Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Course of Love: A Novel, by Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton has shown tremendous insight into culture and the human condition in his previous work. In his new novel The Course of Love, he follows a couple through their courtship, marriage, and parenthood, offering insight and reflection along the way. 

Falling in love, as most people can attest, is easier than staying in love. De Botton writes, "Our understanding of love has been hijacked and beguiled by its first distracting early moments. . . . We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue."  The real life story happens after all those initial feelings fade. 

De Botton's guidance isn't necessarily traditional. As he describes a more libertine view of sexual faithfulness, he suggests that while a tendency toward sexual exploration is still a minority position, he nonjudgmentally offers it as an option. Nevertheless, the husband in the story harbors guilt, if not regret, for a one-night stand while on a business trip. 

In spite of de Botton's moral ambiguity, The Course of Love is full of passages that anyone who has fallen in love and married will relate to and maybe even be moved and inspired by. 

Love is a progressive experience. The fact is that both partners in a relationship will continue to grow and change. Thus, "Compatibility is an achievement of love. It shouldn't be its precondition."  As a marriage--and a family--grows, the couple will come to recognize that "Perfect happiness comes in tiny incremental units only, perhaps no more than five minutes at a time. This is what one has to take with both hands and cherish."

Love is precious and valuable. As far as novels go, The Course of Love isn't much to read. It's more of a collection of essays centered on stages in a fictional couple's life.  With the wisdom and insight he imparts, De Botton will certainly inspire lovers old and young to reflect on and treasure the love that they share. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

My Father, Maker of the Trees, by Eric Irivuzumugabe

Eric Irivuzumugabe endured experiences in his childhood that most Westerners could not imagine even in a nightmare. In My Father, Maker of the Trees: How I Survived the Rwandan Genocide, Eric writes of his enduring the short-lived reign of terror by the Hutus in Rwanda and the ravaged the country to eradicate the Tutsi "cockroaches."  

Readers may be familiar with the fact that  the division between the two tribes was not historically an issue, until Belgian colonial leaders superimposed the distinction on them as a means of control. They designated the Hutus as the ruling tribe, despite their smaller numbers, to help maintain control over the Tutsis.  After colonialization ended, the distinction remained. For the most part, the two tribes lived side by side, even intermarrying. But on three occasions, the Hutus acted genocidally. The third, in which Eric lost his family, was the most widespread and devastating. Eric's first-hand account is horrific and sobering. His perspective as a child enduring these events is invaluable. 

Besides the historical value of his account, I found his attitude of faith and forgiveness to be inspiring. His willingness and passion to forgive the Tutsis who murdered his family and tens of thousands more exceeds my understanding. Most of us will never be faced with the choice to offer forgiveness in similar circumstances, but we can learn from his example. As he hid from the marauding bands of Tutsis, he knew the maker of the trees in which he sat had a larger plan and purpose for his life. May we all find faith in and reliance on our Heavenly Father as he did. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

50 Wacky Inventions Throughout History, by Joe Rhatigan

I have to admit, some of the inventions in Joe Rhatigan's 50 Wacky Inventions Throughout History are pretty wacky.  As the title suggests, Rhatigan describes "weird inventions that seem too crazy to be real," accompanied by cartoonish illustrations by Celeste Aires.  I don't believe any of the inventions here will inspire you to pull out your credit card.  But some of them are just likely enough to make you think it could work. . . .

A drone you can actually ride on?  Not bad.  An alarm clock that shakes your bed until you get up, or one that rolls all over the room before you chase it down and turn it off?  Heaven knows there are some mornings when drastic measures are called for!  A power converter to power the TV from a stationary bike?  My kids wouldn't have a weight problem in we had one of those at my house.

Some of these make you wonder, What was that inventor thinking?  A nose-mounted stylus for your iPad?  No, thank you.  An alarm to notify parents of their child's dirty diaper?  Seems unnecessary.  A hat on which you can mount toilet paper for those days when you have a runny nose?  Too odd to be useful.  A powered pogo stick, bouncy boots, or a body-mounted bicycle?  Have someone nearby with the engine running, ready to take you to the emergency room.

