Book Reviews

The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma

The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken WytsmaSummary: Racism and injustice have to be important to Christians if our faith is relevant to relationships on this side of heaven.

Race, Injustice, Privilege and related ideas are common discussions in the political world. And that is part of the problem with discussing them inside the Christian church. Quite often our understanding of issues that have any relationship to politics are based more on our political bias and background than our Christianity. It is not that our Christianity is unimportant to our politics, but our politics matters to what we think is important within Christianity.

Ken Wytsma has a very clear purpose in writing. He is a White pastor writing primarily to White Christians about race and inequality. He is doing that because he thinks that at least some readers will listen to him in ways that they have not been listening to minority Christians talk about race and inequality.

Section one is mostly a summary of history and illustrations of why inequality exists. It is a very good summary of a numbers of issues, from government involvement in housing segregation and inequality to the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating inequality to migration patters since the civil war. Inequality is a vast and complex matter.

Wytsma is summarizing the work of others here. In a short section he can’t give the depth that books like Warmth of Other Suns or Slavery by Another Name or New Jim Crow or the host of other in books that have the space to look deeply at different aspects of history, race, inequality and injustice. As a summary, this section is one of the better looks at the variety of ways that inequality has come to be in place in just a few pages.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswicks Journals #1)

I am reposting this review from earlier this year because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswicks Journals #1)Summary: The wisdom comes with reflection by those that age. A month or so ago I was asking for a good biography or memoir from a pastor or theologian. I was thinking of something like Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor or one of Lyle Dorsett’s biographies. What I was looking for was wisdom.

Wisdom is something that is earned by time. It is not guaranteed with age, but it is only comes to those that are aged. Part of what is required to earn wisdom is reflection. And that is what Madeleine L’Engle has done here. She is writing her thoughts and musings about life and her writing and meaning based on the journals that she has kept for her own purposes.

L’Engle was in her mid 50s when A Circle of Quiet was written. (And the fourth Crosswick Journal book was published 23 year later.) So she is not so old that she has forgotten what it is like to be young, nor was she that far distant from the failures of her life as a writer. (A Circle of Quiet was published just 11 years after A Wrinkle in Time was published.)

A Circle of Quiet is a bit meandering. Much of it is reflections on what it means to be a writer or story teller or how she has taught writing and story telling to others. But mixed in are thoughts on parenting and child development, living in a small town (Crosswick is the name of their home in rural Connecticut, where they lived for 7 years full time early in her marriage and that they kept as a summer home when they moved back to New York City), living in a large city, love, church, and many other random thoughts.

The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley

The Relic Master by Christopher BuckleySummary: A relic hunter is forced into a quest for the ‘true shroud’.

Christopher Buckley has a history of writing smart comic novels, usually about political subjects. But his last couple novels have fallen a bit flat. However, I still picked up The Relic Master when I saw it on sale at a BOGO sale at Audible, especially since it was out of Buckley’s normal subject area.

The Relic Master is set 500 years ago as Martin Luther was writing his 95 Thesis and the reformation was beginning to dawn. This is historical fiction that is pretty historically accurate for the known characters. There were relic fairs and prominent people did buy and sell relics, which created markets for forgers.

The main character, Dismas has attempted to be an honest relic hunter, although he is real enough to know that many of the relics being sold are fakes and real enough to know that many of the miraculous proofs are frauds and cynical enough to want out of the business. After being robbed of his savings, he decides to attempt a grand fraud to give him enough to retire to the country and become a happy, stable farmer and family man.

The fraud is caught because of the pride of the artist (Durer). Dismas and Durer’s are then forced into a quest to steal the Shroud of Chambery.

Little Better Than a Beast by Tom King (Vision #2)

Little Better Than a Beast by Tom King (Vision #2)Summary: Vision continues to struggle to live a normal family life.

About a year ago I picked up then first volume of this series. Vision, has attempted to create a family. After himself being created by the evil Ultron, but eventually joining the Avengers, he creates a standard suburban family (his wife and two teen kids.)

The first volume is more about what it means to be human and a family and how hard they work to maintain that illusion of normality.

