Friday, November 30, 2012

God of All Creation: Life Lessons from Pets and Wildlife, by James Robison


Texas televangelist James Robison shares 28 lessons he's learned from animals and pets--most notably his miniature dachshund Princess. I had highish hopes for it, on account of the Beth Moore blurb on the back, but the end result is just ok.

Robison's lessons are pretty straightforward and simple--nothing earth-shattering or mind-blowing here. The chapters are short (the whole thing is less than 200 pages), and would likely make a decent devotional, albeit a fairly fluffy one. The writing is nothing special and borders on sappy, which is to be expected in a book like this, I suppose. Robison's relationship with his dog has clearly taught him a lot about how to relate to God--recognizing His voice, enjoying His company, obeying His commands, trusting Him with our hurts, etc. And there are some cautionary tales as well.

Which leads me to my main issue with this book. There seem to be only two categories in Robison's book: good dogs and bad dogs. Good dogs are happy and have a good relationship with the master. Bad dogs ... die. I'm not kidding. The two most pronounced examples of bad behavior end with the death of the dog. One chased cars and eventually caught one, to her detriment, and another had a talent for escaping and getting into mischief and also meets his demise at the hands (wheels) of a car. I understand the cautionary nature of these tales (and certainly a dog has less capacity for long-term sanctification or improvement than a human), but the end result feels more law than gospel.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Wonderful O, by James Thurber


A fun short story by humorist James Thurber, though nowhere near as clever or delightful as the  fanciful The 13 Clocks.

Two pirates, Littlejack and Black, plus their minions, set off on a treasure hunt that takes them to the island of Ooroo. The inhabitants don't know anything about any treasure, so the pirates and minions scour the island, wreaking havoc and destroying anything that gets in their path. Along the way, the pirate Black, who has an unaccountable loathing for the letter 'O', tries to eradicate it from the island. He has it removed from all the books, and soon starts ordering the destruction of any object with 'O' in its name. 'O' activities are outlawed, and a nitpicky lawyer is tasked with working out the details of the legislation (so, for example, 'cows' are outlawed unless they are in groups, thereby becoming 'cattle').

Things get worse and worse on the island. Communication is difficult ('shoe' has become 'she', etc.), and the islanders are at their wits' end. With the help of a local legend, they finally figure out how to rid themselves of the oppressors and, in the process, discover the real treasure (which, surprise surprise, contains the letter 'O').

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Footsteps in the Dark, by Georgette Heyer


The Fortescue siblings--Celia, Peter, and Margaret--are thrilled with the estate they've unexpectedly inherited. The Priory is the perfect place for a holiday, and they, along with Celia's solicitor husband Charles Malcolm, are determined to enjoy themselves. After all, the locals' talk of The Monk that haunts the ground is only so much rubbish, isn't it? But before long, the Malcolms and the Fortescues learn firsthand that there may be more to the ghost stories than they thought--eerie noises startle them, a cowled figure keeps popping up around the house and grounds, and a skeleton drops at their very feet. But Charles and Peter aren't convinced that supernatural forces are at work; they believe they're being tormented by a flesh and blood villain. But why? And who could it be? Mr. Titmarsh, the entomologist who's always flitting about their grounds? He claims he's looking for moths, but could he have a more sinister purpose? Then there's the irritable, heavy-drinking French artist, Louis Duval, who rants and raves about The Monk. Is he just crazy, or does he know something? And what about the mysterious Mr. Strange? He claims to be on holiday, but no one seems to know anything about him, and he certainly has a habit of showing up under suspicious circumstances. Margaret is positive that he means them no harm, but the others aren't so sure. But if not him, then who? What are his plans for the new tenants of the Priory? There's already been at least one violent death connected with The Monk--who will be next?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, by Adam C. English


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
This is, I think, a great reminder to Christians of the importance of humble, everyday acts of obedience. Most of us will never participate in or even witness a physical miracle. We can’t calm the sea for endangered sailors or multiply the supply of wheat or ooze magical healing goo from our tombs, as Saint Nicholas is rumored to have done. And even if we have the opportunity to punch a heretic, it might be best to abstain (criminal assault laws being what they are). Nevertheless all of us can be good stewards of whatever blessings we have received. And while our salvation comes not from our good works but from our position in Christ and his atoning death on the cross for our sins, He calls His justified people to a life of obedience. Trusting in His grace and relying on His power, we can obey God in the small things and trust that in His sovereignty He can use these small daily obediences to bring glory to His name in ways we could never imagine.
Full review available here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Not Quite Dead Enough, by Rex Stout


