Monday, December 31, 2018

Outrage, Inc., by Derek Hunter

Are you a conservative who feels like the media and entertainment industries are out to tear down everything you hold dear?  It's not your imagination, and it's not right-wing paranoia.  Derek Hunter documents this phenomenon and provides copious examples in Outrage, Inc.: How the Liberal Mob Ruined Science, Journalism, and Hollywood

Part of the problem, especially with the media, is that "outrage fuels page views, and page views equal money."  The click-driven economy determines what stories are promoted, the more outrageous the better.  But they compound the problem with the selective outrage.  If a celebrity is a known progressive, his or her problematic social media goofs are given a pass much more quickly than a more conservative person's goofs or gaffes. 

Science has become infected by the bug of bias and progressivism.  Scientists--or people who play scientists on TV--are promoted as experts in fields in which they have no expertise, simply because they are articulate and photogenic while promoting progressive talking points.  Celebrities who have become famous for their skills reciting lines on the movie screen are sought out for their opinions on matters cultural and scientific simply because of their recognizability and popularity.

Hunter was counted among the Never Trumper conservative crowd in the 2016 election, and certainly does not act as a Trump mouthpiece.  However, he does share Trump's frustration with the unbalanced reporting that dominates the airwaves and internet.  Hunter's answer?  Don't turn off media and entertainment, but be aware of the bias that permeates it all, and question everything.  "Liberals are attempting to craft safe spaces where their views and opinions won't be challenged.  Don't accept that."  Hunter makes great arguments, provides abundant examples to support his thesis, and challenges the liberal stranglehold on the media.  We would be wise to follow his lead.

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

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book Love, by Debbie Tung

Do you love books?  You probably don't love books as much as Debbie Tung, but every book lover will love Tung's cartoon collection Book Love.  Tung's life clearly revolves around reading.  For everyone who looks forward to escaping with a book, who gets a little excited about seeing a friend's stuffed bookshelf, who can't resist a book sale, and who just might prefer the company of a book to the company of other people, you will smile in solidarity with this book lover.

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Billionaire at the Barricades, by Laura Ingraham

Donald Trump doesn't have many cheerleaders in the media more enthusiastic than Laura Ingraham.  The Fox News personality jumped on the Trump train early and has remained a vocal supporter.  Her book Billionaire at the Barricades: The Populist Revolution from Reagan to Trump looks at the movement that put Trump in the White House, starting a generation ago with Reagan and the movement he created.

Ingraham's walk through the last several decades of presidential history brings the modern populist movement into clear focus.  It's a walk down nostalgia lane, and a look at several presidential administrations through a unique lens. 

Trump's popularity and ultimate election can be attributed to many things, but his speaking to and for the working class and middle class voters sealed his place in politics.  As Ingraham points out, Trump is not an ideological conservative or libertarian.  He's a pragmatic businessman who wants to do what is best for American workers, workers who have felt like they haven't had a president looking out for their interests for many years.

Trump is far from perfect, but America is better off with him at the helm than with Hillary.  Ingraham reminds us of Hillary's contempt for many Americans, we "deplorables," which only follows from her boss Obama, who said we're clinging to our guns and religion.  Trump may be self-destructing his administration with every ill-advised tweet, but when he does manage to push through his agenda items and get his appointments confirmed, America wins.  Here's hoping for four more years!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Periods Say Stop, by Michael Dahl, illustrated by Chris Garbutt

It's about time the tiny yet so significant period gets the recognition it deserves.  Michael Dahl's Periods Say Stop., with illustrations by Chris Garbutt, shows how hard periods work.  They have many jobs and prevent sentences from going on and on, giving readers a chance to take a breath.

The illustrations are vivid and busy, and the text is full of energy, but Dahl doesn't skimp on the educational element to the book.  He includes descriptions of sentence types and lists other tasks that periods fulfill.

It's not a grammar text book, but it's a fun way to introduce and reinforce the purposes of periods.  You'll like this book.  Period.

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

Friday, December 21, 2018

Virtue Signaling, by John Scalzi

I enjoy seeing an author pull back the curtain so his readers can get to know him.  Sci-fi author John Scalzi has been doing that for years on his Whatever blog (  Here he posts personal, topical, timely, witty, and random thoughts about life, family, politics, culture, or whatever is on his mind. Scalzi’s new book, Virtue Signaling and Other Heresies: Selected Writings from Whatever, 2013-2018, collects a variety of these blogs into book form.

The best bits are Scalzi’s reflections and stories about family. He is crazy about his wife and daughter  He holds his mother—who raised him as a single mom after his dad left—in high esteem. He also writes lovingly about his school and the teachers who shaped him and the libraries that have sustained him throughout his life. He writes, “Every time I publish a new book—every time—the first hardcover copy goes to my wife and the second goes to the Bradford library.”  Scalzi is a man with a deep appreciation for the forces and people who shaped him, and a desire to pass along his good fortune to make a better world.

Some of the passion, on the other hand, is pretty annoying. Scalzi is WOKE and be wants you to know it. He was for gay marriage before it was cool. He is absolutely NOT racist, sexist, or homophobic. And if he thinks you are, you are surely an a—hole. He talks about being tolerant of other beliefs, but, for most of the things he cares about, if you disagree with him you are an a—hole.

Scalzi’s biggest target is President Trump, “just about the biggest a—hole in all of the United States of America.”  Trump “is a terrible person and an even worse president, probably the worst in living memory.”  Like so many of Trump’s critics, of which there are legion, he takes anything Trump says or does and gives it the most uncharitable spin. I am aware Trump offers much to criticize, but Scalzi can’t bear the thought that Trump and his policies might accomplish something positive for the country.

He beats the drum of Trump’s racism repeatedly. Of course, according to Scalzi, I’m clearly a racist if I even dare to suggest that Trump is not a racist. He might throw me in the with the “race-baiting xenophobic religious bigots” that he says now populate the GOP. He can’t se the good Trump has done and is doing for black Americans and other minorities, and he can’t seem to see any of the negatives that drove voters away from Hilary. On the blog this vitriol dripped out over several years. Packing it into a book was overload. Yuck.

In a couple of his essays, Scalzi talked about appreciating the work of an artist who has had a moral fall. E.g., enjoying a book by an author who is a known rapist. I agree with him, that the art can be separated from the artist. I can enjoy Bill Cosby’s comedy routines whole not approving of his taking advantage of women. In the same way, I can enjoy Scalzi’s fiction while being disgusted by his vicious, unbalanced derision of the President of the United States.

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

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Last Call for Liberty, by Os Guinness

For many decades Os Guiness, a resident alien living in the U.S., has offered insightful and prophetic commentary on the state and direction of his adopted nation.  In Last Call for Liberty: How America's Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat he returns to themes he has addressed before, bringing his assessments up to date.

The United States is in a struggle between conflicting visions of freedom.  "A false and cancerous 'freedom' has started attacking healthy freedom."  From a historical perspective, Guinness characterizes it as a struggle between the ideals of the revolutions of 1776 in the United States and 1789 in France. The modern left in the U.S. is heir more to 1789 than 1776.  "The seismic shifts accompanying the 1960s counterculture, and in particular the shift from the older classical liberalism to the new Left/liberalism, were deliberate.  They represented a powerful counterrevolution that at numerous points has shown itself the true heir of 1789 . . . than 1776."

