Friday, January 28, 2011

Facebook blues?

The human habit of overestimating other people's happiness is nothing new, of course. Jordan points to a quote by Montesquieu: "If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are." But social networking may be making this tendency worse. Jordan's research doesn't look at Facebook explicitly, but if his conclusions are correct, it follows that the site would have a special power to make us sadder and lonelier. By showcasing the most witty, joyful, bullet-pointed versions of people's lives, and inviting constant comparisons in which we tend to see ourselves as the losers, Facebook appears to exploit an Achilles' heel of human nature. And women—an especially unhappy bunch of late—may be especially vulnerable to keeping up with what they imagine is the happiness of the Joneses. 
 ~"The Anti-Social Network," by Libby Copeland

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Christ in Song: Hymns of Immanuel, Selected from All Ages, with Notes, Volume 1, by Philip Schaff


An excellent resource for hymn lovers. Or people who have yet to appreciate hymns but want to learn more. Or people who like poetry. Or history. Or music. Ok, fine, pretty much everyone.

Schaff lays out the text of hundreds of hymns from throughout Christian history, some dating as far back as a few centuries after Christ. The melodies are not included, but anyone with passing familiarity with hymns can readily fit the lines to some well-known melody or other. Or the more musically gifted reader could simply compose music for the words. (To this end, I gave a copy to my incredibly talented brother.)

The section on the passion of Christ was particularly moving and meaty. The hymns to Mary, less so. And it was sometimes surprising to find that some of the hymns dating back centuries upon centuries are still in use today.

I find myself intrigued by the idea that I am worshiping God using the words of a hymn-writer from long ago. If God is outside time, then perhaps to Him, we are singing in unison.

Definitely worth picking up, though many may prefer to use it as a reference, rather than reading it straight through.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Soli Deo Gloria

The “solas” strike at the heart of the differences between Rome and Reformed churches.

Grace Alone
Rome states that salvation is by grace [...] plus man’s effort.  The traditional Roman Catholic formulation is, “God will not deny his grace to those who do what is in their power.”  In more modern terms, “God helps those who help themselves.” [...] By contrast, the Reformed churches state that salvation is by grace alone [...] It is only and entirely by God’s grace that man is saved.

Faith Alone
[...] Rome has explicitly denied that justification is by faith alone and in fact condemns Reformed believers who hold to this position [...]  Moreover, according to Rome, justification is a life-long process by which we are made righteous, rather than a one-time event where we are declared righteous. [...] Finally, faith is also redefined by Rome to include good works and these good works become part of the meritorious basis of justification. [...T]he Reformed churches state that justification is by faith alone (Romans 3-4).  God declares us righteous (a one-time event) [...]

Christ Alone
[Rome states] it is not Christ alone when it comes to justification.  Instead, it is Christ plus [...] "If anyone says that justice once received is neither preserved nor increased in the sight of God by good works, but that the works themselves are no more than the effects and signs of justification obtained, and not also a cause of its increase, let him be anathema" (Trent, session 6, canon 24). The Reformed churches argued that [...] Christ alone is the basis for our justification — he lived a perfect life of obedience for us and in our place.  He died once for all on the cross for us and in our place.  God imputes all his merits to us, and all our sin has been imputed to him and thus we are accounted righteous before God.

Scripture Alone
[F]or Rome, it is Scripture plus tradition. [...] The Reformed churches retorted that only the Bible can be our ultimate authority and we may not add or take away as we please [...] Yes, we ought to give heed to the early church fathers, councils, synods, etc.  In fact, the writings of the Reformers are filled with references to these.  But because these are all made up of men, they can and have erred.  Thus, everything is to be scrutinized with the infallible and inerrant Scripture, which is the norming norm.

The Glory of God Alone
[...] Rome states that God is to be worshiped and glorified.  Yet, Rome also promotes the worship of Mary and the saints, giving glory to human beings.  The “Hail, Mary” and “Hail, Holy Queen” prayers on the rosary would be enough to prove this, and much more could be added. The Reformed have always said, “Soli Deo Gloria,” “To God Alone the Glory.” 
~"Letter to a Friend," by Wes Bredenhof


When the lights came on, I realized that I've been taking my cues on what it means to be a "good" wife, a Christian wife, just about everywhere but from my husband. I've read books, and listened to sermons, lectures, and the advice of fellow Christians. I've taken it all in and, over the years, internalized it, along with all my other cultural idealizations of "the perfect wife".


