Saturday, December 30, 2017

101 So Bad, They're Good Dad Jokes, by Elias Hill

There's something to be said for accurately titled books.  101 So Bad, They're Good Dad Jokes is full of 101 dad jokes, some of which are pretty good, some of which are pretty bad, and some of which are so bad they're good.  Elias Hill must have has fun putting this together.

One positive thing about this book is that the jokes, even thought they're pretty bad, seemed somewhat original.  I had heard very few of them before.  Whether that means Hill is an original joke writer, or maybe I have been sheltered from exposure to these bad jokes, I don't know.

Katherine Hogan illustrates each joke with a Dad and his interlocutor.  Despite the goofy drawings and the uneven quality of the jokes, I was inspired to commit some of these to memory so I can pull them out at appropriate times, especially when a bad dad joke will sufficiently embarrass my kids.

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

Friday, December 29, 2017

Do Greater Things, by Robby Dawkins

Robby Dawkins, evangelist and pastor, believes that "Jesus expects us to heal the sick, cast out demons and even raise the dead in His name!"  In Do Greater Things: Activating the Kingdom to Heal the Sick and Love the Lost, he tells story after story of people being healed and otherwise miraculously encountering the love of Jesus.  As he previously wrote in Do What Jesus Did, praying expectantly for healing should be a regular part of our interactions with others, whether in church or out in the community.

The way he approaches life is unlike most Christians' experience.  Where many Christians are reluctant even to say the name of Jesus, Dawkins's model is to prayerfully consider and observe people around you.  If you someone who seems to be sick, in pain, or disabled, why not ask them if they would like prayer?  And why not ask God for healing?  He advocates stepping out boldly, not waiting for specific direction from God to pray for someone.  He writes, "Jesus told us to heal the sick.  I don't see anywhere in the Scriptures where He says, 'But don't pray for anyone unless I tell you to.'"  Pray for everyone!

I really enjoyed reading about his experiences.  When possible, he enlists children or unbelievers to pray with him.  He will have the child place his hands on the sick person and have the child repeat his words.  When a person is healed, what a faith builder for both the praying person and the person healed!  Dawkins leads by example, and provides examples and guidelines readers can apply as they hit the streets.

Dawkins calls us away from praying selfishly.  I have never met a Christian who has been reluctant to pray for financial blessing, favor in one's career, or relationship issues.  But Dawkins wants Christians to get past selfish prayers and pray for others.  And the goal of healing?  An invitation to walk with Jesus.

While Dawkins provides scripture to defend and flesh out what he's teaching, the focus is on the testimonies, not only of those who have been healed, but of the many Christians who are boldly walking in faith for healing.  Do Greater Things inspired me on two levels.  First, to deepen my walk with God, getting my prayer life away from my needs to embracing God's power in me to meet the needs of others.  Second, to get out the door and look for someone to pray for.  Seriously, after you read this you'll be looking for a stranger to pray for.  His message inspires and challenges me.

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

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Pirate Cinema, by Cory Doctorow

Trent McCauley, a.k.a. Cecil B. DeVil, has a problem.  The hero of Cory Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, Trent is an auteur who makes films from edits of other films.  The problem is that the films he uses as his source material are protected by copyright.  When law enforcement tracks down his illegal downloading, his whole family's internet usage is shut off.  In shame, he flees to London and tries to make it on his own.

He quickly falls in with a group of other homeless kids and learns to thrive by squatting in an abandoned pub, picking edible discards from the garbage bins of restaurants and grocery stores, and begging.  But he also hooks up with a group that shows their video creations around town, and he becomes more prolific and proficient in his video mashups.  He and his new friends run afoul of newly draconian copyright laws and lead a popular revolt to get them changed.

Pirate Cinema is first of all the coming-of-age story of an artist in a new genre.  Trent becomes a trend setter who makes sacrifices for his art.  But it's also a political statement on the limits of copyright law.  Doctorow's message, which is familiar to his readers, is that art should be freely shared and used as inspiration.  Laws that penalize, even imprison, others for illegally downloading creative works are a crime against civilization itself.

While I enjoyed the story of Trent, his spirited girlfriend and comrade-at-arms, and their assorted crew of smart, talented and engaging friends, Doctorow's overall point is lost on me.  He would argue that creative artists like Trent are continuing an artistic tradition.  Trent doesn't profit from the clips he downloads, he uses them as building blocks for his own creations.  But Trent and his friends envision a world in which downloads are always free and available.  Doctorow paints the big movie houses and record labels as the villains.  But what about the up-and-coming film maker or musician, who wants to sell some records or theater tickets so he or she can earn a living making their art?  Don't they deserve compensation?

