Bush's reading list

Monday, December 29, 2008

Reason #862 to feel badly about myself: President Bush reads more books, and reads more intellectual books than I do. See the article here. (HT: JT)

Say what you will about Bush, but the scope and volume of the list shows someone who is not only intelligent (gasp!) but is disciplined in what free time he has. After I'm done berating myself for spending too much time on the internet, I'm going to see if my library has some of these titles. Who knows--maybe I can match Bush's 40 books read in 2008. I'm staying realistic, though, so I'm not aiming for Karl Rove's 64. These are busy men, but they're not pregnant stay-at-home moms caring for a toddler.

And yes, I'm playing that card as long as I have it!

Bird by Bird

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

I read this a while ago while visiting my parents, but I talked to both of them about it so I didn't feel as compelled to blog it right away. Basically, it was a well-written book about writing by an accomplished author, but now I don't want to read her other works.

The author has really practical advice about getting past all those voices in your head telling potential authors not to write. She tells us how to get past all that baggage, and just write. You can be perfect later, or write about the history of epic subjects, or become world famous published author, but for now, just write. Not bad advice for life in general, whether you want to be an author or not.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time,
was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three
months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at
our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the
kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder
paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized
by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside
him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by
bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

Lamott has wisdom to pass on, but now I don't want to read her noted memoir, "Travelling Mercies." It's about her religious conversion but it's not the God that I know. The most annoying example is how she refers to God is "she," which is not only specifically NOT how God identifies Himself, but it's a cliched affectation as well.

I enjoy writing, but I don't want to be a "writer," at least not this stage in my life. Right now I'd just be happy keeping up with the laundry. But if or when I do decide to take it seriously, I'll reread this book. If you can get past the author, this book has great information on learning the craft of writing. Just take it "bird by bird..."

The Best Baby Books

Monday, November 10, 2008

I have been surrounded by babies lately, not to mention my own incubating right now. (I'm at 20 weeks right now--halfway through!) With that in mind, I thought I'd share my thoughts about baby books. I have some strong opinions, as you'll see below....

I spent most of my pregnancy reading and researching all things baby. At one point, I had to cut myself off because I was reading too much and stressing out. I don't want my anxiety to be wasted, so here are some highlights of what I found. When you have a baby, you don't want your precious free time spent reading mediocre books.

First: avoid What to Expect When You're Expecting. I think it's over-rated. I had to stop reading it because I was starting to freak out about all the risks, complications, and possible nutritional deficiencies. I much preferred Your Pregnancy Week by Week. It's written by doctors and is much more reasonable. Plus, the readings are divided into weekly sections, instead of monthly, so the information is more digestible.

Second: avoid Babywise. What a terrible book, especially for someone claiming to be a Christian author: bad science, outrageous claims, faulty reasoning, no footnotes or references, and at one point, I had no idea who the author of one chapter was. Despite being so frustrating, I still read it twice, once before Violet was born and again when I was pulling my hair out because she wasn't sleeping. There is good information in there, but you have to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Okay, I'm done being mean. Here are the books I recommend:

The Baby Book, by the Sears family. This is the authority on attachment parenting, which is a child-focused parenting style. It was a total contrast with Babywise, which was very much focused on the parents. While I disagree philosophically with the Sears' worldview, they give practical ways to love your child and give him security. I thought the sections on nutrition, babywearing, feeding babies and toddlers, and developmental stages were especially helpful.

A good compromise between the above two books is Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, which despite its goofy title, is very good. It's a compassionate view of babies (who need their parents to be their advocate), while emphasizing their need for structure, routine, and familiarity. I wish I had read it before I had Violet, as I think it would have reduced some of my earlier mis-steps.

So who should be the focus of your parenting? The cheesy answer is to say "Jesus! We should focus our parenting on Jesus!" But it's true. To that end, I highly recommend Shepherding a Child's Heart, by Paul Tripp. The point of discipline isn't to merely change behavior, and the point of Christian parenting isn't to get your child to pray the sinner's prayer. Our goal is to produce adults who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and their neighbor as themselves. The book is soaked with Scripture, and Tripp has really practical applications of what shepherding might look like during different stages of childhood. I am planning on re-reading it soon, because I feel like I need all the direction I can get during these toddler years.

And here's a super practical book: Signing Smart with Babies and Toddlers. I can't recommend it enough. A hearing-impaired coworker gave it to me, and I love it. Unlike other books, which tend to just focus on simplistic vocabulary, it teaches you how to initiate conversations with your child and invite him to interact with his world. I think Violet uses about 30 signs and it is so helpful, for both of us.

I hope this helps, if you were looking for some baby books. Babies are so amazing--enjoy your little one!

Tender at the Bone

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl

I read Reichl's Garlic and Saphires a few years ago and really enjoyed it, and I finally got around to trying her earlier writing. I woke up hungry around midnight this week, so I got some food and started reading this book. I finished my snack, and then finished the book! It's 282 pages, and I read it all in one night. That's how much I enjoyed it.

Reichl is not only a foodie with serious street cred, but also an excellent writer. As one Amazon review said, "Ruth writes with all her senses." This book isn't so much about the food itself, but used food to explain the times, the places, and the people. She included recipes at the end of each chapter which added dimension to the story.

Essentially this is a coming-of-age story from the sixties and seventies, but don't let that scare you off: this one is actually good. Reichl's mother was manic-depressive who totally ignored food safety rules. Growing up, Reichl felt compelled to protect the family's guests from her mother's moldy dishes, which evolved into a love of good food. Her WASP-y upbringing was completely skewed because of her mother, who would do things like drop her off without warning at a French-Canadian Catholic boarding school, "so you can learn a second language!" She had went to college as far away from her family as she could, and did things like visit Tunisia, as a newlywed she shared a NY flat with others to make rent, attended Studio 54, and lived in a California commune. At its heart, this book is about growing up in a crazy time, loving your crazy friends, trying to escape crazy family members, having crazy adventures, and yet making the decision to stay sane.

A Bell for Adano

A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey

I'm not sure. Meh. Did I miss something? Am I not very insightful? Would I have enjoyed it more if there were illustrations?

This book is set towards the end of WWII European theater. The American occupation has come to Italy, and an American major becomes the de facto mayor for the city of Adano. The people are starving, but what they want the most is their bell back. The town bell rang in the city square for 700 years, but the fascists took it and melted it down for war materiel during their retreat. An Italian-American major, who we are told is a good man but has clear flaws, restores the justice corrupted under the fascists, does what he can to get food to the people, but becomes driven to replace the bell for the people of Adano.

It was interesting reading this from a 21st century perspective. It was written in 1944, so I wasn't able to predict how the book would end. I could easily picture this in my head as a black and white movie with the stock characters. If this book were written today it would have been totally different-- the characters were a bit two-dimensional, but there was no doubt of the America's success in the war and that their good intentions would ultimately benefit the people. One can't help but make comparisons to the Iraq war, which has much more moral ambiguity surrounding it, even among people who believe it was the right thing to do. Maybe I'm left feeling conflicted over this book because I wish America today had the certainty and vision that we had 64 years ago. A lot has changed since then.

