Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nightlight: A Parody, by The Harvard Lampoon


What a disappointment! The Twilight Saga offers so much potential for mockery and hilarity, and this book . . . is almost completely unfunny. The authors are too busy trying to be clever that they never actually get around to being funny. I enjoyed their portrayal of Belle's clumsiness and the assumption that every male in her immediate vicinity was attracted to her, but the story itself went off the rails early on and never made it back. Good satire/spoofery needs just a hint of seriousness and quality. If you mock everything, you mock nothing. Incidentally, the book is full of editing errors which, given the writers' Harvard credentials, is, I hope, a nod to the crappy editing in the actual Twilight books. If the real culprit is just lazy editing, then that's yet another demerit against this book. Still, considering the material they had to work with--the ridiculous books and ensuing nationwide obsession--I have to say the Harvard Lampoon really biffed it here. What a waste.

Wuthering Heights, adapted by Betty Ren Wright


This is a CHILDREN'S version--adapted by Betty Ren Wright. At first, I was horrified by the idea of telling this story to children, especially if Heathcliff and Catherine's relationship were portrayed as true love. "Love means destroying the person you care about most in the world and then ruining the lives of everyone around you. Now go and have a healthy attitude toward relationships." But the adapter does a decent job of showing the awfulness of Heathcliff. I'm still not sure it is appropriate for kids--pretty dark stuff, even in this glossed over version--but at least she gets the general point across.

Feminine Appeal: Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother, by Carolyn Mahaney


A fairly solid entry in the how-to-be-a-wife-and-mother category. Mahaney's perspective on sex is certainly less depressing than the Ricuccis' in Love That Lasts (for one thing, Mahaney seems to actually enjoy sex and delight in her husband). But honestly, a lot of this book was more discouraging than encouraging. The chapter on loving your children might be an encouragement to someone who already has kids, but to someone who is not yet a parent . . . well, it made me all the more terrified of the sacrifice and work that parenting involves. It sounds so hard!

Likewise, the chapter on working at home is less than helpful for those who either a) don't feel up to the task of being a stay-at-home wife and mother (which is a lot of us in this post-feminist era--we have been taught how to succeed at school and in the workplace but haven't the foggiest idea how to manage a family), or b) would like to stay home but can't (those who are sold on the concept but circumstances force them to keep working outside the home).

I don't think I would recommend this book to single women, either. Mahaney pays lip service to her single readers, encouraging them to keep reading because they may need this information some day, and they can better encourage their married friends, etc. But she offers little practical advice. How exactly is a single woman supposed to work at home when she also works away from home? It's nice to tell her she still needs to do something, but without practical advice, all you've accomplished is making her feel guilty for not being a better housekeeper and making her even more discontented with her singleness.

But the worst offender is by far the closing chapter of the book. Mahaney meant it as a tribute to her mother, who inspired her and set an example for her of godly femininity. Which is a lovely thing in and of itself. But either Mahaney succumbs to the temptation of loving hyperbole, or her mother was magic. Either way, the last thing that will encourage me on my quest for godly femininity is a tale of a perfect woman who did everything right, never (never?) complained, always (always?) served selflessly, etc. "Here is this amazing woman. You suck. Now go and be encouraged." Mahaney would have served her readers better by presenting the story of a flawed-but-forgiven woman. I can relate to that. That is a picture of the gospel. That means there's hope even for me.

Still, Mahaney's theology is solid enough, and it's not a bad book. Just not my favorite on the subject.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Galileo (Christian Encounters Series), by Mitch Stokes


An account of Galileo's life, work, and beliefs, with particular emphasis on his interactions with the Church--his attitude toward the Church, and the Church's somewhat inconsistent reactions to his research and ideas. Most notably, Stokes claims that Galileo never intended to rebel against the Church, but saw himself as a devoted Catholic and was constantly surprised by the violence with which his writings and teaching were opposed.