I should point out that Doctorow's integrity is totally intact.  While you can buy a physical copy of his books or purchase the ebooks on Amazon, all of his books are available for free at his web site,  Many artists do distribute their work for free, using other revenue streams like online ads or ticket sales for live events as alternative compensation.  But I am not sure that model is for everyone. 

All this to say, Pirate Cinema is an enjoyable story, but Doctorow steps out on an ideological limb.  Copyright law is certainly something to discuss, especially in our rapidly-changing environment of downloads and social media.  But I can't wrap my mind around a world in which an artist (or inventor or any other creative type) doesn't have the assurance that his intellectual property is well-protected.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Blood Profits, by Vanessa Neumann

How are you enjoying that knock-off handbag?  Or those movies and video games you bought from a street vendor?  Or those cigarettes the guy at the subway entrance was selling?  Or, if you're more inclined toward vices, how about the drugs you're using?  Or the weapons you bought under the table?  So many of these everyday transactions seem harmless, but are, in fact, part of a network that funds and perpetuates violence and oppression on a global scale.

Vanessa Neumann, founder of the Asymmetrica consulting firm, has been around the world a few times and writes about the interconnectedness of terrorism, organized crime and global trade in Blood Profits: How American Consumers Unwittingly Fund Terrorists.  Put simply, "In the world of the crime-terror pipeline (CTP), money from the counterfeit handbags, medicines, and cigarettes ends up buying weapons that kill our soldiers and bombs that terrorize our cities."  Whether we buy them knowingly or in ignorance, illegal goods and the profits from the sale of illegal goods "passes through the hands of Russian mobsters, Muslim jihadists, Mexican cartels, Chinese triads, and Eastern European heads of state."

Neumann herself has on-the-ground experience tracking some of these networks.  Some of what she reveals isn't particularly surprising.  Mexican cartels traffic drugs and weapons--of course.  But I was quite surprised at the depth and complexity of these networks.  Hezbollah setting up operations in Venezuela.  Muslim radicals operating in the Panama Canal free trade zone.  And some of the sources of the profits may not be what you typically think of: mining, sports betting, clothing with athletic team logos, prescription medicines, and gasoline are just a few of the otherwise legal products we might consume but that are potential sources of funding for terrorist groups.

Blood Profits provides important insights for the global economy and diplomacy.  But on a personal level, "we must accept that our personal choices as consumers have global impact with serious repercussions. . . . So much of the deepest suffering and so many of the greatest harms are a consequences of our avaricious or intemperate desires.  We could easily ameliorate global tragedies with only moderate adjustments to our choices as consumers." 

Neumann's treatment is wide-ranging and challenging.  The book rambles a little, as she interweaves her own experiences with broader research in the field, but I did appreciate her personal insights.  She belongs to a wealthy Venezuelan family, so she has particular experience with a corrupt regime which has devastated a country's economy.  Whether in Latin American, the Middle East, Europe, or the United States, she has stuck her neck out and turned over rocks to expose the corruption that ties together failed states, organized crime, and terror.  She's on the front lines of 21st century warfare and people of peace and legitimate governance need to listen up.

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

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Global Conflict, by Louise Spilsbury, illustrated by Hanane Kai

Let's pick an easy topic to write about in a book for very young children.  I know, says Louise Spilsbury, how about global conflict!  Ha.  Spilsbury, writing for the Children in Our World series, takes on this important, challenging topic in Global Conflict.  With Hanane Kai's warm, engaging illustrations, Spilsbury breaks down what happens when groups of people can't get along.  When people can't solve their problems by talking, or when one group wants to take another group's land or wealth, the groups will fight "until one side gives up or loses."

With admirable succinctness and sensitivity, Spilsbury writes about terrorism, displacement of refugees, relief work, and other consequences of war.  For children who, unfortunately, have experienced war, the simple text and illustrations may help them make sense of what they have experiences.  For the rest of the world, Global Conflict may not present the harshest reality of war, but it will open a conversation for understanding what goes on in other places.

I appreciate this effort to educate children about one of the most unfortunate features of human existence.  It's not an easy topic, and Spilsbury handles it well.  A good teacher or parent reading this with a child will be able to answer questions and turn on some lightbulbs of understanding for the young readers.  I hope that global conflict stays far away and in the past.

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

Saturday, December 23, 2017

In My World, by Jillian Ma, illustrated by Mimi Chao

Jillian Ma's book In My World, beautifully illustrated by Mimi Chao, invites the reader to see the world through the eyes of an autistic child.  For most of the book, the child narrator talks about his world, in which he can have adventures, dance, fly, and sing, and where he "can be seen and heard."  Of course most children have vivid imaginations and love to do all of these things.  But then . . ., "In your world, I have Autism."  The stark bleakness of this page only lasts a moment, as the next page contains a plea: "But with the help of you and you and you, I can fulfill my dreams and make them come true.  Help me dream."

