Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Book 6: Graceling

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Pages: 472.

How it was obtained: Susan purchased it for herself.

Time spent on "to read" shelf:  A month--I added it as a "to read" when I made this list.

Days spent reading it: 2.

Why I read it: Susan really liked this book, and said I would probably like it too.  Susan has a definite influence on my young teen reader literature.  I read all kinds of things she has liked or suggested, and for the most part also like or appreciate them.  Alas, she rarely reads books that I like.

Brief review:  
This book was freaking amazing!  I read 100 pages one night, and 370 the next time I picked it up.  I read well into the night in order to finish this book.  I just had to know what would happen next.  This book has love, loss, adventure, betrayal, good vs. evil, super powers, fighting, snowy mountain passes, and underwater caves, plot twists and turns, and a gripping climax.  In short, everything that I like in a good fantasy book.

The title "Graceling" comes from a unique element in the book.  Some people in this fantasy world are born with special gifts, "graces", that enhance their abilities in some special way.  Some are graced with fighting, so they fight really well.  Others are graced with some form of mind reading.  Some are born with pragmatically useless (but fun) graces, like tree climbing.  The book centers around Katsa ("Kat" for short).  Kat is graced with killing.  Yeah, killing. And from the first chapter until the last, this author had my complete attention.  

There are great moral questions as Kat begins the book as a thug like character, but who develops a deeper sense of the moral questions before her.  Should she continue to obey her master who demands that she kill or maim people who challenge him?  Does she have a choice in how she lives (and kills)?  Are there ways to combat the evil she is forced to perform?

My only warning for this book is that it would definitely be rated PG-13 for the violence depicted and the cheesy (and thankfully brief) sexual elements in the book.  There is not much described, but it was enough that if it were a movie, I would cover my eyes!

Which brings me to my one concern from this book--marriage and long term commitment are seriously down played in this book.  The main character wants relationship without the commitment.  She sees commitment as being tied down, or stuck in a cage. She wants to roam free, but the conflicting image is that she wants her relationships there when it is convenient for her.   She wants certainty that her love interest is still there when she comes back.  I imagine that the target audience (teenage girls) would hear this message and accept it as a positive way to avoid the commitment of marriage.  If a teenage girl I knew read this book, I would make sure to talk about this particular topic because it is prevalent in the book.

That being said...In conclusion this book was spectacular.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good adventure story.  It is aimed at teenagers but do not let that deter you.  Graceling was a thrill from start to finish.  One of my favorite books of the year.

Favorite Quote:  (Its a little violent, describing the first time Katsa's Grace was revealed--she didn't know what it was, you've been warned) 

"Her hand had flown out and smashed him in the face.  So hard and so fast that she'd pushed the bones of his nose into his brain.  Ladies in the court had screamed; one had fainted.  When they'd lifted him from the pool of blood on the floor and he'd turned out to be dead, the court had grown silent, backed away."

Stars: 5 of 5.

Final Word:  Extraordinary.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Book 5: God's Continent

Title:  God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis by Phillip Jenkins

Pages: 340.  (50 being endnotes and an index)

How it was obtained:  Christmas present from my parents in 2008.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf:  1 day.

Days spent reading it:  11 months.  I started it right after I received it.  Stopped reading it after I was about half-way in March or so.  I then completed the last half on November 22 in just one day.

Why I read it:  My ordination mentor had me reading a number of books on the recent surge of Islam into western societies, namely Europe.  After reading a number of books on the topic that are all doom and gloom, I heard that Phillip Jenkins was writing a book on the topic.  I also heard it was going to offer a balance to the debate that was not present in other authors.

"Brief" Review:  

Forgive the length of this review, a book like this requires a little background information.

God's Continent is primarily about the integration of Islam into the western world.  A number of books and articles have been written about how Europe is being over-run by Islamic fanatics, and that America needs to be careful or we will be next.  The arguments center around a few points.  My personal favorite on this topic was Mark Steyn's America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It.  The following is a brief outline of two of the major arguments addressed.

