Thoroughly Argued, but Disappointing

Title: Just Immigration:
American Policy in Christian Perspective
Author: Mark R. Amstutz
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 252
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Mark Amstutz addresses the issue of how a Christian’s faith should impact their approach to immigration reform with a plodding academic approach. I don’t necessarily mind meticulously dissecting a topic, but a lot of this book felt redundant with little positive payoff at the end.

For the first hundred pages or so the author describes and evaluates the state of US immigration policy and practice. This was probably the most informative part of the book as it provides a good look at the complexity of the issues and viewpoints involved.

The rest of the book describes and evaluates (i.e. heavily criticizes) the approach of various Christian denominations to the issue of immigration reform. I can save you about 130 pages of reading with this summary of the author’s main points:

  1. The church should stick to its sphere of showing love as individuals and the government should stick to its sphere of dispensing justice
  2. Churches should focus on teaching people a moral framework of general Scriptural principles that can be used to evaluate the moral aspects of immigration law rather than lobbying for specific policy changes which should be left up to those who actually understand political science.
  3. The main Scriptural principles that apply to issues of immigration are the dignity of all human beings, compassion for the stranger, and obedience to legitimate authority (with the first two frequently overemphasized to the neglect of the third).

On pages 230-232 the author gives us a bare-bones summary of his take on various moral/ethical issues discussed throughout the book…if he had focused more on this than on showing how everyone else got it wrong I think this would have been a much more profitable book.

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Rise & Fall of a NYC Mafioso

Image result for I mobster gold medal bookTitle: I, Mobster:
The Confession of a Crime Czar
Author: Anonymous (Joseph Hilton Smyth)
Genre: Crime/Noir, Historical Fiction
Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Mafia tropes, historical references, and self-justification abound in this fictional memoir. It’s all pretty straightforward; no high action or dramatic plot twists, just a matter-of-fact description of the rise and fall of a New York City mafioso in the 1930’s-40’s. Our protagonist/narrator, Tony (what other name would you give a fictional Italian mobster?), interacts with real-life mobsters like Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter during the events leading up to and following the formation of “The Commission” and Thomas E. Dewey’s time as prosecutor and DA of NYC.

Throughout the book we are treated to Tony’s view of the absolute corruption of “law and order,” justification for his own actions (and the existence of the mafia), pride in his cleverness and accomplishments, and feelings of being trapped and forced into this life. It reminded me a bit of a much less literary version of Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God (just with the mob instead of the Roman Empire). It’s worth a read if you’re into crime/noir.

Faith in Action

Title: The Hole in our Gospel Special Edition:
What Does God Expect of US? The Answer that Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World
Author: Richard Stearns
Genre: Theology / Social Justice
Pages: 335
Rating: 3 of 5

Richard Stearns, the head of World Vision International, wrote this book as a wake-up call to Christians who neglect God’s call for his people to help meet the physical needs of the poor and oppressed (cf. James 1:27, 1 John 3:16-18). This is an area where far too many American conservative Christians/churches have been shamefully deficient over the last century (largely a sinful overreaction to the “social gospel” of theological liberalism that rejected personal salvation from sin in favor of social reform).

While the core challenge of the book is important, I found it repetitive, overlong, and not very helpful in terms of giving practical ways to get involved. It is one part autobiography, one part heartbreaking statistics on world poverty, one part post-millennial theology (the, in my opinion, mistaken idea that Christians have the mission to completely transform society and thus usher in the Kingdom of God), one part advertisement for giving money to World Vision, and a very light sprinkling of other ways you can get involved (one brief appendix at the back was excellent in this regard, but everything else was very generalized).

If you like a lot of personal stories and statistics woven into your theology/philosophy you will probably appreciate the book more than I did, but I think you can probably find other books out there that are more concise, practical and theologically sound than this one. I’m open to recommendations if you know of one.

I want to leave you with a link to one of my favorite compassionate ministries: Women at Risk, International “unites and educates to create circles of protection around those at risk through culturally sensitive, value-added intervention projects.” They are heavily involved in fighting against human trafficking and helping those victimized (or at high risk of being victimized) by it with a wide variety of programs both here in the US and around the world. Please check them out!

Two Classic Adventures

This month’s read over at the Dewey Decimators was Tarzan of the Apes so I dug out this book that I’ve had hanging around for a while which contains both Tarzan and The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s kind of an odd pairing with the stories having little in common other than being escapist adventure written in English within 20 years of each other. I’m going to  go ahead and do a mini-review of each here.

Title: Tarzan of the Apes
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Genre: Classic Adventure
Pages 303
Rating: 2 of 5

I read a fair amount of pulp, but tend to avoid the Noble Savage (or Great White Hunter) variety, and this classic tale of the man raised by apes reminded me why. It had everything that I find grating in the genre: black people are canon fodder (except for the servant who was a racist caricature played for laughs), women are helpless ninnies (Jane would rather shoot herself than try to kill the lion climbing through the window), the action is stupidly over the top (putting a lion in a full-nelson hold…really?), there are more than the usual number of convenient coincidences even for a pulp, and it ends on a cliffhanger. I just can’t suspend my disbelief and ignore the “product of its era” cringey bits quite as much as this book requires. Maybe if I’d read it or watched Tarzan movies/TV as a kid there would be a nostalgia factor that would help me enjoy it more, but it just didn’t work for me.