American liberty, Guinness writes, is built around covenant and community, not libertinism and communalism.  Unlike the French Revolution, the United States is built on free expression of religion, not on the rejection of religion.  The creeping influence of 1789 has had an impact on political life in the U.S.  "There are many partisans and few statesmen" in American public life.  As the last few years have shown, political divisions are deep.  "The 'Never Trumpers,' both Democrats and his fellow Republicans, and politicians, journalists, academics, as well as celebrities, have developed such a manic obsession about the president that they cannot see straight or talk of much else."  This "crisis," though, is less a reflection of one man's flaws, but of society's crisis of understanding of freedom.

Guinness doesn't leave the reader completely without hope.  But the wrong view of freedom, the "striking genius for freedom has become [America's] Achilles' heel and now threatens [America's] premature and quite unnecessary decline."  We can still "stay true to the better angels of [our] founding promise" but it seems like the decline into 1789 seems powerful and perhaps irreversible.  We need voices like Guinness's to keep us heading in the right direction.

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

Monday, December 17, 2018

Liars' Paradox, by Taylor Stevens

Taylor Stevens's Vanessa Michael Monroe series is a strong action series with a memorable, bad-to-the-bone female lead character.  With Liar's Paradox, Stevens begins the Jack and Jill series.  This new series in the same genre of international action and intrigue, but, so far, Jack and Jill don't measure up to Monroe.

Jack and Jill are twins, now in their 20s, who have been raised by Clare, their mysterious, paranoid, reclusive mother.  They spend their entire childhood on the run, never knowing their father.  Clare trains them in the arts of self-defense, spy craft, survival, hand-to-hand combat, weapons, and staying invisible.

The story starts with Jack kidnapping Jill from her boyfriend's house.  He drags Jill against her will on a road trip to their mom's house, an off-the-grid hideout in the middle of nowhere.  Just as they arrive, the house blows up, and Jack and Jill come under fire.  Thus begins the flow of the book: Jack and Jill, on the run, hunter and hunted.  They want to find whoever killed or kidnapped their mother.  Jack and Jill are hunted by hired killers.  The chase, the plotting, and the fighting become the focus of the book.

Stevens writes the action well.  The fighting and hunting scenes are breathless and exciting.  The weakness of Liar's Paradox is the rest of the story.  Why are these people hunting each other?  Who is Clare, really?  Who's calling the shots?  To the extent that these questions are answered, I never really cared.  Stevens falls into the same problem as a number of movies I've seen, where assassins are targeting each other but the motivations are murky.  That's the case here.  Stevens sheds little light on who these assassins have worked for, or who their targets have been.  We just know they are now targeting each other.  It just seems pointless and cartoonish. . . .

Nevertheless, as I said, Stevens writes good scenes.  It's just the framework holding it all together that was sketchy.  Now that she has created these characters and developed their backstory, I could see this series taking off when she comes up with an actual story going forward.

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

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Joylandia, by Tronchet

Welcome to Joylandia, where every day is Christmas!  Why is every day Christmas?  Because the president has declared it.  And in support of his declaration that everyone must be merry and bright, patrols of Santas roam the streets, seeking out anyone who is not properly joyful.  Joylandia, a graphic novel by Tronchet, develops that premise in a bleak, madcap, and ultimately not particularly enjoyable way.

The Christmas joy of Joylandia is enforced by a powerful police state.  Rebels--those who might actually not want to celebrate Christmas everyday--are hunted down and captured.  When a regular guy falls in love with a woman in the underground, a woman who's not particularly interested in him, he gets swept up and becomes a target of the evil chief of police.

I didn't see a lot to appreciate in this comic.  The idea of Christmas every day was amusing at first, but the joke gets old fast.  The love story and intrigue are silly.  This might be right up someone's alley, but I didn't like it very much.

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

Friday, December 14, 2018

Run the World, by Becky Wade

After a successful college running career at Rice University, Becky Wade won a Watson Fellowship, which enabled her to travel the world experiencing distance running cultures in a wide variety of countries.  First of all, what a fabulous, one-of-a-kind opportunity!  You'll be a bit envious of Wade's adventures and travels as you read Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe

England to Switzerland, New Zealand to Japan, to Sweden and Finland and points between, Wade meets up with local runners, watches and competes in races of a variety of lengths, and hangs out with running club members.  While she gathers tips and training practices from the runners she meets, Run the World  is really more of a travelogue.  There's lots of running, but also lots of food (she includes recipes in each chapter), the ins and outs of travel, and the many friends she makes along the way.

Her observations about running are more cultural than technical.  In Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, she finds that they have "a culture that breeds many of the qualities that happen to make distance runners: discipline, resilience, self awareness, and most of all, a desperate drive to succeed."  Each culture teaches her a little something about running, which she put to work in her training.  Wade's ultimate goal is to run the marathon at the Olympics.  She has certainly put in the miles, and, as you get to know her while reading Run the World you'll become a fan, cheering her on.

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Conscience, by Andrew David Naselli and J.D. Crowley

Andrew Naselli and J.D. Crowley's Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ is that rare book that is theologically and biblically sound, philosophically engaging, though-provoking and thoughtful, challenging and readable.  Naselli, a New Testament scholar, and Crowley, a missionary and linguist, put their heads together to discuss the idea of conscience.

Writing from the perspective of the Christian faith, the authors don't neglect the psychological view of conscience, but focus primarily on a biblical view.  I appreciate their distinction between the conscience and the Holy Spirit.  While our conscience can be changed due to cultural norms and biblical understanding, the Holy Spirit does not change.  They write that "when the message [of the conscience] is consistent with Scripture, the Holy Spirit is likely working through your conscience."

Naselli and Crowley's ideas about the calibration of conscience were particularly thought-provoking.  In a single culture and across cultures, conscience changes.  As D.A. Carson writes in the preface, American Christianity, "by determined suppression a new generation silences the voice of conscience in many sexual matters, and teases it alive when it comes to the importance of finding out where your coffee beans were grown and what we should do to protect the most recently highlighted victim."  It is certainly interesting to compare what inflames the passions from one generation to the next.

Across cultures, the differences can be even more stark and challenging.  Cultural mores regarding food, clothing, modesty, giving and generosity, personal space, ownership of goods, and many more issues vary from place to place and people to people.  In many cases, we tend to tie culture to Christianity.  Paul's example of eating with Gentiles and becoming all things to all men sets the tone for missionary work.  The authors warn future missionaries that "you can't live this kind of life if your conscience is cluttered with all manner of restrictions that God hasn't instituted."

Both moving across cultures and seeking to live a more Christian life, we have to work on calibrating and flexing our consciences.  Calibrating to bring our conscience more in line with the Holy Spirit and biblical teaching, flexing to make sure we are not imposing cultural norms on the lived Christian experience of our brothers and sisters in different cultures.  Naselli and Crowley will challenge you to consider your convictions and to rely more on the Bible to check you conscience.

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

Monday, December 10, 2018

The State of the Evangelical Mind, ed. Todd C. Ream, Jerry A. Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers

I remember, as a graduate student at a major Christian university, the wide-ranging impact that Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind had when it was published in 1995.  His point and influence endure, as demonstrated, among other things, by the publication of The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future.  This collection of essays, including one by Noll itself, is occasion to assess the state of evangelical academic and intellectual life.

The heart of the book features essays on three sources for promoting Christian intellectual rigor and thought parachurch organizations, Christian colleges, and seminaries.  For a while in college I was involved in Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru).  I always viewed it and other campus organizations as a means for personal conversion and discipleship.  Of course that's a big part of it, but as David Mahan and C. Donald Smedley argue, these organizations can be a training ground for scholars to apply their faith to their academic fields.  This should have been obvious to me, but it was revelatory and gives me a greater respect for the importance of these groups on secular campuses.