I wish 50 Wacky Inventions would have drawn more distinctions between things that were never made, things that were made but never really sold, and things that actually went on the market.  Also, as entertaining and colorful as Aires's illustrations are, it would have been interesting to include a few photographs of the actual inventions (the ones that were made anyway.)  All that said, this is a fun book, sure to get some laughs as you look at the things people come up with.  Maybe, just maybe, it will inspire young readers to come up with inventions of their own, wacky or not!

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Long Run, by Catriona Menzies-Pike

Catriona Menzies-Pike loves to run.  She hasn't always. . . . In her memoir The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion she tells her story of transition from a typical club-hopping, self-absorbed 20-something academic into a committed recreational runner.  I think a lot of runners will be able to relate to her and her transition.  She readily admits that she's not particularly athletic, and that she'll never be a fast finisher.  Like many runners, especially those of us who start running when we are past our physical prime, Menzies-Pike celebrates the joys of running, of training, and of sometimes participating in those festivals of running surrounding a marathon or half-marathon.

Menzies-Pike doesn't spend a lot of time in The Long Run talking about gear, training plans, diet, or race strategy.  In fact, she leaves the reader with the impression that she doesn't spend much time thinking about such things when she runs or races.  I can relate to that!  Just run!

What she does spend a lot of time talking about is the history of running for women.  She writes about the irrational prohibitions against women competing in running races, and the barriers they have faced along the way.  In today's atmosphere of equality, it's hard to imagine that women didn't compete in the marathon at the Olympics until 1984, and it hasn't been that long ago that women were prevented from entering the Boston and New York Marathons.

The perception of women still bothers Menzies-Pike.  The fact that her body is openly evaluated for its running fitness, that women are judged by their running attire, that women are sexualized in running all point to the sexism of society.  I appreciated her historical analysis; we can certainly celebrate the progress that has been made.  However, her strident feminism turned my off.  She views everything through the lens of gender discrimination.  She comes across unnecessarily as a bitter feminist.  (I know, I'm a male, of course I represent the patriarchy against which she has struggled these many decades. . . .)

My measure for books about running is, After reading, do I want to get out and run?  With The Long Run, the answer is no.  Her feminism aside, the whole book is really a downer.  She redeems herself a bit at the end with some passages about enjoying running for running's sake, but overall, I just didn't enjoy it, nor was I inspired to run.

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow has a brilliant and insightful view of the future.  His new novel Walkaway echos some of the themes from his prior novels--maker culture, wide-spread net technology and accompanying surveillance, growing disparities between cultural strata--while creating a future history that might be believable.

In this near-future North America, many people have chosen to become walkaways, turning their backs on default society, living in open and deserted land, creating communal living communities.  It's a culture of abundance, where needs can be met by manufacturing plants and 3D printers fed by scavenged raw materials.  The economy of the walkaways relies on gifts, plenty, and voluntary participation.

Doctorow makes some interesting economic and philosophical points about capitalism, meritocracy, and society.  When the daughter of a very wealthy family decides to walkaway and embraces the walkaway culture, the flip sides of society come into contact and inevitable conflict.  Their family squabble becomes emblematic of and central to a larger global conflict. 

With Doctorow's style and thoughtfulness, there was enough in Walkaway to keep me interested and reading.  But overall, I didn't love the story.  The motives and actions of the big war against the walkaways were not compelling to me.  The manufacturing tech was contrived.  The explicit sex scenes were gratuitous and did not add to the story.  The homosexual coupling and transgenderism seemed out of place, a blatant attempt to push a cultural agenda.

Walkaway is not Doctorow's worst book, but, unlike some of his other fiction, it's not one I think I'd like to read again.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Dragon Teeth, by Michael Crichton

The late Michael Crichton was one of the most prolific and entertaining writers of the 20th century.  He remains the only writer to have the #1 book (Disclosure), #1 movie (Jurassic Park), and #1 TV show (ER) in the same year (1994).  After Crichton's death in 2008, his wife discovered an unpublished novel among his papers: Dragon Teeth.

In a way, Dragon Teeth doesn't fit with the bulk of Crichton's work.  Set in 1876, Crichton centers the story around the famous "Bone Wars" between paleontologists Othniel Marsh and Edwin Cope.  A Yale freshman, William Johnson, sets out with Marsh to experience the West.  He accompanies Marsh on a summer expedition to dig dinosaur bones.  After Marsh abandons him en route, Johnson falls in with Cope, and experiences first-hand the bitter rivalry between the two fossil hunters.  The conflict and some of the events Crichton depicts are real; Johnson and his adventures are fictional.