Semicolon's review here.

Is Christianity Good for the World?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Is Christianity Good for the World? A Debate, by Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson

Internet-wise, I was at the right place at the right time. When I was reviewing Doug Wilson's Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, I stumbled across a blog post at Canon Press offering Doug Wilson's latest for bloggers to review. Even though I was months late, the very kind Frank sent me not one, but three books to review. This is about as close as I will ever come to winning the lottery, and this was much healthier for my soul!

This morning at breakfast, I just finished Is Christianity Good for the World?, a debate between celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens and the always-pithy Douglas Wilson. Despite the serious subject matter and considerable intellect of the two authors, it's an engaging little book which I finished quickly (especially considering I was usually feeding a toddler while reading it). It began as a series of articles sponsored by magazine Christianity Today and evolved (if I may use that word) into this book.

I love a good debate, and this one was fun. Logical arguments, spotting fallacies and weak reasoning, trumping the opponent... these all make my nerdy heart go a-flutter. This debate all came down to authority, at Wilson's insistence. Hitchens started by railing against totalitarianism and religion, and pitted them against atheism and free will. Wilson responded by saying that unless you glorify God as God and give thanks to Him, argumentation is moot. Wilson kept trying to ask why Hitchens could use words like 'right,' 'wrong,' and 'evil' if morality, as he claimed, was a product of our evolved species. Hitchens argued that his morality was more noble because he was motivated by goodness itself and not fear of an imaginary afterlife. I thought it was interesting that despite Hitchens claiming the moral higher ground, he was consistently disdainful and made Wilson seem even more polite by contrast. Here's an example of his tone:

Deists used to agree with you about a Creator but were not religious in that the assumption of such an entity did not license the further assumption that he or she desired to intervene in human affairs, let alone the assumption that the torture and death of a single individual in a backward part of the Middle East was the solution that we had been awaiting for tens of thousands of years of brutish homo sapiens existence. (p. 52)

In my opinion, Wilson not only proved Hitchens' evasiveness in showing a basis for his standards of right and wrong, but he also showed himself to be funnier and kinder. After much civility, Wilson finally broke down and wrote:

You write like a witty but acerbic tenth-century archbishop with a bad case of the gout. (p. 64)

So, is Christianity good for the world? Hitchens seemed stuck on attacking all religion in general, and Wilson became (necessarily) focused on asking how an atheist had any moral claim to right and wrong, if we're all just 'matter in motion' and continually evolving and besides, who is to say that morality won't evolve to something totally different in the future? Wilson's arguments reminded me of "The Great Debate" between my old pastor, the wonderful Dr. Greg Bahnsen, and Dr. Gordon Stein. I'm paraphrasing from my recollections from high school when we studied this, so I encourage you to check out the video or transcript, but Dr. B trounced the guy by basically saying, "You're using the standard of 'right' and 'wrong' to judge me, but a godless world has no basis for absolutes. You're just borrowing from my own worldview."

Of course I'm a Christian, but I think Wilson showed his position to be more interesting and logically sound than Hitchens'. More than that, however, is Wilson's grace: congeniality towards his opponent, thankfulness to God and Christianity Today for the forum provided, and the grace given in the gospel message at the end of the book. Especially during the upcoming book tour and public debates, I hope this book changes hard hearts by changing stubborn minds. I think that Wilson's argumentation and Hitchen's celebrity will make this debate another one for the history books.

UPDATE: I was really thinking of the Bahnsen vs. Tabash debate, not Bahnsen vs. Stein. That's okay, they're both brilliant.

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fables: 10001 Nights of Snowfall, by Bill Willingham et. al.

Dark, dark, dark. This was another one of my graphic novel experiments. My honey scoffs whenever I say the words "graphic novel" which I have to admit, really is a way to say "comic books for grown-ups." He prefers to read technical manuals, which I call "comic books for nerds." This graphic novel was definitely R-rated. I guess I should have expected it, but it still took me by surprise. The book was so imaginative and the illustrations are so beautiful, that as long as you are prepared for the subject matter it's worth the read.

Here's the set-up: story-book characters have been chased from their homeland by a mysterious and gruesome enemy called "The Adversary." He and his ogres either can't or won't follow the Fables through a portal into our world that deposits them into New York City. Snow White is sent as an ambassador to a powerful caliph in story-book Arabia to form an alliance against the Adversary. Instead of conducting political negotiations, he marries her that night with the intent to kill her in the morning. Rather than beg for her life, she tells him a story. And another, and another. Soon it's morning and he agrees to let her live for one more day... and more stories.

Each of Snow White's stories are illustrated by a different artist, and the work is amazing. There is quite a range, but the writing (by Bill Willingham, who apparently is a legend) is what really grabbed me. He had an inventive take on the stories we all grew up on, but it made me wonder if anyone reads the Brothers Grimm and fairytales for their own sake anymore. Shrek 1, 2, and 3 strip-mined every story children might know and movies like "Stardust" and "Brothers Grimm" play in those worlds but don't follow the rules. Willingham took it even further. Not only are there the dark elements from the original stories, but then there's the really dark elements from Willingham's post-modern deconstruction of the stories and his 21st-century take on evil.

The imagination in these stories is amazing, and if you enjoy art at all you'll be drawn into the illustrations. I don't think I'll read the rest of the series though. If you have (or will), let me know--I want to know how it ends!

Happy Anniversary, Me!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

I was just browsing some old posts, and I realized that I started this blog exactly one year ago. How cool is that? Usually, I don't remember dates until it's too late to do anything, so I'm glad Providence directed me towards introspection tonight.

I started this blog on October 4, 2007, with the hopes of sharing my thoughts with you, gentle reader, and learning a bit more about myself. Hopefully you've liked what you've read. Or at least, you know which books to avoid. Browsing through the categories, I'm surprised by how much fiction I read, and a little embarrassed by the fluffy stuff there. I definitely went through a foodie phase earlier this year. Christianity is a constant category. (Whew!) The titles I've chosen to read are revealing, but what has surprised me the most is how much I've come to enjoy the process of writing my thoughts, and not just giving out recommendations. I hope I am becoming a more discerning reader through the process of blogging. Thanks for reading along with me.

Carry on, Jeeves

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Carry on, Jeeves
by P.G. Wodehouse

In a word, hilarious. I think this was Wodehouse's first book in the Bertie Wooster series. It's about a British dandy who acknowledges himself to be a bit of an idiot, and his faithful man Jeeves who always saves the day. This, being an earlier book, doesn't have quite the side-splitting hilarity of later books, but I still laughed uncontrollably.

In a related tangent, based on a discussion of this author with my family this afternoon, I have decided to call my winter home (which incidentally is also where I summer, spring, and fall) "Squirrel-Drop-in-the-Fields", a title befitting its station. If my parents ever get the beach house my mom now longs for, it shall be called "Penguin's End." I laughed until my mascara ran.

