Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Top Shelf: 10 Books for the Road

Summer is upon us, and with it the season of vacations.  And if you're cheap like me, this means avoiding costly plane rides by driving to whatever semi-exotic destinations you've selected as the setting for your time of rest and relaxation.  But conversation, pop music, and games of 20 Questions only go so far, and it's just a matter of time before you're stuck in traffic somewhere, bored out of your gourd, ready to dismantle the stereo system with your bare hands if the blasted DJ plays freaking "We Are Young" one more time.

So without further ado (and in honor of my upcoming cross-country road trip with a dear friend whom I have not seen in years--here's lookin' at you, kid), I present...

10 Books for the Road

(Or the gym.)  By which I mean: audiobooks.  A disproportionate number of them are narrated by Brits (or other natives of the UK) because, well, I'm a sucker for accents. Plus they sound so much smarter and more sophisticated than us Americans. (Yes, I'm a bit of an Anglophile.  What of it?)  You may also notice that the sci-fi/fantasy genre is rather heavily represented here, but what can I say?  Nothing holds my attentions like dragons.  Battling vampires.  In space.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Woman in Black (2012)


Widowed attorney Arthur Kipps is far from eager to be parted from his young son, but he's on thin ice at the firm and he needs the job, so off he goes to sort through the mountains of paperwork left behind by recently the recently deceased Widow Drablow, who lived in a creepy house in the middle of a marsh near the village of Crythin Gifford. Something is clearly up, however, when the tavern keeper refuses to let Kipps a room, and he has the devil's own time convincing anyone to give him a ride out to the Drablow manor (rather ominously known as Eel Marsh House).  The house itself is full of weirdness and beyond isolated (the narrow road from the mainland just barely clears the swamp and is fully submerged during high tide), but Kipps is determined to stick it out and finish the job, content in the knowledge that his son will join him in a few days. When local children start dying in tragic accidents, the villagers become increasingly hostile to Kipps, whose only ally is a wealthy skeptic still grieving the loss of his own son years before. What (or who) is causing the children's death? And why?  Does it have anything to do with the mysterious woman in black Kipps keeps seeing?  And will Kipps be able to solve the mystery before his own son arrives in Crythin Gifford?

This movie marks Daniel Radcliffe's first feature film since the Harry Potter series wrapped, and he's clearly trying to move on and leave that role behind him.  Radcliffe is wise to start out with a period piece--more modern fare would seem jarring after seeing him run up and down castle staircases for years.  Unfortunately, he still looks too young for this part.  I realize that folks got married much younger in Victorian days, but for all his 22 years, Radcliffe simply does not look like someone who's gotten married, had a kid, and been through . . . whatever the Victorian version of law school was--apprenticeship or whatever.  He may well be old enough for all that to have happened, but he doesn't look it.  Even with a carefully cultivated layer of stubble, he looks like Harry Potter starring in a school play about Victorian England.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott


Well-known author Anne Lamott summarizes the advice she gives her writing students, from encouraging them to let themselves write crummy first drafts to advocating for the use of short assignments to deal with writer's block, from promoting the value of writing groups to counseling the students on avoiding libel charges.

The book is largely reflective of Lamott's own writing experience (obviously) and is interlaced with her special brand of neurosis, hyperbole, over-reaction, jealousy, and drama.  While there is some practical advice, the real value of the book is likely the reader's identification with Lamott's fears and emotions.  Writers are, I suspect, a fairly neurotic bunch, and there is tremendous comfort to be found in reading a book like this and discovering that you are not the only one.  Moreover, someone who feels just as bereft after rejection, someone whose jealousy toward other writers borders on malevolence--someone like that was able to overcome the fear and the distraction and the insecurity and write.  And even be published.  Lamott essentially gives her readers permission to feel rejected when they are, well, rejected, to be discouraged, to be despondent, even.  She just encourages them not to stay there.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Science and Religion, by Lawrence M. Principe (Great Courses lectures)


A series of twelve lectures on the history of the interaction and relationship between science and religion, including the contributions of Augustine, Galileo, and Darwin, as well as recommendations for thinking intelligently about the intersection between science and religion in the twenty-first century.

All in all, this was a pretty decent series.  Principe is a good lecturer, and he handles complex topics well.  He has the credentials to back up his claims, too--a Ph.D. in both a hard science (organic chemistry, no less) and the history of science.  