Johnson, an heir to a Philadelphia family fortune, is out of place in the rough and tumble world of dinosaur bone hunting.  But throw in some Indian attacks, gunfights in Deadwood, ambushes along the trail, and buddying up with the famous gunfighter Wyatt Earp, Johnson is a changed man.  While the setting seems out of character for Crichton (actually, The Great Train Robbery was an early bestseller for him . . .), the story is familiar: a team sets out on a scientific expedition, things go terribly wrong, a few people die, and the hero has to rely on new-found skills to survive and protect the scientific discoveries.

Dragon Teeth was a real pleasure to read.  Crichton ratchets up the interest level to a high point, then maintains it to a satisfying conclusion.  The blending of real characters, places, and events with fictional characters keeps things interesting.  It's too real to be totally made up, but not so wacky that it couldn't have been real.  For Crichton fans, this is a must-read, but any reader looking for a fun story will enjoy Dragon Teeth.

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Trump's War, by Michael Savage

Without a hint of irony, Michael Savage writes that he had a huge hand in Donald Trump's getting elected.  Trump was on Savage's radio show, and Trump "heeded the advice I gave him and now his is the president of the United States."  Who can measure the influence of radio host?  It's really impossible, but there's no question Savage was rallying the troops for Trump, so it's not a stretch to conclude that at least some of his listeners pulled the lever for Trump as a result of Savage's influence.

You might think a book called Trump's War: His Battle for America, published so quickly after Trump's election, would be nothing but a cheerleading celebration of Trump.  Admittedly, Savage does some of that; his various uncomplimentary nicknames and descriptions of Obama and Hillary leave no question in anyone's mind how he feels about the Democrat leaders.  While he does laud Trump for some of his positions and early actions, his larger purpose is to hold Trump accountable.

We have already seen how political pressures and reality have forced Trump to moderate his positions in some cases.  Are we going to build a wall?  A fence?  Nothing?  Are we going to repeal Obamacare?  Replace it with something just as bad?  Are we going to defund Planned Parenthood?  On some of these issues, whether he wanted to or not, Trump has wavered from the key campaign promises that got him elected.

Savage breaks down some of the policy challenges that Trump is already facing or will face and lays out a plan of action.  His solutions make sense, at least to someone with a conservative bent.  He's not a hard-line conservative though.  He's sympathetic to a minimum wage and reasonable level of regulations on business.

Even though Trump has been beaten down by Democrats (of course), the press (of course), and plenty of Republicans (unfortunately), he has managed to accomplish some of his stated goals.  If he will heed Savage's advice from Trump's War, perhaps Savage can help him successfully accomplish more.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Within Walking Distance, by Philip Langdon

In my suburban Texas neighborhood, to get to the closest restaurant is a mile walk on a street with no sidewalk.  The nearest grocery store is closer to two miles.  Don't get me wrong; I like our quiet street, the lake across the street, and the woods behind us.  But it sure would be nice to have some shopping and dining options within a few minute's walk from my front door.

That is the dream that Philip Langdon writes about in Within Walking Distance: Creating Livable Communities for All.  Better said, that is the reality that he writes about, leading people like me to dream about living in a walkable neighborhood.  Langdon gives a detailed case study of 6 walkable communities around the United States, examining what makes them unique and what other communities might learn to become more walkable.

He defines the reference point of walkability as follows: "Building a city or town at the scale of the pedestrian meant that any able-bodied person could navigate the full range of local businesses, homes, institutions, and attractions without relying on anything more than his or her own power."  That's the ideal, and some of the homes in some of the neighborhoods he surveyed fit this description. 

Walkability is a wonderful ideal, and can be a factor for many people looking to relocate.  While the communities he profiles--and countless others--are walkable, Langdon doesn't sufficiently address some of the questions and barriers that prevent neighborhoods from being walkable.  Each of his profiled communities arguably have factors that predispose them to being or becoming walkable: proximity to a major city center and the jobs found there, proximity to a major university, a location that draws tourism and seasonal residents, or ethnic roots that presume deep community ties.