If we're truthful we have to admit that the Scripture gives precious little practical advice about being a "perfect wife". All it gives are a few over-arching principles. And suddenly this makes perfect sense to me. I am to be subject to my own husband, and to learn what it means to be his wife from him. After all, every man is different. Every woman is different. Every marriage is different. That's the way God intended it. We are not clones but uniquely gifted individuals.  [...]

There are dozens of things [...] that would delight [my husband] which, until a couple of days ago, I would not do. Why? Because cooking, cleaning, organizing, and maintaining decorum were all the things "good wives" do, and they took up all my time. In this and so many other, deeper ways I would not submit to my husband. I would read articles for Christian wives and feel so wrong. When I would tell Paul how I felt, he'd say, in no uncertain terms, "I don't want that kind of wife! I married you!" Then I would secretly think, well, this person, this Bible teacher is so godly - perhaps Paul is wrong... and I'd go ahead and follow or fret over the advice anyway. That, my friends, is NOT submission. [...]

I'm done taking my cues on what kind of wife I should be from anyone but him. I'm determined to honor the unique man that he is. From here on out I submit myself to my own husband. When it comes to what it means to be a good wife to him, beyond the Scripture, no one but he has a right to inform me.  I will learn from him at home.  
~"Just Whose Wife Am I Anyway?" by Laurie M. (Beauty for Ashes) (see also "Whose Wife Are You?" by Tim Challies and "Be You," by Amy (Amy's Humble Musings))

[NOTE:  Presumably the authors here do not support a vision of complementarity that allows for complete role reversal in marriage.  So a woman should not lead merely because the man is weak as a leader--and he should not encourage her to.  Likewise, a woman should not assume the role of spiritual head of the family merely because she is more mature.  It is even doubtful whether a woman who is a capable provider should shoulder the sole responsibility for supporting the family financially while her husband cares for the children and maintains the home.  Some flexibility in these areas is of course permitted and even beneficial--the complete separation of home and work is actually not the biblical norm, but rather the result of the industrial revolution (for more information, see Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World, by Caroline McCulley.  Still, complete role reversal is unwise and cuts against the gender roles set forth in Scripture.  The examples in these articles, however, are more minor details, like how clean the home should be or how quiet a wife should be or how heavily she should rely on her husband. In such areas, a wife should look to her husband and learn how to serve him best.  Proverbs 31 notwithstanding.]

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Shane, by Jack Schaefer


I am not much for westerns, but this book is fantastic. There's a reason the hard-as-nails, dangerous-but-trustworthy hero is so popular in books and movies--when done well, it works. And this books does it very well.

Like Little Britches, the story is told through the eyes of a child, and to great effect. And the author keeps the hero shrouded in mystery throughout the story, which keeps the reader on edge and makes Shane excellent fodder for the narrator's hero-worship. And Shane's inner struggle further heightened the tension of the story.

Also, I may have cried. BUT YOU CAN'T PROVE IT.

The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, by Ken Sande

An excellent resource, both for personal conflict resolution and for larger scale conflicts. Sande keeps the focus on the gospel, which he presents clearly throughout the book. His conflict resolution principles are solidly rooted in the gospel, and, quite frankly, make a lot of sense from a psychological perspective.

All too often, poor conflict resolution skills result in the accidental escalation of conflict. This book should be required reading for all married/engaged couples and all pastors. And it should be highly recommended for everyone else.

Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States, by Dave Barry


Man, I love this book. Dave Barry is consistently hilarious, but this book is especially brilliant. I don't know that much about history, but the more I learn, the funnier this book becomes. I've always appreciated Barry's even-handed political satire--no one is safe. If you behave ridiculously, you will be made to look ridiculous. And when it comes to this particular book, not even the reader is safe from Barry's insightful criticism.

