Book Reviews

Beautiful Ruins: A Novel by Jess Walter

I am reposting this 2014 review because the kindle version is on sale for $1.99 today only as one of the kindle deals of the day. There are a number of books on sale today that are worth looking at.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess WalterSummary: A beautifully written love story(ies) that spans 50 years.  Refreshingly, it is more focused on adult commitment than personal fulfillment.

Beautiful Ruins has had a lot of hype. It was nominated for two Audie Awards in 2013, it was NPR’s Fresh Air’s books of the Year, and Esquire Book of the Year, and a New York Times #1 Best Seller.

I alternated between Kindle and Audiobook (with more time in the audiobook.) Edoardo Ballerini was a perfect narrator.  His Italian sounded perfect (although I have zero ability to really evaluate it.)

Beautiful Ruins weaves together a number of stories. It starts with a young Italian inn owner in 1962 and a mysterious American actress that comes to his out of the way inn as a guest. It moves to a modern story of a movie producer and his assistant. It mixes in a number of storylines from 1962, current time and in between.

I tend to like interwoven storylines, and this was executed perfectly. There is a long epilogue at the end that wraps of ALL of the loose ends (and there are a lot of loose ends to wrap up.) I appreciated the ending, but it was not necessarily needed for all of the storylines. But the focus of the book required it. Part of the focus is on how one story affects other stories. And so the careful attention to how each of the stories worked out (or did not) continued that focus.

There is a theme of choosing what story to live (similar to Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.) But while that could go wildly wrong with many other authors, it also reminded me of the movie Once (which I love). Many who did not like the movie Once did not like the end result. The characters from Once did not choose the most romantic ending, they chose the one that fulfilled their prior commitments. And for the most part (but not all) that is what happened in Beautiful Ruins.

Part of the twist of this book is that it uses the real Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and the filming of Cleopatra as a plot device and characters in the book. Handled badly, that could have been a problem, but in reality they provided interest, without detracting from the story.

Not all of the characters were lovable, but enough of them were. That is the way of real life. Not everyone does what they should or has your best interest at heart. Some are wrapped up in their own issues and addictions. Some are able to overcome their issues and addictions to actually love you as you need. Some people are made better by love, some are not.

In some ways this is just a love story. It is the story of how people fall in love and choose to live their lives. But there is depth to the stories that really shows that love is not about personal fulfillment as much as commitment. And that is not usually the way that love stories work out in our modern self-obsessed world. So I want to celebrate a book that tell a true story of love as commitment instead of love as fulfillment.

The Kindle version is only $1.99 at posting (it was $3.99 when I picked it up).  And the companion audiobook is only $4.99 with purchase of the kindle book. I think the audio version is worth picking up if you like audiobooks. It is very well done. But the print version is good on its own as well.

Beautiful Ruins Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

Anniversary Day by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Anniversary Day by Kristine Kathryn RuschSummary: On the anniversary of the worst disaster in the moon’s history, a terrorist plot may be even more devastating.

A Facebook friend of mine loves this series. On his recommendation I picked up the first book in the series, The Disappeared, about a year ago. The Disappeared was a well written police procedural with a scifi setting. But I haven’t picked up any more of the series until Anniversary Day went on sale.

I do not traditionally like reading books out of order, even if they do stand alone. Anniversary Day is the start of an 8 book sub-series within the larger 15 book series. I did feel like I was jumping into something that I did not fully understand. The main characters from the first book were still here, but a lot of additional characters had also been added.

The story was easy enough to follow (just missing character backstory.) Several years ago, there was a bombing in the moon’s largest city. It kill a number of people and that bombing was never solved. Every year there are remembrances, but also wariness because the bombing could happen again.

One of the police detectives of the first book in the series is now the head of security for the whole moon. When the mayor of the largest city and the head of the moon’s national government both die mysteriously, as do other political leaders around the moon, she coordinates a response from her office.