One would hope that Christian colleges would be fertile ground for Christian intellectualism.  Unfortunately this is not always the case.  Timothy Larsen recalls John Henry Newman's influential book The Idea of a University and challenges Christians campuses to live up to his ideal.  Lauren F. Winner similarly discusses the role of seminaries in promoting intellectual life.

James K.A. Smith looks to the future, pointing to the importance of Christian scholarship that reaches more broadly than an institution's own historical and theological roots, toward a catholicism (with a little c).  He wins points for me because of his positive note about my alma mater, Baylor University, with its "vibrancy and growth of Christian scholarly endeavors."  However, his essay is fatally marred by a little political rant.  Amid a book with an admirable scholarly tone which thus far had managed to call out, in a pastoral way, evangelicals to deepen intellectual engagement and commitments, Smith writes this: "Nobody can be excited about the 'state of the evangelical mind' when 81 percent of white evangelicals voted in the 2016 US presidential election for Donald Trump, a lecherous, vicious, small-minded manchild who not only spurned evangelical distinctives like forgiveness but consistently emboldens racists and gives comfort to white nationalism."  Agree with him or not, I have to wonder how the editors of this book allowed this vitriol to stay in this book.  Besides, it ignores the fact that many, if not most, of those voters recognized Trump's shortcomings but considered the many moral, political, ethical, and personal failings of his 2016 opponent to be much greater.  My point is, this is not a crucial part of Smith's argument, but it soured the entire essay for me.  (Besides, Smith is Canadian.  Leave US politics alone, eh?)

Noll's work is not replaced with this book, but the challenge he laid out certainly continues.  While I appreciate and agree with the authors' mission, there is a sense of intellectual snobbery here.  The things they say about evangelicals' shortcomings in the intellectual realm certainly can be applied to everyone.  I would imagine plenty of professors at their secular universities would bemoan students' lack of intellectual engagement and their obsession with pop culture.  And the editors of the publications like The Atlantic or The New York Review of Books wish for a higher level of intellectual culture.  And, of course, PBS will never have as many viewers as The Bachelor.

Intellectual snobbery aside, evangelical pastors and professors must take up the mantle to promote critical thinking and intellectual engagement among their charges.  And Christian scholars and professionals in every field must live and teach in such a way that demonstrates the relevance and importance of the gospel in every part of life.

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

Sunday, December 9, 2018

P is for Pteradactyl, by Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter, pictures by Maria Tina Beddia

Raj Haldar (the rapper known as Lushlife) and Chris Carpenter don't want kids to be confused about silent letters.  Or maybe they do.  P is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever lives up to its name, but it's still a lot of fun. 

In traditional alphabet book style, each page features a letter and a corresponding word (__ is for ______) along with a line or two of text with additional words that use that letter and a cute picture by Maria Tina Beddia.  The letters are either silent or else sound like other letters.  One of my faves: "The gnome yells, 'Waiter! THere's a bright white gnat nibbling on my gnocchi!'"  The pictures include additional bits and pieces related to the letter.  At the end a glossary defines and explains the words.

This is probably not the book to buy for the child who is learning the sounds of the alphabet.  But at the next level, when kids are beginning to read and recognize the fun and frustrating complexity of the English language, P is for Pterodactyl will make them smile.

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Reckoning, by John Grisham

I'm one of those readers who reads a new John Grisham book as soon as I can grab it.  That said, as much as I was looking forward to The Reckoning, and as much as I enjoyed reading it, I was ultimately very disappointed.

The Reckoning opens with Pete Banning, pillar of the community, war hero, faithful church member, walking into his pastor's office and shooting him, killing him in cold blood.  He doesn't try to hide it, doesn't contest his conviction, and is executed without a word in his defense.  His motives go to the grave with him.

At one point in his trial, the defense lawyer offers a lengthy description and testimony about his service in World War 2.  He was a POW in the Philippines, suffered in the Bataan Death March, escaped, and fought heroically as a guerrilla for several years, until the end of the war.  The prosecution stepped in at some point and argued that as heroic as Pete was, it has nothing to do with the pastor's murder or the trial.

After the execution, Grisham jumps back in time to Pete's military service.  He includes a lengthy, detailed description of a part of WW2 history about which I knew little.  Assuming it's at least loosely based on historical facts, and that Pete's exploits are based on the experiences of real soldiers, Grisham shines in his dramatizing this historical moment.  I'm grateful to have this perspective, and inspired to read more about the Pacific theater.  However, I have to agree with the lawyer: this had very little to do with the story at hand. 

Then back to the present, in which Pete's sister, widow, and children are dealing with the aftermath, and facing a legal challenge from the pastor's widow, who is seeking damages.  So what's the big secret? Why did Pete murder his pastor?  You think you sort of know as you read.  When the answer is finally revealed in the final few pages of the book, it's sort of what you think but not quite.  Ultimately, I thought, "This is what Grisham was driving at the whole time?  Yawn." 

Yes, Grisham tells some great WW2 stories.  Yes, he writes in a way that compels me to keep reading.  Yes, it's nice to return to this post-WW2 era in the south, where Grisham's talent shines.  Yes, there is some legal and courtroom drama that we expect from Grisham.  Despite all that, the whole thing doesn't work together very well.  The Reckoning will make Grisham's readers long for some of his stronger legal fiction

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Lewis on the Christian Life, by Joe Rigney

As I read Joe Rigney's Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Kingdom of God analogy came to mind.  Imagine an art museum you have frequently visited.  It's full of great works by your favorite artists.  You have visited many times over the years and are familiar with the works on display.  Then you have the opportunity to take a personally guided tour with the curator.  As you walk through the museum, the curator discusses each piece, pointing out features you haven't noticed before, drawing together themes that transcend multiple pieces, lending insight of someone with a different, knowledgeable perspective.  Rigney proves to be a worthy guide through Lewis's work.

One of the themes Rigney draws on throughout is Lewis's dualism, "body and soul, enjoyment and contemplation, God and self, pride and humility."  Perhaps the greatest dualism is the "wedding of reason and imagination."  That, truly, is what sets Lewis apart and has made him one of the most beloved writers of the twentieth century.  He argues with such clarity while inspiring our imagination.  The imagery with which he writes helps the concepts stick with us.

The book is thematically arranged, but each chapter flows together with the others to present what feels like a thorough overview.  Obviously there will be more to be said, but Rigney, as a good curator, inspires the reader to dwell on and return to the source, while emphasizing Lewis's pointing us toward The Source.

Let Rigney be your guide.  I have read and studied Lewis's writing for decades, including reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a child and taking a course on Lewis in college.  But as anyone who reads Lewis knows, re-reading Lewis is never a waste of time, and learning from a scholar and writer like Rigney is bound to bring insight to even the most avid Lewis fan.

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

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Pure in Heart, by Mark Miller

Josh Mason was doing his best to pastor his small Baptist church, trying to live like Jesus, serving his congregation and his community.  Dave Johnson has made his mission exposing pastors and destroying their careers.  In Mark Miller's novel The Pure in Heart these two preachers' kids' paths cross.  The question is, will either man's life be changed as a result?

Dave's father was an abusive and controlling, driving Dave away from the faith.  He was actually a criminal sexual predator, but apparently was not held accountable for it.  Dave understandably looked upon clergy with suspicion.  When Dave's own pastor had an affair with his wife, that was the last straw.  He hit the road, searching for pastors to bring down.  He aimed at sexual impropriety and financial irregularities.  His pattern was to ingratiate himself to a new church, then sow rumors, uncover secrets, and, at least once, going as far as seducing the pastor's wife.  The more havoc he left and the more pastors' resignations he forced, the better.