The second volume, Little Better Than a Beast, builds on the first. There is more back story here for people like me that don’t know Vision’s back story. The book opens with Vision’s relationship to the Scarlet Witch summarized. It is that failed relationship that spawned the idea for Vision to create his own family. One that hopefully would be acceptable both to the world and would work internally.

A Live Coal in the Sea by Madeleine L’Engle

A Live Coal in the Sea: A NovelSummary: Camilla, now in her 60s, recounts her story to a questioning granddaughter.

A Live Coal in the Sea is a sequel to Camilla, published 45 years later. That distance in time between the two books is nearly the distance in time within the books.

Camilla was about a 15 year old growing up in New York City and coming to be aware of the tragedies of life outside of herself. A Live Coal in the Sea is about Camilla sometime in her mid to late 60s. The story catches up on the intervening years through flashback and story. Camilla’s granddaughter, Raffi, is going to college at the small school where Camilla is an astronomy professor.

After some vague and confusing disclosures by her father, Raffi comes to her Grandmother to get the whole story. This begins a long recounting of both special tragedy and the normal process of people coming together as a family, working through issues in a marriage and with children, the aging and dying of people around them and the coming to terms with the meaning of life.

At root, this is a family drama. The sins of one generation impact later generations. And while some members of a family adapt, heal and move on, others cannot and the generational cycles continue.

For me this is a mid-level L’Engle book. It doesn’t rise to the level of her Crosswick Journal insights into humanity. It isn’t as compelling as A Swiftly Tilting Planet or A Ring of Endless Night. But it also isn’t as disturbing as A House Like a Lotus or as boring as Meet The Austins.

This is not a young adult book like Camilla. It is intended as an adult book and it has adult themes. Infidelity, sexual and physical abuse of children, homosexuality, death and loss, and emotional abandonment are all present. It isn’t a particularly happy book, but it also isn’t a book that feels like it was trumped up to be overly depressing. While there is unusual tragedy in the book, the framing of the tragedy is focused on how all of our lives can be, and are, tragic in some ways. But God meets us in that tragedy because God loves us.

L’Engle isn’t writing ‘Christian Fiction’. She is writing fiction that is informed by her Christianity. Most Christian publishers would not touch this. But while I don’t think it is among her greatest book, it is a solid book.

(spoiler discussion below)

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Eugene Peterson

As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Eugene PetersonSummary: A collection of 49 sermons that illustrate how Peterson thinks we should be formed by God.

Scripture is always the central focus on Eugene Peterson’s writing. Practice Resurrection may be about the church and spiritual development, but it is about how the book of Ephesians talks about the church and spiritual development. Run with the Horses may be about excellence, but it is framed by looking at excellence through Jeremiah the prophet. The Contemplative Pastor may be about spiritual direction and the role of the pastor, but it is largely through the lens of the beatitudes and other scripture that he looks at the pastor’s role.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is Peterson’s book on preaching. It isn’t that lay people won’t get something out of this, I certainly do not actively preach, but I think it was written for pastors. Non-pastors probably will read this more as a devotional book. But pastors should read this as a master class in how our preaching is to be about scripture first and most of all and how scripture points to God.

The seven sections, each with seven sermons, are all looking at how a particular biblical author communicates God to us through scripture. The sections are labeled, ‘Preaching in the company of Moses, or David, or Isaiah, or Solomon, or Peter, or Paul, or John of Patmos. If you have read some of his other books you can seem a few of the drafts of ideas that were worked out in his books that started in his sermons. And based on the illustrations and content of the sermons, these stretched widely throughout his preaching career, from early days with young children to the 50th anniversary of the church that he started.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré

I am reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: A George Smiley NovelSummary: A classic double (or is it triple) cross spy story. Originally written in 1963 this is a real spy classic.

Ever since the movie, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came out I have wanted to read John le Carré.  But I have not known where to start.  Tinker, Tailor is in the George Smiley series of 8 books but the start of its own trilogy.

And many of the early books are not available in kindle or audiobook format that I prefer. So I picked up The Spy Who Came In From the Cold because it is the earliest of the series on audiobook, it is before Tinker Tailor and many people think it is le Carré’s best book.