Informative, to be sure. But Stokes can't seem to make up his mind whether he's writing a serious biography or a more lighthearted account of Galileo's life and work. I enjoy the writer-as-storyteller trope, but Stokes comes across as unable to decide whether he wants to insert his own voice into the book. The result is choppy and disconnected writing--at times Stokes presents a straightforward historical account, at other times a humorous commentary on the events. The presentation of those events, too, is full of stops and starts; it lacks a smooth story arc. Which, of course, is true of history, but need not be true of biographical accounts of that history. The book seems to be well-researched, and in the hands of a better writer it could have been much stronger and more compelling.

Also, I confess that after a while, all the (extremely similar) Italian names started to run together. Which is no fault of Stokes', though I suppose a more skillful author might have offered more assistance to the reader in wrestling with the long list of characters in Galileo's story.

Bottom line: I know more about Galileo now than I did before, but I didn't necessarily enjoy the process overmuch.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfillment in Christian Marriage (Fourth Edition), by Ed Wheat, MD


Extremely helpful. I liked this book more than Sheet Music, but I suspect that my preference is just a matter of personal taste. Wheat is a physician, so he includes a lot of medical information that Leman, as a psychologist, is simply not qualified to give. Parts of this book read like a textbook, which I liked--the matter-of-fact tone made the whole thing less awkward. More like hearing a doctor or science teacher talk about sex (as opposed to hearing your pastor or psychologist talk about it). However, unlike most medical texts on sex, Wheat comes from an explicitly Christian and biblical worldview, and saturates his practical scientific explanations and recommendations in biblical truth, which is incredibly comforting for those looking for a scientifically reliable resource that has not been (as) tainted by the secular view of sex.

However, this is not a list of does and don'ts--Wheat encourages readers to honor their spouses, and he explains various aspects of sex and reproduction, but by and large he does not condone or condemn specific activities or practices. This is most notable in the section on birth control. Wheat is staunchly pro-life and opposes all clearly abortifacient methods (such as the morning after pill). However, he does not address the morality of birth control in and of itself (that is, whether it is morally acceptable to try to divorce sex from procreation). But he is very clear that he does not intend to tell couples what to do. His goal is to inform them about the various methods and let them make their own decisions. So if you're looking for a book to tell you what to do/not do, this is not the book for you. But if you want a moderately detailed medical guide chocked full of practical advice, this is an excellent resource.

Wheat includes an especially helpful section on what to expect on the honeymoon, and also spends a fair amount of time walking the reader through practical solutions to common problems married couples face. And all his advice is under-girded by the biblical principles of selfless service and honest communication.

The final chapter of the book does present the gospel, but I would have loved to see the gospel message permeate the rest of the text a bit more thoroughly. Still, for a Christian take on sex in marriage, I doubt you'll find better than this.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage, by Kevin Leman


A decent enough book, if not earth shattering--it seems like most of these books cover the same basic stuff. Leman presents the material in a more lighthearted and "humorous" tone than, say, Ed Wheat (Intended for Pleasure). And Leman is less clinical as well, which makes sense since Leman is a counselor/psychologist and Wheat is a physician.

Leman markets his book as appropriate for couples at all stages of their relationship--engaged couples, newlyweds, and veterans of marriage. Leman is particularly considerate of engaged couples, specifically telling them which chapters to read before marriage and which chapters to postpone until after the wedding. (Some books on marriage pay lip service to engaged readers in the opening pages but then offer no further instruction to them thereafter, so it's unclear how best to interact with the text.)

It's an easy and fast read, too, so no worries there. I wish it had been more gospel focused, but all in all, it was a decent look at marital sex from the Christian perspective.