It also seemed that he communities he describes are destination locations.  While residential space is there, specialty stores, restaurants, street fairs and other entertainment, open-air markets, parks and the like draw many non-residents.  So, yes, it's walkable for the residents, but the viability of the area depends on attracting non-residents to patronize local establishments.  I don't see this as a problem, but I think it's worth pointing out that the walkable communities Langdon describes and promotes are not necessarily self-sustaining communities.  They are surrounded by more common suburban tracts or dispersed homes, whose residents hop in their cars to go to a walkable neighborhood for shopping, dining, entertainment, or recreation.

What would it take for my neighborhood and others like it to become walkable?  Lots of little stores and restaurants popping up in close proximity to one another.  Why doesn't that happen?  Because little stores and restaurants tucked away in walkable neighborhoods have great difficulty making a profit.  Does it happen?  Yes, happily, sometimes they survive.  But the reality is larger stores and restaurants on prominent thoroughfares draw more traffic and make more money.  Economies of scale are hard realities.

One other thing: with the population density of a walkable neighborhood, homes tend to be much smaller and much more expensive.  In my city, I can live in a $200,000, 1875 sq. foot home and drive everywhere, or I can move downtown to some more walkable neighborhoods and pay that for a one bedroom with 1/3 the square feet.  I am not willing to make that trade off.

I enjoyed reading about the neighborhoods in Within Walking Distance.  Someday if I don't have kids at home and have a lot more money, living in a neighborhood like that would be nice.  For now, it's a model for a select demographic.  Thankfully we live in a country that is diverse enough geographically and economically that highly concentrated, walkable neighborhoods can exist alongside their more spacious, less densely populated neighbors, sometimes in the same city.

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, by Paula Poundstone

Paula Poundstone is a stand-up comedian who I know from her appearances on NPR's Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me! quiz show.  For several years, she conducted her own investigation into happiness.  She developed an informal measure of happiness.  A "small amount of happiness could be a 'hep.' . . . If you're lucky enough to amass four of those, you've got yourself a whole 'balou' of happiness."  (These measures are named after her cats.)

In The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, she experiments with a variety of activities to test the level of happiness she can achieve.  Her adventures and foibles are, as you might expect, more entertaining than particularly insightful.  She tries exercise: "While doing push-ups I don't worry much about the state of the world so much.  It's hard to be concerned about war in the Middle East while you can't breathe."  She tries computers: "Someday science will prove that a phone call is about a hundred times more efficient for a back-and-forth exchange than e-mail."  She tries social media: "Leave it to computers to destroy the meaning of one of the most valuable words in the human language." (This refers, of course, to "friendship" on social media.")

Getting her house in order, taking dance classes, renting a Lamborghini, volunteering, going to a meditation class, making it a practice to hug people she meets and other experiences contribute to her research.  Most of her stories gave me a hep or two of happiness, but, to be honest, the whole thing got a little tiresome.  Maybe I just don't fully appreciate her humor.  Maybe I just need to take her in small doses.

Woven throughout the book are stories of her life with her children.  She is an adoptive single mom, so there is plenty of craziness and busy-ness in their house.  For parents of children with disabilities, the sections on dealing with teachers, ARD meetings, and transitioning out of the home are particularly instructive and insightful.

I especially appreciated what ended up being one of her conclusive thoughts.  "I've long been familiar with the idea that true happiness is found in helping others, and I've always meant to get around to it."  By volunteering at a nursing home, she found that serving others selflessly produces plenty of "heps" of happiness.  She writes, "People need each other.  Our well-being is tightly tethered to the well-being of people we do not know, most of whom look nothing like ourselves.  Happiness . . . requires engagement."

The Totally Unscientific Study was intermittently funny, seemingly over-long, and occasionally insightful.  But I found no argument with Poundstone's conclusions and her attitude.  It's worth a read for a few heps of happiness.

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Poetry for Kids: Walt Whitman, edited by Karen Karbiener, illustrated by Kate Evans

Was Walt Whitman the greatest American poet?  I don't know if you can pick a single greatest, but there is no question he is one of the greatest and most influential American poets.  In Poetry for Kids: Walt Whitman, Karen Karbiener has collected selections and excerpts from Whitman's poems, illustrated by Kate Evans, to introduce young readers to Whitman's memorable poetry.

