indexes to help the reader quickly find movies according to age group and topic discussed.  I like Cooper's selections.  So many of the movies are clearly adoption stories, but I hadn't really thought about them as such, since they involve humans adopted by animals (Jungle Book, Tarzan), or vice versa (Paddington), or aliens (Superman, Lilo and Stitch).  Other movies he reviews have more to do with acceptance and family belonging.  Nevertheless, the lessons are there, and using this lens of adoption will certainly change the way you look at relationships in the movies.

Each review summarizes the plot (most with spoilers, just so you know), connects the movie to adoption, and mentions some strengths and challenges.  The most useful portion is a set of questions you might use to draw out some conversation about adoption, and, in some cases, a suggested family activity.  Updated reviews will be added to the Adoption at the Movies web site, http://www.adoptionlcsw.com.  Adoption at the Movies is a handy resource and a neat guide to get us thinking about adoption in the movies and in our own lives.

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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Mooreeffoc, by Tetiana Aleksina

The first question I had before reading Tetiana Aleksina's Mooreeffoc was "What's the deal with this title?"  Coffee room backwards?  The last question I had after reading it was "What's the deal with this story?"

Cats.  Channeling their experiences.  Contemptuous of their keepers.  Talking.  Drinking coffee.  Nothing really happens, a series of impressions.

I can't really say whether this is great literature or not.  The good news: it's super short.  So you can either a) be pleased that you didn't spend a lot of time reading it, or b) read it again and again. 

If you're looking for a narrative short story, keep looking.  If you're looking for a sort of hallucinogenic text stream that might make more sense after a few readings, Mooreeffoc might be right up your alley.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Storm, by Jim Cymbala

Jim Cymbala has built a tremendously successful ministry at one of the most famous churches in the United States, The Brooklyn Tabernacle.  His latest book, Storm: Hearing Jesus for the Times We Live In, calls on the church to turn to Jesus and prepare for darker days and challenges that loom.  Cymbala has long been a solid, biblical, orthodox preacher and teacher.  Storm continues this tradition, offering heartfelt and practical guidance.

The themes of Storm are pretty basic.  He calls us to pray, pointing out that churches tend to talk about prayer, and offer moments of prayer, but rarely spend extended time in prayer.  He calls us to rely on the Holy Spirit more than on teaching or methodology.  He is not too impressed with the church growth movement.  He writes, "In the last twenty years there have been more conferences and more books published on church growth than in all the prior history of our country.  As new models of how to grow your church have increased in popularity, we have actually witnessed a precipitous decline of Christianity in America."  Why the lack of fruit?  We are missing a focus on scripture and living sacrificially for Jesus.

Similarly, he is not impressed with so-called Christian political movements.  "Where has political activism with an increasing exclusion of prayer over the last twenty-five years brought us?  Have we seen America move toward God?  Have we seen the Christian church draw closer to God?"  The implied answer is no, of course not.

One thing I loved about Storm was the inclusion of several stories about Brooklyn Tabernacle members whose lives have been transformed as a result of their encounter with Jesus.  Cymbala is all about Jesus, about prayer, about relying on Jesus, and seeing lives transformed.  It's a joy to read these testimonies and to hear Cymbala's heart to reach the lost.

Cymbala does have a habit, at least in parts of Storm, of building up straw men to tear down.  For instance, he describes different church models that miss the mark, such as "The Entertainment Church," "Relevant Church," "Corporate Church," "Latest Faith-Fad Church," or "Radical Church."  He doesn't name names, but he sure points fingers.  It's likely that your church fits one or more of his descriptions.  I agree that some of the features he describes in these categories have little to do with biblical Christianity.  But by creating the caricatures he does, he misses the value that these models offer.  I would bet that we can find plenty of churches that fit each general category, yet are trusting and following God and doing amazing work for the Kingdom.