When Josh answered a call at church from someone asking how to be saved, he never would have guessed that Dave, on the other end of the line, was out to destroy him.  The problem is that Dave actually met a pastor who, while he may not be perfect, is conscientious and honorable.  Josh agrees to meet Dave and ends up spending most of a day with him.  Dave peppers him with questions, relentless trying to call him out for hypocrisy, pushing Josh to lend him his car and give him money (after denying that he wants any money).

Miller works in some entertaining and insightful conversations about money, racism, and the role of the pastor.  A pastor himself, he paints a realistic picture of life as a small-town, small-church pastor.  Sure, he preaches and leads Bible studies, but he also runs church ministries, community outreaches, and, of course, mows the grass.  I think any pastor will be able to relate to Miller's realistic, un-romanticized view of ministry.

The Pure in Heart is a fun, breezy read.  It's not too heavy on the preaching, and Josh doesn't come up with a lot of easy answers.  Miller will prompt some questions and discussion about ministry and benevolence, evangelism and giving, and that question so many of us face: when is it OK not give?  As I read, I thought many times about the "show, don't tell" maxim for writers.  Miller spends a lot of time telling and not showing.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book and appreciate the honesty, experience, and thoughtfulness he brings to the story.

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

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Point of It All, by Charles Krauthammer

If there was ever a time we needed someone like Charles Krauthammer, it is now.  Sadly, the conservative commentator passed away in June.  It was a huge loss for the world of political commentary.  There are few talking heads on the air or in print today who possess his grace, wisdom, insight, and overall perspective.  Before he passed away, he gathered some of his work in the newly published The Point of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors.  

These columns and essays span decades.  Even the older ones, though, remain relevant in providing context and insight for today's political environment.  On the personal side, Krauthammer reveals his love of chess and baseball in a number of the essays.  He also gives some insight into his physical limitations.  Krauthammer readers are probably aware that, while a student at Harvard Medical School, he became paralyzed from the waist down.  He finished his medical degree and practice psychiatry for several years before shifting to his writing career.

Krauthammer was a great advocate for the disabled, but chose not be defined by his disability or to use it as an excuse not to live productively.  He writes, "Disability . . . neither ennobles nor degrades.  I frames experience.  It does not define it."  In a letter to a young man who had recently suffered a spinal cord injury similar to his own, he wrote that "a good and productive and deeply enjoyable life is there waiting for you. . . . Life is more difficult with a spinal cord injury.  But the obstacles are not insurmountable."

The essays in The Point of It All cover a wide array of political topics and reveal Krauthammer's consistent, principled conservatism.  On guns, "There's only one gun law that would make a difference: confiscation. . . . And in this country, confiscation is impossible."  On politically correct efforts to reject the Western canon at universities: "Affirmative action for great books is an embarrassment. . . . A pastiche of 'global culture' for a population utterly ungrounded in its own produces the most haphazard jumble of knowledge."

In discussing the press, Krauthammer takes Trump's side--sort of.  The press is "the opposition party" whose front pages are "festooned . . . with anti-Trump editorializing masquerading as news."  Nevertheless, this is better than "a press acquiescing on bended knee, where it spent most of the Obama years in a slavish Pravda-like thrall."  

One can only hope that Krauthammer's admirers and former colleagues will take up his mantle of steady reasonableness and conservative thought.  I have seen, on at least two occasions, Fox News using video of Krauthammer's commentary even after his passing.  Clearly he has left a void.  Until a worthy successor appears, we can revisit his thinking in his many writings.

Thanks to NetGalley for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Sex Myth, by Rachel Hills

Rachel Hills said she learned about sex as a teenager by reading Cosmopolitan.  Based on the headlines I see at the grocery checkout line, that's a shaky foundation.  In The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality, she explores the myths portrayed by Cosmo and other elements of pop culture and gives her assessment of sexual mores today.

In her efforts to be open and nonjudgmental, Hills tends to promote a no-holds-barred hedonism.  In her mind, sex used to be a secret, dirty thing that no one talked about and that was only supposed to happen for reproduction.  Now it is an open, public act that should be talked about, practiced, experimented with, and portrayed however, whenever, and with whomever one likes.  She tempers her position a bit by saying that there should be no shame in having no or very little sex, but her complete rejection of taboo and long-held cultural norms is disturbing.

Hills makes the error of caricaturing past views of sex, rolling in religious views with the past.  She needs to recognize the traditional Christian view: sex is for reproduction and pleasure, monogamy leads to greater sexual satisfaction in life, and the negative social, physical, and psychological costs of non-marital, non-monogamous sex are great.  (Granted, some Christians have taught a more repressive view of sex, but that no longer seems to be the norm, if it ever was.)

To Hill and her many interview subjects, there are no limits to the experimenting and coupling that one might pursue.  Alas, part of the "sex myth" is that one finds that most people are having a lot less sex than you think they are.  Also, it's not as big a deal as Cosmo and all those rom-coms make it out to be.  Hill tries to take the mystery and forbiddenness out of sex and describe it as just another bodily function that one may or may not participate in, and if one does, one may participate in any manner he or she pleases.

I just don't see a lot of value in The Sex Myth.  Maybe it gives a journalistic perspective on current sexual practices among the millennial generation, but she gives no indication that her interviews are anything more than randomly selected, anecdotal accounts.  Her presentation is far from being a representative sampling.  So, not much insight, moral vacuity, and no great conclusions.  Pass.

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

Monday, November 26, 2018

Pop Kult Warlord, by Nick Cole

In Nick Cole's Soda Pop Soldier, we met PerfectQuestion, one of the world's leading online gamers.  Cole appropriately opens the sequel, Pop Kult Warlord, with PQ winning the Super Bowl of gaming.  PQ says, "There used to be another Super Bowl, someone told me, before the Meltdown.  But it got all Social Justice and no one watched it anymore."  He's a pro, with more earnings than he can spend, and millions watch from home and gathered in stadiums to watch him play.  He's not necessarily in it for the money, but for the hunt.  But when, before PQ's even had a chance to have a good night's sleep after the Super Bowl, his agent calls him with an offer of five million dollars in gold for a month's work, even PQ can't turn that down.

His new client is a prince in Calistan, a Muslim caliphate carved out of a portion of Southern California after the Meltdown.  Rashid has seemingly endless wealth, and puts PQ in charge of Calistan's presence in a civilization building game.  For reasons that PQ doesn't immediately grasp, Rashid wants him not to build up the civilization in the game, as one might expect, but to destroy others, without regard to wasting the resources of other powers.  This game is a sort of petri dish of international relations.  Other countries have a presence in the game, and Rashid wants to establish Calistan's dominance by attacking them.

PQ quickly becomes convinced that he's being used, and that he's trapped in Calistan until Rashid is satisfied that PQ has done his bidding.  The class divisions and downright evil that reveals itself sours PQ's taste for the job to the point that he's willing to give up the gold if he can just get out with his life.  On top of that, his "agent" turns out to the a CIA agent; PQ is an unwitting pawn in a larger geopolitical plot.

As in Soda Pop Soldier, Cole weaves the online action and the IRL (in real life) action together seamlessly.  Even a non-gamer like me can appreciate the action and the interactions.  Besides these two worlds, PQ has long, vivid, detailed dreams, in which he's on a video-game-like quest to defeat an evil villain.  To be honest, for much of the book I thought this part of the story was an uncharacteristic distraction.  I should have given Cole more credit!  It all comes together in the end.