Whitman's 19th century English may be off-putting to 21st century readers, but I don't believe it's inaccessible.  Karbiener helps with the language by providing brief glossaries for each poem, defining words that are more obscure or out of common usage.  Whether a child reads these on her own, or listens as a parent or older reader reads aloud, the beauty and rhythms of Whitman's work will come through.

The spare but colorful illustrations capture the time period of Whitman's writing, and support the poems without upstaging them.  This is a beautiful book which should encourage kids to read and reread Whitman's poetry.

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

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Secret Knowledge, by David Mamet

For years I--like many others--have enjoyed David Mamet's entertaining and sometimes brilliant movies and plays.  Little did I know that this liberal Jewish writer had a conversion of sorts, becoming a solid conservative thinker.  In his 2011 book The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, Mamet writes broadly and incisively on culture, politics, education, and economics, displaying a deep conservatism that breaks with his past and upbringing but which, he believes, is crucial to the American experience.

He has contempt for the Left and their version of modern Puritanism.  "The left proceeds, from day to day, in a sort of sad, wistful fury at all the things of life not recognized in its cosmogony.  To them, in an inversion of the truly, historically, Liberal philosophy, everything not permitted is forbidden."  In a form of groupthink, "the Left functions, primarily, through its power as a primitive society or religion, dedicated above all to solidarity, and not only to acceptance but to constant promulgation of its principles, however inchoate, as 'self-evident' and therefore beyond question."

Writing shortly after Obama was elected, I think he hits on a key feature of modern American politics.  The Left marches in lock-step.  Nary a Democrat opposed a word out of Obama's mouth.  By contrast, Trump, who, granted, has plenty of flaws, faces vehement opposition from prominent members of his own party every time he turns around.

One of Mamet's targets is that great bastion of the Left, higher education.  University liberal arts departments have become indoctrination camps, where children of privilege go to learn "to be shrill, and that their indictment, on the economy, on sex, on race, on the environment, though based on no experience other than hearsay, must trump any discourse, let alone opposition."  Far be it from them to learn a useful skill that will help them contribute to society.

He sees his own ungrateful generation (he's a baby boomer, born in 1947) as "destructive of that very world which . . . is a wonderful place to live in, and has given us a great country."  They have been "living off a trust fund; the productivity of our parents, and of the two hundred and more years work of those who preceded them."

Mamet writes broadly but with depth and clarity.  He states that he had never read or listened to any conservative thought until late in his life.  It's interesting to hear his perspective, coming from one who spent most of his life as a liberal, but gaining revelation that moved him toward deeply conservative thinking.  Reading this in the early days of the Trump presidency, I am reminded of the principles which guide us in the voting booth.  Trump obviously was an imperfect candidate and is an imperfect president, but as Mamet lays out the case against the Left, I am once again thankful that a Democrat is not in the White House.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

Per Petterson is an award-winning Norwegian novelist.  His 2003 novel Out Stealing Horses (published in Norwegian in 2003 as Ut og stjæle hester, published in English translation in 2005) has received the most praise of any of his work, including the €100,000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.  So if I don't like the book I must be a literary ignoramus.

I didn't totally not like the book.  I just found it to be dull and aimless.  Parts were beautifully written.  (Speaking of ignorant, I admit I read it in English.  My Norwegian is a bit rusten.)  This is the story of a man named Trond, flipping between a summer in his teen years and his 60s.  It's a mix of coming of age, a family tragedy involving a neighbor's family, his own family's dissolution, and a bit about the Nazi occupation of Norway. 

If you're into pastoral novels, with lots of reflective passages, which switches between time periods while slowly drawing the events together, developing a character arc but not much more, this could be one you'd love.  Out Stealing Horses is a good book, maybe even great literature, but I simply didn't enjoy reading it very much.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Girl Who Owned a City, by O.T. Nelson

I have wanted to read O.T. Nelson's The Girl Who Owned a City for a long time.  It was nominated last year for the Libertarian Futurist Society's Prometheus Hall of Fame, after all.  Key word there is nominated.  It didn't win, or even make the finals, which seems reasonable to me.  It's neither a very good book nor a particularly libertarian story.

In this future world, a plague has killed everyone over the age of 12.  Why?  Who knows.  Doesn't matter.  Lisa lives with her little brother in their family's home.  She seeks out food and supplies in nearby houses, but the sources are running thin.  She decides to organize the kids in her neighborhood to defend themselves against roving gangs, eventually leading them to relocate to the local high school, of which she declares herself the owner.