Later on he writes that "pure and simple gospel of God's love and grace has been discarded . . . or diluted."  His examples: "Join Our Church Gospel," "Special Denomination Gospel," "Pentecostals and Charismatics," "Famous Pastor/Teacher Gospel," "White American Cultural Gospel," "Conservative Political Gospel," and "Black and Latino Gospel."  If you are part of a church somewhere, you can probably find yourself in his list.  Again, abuses or distortion of the gospel message can be found in churches around the world, and we need prophetic voices like Cymbala's to turn our hearts to Jesus.  But Cymbala's tone seemed judgmental and ungracious.  He doesn't name names, but he might as well. 

Cymbala's overall message is great, spot-on for the American church.  I especially appreciated his call to genuine prayer, and a reminder to make prayer a central part of our churches' gatherings.  But my enthusiasm for his message was weakened a bit by his straw man attacks.

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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Surf's Up, by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Daniel Miyares

It's a beautiful day, the surf's up, and Dude wants Bro to come surfing.  In Kwame Alexander's Surf's Up, the two frogs head to the beach together, but Bro wants to finish reading his book.  Dude thinks reading sounds boring, but the more Bro tells him about the story, Dude gets drawn in.  Eventually, Dude picks up the book himself.

Alexander's text and Daniel Miyares's fun, colorful illustrations weave Dude and Bro's trip to the beach together with the story Bro is reading, about a hunt for a great whale.  (Clearly Bro is reading Moby Dick.)  I love the way Alexander embraces both the joy of reading and the fun of being outside and active.  Reading can be an adventure!

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

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Better Story, by Glynn Harrison

Why has our culture accepted and embraced gay marriage and homosexuality so enthusiastically over the last decade?  It's because they tell a better story.  Glynn Harrison argues that if Christians who believe in traditional marriage and a sexual ethic that is consistent with historical Christian teaching want their message to prevail, they must begin telling a better story.  In A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing, he says that because of the sexual revolution which began in the mid-twentieth century, "Christians whose views once occupied the mainstream of public morality suddenly feel weird.  It's worse than that: they feel guilty."  So true.  Just try to defend traditional marriage in any public forum and you'll be instantly skewered.  A few short years ago, political candidates vehemently defended traditional marriage; now if they do so, they're called bigots.

Harrison identifies the rise of individualism as the key culprit in bringing about this cultural change, a "shift away from 'general principles' to individualistic moral reasoning."  Meanwhile, "Evangelicals have been caught napping by the scale and speed of cultural change in this area."  Evangelicals' responses have been primarily argumentation and condemnation, while "years of watching TV and movies have captured hearts and emptied minds."  Harrison writes, "the introduction of gay marriage in the UK arguable owes more to programmes like Will and Grace than careful rational argument."

The sexual revolution was not all bad: "It is forcing us to acknowledge the poverty of our body-denying pastoral theology."  Christians should recognize that the sexual union is an "anticipation of an even deeper with the Divine."  The passion feelings we experience "show us the passionate nature of God's love."  Rather than focusing on the negative consequences of sex outside of God's plan, "if we want to win hearts and minds with a truly biblical vision of sex and relationships, we need to recover the positive biblical promise of flourishing, too."  The two basic human communities--the family and the church--should both support and be supported by our healthy sexuality and relationships.

Harrison's arguments are well-crafted and heart-felt.  He not only stands firmly on the side of a traditional Christian view of sex as reserved for an act of marriage between one man and one woman, but he does so in a positive, life-giving way.  However, by the end of the book I still felt like I did not have a great answer for those who want to follow Jesus while in a same-sex relationship.  He even seems to leave to door open for acceptance of non-traditional families.  He draws a parallel to missionaries who welcomed into fellowship polygamous converts, allowing for the continuation of polygamous relationships.  I honestly don't know how to address those in same-sex relationships who become Christians.  Is it better to break up their marriage?  What if they have children?  Like everyone else from every background, the only place to start is to offer grace and love of Jesus.  Harrison's book gets us pointed in the direction of a better story, but there is much work to be done.