It's great to be with family.

Wild Blue

Wild Blue: Stories of Survival from Air and Space
Edited by David Fisher and William Garvey

My mom left this book with me during her last visit, and I returned it to her during my visit this time (yup, I'm still here). It's a collection of short stories by a wide range of authors, and I enjoyed it. My honey had read it in something like three days when it first showed up at our house, but I forgot about it, and then discovered it again when I wasn't feeling well. It's another good morning sickness/super tired mom book. I could read it at the breakfast table while feeding my daughter, and curl up at night with it and read a few pages pages before enjoying precious, precious sleep.

The authors ranged from accomplished aviators/authors like Beryl Markham, Ernie Gann, and Antione de Saint Exupery, to unknowns who simply had amazing stories to tell. The story that I remember most was by William Rankin. He was a career Air Force pilot who had to eject from his FU8 at 47,000 feet above sea level. He survived the explosive ejection in near-space, only to fall into a thunderstorm and be caught in the violent updrafts for 40 minutes. Lightning, hail, waves of water: any of this would be enough to kill a man, but it's even more remarkable after his rapid decompression 10 miles above the earth. Another memorable story was by a British reporter in WWII, covering the RAF's burn unit and patients' rehabilitation. It was on the other end of the spectrum, but just as heroic. I skipped the few fiction pieces, because they sounded false in contrast to pilot's personal stories. In this case, reality was more powerful.

This book is a reminder of what humans can achieve and overcome, even in the face of overwhelming odds. It makes me think that maybe I should stop whining so much about my morning sickness.

Some general housekeeping

Monday, September 22, 2008

Does nobody want a free book? Seriously people, it's not very encouraging to have one's first giveaway ignored. I'll take some blame, though. After a very long post, if you finally made it to the end to read about the giveaway, you probably felt like you had already finished the book. (Sadly, this is me trying to be concise. Long blog posts are a what happens when a quiet person receives a virtual soap box.) Well, in case you missed it, I am giving away my copy of "Banker to the Poor." I am at my parents' house right now, and I was going to bring it with me and and just leave it with them but then I forgot. I blame the babies, both of them. But anyway, now's your (second) chance to receive an inspiring book.

Also, I apologize for the unfinished blog design. I can't leave Blogger's templates alone, but I ran into technical difficulties. I can't help it: I alter my jeans, I make my own vinegar, and I can't use a stock web design. I'll eventually fix it, but you'll have to be patient with me.

Miss Match, Rematch, Match Point

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Miss Match, Rematch, and Match Point, by Erynn Mangum

Well, this post is a little embarrassing. But what good is the internet, if you can't make embarrassing admissions about yourself to total strangers? So here it goes: I read some chick lit. Okay, not just any chick lit... Christian chick lit. A combination of two genres not known for literary excellence. And... (sigh)... I enjoyed it.

Here's some background: I've just been feeling terrible lately. I'm so grateful to be pregnant but I've been experiencing morning sickness while my honey has been away for weeks on business trips. I've been trying to finish Dorothy Sayer's essays but lately I'm just not up to it. My friend loaned me a trilogy by Erynn Mangum which couldn't have been more timely. I read them while laying on the couch when my toddler was napping, drinking ginger tea and trying to ignore the piles of laundry and dust bunnies floating across the floor.

It was a little like watching a Christian version of the TV show "Friends," which I hope doesn't sound like an insult, because it's not. Nobody lives like that, but I was absorbed in that world for as long as it lasted. The main character, Laurie, is a 23- year old single Christian who can't stop playing matchmaker and was loosely based on Jane Austen's "Emma." I thought the author would parallel the plot of "Emma" too, but she respected her characters enough to let them have their own stories. There was no heavy-handed evangelism or salvation-through-romantic fulfillment which often pollutes Christian fiction. The characters were all saved and acted as such, and it was a pleasant, although sanitized, world. This isn't Flannery O'Connor, and I was so glad.

Still, if you're picky with your books, don't read this series. Most of the characters' dialogue had the same tone. The author used frequent Jane Austen quotes, Princess Bride references, Cheesecake Factory shout-outs, and lots of chocoholic activity in what seemed like an effort to help the reader identify with the characters more. They were unnecessary--I related to Laurie's inner life and a young single woman far more than all the Jane Austen love (of which there is plenty!). Laurie is happily single and loves her life, but begins to be blindsided by jealousy of all the newlyweds and engaged couples around her. Her nightly devotions speak to what's going on in her life, and are alternately surprising, thought-provoking, encouraging, etc. I think every Christian knows what it's like to have God quietly speaking to you in the midst of confusion, and the author's honesty gave the books authenticity.

It will be interesting to see how this author matures as a writer. According to Anne Lamott in "Bird by Bird," good writing is about telling the truth. , and I hope that Erynn Mangum will improve her craft so she can communicate more clearly in the future. I'll read it.

The Divine Hours

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Divine Hours, by Phyllis Tickle

Simply put, this is a script for daily prayer. Depending on your background, this can really scare off Christians or they can become enthusiastic proponents of fixed hour prayer. My master-of-divinity brother-in-law Michael had a good point about fixed hour prayer when I was picking his brain last fall. He said that like all spiritual disciplines, it can be a great help in your Christian walk, or you can rely on Pharisaical actions to earn your own salvation. It always goes back to your heart: are doing this to please God and increase in holiness? Or are you doing it to impress God with your manufactured righteousness?

So, with that introduction, I like this book. I had some concerns to overcome before buying it after at least a year of deliberation.

  • My gut reaction against the title, "The Divine Hours," which sounds rather conceited in today's world. (Actually, it's an old, old title which probably could be paraphrased "The Sacred Times of the Day" in modern English.)
  • Phyllis Tickle, the author (or probably more accurately, the editor) is renowned in American spirituality and Christianity, but lately has thrown her support behind the Emergent Church, so I was concerned that she would dilute the truths of the Bible and the way historic Christianity has interpreted those truths.
  • Scripture quotations are from the New Jerusalem Bible, which apparently is the accepted Catholic translation but I don't know any more about it than that.
  • I don't come from a ecclesiastical tradition of fixed hour prayer or following the church calendar.
I used my birthday money to finally commit. I'm glad I did for the following reasons:
  • I'm not a disciplined person, so the prayers intended for certain times add structure to my day.
  • This is a great way to pray the through Scripture.
  • The Book of Common Prayer (a hallmark of orthodoxy) seems to be the foundation for this book. I would describe it more of a liturgy for personal worship. For example, each reading has Bible verses to praise God and make requests of God, there are selected hymns to sing, readings to meditate on, etc.
  • As described above, there's a nice variety to keep my attention from wandering.
I mostly just use the readings when I get up in the morning and before I fall asleep at night. I'm not a stickler for certain times, although I do the other two times (around lunch and dinner) if it's been "one of those days." It's nice to take a break from your day to specifically focus on God. The author emphatically notes The Divine Hours are not intended to replace personal prayer, and I've found that daily use encourages me make more informal, small prayers throughout the day.