But there are a ton of threads (and characters) in this book. Because the crimes happen independently, different characters have to respond to the sub plots. The threads are the way real coordinated attacks would work. Lots of different people, with part of the picture have to respond with inadequate information because the whole picture is not in view to any one person.

The police procedural elements are still here, but this is a larger triller style plot. It is well written and I want to read more. The question is whether I go back to the books I missed earlier, or whether I keep reading this sub-series.

Anniversary Day by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (#8 in Retrieval Series, and #1 in Anniversary Day Sub-Series) Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

My kindle edition is lendable if anyone wants to borrow it.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah

I am reposting this 2016 review of Prophetic Lament because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $3.99.
Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah book reviewSummary: A current events focused commentary on the book of Lamentations.

I veer wildly between an honest concern about too much focus on the bad in the world (there is far more good than what is often credited) and a frustration about the lack of concern about the harm that is being ignored by many. I think many more people need to read Bradley Wright’s book Upside about how much about the world has drastically improved recently.
But at the same time I am concerned that many have far too little concern about systemic issues of oppression. Black Lives Matters (whether the broader movement or the organization), systemic problems of the criminal justice system, a rise of nativism or xenophobia, continuing revelations about ongoing racism, sexism, and other bias that impacts real people on a regular and ongoing basis, matters.

And so I picked up Prophetic Lament when I was frustrated with the inability for the Evangelical church in particular (but the larger church as well) to actually embrace lament. Christian Music that is ‘safe for the whole family’ and Christian fiction that seems to only be able to tell happy tales with tidy endings is not particularly faithful example of historic Christian artistry. It is not that we cannot be happy or that we should not consume tidy books or safe music. It is that we should not only consume safe music and tidy books.

The world is not tidy or ‘safe for the whole family’ and neither is scripture. Scripture is decidedly R rated if you don’t skip over hard passages. About 40% of the Psalms (which has historically been the prayer and songbook of the church) are psalms of Lament. A study of hymn books in 2012 found that no hymnbook even hit 20% of its songs as lament.

Soong-Chan Rah explicates the book of Lamentations well. He hits not only the themes and particulars of the five chapters, but relates it to the areas that our modern American church should be lamenting about. I think some will complain that Soong-Chan Rah gets too particular about areas of lamentation. That could be, but it is better to be too specific than not specific enough. Unspecific lamentation is not real lamentation.

The case is also well made that lamentation is an essential part of historic Christian faith. Faith that is only happy is gnostic or otherwise dis-embodied. Jesus wept real tears. Paul was in real chains. John was exiled to a real and specific place. Stephen was actually killed. Lamentation is part of what we should be feeling in the fact of not only the widespread injustice of the world, but the every day general living and dying that we all participate in. People around us get sick and die. They have miscarriages and lose jobs. They have a marriages that fall apart and children that stray from the good path.

If we are unable to lament with those that lament, then we are not fully entering into their lives. Prophetic Lament puts good words to that biblical call and biblical example.

My only real complaint, and it is not much of one, is that I wish the actual text of Prophetic Lament included the whole book of Lamentations as he was discussing the book. I think it would have forced more conversation with the actual book of scripture. It is very possible to read this book without reading the actual book of Laminations.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey #8)

Summary: Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey back together again.

I have been slowly working my way through the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers. Sayers is known both for her detective novels and her non-fiction works on faith and education, and her translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia. She was active writer from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Lord Peter Wimsey, the subject of the series, is a rich, seemingly carefree aristocrat with nothing better to do than solve difficult crimes. In Strong Poison (#6 and the best of the books to that point), Harriet Vane was introduced. She is single detective novelist that was on trial for murder. Wimsey proved her innocent and has been trying to convince her to marry him since then. (She was absent in the 7th book and it was weaker for it.)

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

I am reposting this review from January because News of the World is on sale for $1.95 today only on Audiobook.
News of the World Book ReviewSummary: An elderly man (former newspaper man, former military courier, current newspaper reader) gets roped into transporting an orphaned girl that was kidnapped 4 years previous by Indians to her extended family.

