Book Reviews

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Giovanni's Room by James BaldwinSummary: An American man in Paris has a hard time choosing between his fiancée and a beautiful Italian immigrant. 

One of my reading goals this year was to read some of James Baldwin’s fiction. Giovanni’s Room is my first of his fiction book. Baldwin is an incredible writer. I have appreciated his non-fiction writing for its clarity and intelligence and passion. Baldwin’s fiction writing is lyrically beautiful. I will definitely read more, but the actual characters and story in Giovanni’s Room were not my cup of tea.

The protagonist, David, is nearly 30. He is living in Paris without much direction or purpose. The book is told skipping around in time, so we know from nearly the beginning that Giovanni is to be executed, but the reader does not know why until near the end of the book.

David gives some back story with an early gay sexual experience and his family that he is escaping from to Paris. Soon we are introduced to Hella, David’s girlfriend. When the main story really starts, she is visiting Spain to decide if she wants to marry David. While she is gone, David runs short of money and while trying to borrow money from an older gay man, Jacque. During that meeting David meets Giovanni. Jacque tries to uses David to help him pick up Giovanni, but David and Giovanni hit it off and before long they are living together. David and Giovanni appear to be happy for a while. Giovanni has a decent job as a bartender and David for a while is happy to live with Giovanni.

(Spoiler alert for the rest of the discussion)  

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan NobleSummary: In order to be a Christian within culture, we need to understand what the culture is. Which means we need to be rooted in historic Christianity as a means of disrupting the effects of culture.

The old illustration about two fish being asked how is the water, and then one asking the other, ‘what is water?’ is my best description of Disruptive Witness. We are part of a culture, but we need tools, and language, to help us understand, and describe, the culture around us.

Part One of Disruptive Witness uses Charles Taylor and others to describe and understand our culture from the perspective of Christianity that is always within a particular culture. I have read a number of books about Taylor’s ideas, and I think that Disruptive Witness is one of the most understandable presentations of Taylor’s ideas.

Part Two of Disruptive Witness is focused on what we should do now that we understand some of the benefits and problems of culture. These are largely spiritual practices of the historic church that can help disrupt the effects of culture. 

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian ZahndTakeaway: How we read scripture and understand God impacts how we live and share the gospel with others.

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is the fourth book by Brian Zahnd I have read. Zahnd is a pastor and has been helpful to me over the past decade as my theology and understanding of Christianity has shifted. His own shifts have been fairly similar to mine, although he is a generation older than I am. Zahnd is a popularizer and writes personally and pastorally, and I mean that as a complement. Academic theologians and biblical scholars are important, but in order for the academic work to impact the church, pastors and popularizers need to take the insights of the academics and put it into language and structure that are understandable to the rest of us.

In a somewhat similar way to how Rachel Held Evan’s book Inspired, was really about hermeneutics (how to read scripture), Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is really about the theology of God with secondary theme of the problem of evil. The title, of course, is a play on Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon. Zahnd talks about how he wrote out and may a book of Edwards’ sermon because he wanted to learn how to evangelize like Edwards. Edwards was a central character in the Great Awakening, an early American revival that swept the US and the UK a generation before the American Revolution.

Edwards was trying to illustrated the importance of becoming a true follower of Christ through the sermon, but Zahnd starts by pointing out the problem with conceiving of God not as a loving father, but as a distant wrathful deity. This split in Christianity between God as Love and God as Wrath has a long history and is still current. Zahnd spends much of the book disassembling the perspective on God, the Father, as primarily wrathful. Much of that disassembly goes back to scripture and gives a new spin on how scripture is read. He works through the genocide texts of the Old Testament, the crucifixion of Christ, Hell and a long section on the book of Revelation.

The Six by KB Hoyle (Gateway Chronicles #1)

The Six by KB Hoyle (Gateway Chronicles #1)Summary: Young adult fantasy that knows the conventions of the genre, but isn’t reduced to them.

Thirteen year old Darcy Pennington doesn’t have any friends. Her real love in life is horses. For the past several years she has gone to a summer camp dedicated to riding horses. But this year, both because of financial constraints and to be together as a family, her family has decided to go on vacation together, to a family camp. Darcy is dreading it. She is dreading it in part because two other kids from her neighborhood that she knows, but does not really like will be there as well.