It's an easy read, and a fun one, but there's probably wisdom in pacing yourself. Barry's writing can seem a little manic if read in longer sessions, and you may miss some of the more subtle jokes.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Great Stories of Space Travel, by Groff Conklin (editor)


A collection of consistently high-quality short stories. I was going to list the good ones, as I did with The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1 (which definitely had some stinkers in it), but they're kind of all good ones. And as is so often the case with science fiction, the stories of adventures in other worlds tell us things about the world we live in--or the way it ought to be. The ideas of respect for those different from ourselves, the psychology of death, the challenges of adjusting to a world that has passed us by, the flaws in purely selfish and utilitarian thinking that endangers the lives of others, the nature of fear, the importance of freedom, the dangers of assimilation, and the temptation to hide our shortcomings . . . to say nothing of the vital importance of canine companionship in all space voyages.

All in all, a great little book.

A cure for evil?

[..] Loughner is a loon. Bonkers. Nutso. Three fries short of a Happy Meal. The media have so ruled.

Which leaves me with just one question: What ever happened to evil?

Why have we rushed to the judgment of insanity? Legally, very few defendants are found guilty of insanity. [...]

We know that anybody who guns down innocent people or sticks dead bodies under his house or eats them has got to be crazy, for pity’s sake.

And we believe that because we do not want to believe, as our ancestors believed, in evil. Evil is even more frightening than madness. Madness can be treated. All we need is early intervention and clinics and more resources devoted to the problem.

We hope.

[...I]n our modern times, are we embarrassed by the term “evil”? To some, it seems too primitive or too religious or both.

And we would much rather believe that all sick people can be cured by medical intervention.

Because that is a lot less scary than believing that evil walks among us.
 ~"Is Jared Loughner Insane or Just Evil?" by Roger Simon

It takes [x>2] to tango

Anyone with knowledge of American religion will not be surprised that polyamory has become an issue in the Unitarian Universalist Church, ever in the forefront of progressive causes.[...]

Conservative cassandras (please note: I am not one of them) are turning out to be empirically correct, even if one disagrees with their philosophy: once you legitimate same-sex marriage, you open the door to any number of other alternatives to marriage as a union of one man and one woman: polygamous (an interesting question for Muslims in Germany and dissident Mormons in Arizona), polyandrous, polygenerational – perhaps polyspecies? [...]

Pluralism—the ideological acceptance of plurality—is necessary if a modern society is to retain a degree of stability, especially if such a society is democratic (I maintain that pluralism is a virtue as well as a necessity). The question is where pluralism—any reasonable form of it—must define the limits of what is acceptable. [...] This is not the place to discuss whether the canons of Islamic modesty or the practice of polyamory should be accepted in a Western democracy. But, as a sociologist I can propose a hypothesis, and as a concerned citizen a recommendation. Hypothesis: There will be cultural and political compromises in the area of sexual behavior. Recommendation: In a democracy these matters should be openly and extensively discussed.
 ~"Virginity, Polyamory, and the Limits of Pluralism," by Peter Berger

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Diets and deities

Now clearly, 10 extra pounds is not a massive crisis, but let’s do the math. I gained 10lbs in four months. Over a year, that’s a potential 30 extra pounds. That is a big deal. So I did what I did in college to get in shape, I ran three times and thought about being healthy. But apparently, your metabolism goes on sabbatical when you turn 35 because that did nothing. [...]

Frustrated, and now wearing pants from the “husky” side of my closet, I decided something needed to change. I started eating a slow carb diet. I read that people who keep food photo diaries made better eating decisions so I started to take a photo of all my meals. I stopped eating snacks after dinner and quit drinking soda. I started going to a trainer three days a week with some buddies from work.

And in the middle of this new found discipline, I realized something disappointing:

I apply more focus and purpose to my diet than I do my deity.

[...] I made a commitment to being healthy and was executing that commitment with ferocity.

All the while ignoring my faith.

I’d read the Bible, if I thought of it.

I’d grab a quiet time, if nothing else came up.

I’d pray in between things, if I could fit God into the margins of my day. [...]

I probably wouldn’t have been so bothered by my realization about my diet if the Bible was fuzzy on this issue, but it is unfortunately not. Here is what Proverbs 3:9 says:

“Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.” [...]