His main point is that modern folks think that science and religion are opposed to one another--the so-called 'Warfare Thesis', which he discusses at length.  Principe doesn't buy this idea, though, and prefers to think of science and religion as separate spheres--that is, that religion tells us things about theology and is ill-equipped to tell us anything about the natural world, and science tells us things about the natural world but is ill-equipped to tell us things about theology.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Long Fatal Love Chase, by Louisa May Alcott


Young, beautiful Rosamund Vivian longs for adventure after years of being cooped up in a dreary house with her cantankerous and unaffectionate grandfather.  So when the handsome and mysterious Philip Tempest pays them a visit, she is fascinated by his stories of adventure and his allusions to a dark past.  Before she knows it, she's been swept away on his yacht, off to an exciting new life of romantic travels to exotic locales.  However, it is not long before Rosamond discovers that her new love is not all he seems.  She discovers, to her horror, that their marriage is a sham, and Philip is already married to another woman.  In he shame, Rosamund tries to flee, but the deceitful Philip is not ready to let her go.  From mountain monastery to secluded asylum, through France, Italy, Germany, and England, Rosamund wrestles with her own conflicting emotions as she tries to escape the clever and controlling Philip, but he is always close on her heels, and utterly unscrupulous in his pursuit of the woman he claims to love.  Will Rosamund ever be truly free of this monster she once loved?

Apparently Alcott, best known for her more realistic novels involving the March sisters (Little Women, Little Men, Jo's Boys, etc.), also penned several outlandish adventure romances, including this little gem.  Originally--and deliciously--entitled A Modern Mephistopheles, this book was ultimately rejected by publishers as being 'too sensational', even after Alcott tried to 'tone it down' and make it more palatable.  It languished in unpublished obscurity until the headmaster of a New Hampshire school got his hands on the original sensational version and was able to finally get it published.  And thank goodness for that.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Resolving Everyday Conflict, by Ken Sande


Essentially a condensed version of Sande's excellent and well-known Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict.  I'm not exactly sure why Sande felt the need to publish this particular volume, since the original book, while substantial (320 pages), was a fairly easy read.  Perhaps there really was a need for a booklet sized adaptation of Sande's curriculum, but it ends up feeling like an attempt to drum up further sales for Sande.

This little volume, at 128 pages or just under three hours for the audiobook form, did seem to capture the essence of Sande's trademark concepts (the four promises of forgiveness, the slippery slope of conflict, the four G's of conflict, etc.).  I was struck by the confidence of some of Sande's predictions--he seemed to reiterate in no uncertain terms that his methodology would change your life, that his system works, and that it's right.  Granted, pretty much anyone who writes a how-to book believes that he or she is right about how to do whatever he or she is writing about, but I don't remember that tone of absolute certainty in the original.  At times, he almost sounded like a snake oil salesman guaranteeing positive results--it ended up having a slight negative effect on his credibility.  Later in the book, he explains that you can't force others to reconcile, and it becomes apparent that some conflicts are messier than others.  Still, he's awfully confident that his way is the right way.

And for what it's worth, I do think his suggestions are quite good, and I've benefited from them myself.  I find his four promises of forgiveness particularly helpful in thinking through the process and definition of forgiveness.  

Bottom line: the original is better, so if you're interested in Sande's admittedly insightful suggestions for conflict resolution, just read Peacemaker instead.  It's well worth the extra $2 Amazon will charge you.  If, however, 320 pages just seems like too dang many, well, this book may be for you.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume 7, by Eugene F.A. Klug (ed.)


The seventh and final volume of Martin Luther's complete sermons, which consists of his 'House Postils' on gospel texts for the 15th through 26th Sundays after Trinity, the Festival of Christ's Nativity, and other occasions (including the Day of Annunciation, the Day of St. John the Baptist, the Day of St. Michael and All Angels, among others).  Each sermon ranges from approximately 10-15 pages in length, and opens with the sermon text, followed by numbered paragraphs containing Luther's exposition.

By and large these sermons are fairly decent, though most of them are far from brilliant.  Luther's exposition of Isaiah 9:6 in five sermons for the Festival of Christ's Nativity were particularly good, but the remainder of the sermons ranged from merely adequate to downright problematic.  Luther's high view of Mary is clearly on display, and his hatred for 'Sacramentarians' who dare deny the transubstantiation or the transformative (as opposed to merely symbolic) power of baptism colors many of his sermons.  He takes some liberties with the texts he preaches, which is, I suppose, to be expected since he had no training in expositional preaching and it was far from common at the time.  Thus, unlike the great Puritan preachers or even later figures in the Reformation, Luther did not really have a large body of the sound expositional preaching of others from which to draw.

I should clarify that although this is the final volume in the series, it is the first and only volume I have read.  I chose this volume as my starting place based on the following criteria:  it is the shortest volume. It may be that the other volumes in the series are better.  But this particular volume was not terribly impressive.  I did enjoy some of Luther's prosaic--if not downright crude--phraseology, but it wasn't enough to overcome the generally lackluster quality of the sermons themselves.