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

For the Glory, by Duncan Hamilton

If you've seen the wonderful movie Chariots of Fire, you know about Eric Liddell, the Olympic sprinter from Scotland.  But if that's all you know about Liddell, you're missing the rest of the story.  In For the Glory: Eric Liddell's Jour from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr, Duncan Hamilton tells Liddell's full story.

The first third or so of For the Glory covers Liddell's early life, university days, and his running career.  Hamilton refers to the movie several times, pointing out the occasional differences between film and reality.  Hamilton does not minimize Liddell's sacrifice not to run the 100 meters at the 1924 Paris Olympics, which he skipped because the trials were on a Sunday, but he does correct the record, which is a bit different from what is portrayed in Chariots of Fire.

Where For the Glory really earns attention is Hamilton's description of Liddell's life after the 1924 Olympics.  He raced for a bit after Paris, but by 1925 he was on his way back to China, the country of his birth, where his parents had been missionaries.  Liddell taught school, taught Sunday School, and preached.  In 1934 he married the daughter of Canadian missionaries.

Conditions for missionaries and other expatriates became more dicey and complicated after the Japanese occupation of China.  Liddell sent his family away to Canada while he made the heart-wrenching decision to stay in China.  Ultimately, the Japanese interned him and many other non-Chinese in a large camp, where he lived out his years.  He died there of a brain tumor shortly before the end of the war.

Hamilton emphasizes both Liddell's spiritual legacy and his legacy of service.  Liddell longed to know God and help others know him.  He wrote a book on spiritual disciplines that is still available today.  On prayer, he wrote that Christians should always have a designated time of prayer in the day. He was known in the internment camp to be up earlier than anyone each morning, spending time in prayer.  He wrote, "Anyone who, neglecting that fixed hour of prayer, [will] say he can pray at all times but will probably end in praying at no time."

Certainly one would be hard-pressed to question Liddell's commitment to service, given his choice to live and serve in China.  But during his time in the internment camp, that commitment became widely known.  All around the camp he was known as a tireless worker, a peace maker, an honorary uncle to the youth of the camp, one who truly led by his service.  When he passed away, the whole camp mourned for days.

Hamilton sums up Liddell's legacy like this: "Valorous lives like his--which must be calculated in terms of value rather than length--encourage us to make our own lives better somehow.  In his case that's because everything he did was selfless, each kind act bespoke for someone else's benefit."  Liddell saw his Olympic fame as a means by which God gave him opportunities to service.  His eyes were always on a higher prize; he knew that "the glory of gold was nothing in this world compared to the glory of God."

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

First Deer, by Brian Gasiorowski, illustrated by Thomas Hilley

For a young hunter, there is no better memory than getting your first deer.  In First Deer, Brian Gasiorowski captures the joy and community of deer hunting.  Thirteen-year-old Joe has grown up around hunting, but this year's hunt will be extra special for Joe.

Gasiorowski builds up the anticipation as Joe watches the signs of the season leading up to hunting season.  We read about Joe's life on a farm in Tabernacle, New Jersey, see him interact with the friends and relatives who prepare for and gather for the hunt, and pray with him as he asks God for help getting a deer.  Thomas Hilley's illustrations look great and add a lot to each chapter.

First Deer centers around the deer drive.  Unlike hunters who sit in a deer blind or tree stand, waiting for deer to come by, in a deer drive one group of hunters walks through the woods driving the deer toward a second group of hunters who are poised to shoot.  The deer drive a hunting style full of tradition and community.  Gasiorowski's detailed play-by-play gives a great feel for what a deer drive hunt is like.  Joe is thrilled to be a part of the hunt, a rite of passage to manhood for him, topped off by shooting his first dear.