Title: The Prisoner of Zenda
Author: Anthony Hope
Genre: Classic Adventure
Pages: 193
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This swashbuckling adventure tale that launched a sub-genre (the Ruritanian Romance) is good cheesy fun. An English gentleman visiting the small Balkan nation of Ruritania has to step up and pretend to be the king (who conveniently looks just like him thanks to some scandalous shared ancestry) in order to keep the throne from Black Michael, the king’s scheming half-brother who has him secretly imprisoned in the Castle of Zenda. To quote The Princess Bride, it has “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love…” Well, maybe no giants or monsters, but you get the idea. It’s good hokey fun that explores the idea of nobility (and even has some surprisingly moving moments).

Back to the Classics Challenge Entry

Thanks to Karen @ Books and Chocolate for running this challenge again! Last year it was a great motivator to read more classics (including some that I had been putting off), so I’ll be entering again this year. Here is my (very tentative) list of what I will be reading for each category:

  • A 19th century classic – Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome
  • A 20th century classic – Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
  • A classic by a woman author – Silas Marner by George Eliot
  • A classic in translation – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • A children’s classic – The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • A classic crime story – The Grifters by Jim Thompson
  • A classic travel or journey narrative – The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • A classic with a single-word title – Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
  • A classic with a color in the title – Black No More by George S. Schuyler
  • A classic by an author that’s new to you – Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor
  • A classic that scares you – The Metamorphoses by Ovid (I read a really lousy translation once so I’m going to try again)
  • Re-read a favorite classic – The Poetic Edda  by Anonymous (Translated by Lee Hollander)

True Discipleship

This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years by [Crowe, Jaquelle]Title: This Changes Everything:
How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years
Author: Jaquelle Crowe
Genre: Applied Theology (aka Christian Living)
Pages: 160
Rating: 4.5 of 5

C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” In this book 18 year-old Jaquelle Crowe addresses teens with this same urgency: the unbelievably good message of the Gospel should result in becoming an active and enthusiastic follower of Jesus Christ right now!

Solid principles from Scripture are paired with practical explanations and examples of what they look like in daily life. While geared for teens, this book can be challenging and helpful to any Christ-follower. It reminds me very much of the popular Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman from 2016, but is even better in terms of showing what discipleship looks like where the rubber meets the road. The only thing that I wish she would have touched on a little bit more is the role of the Holy Spirit in all of this. Overall, this is an excellent book that I would highly recommend to any Christian teenager (or anyone interested in what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ).

Gossip & Matchmaking

Title: Emma
Author: Jane Austen
Genre: Classic
Pages: 441
Rating: 4 of 5

A book centered entirely around gossip and matchmaking isn’t usually my cup of tea…I read this mostly so that I would be able to discuss it intelligently with my wife, who loves both the book and the Gwyneth Paltrow screen adaptation. That being said, I found it fairly enjoyable; not because of the 400-page overblown gossip-fest of a plot, but because Jane Austen was a genius at writing believable, engaging characters (or purposely irritating ones – shut up Miss Bates!). Watching spoiled but good-hearted Emma navigate romance and small-town society while becoming a wiser person was worth a read even if it did drag on a bit long for my taste.

Smiley Vs. Karla

Last year I started reading through all of John LeCarré’s George Smiley novels (you can find reviews of the first four here and here). I just finished books 5-7 which make up the Karla Trilogy. These three books pit George Smiley of The Circus (MI6) against his nemesis from Moscow Centre (KGB), the shadowy Karla. The books can be read independently but are much better together.

Title: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 400
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Control, head of the Circus, is dead (cancer) and his legacy in shambles after a disastrous operation into Eastern Europe. The old guard (including George Smiley) have been retired or shuffled off to unimportant corners of the institution…but it looks like someone in the new leadership is a Karla-trained Soviet mole; a mole who may have been in place for decades. The main plot follows George Smiley and his few trusted allies on their methodical mole hunt.

The story can be a bit fragmented and confusing (e.g. it takes quite a while to see the relevance of the opening story line), but this is part of the brilliance as Smiley slowly pulls all the pieces into place to make a coherent picture. Some of the action and leaps of reason toward the end were almost too elliptical to follow (thus the half-star deductions), but it’s obvious why this is a classic of realistic spy fiction.

Title: The Honourable Schoolboy
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 624
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Following the events of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the Circus is a shadow of its former self, largely dependent on “the cousins” (CIA) for actual fieldwork. Combing through the damage done by the mole, George Smiley (now the interim head of the much reduced intelligence agency) discovers an opportunity to interfere with and profit from Karla’s intelligence apparatus in the far East. Much of the story is based in Hong Kong and branches out through various conflict zones in the waning days of the Vietnam War. It focuses mostly on an unreliable, womanizing British field agent who uses his cover as a reporter to travel around and pry into all kinds of sordid corners.