This is a fun yet poignant look into the active mind of an autistic child.  It's perfect for group reading, especially in a mixed-needs classroom.  I love the whimsical illustrations and the cute expressions on the kids' faces.  Let this book encourage you to see and hear others, especially kids, whose minds may work differently from yours.

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

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Midnight Line, by Lee Child

Lee Child's newest Jack Reacher story, The Midnight Line, is classic Reacher.  Picking up after Make Me, Reacher is on his own after his fling/partner from that book returns to her own life.  Reacher hops on a bus for regions unknown.  Wandering around during a rest stop, he sees a West Point ring at a pawn shop.  It becomes his new mission in life to track down the former owner of the ring.

This pursuit takes Reacher into familiar territory: uncovering crime rings in small, forgotten towns, this time in rural Wyoming.  The pawn shop owner directs Reacher to someone else, who directs him to someone else.  Misdirects, more accurately.  Along the way, Reacher meets up with a private investigator working on a missing persons case, who leads him to the twin sister of the West Pointer Reacher seeks.

Lee Child's fans should be quite pleased with The Midnight Line.  Reacher's dogged determination and inability to let things go drives the story.  His camaraderie and compassion for fellow soldiers motivate him to dig in and fight back.  His unwavering desire for justice keeps him in the fight even when it seems like the fight is over and won.

Child writes formulaic books, it's true.  But the nice thing about a great formula is that it gives great results.  Just because The Midnight Line fits the Reacher formula doesn't mean it's dull or predictable.  Just the opposite.  I hope Child keeps mixing up this formula for more great Reacher stories.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

End of Days, by Mark Gimenez

Mark Gimenez continues to stretch the genre of legal fiction with Book of Days: Con Law II.  This is the second novel featuring John Bookman, the UT law professor who has a side avocation as a vigilante for justice.  When people are in trouble, they write to Book.  Sometimes he will come and help.

In Book of Days, Book, who has just been nominated by a Twitter-loving president to the Supreme Court, gets a letter from a grandmother who is worried about her granddaughters.  Their meth-head mother has taken them and disappeared in a religious compound near Waco, Texas.  Book and his intern, the spoiled daughter of a Texas oil billionaire, head to Waco, but just before they arrive a band of ATF agents attempt to raid the religious compound, but get gunned down by the well-prepared and well-arms residents.

If this sounds familiar, it should.  The compound and ensuing standoff in Book of Days is, of course, inspired by the Branch Davidian debacle from 1993.  Other than the broadest details, this is not the Branch Davidian story, not historical fiction, not alternative history.  But had the Branch Davidian episode not happened, Gimenez's story would have been too ridiculous to believe.

The leader of Gimenez's group is Jesus Christ.  Or at least someone who says he's Jesus.  He has the scars to prove it and the stories to tell.  His followers are convinced he is the second coming of the Son of God.  Book can hardly believe the government attacked the compound.  He asks an ATF agent, "Why didn't you let them live in peace?  They live out here in the middle of nowhere--look around. . . . Why come to Waco and start a fight?"  Answer: "That's what we do."

At Jesus' request, Book enters the compound to be a negotiator.  Book finds nothing nefarious going on, against the expectations of outsiders.  It's full of people who became disillusioned with life on the outside, "insourced, outsourced, fired, foreclosed, convicted, sued, destroyed" by the ways of the world.  It's a self-sustaining community full of happy people who want to be there, and who all believe that Jesus truly is Jesus.

On the other hand, the federal agents are a bunch of trigger happy Keystone cops.  The FBI agent in charge has a murderous streak, exacerbated by his CTE.  Much to his frustration Jesus' followers have a defensive answer to every offensive move.  The media are extreme caricatures of their real-life counterparts.  The screeching liberals screech about these white Christian jihadists and think Christian churches are hate groups, that Christians shouldn't be allowed to vote, and that "adherence to Christianity should be designated a hate crime."

The exaggerated characterizations set End of Days apart from Gimenez's prior novels, giving it a madcap tone.  But it has a serious side, too, as the characters deal with their own faith, and as Jesus comments on American culture.  Jesus would make conservatives mad with his anti-Wall Street beliefs, but would make liberals mad with his anti-environmentalist position.

You may not believe in Jesus after reading End of Days, but Gimenez makes this Jesus from Texas a likeable figure.  This Jesus' theology may be a little off (he mixes grace with a works-based salvation), but he's not a madman like the real-life Waco cult leader.  Book is the real hero of this story.  He's a level-headed, independent thinker ("He hates liberals and conservatives.") who values the lives of others above his own and is willing to sacrifice to rescue the downtrodden.  (Sounds like Jesus. . . .)