I picked News of the World up when it was on sale because it was on John Wilson’s list of best books of the year. It is short, just over 200 pages, but a complete story.

I do not read a lot of westerns because there are not that many being written these days. But my teen years were full of Louis L’Amour and other western authors. The rugged individualist that lives by their code of honor and saves those that are weak against the evil powerful is not necessarily a bad theme for a teen boy. That theme today does not really interest me.

This will have to be inevitably compared to True Grit, which I really liked. Both have the old man that doesn’t really want to help. Both have the young girl in need of help, but surprisingly capable for their age. Both have the reluctant affection that develops between them.

But News of the World is a different story. There is no revenge here. There is just a struggle to survive in a land that is fairly lawless and where ‘the law’ is as dangerous as the blatant thieves. The Civil War is over, but its ramifications are still widespread. The Mexican rule over Texas is over, but the integration into the US is far from complete.

Johanna, the girl, has spent the last four years living with the Kiowa Indians after they kidnapped her and killed her immediate family. She knows nothing else. She has forgotten her language (which was German, not English). And she has adopted the Kiowa culture. As the story makes clear, she was ripped from her family, not once, but twice. And the family she is being brought to is completely unknown.

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

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 overly 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 Benedict Option- A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher

Book Review The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod DreherTakeaway: A better book than I really want it to be, but fundamentally flawed as conceived.

There have been so many good reviews and helpful critiques of The Benedict Option that I know I am not going to bring anything new to the discussion. But this is the internet and so I am going to critique it anyway.

Andy Crouch has a post about the problem of the reaction to the Benedict Option is that 90% of the complaints are about 20% of the book (increasing social and cultural hostility to the church). While 80% of the book is devoted to the problems of a lack of meaningful discipleship and how that is causing a collapse of Christian belief and practice and only 10% of the buzz about the book is reacting to that much bigger claim. This is largely true. The problem is that the 20% that is getting the strongly negative reaction fundamentally sets the stage for the 80% of the book that I think is more important. Because the assumptions are wrong, I believe the answers given are then wrong, or at least fundamentally flawed.

It is hard to completely describe what the Benedict Option is. Because after 10 years of Dreher writing about it, he still seems to say that the project as described by almost anyone else other than himself misses his point. At the very least, the Benedict Option is a means of refocusing the church on discipling the young (in both age and Christian maturity) so that they can better stand up to the cultural currents of the age that seek to unmoor Christians from true (small o) orthodox faith.

There is much to agree with in that minimal description of the purpose of the book. Every age needs to pay attention to the particular problems of the age that pulls at the church and attempts to harm the soul of the church. The problem with the Benedict Option as conceived is that he both thinks that our current age has more particular problems to unmoor the church from Christ and that he identifies threats posed by same sex marriage and acceptance as the central part of that threat (as opposed to what I think are probably more important threats like consumerism, individualism, racism and dismissal of the other, etc.).

James KA Smith particularly has called out Dreher for his alarmism. And after initially complaining about the attack, Dreher embraced the label during his book release panel discussion (which is worth watching if you have 2 hours.) The problem is that the alarmism is overblown, even if Dreher thinks he is a voice shouting into the void, I am completely turned off by quotes like this,

“The light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West. There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization. By God’s mercy, the faith may continue to flourish in the Global South and China, but barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, it will all but disappear entirely from Europe and North America.”

The Black Presidency by Michael Eric Dyson

The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric DysonSummary: A first run take of the role of Obama’s race in how he acted as President and was received as President. With lots of critique of his Presidency. 

After reading Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop, I immediately picked up The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (released Feb 2016.) This is a bit of an odd book. It has biography, political commentary, social/cultural history, leadership analysis, long commentary on speeches and policy and some politics of the modern African American political and civil rights leadership. More than anything else, this uses Obama as a lens to see what being Black in America means.