First Deer is the first book in Gasiorowski's "Sticker Burr Outdoors" series, which Gasiorowski is writing for boys to "learn about outdoor life while being molded into men of character."  These entertaining and highly readable books are suitable for mid-elementary kids up to teens.  Parents will be pleased with the positive tone and the wholesome values the characters exemplify.  At the end of the book, he includes "Ten Commandments for Sticker Burr Boys."  For more information about the series, and about Sticker Burr Outdoors clothing and gear, go to stickerburroutdoors.com.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary review copy!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Grumpy Cat: Grumpus, by Ben McCool, et al.

You may have seen Grumpy Cat memes on Facebook or elsewhere on the internet.  You may not know (as I didn't) the back story.  Introduced to the world by her owner in 2012, her uniquely grumpy face became an internet sensation.  She has made media appearances and is featured on calendars, clothing, books, and the subject of this review, a comic book.

Grumpy Cat: Grumpus is a collection of seven comics featuring Grumpy Cat and her little brother Pokey.  They live a typical cat's life, and have typical cat adventures.  Of course, the atypical adventures are the more memorable ones.  The flea circus manager recruits Grumpy Cat to join the circus as a sideshow attraction, the world's grumpiest cat.  The humans all disappear and the cats decide in their post apocalyptic lifestyle that humans are pretty useful after all.  (It was only a nightmare, though.)  A grumpy cat is conned into being Santa's cat-elf and turns into the evil Grumpus.  A magical lamp opens up all kinds of possibilities for the cats' imaginations.

The stories are somewhat clever.  The art is somewhat attractive.  But the whole project seems sort of unnecessary, like maybe the memes were the extent of the humor that one cat can produce.  I can't blame the purveyors of all things Grumpy Cat for capitalizing on her sure-to-be-short-lived fame.  Kids who like animal comics and Grumpy Cat's internet fandom will enjoy these comics.

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

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Trump Survival Guide, by Gene Stone

The overblown reactions to Trump's election victory have been remarkable and amusing to watch.  The weeping and wailing, the scare-mongering, and the plans--by the press, elected officials, and activists--to work against Trump's agenda are, in my my memory, completely unprecedented in American politics.  Sure, there have been unhappy losers, but the intensity of the reactions to Hillary Clinton's electoral loss beats them all.

Gene Stone has written a guide to help those who want to respond to and work against Trump and his agenda.  The Trump Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know about Living Through What You Hoped Would Never Happen covers twelve policy areas.  Each chapter is laid out something like this:
  1. Historical background of a particular policy, with emphasis on how George W. Bush and the evil Republicans tried to block progress and screw up America.
  2. The many ways that President Saint Barak Obama, the Holy and Infallible, worked to make the United States and the World better by his many unassailable works and pronouncements.
  3. The many ways that the evil usurper President Donald Trump will assail human rights, good governance, and common decency, overturning Saint Obama's good works and dragging the United States to oblivion.
  4. Ways that you, the citizen, can work to preserve sanity and work toward good policy even under the reign of Trump.
Obviously, I am exaggerating.  In case you couldn't see through my subtle elocution, Stone and I don't see eye-to-eye in evaluating the Obama legacy and the prospects of the Trump presidency.  You can certainly figure out from the title that Stone's agenda is quite liberal.  So it's not surprising that his policy proposals and suggestions for action are all quite liberal, and that he does not leave any opening for opposing views.  An objective analysis this Survival Guide is not.  I say this as observation, not criticism; partisanship has its place.

As much as I disagree with Stone's policy positions, I do have to give him some props.  The introductory background portion of each chapter is actually pretty decent.  He gives a quick nutshell, something like a Wikipedia overview.  Also, Stone's calls to action are very reasonable.  He lists some organizations to support, books to read, and offers a few practical suggestions for action.  But nowhere does he say march in the streets, block highways, chain yourself to a desk, or any other obnoxious "activism."  (Although I suppose some of the organizations he lists have been known to do such things.)  His assessment of Obama's presidency, unsurprisingly, is overly generous, and his predictions of the Trump presidency overly critical.  He talks about the "horrific possibilities" of the Trump presidency, but does call for us "to be disciplined and try to confine our attention to [Trump's] actions."