(On a side note, Cole really loves writing about food.  On two or three occasions, I was ready to book a flight to LA to track down the restaurants from which the meals in the book came.  It's rude to make a guy so hungry while he's reading!  Next time I'm in LA, I'll treat Nick to some donuts or some Pizza Ravi.)

Cole doesn't write much about the Meltdown, but he give some hints.  PQ says the "world before the Meltdown" was "a madhouse of grievance action and social justice.  And all of it a scam for cheap power and wealth redistribution."  Sounds pretty accurate.  When PQ is trying to get out of Calistan, he reflects, "If I ever make it back to America. . . I won't leave for a really long time.  Freedom ain't free, and. . . it's pretty great."  Amen to that.  These insights into Cole's point of view provide some background but he doesn't let political points detract from the story. 

Pop Kult Warlord is a fun, fast-paced read with attitude.  It's a worthy follow-up to Soda Pop Soldier and, hopefully, a set-up for an even cooler sequel.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Cracking the Cube, by Ian Scheffler

Like many kids of the 80s, I was enamored with Rubik's Cube.  I stayed up late trying to figure it out, couldn't, so bought a book that showed me how.  I never got very fast, but could reliably solve it faster than most of my friends.  Ian Scheffler got pretty fast.  He writes about his adventures in cubing in Cracking the Cube: Going Slow to Go Fast and Other Unexpected Turns in the World of Competitive Rubik's Cube Solving.

Part travelogue, part journal, part history, Cracking the Cube is a nostalgia trip for many.  Scheffler writes about the invention of the cube, its unlikely entrance into the international toy market, and its proliferation throughout popular culture.  He even gets to meet Rubik himself!  The cube made Erno Rubik Hungary's most famous and wealthy citizen. 

As Scheffler seeks to improve his own times, he gives historical and first-hand accounts of competitive cubing around the world.  I am very impressed that he got his average below 20 seconds.  However, that puts him a long way from winning most competitions.  The best cubers can solve it in five seconds.  If you're not solving it in ten seconds, you're not even close to the top 1000 in the world rankings.

Scheffler does a nice job of portraying the personal side of competitive cubing.  As he tells it, these aren't cut-throat competitions, but gatherings of passionate cubers who are always trying for a personal best.  Lasting friendships develop, and competitors openly share strategies.  People who are not into cubing at all might find some of his musings a bit tiresome, but I think even non-cubers can appreciate Scheffler's style and the passion he brings and describes in cube world.

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

White Picket Fences, by Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker's book White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided by Privilege has such a nice title. . . but I don't buy into her argument.  She is in the school of thought that takes the short step from white privilege to white guilt.  She grew up in a world of privilege that the vast majority of white people would recognize as rare privilege: generational wealth, boarding school, Ivy League education, and all the social and career opportunities those things bring.  Like a lot of wealthy white liberals, she retains a hearty sense of guilt for the unfairness of it all.

Her experiences have been tempered by some of her life's circumstances.  She is a Christian, and sees her background and position as a part of who she is as a Christian.  She undoubtedly has a deep faith which informs her life and perspectives.  As a mother of child living with Down syndrome, her views on privilege have certainly expanded.  Like any parent of a child living with a disability, she quickly recognized the ways which society's structures work against the child's success.

As much as I admire and respect Becker's desire to live faithfully and to use her position and, yes, privilege to serve others, her views on race and privilege don't relate to most of the rest of the world.  I am grateful and blessed by the time and place of my birth, by the love and stability of my family, by the experiences I have had in my education, career, community, and church.  I don't feel guilty that other people have not had the same experiences.  I don't think I have to apologize for any of it.  I do believe that the point of life is to live for Christ and live for others, no matter where you started from.  I recognize that life is hard and unfair for some people all the time and for some people all the time.

I don't know Becker at all.  I suspect I would like her a lot.  But I really didn't like the premise of her book.  I tired of the apologetic, self-condemning tone of it.  She writes, for example, "Our affluence . . . fences us off from other people.  We can afford to pay for the 'best' of everything . . . and in so doing, we don't interact much with people who can't afford those opportunities.  Unless we consciously choose for it not to, affluence cordons us into relationships with other people with wealth."  She writes about their idyllic little New England town, where her husband is headmaster at an elite boarding school.  I want to tell her, don't feel bad!  You don't have to purge yourself and apologize for the path your life has taken!

At one point, I thought she sounded rather ungrateful.  While she and her husband celebrated all the seemingly providential ways it worked out for him to get his current job, the exact sort of position he had hoped for, she began to doubt herself.  It wasn't providence, she thought, it was privilege.  His getting the job was just a matter of the privileged education he had, the privileged circles he ran in, and the privilege of his birth. 

I guess I'm simply not comfortable taking God out of the equation of my life's circumstances.  I don't need to feel guilty or ashamed of my background, things over which I have not control.  I can't choose my parents or the place of my birth.  I can't choose my race.  I can't choose my physical abilities.  All of that is directed and orchestrated by God in his providence.  I can choose how I live my life, how I serve others, and how I trust God every day.  That, ultimately, is where Becker gets, too.  I just didn't like the guilt-laden path she took to get there.

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

Rare, Medium, or Done Well, by Mike Huckabee

I like Mike Huckabee.  I'd support him if he were running for something again.  There are probably not many people in the political world with whom I would align more closely ideologically and politically.  So I was looking forward to reading Rare, Medium, or Done Well: Make the Most of Your Life. 

This book is full of the good sense and home-spun wisdom Huckabee is known for.  As a pastor, he has walked with and led people through life's challenges.  As governor of Arkansas and a candidate for president, he knows the bare knuckle, back-room reality of life in the political arena.  As a commentator and media figure, he can now comment on life and politics from a more detached perspective.

Huckabee's view is to keep the end in mind and build a lasting legacy.  Some people end up rare, putting their hope in short-term, earthly priorities, unprepared for eternity.  Others are medium, mediocre, living without conviction or impact.  We should aim to be "done well," living for the next lifetime. 

There's plenty of wisdom here, and I don't want to diminish that, but I had a hard time getting past Huckabee's style.  He reminded me of a pastor I once had whose sermons were less scriptural exposition and more strung together sermon illustrations.  This book sometimes felt like that.  Huckabee may still use his Sermon Illustrations Omnibus--Pulpit Edition book from his pastoring days.  As much as I appreciated Huckabee's viewpoints and hard-won wisdom, it was diminished by the corny illustrations and anecdotes that only marginally added to his points.

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

Friday, November 16, 2018

Ship of Fools, by Tucker Carlson

I really enjoy Tucker Carlson's show on Fox News.  He's entertaining, thoughtful, and unafraid to confront liberals and call out liberal stupidity.  If you, too, are a Tucker Carlson fan, you must read his new book, Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution.  It has all the attitude of his show (Sometimes I could hear him in my head.  It's uncanny how the printed page can capture his style of speaking so well.) applied to a wide range of timely, important topics.

Like many commentators, Carlson recognizes Donald Trump's ascension to the presidency as a populist rejection of elitism, "a throbbing middle finger in the face of America's ruling class."  Part of the problem is that the anti-establishment liberalism that shaped Democratic leaders from the Clinton generation is now the establishment.  The American people were ready for someone who wasn't cut from the liberal establishment mold.

On a few points, Carlson took stances that surprised me a bit.  His populism comes through.  He's concerned about wage inequality and bloated CEO salaries.  He's also concerned about the environment.  The problem with today's environmentalist movement, he writes, is that they are more concerned with government control and the religion of global warming than they are about the actual condition of our river and lakes and forests.  He has a point.