To me the book seemed meandering and overlong. LeCarré seems more interested in describing the horrors and corruption of Southeast Asian politics, warfare, opium smuggling, etc. than he does in really advancing the Smiley vs. Karla storyline. Many of the George Smiley bits felt more like maneuvering characters into place for the next book than anything directly related to the plot. Overall, it’s not terrible, but it’s the weak middle book of a great trilogy.

Title: Smiley’s People
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 416
Rating: 4.5 of 5

George Smiley is retired (again), but when he is called upon to routinely tidy up after the death of one of his former agents (a Russian defector), he stumbles across what might be a last chance to destroy Karla. He unofficially assembles many of his old associates and makes one last push against his Soviet equal. In the end we will find out just how alike or different the conscientious Smiley and zealot Karla are. This isn’t as intricate as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but it is an excellent and fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

Best & Worst of 2017

It’s time for the end of the year best and worst lists! I set a new personal high for number of books read this year with 120 (at an average of 304 pages/book) so I had plenty to choose from. So without further ado, here they are (re-reads are excluded – click titles to go to full reviews):

Top 10 Fiction:

  1. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – A pitch perfect retelling that adds coherence while maintaining an Old Norse style.
  2. The Chosen by Chaim Potok – A moving portrait of family, friendship, and faith in Jewish American culture
  3. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Not my usual at all, but the lush, surreal setting was fascinating
  4. Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar – A weird riff on Pandora’s Box
  5. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James – Malevolent ghosts, a mad/manipulative governess, or both?
  6. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft – Kafkaesque Chaldean Steampunk (who knew that was a thing?)
  7. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler – An amusing retelling of The Taming of the Shrew that gets rid of the Stockholm Syndrome vibe
  8. Just Another Jihadi Jane by Tabish Khair – So-so style/plotting, but an informative look at “radicalization”
  9. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – Dozens of retro nerd culture references make up for any deficiencies in plotting (especially if you’re a child of the 80’s)
  10. Day of Atonement by David deSilva – Decent historical fiction about the depredations of Antiochus Epiphanes and rise of the Maccabees

Top 5 Non-fiction

  1. The Myth of the Lost Cause by Edward H. Bonekemper III – An examination of the Confederate cause using primary documents from before and during the Civil War rather than the usual post-war justifications/rationalization propaganda
  2. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories by Herodotus – The writings of “the father of history” accompanied by a slew of helpful maps, notes, and essays (technically a re-read but the additional material and modern translation made it practically a different book)
  3. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Rolan H. Bainton – A good overview of the man whose faith and courage changed the course of history 500 years ago (older, but slightly better than the Eric Metaxas biography released this year)
  4. When Is It Right to Die? by Joni Earickson Tada – A compassionate examination of issues related to euthanasia and assisted suicide
  5. The Golden Age of Piracy by Benerson Little – A gleeful demolition of the “noble pirate” myth

Bottom 5 (most disappointing) reads

  1. The Shack by William Paul Young – A tear-jerking, feel good story that tries to make us feel better about suffering/tragedy in the world by radically redefining God (eliminating classic understanding of sovereignty, holiness, transcendence, etc.)
  2. Humans Bow Down by James Patterson & Emily Raymond – A weak robot apocalypse where things seem to happen for no reason other than needing to move the plot forward or checking off a diversity box
  3. The Other Side of Magik by Michael Lingaard – A self-pub book that shows some creativity but is extremely amateurish
  4. Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman – How do you manage to make Batman boring?!
  5. The Crystal Shard by R. A. Salvatore – This year’s reminder of why I seldom read Forgotten Realms books- possibly the most generic fantasy book ever

And there you have it! Reading goal for next year is 100 books at an average of 300+ pages/book. Happy New Year!

A Strange Journey

Title: Atom Land:
A Guided Tour Through the Strange (and Impossibly Small) World of Particle Physics
Author: Jon Butterworth
Genre: Science
Pages: 288
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date:  4/3/18 (Thanks to NetGalley for an eARC!)

Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote Flatland to help explore geometry, dimensions, and related topics (as well as a healthy dose of spiritual/social commentary); now Jon Butterworth does something similar for particle physics (hold the social commentary). He describes the most current theories of what atoms are made of and how all the bits, energies, forces, etc. act and interact in terms of places on a map and travel between those places (with plenty of humorous asides).

The author does a good job of explaining things in a way that requires no background in particle physics or mathematics but is not condescending. The significance of complicated formulas and equations is discussed without going into the actual mathematics. There is enough detail to develop a basic grasp of the theories while still feeling a bit mind-boggled at the strangeness of the topic. This won’t make you an expert, but it is a great introduction to this weird, fascinating topic.