The Trump Survival Guide was not as ridiculous as I thought it might be when I picked it up.  Some keys to survival will be to realize that, like all politicians, campaign rhetoric is toned down to more accommodating positions once someone is elected to office, and once in office, a president's agenda has to go through many filters.  As Stone says, "most of Trump's drastic plans, if he chooses to implement them, will not be easy to accomplish."  His closing advice is worth heeding, no matter whether you're on the left or right: "Appoint yourself the ambassador for the America you believe in." Amen to that!

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Talking Back, Talking Black, by John McWhorter

A white person could not write this book.  If a white person said some of what John McWhorter says in Talking Back, Talking Black: Truth's About America's Lingua Franca, he would be labeled a racist.  But McWhorter, a linguist who teaches at Columbia University, can say these things.  He writes frankly about the use of Black English, calling on Americans to recognize its legitimacy.

When the national press got a hold of a story about Oakland public schools teaching "ebonics," McWhorter was teaching at nearby Berkeley.  He became the go-to linguist for interviews.  His goal then and now is to get people to understand that "black Americans' colloquial English is not a degradation of English but one of many variations upon English."  Many other people groups around the world speak differently at home and in the marketplace, school, or business.  Black Americans' vernacular language is just as legitimate as any other.

Most white people, and in fact many black people, find fault with McWhorter's stance.  But, he argues, Black English is not just bad English, or "a series of exceptions to using Standard English rules."  Black English has rules and structures of its own.  Further, to say that someone sounds black shouldn't be viewed as racist, but acknowledging reality.  "There should be no guilt in squarely attesting to the fact that there is such as thing as a black-sounding voice."

Ultimately, McWhorter wants "to help the reader actually hear Black English in a new way, to hear it as an alternative kind of English rather than as bad grammar and a lively slang. . . . It is spoken alongside Standard English, not in opposition to it."  McWhorter makes a good argument, but it's tough to get past the question of racism.  The reason it's not considered OK to "sound black" is that the implication is that the sound is inferior to white (or many other nationalities) sound.  The reason man black people do not want to be considered speakers of Black English is a desire not to seem uneducated, uncultured, or underclass.  It's racism. 

I am interested to hear from my black friends what they things of McWhorter's arguments.  But even to raise the question seems racist.  McWhorter himself points out that his black peers--Ivy Leaguers, professionals, educated and cultured all--"sound black" and even those that deny using Black English can be heard slipping into it every now and then.  So maybe, just maybe, he can break down some of the resistance to talking about the obvious. 

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

The 10 Cent War, ed. Trischa Goodnow and James Kimble

When the United States went to war against Germany and Japan, the whole country stood behind the armed forces.  Joining the cause and promoting the interests of the U.S. were the comic books.  In The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda, and World War II, editors Trischa Goodnow and James Kimble have gathered a collection of articles which discuss the role of comic books in backing the war.  The comic book industry had grown tremendously in the years before the war.  Comics became a natural vehicle for propaganda during the war.

Comic books didn't have any trouble rallying against Hitler.  Since many leading figures in comic book publishing were Jewish, they naturally raised their voices against the Nazis.  They naturally rallied to the cause of the war, even without control or connection to the government or military.  "The unofficial campaign was as vigilant and patriotic as any government-sponsored poster. . . ."  Comic books even beat official U.S. policy to the punch so to speak:  "Months before the nation officially entered the war, the cover of the first volume of Captain America showed Steve Rogers (Captain America's alter ego) punching Adolf Hitler."

Several of the authors pointed out that typical comic books from the era were "often violent, overly polarized, frequently repetitive, invariable sexist, occasionally distorted, and routinely racist."  Well, yeah.  None of this seems surprising.  It's actually sort of refreshing.  Today's comics tend toward more political correctness than relishing in the black and white nature of comic book conflict.  Sure, WW2-era comics exaggerated racial stereotypes of the Japanese and Germans, but hey, they were the enemy.  Thus, propaganda.