On some issue, like free speech on campus, in the workplace, and on social media, he's as righteously indignant and bombastic as you would expect.  How dare liberal politicians and academics say they are in favor of free speech, and then act to stifle speech with which they disagree.  Carlson himself has become a target, with Antifa demonstrating as his home and terrorizing his family, attempting to shut Carlson up. 

Ship of Fools is like a collection of Carlson's nightly monologues, only extended with more examples and context.  Disagree with him if you like, but you won't find loosely held or poorly thought out opinions here.  Carlson speaks and writes from conviction and evidence, with a willingness to hear from the other side. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Atheism on Trial, by Louis Markos

Louis Markos, who teaches at Houston Baptist University, has reflected on atheism and found it wanting.  In Atheism on Trial: Refuting the Modern Arguments Against God, he examines atheists' arguments against the existence of God.  Drawing from ancient writers, he shows that modern-day atheists have nothing new under the sun to add to the debate.

Readers of Christian apologetics will be on familiar ground with Markos.  He covers the naturalistic and moral arguments for God, the problem of pain, the question of the watchmaker.  In succinct chapters and lucid, laypersons' language, he challenges his readers to think more deeply about religious and deistic claims.  His approach is not dogmatic at all, but well-reasoned and reflective.

As an evangelical Christian myself, I was nodding along with him.  His discussions took me back to my days as a philosophy major at a Christian university.  Markos's treatments are understandably brief, but offer enough food for thought and references for readers who want to pursue other sources.  Interested Christians will feel justifiably affirmed in their beliefs.  Even the most hardened secular thinker will have to admit that Christian faith and theism are, at the very least, not delusional, fantastic beliefs.  But whether an atheist would read this and be swayed, only time--and a great deal of prayer--will tell.

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

Rewrite, by Gregory Benford

In his award-winning 1980 novel Timescape, Gregory Benford introduced a plausible means by which we might send signals to the past using faster-than-light particles.  In his new novel, Rewrite: Loops in the Timescape, he jettisons any semblance to hard science and spins a time-travel/reincarnation fantasy story.

When Charlie, middle-aged and burned out on life, is killed in a car accident, he wakes up on his sixteenth birthday in his 16-year-old body, but with all the memories of his middle-aged life.  It's a new start, and a chance to correct all the mistakes of the first time around.  It's a chance many of us, including, perhaps, septagenarian sci-fi writers.  "This is a chance to rewrite a previous draft of Opus Charlie.  And who in humanity wouldn't want that?"

Besides making changes in his personal and family life, Charlie decides that he is going to take advantage of his movie knowledge to establish himself in his new life.  He gets the rights to a new novel called The Godfather and recreates the movie.  He recruits an up-and-coming film maker named Spielberg.  He "anticipates" trends and makes a name for himself--and a good deal of money--as a very young man.  After he discovers that there are others like him, who have reincarnated into their younger selves, he produces the movie Back to the Future in hopes of drawing out other reincarnates.

Benford clearly had fun writing this book.  Charlie meets up with Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and Albert Einstein, as well as the famous Casanova, all of whom are reincarnates.  On this point, I enjoyed some of the clever turns.  These visionaries of the future had actually been there!  As Albert Einstein said, "Those who ignore the mistakes of the future are bound to make them."  Now that's a good line! 

I was troubled by the lack of sense.  The whole reincarnation, life-cycling, multiple universe thing was played with but not scientifically explored, as I would have expected from Benford (and as he did in Timescapes).  Charlie gets into it and does his part to change some history, but Rewrite is ultimately unsatisfying.

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

Friday, November 9, 2018

Timescape, by Gregory Benford

Sometimes a great scientific idea and realistic scientific explanations of fanciful subjects make for a great story.  Sometimes dull stories are made better by cool ideas.  Gregory Benford's 1980 novel Timescape takes a fascinating idea, includes lots of plausible scientific discussion of that idea, and attempts to make a story out of it.  Unfortunately, I found the story to be a bit of a yawner.

The idea is cool: scientists in 1998 are concerned about a growing bloom in the ocean that threatens the future of all living things.  The causes are known to be man-made chemicals.  They have discovered tachyon beams and theorize that the beams can be used to send messages back in time.  Another group of scientists in 1962 pick up signals that seem too patterned to be natural.  They figure out that it's Morse code, but much of the message is unintelligible, chemical names they don't recognize.  It's a race to convince the rest of the world that these messages from the future are legit and provide information that can be used to change the course of history.

That sounds a lot more interesting than it is.  The story is bogged down in academic politics, scientist's egos, and scientific speculation.  Like a good writer of hard sci-fi, Benford blends enough real science with the fantastic elements to make it all seem plausible.  But the plot and drama are too understated and, well, dull.  I know I'm in the minority.  Timescape won the 1981 Nebula award, among other awards.  But it just didn't do much for me.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

For Us Humans, by Steve Rzasa

Steve Rzasa has written some really enjoyable sci-fi.  His newest, For Us Humans: A Tale of Human Occupation, is no exception.  On a near-future Earth an alien race has made a protectorate of Earth.  Our planet happened to be in a convenient place for a new warp tunnel (interstellar bypass? A little nod to Douglas Adams?  Maybe so.)  It's been 15 years, and life goes on.  The aliens mostly leave humans alone, except for the conscription of soldiers to go to other planets to fight other aliens.

When the FBI recruits Caz Fortel to assist in the recovery of a stolen piece of priceless alien art, he's not too excited about his new partner, a Ghiqasu Hounder.  This alien has a remarkable sense of smell, which is useful for tracking thieves, but he's a despised alien, which is a pain.  Nevertheless, the promise of a big paycheck is enough for Caz to team up with the Ghiqasu. 

As the investigation deepens, the two become friends and grow to appreciate each other's culture.  The Ghiqasu is especially interested in Christianity.  Churches have dwindled drastically since the appearance of the aliens but, as Caz learns, Christians might have more in common with the aliens than many people thought.  Although it's a relatively minor subplot, Rzasa seems to have fun with the exploration of these religious ideas.

The major plot get more interesting and engaging as the story moves along.  It starts out as a relatively simple investigation into a theft from a museum, but accelerates exponentially into a plot to save the Earth and galactic civilization from evil and destruction.  All the while, Caz keeps his sense of humor and snarky attitude.

For Us Humans is for sci-fi readers who like stories with great action and plotting, imaginative aliens, and a lot of fun.  It's fun and funny to read.

Monday, November 5, 2018

dc Talk's Jesus Freak, by Will Stockton and D. Gilson

Will Stockton and D. Gilson may be overstating the impact of dc Talk by saying that to "evangelicals in the 1990s . . . dc Talk was nothing less than the Beatles of Christian music."  dc Talk was popular, and they remain an important piece of contemporary Christian music (CCM), but the Beatles?  I'm not so sure.  In dc Talk's Jesus Freak, a book in the 33 1/3 series of music criticism and cultural reflection, Stockton and Gilson write about their own love for dc Talk and their eventual disillusionment with all that musical trio represented. 

Stockton and Gilson, now both university English professors, grew up as active members of their evangelical youth groups.  But, they write, "today, neither of us is an evangelical Christian.  We have traded those identities: we are atheists and gay men."  While they, at times, speak about their love of dc Talk and their involvement in evangelical youth ministry with fondness and nostalgia, their tone toward the band and the church is mostly dismissive and arrogant.  "Trying to sound hip, dc Talk sounds derivative and cheesy."  The racial unity message of dc Talk's song "Colored People" is "some neoliberal bullshit."  Layering on an interpretation of some of the love language in songs directed toward God, Stockton and Gilson speculate, "Do [dc Talk band members] McKeehan, Tait, and Max want to have sex with each other?  Maybe, but probably not."  In blanket condemnation they call 1990s CCM an "easily scorned, even shameful, phenomenon."