Can you imagine what church would be like if members gave the firstfruits of their creativity to the Lord? We complain that the church is cheesy sometimes. Of course it is, we’ve been feeding it rotten fruit.

Can you imagine what it would be like for your life if you gave God the firstfruits of your time? I can’t because all too often I’ve given him rotten fruit. [...] I’m not perfect at the firstfruits concept. At heart, this is an “I’m failing, but don’t want to” post. But with grace and hope, I’m working on being more deliberate with my firstfruits.

Let’s stop giving God our last fruits.
 ~"The trouble with fruit," by Jon Acuff (Stuff Christians Like)

Over Sea, Under Stone, by Susan Cooper


Quite good. I can see why it's a classic. Children respond to the adventures of other children, and Cooper deftly places the Drews at the center of the action, where they can live out the fantasies of their readers. Indeed, it almost seems as if the children know they are in a story at times. The book is full of coincidences and hunches and "I just know" moments, which are conveniently explained away by Arthurian magic, when they are explained at all, but which bear a striking resemblance to classic fairy stories--the characters act as they do because they could never do anything else. It was always a given that they would find the whatsit or look in the right place or even take off after something or other, simply trusting that others would know where they had gone. The dog will always know the answer, and great uncles must be trusted implicitly in a way that parents are not. And the Drews themselves seem almost to be aware of this, trusting that they will be guided to the right outcome by the story itself.

Of course, reading this through adult eyes, I was horrified at the risks the Drews took, and their willingness to attempt herculean tasks or face terrifying villains, simply trusting that it would all work out. Fortunately, this is a children's book, so it does all work out.

The most striking example of this blind but effective faith is, I think, the Drews' uncanny ability to identify the "bad guys." At one point, shortly after meeting a seemingly harmless character, Jane Drew observes: "I don't like him . .. I wonder why?" This is representative of the whole story. The children do things, say things, think things, and feel things without being able to understand why.

Whether it's the magic of Arthur guiding them, or the story making itself known to its characters, the result is well worth reading.

(The audiobook is quite good, as well.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


In a move of stunning common sense and moral sophistication, the UK government plans to block all internet porn in order to protect children: [...]

Instead of using parental controls to stop access to pornography – so-called “opting out” – the tap will be turned off at source. Adults will then have to “opt in.” [...]

[This idea] would strike many of my fellow citizens (even so-called “conservatives”) as completely un-American. [...] We’ll manage to find a way to twist moral logic and constitutional reasoning so that we can justify prohibiting any prohibition on pornography. This is, after all, America: A country where we love our children almost as much as love our smut.
~"The Hugh Hefner Principle of Constitutional Interpretation," by Joe Carter

Monday, January 17, 2011

One of the most transforming forces in our lives is being regarded as better than we are. [...] Can we, by God’s grace, love someone into lovability? Chesterton said, “Unlovely things must be deeply loved before they become lovable.”
 ~"Consider Loving Someone into Lovability," by John Piper

Tastes like . . . chicken

So what are Chicken Mc-Nuggets really made of? Chicken! Pollan provocatively implies that the nuggets are 56 per cent corn. Where does that number come from? Well, chickens are reared on corn, and Pollan calculates the amount of corn that is converted into chicken flesh, and adds to this the weight of other ingredients that are made from corn, such as the dextrose used in the batter, and comes up with the meaningless but attention-grabbing 56 per cent. Using this logic, we could all be described as being made of plants, since every bit of our flesh can be traced back to some plant product.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Spaced out

Monospaced type gives you text that looks "loose" and uneven; there's a lot of white space between characters and words, so it's more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read. Here's the thing, though: Monospaced fonts went out in the 1970s. First electric typewriters and then computers began to offer people ways to create text using proportional fonts. Today nearly every font on your PC is proportional. (Courier is the one major exception.) Because we've all switched to modern fonts, adding two spaces after a period no longer enhances readability, typographers say. It diminishes it.
~"Space Invaders: Why You Should Never, Ever Use Two Spaces After a Period," by Farhad Manjoo

Friday, January 14, 2011

On Hell

You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention Heaven and hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tom-foolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them. 
~"Learning in Wartime," by C.S. Lewis (from Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, quoted on

What Is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert


A clear and straightforward presentation of the gospel. The writing is competent but not mind-blowing; but then, with a book like this it's not about the writing anyway: it's about the message. And the message--the gospel--is awesome.