These essays, written by a variety of academics, read much more like academic papers than like anything written for a general audience.  They tend to be rather ponderous and jargon-filled.  Not to sound like an illiterate boob, but the analytical language tended to sap the fun and wonder out of the subject matter.  Including more examples of the comics would have helped.  Even better, they should work on an anthology of exemplary propaganda comics from the era.  Even without an accompanying volume of war comics, the descriptions and analysis of the comics in The 10 Cent War inspired me to hunt down some of these now-classic comics and read them with the context of the war in mind.

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

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, by Damian Duffy

Perhaps you have read Octavia Butler's 1979 novel Kindred.  If you haven't you should!  Butler tells the story of an African-American woman who is mysteriously and repeatedly transported to the antebellum south.  When a white boy who turns out to be an ancestor of hers is in danger, she is whisked through time to assist him.  Her life becomes tumultuous because she can't predict when she will be taken.

Damian Duffy has adapted Kindred as a graphic novel, with a satisfying result.  It's been long enough since I read Kindred that I can't tell you if Duffy is faithful to the original in all the details.  In the spirit and story of it, though, he certainly is faithful to Butler's work.  The art makes it more graphic--well, it is a graphic novel--so that the disturbing content of the novel is brought colorfully to life.

Both Kindred and Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation are worth your time.  The story is a stark reminder of the not-so-distant past of slavery, and the heroic lives many slaves led in order to protect their children and their future.

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

Friday, January 6, 2017

#Struggles, by Craig Groeschel

Here's a bit of irony for you.  Craig Groeschel is pastor of Lifechurch.tv, one of the most technologically innovative churches in the U.S.  They created the most popular Bible app for mobile devices.  They have services you can attend virtually as an avatar.  Groeschel's messages are broadcast to satellite churches around the country.  The irony: Groeschel's new book, #Struggles: Following Jesus in a Selfie-Centered World, is about resisting the control social media can have on your life, and seeking Jesus above all.

Far from being a condemnation of social media or mobile devices, #Struggles is about balance and perspective.  Groeschel writes, "Post, tweet, click, snap, text, chat, comment, and enjoy it all.  But do it all out of the overflow of your love for God and love for people.  Use technology, but don't let it overtake your life.  Enjoy the benefits of technology, but don't let it define you."

Some of Groeshel's big concerns are self-image, comparisons, and human interaction.  Facebook and similar platforms can breed unhealthy comparisons and terrible self-image issues, like the kid who spent hours each day trying to get a perfect selfie and committing suicide when he couldn't take one with which he was satisfied.  Closer to home, our social media feeds show our friends' and acquaintances' fabulous vacations, happy families, and perfect children, and we feel inadequate.  If we're not careful, we can fall into envy, "resenting God's goodness in other people's lives and ignoring God's goodness in your own life." 

We can also become detached from real relationships, or at least become convinced that our interactions on social media are substitutes for actual relationships.  Groeschel has some great quotes for this:
"We must focus on loving others more and truly interacting with them, rather than just Liking what they post." 
"Life is not about how many Likes you get.  It is all about how much love you show."
"Clicking doesn't change anything.  Caring is not Liking a post; it's loving a person."
"Everything you say should be true, but not everything that's true should be said."
 Groeschel insights are on target, and says all the right things about valuing relationships, about letting our online interactions be governed by the same rules of civility we use in face-to-face interactions, and about not allowing our electronics to overtake our lives.  Many readers will read with detachment, as his examples frequently lean toward extreme levels of addiction.  But anyone who uses social media can relate to the overall message.  I got the feeling that Groeschel was writing to himself more than anyone else.  Based on the stories he tells, it seems he is frequently drawn deep into the vortex of domination by electronics.  I appreciated his honesty, and value his insights.  Now put down your device and spend some time with Jesus and the people you love.