If you're willing to take the red pill like me, check out this link to the current office. And now since I've stayed up too late (again) I'm going to bed.

"May the Lord Almighty grant me and those I love a peaceful night and a perfect end. Amen."

Peace Like a River

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Peace like a River, by Leif Enger

Loved it. I'm so glad I read this one. I actually started it a long time ago... Whenever I was at my friends Drew and Jessi's house, I would invariably nurse baby Violet upstairs in their office, where they keep their books. And of course, I would read. After all, I was stuck there for at least 30 minutes, so I worked through the first few chapters of "Peace Like a River" over several months. I liked what I read, but I didn't complete the book until this summer. I had an unused audible.com credit which I redeemed for our vacation this summer. I tried really hard to pick something my honey would like, too, but he hasn't read (or rather, listened to) this one yet. His loss--I'm sure he will love it, too.

The story is set in rural Minnesota in 1962. The narrator is a 10 year old boy named Reuben, and he describes his imaginative, honor-bound little sister, Swede; his father, whose prayer life is so alive, and whose King James Bible is so worn, that genuine miracles accompany his humble circumstances; and his 16-year brother Davy, who seems more like his father's equal than his own brother. Two bullies harass the family until Davy is provoked to violence that puts him in the town jail and the center of controversy. When Davy escapes, the remainder of his family sets out to search for him.

Their search echoes the poetry that Swede writes, epic battles of good and evil set in the American west. Swede brings plenty of allusions to "Riders of the Purple Sage," Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and Zorro. But then Rueben, in his foolish 10 year-old judgement, makes disastrous choices which affect even more people than their own family.

The writing was lyrical, and the characters were firmly anchored in a strong sense of place and time. My only quibble was that the ending was so beautiful, and so gut-wrenching, that it almost felt like cheating. I usually listen to audiobooks (or podcasts) when I'm doing chores like mopping or laundry, but when I got to the ending, I just sat on the couch and listened while tears streamed down my face. If you want to read a really good story, get this book.

Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, by Douglas Wilson

This one's for you, Dan.

I've been eyeing this book for a while, and even (gasp!) was considering buying it when my mom loaned me her copy. Don't you love it when things like that happen?

I like Douglas Wilson's writing. I've been reading Credenda Agenda since I was in my teens, and I've read a fair amount of his books, too. I like straight shooters with clear absolutes (I could never make it in the emergent church), andI respect those with the intellect and wisdom to deal gracefully in gray areas, which education certainly can be. Doug Wilson combines both... this book was so rich that I took notes (which of course, I can't find now) and I filled a 3x5 card with sources I want to read. His writing style is similar to Dorothy Sayers (no surprise--one of her essays was the inspiration for this book), but his lengthy endnotes changed the tone from scholarly to more conversational.

His basic premise is this: as Christians, we shouldn't allow our Christian children to be educated by God's enemies. Salvation doesn't come from education, but from Christ alone. We are (somewhat) fortunate to see the American school system reaping what it has sown and collapsing in our lifetime. Turning back the clock 50, or even 150 years won't solve what is fundamentally wrong with public education: its foundation is man, not God. That said, our goal shouldn't be to give our children a better education than in public schools: we should aim much higher than that.

After thoroughly laying the groundwork, expounding on "the nature of knowledge" and understanding the student as both a fallen sinner and made in the image of God, Wilson dives into the classical model of education which was used in the Middle Ages. Let me warn you: as you read this, don't be a modern elitist. The medieval times were not full of cave-dwelling idiots. It was a time period that produced engineering marvels without technology, invented science, new kinds of literature, formed new forms of government and law, and art which is still unsurpassed. It was not uncommon for 16-year-olds to go to Oxford or Cambridge, and then go on to do things like invent calculus or discover new planets. Wilson, via Sayers, argues that it was because they knew how to think.

I enjoyed this book because I enjoy education. The various philosophies of education and the brief history of education in America were interesting. This book really threw a monkey wrench in my plans, though. I've been looking forward to homeschooling my present and future children since before I even had them. As the headmaster of a private school, the author makes a persuasive argument in favor of private schools. I began to question whether it was pride that convinced me that I can educate my kids all the way up to college better than a private school can. After all, I'm just one person with many, many, many failings. As I fell into self-doubt, I read their school's course curriculum and loved seeing the nitty-gritty details. Which made me think, does the average person like to read course curriculums? Maybe that means I should homeschool. Like my honey says, we have lots of time to figure that out, but it's still one more thing to worry about. You know, in case I get low or something.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book if you are interested in modern education, or if you enjoy reading about logical conclusions of the Christian worldview.

Banker to the Poor

Friday, August 22, 2008

Good grief. I haven't posted since July 5? I've been reading (no surprise here) but just haven't finished that many books. I've been rotating around some non-fiction and theological books lately, and I just need to commit and finish one. But in the meanwhile, here's what I did finish.

Banker to the Poor, by Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for the work of his Grameen Bank and microlending program. Usually, it's the simple things that have potential to be revolutionary.

Yunus was an economics professor at a prestigious university in Bangladesh. It bothered him that he was in an ivory tower teaching theory when people in the villages around him lived in bondage to poverty with no way out. He started taking his students to the villages and listening to the people. He realized it wasn't the poor farmers who needed the most help, but those with no land or resources. He started by lending $37 out of his own pocket to a woman so she could buy the supplies to make and sell wooden stools. It evolved into a bank to help those with no resources, no assets, or not even an address. Like in America, how easy do you think it is to secure a bank loan if you have no experience, cosigners, or education? That's where the microloans stepped in.

The program expanded, through much opposition and red tape, to become a global project. I loved hearing about its success. The examples were moving. But I especially loved the respect he gave to his lenders. This muslim man seems to recognize God's breath in humans, and treated them with dignity. Here's an example, explaining why he doesn't require job training before giving loans:

Why give credit first?
I firmly believe that all human beings have innate skill. I call it the survival skill. The fact that the poor are alive is clear proof of their ability. They do not need us to teach them how to survive; they already know how to do this. So rather than waste our time teaching them new skills, we try to make maxiumum use of their existing skills. Giving the poor access to credit allows them to immediately put into practice the skills they already know--to weave, husk rice, raise cows, peddle a rickshaw. And the cash they earn is a tool, a key than unlocks a host of other abilities and allows them to explore their own potential. Often borrowers teach other new techniques that allow them to better use their survival skills. They teach far better than we ever could. (p. 140)

Other features that I loved were:

  • Focusing on giving money to women directly (who in Pakistan often never even touch money) because the women were much more likely to improve the overall health of the family than men.
  • Setting up small groups of borrowers for accountability and mutual help.
  • Focusing on results, not money spent. Each branch of the Grameen Bank must be "poverty-free" within a certain timeframe, as defined by simple things like access to a latrine, having no food shortages even during the most difficult time of a very difficult year, having all school-age children attending school, etc. (p. 202)
  • Near-perfect repayment rates. As the author pointed out, the poor have no other options. The success of the loan changes lives, and if they miss this opportunity, that's it.
  • His disdain for big governement and beauracracy, which really spoke to a conservative/libetarian like me. Remove impediments to people's success, and they will succeed.
The first part of the book tells his story, and the last chapter explains his overall philosophy and hopes for the future. They are so optimistic they seem unrealistic, but what would I know? He has already accomplished more than anyone would have thought possible. As a Christian reader, his compassion for the poor was inspiring to me. Although he's muslim, Yunus loves others by enabling them to succeed. It's the kind of poverty fighting that World Magazine has been encouraging for years. I'm sure that you will appreciate this book as much as I did...

