Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett


A noir classic, full of colorful descriptions and creative slang. The characters are pretty much all rotten, and nobody can really trust anybody to do anything other than act in his own best interest. Even the hero is far from being a white knight. Indeed, I suspect most of the goodness attributable to his character is just residual affection for Humphrey Bogart's portrayal in the film. (Which is excellent by the way.)

Quite re-readable, too.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, by Roger Crowley


An excellent and extremely informative book . . . and fun, to boot. Crowley takes a while to get going (lots of--admittedly necessary but nonetheless rather dull--set up and backstory and what-have-you), but once he finally hits his stride, he produces a fascinating tale.

The presentation is (understandably) a bit biased toward the Western defenders--Crowley is, like many of his readers, a child of Western culture. I freely admit that some of the pro-Western bias may be my own sympathies coloring my perspective. Americans tend to harbor a certain amount of natural empathy for the scrappy, outmatched underdog fighting to defend what is his. Such a cause is, for us, higher than the outsider's goal of conquest and domination. And of course, it is hard to read with complete neutrality the harrowing tale of a war between two religions if you identify yourself with one of them.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, by William Goldman


Delightful.  The story is, of course, excellent, but the writing itself makes this classic tale even more enjoyable.

(Eminently re-readable, by the way.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Midnight Club, by Christopher Pike


Poor man's Lurlene McDaniel reincarnate. Really. (And she's not even dead yet!) Pike sets his tale in a hospice center for teenagers--a McDaniel setting if ever there was one. But where McDaniel savors the poignant tragedy of young love and the implacability of impending death, Pike focuses on . . . reincarnation. Seriously. One of the dying girls remembers tens of thousands of years' worth of past lives, all of which (of course) include her current love interest.

The real bummer about this book is there's really no there there. The cover (and Pike's name thereon) would seem to imply that a thriller waits between the pages. Instead, it's just a book about . . . nothing. The titular Midnight Club gathers to tell ghost stories, sure, and some of them are pretty good--better than the book itself, in fact. But the overall story isn't a thriller. It isn't anything. I'm not sure I know what the climax of the book even was. The lead character learns some kind of lesson, I think? About love? Honestly, this book was a mess. It's awash with elements of Eastern religion--all sorts of Eastern religions--but it never really gets to any sort of point or bottom line.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Popes and the Papacy: A History, by Thomas F.X. Noble (audio lectures)


Quite well done. Noble is a great lecturer, and knows his stuff. As with many audio lectures, I was in and out a bit, but I still learned plenty. The lecture on Pious XII was particularly good. Definitely worth a listen, even if it takes a while to get through the whole lecture series.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, by Gerhard O. Forde


An excellent and challenging read. Forde summarizes and explains, well, Luther's Heidelberg Disputation. Specifically, he explores the tension between being a theologian of glory (works) and a theologian of the cross (grace/faith) and the merits and risks of each position. Forde is definitely a little denser than many modern Christian writers--some of the passages need to be re-read a few time to really 'get' his points. Still, I've no doubt he's a much easier read than the original Disputation, so I'm not complaining. I'm still wrapping my head around some of Luther's theological positions (as a recovering theologian of glory, some of this stuff is still really counter-intuitive), and many of Forde's/Luther's statements seem rather hyperbolic. I suspect this means I am not yet fully a theologian of the cross.

This is definitely a book that would, I imagine, improve upon re-reading (and re-re-reading, for that matter). There's a lot in here, especially for such a short book, and since I know I am constantly being tempted to embrace the theology of glory, I will need to revisit Forde often.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card


Another excellent entry by Orson Scott Card. He claims that this was the book he wanted to write, and Ender's Game was just the prequel he wrote in order to make this book possible. Ender's Game is a better book, but I buy that Card thought this one was more important. Indeed, it is the very "importance" of the book that keeps it from being quite on the level of its predecessor--it's too busy making a point and addressing "issues" to be a true masterpiece. Granted, it's far and away one of the best books I've read that existed primarily to discuss such "issues"--dealing with those who are "other," the definition of "human," the good inside all people, the importance of peace, the role of guilt and penance--but the issues still diminish the brilliance of the story. Card is at his best in describing Ender's with the family he befriends in the course of his work. And the biological punch line of the story is quite original and creative.

All in all, it's a great book. A tad preachy in spots, but still well worth reading.

