Friday, November 21, 2014

Desiring the Kingdom

Cover image for In this book, the first volume of his Cultural Liturgies series, Smith argues that religion is not a matter of assenting to a certain set of intellectual propositions, of choosing the correct doctrines.  Nor is it the possession of a set of underlying pre-rational beliefs and presuppositions.  Rather, life, and especially the religious life, is a matter of what we value, that is, what we love.  Because we are embodied beings, this is not a matter of logic, but of practice, that is, of liturgy.  Lex orandi, lex credendi.  Worship is itself a form of education, of paideia.
There is nothing revolutionary in these statements, indeed, this view has a long history stretching back to Aristotle.  Long neglected as a result of Enlightenment abstraction, in the twentieth century it was rejuvenated by thinkers as diverse as Martin Heidegger, Alisdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor.  Smith compellingly synthesizes the thought of these and other figures, not only conveying their insights but also peppering his commentary with approachable exemplars and interesting discussions (such as when he ponders whether Moulin Rouge is more authentically Christian than "The 700 Club").
Smith approaches his subject from within the Reformed tradition with an eye to its application in the Christian college environment, but neither of these factors makes the book less useful to members of other Christian groups or those outside the academy.  Entertaining and enlightening in equal measure, this book is truly remarkable.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Heirs of Grace

Heirs of Grace by Tim Pratt
271 Pages

Bekah has been left a sizeable amount of money and a house in remote North Carolina by an unknown relative. (If only we all could have this happen).  When she gets there she finds that the house is full of junk and the person who left it to her was her birth father who let her be given up for adoption.  As she explores she discovers that the objects in the house all have various magical uses and if she can solve the mystery, she will come into the powers once wielded by her father.  However, she also discovers that she has other half-siblings who also want the power, at the expense of her life.

A middling book in every way,  Pratt takes an interesting premise but fails to deliver a memorable book.

The Wild Ways

The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff
295 Pages

This is a continuation of the Gale family saga.  The Gales are a family of magical humans and their background is very closely related to the Green Man mythology of Great Britain.  With a new family circle established in Calgary, Charlie Gale, the family's wild power, must find out what is upsetting the selkies while coming to terms with her powers.

A reader needs to have read the first novel of the series to understand the background and power dynamics of the Gale family.  While the book is entertaining, it is not as strong as the first. 

I Work In A Public Library

I Work In A Public Library by Gina Sheridan, 152 pages

This book is a must read for anyone who has ever worked in a library.  A collection of one-liners and conversations, mostly between patrons and library staff, almost everyone who has worked in the library has experienced several of these situations or ones very similar.  Some stories made me laugh and several had me shaking my head but all of them are so very true.  There was a whole chapter devoted to one specific patron and one story had staff calling her because she had returned a case without the DVD inside.  She denied it and when staff persisted, she said, “I’d rather do two hundred million things than listen to you.”  Also funny were the kid stories, such as the young child who returned a book through the book drop outside just as a staff member stubbed her toe inside.  The child could hear the yelling coming from inside and said “Mommy, I think we hurt the book!”  I think that several patrons would also see the humor in this book, especially if they had ever worked in any type of service profession.

The Magic Trap

The Magic Trap by Jacqueline Davies, 257 pages

This is the newest book in The Lemonade War series.  Brother and sister Evan and Jessie Treski have very different reactions to things.  When their mom plans a trip away for a week for work, Evan isn’t thrilled, but he thinks that his mom needs to get away for a while and he understands that she really needs to take all of the work that she can get.  Jessie is upset that her mother is leaving because she really hates change but is trying to be understanding.  When their father shows up unexpectedly right before their mother is ready to leave and an unexpected turn of events means that their babysitter is unavailable at the last minute, their dad volunteers to stay for the week.  Their mother reluctantly agrees.  Jessie is thrilled.  Evan is also apprehensive, because he understands, as his mother does, that his dad is not very reliable.  Still, everything seems mostly ok at first.  Their dad is on the phone a lot with work related things but he still finds some time to spend with them.  Until the day that their mom is scheduled to come back and their father leaves  a few hours before her return with a hurricane about to hit and Jessie and Evan have to figure out what to do.  A good story about family and self-reliance, with a good amount of adventure thrown in at the end, this book will appeal to a large kid audience.