...Which is why I'm giving it away! It was passed along to me by my friend Jenny, which was given to her, with the request that it would be given to others who would appreciate it. So if you are interested in reading it, leave a comment, a commenter will be chosen at random, and I'll mail the book to you. But--you have to pass it along to someone else when you're done with it!

The Tenth Muse

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, by Judith Jones

Yup, another food book. This was an interesting memoir by an interesting woman. She had a WASP-y childhood but ended up living in Paris after WWII and working for a publisher. She loved good food and she came into her own when living in Paris. It opened her eyes to a new way of eating, and she combined her love of food with her literary career by searching out good writing about food. She worked with Julia Child, and they ended up publishing "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," which changed how Americans cooked. I didn't realize how influential is was until I read this book. Judith Jones then sought out other ethnic food cook book authors. After a while, she realized she was what she called a "food snob" and started looking for authentic American cuisine. Through many travels with her equally food-focused husband, from Appalachia to Vermont to Paris to Bali, they found and celebrated good food.

I also enjoyed her writing about her friendships with food giants like MFK Fisher, James Beard, and Julia Child. Other cookbook authors I want to find now are Nina Simonds, Edna Lewis, Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, Marion Cunningham.... The end of the book is a collection of recipes which mirrors the different stages of her life. I think it was generous of her to share what she loved, and her passion made the book a great read.

Here's the last two paragraphs of the book, which sums it up, I think.

"Moreover, I always take home new tastes and new challenges, so my table for one is constantly changing. And friends and family who partake of my fare are, I hope, never bored. There is an old Italian saying, A tavola non s'invecchia--"At the table one never grows old." Isn't that reason enough to come home at the end of the day, roll up one's sleeves, fire up the stove, and start smashing the garlic?
As Brillat-Savarin wrote: 'The pleasures of the table are for every man, of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society, they can be part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest to console him when he has outlived the rest.'"


Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley

This will probably be the last Christopher Buckley novel I read. It was laugh-out-loud funny at parts, but he's better at interesting plot lines than at writing good characters. At the end of the book, all of the characters annoyed me, which wasn't enough to redeem the 318 pages.

You have to hand it to him--he's good at creating interesting situations. The "heroine" of the novel becomes a disaffected cynic when her father blows her Yale tuition money on a dot-com startup. She then joins the Army to get money for college, but then is bounced out after a visiting senator takes over her jeep and almost gets killed in a mine field in Yugoslavia. He feels badly enough to get her a new job in a Washington PR firm. By this time, she's so angry at everyone older than she is, she angrily blogs away. (I'm guessing the author thought frequent mentions of blogs would make him more relevant.) She blames the Baby Boomers for all their selfishness and indulgence, and encourages others under 30 to commit acts of vandalism against golf courses and segways. The movement gains adherents and notoriety, and she develops a plan: "Voluntary Transitioning." Baby Boomers get tax breaks if they agree to kill themselves at 65, so young working people no longer have to fund the massive social security debt passed on to the next generation.

All the characters are two-dimensional, although the president was funny. The most irritating character was the southern Christian who acted as the self-appointed right-to-life expert. Of course, he ended up being a a loser and a hypocrite--so surprise here. Between that and the language, I think I'll pass on future Christopher Buckley novels.

The Omnivore's Dilemna

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

It seems I've been a bit food-obsessed lately. I can't help it--I love to eat. But as you learn in this book, the question "What should I eat?" is a difficult one. If you're a koala bear, it's simple: you eat eucalyptus leaves. If you're a rat, a fellow omnivore, it's a bit more complicated. If you're a human with taste, traditions, societal conventions, history, grocery budgets, and a moral conscience, it's enough to fill a 500-page book.

I recommend this book highly. The author makes science approachable and links different ways to eat through a narrative, which makes the sometimes-abstract subject much more interesting. He divides the book into three foods, corn, grass, and fungi, which parallels different ways of eating: Industrial, part of the military-industrial commercial way of eating subsidized by the US government and heavy reliance on oil; Pastoral, comprehensive small farms where every form of food ultimately goes back full circle to rich soil and vibrant grass; and Personal, where modern hunter-gatherers use the forest (or suburbs, or cities) to find wild food.

For me, nothing in the book was revolutionary, because I already eat differently than your average American. I have celiac disease, I like good food, and I'm trying to be healthy, so that limits most fast food, prepared food, and restaurant food. This did go more into detail about some things I wished I didn't know, like about CAFOs: confined animal feedlot operations. So sad--these animals wouldn't exist if it weren't for us, and I think we have an obligation to treat them better. Or, how much oil is consumed for food. Between fertilizer, preservatives, tractors, diesel trucks and transportation, it's staggering. And unappetizing.

The hero of the books ends up being Joel Salatin, who actually lives not that far away from me. He owns Polyface Farms, and describes himself as a "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer." My kind of guy! His worldview is admirable, and more comprehensive than I can describe here. The author spent a week working on his farm, and as a Christian, this passage particularly resonated with me:

"As I stumbled up the hill, I was struck by how very beautiful the farm looked in the hazy early light. The thick June grass was silvered with dew, the sequence of bright pastures stepping up the hillside dramatically set off by broad expanses of blackish woods. Birdsong stitched the thick blanket of summer air, pierced now and again by the wood clap of chicken pen doors slamming shut. It was hard to believe this hillside had ever been the gullied wreck Joel had described at dinner, and even harder to believe that farming such a damaged landscape so intensively, rather than just letting it be, could restore it to health and yield this beauty. This is not the environmentalist's standard prescription. But Polyface is proof that people can sometimes do more for the health of a place by cultivating it rather than by leaving it alone."

I think this is what we are called to do as humans, and especially as Christians. We're supposed to work hard to improve the health of the land, the animals, and our families. The way America currently eats is doing none of those things, but as individuals, we have the choices available to us. Or rather, dilemmas.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

I saw this on the "new arrivals" rack at the library, and I decided to read it because I wanted to see the movie too. It was one of those "why not?" selections, and it really paid off. This was such a fun book to read. I wish I could selectively forget the entire book and bring it with me on vacation next month, so I could have the pleasure of reading it again while sitting on the beach. So fun!