Darcy begins to like the camp despite herself. The area is beautiful and the kids are fairly friendly, although as an introvert, Darcy does have a problem finding space to just be alone. As she gets acquainted with the space and the people, there is a sense of magic, and not just in the figurative sense.

I do not want to give away too many details of the story, but this is a young adult fantasy that has some parallels to CS Lewis’ Narnia books. Eventually another world is involved, and a prophesy, and gifts and talents, and an evil ruler. Genre writing is difficult, good genre book follow enough conventions to be part of the genre without being reduced to conventions. Good books often drop subtle hints and references to earlier books that helped to define or illustrate those conventions. Bad genre books blindly follow the conventions without adding anything new to the conversations within the genre. One of the things that some people love about genre writing is the ability to ‘check out’ as you are reading because the book become so conventional that no real thought is required.

Laurus by Evgenij Vodolazkin

Laurus by Evgenij VodolazkinSummary: The life and times of a 15th century healer. 

I do not often just say, go buy a book, but if you like the mix of books that I tend to review, just go and buy the book. Laurus is a modern Russian novel, wonderfully translated to English. Vodolazkin, the author, is a midevil scholar who has recreated the alien nature of the midevil Russian world wonderfully.

I really have a hard time trying to figure out how to describe Laurus. It is about an ancient Christian healer. So it is sort of Christian fiction. But it is by a Russian so it does not fit into any of the traditional modern christian novel categories. Laurus takes Christianity very seriously, but using what I can only describe as magical realism to give structure to the healing and mysticism of the Russian Orthodox Christianity that is illustrated so well here. In some ways Laurus reads more like a book of ancient Christian devotional literature as much as it read like a novel.

To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age by Robert Barron and John Allen

To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age by Robert Barron and John AllenSummary: Sort of an interview, sort of a biography, sort of an introduction to Evangelism in Catholicism. 

I have fallen out of my habit of reading at least one book outside of my standard stream of Christian faith a month. But I still try to read outside of Evangelical Christian world fairly frequently. I tend to read more in the Catholic or Mainline Protestant than Orthodox, but I really need to be more intentional about expanding my horizons.

I have been following Robert Barron for years. Not everything, but enough to know that even when I disagree, I find him thoughtful and interesting. Barron is now an Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles responsible for the Santa Barbara area, but he is most known from his YouTube videos, his Catholicism documentary series that has been played on PBS, and his movie reviews. I subscribe to his YouTube channel and watch about half of his videos there. I have not watched the Catholicism documentary, but I did read the companion book. I have not read any of his other books, but I have been to Mundelein Seminary, where was before he became a bishop, and I have some mutual friends.

I picked this book up because it was Barron and on sale without really paying attention to what it was. It is a somewhat odd little book. John Allen is a well known journalist specializing in the Vatican. I have read a book on current issues in Catholicism and a number of his articles.

This isn’t really a book by Robert Barron. This is a book by John Allen with contributions by Robert Barron. In some ways I wonder why it wasn’t really marketed as a biography with participation by Barron, because that feels like it would be more accurate. There are long quotes and statements by Barron in response to questions from either interviews or correspondence, but the shaping of the book is all Allen. I would guess that Barron read it previous to publication and signed off on it and probably even had some editorial contributions, but this is a book by John Allen.

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

All the Old Knives by Olen SteinhauerSummary: A whole spy thriller reveal over dinner.

Olen Steinhauer is often compared, favorably, to John le Carré. It has been a few years since I picked up one of Steinhauer’s books, but this was on sale as an audiobook, it was relatively short and I needed a change of pace.

According to one of the reviews I read prior to purchasing it, Steinhauer was told by someone that modern spy novels are never quite as good as the old ones. And so he put that scene at the start of the book and then for nearly the whole book the action is reveal, in flashbacks or in current reality, while the two protagonists are having dinner. It was not until things were about to be revealed that I guessed correctly what was going on.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

American Street by Ibi ZoboiSummary: A teen girl, born in the US, but living in Haiti since soon after her birth, returns to the US. Her mother is detained by ICE, but Fabiola continues on to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit.