End of Days is a fun book, with a great mix of over-the-top satire, well-written action scenes, snappy dialogue, and a little something to think about.  Keep Gimenez on your list of authors to watch.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Rights of the People, by David Shipler

David Shipler published The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties in 2011, but the issues he addresses and questions he raises are no less important and timely in 2017, maybe even more so.  Shipler is not a lawyer, but applies his extensive journalistic experience--he is a Pulitzer Prize winner--to this treatment of constitutional rights and liberties.

At the core of The Rights of the People is, as the subtitle suggests, the balance between the protection of  our constitutional rights and our desire for safety, security, and law enforcement.  Many Americans live with the feeling that if they didn't do anything wrong, they have nothing to hide.  Shipler is not as concerned with whether someone did something wrong as with whether constitutional rights and procedures are honored.

Shipler discusses a range of scenarios in which this balance can be tricky.  Stop and frisk.  Traffic stops.  Airport searches.  Electronic surveillance.  Search and seizure.  In almost any case, we can point to examples of searches that may cross constitutional lines yet yield actionable results.  But there are many more examples in which no crime occurred, and no evidence was turned up, yet people were stopped, searched, inconvenienced, mistreated, or detained, all in violation of their constitutional rights.

Shipler is no conservative.  I suspect he's all-in for Obama and his ilk.  Partisanship aside, Shipler is, more importantly, on the side of the Constitution.  I fully admire and respect the purity of his approach to constitutionalism.  The stories he tells illustrate the problem.  Given a search or arrest that doesn't meet constitutional muster, yet successfully turns up incriminating evidence or results in the arrest of a criminal, Shipler is more concerned with constitutional matters than in prosecution or apprehension.  Again, it's an admirable position.  But I still struggle with the consequences.

It's tempting to take a consequentialist position when, for instance, a clearly guilty terrorist or drug dealer is nabbed.  Sure, the investigation and arrest may not have been completely legit, but at least they got the bad guy.  This is the exact problem that Shipler addresses.  I'm not particularly satisfied with his treatment; many people will call him soft on crime.  But his voice and perspective are needed to keep law enforcement honest and keep alive a commitment to our constitutional rights.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

This Bridge Will Not Be Gray, by Dave Eggers, art by Tucker Nichols

In much the same way that he brought the Statue of Liberty to life in his most recent book Her Right Foot, Dave Eggers tells the story of the Golden Gate Bridge in his 2015 book This Bridge Will Not Be Gray.  There is perhaps no more famous, beloved, and picturesque bridge in the world.  But what's up with the orange?

Eggers's colorfully yet simply illustrated book goes back to the days when people crossed the Golden Gate by boat.  When it was decided that a bridge needed to be built, the people of California knew it had to look great.  The design was settled, and construction began, but no one had thought about the color.  Gray would make sense; buildings and bridges tended to be gray.  But the steel, which had been shipped through the Panama Canal from the east, was painted with an orange, rust-proof paint.  One of the designers, Irving Morrow, watched the structure going up, decided the orange looked downright wonderful, and started a campaign to keep it orange.  So they did.
Eggers's book is fun to read and will leave you wanting to get out to California to see the bridge yourself.  Even the designers and builders of the bridge were impressed.  As Eggers writes, "Sometimes the things humans make baffle even the humans who make them."  It's a remarkable bridge, indeed, and Eggers's book about it is wonderful.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

My Secret Dog, by Tom Alexander

It's a familiar story: "He followed me home! Can I keep him?"  Only in Tom Alexander's My Secret Dog, this little girl doesn't ask.  She decides she will keep him, but keep him a secret!  She hides him in her closet at him, takes him to school and hides him in the cloakroom, hides him under her bed.  Inevitably, he makes enough messes that she can't keep him hidden any longer.

It's a cute story, to which many kids will be able to relate.  Even if their dogs aren't secret, they will appreciate the little girl's efforts to take him to school and cover for his messes.  Alexander's drawings are simple and very linear.  Alexander must be going for a very minimalistic look here, but I did not find his basic black and white drawings to be particularly appealing.  I like the story, though.

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

Friday, December 15, 2017

Running Rewired, by Jay Dicharry

Jay Dicharry, physical therapist and running coach, wants to rewire your running.  Running Rewired: Reinvent Your Run for Stability, Strength, and Speed describes "a system of workouts designed to bring about specific adaptations in your body to impact your run."  These workouts "will improve your movement precision and build your spring for better performance."

Dicharry has way of making these workouts, and the overall philosophy, relatable and useful.  Emphasizing core strength, posture, and form, Dicharry provides a series of workouts to focus on specific movements or muscle groups.  His descriptions and illustrations are easy to follow and replicate. 

On the other hand, this is the kind of book that makes me wish the author was right here with me.  I need him to watch me run and tell me what I need to work on.  I need him to narrow down the large number of exercises and give me a few to work on.  I need some guidance!  Dicharry lays out a lot of information for a good start, but it will take some patience to write your own prescription based on Dicharry's guidance.