So much of The Black Presidency was fascinating, but introduction of the idea of black leadership as either politician or prophet was a new idea for me. Dyson contrasted the traditional two roles, placing Obama squarely in the politician side and much of the frustration with Obama by African Americans as a frustration that he was not in the prophet mold of African American leadership. Obama has gained much from the rhetorical flair of the African American church, and many of his speeches have taken on the cadence of a pastor. But in the end, he has chosen politician, and the corresponding policy work, as his main focus.

The Black Presidency opens with the recounting of a gathering of friends and leaders that were gathered together before the speech in Selma celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma. Dyson, Jessie Jackson, Andrew Young, Al Sharpton sat together in the church office prior to Obama’s speech at Brown Chapel AME Church, three generations of African American Civil Rights leaders. Dyson quotes Young, “Look, there’s a lot on his plate. And he’s got to deal with these crazy forces against him from the right. I think that Obama has done the best he could under the circumstances.” While that might be seen as a thesis statement of sorts for the book, Dyson goes far beyond looking at what is politically possible. Some of Dyson’s critiques are of things that were clearly not politically possible. Or at least, not politically possible along with some of the other political decisions. In the end, I think Dyson is balanced, if not in every critique and praise, at least in the book as a whole, on both the possibility of a Black President and the reality of Obama as a Black President.

There are three other areas that I think particularly White readers will find insight into both Obama and the African American experience. Respectability politics is a phrase that I have increasingly heard used condescendingly from younger African Americans. Dyson works through both the necessity, historically, of respectability politics (the internal policing of African Americans, but also other marginalized groups, to show that their values are mainstream and compatible with the majority values) and the limitations of respectability politics in modern civil rights movement. Dyson talks about Obama as a scold, particularly toward African American men, in ways that he was not with other minority groups. That discussion, particularly for White readers that are unaware of the frustration with Obama by the African American community, it helpful.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric DysonSummary: Loosely structured as a sermon which calls White Christian America to repentance and change.

After reading James Baldwin’s Notes on a Native Son I decided to look for a modern author’s take and found Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. I was so impressed that I immediately picked up The Black Presidency (which I think may be even better than this one.)

Dyson rose to prominence as a cultural critic when I was in grad school. He was friends with my Systematic Theology Professor, Dwight Hopkins, so I had a positive impression of him. But in the 20 years of being aware of him, I have not actually read anything that he has written. Part of that was that Dyson became well known for his cultural criticism of hip hop and rap music. Something that I have only recently started to listen to.

Over the past year or so, I have been a regular listener to the podcast, Pass the Mic, from the Reformed African American Network and more recently their second podcast, Truth’s Table, that highlights three African American Women. Those two podcasts, and the private Facebook groups associated with RAAN, has been helpful places to hear perspectives about the world from theologically conservative (more theologically conservative than I am most of the time) African Americans. I already lean socially fairly liberal. However, their voices help me to see how much my theology and politics is informed by the lack of diverse voices in my life. (And my own racist attitudes and sin.)

Dyson structures this Tears We Cannot Stop as an extended sermon. The structure is fine, but probably makes more sense in audiobook form (with Dyson narrating) than in print. Initially, this felt like a Christian version of Ta’Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. It had a similar critique of White America and had some of Dyson’s personal history as well.

The Great Divorce by CS Lewis

I am reposting this 2016 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.
The Great Divorce by CS Lewis Book ReviewSummary: CS Lewis imagines Heaven and Hell.

Fiction is important for working through difficult ideas. I think many people underestimate the power of fiction to help readers understand difficult concepts.

This is my second or third reading of the Great Divorce. Lewis is not writing a systematic theology of heaven and hell and the afterlife. He is instead exploring  some of our preconceptions. Lewis is not only a very talented author, but he has a way of approaching topics that seem to be continuously relevant.

The book opens with the narrator in a great city that is always at dusk. He rides on a bus to what we understand as the gates of heaven. Theologically Lewis is on somewhat shaky ground here. Lewis believes in purgatory, but many of his readers do not. The narrator and the other passengers are being given the opportunity to leave purgatory and enter heaven. But many of them choose to return and for them it will be their eternal hell.