First, Islamic nations are out-breeding Western nations almost 2:1.  Numerically they will overcome their minority status in Western societies in 50-100 years according to the prophets of doom.

Second, Islamic immigrants are not integrating into societies.  There have been enormous obstacles to assimilation.  Islamic followers seem to be creating their own subcultures that are shielded from the values of the nation they are immigrating into.  So most Islamic immigrants see themselves as Muslims first, the country they immigrated from second, and sometimes consider themselves a part of the country they immigrated into.

There are other arguments, but they will take up too much space to recount.

Jenkins book promotes a number of ideas that bring these concepts are not quite accurate.  For example, Jenkins points out that although it is true that Islamic nations have a birth rate almost twice as much as most western cultures, he also notes that African nations that are primarily Christian also have high birth rates, and they too are immigrating into European nations.  He actual contends that birth rates from Christian immigrants might balance out the Islamic population.

Jenkins also makes great points about how laws in European countries that are made to limit the impact of Islam on the secular state can also be aimed at limiting any religion in the country.  Jenkins also contends that this may be the primary goal.  Many European nations pride themselves on their secular governments.  France was his primary example of this kind of secular government.  The question is not just about Islam, then, but about all forms of religion and how they will be incorporated into Western culture.

Jenkins' book does serve as a needed balance to our journalistic guides who think that Europe is a lost cause and that Islam will overtake European nations in a matter of a generation or two.  There are other forces at work, both within Europe and within Islam, that need to be considered before considering Europe an Islamic center.  Sharia is not going to be the dominating law any time soon.  However, there are trends that should alarm us and should awaken the sleeping European nations whose values and beliefs are being challenged by an intimidating foe.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the problems facing Western culture from an increasingly aggressive Islamic culture.  Jenkins presents fair warnings and a detailed analysis of current trends in the current clash of these civilizations.  However, this book is not for the casual reader.  It has a significant amount of research and analysis of current trends.  The first half was particularly difficult to read through.  However, the information that is given makes this book an important contribution to the discussion of the integration of Islam and the West.

Favorite Quote:
Europeans of most political shades would now admit that they face a Muslim Problem, in the sense of deciding how to deal with social, cultural, and political views that seem barely compatible with those of the liberal mainstream.  yet perhaps the issue is not so much a Muslim problem as a religious problem, a systematic failure by European elites to understand religious thought and motivation.  In much of the recent discussion about Islam, commentators are understandably anxious to avert the dangers of extremism and terrorism, to persuade Muslims to absorb virtues of tolerance and pluralism.  Yet often the underlying assumption is that religion itself is a problem, at least in anything like its historic forms.  

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word:  Sobering.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Confessions of a Book Addict

This past week, Susan (my wife) and I went to a conference in Providence, Rhode Island.  The conference was for the Evangelical Theological Society.  Susan and I had a great time.  The idea is that evangelical scholars come together and present papers.  I know, it sounds boring.  Sometimes a presenter is boring.  But for the most part, Susan and I were truly stimulated in our thinking by some of the papers.  We went to sessions about creation, universal ethics, New Testament textual criticism, religious epistemology, and christian involvement in politics--to name a few of the nearly 25 papers we attended.

But here's the confession.  At these conferences, academic booksellers bring their publishing libraries and sell them to conference attendees for 50% off.  The reason--if you can get a professor to read your book, he's likely to get his class to read your book.
Oh the books!!  There were THOUSANDS of them.  And I wanted them all.  Every last one of them.  BUT, I refrained.  Recalling my self-proclaimed fast from book purchasing.

However, I could not hold out completely.  I caved.  I purchased 6 books in total.  5 of which I purchased because they looked like good resources for my youth ministry (which they are).  1 of which I purchased because my District Superintendent suggested that I read it (and is being read by many of the pastors in my district).  I believe it may also give thoughts about the direction for our church.  I think these books are all acceptable according to my own guidelines for why a new book would be purchased or added to my list of books to read.  