Another two-in-one book, like Black Orchids before it. This time, the unifying thread is not Wolfe's rare flora, but his work for the United States Army during World War II. In 'Not Quite Dead Enough', Archie, now a major and working in domestic counter-intelligence, is sent to recruit Wolfe's help with various military intelligence issues. To Archie's surprise, Wolfe is neither reading in his office nor up playing with his orchids, but is in fact 'training' to join the Army as a soldier so he can kill some Germans. Archie is flabbergasted, and must figure out a way to convince Wolfe that he is far more useful to the Army as a brain than as a soldier. The trouble is, any argument would require Wolfe to use his brain, and it appears that he simply will not do so. So Archie sets out to use the only hook left--Wolfe's ego. Before long, Archie himself is a murder suspect, and Wolfe is faced with the ignominy of having his former assistant tried for murder ... unless Wolfe can figure out whodunit.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Father Hunt, by Rex Stout


Amy Denovo wants to find her father. The trouble is, she doesn't know who he is, what he does, or where he lives. All she knows is that her mother received checks for $1000 every month from Amy's birth until her mother's death in a hit and run accident a few months back. But was it really an accident? Wolfe and Archie chase lead after lead in an attempt to track down the long-lost father, determined to find an answer. Whether Amy likes the answer she gets ... well, that remains to be seen.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The House on Haunted Hill (1959)


Millionaire Frederick Loren (whom we will call Vincent Price, for lo, 'tis he) has a killer idea for a party. He'll invite 5 strangers--a pilot, a psychologist, a stenographer, a journalist, and the drunken, raving owner of the house, all of whom are strapped for cash--to join him and his wife at a haunted house he's rented just for the occasion. Anyone who stays the night will receive $10,000 (almost $80,000 today, if you adjust for inflation). Not too bad for a night's non-work. Of course, it's not so simple. The owner reveals that no fewer than 7 people have been murdered in that house, and it is these ghosts who now haunt the premises. When the caretaker and his creepy blind wife take off early, locking the guests--and hosts--in the house, they must find a way to survive until morning.

This. Movie. Is. Hilarious.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dial M for Murder (1954)


Margot Wendice is the wealthy wife of retired tennis star Tony Wendice. She is also the sometimes-lover of Mark Halliday, an American author of detective fiction. Unfortunately for her, her husband is wise to the affair and decides to have her bumped off before she divorces--or disinherits--him. The murder plot seems foolproof, but circumstances intervene and his wife survives. The hired killer is not so fortunate. Now Tony Wendice has to deal with the police snooping about, and they're bound to get suspicious, unless he can convince them that his wife is herself guilty of murder ...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Black Mountain, by Rex Stout


Marko Vukcic is dead. Nero Wolfe is extremely displeased by the murder of his oldest and dearest friend, and is even more displeased when, after weeks of effort, he is unable to locate or identify the murderer. Marko, it seems, was involved in international intrigue in their native Montenegro, and it seems increasingly likely that his murder is connected to his activities there. When Wolfe receives news that his adopted daughter (also a Montenegrin) was killed in nearby Albania, he decides to take matters into his own hands, and he and Archie hop a plane to Italy and thence to the Black Mountain itself. Wolfe is bound and determined to find the killer and bring him to justice. But first he has to survive a harrowing trek through the mountains, beset by Communist dictators--Tito's regime on the one side and Stalin's Russia on the other--and the local rebels who resist them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
[...] Herriot’s writing is possessed of a good-natured jollity that invests even the bleakest tales with good humor and optimism. A vivid account of a late-night call in the freezing wind, stripped to the waist and soaking wet, with his arm up a cow’s backside and a group of stoic, unsympathetic farmers looking on, will be followed by a sincere reflection on his incredible good fortune to live and work in this forbidding yet beautiful land. While Herriot is occasionally discouraged or frustrated by his clients’ lack of appreciation (or their persistence in adhering to the utterly nonsensical folk cures their fathers swore by), it is never long before Herriot’s good temper wins out and he is restored to his customary cheerfulness and humble gratitude. 
Perhaps most striking of all—at least to me—is Herriot’s indefatigable patience. Granted, patience is a virtue which I have never been accused of possessing in over-abundance. I am frequently frustrated by circumstantial setbacks, human folly, the inability of the UPS man to deliver packages in a timely fashion, and any number of technological glitches inflicted on me by computers/websites/smart phones/etc. In short, I am frustrated by anything and everything. So it is with no small amount of fascination—and a good deal of envy—that I read of Herriot’s seemingly limitless patience.
Full review available here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Red (2010)


Retired CIA agent Frank Moses is having a hard time adjusting to his humdrum, post-black-ops life. The only bright spot in his life is Sarah, the customer service rep who handles his pension, and with whom he has frequent phone conversations. When a hit squad attacks his house in the middle of the night, Frank is determined to find out who sent them, and why. The task is a bit too big for him, but fortunately he has an assortment of old associates who are only too happy to be recruited to assist him in his mission--as well as Sarah herself, who is unexpectedly swept up in the drama on account of Frank's known attachment to her. Meanwhile, CIA Agent William Cooper is tasked with finding and eliminating Frank, who has been tagged as 'Retired Extremely Dangerous.' As Frank and company inch ever closer to the source of their trouble, Cooper begins to question his mission ...