The protagonist is a fading, genteel middle-aged governess who is about to be kicked out of her London flat, and needs a job immediately. She answers yet another add, goes for yet another interview, and gets swept away in the glamorous life a beautiful actress juggling three men at once. Miss Pettigrew becomes progressively bolder and really lives for the first time in her life.

I want to read more books by this publisher, Persephone Books. Their description from the book jacket sums up the novel perfectly:

"Persophone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too comercial, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget..."

The Improvisational Cook

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Improvisational Cook, by Sally Schneider

I think I have a girl crush on the author, Sally Schneider. I want to buy her a dozen roses so she'll cook me dinner. I had heard her speak several times on one of my favorite podcasts, The Splendid Table, but it did not prepare me for the magic that is her cookbook.

Just to look at it, it's a beautiful book. The photos alone will inspire improvisation. But content is solid. I don't normally review cookbooks, art books, how-to books, or the like on this site, but I'm so impressed with this that I had write about it. Plus, in case you were my honey and realizing that my birthday is soon and looking for a gift, there's a handy Amazon.com link at the top of the page. (Or, hypothetically speaking, this book would also be appreciated. Just in case.)

The author introduces her approach by describing how to know what flavors go with what, how to find inspiration, essential ingredients, etc. Then in the recipe section, she takes a basic recipe and gives a little background, explains the technical side of it, and then gives at least four or so riffs on the recipe as examples of how to continue on your own. I like the approach, and I like her overall philosophy of food, too. She uses whole foods, good herbs, high quality fats, and organic when possible: No bottled steak sauce or dried ranch dressing envelopes here. Her ingredients can be more gourmet than our grocery budget would allow for, but she gives so many different options it's not a big deal. I learned the most from the sections entitled "Long-Keeping Staples for Pantry, Refrigerator, and Freezer" and "A Guide to Classic Flavor Affinities".

I've only made two recipes so far, but they've both been great. The master cornbread recipe (Crackling Cornbread, p. 261) produced the best cornbread I think I've ever eaten. Here's the part I liked especially:

"Note: to render bacon fat, cook several slices of bacon in a covered skillet over moderate heat until crisp. Strain the fat into a bowl for easy measuring. Refrigerate unused fat. (Eat the crisp bacon.)"

Now how could you not like a cookbook like that?

The Red House Mystery

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Red House Mystery, by A.A. Milne

Yes, by that A. A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories. He was quite an accomplished author and playwrite when he decided to try his hand at a detective novel. Apparently his agent told him not to bother: it would never sell, and England had too many mystery authors as it was. Milne ignored him, wrote the pitch-perfect "The Red House Mystery", received much acclaim, and then never wrote another detective story. He ignored his agent's and publisher's pleas for another one and decided to write for children next, and the rest is history.

I bought this book probably six or seven years ago, but I didn't get into it and put it away. A few nights ago, my cold kept me awake and so I looked for something to read until my coughing subsided. At times like that, I wish we had a TV. I ended up really getting into it, though. It's written in the tone of a light comedy, with the main character and his sidekick making ironic references to Sherlock and Watson. It follows the formula of the great mysteries: a dead body suddenly appearing, great English eccentrics wandering around a manor house, police officers and inquests, long-buried family secrets, and the clever civilian who solves the mystery. Except for the dead guy, everyone thoroughly enjoys himself.

Papa's Daughter

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Papa's Daughter by Thyra Ferre Bjorn

I'm not sure about this one. I think it's supposed to be a heartwarming semi-autobiographical story. Here's me reading in bed, with nut thins, cheese, and hot chocolate. Yum! It was a nice break from the heavier stuff I'm reading right now, but the snack was more satisfying than the book.

Apparently it picks up where "Papa's Wife" ends, in a parsonage in early 20th century Lapland. Button is the oldest daughter, and her high-spirited personality leads her to believe that nobody in her family understands her, and her true calling is to be a famous author. The family emigrates to America, she gets married, has two daughters, reaches middle age, and then goes through depression. After years of both her and her family suffering, she stumbles across her true calling: to be a writer. She begins by writing letters, then short stories, becomes a traveling lecturer, and eventually publishes a book about her parents to much acclaim. She is happy again, her husband opens his own shop, and everyone lives happily ever after.

I'm all for finding a creative outlet--obviously, or I wouldn't be writing this right now. (And I wouldn't have three different fabrics on my ironing board, either.) But I guess I had a problem with this woman making her family so unhappy. I'm no expert, but it seems like depression can have so many causes (spiritual, emotional, physical) but it wasn't fair to her family, or herself, really, to indulge in depression for a selfish desire. It seemed like writing helped her regain her cheerful personality again, but she wasn't fulfilled until she received public acclaim. Her dream was not just to write, but to be a published author. Is that right? To tell your family "I'm not happy unless other people like me"?

Despite all of the above, I think I want to read the first book, "Papa's Wife." It seems this woman's parents had a genuine faith that she tried very hard to imitate (something else that made me sad about the book).

Here's an excerpt, something I haven't done in a while. From page 145:

Button remembered how secure they all felt when Papa and Mama went calling and left them alone because the last thing Mama would say was "You be good children now. Know that God is watching here with you while we're away. He will watch over you carefully, but remember, you can't put anything over on Him. If you're good, we might bring something nice home with us. Who knows?"
After Mama and Papa had left, Button recalled, they had wondered where God was sitting.
... (page 146)
Yes, although in the parsonage God had been very strict and despised sin, He had also been very good and watchful; it was comforting to have a God such as that. Now she had almost completely lost Him. But she must and she would hold on to herself so she would overcome her inner disturbances and once more be well again. She recalled a story from the Bible of Jacob's wrestling with God; maybe she, too, would have to wrestle with God before she could again find peace and be cured of every ill.

The Man who was Thursday

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Man who was Thursday, by GK Chesterton

This has been on my list of books to read for a while. I read the blog Between Two Worlds, which links to Christian Audio's free download of the month, which is where I got this book. Thanks, Christian Audio!

I've started reading GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, but it's so rich I had a hard time getting into it. Especially considering that when I read it, I was nursing a newborn--not the best time for meaty arguments about the robustness of the Christian faith. My first thought when reading (okay, listening) to this book was Chesterton's fiction was more accessible than "Orthodoxy," but now that I finished it, I'm not so sure.

*Spoilers ahead* Initially, I thought the ominous threat of anarchy wasn't very threatening, but credited it to my jaded 21st century perspective. It turns out that the whole thing was created for.... what? I don't know if there are plot holes, or I just missed the point. I think I understand that the whole shebang was for the benefit of the participants, to show both sides of Sunday. But if Sunday is supposed to represent God in the parable, he's not playing a very just God, or loving for that manner. I do like how Chesterton showed that Sunday was both wise and terrible and uncontrollable, things we moderns don't like to ascribe to God.

It was a good book and a fast read, but I have a nagging feeling like I'm missing something.