Chosen by God, by R.C. Sproul


Well thought out for the most part. Not all the arguments were quite as compelling as he seemed to think. Then again, this is pretty tough stuff--no matter how brilliant the author, there are no easy answers. Still, an excellent read overall.

Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake


I'm still deciding what I think about this one. I expect I won't really know until I finish the next book, if not the whole trilogy. Lots of elements that I appreciate, but I won't know if it was all worth it until I see where Peake takes it.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay


Oddly enough, not as good as the TV series. Lindsay gets full marks for the creation of some very compelling characters, but doesn't fully flesh them out with a satisfactory story. The serial nature of television allows for a more complex plot and more development of secondary and even tertiary characters.

Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz


Koontz clearly likes words and appreciates whimsy. This supernatural mystery is infused with enough humor to keep the tone from becoming too depressing, though the "an evil, maniacal serial killer did it" resolution is kind of a cop-out and lacks complexity.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams


Not quite as enjoyable as the first book. Adams' style is enjoyable, but here he elevates style so far above substance as to make the story rather lackluster. Still a fun read, though, and I still plan to finish the series.

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott


This wasn't nearly as good as I remembered . . . Lamott is an excellent writer, but I think I prefer to read her thoughts on writing and parenthood. When it comes to faith, I am too distracted by the serious theological errors.

The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis


Probably my least favorite of Lewis's books thus far. He is not at his best when he discusses hell (the excellent Great Divorce notwithstanding), and his theology is weak in this area. He still makes some good points, and I still think it's worth reading, but the substance is not as solid as that of his other works.

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac


This book sucks. Not only does Kerouac treat women with disdain, but there's no discernible plot and the writing is terrible. If I wanted to listen to the drug-and-booze-addled ramblings of a shiftless vagabond, I would go hang out at a dive bar or sit on a street corner downtown. "Blitzed" is not a legitimate writing style.

Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception, by Eoin Colfer


Perhaps I am being swayed by Nathaniel Parker's excellent narration, but this might have been my favorite in the series so far. The complex relationships among the characters really make this series compelling and enjoyable, and Colfer is not afraid to change things up a bit--even main characters can die or otherwise change.

The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, by D.A. Carson


Meaty and well-written. Carson identifies many aspects of God's love that tend to be hard for people (i.e., me) to understand. This book was very helpful. I particularly benefited from the reminder that God's love is such that he delights in us; His is not merely a love of duty and obligation. Definitely worth reading.

Some Buried Caesar, by Rex Stout


A Rex Stout classic . . . Wolfe is always amusing when he's out of his element, and Archie never fails to entertain when he's in lockup. This volume also introduces series regular Lily Rowan. As is often the case, the point of the book is not the mystery itself, but the interactions among the characters, and the quips they exchange along the way.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster


A delightful read, full of humor and whimsy. If you have a fondness for words, it is quite likely that you will enjoy this book. In his "Appreciation," Maurice Sendak compares The Phantom Tollbooth to Alice in Wonderland; he is not mistaken.

Also, Norton Juster's opinions to the contrary notwithstanding, the Chuck Jones movie is quite good.

God Will Bless You, by Charles Spurgeon


An excellent book, though at times more devotional than analytical. I'm not sure I buy his interpretation of the beatitudes as ascending levels of godliness, but it's still worth reading.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith


Entertaining, but the insertion of zombies into this beloved story was not as seamless as I had hoped. The author would have done better to model Elizabeth's zombie-fighting after Buffy Summers, instead of trying to switch back and forth between Elizabeth Bennett, playful/clever/humorous young woman and Elizabeth Bennett, non-nonsense zombie-slaying automaton.

The Godly Man's Picture, by Thomas Watson


Another excellent read from Watson. He does a great job of pointing out the characteristics of a godly man without falling into the trap of legalism or works-based salvation. The gospel is still front and center, and he offers encouragement for those of us who regrettably don't possess many of the markers of godliness.