Stockton and Gilson make some effort to place dc Talk in the larger cultural and musical trends, examining their impact on and reactions to both Christian and secular music.  It's helpful to see that they embraced culture and music in a similar way that, a couple decades before, the Jesus movement embraced folk and rock music to reach a new generation of Christians.  dc Talk's embrace of rap and grunge music places them in a continuing tradition. 

Stockton and Gilson seem to be more driven by their own rejection of Christianity than by any serious desire to examine Christian music and youth culture.  In a way, their examination of music and culture is only incidental to their own stories.  I get that they need to justify their chosen lifestyle, but it seems that such justification can be done in way that respects and does not demean the culture from which they sprang. 

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

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Yes, I Can! A Girl and Her Wheelchair, by Kendra J. Barrett, Jacqueline B. Toner, and Claire A. B. Freeland, illustrated by Violet Lemay

My daughter is a girl in a wheelchair, so a book touting the abilities of a girl and her wheelchair certainly caught my eye!  Yes I Can! A Girl and Her Wheelchair follows Carolyn through her day.  She uses a wheelchair, but she can participate in everything.  At home, at school, on the playground, at her friend's party, Carolyn gets around and interacts with her world .  Written by a physical therapist and two clinical psychologists, Yes I Can! promotes awareness, inclusion, and kindness.

Of these themes, inclusion comes across most strongly.  The story demonstrates how Carolyn can fully participate in classroom activities and social events.  The nature of her participation may be different--for instance, she can't run in the footrace, but she can referee--but she is present and engaged.  As she participates, the other children become accustomed to seeing her around class and are not surprised by her, for instance, scooting across the floor for story time.

Yes I Can! is perfect for both typical children and for those who live with disabilities.  The authors reinforce the message that different is not better or worse--it's just different.  I know that in my daughter's case, her being included in mainstream classes has been an enrichment for both her and her typical peers.  Like Carolyn, her friends don't see her wheelchair as something weird or scary, but as normal.  Yes I Can! teaches and reinforces that message.

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

Friday, November 2, 2018

Reconstructing the Gospel, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

It's not often that I'll say I hate a book.  But Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion comes close.

Let me back up.  One of the great miracles of the Christian faith is that through 2000 years of human interpretations, cultural layering, power plays, and prideful squabbles, Christianity has survived.  Each new generation in each new geographical location has the opportunity to experience the transforming power of the gospel through a personal relationship with the living God.  Time after time imperfect humans have introduced the gospel, by loving example, cultural diffusion, or by force, into a new culture.  And time after time new, vibrant expressions of Christianity arise.

This is no less the case for what Wilson-Hartgrove calls "slaveholder religion."  Slaves in the United States were often forced to worship like their masters, were fed distorted interpretations of scripture, and were severely restricted in their pursuit of knowledge about Christianity and the Bible.  Nevertheless a distinct, vibrant, enduring, deep faith grew in the hearts of many slaves and continues through their descendants.  Yet Wilson-Hartgrove seems stuck in the "slave religion" mode.  He thinks white people especially are stuck in a form of Christianity that justifies chattel slavery and teaches white supremacy.

Wilson-Hartgrove is not an old guy.  Based on the biographical info he alluded to, he's probably in his early 40s or so.  So it's not as if he grew up in the midst of share cropping and Jim Crow.  But he writes as if race relations are stuck in the first half of the 20th century.  He did grow up in North Carolina; maybe that part of the country really is stuck.  But that's not the impression I get from friends who live there.

Besides his writing from this position of racial division that seems distant from my everyday experience, when he writes about white Christianity, it feels like a straw man argument.  He talks about white people needing to repent of their white religion and embrace true Christianity, and he has no trouble accusing prominent Christians like Franklin Graham of white supremacist tendencies.  But I wonder if he actually came to my house, worshipped at my mostly white church with me, and spent a day in my neighborhood, if he'd still be as critical.  I mean, it's easy to construct an image of this holdover religion of white supremacy that still believes Christians can hold slaves as long as they treat them well, but I just don't think this religion he speaks of is reality, except in tiny pockets that are shunned by reasonable people.

I've got news for Wilson-Hartgrove.  Outside of the myopic, artificial world you imagine, there are lots of white and black Christians who get along just fine.  There are lots of white Christians who go to mostly white churches and live in white neighborhoods and who love their black brothers and sisters without an ounce of animosity.  And by the way, it's a human tendency to be with people like yourself.  Black, white, hispanic, Asian, no matter what, people are often drawn to people with similar cultural backgrounds.  If I go to a white church or marry a white woman, that doesn't mean I'm racist or a white supremacist.  Also, in white churches I have attended, people of any race, ethnicity, or economic status have been warmly welcomed.  And when I have visited black churches, I have been warmly welcomed.  I have heard from friends on more that one occasion who were made to feel most unwelcome in black churches.  Of course some blacks could say the same of churches they have visited.

So why did I hate this book? It's a constant drumbeat of accusation and condemnation of what Wilson-Hartgrove interprets as white privilege and racism.  It's a 200 page apology for his being born white.  The thing is, I would probably really like the guy.  He's done some cool things in ministry.  We have a lot in common in terms of religious background and family structure.  I know he's trying to be prophetic, and I do admit there are some good things to reflect on here, whether you're black or white, but the judgmentalism and accusations were too much for me.

Oh, and I haven't even said anything about his political statements.  Suffice it to say that if you voted for Trump, you are a white supremacist and probably beholden to slaveholder Christianity, blind to your own racism.  Wilson-Hartgrove can't imagine a scenario in which a Christian would be justified in making a choice to vote against Hilary Clinton because of any moral, political, or economic differences one might have with her.  He thinks it's terrible that 81% of white evangelicals (or whatever the figure is) voted for Trump.  Maybe I find it offensive that 19% of white evangelicals would vote for someone who thinks Planned Parenthood, the killer of more African-Americans than any other cause, is just peachy and should get lots of tax money to fund their work.  Or maybe, just maybe, I believe genuine Christians can have a variety of views on a range of issues, and can have a home in either political party or none.  And maybe it's OK to disagree with someone's voting preferences without disparaging whole swaths of one's fellow Christians.

If you're a white Christian into self-flagellation and apology, you'll love this book.  It will make you feel superior to your less-enlightened, white supremacist neighbors.  But if you believe that all people of all races are sinful and in need of the grace of the unchanging, eternal savior, don't bother with Reconstructing the Gospel.

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Double Agent, by Peter Duffy

Peter Duffy's Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring is an example of a great story that doesn't necessarily make a great book.  I like this book, and am glad to learn more about this period of history, but Duffy's narrative lost me from time to time and didn't seem to convey the powerful consequences of these events.

William Sebold was born in Germany, but his adopted home of the United States is where his loyalty lay.  The Germans tried to recruit him to spy for them--he worked in the aerospace industry--but he went to the FBI and offered to be a double agent for the U.S.  The story is at once complex and mundane.  He was a normal guy, doing normal things, with lots of normal people.  But in this time leading up to war, normal people get involved in extraordinary circumstances.

I enjoyed Duffy's descriptions of the setting and tone in the U.S. during these years before the U.S. entered the war.  On this side of history, it's hard to imagine that a large number of Americans were calling for the U.S. not to enter the war.  Many even sided with the Germans.  German Americans in Nazi regalia held public demonstrations.  People were in denial about the implications of Hitler's policies in Germany.