The audiobook is a bit dodgy--they switch narrators from time to time depending on the character whose point of view is being presented, and even though the narrators themselves are quite good, sometimes the transitions are awkward, jarring, and quite distracting. You'd probably be better off reading the actual book for this one.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"The cross does not merely inform us of something, something that may be 'above,' or 'behind' it. It attacks and afflicts us.  Knowledge of God comes when God happens to us, when God does himself to us."

~On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, by Gerhard O. Forde

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know, by C.J. Mahaney


Solid, if unremarkable. C.J. Mahaney hammers home the needs to romance your wife outside the bedroom before trying to get any action in the bedroom.

The section for wives was, unsurprisingly, much more helpful for me--Carolyn Mahaney has very clear opinions about the importance of sex in the marriage relationship. She straightforwardly tells wives that one of the best ways to encourage their husbands is: sex. Even to those submersed in the chaos of rearing young children, Mahaney does not mince words: "Honey, [...] fix your husband a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner and give him great sex after dinner, and he will feel prized by you." While Carolyn Mahaney does acknowledge the common problem of the disinterested or exhausted spouse, she does not seem to portray sexual apathy as an unavoidable result of marriage. As a result, her chapter was more encouraging than the similar passage in Love That Lasts: When Marriage Meets Grace.

All in all, a perfectly fine little book. It's hard to imagine that it would be a life-altering, paradigm-shifting book for anyone, but perhaps there are others for whom this stuff is revolutionary.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (The Ancient Practices Series), by Joan Chittister


This is quite possibly the worst book I have ever read.

Ostensibly a book about the liturgical year, its history, theology, and significance to our modern lives, this is more accurately two hundred pages of Chittister assuring her readers over and over (and over again) that the liturgical year is important . . . without ever really explaining why. From Chittester's prospective, the point of the liturgical year is to remind us of the life of Jesus so we can emulate him in order to become "fully human" and bring about God's kingdom. ("[The liturgical year] gives us the energy to become the fullness of ourselves.")

That's it.

The whole book contains perhaps 10 pages of actual substance. I had hoped for an educational discussion of the history of the liturgical year and the theological basis for each aspect thereof. (Reformed Protestants are, I think, sometimes too quick to dismiss the merits of the church calendar, and I was hoping to better understand it so I could explain and defend it to them).

I was quite disappointed. In what were easily the most readable sections of the book, Chittister briefly explains the historical controversy regarding calculations of the dates of Easter Sunday and Christmas, but other than that, the book is just page after page of poetic-sounding, frothy, but ultimately meaningless statements about her idea of Christianity, which frankly has more in common with Eastern religions than it does with orthodox Christian theology.

The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper



Another excellent book, though markedly different from the first entry in the series.

I was surprised to discover that, rather than continuing the adventures of the Drew children, Cooper presents the reader with an entirely new batch of characters. The only familiar face in the book is that of Merriman Lyon--and a most welcome familiar face, at that.

This time, too, the child at the center of the story is not an "everyman" sort of character. Will is worlds removed from the normality of the Drews. He is not swept along on the tide of circumstances, guided by forces he cannot understand, but is himself a director of circumstances, a powerful force with which to be reckoned. This power sets Will apart from his family, and, as a result, the book lacks the familial relations and camaraderie that characterized the Drews' adventures. Though Cooper makes it clear that Will loves his family and in some ways misses being more completely a part of that family, the bulk of his story revolves around him alone, or occasionally him and another like himself. In that sense, this second book is perhaps representative of adolescence itself, as children move from identifying themselves as part of a larger unit (like the Drews) to seeing themselves as individuals independent of their families and engaging in their own struggles.

Fantasy literature often presents a temptation to draw conclusions about the author's theology, and this book is no different. While the first book relied heavily on the concept of fate and preordained events--the children trusted that they would be guided to the right course of action, even though they were not certain by whom--this book seems to push the idea of free will and personal choice.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Love That Lasts: Where Marriage Meets Grace, by Gary & Betsy Ricucci


A fairly solid book on marriage from a biblical perspective. The Ricuccis walk through the biblical roles of husbands and wives, set out the benefits of good communication (and some common pitfalls), and offer practical advice for injecting romance into your relationship and improving your sex life (the two are connected by not necessarily synonymous). There wasn't much here that was terribly earth-shattering for me, though of course some of this stuff will be new to many readers. But if you've sat under biblical teaching in a good church for any length of time, you are likely familiar with the bulk of the material in this book.

Which is not to say that the book is unnecessary. Loads of Christian couples struggle with gender roles, good communication, and physical intimacy. Even those who "know" the truths in this book still need the reminder to apply them.