For runners who want to run longer and stronger, it's worth taking some time to study Dicharry's recommendations and exercises, give them a try for a few weeks, and see how you improve.  If you're like me, you just to like to get out and run.  But I plan to take some time to work on some of these exercises and see how it impacts the way I run.

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Disconnected Man, by Jim Turner

Maybe I'm too disconnected to connect to Jim Turner's The Disconnected Man.  With an admirable amount of vulnerability and openness, Turner writes to men and women about men's tendency to be disconnected and offers hope for men and marriages.  Turner was a pastor and businessman who thought he was doing everything he needed to as a husband, pastor, father, and Christian.  When his wife left him suddenly, he realized all was not well.  He was disconnected.

"A disconnected man," Turner writes, "is one who is unaware that his is nonrelational, distant, and emotionally unavailable."  Much of Turner's descriptions of the disconnected man fits negative stereotypes of men: doesn't show his feelings, not expressive about his love for his family, hard to connect in friendship.  He bounces back and forth between directing his message to men and to women, as his greatest focus is helping men connect and preserving marriages.

Turner makes a mistake that I have seen in many, if not most, books about marriage.  He assumes the  stereotypes about men and women are fixed and universal.  I personally found roles reversed in this book compared to my marriage.  Maybe my wife is a disconnected wife.  I don't know.  But there was enough that I felt was presumptuous to make me feel disconnected from Turner's message.

Ultimately, while The Disconnected Man didn't really speak to me, I can see how some men will  relate to Turner's experiences and perspective.  No matter how connected men feel, it never hurts to read about other men's experiences to seek ways we can better connect to others.

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

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Last President, by John Barnes

John Barnes's The Last President is the third and final book in the Daybreak series.  While I'm not unhappy to have read these books, I'm also not unhappy that they're over.  By the time I was part way through The Last President, I was thinking "OK, just wind this thing up!"  The whole series is rambling and jumps between too many story lines and characters.

In the fractured post-Daybreak United States, technology is pre-industrial and social and political structures are a mess.  While some remnants of the government are trying to rally the nation together for a presidential election, Daybreaker and tribals are teaming up to fight the government troops.  Over the course of the book, those who want to restore the Constitution and the United States fight a losing battle.  All the viable candidates for the president die.  In many regions, malevolent autocrats dig in and expand their powers.  Few rays of hope shine.

All the gloom and doom becomes tiresome.  Then at the end, Barnes drops an explanation for the moon guns that makes sense but is, at the same time, groan inducing.  I wondered about the moon gun, Daybreak technology, and the Daybreak virus, but even though I anticipated Barnes's explanation, tacking it on in the last few pages was either a cheap move or a set up for another trilogy.

All of this is not to say The Last President is without merit.  Barnes makes it work, somehow linking together lots of interweaving story lines.  But the full picture and the whole trilogy left me underwhelmed.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Santa Thief, by Alane Adams, illustrated by Lauren Gallegos

In Alane Adams's The Santa Thief, it's Christmas 1929.  The Great Depression is just setting in and Georgie's parents tell him Santa won't be coming this year.  But he had his heart set on some new ice skates, and doesn't really see the purpose of decorating a tree if Santa's not coming.  After his mother gently reminds him that Christmas is about giving, not receiving, and, despite his young age, Georgie gets it.

Adams's text and the illustrations by Lauren Gallegos have a nostalgic, heart-warming feel.  The story is conventional and not terribly original, but the sentiment it conveys is timeless and always welcome.  In case you're wondering about the "thief," Adams has a couple of other books starring Georgie with "Thief" in the title.  Georgie isn't a thief, per se, unless you consider him stealing some of Santa's glory. . . .

The Santa Thief is not a bad little book, but I don't see it displacing any of my other Christmas favorites.

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

Saturday, December 9, 2017

What Does Consent Really Mean?, by Pete Wallis and Thalia Wallis, illustrated by Joseph Wilkins

A hot topic on college campuses today, as well as among younger kids, is the issue of consent.  Pete Wallis and Thalia Wallis tackle the issue in What Does Consent Really Mean?  Their story, told in comic book format with illustrations by Joseph Wilkins, follows a group of high schoolers talking about sex, relationships, and consent.

The first thing I noticed about the book is the assumption that teenagers are going to have sex.  The idea that sex should be reserved for one person after you're married is not even hinted at here.  Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that is the ideal and standard that should be held out, especially among teens.  What Does Consent Really Mean? has a very open attitude--everything is OK, as long as the people involved are in agreement.  I just wish abstinence had been a part of the discussion.