The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit, by Matthew Henry


I am so grateful for this book. Modern authors addressing this topic are necessarily affected--one way or another--by issues of feminism and gender roles. Matthew Henry interprets the admonition of I Peter 3:4 as applying to both sexes, and as a result we get the benefit of a gender-neutral 17th century perspective of meekness and quietness of spirit. I will most definitely be purchasing this book and re-reading it often.

God Came Near, by Max Lucado


Lucado's strength is phrasing well-worn ideas in new ways that strike a chord with his readers. Sadly, while this book has a lot of creative thoughts on the incarnation, it lacks a coherent presentation of the Gospel or any real solid theological teaching. As such, it's a good read for a solid Christian well versed in the Gospel already, or perhaps for younger Christians or non-Christians if combined with other more substantive texts. Still, I appreciate his ability to make me see the familiar landscape of the incarnation in unexpected ways. A great holiday read.

Jonathan Edwards for Armchair Theologians, by James P. Byrd


I know more than I did, but not as much as I would like . . . which is probably about par for a book targeting "armchair theologians", but it still keeps me from being more enthusiastic about it.

Luther for Armchair Theologians, by Steven Paulson


As with other books in this series, I definitely learned something. I still don't feel like I got my head completely around Luther's theology; I sometimes found myself balking at the ideas Luther espoused, but I suspect that was more due to terminology and word choice than to issues of substance. I would have liked to delve a little deeper, as the book was fairly summary in nature. But then it is, after all, for armchair theologians; it doesn't claim to be comprehensive. Still, it's a helpful book.

The Mystery of Providence, by John Flavel


Flavel walks the reader through various spheres of life containing evidence of the providence of God . . . which is actually really helpful, since it's easy to lose sight of some of the more commonplace (yet nonetheless awe-inspiring) examples of His faithfulness.

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Schlaes


An excellent and quite illuminating read--very critical of FDR and his response(s) to the Great Depression. Still, it seems like a situation necessarily impervious to any real substantive answers. How can you know what would have worked? How can you know if something else would have worked better? And how in the world are leaders supposed to figure out the right answer in the moment, without the benefit of 80 years of historical and economic analysis?

My biggest takeaway from this book: I so do not want to be president. Not for all the WPA-felled lumber in the Pacific Northwest, or all the water in the TVA.

The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman


Not the best graphic novel I've read, but I understand that the series improves as you go along. Gaiman's portrayal of evil is truly horrifying, and his treatment of hell is creative. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, by Dallas Willard


The opening chapters are definitely the strongest, especially his discussion of the first beatitude--by the end of the book, my interest was definitely waning. If he'd left off writing about halfway through, the book would have been better for it.

Willard's interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount is quite often unique, and not always in good ways. It's always difficult to know how to judge a novel idea--is it brilliant truth heretofore undiscovered? Or are the conventional interpretations popular for good reason? Still, he has intriguing things to say, and the exposition of the Sermon on the Mount is well worth the read.

All Over but the Shoutin', by Rick Bragg


Leave it to Rick Bragg to suffuse an arguably tragic (albeit inspiring) story of the poor white South with an almost nostalgic quality. His matter-of-fact writing keeps the story from becoming depressing.

Mudhouse Sabbath, by Lauren F. Winner


My enjoyment of this book was a foregone conclusion. I greatly appreciate the style and tone of Winner's writing (and talking), and, like Winner, I think there's a lot to be said for ritual as a reminder of truth. In her case, it is the ritual of her Jewish upbringing. In mine, it is the more liturgical Christianity of my childhood (though I think the Jewish faith has much to offer by way of rituals that help shape and reorient the human heart toward God). Winner never loses sight of the Gospel--these rituals do not save us. But they can remind us of true things about God and about ourselves. A short, easy read (thanks to Winner's conversational writing), but lots of good thoughts.

The Meaning Is in the Waiting, by Paula Gooder


A simple but effective book on Advent. Gooder breaks the chapters up into manageable sections (4 chapters--one for each week of Advent--and 6 sections to a chapter). It's short enough to fit into even the busiest schedule, and provides a much-needed reminder of the benefits of waiting (a great counterpoint to the desire for instant gratification that characterizes our culture, particularly at Christmastime). Waiting on God is something all of us need to do better, myself most of all. This could very easily become an annual Advent read for me.