The Revenge Of Seven

The Revenge Of Seven by Pittacus Lore, 371 pages

This is the fifth book in the I Am Number Four series and picks up where the previous book left off.  Eight has been killed by Five, who has betrayed the few remaining Lorien and is now working for the Mogadorians, who destroyed the Lorien and now want to destroy Earth as well.  The remaining Lorien and some of their human friends are trying hard to stop them, but Ella was captured by the Mogadorian so not only do the others have to come up with a plan to stop the Mogadorians and destroy Setrakus Ra, their leader, but also  to rescue Ella while they are doing it.  This is not my favorite series.  I care enough that I keep reading so I can know how everything ends, but I like a lot of other end of the world scenario and alien books better than this series.  It is pretty popular though, so several teens are seeing more in it than I am.  Teens who like these type of science fiction stories might want to give the series a try.

Tesla’s Attic

Tesla’s Attic by Neal Shusterman & Eric Elfman, 246 pages

Nick, his brother, Danny, and his father have to move after their mother dies in the fire that destroyed their old house.  They move across the country because they’ve inherited an aunt’s house.  When Nick tries to go into the attic he finds that it’s full of junk and decides to have a yard sale.  At first no one comes but when Nick turns on a lamp that he found in the attic people start flocking to their house and buy nearly everything that came out of the attic.  However, after making friends with some of the kids in school who also bought some of the items, Nick finds that these weren’t ordinary things.  For example, there was a camera that takes pictures of the future, a tape recorder that records what people are thinking instead of what they’re saying, an odd metallic device that looks a little like a See-And-Say that finishes people’s sentences with pieces of truth they might not have known, and a battery that makes the dead come back to life.  Unfortunately, there is a group of people out there determined to find the items that came from the attic and they will stop at nothing to get them.  The first in a new trilogy, this was an excellent science fiction/fantasy story and young fans of this genre will probably like it.

The Blood Of Olympus

The Blood Of Olympus by Rick Riordan, 516 pages

The Olympians are on a quest to stop Gaea from awakening and heal the rift between the Greeks and Romans.  Reyna, Leo and Coach Hedge have undertaken the task of returning the statue of Athena to Camp Half Blood, which would help end the feud between the Greek and Roman camps.  Percy, Jason, Annabeth, Piper, Frank, Hazel and Leo are trying to figure out a way to keep Gaea from waking up, or how to defeat her if she does.  Both groups have many monsters, trials and tribulations to face and the prophecies say that one of them will die.  But Olympians don’t give up so they will fight to the bitter end, and maybe even get some help from the godly parents along the way.  This is the finale to The Heroes of Olympus series, but the way this ends there certainly could be more books with these characters, or at least in this vein.  I would recommend reading these in order.  It had been a while since I read the previous book and it took me some time to catch up and I at least remembered all of the characters.  These books are for kids and teens who like magic, mythology, and adventure.

Some Luck

Some Luck by Jane Smiley, 395 pages

Jane Smiley is an excellent writer and this slice of Midwestern American life story is no exception.  Walter Langdon is a farmer in Iowa who marries Rosanna.  They have five children who survive childhood and the book covers the lives of the family from 1920 to 1953.  We get to see the births of all six children, Frank, Joe, Mary Elizabeth, who dies young, Lillian, Henry and Claire.  We get to see their good years and bad, the births and deaths, the Great Depression and World War II.  There is no big action in the book, but Smiley has a way of making characters seem real and their troubles and triumphs important which makes her books really nice to read.  And even though there is no bog conflict and resolution, she always brings the stories to a satisfactory conclusion.  I would recommend this to anyone who likes slice-of-life, historical America stories.

How To Catch A Bogle

How To Catch A Bogle by Catherine Jinks, 313 pages

Birdie is a bogler’s apprentice, which means she is the bait to trap the bogle.  Birdie has a wonderful singing voice and she is smart and fast.  Alfred Bunce is a good bogler.  He’s only ever lost one apprentice to a bogle and has no intention of ever losing another.  Since bogles love to eat children and usually ignore adults entirely, only children work as bait.  A young woman of quality, Miss Eames, is interested in creatures such as bogles and asks the two of them to allow her to come along on a bogle hunt.  Because she plans to pay them, they agree.  When Miss Eames realizes that bogles are real, not just folklore, and how dangerous they are, she begins a campaign to get Birdie into another line of work before she is hurt or killed.  Birdie staunchly refuses, especially since orphans have begun disappearing and it’s up to her and Mr. Bunce to sort it out, since it is almost certainly the work of a bogle.  This was a really good scary fantasy adventure for kids.