That said, I know the reality is that many teens have sex, want to have sex, and talk a lot about sex.  So the clarity that Wallis and Wallis bring to consent is welcome.  One of the characters says, "Consent is NOT the absence of No, it is an enthusiastic YES!"  They discuss going along with a partner just to avoid conflict, the fact that if you do something one time it doesn't mean you have given consent to do it every time you're together, and what to do when someone asks you to do something you don't want to do.

The authors want this book to be a resource in classrooms and school libraries.  At the end they include several web pages listed on a variety of related topics, all of which can help a kid with questions.  Kids are always going to have sex.  Some kids, especially girls, are going to give more than they wanted to.  What Does Consent Really Mean? can help to start conversations and spur some reflection that can stem the tide of unwanted contact and sexual activity.

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

Under the Overpass, by Mike Yankoski

As an idealistic college student, yearning to live out his Christian faith, Mike Yankoski made a radical decision.  He decided to take a break from school and spend a few months living on the streets.  Traveling to several different cities in the United States, Mike and a buddy took no money, cell phones, or credit cards, lived on the street, under overpasses, in shelters, or wherever they could find a place.  They took their guitars and played for handouts.  At least once, they picked up a day labor job to raise bus fare.  Yankoski records his experiences and the lessons he learned in Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America.

Sometimes I am put off by this sort of exercise.  It can be attention-seeking or arrogant.  Thankfully I did not sense that from Yankoski.  He explicitly advises readers that they would be better off volunteering with a local homeless shelter than following in his footsteps.  Yankoski's objective was to understand homelessness in America and the church's response, to encourage other Christians to follow Christ more closely, and to learn personal dependence on Christ.  Mission accomplished.

Yankoski's account is sometimes funny, of course, as middle-class college students acclimate to life lived with the uncertainties of homelessness.  Although they knew this was a short-term stint, and that in a real emergency they could get to needed resources, they lived day to day not know where the next meal would come from.  Their experience was about as real as it could be.

The most important revelation was their experience as social outcasts.  On the streets, in businesses, and even (especially?) in churches, they were treated as second-class citizens.  After reading about their experiences, you will think twice before walking by or being rude to a homeless person.  In a couple of instances, caring Christians welcomed them and helped them with physical needs.  But most of their interactions with church had Christians ignoring them or asking them to leave.  Sad and convicting.

Yankoski may never be homeless again, but his perspective was forever changed as a result of his months on the street.  I enjoyed reading about his practical experiences and the lessons he learned.  He certainly challenged me to be aware of those around me and to seek out opportunities to love and serve people who cross my path, no matter how long it has been since they bathed.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Saboteur, by Paul Kix

I've said it before and will say it again: World War 2 teems with amazing, dramatic stories of heroism and greatness.  Add to that list Paul Kix's The Saboteur: The Aristocrat Who Became France's Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando.  Kix pored over family records, military records, and personal accounts to put together this gripping account of Robert de la Rochefoucauld's activities during WW2.  And what a story it is.

When the Nazis marched into France, the French gave little resistance.  Many in France considered Nazi occupation was preferable to Nazi bombardment.  As the German occupation set in, Robert de la Rochefoucauld, a brash teenager from a family with a long aristocratic history, became angrier and angrier.  Nazi military leaders moved into the family home, leaving the family to occupy one wing while the Nazis used the other wing as a headquarters and bunkhouse.  This imposition reflected, in La Rochefoucauld's mind, the great insult of the Germans making themselves at home in France and subjugating the French.

Inspired by the broadcasts from general-in-exile Charles de Gaulle, Robert determined to make his way to London and volunteer for de Gaulle's Resistance. Getting out of France was an adventure. When he got to Spain he was thrown in prison, along with a couple of RAF pilots, while they awaited intervention from the U.K.  Thanks to British officials, Robert made his way to England, where, after meeting with de Gaulle himself, he agreed to join a British unit training for secret missions into France.

Robert parachuted back into France and embraced the missions with a vengeance.  One of his primary roles was leading sabotage missions, strategically placing explosives to shut down an arms plant.  He was also instrumental in obtaining weapons for the Resistance.  It was risky, but Robert knew the risks.  Sure enough, after a few months he was caught and spent miserable months in prison, being tortured and interrogated by the Nazis.  True to his training and to his country, he did not betray the Resistance movement.

When his Nazi jailers couldn't get good intel out of him, they sentenced him to be executed.  But on the way to his execution, he escaped.  In a scene that might be unbelievable in an action movie, he evaded his pursuers' gunshots, stole a Nazi dignitary's car, drove it through a Nazi roadblock, and dumped the car in a quarry.  His career continued with acts of escape, daring-do, and heroism.  Through luck and skill and training and maybe some miracles, he survived the war and was recognized for his bravery.