A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers, by D.A. Carson


Carson wins again. This is an excellent treatment of Paul's prayers. I sometimes felt like Carson argued a little too strongly and made some unsupported logical leaps (Paul's canonical prayers do not constitute the sum total of the prayers he uttered, so it's a little dangerous to assume that he didn't pray for certain things or in certain ways just because he didn't mention those prayers in the New Testament epistles.) Still, he's right in that overall our prayers are far too selfish and too focused on temporal and materialistic concerns. He also faces head on the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, especially as involves prayer. His conclusion is unremarkable (though dead on, in my opinion), but his application of that conclusion is extremely helpful and more than a little challenging. Carson is a clear thinker and a solid writer, which is sadly rare today. Many modern theologians can preach up a storm, but their writing is sadly lackluster. Carson appears to be a notable exception to that rule. I look forward to reading more of him.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gambit, by Rex Stout


A solid enough Nero Wolfe story. Nothing too earth-shattering here, but then again, with these books it's all about the journey, not the destination. The usual Stoutian tropes--a damsel in distress, a wrongly imprisoned man, a suspect cleared by his own inconvenient (and violent) demise . . . plus a smattering of delicious bon mots, the best of which is Wolfe burning a dictionary because it claims "infer" and "imply" can be used interchangeably. Not the best entry in the series, but not a bad way to kill an hour or two.

Bag of Bones, by Stephen King


Long. And intense. And meandering. And excellent. Definitely not for the squeamish or faint-of-heart. King has a knack for modeling his storytelling after the very events he depicts. In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, the reader felt lost and confused. Here, the mood is trippy and dreamlike. Like the protagonist, the reader doesn't know what the dreams and messages and encounters mean, who they're from, whether they matter. In that sense, King brings the reader along in an experience that runs parallel to Mike Noonan's (the protagonist).

In ghost stories, authors can be hard pressed to manufacture catalyzing events gruesome enough to cause the requisite level of otherworldly angst. So much has been done, and so often, by so many, that it's tough to create an occurrence that will truly shock the reader. But with hundreds and hundreds of pages of build-up--angry spirits and dead bodies and all sorts of real-world effects--it is absolutely vital that the ultimate backstory be truly horrifying. King does not disappoint. It's not an easy backstory to read (or in my case, listen to), but I will admit that it was not without reason--he needed something horrendous.

The Ruby in the Smoke, by Philip Pullman


Very Holmesian--Sherlock, not Oliver Wendell. The setting, the unknown numbered things that cause death to the hearers (in Holmes it was five orange pips; here's it's seven blessings), the time period, the Indian connections, the opium dens, the sailors, the confusion of identity . . . all very reminiscent of Holmes. Which is by no means a bad thing. I love reading Sherlock Holmes.

I think I was expecting more of a fantasy novel (based on Pullman's other writings, specifically His Dark Materials), so I was a little surprised by the lack of talking armored polar bears, and kept expecting magical things to happen. Still, as a mystery, it's quite good. Sally presents a very interesting and unconventional role model for young women (which is consistent with Pullman's anti-traditional stance as expressed in his well-known trilogy). She is of course pretty (Pullman's not that unconventional), but she has no real domestic skills, is ill-at-ease with children, and has a knack for financial affairs, accounting, and managing her stock portfolio. She is also an excellent shot and carries a pistol with her everywhere she goes. Yet this is no hardened heroine of 29 (though we sense she may be one in the not-too-distant future), but a sharp young woman of 16.

Sally possesses the common YA fiction ability to immediately and accurately identify new acquaintances as friends or foes--Frederick Garland and Jim Taylor being the two most obvious examples of this. Her complete and immediate trust in them grates against the otherwise suspicious trust-no-one attitude encouraged in the book (and it transpires that her father's reliance on his own similar ability was perhaps unwise).

All in all, an enjoyable book, and I look forward to reading further, though we'll see if Pullman's personal views and agenda start to interfere with the story (as in His Dark Materials).