The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs

246 pages

Long before there was the dog whisperer, there was…Patricia McConnell. McConnell is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist with a Ph.D. in Zoology, but her expertise in training dogs comes as much from her decades of experience on a sheep farm as from her formal education. I picked up The Other End of the Leash because I wanted some guidance regarding the dogs in my life. It proved very useful in that regard, especially in calling my attention to how human behavior, down to the most indiscernible gesture or flash of eye contact, can affect dogs in very dramatic ways. And in how drastically we—dogs versus humans—differ in terms of our senses. McConnell illustrates this with a moving story about how her cat was rescued from certain death, thanks to her Border Collie’s keen sense of smell. But aside from being a how-to manual, it’s a compelling and well-written read for anyone interested in animal or human behavior.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

228 pages

I’ve always been a fan of Roz Chast’s cartoons in the New Yorker, but this memoir gave me a much deeper appreciation of her work. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast gives an honest account (often brutally so) of her experience caring for her aging parents. Her descriptions in words and pictures of her parents’ Brooklyn apartment are so vivid that at times I almost felt claustrophobic. Like many of their generation, the Chasts grew up with nothing and felt the need to keep everything through the years. I especially liked the drawing of a decades-old oven mitt of her mother’s that had been patched with fabric from a decades-old dress of Roz’s. On a more serious note, Roz talks in-depth about her relationship with her mother, which ever since childhood was more fraught than her easy relationship with her dad. She describes her mother’s stubbornness and angry outbursts (which her mom called “a blast from Chast”) and how a favorite line of her mother’s when she was growing up was “I’m your mother, not your friend.” Towards the end Roz wonders what it might have been like if her mom could have tried to be both, but realizes that it’s too late in their relationship for that. A handful of photographs throughout the book serve as a nice reminder that these are real people, not just caricatures (not to mention the adorable photos of a stoic, young Roz), as do the touching poems written by Roz’s eloquent mother. Don’t let the fact that Roz Chast keeps her parents’ ashes in her closet fool you; this beautiful portrait of the aging and dying of two amazing people does more to honor her parents than a fancy urn on the mantelpiece ever could.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk, 411 pages

Palahniuk is the author of Fight Club, which was wonderful - so I had pretty high expectations for Haunted. The story begins with 17 people going to who-knows-where for a 3 month writers' retreat to write "the next great American novel." They have all the necessities: food, clothing, water, electricity - but are not allowed to leave once they are there. This is where the fun begins. As each writer believes they need to upstage the others with the story of who they are - and what happens to them during the retreat, they start to sabotage their living quarters and each other. 

The chapters are set up in a way that keeps the story rolling: a poem about one of the writers, part of the main narrative, and a story told by one of the writers. The one thing that I did not enjoy was the ending. While the stories were great within the book and I loved hearing about the various writers and how they ended up at the retreat, the ending left me hanging and didn't seem to fit with rest of the book.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, but for the characters and their stories...not for the overall plot. Fair warning: people have been known to faint while reading/hearing "Guts" (a story told by one of the writers at the retreat).

Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase

Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
390 Pages

Krista read this book and really liked it.  Set in London, England the increase of ghostly phenomena has spawn an industry of ghost hunters.  Since younger people are the only ones sensitive enough to see and hear the ghosts, they form the backboards of these businesses to remove hauntings from residences. 

I thought the book was okay and might be willing to read the second book to see if the series gets stronger, but I thought it was nowhere near Stroud's Bartimaeus series which was a young adult series book popular with teens and adults.

The Children Act

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
221 Pages

Fiona Maye's marriage is falling apart as her husband declares he wants to have an affair in order to experience some passion in his life.  She is a High Court judge who presides over cases in the family court.   When she is called to judge over a case of a 17 year old Jehovah's witness who is trying to avoid medical treatment that would save his life it stirs up dormant emotions in Fiona. 

 Everyone tends to gush over anything Ian McEwan writes but I have to say this book left me cold with an obvious ending.

Yesterday's Kin

Yesterday's Kin by Nancy Kress
189 Pages

This short novella tells the story of Geneticist Marianne Jenner and how she is summoned by Aliens that have landed in New York. The aliens had arrived several months earlier but no one knew why.  It is later explained that the planet will move through a virus cloud that could kill everyone on Earth and the aliens are interested in helping. 
There is only 10 months to prevent a disaster.

 A so so story.  Not highly recommended.

The After House

The After House by Michael Phillip Cash   212 pages

The cover of this book of this book is awesome. A churning sea, an empty boat, and an old house with a light glowing from an upper window.  Looks like the creepy, scary kind of book that I like.

Remy Galway and her ten-year-old daughter, Olivia, have just moved into a three-hundred-year-old house in Cold Harbor Springs on Long Island. Remy is trying to rebuild her and Olivia’s lives after a failed marriage. She’s making a go of it as a yoga instructor.

The old house is charming, but old houses have their problems. Remy had been told that the house a once belonged to a whaling captain and his family. The reader knows this is true because Cash starts the novel with the Captain and his crew chasing one of the largest whales he was ever seen.  The novel alternates between the two stories---Captain Eli Gasper and Remy and Olivia. It’s easy to follow and well delineated.