Kix's narrative is straightforward and unembellished.  The Saboteur is gripping, not because of Kix's writing, but because of the remarkable experiences of la Rochefoucauld.  That, I suppose is the mark of a skilled biographical writer: I did not put the book down thinking, "Wow, Kix sure can write!"  My only thought was "Wow, that la Rochefoucauld fellow was amazing!"  The Saboteur gives a great perspective on the war in France and chronicles one of France's great heroes. 

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

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Democracy in Black, by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., has accomplished much in his academic life.  As an African-American, his life and position should attest to the progress African-Americans have made in the United States.  In Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, he argues vehemently that the grip of racism on American culture is as strong as ever, even if it looks different than it has in past generations.

The widely publicized deaths of black people at the hands of police in recent years have highlighted a larger demographic issue: the fact that black Americans are more negatively impacted by economic and social trends than other Americans.  "If America catches a cold, black America suffers from the flu."  His arguments are familiar and valid.  Many studies have demonstrated that black Americans were more widely impacted by the recent housing crisis.  Blacks are imprisoned to a greater extent and for longer periods than their white criminal peers.  As he and other black activists argue, blacks are targeted by police.  However, he gives a very one-sided view of this issue.  Other studies have shown that blacks are actually killed by police at lower rates in proportion to the number of contacts.  (Google it.)  Also, responding to critics who point out the rate of black-on-black crime, Glaude dismisses them as condescending and evasive.

Even conceding the difficulties that blacks face in many spheres of life, my objection to Democracy in Black was not so much with his myopic view of the facts.  I was more concerned with his constant drum beat of white supremacy.  He bemoans the fact that, as he sees it, black people, if they want to make progress in America, must abandon their blackness.  White America, with its pervasive white supremacist attitudes, must remain white.

Far be it from me to deny that white people with white supremacist attitudes exist.  Obviously, if you want to find a white supremacist, you can.  Just get online, or watch the mainstream media.  They love to feature white supremacists.  But what you will also find is that they are few and far between.  Glaude attributes every social imbalance to white racism.  I found this to be very offensive.  He hates it when people point to "gang bangers" and "welfare queens" as examples of black culture.  I would say that, just as you can find a white supremacist to confirm your biases, so can you find an actual gang banger or welfare queen.  But for him to slap the white supremacist label on all of white America is just as offensive and--dare I say it--racist as someone labeling every black man a gang banging thug.

There is very little room in Glaude's thinking, at least as I read it in Democracy in Black, for a genuinely race-free political culture.  To him, whites are naturally and pervasively racist.  Further, he would assume that every black person should agree with him on every issue.  If a black person is not pro-choice, is opposed to the minimum wage, calls for a free market in health care, or supports charter schools, clearly he's not a part of the true black political tradition.  I would suggest that even black people can hold positions that are typically viewed as conservative or libertarian and still be genuine black Americans who hold such positions believing they offer the best answers to problems in the black community.

I know, I'm a white male, and read Democracy in Black through that lens.  But I have also lived among black people in black neighborhoods, have work in public schools where I was in a tiny minority, and have read extensively about issues affecting the black community.  Glaude has not convinced me that American culture is pervasively racist.  He has convinced me that his perspective is racist, and that his solutions will not bring races together in America or improve life for black Americans.

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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Daybreak Zero, by John Barnes

Following immediately after the events of Directive 51, John Barnes continues the story in Daybreak Zero.  The nanoswarm attack of the first book has sent technology around the world back to the 19th century.  Bombings from the moon have destroyed major cities and triggered EMPs to shut down radio communication and wreak more havoc.

The focus of Daybreak Zero is on the political restructuring of the United States.  Two competing centers of government, centered in Olympia, Washington and Athens, Georgia, are cooperating, to an extent, to make plans for an election, with hopes of reestablishing a true national government.  However, throughout the middle of the country are huge areas controlled by tribes who embrace the goals of the Daybreak movement.

The whole Daybreak movement is, in my opinion, the weakest element of Daybreak Zero, even though it is central to the plot.  Their goal, the eradication of the human race, it at odds with many of their methods (as you might expect).  Once some of the Daybreakers gain power, they seem very interested in enjoying the perks of their position and don't seem to be in too big a hurry to shut it all down.  Also, Daybreak is more than an influential philosophy.  It's a mental virus that can be passed along.  Sometimes people can catch it by merely thinking Daybreak-ish thoughts.  I tried to ignore this part of the story.  Unfortunately, it becomes important a few times.

Barnes's strength is creating the world of Daybreak.  How people travel and communicate, how towns and regions structured, how trade occurs.  It's not altogether convincing, but in broad strokes I felt like he established the setting well.

Daybreak Zero is number two in the trilogy.  I'll be picking up number 3, if for no other reason than to see if the Daybreakers end up destroying humanity, or if the reestablished U.S. government succeeds in moving culture forward.