I like spy books.  There is something that both meets my needs for action and fast moving plot, and also some cerebral content that is more than many action books.

le Carré is known for writing cerebral spy novels.  So while he has intrigued me, I have been a bit intimidated by the books.  Most people that don’t like them say they are too slow or to cerebral.  When I finally started this I listened to it straight through in just over a day.  (It is only 7 hours.)

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Rowen

After having read 10 books of this series in the last four years I recommend it. A couple were not up to the standards of the rest of the series, but it is mostly a very good cozy mystery series. This first book is currently on sale for $1.99. The 11th book in the series comes out in August. Below is my review from 2013, very lightly edited.
Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

Summary: Fun mystery set in the early 1930s with a down on her luck 34th from the throne Royal.

I have to admit, that being a new parent and trying to keep up with work and enjoying my new daughter and trying to get enough sleep, I have just not been interested in reading anything heavy.  I have already finished more than my goal of books for the year (which is a new record number of books), so I don’t feel pressed to read to review.

Consequently I have been reading fun books.  And this is a great example of a fun book.  Georgie is the younger sister of a Duke.  She is 34th in line for the throne in 1932.  But that does not mean things are going well for her.  She is 21, her brother has stopped giving her a living allowance.  Her father has died after losing all of the family money in American investments, her mother left her father when she was a young child and has been sleeping her way through all of the rich and famous of Europe since then.

Georgie has had enough of her current life stuck in a cold drafty castle in Scotland with her very sweet, but fairly hapless brother and her distant and condescending sister in law.  So she heads to London to make her way on her own.  But things are not that easy.  She does not really have any job skills.  And she can’t take just any job, because there is society to think of and her cousin (the Queen) will find out.  If she doesn’t figure out a way to take care of herself, she is going to be sent off to the country to be a lady in waiting for a great aunt (the last remaining daughter of Queen Victoria).  She will never find a husband (or have any fun) out there.

Things are really not going all that well when she comes home to find a dead body in her bathtub.  I assume this is homage to Dorothy Sayers’s first Lord Peter Wimsey book Whose Body? which also has a body in a bathtub as the center of the mystery.

The American Presidency by Charles Jones (Very Short Introduction Series)

The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction by Charles JonesSummary: A brief book on the powers and limitations of the office of President.

The American Presidency is a good example of where the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford Press can be helpful. At just over 150 pages of real content, this book can be read in a long sitting and give some real background to the subject area.

When the Very Short Introduction series gets it right, the books are usually overviews with a couple of main points. When they get it wrong, the books usually focus more on the research around the subject and forget to actually introduce the subject itself. The American Presidency is one of the former.

The main focus of the book is how the office of the President relates to the rest of the US government, which requires a short introduction to all three branches. A balanced government, with no branch dominating, was an innovation when the Constitution was written. The term President is based on the idea of presiding over something. Governor would have been a more accurate idea of the type of office envisioned, but that office had a negative connotation because of the appointed Governors prior to the Revolution.

The office of the President executes the functions of the federal government. As the country has grown in both size and complexity, the size of the government has grown and the complexity of managing a workforce of about 3 million people. (The size of federal employment has varied, but it currently approximately the same as 1967 in real numbers. Although the federal government now uses significantly more contractors, which are not included in the employment figures.)

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto Fujimura

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto FujimuraTakeaway: Culture matters. Culture needs cultivation. Beauty is central to combating utilitarian theology.

Makoto Fujimura is a gift to the church. He is now on my must read list. I do not particularly need to be convinced of the basic argument in Culture Care, culture matters. But the framing of culture in similar terms to environmental care I think makes a lot of sense in helping the reader to understand that culture is neither static nor inherently good or bad.

Culture is cultivated and if we want a culture that reflects truth and beauty need to have Christians that understand truth and beauty creating to influence culture. Fujimura starts with the assumption that Christians should be interacting with culture and creating. He is not particularly interested in creating culture where Christian is used as an adjective (Christian music, Christian movies, etc.).