This movie had no business being anything less than awesome--with Bruce back in action  in the kind of role he does best, supported by John Malkovich as paranoid conspiracy theorist Martin Boggs, Martin Freeman as ailing ex-agent Joe, and the inimitable Helen Mirren as expert assassin Victoria ... to say nothing of Brian Cox as Ivan, the Russian ex-agent who pines nostalgically for the Cold War days. With a cast like that, the movie ought to have been a lock.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout


It's 1933, and money is scarce. So when private detective Fred Durkin shows up at the office with a woman in tow and a favor to ask, Wolfe is reluctant. The woman is Maria Maffei, a friend of Mrs. Durkin, and she wants to hire Wolfe to find her missing brother Carlo. Before long, Wolfe has connected Carlo--a metalworker--with the death of a well-respected university president, who dropped dead of a heart attack on the links of a Westchester County golf course. But was it really a heart attack? And what ever happened to Carlo Maffei?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Skyfall (2012)


An excerpt of a review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
There are a number of recurring themes throughout the film, most notably the tension between young and old, past and future. Bond and M are seen as relics of a bygone age (and Bond himself is feeling his years in a way we haven’t really seen before). The British government has begun to question not only M’s leadership, but even the necessity of MI6 itself. Even within MI6 this tension is present—the elderly Q has been replaced by a younger model (Ben Whishaw, seen recently in Cloud Atlas) who prefers computers to silly gadgets, and sees agents as necessary only when a trigger must be pulled. But Silva is likewise a wiz with computers, and Bond and M eventually realize that in order to defeat him, they need to take the battle to their own outdated turf. 
The resulting film has, of necessity, a delightful throwback feel. We get precious little in the way of new gadgets (I only counted two, one of which is clearly mocked as anything but innovative), but we are reunited with an old friend of the vehicular variety, which more than makes up for Q’s unimpressive offerings. Plus we get to see Bond and company improvise their own arsenal of sorts, with impressive results. Michael Westen would be proud (as would MacGyver). Also, for those concerned about such things, I can confirm that Bond is still a martini man (shaken, not stirred), that he has not lost his flair for self-introduction, that he still knows how to use a Walther PPK, and that there’s still nothing like an Aston Martin DB5.
Full review available here.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Homicide Trinity, by Rex Stout


A collection of three novellas, at least two of which will seem oddly familiar to Wolfe fans. In each case, the motive is established right from the get-go, and Wolfe faces a discrete collection of 4-5 murder suspects. The mysteries aren't terribly complex (these are short stories, after all), but Wolfe gets there ahead of the police every time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites, and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus, by David Janzen


An excerpt of a two-part review recently posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
The Christian church has ceased to be a body and has become instead a disconnected assortment of individuals. We no longer care for one another, meet one another’s needs, or walk alongside one another as the early church once did. “Church” has become somewhere we go once a week instead of something we are on a daily—or even moment-by moment—basis. We are fixated on personal autonomy instead of godly submission to one another, we cling to personal possessions instead of viewing them as gifts from God to be stewarded for His glory and the benefit of others, and we seek to elevate our own careers and reputations instead of prioritizing the health and vitality of Christ’s beloved church in the world. 
So says David Janzen, and I confess, I think I agree with him. He raises valid criticisms about the current state of ‘community’ in the church, the materialism that pervades our society, and the emphasis on individualism and independence and self-determinism as unimpeachable human rights to be protected and celebrated (an attitude that has, I think, a unique appeal to Americans, given our historical narrative). He takes issue with the modern idea of watered-down, milquetoast community. And I have to say, he has a point. The trouble is I’m not sure his solutions don’t cause more problems than they purport to solve.
Full review available in two parts here and here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

God's Will: Finding Guidance for Everyday Decisions, by J.I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom


J.I. Packer, author of the Christian classic Knowing God, tackles the issue of discerning the will of God.

In the past few months, I've read several books on this topic. There seem to be two main camps--those who allow for extrabiblical guidance (that is, the supernatural or 'felt' leading of the Holy Spirit) and those who do not. The issue works itself out primarily in the realm of decisions where sin is not implicated, i.e., what college to attend, where to eat lunch, what socks to wear, etc.