Mrs. Polifax Unveiled

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mrs. Polifax Unveiled, by Dorothy Gilman

My mother-in-law loaned me this book, and I read it while on a road trip. It was a good book for the car--it went quickly, and I was able to block out my honey's random radio-channel surfing.

Mrs. Polifax is a retired woman who is a secret CIA operative. Of course, she's been on adventures all over the world. This series has a different flavor than other CIA mysteries, like The Bourne Identity. There was no swearing, the US government doesn't have a malevolent omnipresence, and there was speculation of a wedding at the end. I liked reading it, but I don't think I'll pick up another one.

I was feeling a little bad that I didn't love it, but the book I recommended to my mother-in-law in return wasn't a hit either. So, I guess we're even!

Living the Cross Centered Life

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Living the Cross Centered Life, by CJ Mahaney

What a great book. I've be a Christian for as long as I can remember, so living a cross-centered life should be instinctive. "Oh wretched sinner that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?"

This book was a great accompaniment to Mark Driscoll's sermon on the day of Atonement. The cross was horrible. It's hard to see that our sin was so awful that Jesus had to suffer such a brutal death to restore us to fellowship with God. Religion likes to get distracted with arguments and rules, but Christianity is all about the cross. I also appreciated Tim Keller's articles regarding the same. Martin Luther said that the cross was so real to him, that it seemed like it happened yesterday. This book reminded me of what Jesus did. It's all about Jesus.

Free Gift with Purchase

Free Gift with Purchase: My Improbable Career in Magazines and Makeup
Free Gift with Purchase: My Improbable Career in Magazines and Makeup by Jean Godfrey-June

This book renewed my commitment to retinoids and self-tanner. It's been a dark winter (well, a dark early spring) marked by pale, acne-prone skin. Time to break out the big guns, and not take any of it too seriously.

This was a fun, quick book, but not great. The author's writing was like her articles in Lucky Magazine: sometimes funny, informative, and/or choppy. I reread several paragraphs, trying to figure out what her point was. Still, it was a nice diversion.

Stops and Starts

Saturday, March 29, 2008

It's been a frustrating time here in Rachel-land. I had my cast finally removed, only to have another one put on a few days later. Apparently my wrist was not ready to come out yet. Everyday actions are either difficult or slightly painful, and typing with one hand is wearing on what little patience I have. I did finish reading a couple books since all this happened, but I have several uncompleted books, which is unusual for me. Here's the run-down:

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present
Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present by Peter Hessler
Beautifully written observations by a WSJ reporter, but it wasn't compelling enough for me to finish it despite renewing the book twice from the library. The author wrote somewhat distant observations about various people representing the diversity of modern China. I would have liked to finish it--maybe if the author made it more personal, or much shorter, the story would have moved faster.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
I got this audiobook for my ill-fated drive. I've tried to read this book before but gave up. I like getting audiobooks of more difficult literature, because having it narrated usually adds enough that I not only finish it, but enjoy it (my strategy for Anna Karenina). At disc 4 of 8, the author stopped his contrarian platitudes long enough for the plot to finally kick into gear. Then I fell and broke my wrist and haven't done much driving since then. Just when it got interesting, too. Someday, I will finish this book.

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency)
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency) by Alexander Mccall Smith
This was also an audiobook for the above-mentioned drive. I put this one in when I couldn't reach the CD case for Dorian Gray and I didn't want to pull over. This series is reliably good. I love the characters. Coincidentally, I only got to disc 4 of 8 in this series, too.

The Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places
I saw this book advertised and put it on my 'must read' list right away. It turned out to be surprisingly boring. I read about Bath, England; Prague; and Ethiopia before completely losing interest. These beautiful locations surely deserve better writing than these essays. Meh.

The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes
While I was visiting family (and while I was not reading "The Oracle Bones") I reread several titles in this series: The Magician's Nephew, Prince Caspian, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the Silver Chair. What can I say? They are rightly classics. I have sweet memories of my dad reading these to us kids at bedtime, and I enjoyed reading them with the perspective of an adult this time. I think some Christians tend to canonize Narnia, but CS Lewis didn't intend for them to be the only allowable fiction for the Sunday school set (I'm looking at you, Harry Potter haters). They are primarily very good stories, and intended to be enjoyed as such. But what is a good story? These books echo the Greatest Story, the narrative of the gospel, and reflects a comprehensive worldview of the same which are marks of any good story (good versus evil, the lone hero, fall and redemption, and persevering to the end of the battle). So of course they're good!

In this rereading, I was struck by how thoroughly English this series is. (After all, CS Lewis was an English professor at Oxford. Doesn't get much more English than that.) I read the boxed set with the original illustrations and it added even more. Her artwork seemed to pay homage to old tapestries and woodcuts, but with the 1930's reinterpretation. Her illustrations seemed to honor the English roots of the story just as much as the author did. I really enjoyed seeing most of the illustrations for the first time. I was saving my favorite book for last (The Horse and His Boy). Next time I visit, it's the first thing I'm doing!

Non-bookish fun

Saturday, March 8, 2008

My honey brought a Southwest Airlines in-flight magazine for me to read, brought back from his latest trip. I got hooked with a puzzle called "Shinro," which reminds me of Sudoku, but more obscure and confusing. You can see the original puzzle here. Tricky, isn't it? I became obsessed with solving it. (Sadly, "obsessed" is not too strong of a word.)

At first I googled the puzzle, trying to find the methodology for solving it, but there was nothing out there. We were beginning to think it was another prank by Southwest, until I found posts like this, asking where to find more puzzles. So once I solved it, I decided to post how I got there, to help other obsessive puzzlers like myself. Enjoy! (And if you used this and found it helpful, please leave a comment.)

First, I redrew the grid larger, using a pencil with a eraser.

Then, add tick marks to show every square an arrow is pointing to. Some squares have more than one tick mark.

Here's where the fun begins. Remember, holes don't necessarily have an arrow pointing to them. So looking at the last column on the right, there are two tick marks in that column, and there are two holes in that column, but that doesn't mean that those squares are where the holes are.

Here is an example of the logic I used to solve this one. Looking at the row the pencil is pointing to, the row has only 1 hole, and it must be to the right of the arrow. Therefore the circled tick marks aren't for that hole, so I erased them.

Looking to the arrow above, that particular arrow is only pointing to one square. Therefore there that's where the hole is.

After an arrow can point to no other holes, X through it. When a column or row is complete, I check it. I erase the tic marks when they no longer indicate a hole.

Continue until the arrows can point to no other squares (Eight holes so far.) You still have unmarked holes somewhere in the puzzle. At this point, I decided to put a line through finished columns and rows to make it easier to see where the holes are.

From here, you can see there is only one spot in the top row where the third hole can be.

Keep going, and you solved the puzzle! Isn't that fun?

PS: Thanks for the math and logic classes, Mom and Dad! Education is never wasted, even if (or maybe especially if) it's used just for fun.