Enquiry, by Dick Francis


A decent enough mystery. On the plus side, the villains are more normal, and are driven by largely normal motives (albeit normal motives inflated and aggravated to abnormal levels). Francis can sometimes fall into the habit of resolving his stories with the rather lazy trope of "a crazy psychotic madman did it!" It's much more compelling when the perpetrator is a largely normal neighbor, driven by commonplace motives. As a reader, I prefer stories that remind me that I am not so different from these villains . . . that the distance between us is not as far as I might like to think. I struggle with jealousy. I struggle with anger, or guilt, or fear. And I have friends who do as well. We all of us are not as far removed from villainy as we like to think.

Still, this particular story was not as compelling as others he's written. The solution seemed to come too quickly, and there was no real a-HA! moment. The villain, though normal, was not terribly surprising. Francis focused more on the relationships in this story, particularly the romantic relationships, which was nice (and well done). An enjoyable read, but not his best.

Batman: Lovers & Madmen, by Michael Green


My foray into graphic novels continues, and I am not disappointed. This volume presents a sort of alternative origin story for the Joker. Definitely lots of similarities to the film The Dark Knight, though the interwebs don't seem to think it was part of the source material for it. In this version, the Joker comes into existence because of Batman--he is a brilliant criminal, but has lost his zest for life until Batman presents him with an adversary and a field for his formidable talents as a psychotic villain. Batman must then decide how to deal with this new breed of monster, which presents not a few ethical conundrums. Definitely worth looking into, if graphic novels are at all your thing. And if you can stomach some of the Joker's more senselessly destructive and violent actions.

The Fields of Home, by Ralph Moody


Not quite as good as Man of the Family or Little Britches. Moody's grandfather is infuriating to read . . . I can't imagine what he was like to live with. I was reminded of the frustration I felt in reading James Herriot's accounts of his partner Sigfried (though Moody was not quite as long-suffering as Herriot). I suppose, too, it was refreshing to see Moody's brilliant ideas fall short a few times (after essentially two whole books about his agricultural, equestrian, and engineering genius)--even if the cause of the failing was often his grandfather's interference. Objectively speaking, it's an excellent book, and one with a strong story arc--his grandfather's adjustment to time and progress--but it's hard to me to rate too highly a book that annoyed me so much. Still, I look forward to continuing the series.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King


Definitely not the book to read before starting out on a hiking trip. Well-written, and well-paced. The use of innings (and other baseball events) as chapter headings was a clever touch. As is often the case with King's books, the reader is immersed into a confusing morass of events and experiences that don't really make sense until the end. The reader thus endures what is essentially a less-intense facsimile of the characters' own trials, which results in a transference of mood that heightens the suspense and magnifies the reading experience overall.

I will say that I'm not completely convinced King writes children convincing. The mental development of the protagonist was perhaps . . . unlikely. She didn't think like any nine-year-old I know, anyway. But since the only people who know how nine-year-olds think are themselves nine years old and thus have no business reading this book, King is probably safe from too much criticism. Definitely worth reading. And an easy read, too--it's much shorter than many of King's other volumes.

Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God's Unfailing Love, by Jerry Bridges


Really more of a four-and-a-half star book, and definitely Bridges' best so far. This book kicked my behind right proper. Substantively, it's quite similar to Forde's On Being a Theologian of the Cross, albeit a little easier to digest. As someone who struggles with legalism on a pretty much constant basis, I found this book quite challenging. Bridges reminds his readers that grace not only saves us, but also sanctifies us as well. And I for one definitely need the reminder. I still haven't really wrapped my head (or heart) around the concept of grace--not by a long shot--but this book definitely helped that process along. I highly recommend it.

Death of a Doxy, by Rex Stout


A classic. Nero Wolfe is always enjoyable, but I think Julie Jaquette really makes this one. It's nice to see that Wolfe's general distaste for women is not necessarily universal. (Other highlights include Minna Ballou and her wolfhounds and the epithon). Also, there's a certain amount of (likely unintentional) foreshadowing for the also excellent A Family Affair.