Nelson showed some early promise, as Lisa tried to get the children to work for incentives rather than mere communal ownership and reliance on the older children.  When they begin to organize their defense, I thought she might forge alliances for trade, like a good libertarian would.  But no, it's just might versus might.  And with her self-declared ownership, she sets herself up as the dictator of her city.  The other kids have little option for self-direction or self-governance, other than leaving to live somewhere else.

More disappointing than the lack of principles was the plot and story telling.  The story is rather shallow and predictable.  I know a post-apocalyptic world of all children would be chaotic, but I just don't see the scenarios Nelson lays out happening.  Besides, why is Lisa the only kid in the world who can figure out how to drive a car?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Questions Asked, by Jostein Gaarder, illustrated by Akin Düzakin

Jostein Gaarder has questions.  In Questions Asked, the Norwegian author asks many of those questions that bug all of us.

  • Where does the world come from?
  • Can anyone know what I think?
  • How do my legs go where I want them to go while my mind is elsewhere?
  • What is time?
  • Why am I alive?
  • What happens when I die?

Jostein Gaarder does not have any answers.  At least not in this book.  What he does have is some beautiful illustrations by Akin Düzakin, which follow a little boy's adventures and ponderings.

Questions Asked can be a great conversation starter.  I can imagine reading this with my own child, or in a therapy session, or, if a teacher is brave, in a classroom.  Be prepared for some lengthy discussions.

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

Friday, May 5, 2017

Forging a President, by William Hazelgrove

Teddy Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, has an aura about him--the Rough Rider who spoke softly but carried a big stick.  That persona was not shaped by his elite New York society upbringing, nor by his time at Harvard or his early years in the New York state legislature.  As William Hazelgrove tells the story, Roosevelt's years in the West shaped him into the man history remembers as president.  Forging a President: How the Wild West Created Teddy Roosevelt traces Roosevelt's life in the 1880s, from his first buffalo hunt to the end of his ranching career.

Drawing on Roosevelt's own writing as a well as a wide variety of biographical sources, Hazelgrove crafts a readable narrative that celebrates Roosevelt and his rough and tumble time in the West.  While on a buffalo hunt, the young Roosevelt decides he wants to be a rancher.  Pulling out his checkbook, he forks over a sizable chunk of his recently inherited wealth and enlists a couple of cowboys to get a herd started for him.

When Roosevelt's mother and wife pass away on the same night, Roosevelt moves more permanently to the West.  Over the course of three years, he builds his reputation, facing down drunk cowboys, capturing outlaws, standing up to Indians, holding his own on cattle drives, and organizing cowboys.  The asthmatic young man whose doctor told him he should lead a sedentary lifestyle was transformed into a broad shouldered cowboy, a man's man and a leader of men. 

Hazelgrove, clearly a Roosevelt admirer, made me a fan as well.  He builds the narrative, paints the picture, fills in the historical setting, and makes the case for the influence of Roosevelt's years in the West on his later years.  A child of privilege and wealth, Roosevelt did not simply rest on his position, but made a way for himself.  In a way it's tragic, as a response to the deaths of his wife and mother.  But ultimately, he--and the United States--are better off as a result.  Forging a President is an enjoyable read about a remarkable man.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher: drifter, ex-MP, vigilante, and vagrant.  At least that's what the police of Despair, Colorado call him.  They pick him up for vagrancy and deliver him to the town line, returning him to Hope, where he spent the previous night.  But he's curious, doesn't like to be told what he can or can't do, and has a dogged determination to find out the truth.  In Nothing to Lose, Reacher is traveling cross country, on his way, eventually, to San Diego.  After a night in the small town of hope, he heads to despair, where he finds even stopping in for a cup of coffee is unwelcome.

After being told he should never come back to Despair, he does.  Again and again.  He single-handedly takes down the whole police department.  And he gets to the bottom of a scandalous plot that includes and end-times nut case preacher, the cover up of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, a company town whose company's contracts are questionable, an operation smuggling AWOL soldiers out of the country, and a beautiful police woman who may or may not be available.