My goal of reading more fiction this year has not been going well. But it is summer, and summer is a time for Fiction. American Street was on sale as I was making plans for a six hour solo drive to the beach. I listened to all but the last 30 minutes of American Street on the way to the beach and the last 30 minutes and Believe Me on the way back.

This is a very good audiobook. Robin Miles, who I was not fond of when she narrated Binti, was excellent here. Her various accents, which felt fake in Binti, felt authentic here in part because she not only doing Haitian, but also Detroit street. The range of voices was what made the narration.

American Street is named after the street where the house that Fabiola come to live, the one where she was born. It is right on the corner of Joy and American streets, which is the reason that the house was purchased by new immigrants to the US. When her mother is detained by ICE as they go through customs in New York City (Fabiola’s mother overstayed her visa on the previous trip so that Fabiola would be born in the US), Fabiola is left to go on to Detroit and meet cousins and an aunt that she has talked to, but not met.

Fabiola’s life in Haiti, with her good English schools and her hard work, has not truly prepared her for Detroit. She is also not prepared for the realities of street life without the guidance of her mother.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John FeaSummary: An evangelical historian approaches why so many Evangelicals voted for Trump.

I am a fan of the John Fea’s history podcast, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I do not remember how I ran across it, but I have listened to it almost from the very beginning. Some of the ideas of Believe Me (title is from Trump’s often used phrase) trickled out over the past months. And the most recent podcast episode was directly about the book Believe Me. On Saturday, when I had a six hour drive by myself, I listened to the audiobook of Believe Me basically in one sitting.

After demonstrating that he is in fact an Evangelical, Fea starts with the common ’81% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump’ and his wondering if 81% of his Evangelical megachurch voted for Trump the next Sunday after the election. This is not unlike many Evangelicals that I know that have been against Trump all along. They felt the election personally.

The main explanation of the Believe Me is that Evangelicals voted for Trump out of fear, a desire for a Christian nation and the power to construct it that way, and nostalgia. I think that Fea is best when he is attempting to be generous in understanding the reluctant Trump voter and his historical explanations. Fea’s other books include books about whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, why we should study history and a history of the American Bible Society, all of which make their ways into the book at one point or another.

Fea places all three factors, fear, nostalgia, and power (Christian nationalism) in historical context, asserting that it is not just in this one instance that these three factors have come into play, but that there is a history of Evangelicals choosing these over their Christian ideals. There are places where I think that Believe Me may have been rush to print just a bit too quickly. He explains the DACA program incorrectly. He could be clearer about what the 81% number really was. The definition of what an Evangelical is I think should have been developed more clearly from a historical perspective. In many ways Evangelical, which means something pretty specific in the second half of the 20th century, is mixed up with conservative Protestantism or Fundamentalism or any Protestantism of earlier generations. I think that weakens his historical argument in a few places because some of the historical parallels he is drawing may not be quit as clear for some that want to haggle about what Evangelicalism has meant historically or today.

The Healing Light by Agnes Sanford

The Healing Light by Agnes SanfordSummary: A book on physical and spiritual healing, published in 1947 by a Episcopal Priest’s wife. Anges Sanford mentored and impacted many, included Dallas Willard. 

Way back in March, over three months ago I started reading The Healing Light because both the book and author were mentioned in the very good biography of Dallas Willard. The Healing Light was available and cheap so I picked it up and started reading. It has taken me three months to get through it because it is both fascinating and frustrating.

Part of what I have appreciated about it is that it is written in a different era. Published in 1947, it has been out for more than 70 years and still in print. CS Lewis’ point about reading books of different ages was not that different ages were better, but they had different blind spots and different emphases and different strengths.

There are three primary issue that I think are negatives and significant ones. First, there is an attempt to scientifically analyze prayer and healing. There is some aspect of that that is appropriate. But it felt very dated and a dead end because prayer is not scientific. It is using a tool of analysis that is inappropriate to the task it is being used for. The type of approach to prayer as science is summed up in the quote, “Some day we will understand the scientific principles that underlie the miracle-working powers of God, and we will accept His intervention as simply and naturally as we do the radio.”