So what were these books you ask?  Well, since you asked:

I also told Susan which books Santa might be able to work into my stocking this year =)  I had a nice little list for her to work from too.

Next year (if we get to go again), I'll make sure I'm done with my list so that I can go crazy with the 50% off.  Its the deal that gets me.  50%!! I can get twice as many books for the same price!  Expensive commentaries become affordable.  Think about it, a $50 commentary can become a mere $25 commentary.  That is a HUGE difference.  Actually, commentaries and reference works would be excluded from my self-proclaimed book purchasing ban because of their practical application in my ministry.

Working on my next 2 books already.  Reviews coming within the week I hope. Susan and I also started listening to a book on CD that we have in the house.  We only got through a little of the CD, and I liked the book, so I might add it to the list when I hit 25. 
A non-repentant book addict...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Book 4: Alosha

Title: Alosha by Christopher Pike

Pages: 303

How it was obtained: Christmas present from Susan (at least I think it was, or perhaps a birthday present).

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 3 years.

Days spent reading it: 6

Why I read it: I found it at a Barnes and Noble somehow. It had some decent critical praise, and I decided to check it out. Christopher Pike was well known for his cheesy teenage horror novels (i.e. Chain Letter and Chain Letter 2: Ancient Evil). I owned, but never read, a few of his books (including the aforementioned Chain Letter and Chain Letter 2). My parents either still have these books in the house or wisely tossed them.

Brief Review: Alosha is the kind of book that I read the description of and think to myself, "I would like that book." It has a heroine who needs to uncover her secret identity, trolls, elves, dwarves, dark fairies, and "many plot twists and plenty of excitement." However, Alosha falls flat for me. I actually have attempted to read it 2 other times, and never got beyond the 2nd or 3rd chapter. It just takes too long setting up.

And after reading it through, the pace never really seemed to pick up in my opinion. Sure there are things going on--girl buried alive by avalanche, girl thrown into river about to go over waterfall, world about to be invaded by evil elvish army--but for some reason the pacing and telling of this story never reached its potential for me. Additionally one pet peeve of mine is trying to tell a story with some time-travel elements. Very few storytellers do this well. Pike does it less well than others.

I think there is great potential with this story. It had some good elements. I just did not like how it was told. Alosha was a book I intended to knock off quickly, instead it was a chore for me to get through. Although the climax did pick up the pace; it was too little, too late. I would grant that some readers would enjoy this book, I just wasn't one of them this time around.

Which leaves me with the odd predicament of continuing or not continuing the trilogy. If you notice my original challenge list, there are two other books by Christopher Pike on it. They are a part of this trilogy. Right now, I'm leaning towards not reading them. However, Susan liked them pretty well, and I might be willing to give them one more chance. I'll see how I'm feeling when we hit them on the list.

Stars: 2 out of 5

Final Word: Disappointing.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Book 3: Psmith in the City

Psmith in the City by P.G. Wodehouse

Pages: 158

How was it obtained: 50 cents from a book warehouse that appears in our mall every now and then. Usually they just have junk. I picked up this book and God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It by Jim Wallis (which I haven't read yet either, it evades this list because its at the office. I don't even want to think of all the books at the office that I need to read! I'm sure it surpasses the 55 of this list.).

Time spent on the "To Read" shelf: Under a year.

Days spent reading it: 4.

Why I read it: P.G. Wodehouse makes me chuckle quietly to myself a lot. I enjoy his wit and humor, even if I have to concentrate to be entertained. I have read a few of his Blandings adventures, and enjoy the TV versions of Jeeves and Wooster.