Monday, December 4, 2017

You're Not That Great, by Elan Gale

Elan Gale has a message for you: you're not that great.  In You're Not That Great (but neither is anyone else), Gale doesn't spread a lot of sunshine, but he does offer a little kick in the butt.  He has some advice to help readers to be less not great.  Gale, best known for his TV series The Bachelor, overcame some of his own failures and setbacks to achieve a high level of success in the world of entertainment.  Maybe you can be better too.

The best part of You're Not That Great is chapter one, in which he reminds us about our inauspicious beginnings.  "You began your life as a leech. . . . Your first act in this beautiful world was to cause the highest possible amount of pain to the person who loved you most.  Nice work."  In spite of the pain and hassles you caused, your parents still wanted you to think you were great.  They told you your art was great, but "you probably drew a ridiculous son in the corner like some kind of idiot who has no sense of scale and no idea that if the sun were really that close it would burn all of our skin off.  Idiot."

From there You're Not That Great becomes less funny and more challenging.  Gale points out that the baseless positive affirmation we receive as children becomes an addiction.  We crave positivity.  "You are hopelessly and totally committed to FEELING GOOD when really you should be focused on BEING BETTER."  Gale insisted that to be less not great, you need to learn from your failures, admit your own ignorance, stop dwelling on your regrets, learn from your mistakes, and use your shame, anxiety, and depression as "the building blocks you need to create a less sh---y life than the one you have."

Gale is profane, in your face, and unpleasant, but he is also practical and realistic.  This is quite different from most self-help books, but probably more self-helpful (and entertaining) than most.

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

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Us, by Curtis Wiklund

Curtis Wiklund makes his living as a photographer, but he accepted his wife's challenge to sketch their marriage every day for a year.  The resulting collection is Us, a wonderfully heartwarming look at Curtis and his wife Jordin's life together as newlyweds.

The illustrations range from rough sketches to lovely watercolors.  Mostly they are black and white line drawings.  As simple as the drawings are, they capture the couple's friendship and intimacy.  Curtis shows his deep affection for Jordin with these drawings.  I don't know this couple at all, but seeing their young love portrayed here made me want to go do something fun with my wife, to give her kisses, or to snuggle on the couch. 

Maybe it's wrong to appreciate a book more for how it makes me feel than for the actual content.  But I have a feeling Curtis, a wedding photographer, would not object to my saying Us inspired me to love my wife of 25 years like a newlywed.

You should also check out the video of him proposing to Jordin:

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

Saturday, December 2, 2017

50 Wacky Things Humans Do, by Joe Rhatigan, illustrated by Lisa Perrett

In the same spirit as his 50 Wacky Inventions Throughout History, Joe Rhatigan has written 50 Wacky Things Humans Do.  This title is chock full of all kinds of surprising and entertaining facts about the human body.  Did you know your body actually emits light?  That your fingers don't have any muscles?  That your farts could fill a party balloon in a day?

Rhatigan's text, which includes legitimate, helpful information as well as silly trivia, is accompanied by Lisa Perrett's colorful, silly illustrations.  Kids will love flipping through this book and learning lots of interesting things about their bodies.

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

Holy Rascals, by Rami Shapiro

Rami Shapiro is a holy rascal.  I thought his book Holy Rascals: Advice for Spiritual Revolutionaries would be a fun, satirical poke at organized religion.  He is, or was, after all, a rabbi who served in a congregation for many years.  But, disappointingly, he is unfunny, arrogant, and one-dimensional.  He wants "people to see religion for what it is: a cultural construct, rather than what religious claim to be: absolute truth."

Given his rejection of absolute truth, he goes to the other extreme: self-centered, self-proclaimed truth.  "Believe only what you yourself judge to be true."  This leaves little room for any objective truth or power outside of oneself.  As it should be, he would argue from his panentheistic perspective.  You are God, so create and believe your own truth.

His advice to holy rascal wanna-bes is not "to make fun of what others believe, or to mock those who believe it, but to skillfully pull back the curtain that masks the absurdities of belief systems and that protects those who benefit from them."  This is fine, as far as it goes.  Some religious beliefs, frankly, deserve mocking.  The problem is that he rolls all faiths together, as if none had any historic grounding or credibility.  It's as if this guy--who holds a Ph.D. from an esteemed seminary which, in prior generations, produced great Christian thinkers, but now can barely be called theist--has never heard of the field of Christian apologetics and disregards the historical basis on which Christianity is based.

If you are going to mock something, please do so with a basis in truth.  Shapiro's approach, claiming that there is no truth besides whatever you decide to believe, is unhelpful in that it ignores any objective elements of faith.  Really, though, the biggest problem is that Holy Rascals completely fails to be funny.  At least make me laugh while you skewer belief systems.  Shapiro comes across more as a curmudgeon whom you certainly would not invite to dinner again after he acted like such a jerk last time you had him over.

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