Olivia feels the presence of Eli’s spirit first. Remy doesn’t want to believe in anything she can’t see. Eli is ticked that two new people have moved into his home and goes about making a mess. The mess looks like vandalism to Remy. The he manages to set the place on fire and break a few windows.

Hugh, the mayor, get involved. Cold Springs Harbor is a small town; he takes an interest in the people who live there. However, Hugh harbors more than a superficial interest in Remy.

As they struggle through the mess, the reader also gets to see what Eli is doing and thinking. He hates that new people now inhabit his home. He liked it better when Pat lived there---no television, no Internet, no comings and goings of other people.

What isn’t clear right away is the presence of two other spirits. It took a while, but I think surmised that they were Eli’s angel guardians and watched over him while he was bound to earth.

This book was labeled as horror, but it doesn’t really fit that genre. It reminded me more of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, without the romance between the Remy and Eli.

Still, I give it 4 out of 5 stars. I would have given it five if the two other ghosts were more clearly defined.


The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch

The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman, art by Dave McKean, 112 pages

When our unnamed narrator was a young boy, he visited his grandparents and met a mysterious Punch and Judy puppeteer at his grandfather's arcade. This simple story is masterfully told through Gaiman's easy, conversational style and through McKean's haunting artwork. As much a fan I am of Gaiman's, it's McKean's mix of drawing, photography, and sculpture imagery that makes this volume so breathtaking. Originally released in 1994, this 20th-anniversary edition also offers a few extras regarding the graphic novel, a short film based on it, and some additional artwork that was created for a companion CD-ROM (that, as far as I can tell, never came to be).

This book is beautifully constructed, and should be on any list of must-read graphic novels.

The Paper Magician

The Paper Magician by Charlie Holmberg, 214 pages

Ceony Twill is a brand new magician's apprentice, training to become a Folder, a magician who uses origami (though that word is never used in the book) to channel her magic. She has just started her apprenticeship with Magician Emery Thane when Thane is attacked, his still-beating heart stolen from his body by a dark magic practitioner, leaving Ceony to use her wits, and what little Folding she has learned, to try to save her mentor.

The premise of this book is promising, and it seems that there could be a lot to this world Holmberg has created, in which different magicians use different materials (glass, rubber, plastic, metal, etc.) to create magic. However, The Paper Magician is as flimsy as its namesake material. The world, so rich with potential, is never really developed by Holmberg, nor are the characters, which are littered with glimpses of rich back-stories that are never fully fleshed out. There are also a lot of technical issues that are never really sorted out (much like it's no use taking a knife to a gunfight, taking paper to a fight against someone using liquid and cutting implements seems foolhardy at best), which make suspending disbelief somewhat problematic.

Despite that, the world is ripe for development, and I'm tempted to pick up the sequel to this, just to see if a second volume allows Holmberg to sort out some of the issues presented here. Those who enjoy origami and magic might give it a shot, if they're so inclined.

American Saint

Cover image for American saint : the life of Elizabeth Seton / Joan Barthel.In reading American Saint, St Louis-based journalist Joan Barthel's biography of St Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born US citizen to be canonized, two things become clear.  One is that St Elizabeth was a woman of remarkable strength and sanctity.  The other is that Barthel doesn't much care for the Catholic Church.  Unfortunately the latter tends to obscure the former.
St Elizabeth was born into a prominent New York family in the 18th century.  After years of happy, though hardly carefree, marriage and five children, her husband died during a trip to Italy.  Though a pious Episcopalian involved in numerous charitable works, the widow found herself drawn increasingly to the Catholic Church.  Despite deep anti-Catholic prejudice on the part of New York society and her own family, she formally converted in 1805.  Moving to Maryland, she founded the first order of active women religious in the United States (the Sisters of Charity of St Joseph), and, more importantly, laid the foundation of the Catholic parochial school system.  In the tradition of great Catholic women like Sts Birgitta, Frances of Rome, Jane Frances de Chantal, and Louise de Marillac, she overcame every obstacle with faith, every tragedy with hope, every hatred with love.
Barthel's entire approach in telling this story is anachronistic.  An odd digression on the meaning of "God's will" in St Elizabeth's writings uses definitions from a book by an obscure twentieth century Evangelical pastor - for that matter, 20th century heterodox Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin has more books in the bibliography than 17th century bishop St Francis de Sales, who had a substantial impact on St Elizabeth's spirituality, while Dom Scupoli's Spiritual Combat, which St Elizabeth ordered read every day at tea, is not included, though a book by Gandhi is.  The book is full of smug chronological snobbery - if "the past is a foreign country", this book is a rude tourist who will not cease complaining about anything that isn't like it is back home.  Subtly but persistently, St Elizabeth's iron faith is recast as vague sentimental spirituality, her supernatural hope left orphaned, her love heralded as repressed resentment of the patriarchal oppressor.
St Elizabeth's last deathbed instruction to her spiritual daughters was, "Be children of the Church."  Barthel urges those same women to move "beyond the Church, even beyond Christ."  There is something willfully perverse in using the life of St Elizabeth to attack the faith she loved.  St Elizabeth Ann Seton's sanctity is far more interesting than Joan Barthel's bitterness.