Child does not disappoint with his detailed descriptions of Reacher's fighting prowess, his ability to put the pieces together in the mysterious puzzle, and the ease with which he attracts the beautiful woman without becoming tied down.  Once he suspects something is fishy, he won't quit until he figures it out.  The police woman observes that he can't be a one-man Department of Justice; Reacher disagrees.  I wasn't comfortable with some of the unanswered questions Child leaves hanging, but Reacher was comfortable enough to keep on moving. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Truth, by Randy Alcorn

Truth.  Sometimes it seems like a fluid concept.  We might hear about "alternative truth."  A politician's spokesperson might respond to criticism of her boss by talking about "her truth."  Randy Alcorn not only wants to make the case that truth is unchangeable and discoverable, but also that it is rooted in "the eternal, all-powerful, and unchangeable God."  In Truth: A Bigger View of God's Word, Alcorn gives us 200 short selections to help us understand and apply God's truth.

Following the pattern of his earlier book Grace, each selection includes a scripture, a couple of paragraphs of Alcorn's insights, and a quotation from another writer or pastor.  He covers a wide gamut of the Christian life, and draws quotes from a wide variety of the Christian tradition. 

The strength of these selections is two-fold.  First of all, Alcorn reminds us that God and his word are arbiters of truth, not us.  Christians should be looking to the authority of scripture, not their own feelings.  He writes, "The test of whether Scripture is my authority is this: Do I allow God's Word to convince me to believe what I don't like, what's contrary to what I've always believed and wanted to believe?  Do I believe it even when it offends me?"  We should believe what the Bible teaches, not "whatever makes us feel better about ourselves or justifies our actions."

Second, the truth of scripture should guide our lives.  Christians ignore or are ignorant of so much of what scripture teaches about the Christian life.  The Christian is a new creation.  We are saved by grace.  The gospel is good news.  (How about this quote: "A good test of whether you believe the true gospel is if it makes you happy.")  So much truth in the gospel, so many Christians who live like they don't believe it.

This is not a book to read straight through.  If you do, like I did, you will be frustrated by the lack of continuity or structure.  Take these short chapters a bite at a time, chew on them, and let God's truth inform your life and transform your thinking.  Truth is unchanging.  That is important to acknowledge.  But even more importantly, Christians need to acknowledge the power of truth to change them.

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

The BFG, by Roald Dahl

What a delightful, fun book!  Perhaps I can be excused for not reading Roald Dahl's The BFG when it was published in 1982, since I was 13, and probably thought I was too old for children's stories.  My loss.  I saw Disney's recent Stephen Spielberg adaptation, was smitten, and decided to read the book, too.  The movie was quite faithful to the book, and both are worth reading or watching again.

Young Sophie, who lives in an orphanage, sees the BFG (big, friendly giant) sneaking around one night.  He picks her up and takes her to his home, where he says she will have to stay forever.  He can't risk her telling other people about him.  He is one of many giants, the rest of which eat "human beans" that they capture in distant lands on their nightly forays.  The BFG doesn't eat humans, and does approve of his fellow giants doing so.  He and Sophie concoct an elaborate plan to prevent them from eating any more people.

The story is great, with enough silliness mixed with insight to make it immensely entertaining while being multilayered enough to make it enduring.  The BFG's distinctive bungling of words kept me smiling throughout.  "Giants is all cannybully and murderful!  And they does gobble up human beans!"  When giants drink "frobscottle" the bubbles go down instead of up (like our soft drinks), resulting in "a whizzpopper."  "Us giants is making whizzpoppers all the time!  Whizzpopping is a sign of happiness.  It is music in our ears!"

Dahl, who flew in the Royal Air Force in World War 2, finds a place for a bit of anti-war commentary.  Sophie asks the BFG about the other giants' habit of eating people.  She is appalled, but the BFG counters, "Do not forget that human beans is disappearing everywhere all the time even without the giants is guzzling them up.  Human beans is killing each other much quicker than the giants is doing it."   He points out that other animals don't kill their own kind, "but human beans is squishing each other all the time. . . . They is shooting guns and going up in aerioplanes to drop their bombs on each other's heads every week.  Human beans is always killing other human beans." 

The BFG is perfect bedtime reading for boys and girls.  Due to the subject matter, that is, giants eating people, the very youngest among them might not enjoy it, but it's a classic that should be enjoyed for generations to come.