Writers like Philip Cary (Good News for Anxious Christians, which I have not gotten around to reviewing yet) believe that the sum total of God's guidance is contained in the Scripture. Thus, God has given us guidance on how to be obedient to Him and live well. If the Bible does not address the issue, then it is up to us to use our intelligence to make an informed choice. (Under this view, it would seem that the Holy Spirit's work in Scripture ended with the original inspiration; there does not appear to be any allowance for the Holy Spirit's continuing work in applying the Word to the individual lives of believers.) A similar position is articulated by Kevin DeYoung in Just Do Something and by Phillip Jensen in Guidance and the Voice of God (which my church uses in its Sunday School class on guidance). DeYoung and Jensen are not quite so militant in their opposition to perceived extrabiblical guidance as Cary, but they clearly view such phenomena with skepticism and disinterest.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Death Times Three, by Rex Stout


Another Nero Wolfe threesome--that is to say, a collection of three novellas featuring our favorite fattie and his back-talking sidekick, Archie Goodwin.

In 'Bitter End', Wolfe partakes of a jar of pate that has been laced with quinine. He is, of course, outraged at the insult to his palate, and vows to catch the guilty party. So off Archie goes to Tingley's Tidbits to snoop around. But when Arthur Tingley himself winds up with his throat cut, things get complicated--not least because Wolfe's client (the lovely niece of the dearly departed) is a prime suspect.

In 'Frame-Up for Murder', a lovely French girl convinces Archie petition Wolfe on her behalf--to rid her brother of an unpleasant woman who is destroying his clothing design business. But when Wolfe and Archie get on the phone with the source of the problem, they are greeted by a torrent of insults, a scream, a moan, and a thud. The woman is found dead in her office, and it seems that Wolfe and Archie were ear-witnesses to the murder. But Wolfe isn't so sure. He suspects that someone is trying to make a monkey of him, and decides to get even by catching the killer.

Finally, in 'Assault on a Brownstone', Hattie Annis, the eccentric proprietor of a boarding house for folks in show business, shows up on the doorstep requesting an appointment with the man himself. After being told to return during Wolfe's normal office hours, she entrusts Archie with a package and departs. But before she can return, she is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in a stolen car. When Archie unwraps the package, he finds $9,000 in counterfeit bills--indicating that one of the boarders at Ms. Annis's place isn't what he or she seems. Knowing that the Department of the Treasury would rather catch a counterfeiter than a murderer, and determined to see justice done, Archie decides to solve the murder himself, with or without Wolfe's help. Fortunately, the Treasury sends men to search Wolfe's house from top to bottom, which so riles Wolfe that he agrees to assist Archie in tracking down the murderer/counterfeiter.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)


In this fairly creative update of the classic Jules Verne story, Brendan Fraser is Trevor, kid brother of the long-missing Max, a vulcanologist who disappeared years before. Now Trevor is following in his brother's footsteps--or he would be, if the university wasn't cutting his funding and converting his lab into storage. Fortunately, Max's wife shows up to drop off 13-year-old Sean (Josh Hutcherson, long before Katniss Everdeen broke his heart) for a visit, and delivering a box of Max's old belongings. Tucked alongside the old baseball mitt and yo-yo is a heavily annotated copy of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Trevor soon realizes that Max used it as a field journal to record his findings, and that current volcanic conditions are a perfect match for those recorded in the journal around the time of Max's disappearance--including a long-dormant site in Iceland. So of course, the boys head off to follow in Max's footsteps. With the help of a (conveniently attractive) mountain guide named Hannah--herself the daughter of a vulcanologist--Trevor and Sean trudge up Sneffels and soon find that maybe Verne's story isn't science fiction after all ...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Downton Abbey (Season 2)


We rejoin the Crawley clan two years after the close of season one. The crisis of Downton's entail is replaced with the crisis of the War, which affects pretty much everyone in different ways. The able-bodied men are shipped off to fight the Germans, and the remaining men join the women in converting Downton to a convalescent home for wounded officers. As with the previous season, the interwoven plot arcs defy terse and summary description. Fortunately, the writers make the most of these arcs, using them to work significant changes in the characters--making the loathsome characters less repellent, and adding a few dings and spots to the more admirable characters. The end result is a complex and impressive drama that rises above the high bar set by season one.

For example, selfish and arrogant Mary, who discovered in season 1 that she really did love the (rather dull) bourgeois lawyer (and Downton heir) Matthew, learns firsthand what it means to love not selfishly but sacrificially, with a genuine desire for the good of the other. This lesson, combined with a few other rough knocks, does wonders for her sense of entitlement, self-pity, and superiority, and she is significantly more palatable with the welcome introduction of genuine contrition and a little humility to her character.

(Matthew, meanwhile, who is briefly interesting during a short stint as a soldier, disappears into the scenery once he is wounded in action. But then, he never really mattered much as a person. He's always been less of an actual character and more of an obstacle--first as the man that Mary was stuck with and didn't want, and now as the man Mary wants but can't have.)