The Gospel According to Peanuts, by Robert L. Short


The theology was sounder than I expected, but the author's attempts to demonstrate those theological concepts using Schulz's classic strip often relied upon rather tenuous reasoning (with a few notable exceptions).

Jenna Starborn, by Sharon Shinn


Jane Eyre in space. A dreadful, dreadful book. Gothic romances don't mix well with science fiction--and I like both genres! But cyborgs and spaceships are a poor substitute for the wild and darkened moors of the original.

Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman


Great book, and Gaiman reads it well. He clearly relishes the characters and worlds he's created, and his affection is contagious. To my unending delight, he places prosaic words in the mouths of poetic, even epic characters. I never get tired of the incongruity.

Making All Things New, by Henri Nouwen


Nothing earth shattering here. I was a little surprised that Nouwen sees worry as the primary impediment to being "spiritual," but I suppose it makes some sense. His discussion of solitude makes me want to read Foster's Celebration of Discipline (a much better book).

Forever Odd, by Dean Koontz


An interesting enough story, and pretty well narrated. Koontz is clearly a sucker for a larger-than-life villain--mediocre wickedness is not enough for him. His villains must plumb the very depths of evil. Still, it passed the time on the drive home, which I appreciated.

Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers, by Ralph Moody


Little House on the Prairie for boys. Well-written, and in a matter-of-fact and even appreciative tone that keeps the story from getting bogged down by otherwise depressing tales of the necessary hardships of ranch life. Ralph Moody shows a rather suspicious talent for everything he tries (as does his father, for that matter), but I look forward to reading the rest of the series nonetheless.

M Is for Magic, by Neil Gaiman


My first foray into Gaiman's short stories. Some are better than others ("Chivalry", "The Price", and "October in the Chair" are particularly enjoyable), but all are entertaining. He is rapidly becoming one of my all-time favorite authors, and I will most definitely be devouring any and all Gaiman literature I can get my hands on.

Fair warning though--this collection is not quite as lighthearted as the title makes it seem. Many of these 'magical' stories have slightly dark, unnerving quality that would not be out of place in a volume of Hartwell's The Dark Descent, and the book is, quite appropriately, dedicated to Ray Bradbury. Then, too, most of the stories are more about the journey than the destination. They're not long on plot. So if you prefer the tighter, more efficient short story, full of action and activity, this may not be the collection for you. But if you're willing to just relish the flavor and texture of the stories and soak up the slightly eerie atmosphere painted by Gaiman's rather prodigious wordsmithery, then I suggest you give this book a try. Preferably in audiobook form, since Gaiman's slow British drawl is a perfect complement for the slightly unsettling nature of these magical tales.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins


Eminently readable, though not really appropriate for children. Collins sucks the reader into the plot with a deftness that is quite admirable. Don't read this book at bedtime; you might have trouble putting it down at a reasonable hour. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and I hope Collins keeps up the good work.

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg


Every bit the adventure I remember. Love this book. Konigsburg perfectly captures the arrogance and narcissism of children and pokes fun at their simple and naive self-assurance. She plants the children in a fairly commonplace and yet nonetheless unorthodox setting ripe for ingenuity and creativity, essentially moving the Swiss Family Robinson into downtown New York.

The only possible downside is that it makes running away sound fairly easy and fun and safe. I wonder how many kids ran away after reading this book? On the other hand, it paints museums as places of wonder and mystery rather than musty old buildings devoid of anything remotely interesting.

I had forgotten that the book is narrated by the title character. I suppose that's further evidence that I really DO love voiceovers.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett


I can't comment on the substance of this book. It's fundamentally not the kind of book that anyone can really endorse as true or criticize as false who hasn't lived through the events and periods described. I certainly am in no position to judge the accuracy of it. But I can say that Stockett tells the story well, and, at least to my uneducated eye, fairly even-handedly. She chooses her narrators well, each one bringing a slightly different flavor to the story.

This is actually an excellent companion read for My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered, an oral history of the civil rights movement in the South.  While that book examines the movement itself--the students and protestors and activists who poured into southern towns determined to make a difference--this is a fictional account of the women who live and work in those towns.  They may not like the way things are, and most of them have definite sympathies one way or another, but they are not eager to embroil themselves in the tumult that surrounds them.