In a sense, this makes Sebold even more a hero, as some of his German friends and family in the U.S. and Germany would certainly have supported Hitler's plans.  But as Duffy tells Sebold's story, he got me lost in the wide cast of characters and their interweaving stories.  I admit, this was probably as much my small brain as Duffy's writing skills, but, well, I don't know.  I'm still glad I read it.

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

Monday, October 29, 2018

Redemption, by Friedrich Gorenstein

Friedrich Gorenstein's 1967 novel Redemption is now available for English readers.  Set shortly after the end of World War 2, in a Soviet town that had been occupied by the Germans, Redemption is a revealing snapshot of life in that time and place.  Other than that, it doesn't have much going for it.

Sashenka lives with her mother, whom she resents for dishonoring the memory of Sashenka's father, who "died for the motherland."  Surly and vengeful, Sashenka constantly acts disrespectfully toward her mother.  Parents of teenage daughters might be able to relate to this description: She "walked into the large room, clenching her teeth in angry irritation again, because she realized that if she once smiled and stopped being angry and suffering, she would forfeit her power in the home."

Her attitude reaches is nadir when she reports her mother to the police.  Her mother brings home leftover food from her kitchen job.  It's clearly a violation of the rules, but she does it to feed her destitute household.  Nevertheless, Sashenka's report gets her mother thrown in jail. And so it goes.

The family drama takes a back seat to the cultural setting.  The misery is layered.  Their town is full of the rubble of bombed-out buildings.  Neighbor is divided against neighbor as they remember who cooperated with the Nazis.  The Soviet police state is entrenched, encouraging everyone to spy on everyone.  People constantly relate to each other with suspicion and quarreling.  Altogether Redemption is a bleak, unenjoyable slice-of-life narrative that I would not recommend except for its historical and sociological qualities.

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

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Please Don't Grab My P#$$y!, by Julia Young & Matt Harkins, illustrated by Laura Collins

We all remember the tape of candidate Trump bragging about grabbing women's private parts.  It nearly brought down his candidacy.  Lucky for the United States, it didn't.  Lucky for the left, it inspired a rallying cry against the president.  Julia Young and Matt Harkins try to keep the joke going in Please Don't Grab My P#$$y: A Rhyming Presidential Guide.  Each page has a little rhyme, accompanied by crude illustrations by Laura Collins.

These rhymes are mildly amusing.  If you're into this sort of thing, each rhyme does cleverly come up with a new synonym for female genitals.  Haha, hooray for potty mouths.  Trump haters will love this.  Trump lovers might get a kick out of it.  My opinion: it's a dumb response to an overblown event, designed to perpetuate a misleading narrative about Trump and his presidency.  Don't bother.

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

Friday, October 26, 2018

Trigger Warning, by Nick Hume

Trigger warning: "a statement at the start of any piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains material they might find upsetting or offensive."

Nick Hume has a warning for us.  Free speech is under attack.  In Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? Hume details the many fronts on which free speech is losing ground to the "reverse Voltaires."  Voltaire said "I disapprove of what you say, but I will fight to the death your right to say it."  The reverse Voltaires, who have taken over college campuses, politics, and the media, say, "I know I will detest what you say, and I will defend to the end of free speech for my right to stop you saying it."  As Hume says, "Strange . . . that so many now choose to exercise their freedom of speech in order to tell the rest of us what we can't say."

The turn-around has been rapid and ironic.  Hume points out that "feminist, trans, [and] anti-racist activists today . . . demand restrictions on free speech as a means of protecting the rights of the identity groups they claim to represent."  The irony is that "without the efforts of those who fought for more free speech in the past, these illiberal activists would not be free to stand up and fall for less of it in the present."

In this age of the "self-censoring 'sorry majority,'" microaggressions, speech codes, Twitter censoring, and social media shaming, Hume pulls us to return to a place of free speech, open minds, and open expression.  Today it seems like "offending others is the worst offense of all."  But limits on offensive speech are limits on free speech.  We need to reject the "reverse Voltaires" and celebrate the freedom to say what we want, no matter who it might offend.  As Hume writes, "Trigger Warnings that hold a pistol to the head of free speech should have us all reaching for our metaphorical guns to fight for the right to things what we like, and say what we think."

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

When It's a Jar, by Tom Holt

Tom Holt has a gift for writing funny scenarios and laugh-out-loud lines.  Sometimes he strings these together into a semblance of a story.  When It's a Jar fits this pattern.  There's plenty of "funny" in this book, but only a limited amount of "story."  This is a sort-of sequel to Donut, which was even more structurally unsound than When It's a Jar.  So if you enjoyed Donut, definitely pick up When It's a Jar.  But if you thought Donut was a nonsensical mess, avoid When It's a Jar.

Maurice is an everyman who inadvertently gets caught up in traveling around the multiverse.  Theo Bernstein (from Donut) is trapped in all the multiverses at once (sort of).  Maurice figures out what's going on (sort of) and so can you (sort of).  When It's a Jar is a sometimes entertaining but ultimately very unsatisfying read.  You'll either love it or hate it.

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

Monday, October 22, 2018

Finding Holy in the Suburbs, by Ashley Hales

Ashley Hales's Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much reminds me of those niche devotional books, like The New Testament for Outdoorsmen or Devotionals for Quilters.  The content is, by definition, just about the same for those books, but it's dressed up for particular people groups or interests.  In Hales's case, I felt like I was reading something like Spiritual Disciplines for Middle-Class Suburban Moms.

Hales takes some decent material on spiritual disciplines and Christian life, and forces it onto a template of stereotypes about "the suburbs."  Much of it felt artificial, contrived, and insulting.  She weakens her position early on when she writes that "more than 50 percent of Americans live in the suburbs."  Then she proceeds to develop the worn-out supposed distinctives of suburban life: consumerism, busyness, obsession with safety, superficiality, isolation, etc.  First of all, these qualities exist everywhere, not just in the suburbs.  Second of all, she keeps up this suburban picture of wealth, privilege, and segregation, while American suburbs become more diverse, racially and economically, all the time (as you might expect since more than half of us live there).

For example, she writes, "Buying is our suburban form of worship."  Oh, only suburbanites succumb to this?  "In the suburbs we like the sheen of community, but real community is messy and unkempt."  Because inner-city neighborhoods are always so naturally community oriented?  "The suburbs keep us busy because we think the more we move, the more we work, the more valuable we will be."  Is this in contrast to city dwellers, who are know to be so much less career-, work-, and task-oriented?  "Although we are materially wealthy in the suburbs, we are spiritually poor."  Again, suburbs are diverse, not only full of wealthy people.  And materially poor people are just as likely to be spiritually needy as materially rich people.  "In the suburbs the default setting is to fill our soul hungers with fast-food versions" of commerce, relationships, and love.  Why would she insist this is any more true for someone in a suburb than for someone in the city?

I want to emphasize that there is plenty of good food for thought in Finding Holy in the Suburbs.  It just drove me crazy, the whole time I was reading, that she maintains this attitude of denigrating suburban life, seeming to say that one must struggle to overcome the natural pull of suburban life to grow spiritually.  The implication is that in the city or in a rural area, spiritual growth is more natural and part of one's surroundings.  I find that to be completely bogus.  Everything she says about the suburbs can be applied to anywhere you live.

Toward the end she writes, "The man from Galilee is the one who bears our suburban sins in his body and takes them to death."  Well, that's true, but you might as well take the word "suburban" out of that sentence, and it is no less true.  To me, it just seems a little silly to force the gospel and Christian spirituality into a particular demographic.  Maybe we can edit this a little bit: Finding Holy: Living Faithfully Wherever You Are.

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