Brief Review:
Right ho! This was a jolly good tale of Psmith and his friend Mike as they have to briefly leave their lives of idyllic freedom and enter the workforce in order to relieve financial hardship on Mike's family. Wodehouse is the master of making a dull situation hillarious. His characters (Psmith in particular) are able to create elaborate plans about their futures and pull them off with humorous results. Psmith is a little more mean than say Jeeves and Wooster (in this short novel he blackmails, stalks, and harasses a manager), but he pulls it off with an attitude of complete civility, in a classic Wodehouse manner. He even explains how his mean actions are simply misunderstood (although clearly they are not, he is offering a humorous counter interpretation to his actions to get off the hook). It amazes me how Wodehouse has these crazy characters doing insane things, and it still comes off as light, good spirited fun. We need a little more Wodehouse in today's society.

Back to the story--Psmith is a smooth talker. He could, as the saying goes, sell ice to an Eskimo. For the most part, Psmith simply uses his powers of persuasion to slack at his job in the bank. Classic. I highly recommend Wodehouse. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this particular book, although there were plenty of chuckles along the way. Definitely check out Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie (of House fame) as Bertie Wooster in the BBC's 4 seasons of Jeeves and Wooster. One word for them: genius.

Favorite quote from the book: "I shall toil with all the accumulated energy of one who, up till now, has only known what work is like from hearsay."

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

The Final Word: Psmart.

Book 2: The Chosen

Title: The Chosen by Chaim Potok

Pages: 271

How was it obtained: I actually don't remember. I either "borrowed" it from my parents' collection, or purchased it cheap at a used bookstore. Something like that. However, the version I actually completed was a book on CD I checked out from the library!

Time spent on the "To Read" shelf: 2-3 years I think.

Days spent "reading" it: 10.75 hours in a car (more like "listening" to it).

Why I read it: One friend of mine recommended Chaim Potok to me a long time ago. He actually read My Name is Asher Lev. I thought the premise for The Chosen sounded interesting enough, so I picked it up somewhere.
For those of you paying attention, you'll notice on my book list that The Chosen was book 51! So why the heck has it been read already? Well, the same attentive reader will notice I listened to this one on CD. I started it during a 5 hour trip to Willard, OH for a Bible Quizzing trip. I made the kids listen to it. They hated it. Except one of them, and he only tolerated it. I finished it up this week as I traveled back to Willard for a youth pastor fellowship.

I count listening on CD as qualifying for completion of the book, although I will note that it was not read by me, rather it was read to me. I know, I know--Patrick you have the stinking physical copies of the books, you need to read them yourself. Well, I bought most of the books because they looked interesting. I want the content of the books, how I get that content is of little importance. Fortunately it will not be an issue for most of the books on this list. I'd typically rather read them myself anyway. But if a good audio book is an option, I'll take it on occasion.

Brief Review: OY VEY! During the first 3/4 of this book I was not sure if I liked it or not. The first chapter was a never ending baseball game described in too much detail. That same sort of problem occurs occasionally through the book. However, there are many great elements in The Chosen as well.

The Chosen revolves around the friendship of two boys--Danny and Reuven--who meet because Danny drills a baseball into Reuven's eye during this epic baseball game. There are wonderful themes of friendship, father-son relationships, struggles with growing up, struggles with tradition, struggles with God. The time backdrop for the book is from World War II to the creation of the physical nation of Israel (another interest of mine).

The cons: extensive discussions on Freud (Danny is interested in psychoanaylsis) and that interminable baseball game.

The pros: Danny and Reuven's relationship, Reuven's relationship with both his own father and Danny's father. I personally enjoyed the multiple discussions about how the Talmud is analyzed and argued by the students. I also love stories about prodigies, Danny happens to have a photographic memory, this fascinates me to no end. I think I wish I was a prodigy (sometimes I imagine I am!).

One thing about listening to this book (instead of reading it), was that during the climatic scene between Reuven, Danny, and Danny's father, I felt like I was actually listening to the conversation. I felt like Danny's father was talking to me. That was very powerful moment (and worth wading through some of the book to reach).