[Disclosure:  I was reading this alongside a volume of sermons by C.H. Spurgeon, who fully deserves his reputation as the 'Prince of Preachers.'  It is entirely possible that Luther's sermons suffered in comparison to Spurgeon's excellent work.  I do realize that Spurgeon benefited from the something like 300 years of expositional preaching that preceded him following Luther's break with Rome, so the comparison is not really fair.  Still, some comparison is inevitable.]

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain


The differences between extroverts and introverts are well known.  One is caricatured as a sort of human golden retriever, eager for constant companionship, miserable when alone, perpetually cheerful, obnoxiously loud, and easily distracted.  The other is portrayed as vaguely misanthropic, shy to the point of social anxiety, dull as toast, bland as beige, and possibly maladjusted.  Cain, like many authors before her, has undertaken to dispel these generalizations and present the true essence of introversion--its weaknesses, yes, but more importantly its strengths.  The degree to which other authors may or may not have accomplished this goal, I don't claim to know, as I have by no means read all such books.  However, in Cain's case, I can safely say the result is a resounding success.

First off, the organization of this book is exemplary--Cain's ideas are presented in a clear and logical order, but the organization is fluid and subtle.  She doesn't draw the reader's attention to the structure itself.  (She does occasionally raise an issue and then assure the reader that it will be addressed in a future chapter, but this is not done so frequently as to be distracting, and is limited to those issues that really are likely to cross a reader's mind at a given point, but which do not belong in the current section.  So, for example, in discussing the scientific evidence that introversion presents in the very young, she assures parents that tips on parenting introverts (which do not belong in a chapter on the biology of introversion) will be addressed later.)

Cain starts off by essentially convincing the reader of the need for this book--that is, that we in America treat extroversion as the ideal, that this has not always been the case, and that perhaps in our charisma-driven, extroverted, groupthinking society we are denying the value of introversion and missing out on the contributions introverts can make to our businesses, families, and social circles.  This groundwork is well laid.  Cain, an admitted introvert, explains and establishes the extroverted ideal and highlights its shortcomings without seeming defensive.  She does not appear to view introversion as superior, but merely encourages her readers to consider the value of both personality types.  This rational, objective tone (which I imagine served her quite well in her bygone days as a negotiator) lends credibility to her presentation of the merits of introversion.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thoughtful Hours, by H.L.L.


A collection of 35 poems and hymns by Jane Laurie Borthwick, best known for her translation of 'Be Still, My Soul'.  Borthwick, who, along with her sister, translated Hymns from the Land of Luther, is writing here under the name 'H.L.L.' (presumably derived from the title of her previous work).

Several of these hymns (or poems--since it's just text, it's tough to tell) are quite moving, particularly those in the first half of the volume.  The theology is fairly solid, and many of the poems also boast significant objective merit, in my admittedly amateur opinion--particularly as regards her use of repetition and parallel construction.

The volume pictured here is a paperback reprint, but we lucked out and got an original hardcover edition, which at 4"x5"x1/2" is a really nice portable size and seems to be good quality.

Here's an excerpt from the book, to give you an idea of what to expect:

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Modelland, by Tyra Banks


To say that Tookie de la Creme is not a beauty is a bit of an understatement.  She is fully as awkward-looking as her younger sister is gorgeous, and her parents make it abundantly clear that they prefer their more attractive child.  So when the Day of Discovery dawns and her family eagerly anticipates her sister's selection as a Bella at the exclusive Modelland (a training school that puts the 'super' in supermodel), Tookie--whose prospects are limited to lifelong labor in the sweatshops of Metopia--wants nothing more than to just run away.  But instead Tookie finds herself magically transported to Modelland, much to Tookie's (and everyone else's) everlasting surprise.  Along with three other misfits (one is plus-sized, one is 4'7", and one is albino), Tookie must figure out how to survive such ordeals as 'Thigh High Boot Camp' and 'Catwalk Corridor', all while being relentlessly mocked by her more traditionally attractive classmates.  As if that weren't enough, Tookie and her friends keep getting the stink-eye from a disgraced (and apparently insane) former supermodel with a dark secret.  Meanwhile, outside the walls of Modelland, Tookie's mother and sister have decided not to take no for an answer and are determined to force their way into Modelland, whatever the cost.

This. Book. Is. Ridiculous.

First off, allow me to point out that it is fully 576 pages long.  I will also go out on a limb here and say that Miss Banks did not make use of a ghost writer for this particular book, which I was shocked to learn is merely the first installment in a planned trilogy.

Merciful heavens.

Let me be frank.  This book is terrible.  The only reason I am giving it two stars instead of one is that, well, as one reviewer put it, it's more creatively awful than I expected.  On some level, I can't help respecting that Tyra Banks--who is no authoress, clearly--came up with enough ideas to fill 576 pages.  Are they good ideas? Heck, no!  Do they even make sense?  Not a bit!  But there are so many.