Love to Eat, Hate to Eat: Breaking the Bondage of Destructive Eating Habits, by Elyse Fitzpatrick


Meaty, convicting, and hard hitting. Not sure whether I will actually have the discipline to put her principles into practice, but her analysis of the issues is spot-on. She keeps the gospel in view at all times and does a good job both challenging and encouraging the reader. The book targets women who struggle with sinful eating habits, but I would recommend this book to anyone--male OR female--who's ever wrestled with bringing any desire under the lordship of Christ.

The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, by Max Brooks


Not as good as World War Z, sadly. Creative and comprehensive, but the pages and pages of lists get a little monotonous after a while. Unlike, say, the humorous How to Survive a Horror Movie, Brooks maintains a completely deadpan tone throughout. This seriousness serves him very well in World War Z, where it helps make the story more authentic. However, in this book, there is no story. As a result, the dry tone makes for rather dull reading. Still decent, but not really compelling.

Best quote: "Americans are notorious for their bad diet, lack of exercise, and relentless fetish for labor-saving technology.  As recognizable as the term 'couch potato' is, a more accurate term would be 'cattle': fat, lazy, listless, and ready to be eaten."

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman


One of my all-time favorite Gaiman books. Gaiman seems to blend whimsy and danger and innocence and evil almost effortlessly. He is, I think, at his best when writing for younger audiences. The darkness of his tales keeps the story from being too light, but his humor and light tone buoys a fairly frightening story. Silas's character (as voiced by the author) is a brilliant exercise in subtlety. This might be better than Neverwhere.

ADDENDUM: Much as I love Gaiman's writing, I think the words improve when read by the author himself. Which is another way of saying: as good as the book is, the audiobook is better. Gaiman tells the story at an almost sedate pace, quiet and calm, so that it actually sounds and feels like a graveyard sort of tale. As Gaiman himself might say, the dead do not hurry. And Gaiman voices Silas better than my imagination ever could.

The Prince of Frogtown, by Rick Bragg


Really more of a four-and-a-half star book. I loved All Over but the Shoutin' and Ava's Man, so I figured I would enjoy this latest story. I was not wrong. Bragg is a great writer, not least because he can imbue the most heartbreaking of stories with a sense of nostalgia. He seems to remembers almost fondly a childhood filled with hardships, and he tells the story with good deal of humor and a healthy appreciation for and love of the ridiculous.

In this particular book, he takes on the story of his father. Readers of his first two books will know that he all but dismissed his father as little more than a footnote in those stories. However, since that time, he has acquired a stepson of his own, and the story of his interactions with his stepson is presented alongside and interspersed with his father's story.

This book is fantastic. I highly recommend it.

The Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll's House, by Neil Gaiman


I was warned that later volumes of Sandman differed from the first volume, and I was not misinformed, though I'm not enough of a graphic novel connoisseur to be able to explain precisely why. Still, a complex and interesting story and quite enjoyable. I particularly liked the Cereal Convention and the undying man. Gaiman's Endless Ones are intriguing, and I expect I'll read more of the series before too long.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R. King


I'm not usually a fan of books that attempt to tweak or continue the adventures of classic characters, but Laurie R. King has crafted a solid story that seems to preserve the Holmes I know and love while still allowing for character development. I'm not over-fond of her new creation in Mary Russell, but that may change as the character grows.

All in all, it was a pretty good read, though I will be interested to see if the super-villain trope is a staple of her stories, or if she is content to let Holmes and Russell chase after lesser--but more likely--evils. (I'm also interested to see if King continues to preserve the purity of the Holmes-Russell relationship over time. The temptation to add romance can be powerful, but a chaster relationship is more complex and compelling.)

The Twenty-One Balloons, by William du Bois


A fun book with a lot of potential, but it never really goes anywhere. It was an easy and enjoyable read, but mostly it reminded me of other, better books I've read or movies I've watched. So while I liked the book, I found myself wishing I were reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or watching Swiss Family Robinson or Dr. Doolittle (the Rex Harrison version) or Gulliver's Travels (Richard Harris version) or UP instead.