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

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Gift of Enough, by Marianne Miller

Marianne Miller, a Crown Financial Ministries counselor, has heard plenty of stories from her clients who have substantial incomes but who never seem to have enough money.  In The Gift of Enough: Raising Grateful Kids in a Culture of Excess, Miller describes some of the principles she and her husband have tried to instill in her family so that they avoid the financial traps so many fall into.

The Gift of Enough is first of all a very personal book.  Miller tells story after story of her experiences raising her boys.  She has learned lessons and made mistakes, but has shown a great deal of consistency that has paid off at every stage.  Parents would do well to follow her example in talking to their children about money and in modelling good habits.

In terms of application, Miller's suggestions are practical and doable.  Like many books in the genre, she seems to be much more concerned with preventative rather than restorative solutions.  For someone whose kids are older, or who has traveled a ways down the road of poor financial decisions, this book may induce more groans of regret than plans to move forward.

While the focus of The Gift of Enough is on finances, it's really much more broad than than.  Miller addresses attitudes, family life, parenting, time management, and more.  It is challenging, and perhaps convicting, without condemning or shaming.  Pick it up and let Miller help you whip your own financial life--and the financial and life habits you are modelling and teaching your children--into shape.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary review copy!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Closer Than Close, by Dave Hickman

Have you ever spoken to someone, or read someone's book, who has had a profound revelation that changed his life, but when he tried to tell you all about it, he just didn't connect with you?  That's how I felt reading Dave Hickman's Closer Than Close: Awakening to the Freedom of Your Union with Christ.  Hickman writes biographically, recounting his own experiences, with which many Christians can relate.  Hickman became a Christian as a boy, remained faithful and committed to church and to Jesus, but as a young adult began questioning whether there is more to the Christian life than what he has experienced.

The crucial point of revelation was when he began to shift from thinking about a relationship with Jesus to thinking about union with Jesus.  It's true, this is a very important distinction.  He writes, "Becoming conscious of our union with Christ is imperative for a full understanding of God, self, salvation, and the depths of God's eternal love and acceptance."  Throughout the Bible, and in the church fathers, we read continually about Christ in us.  The sacrament of communion illustrates Jesus' entering into us.

This simple point revolutionized Hickman's Christian life, and he wants it to revolutionize mine, too.  I'm not saying I've mastered the concept and understanding that Jesus lives in me, but as long as I can remember I have understood that Jesus wants to live in me, that I should as him into my heart.  I remember the Four Spiritual Laws, which challenged me to allow Jesus to sit on the throne of my heart.  Hickman would make a distinction between Jesus living in my heart and union with Jesus, but to me the implications are virtually the same.

I'm not saying Hickman doesn't make some good points or teach some good, practical theology.  He does!  I liked his chapter on spiritual disciplines.  He emphasizes doing nothing--just abiding with Christ.  If we're doing nothing, then we can give all glory to God and avoid thinking we are doing something to earn his presence.  Similarly, our prayers should be simple.  We might get caught up in praying the right things, but "prayer is more about who we are praying to than what we are saying. It's about trusting in who God is rather than trying to convince God with our many words."

Hickman offers some valuable insights, but my entire reading experience was a bit tainted by what I viewed as his overstatement of the profundity and revelatory nature of the book.  So, temper your expectations after the first few pages and you'll enjoy the book.

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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Whose Poop is That? by Darrin Lunde, illustrated by Kelsey Oseid

Happy New Year!

Have you ever been walking in the woods and wondered, "Whose poop is that?"  Darrin Lunde can help.  In Whose Poop is That? he give examples of several animals' poop, beautifully illustrated (ok, not really beautiful. . . . It is poop, after all.) by Kelsey Oseid.

It's short, it's simple, but it does introduce the rather interesting concept of the role of poop in nature.  Lunde helpfully advises the reader, however, "You should never touch poop."  Because some kids need to be told that.

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