A leave of absence

Friday, February 22, 2008

The bad news:

  • I broke my wrist
  • Typing now takes forever
  • I have an abscessed molar and an impending root canal
  • I have a bacterial infection in my jaw and can barely open my mouth or chew
  • I need to find babysitters for my newly incapacitated self and active baby girl
The good news:
  • I now have more time to read


Friday, February 1, 2008

Persopolis, by Marjane Satrapi

Bad things:

  • Oppressive puppet regimes orchestrated by the British government
  • A promising revolution which quickly devolves into Islamic fundamentalism
  • War with Iraq to distract citizens from the new evil government
  • A religion which encourages the worst behavior from the devout

Good and bad:
  • Oil
  • communists

  • Spunky girls
  • Poignant writing
  • Stark illustrations reflecting the claustrophobia of living in fear from your own government

In honor of this graphic novel, I thought I'd keep this review concise. While at the library this week, I stumbled across this book, which I've been looking for for ages. It did not disappoint. Now I'm looking forward to reading the sequel and watching the movie.

The Legend of the Firefish

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Legend of the Firefish, by George Bryan Polivka

I've been a bit wordy lately, and it's getting late, so I'll keep this post short. Basically, this book was a stinker.

This is a sterling example of Christian fiction. Authors try to make profound theological points while hiding in trendy literature. The writing wasn't awful, but the story felt like "Pirates of the Caribbean" edited for a youth group. I guess my biggest complaint with the book was the author's lack of imagination. He tried to create another world, but it was basically a copy of 18th century England with fire-breathing fish. Half the names were English, and half were made up, but they all sounded clunky: Land Lunder, Packer Throme, Will Seline, Scat Wilkins, etc. They lived in the country of Nearing Vast and had sheriffs from the City of Mann. Their currency was "gold coins"--there wasn't even a descriptive name for money. Tolkien created detailed, comprehensive worlds with their own histories. CS Lewis made earth seem like a weak copy of his own worlds. This author could have had a much more believable book if he had just made it historical fiction.

I'll spare you an excerpt this time. Just imagine some mildly interesting sword fights interspersed with "good grief" moments. Meh.

P.S. Read the first review on Amazon--their a good evaluation of the author's theology and pacifism. The main character's mantra (who was a Christian character) was "resist not evil." What?!? A pirate ship is not the place to practice that theory.

A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the uniqueness of the Shoah, by Alain Besancon

I've been putting off writing this review. I'm not sure why: I raved about this book to anyone who would listen. Despite its subject matter, I raced through reading it, but maybe now it's catching up with me. After a long day, tired Rachel just doesn't feel like curling up in bed and thinking about... a century of horrors.

It really was a fantastic book though. It evaluates Nazism and Communism, especially how they relate to the Holocaust (or "Shoah" if you're Jewish). The author avoided the grisly details of both ideologies to instead evaluate the bigger issues: physical destruction, moral destruction, the destruction of political life, theology, and memory.

Have you ever wondered why Nazism is considered evil incarnate, and communism just brings to mind "McCarthyism" and badly dressed dictators? According to the author, we have "hypernesia" of the former and amnesia of the latter, even though communism killed more people by over a factor of ten. The best analysis, I think, can be summed up from the following quote from "Physical Destruction" (chapter 1).

  • The mode of killing is not a criterion of evaluation. The temptation to judge one death as innately more terrible than another must be resisted: no death can be seen from the inside. No one can know what a child experienced while inhaling Zyklon B gas or while starving to death in a Ukrainian isba. Because people were killed without any form of justice, one must exclaim that they all perished terribly--one person as much as the next--because they were innocent. (p. 11)

This quote references premeditated "famines" in Ukraine by Stalin, who simply decided to eliminate some Slavic people. Just because.

I would like to read this book again someday. It was concise but powerful. It's been a long time since I've read philosophy, and I would probably comprehend more if I were better-read. I haven't heard references to Hegel, Hume, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, or Trotsky since high school. The chapter on Memory was particularly over my head, probably because the author reference French politics and wrote from a Jewish perspective. As a Christian, I disagreed with a few minor points about Christianity, but he "gets" it, what Christianity is really about.

I was struck by Chapter 4 in particular, "Theology." He argued that both Nazism and Communism hated Christianity and Judaism because their gods were jealous. Fundamentally they are both evangelistic worldviews: Nazis thought the world would be redeemed through the "Aryan" people, and communism thought the world would be saved through their new definition of morality. They both tried to destroy God because they were/are His enemies, and they couldn't abide a God greater than them.

I highly recommend this book.

Smile When You're Lying

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Smile When You’re Lying, by Chuck Thompson

I didn't want to admit reading this book, but it’s not very honest to omit less-than-stellar books. I read it: here’s the review.

The author is a travel writer who was tired of sucking up to the various industries in travel, where everything is ‘breathtaking!’, ‘delicious!' and ‘an enticing mix of the old and new!’ So he wrote this book as an outlet for colorful stories like Shanghai Bob's exploits, muggings, and waking up in a pool of his own vomit. The biggest caveat of the book was that it was as descriptive of the Thai sex industry as you would expect an unregenerate, anti-Christian single man to be.

Still, it was funny. Right away, I pegged him as from the Pacific Northwest. He had that cranky, sunshine-deprived, angry liberal outlook on life that I remember from growing up in Oregon. Who else would say that by voluntarily paying taxes, even if you vote Democrat, you have Iraqi blood on your hands?

Chapter titles like "Is it okay to miss the Cold War? The philosophical dilemma of Eastern Europe" and "Why Latin America isn't the world's number one tourist destination and probably never will be" reveal the kind of humor to be found in this book. My honey kept reading me quotes and cracking up while I was trying to read a serious book, and it was very hard to concentrate while your spouse reads you excerpts like these (p. 100):

"American public school teachers have the world's best PR operation going. Whining every chance they get about how demanding their jobs are, how many "extra hours" they put in, how little they make, how much of their own money they have to spend just to do their jobs, how noble they are working this job that nobody ever asked them to do--welcome to the (expletive) world."

Thompson writes about the travel industry, hack travel writers, how he became a writer, destinations he should love but doesn't, and surprising locations that became his favorites. He is a funny (but crude) writer, and he has an excellent grasp of history. I learned several back stories to historical events I thought I knew. The book closed with an unexpected positive tone. As a general rule, Americans are the cleanest and most polite travellers you will ever meet, despite an international image that is otherwise ("Americans are the new Germans," page 301). Depending on how the supply of foreign oil concludes, we could be in the golden age of travel right now.

"You can take a week off work and be in Dakar or Tashkent or Borneo in less time than it took Ben Franklin to get from Boston to Philadelphia. Largely taken for granted, this revolutionary ability to go anywhere on a whim has altered our perception of the world in ways we probably don't fully comprehend. If that instant mobility is taken away, our worldview will be drastically reshaped again. The planet could once more become a forbidding place, expensive to see and scary to traverse, one that forces us to reexamine the basic lessons about the world collective that travel used to teach. This might not be a bad thing."