Detroit City is the Place to be

Cover image for Detroit City is the place to be : the afterlife of an American metropolis / Mark Binelli.Detroit City is The Place to be : the Afterlife of an American Metropolis
by Mark Binelli 318 pages
A socioeconomic study of life during and after when the bottom fell out of America's worst city. A majority of the book talks about the ruins of this once thriving metropolis. The Brush Park area alone is one of the most depressing urban sprawls in America. Over 70 Victorian and modernist mansions boarded up
and stripped of their copper and bronze by scrappers. Some new age residents have taken a risk and bought these mansions for rehab, hoping to revitalize this
ruined neighborhood. The people daring enough to do this are few and far between though. If you web search "Brush Park Detroit" you will see for yourself these beautiful buildings that have fallen into disrepair. Politics take up a good part of this book as well. Chronicling the rise and eventual fall of sleaze ball mayors like Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick. Who are/were some of the worst people on this planet today. The book was great, well written with comical analogies. The author however,seemed a bit pretentious, and it seems that he is arrogant and a little bit of a  hipster. He did write a pretty good book though, so I'll cut him some slack.

Detroit: A Biography

Cover image for Detroit : a biography / Scott Martelle.Detroit : A Biography  by Scott Martelle 288 pages
A short but detailed history of America's "joke" city. Depressing but very well written. A good portion of the book catalogs the rise of the city from French and British fort to mega industrial city by the 1920s. With the second half focusing on the downfall  of assembly line productions, white flight in the 1960s and the string of corrupt and terrible mayors. You could go on and on as to why Detroit collapsed so fast, and never come up with a definitive answer. You would need to be allowed three reasons in your explanation. I loved this book, as urban decay has always been a fascinating subject to me. I would recommend this to anyone who reads non fiction. Or anybody who just wants to know why Detroit is so maligned now.   

Rasputin: A Short Life

Cover image for Rasputin : a short life / Frances Welch.Rasputin: A Short Life, by Frances Welch 201 pages
A fairly short yet detailed biography of the "Mad Monk" who brought down a 400
year old dynasty. Most of the subject matter detailed is of his sexual exploits from his teenage years to his untimely death at age 47. There are countless books written on this polarizing figure, and his interactions with the Romanov family.
I enjoyed this book, it was a quick read, yet very informative for being only two hundred pages, other biographies of the man extend well past 800 pages.  If you like history, give it a shot. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Be Your Own Career Coach

Be Your Own Career Coach by Rus Slater, 206 pages

Just getting started in the workforce and not sure how to get the career you want? Have you spent a long time in a career and are now wondering how to get out of the rut you seem to be stuck in? In Be Your Own Career Coach, Slater offers advice on figuring out how to get what you want out of your career, no matter where you are in your career.

Yes, this review sounds a bit like a late-night infomercial, but I'd argue that this is entirely the right tone to strike when discussing this title. While this is a business book in that it focuses on career development, it's also something of a self-help book that raises plenty of questions about what you, the reader, want out of your career, and life in general. It can be an easy, quick read, or you can do as Slater suggests and write down answers to all of the questions he poses as you read, making this a much more time-intensive, soul-searching read. And while it may not slice or dice, it does offer plenty of appeal to anyone with a job...or anyone who wants one. It's certainly worth at least a skim, though you may find yourself doing a bit more introspection as you go along.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray, Teach Us to Pray by Paul Claudel, translated by Ruth Bethell, 95 pages

This is a collection of six meditations, each centered to a greater or lesser extent on a painting, whether by Titian, Rembrandt, Delacroix, or the author's daughter.  The painting serves either as an impetus to start the train of thought contained in the essay, or as an example of an insight the author wishes to convey.  Though often rambling, the insights are genuine and striking.  The lack of organization - there are 25 pages (in a 95 page book) of appendices containing additional material he did not have the opportunity to integrate into the main text - tends to conceal the gems, but the gems are valuable enough to be well worth digging for.