I ended up really enjoying this book. The characters are lovingly portrayed. There are complicated characters (like Reb Saunders, Danny's father, who is an Hasidic Rabbi and can be overly criticial), there are compassionate characters, like Reuven's father who helps Reuven and Danny through their difficult friendship. I loved the themes in this book. I loved the way I was drawn into this jewish community and all of its idiosyncracies. There were moments that were boring or drawn out, but in the end I think this book delivers, and would recommend to many readers with the caveat that it can drag and may not be for everyone.

Favorite quote from the book:
'Reuven, do you know what the rabbis tell us God said to Moses when he was about to die?'
I stared at him. 'No,' I heard myself say.
'He said to Moses, 'You have toiled and labored, now you are worthy of rest.' . . .
'A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here.'

3.5 0ut of 5.

The Final Word: Kosher.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Book 1: Cold Sassy Tree

Title: Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Pages: 391

How was it obtained: Over the summer my family had a great vacation.  A book exchange was proposed as a part of the week.  I walked away with Cold Sassy Tree.  I think the book is from Liz's library.

Time spent on the "To Read" shelf:  5 months.  Not too bad.

Days spent reading it: 15 days.

Why I read it:  This book was the catalyst for the Patrick Challenge.  I was wondering to myself if Ben had read the book he took from me at the exchange.  Naturally I thought it was so cool, he should have read it by now.  (Better get on it Ben, I expect a full report after Christmas)  Then I thought, well heck, I haven't read my book exchange book yet.  Maybe I had better get on that.  And maybe I had better start reading all the other books I should have read by now.  So I started with Cold Sassy Tree.

Brief Review:  Boy Howdy!  'Hit sure were somet'in to read 'dis here book!  Haw!
Set in Northeast Georgia around the turn of the 19th century, Cold Sassy Tree follows the exploits of Will Tweedy during a unique year of his life.  The book starts with his grandma dying, and his grandpa marrying 3 weeks after the funeral--to the great scandal of the family and town.  Will is a detailed observer of this quirky town.  He reflects the thoughts of a souther town where everyone knows everyone else's business.  

I am conflicted in my appreciation of this book.  One the one hand it was difficult to read the dialect, and the truth is a small town is sometimes boring.   On the other hand, the character of Will Tweedy makes this tedious lifestyle exciting.  Olivia Ann Burns created a great character in Will, who is able to make trouble and to explain the scandals of the town. He lets loose rats at a Christmas play, he spies on his family, he nearly gets killed by a train while walking across train trestles.  I enjoyed this book, but also found it laborious at times.  

What kept me going was my connection to the geographic location--the town of Cold Sassy is modeled after Commerce, Georgia--which was about 30 minutes from where I went to college for four years.  I knew all the sights and towns mentioned in the book.  I think readers who enjoy southern small-town life would enjoy this book.  It is full of quirky characters, gossip centered events, and a lot of soul.

Favorite quote from the book:  The fights were embarrassing to the family but real entertaining to the Baptists, for he would stand up at the next Wednesday night prayer meeting, in the testimonial and confessing part, and tell the Lord all about it.  One Wednesday night he ended a long prayer with "Lord, forgive me for fittin' thet man yesterd'y--though Thou knowest if i had it to do over agin I'd hit him harder."

Stars: 3 0ut of 5.

The Final Word: Soulfully-southern.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Still Working on Book 1

Its been a few weeks since I unveiled my plan.  The truth is, I wanted to be done with a number of books by now.  Well, that hasn't quite happened.  The reason--I've been reading books not on the list!  I had to read two books for a class I'm taking online.  

Book 00

Book 000

These books total for a little over 500 total pages of reading.  What a bummer.  But the majority of reading for that class is over, and perhaps now I can cruise to an easy victory over my first few books.

In related news, I have been to two bookstores and have yet to purchase a book for myself!  Good job Patrick.  Stick to your goals.  It can be done. (That's what I have to say to myself as I walk away from all the books I want to buy.)