Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book 52: The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake



Title: The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyne Peake

Pages: 1023.

How it was obtained: I bought it on half.com for about five bucks.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 2 years.

Days spent reading it: 2 months.

Why I read it: I ran across a copy of the book at Barnes and Noble, looked it over, thought it might be interesting.

Brief review: Reading The Gormenghast Novels was a unique experience. I had never heard of them before I stumbled onto them in a Barnes and Noble one day.  Peake is a combination of Dickens and Tolkien.  He has elements of high fantasy like Tolkien, but his writing style is more like Dickens. Peake pays a great deal of attention to details. Gormenghast castle comes alive in his hands. Peake has a great way with words. He can be difficult to adjust to, but once I got rolling I enjoyed reading the first two novels in this collection. The first two novels—Titus Groan and Gormenghast—are wonderful. These two novels are very similar in tone, pace, language, character and plot. They are slow, descriptive, and sometime rambling works of literature. You feel Gormenghast castle as if it is a character. It lives and breathes. And in Titus Groan, Peake introduces one of my new favorite "villains"—the very cunning, ambitious, and intelligent Steerpike. He is a fantastic character, and I wish there was more of him.

Which leads me to Titus Alone, the third novel in this collection. All I can say is "What the Heck?!?" Titus Alone is the odd man out. In it Titus leaves Gormenghast, and as Titus leaves Gormenghast Peake leaves that which is comforting to the reader. This book is such an abrupt departure from the other two novels, I wonder what Peake was thinking. The scenes become much shorter (for instance there are about 80 chapters in the 400 page Gormenghast, and there are 122 chapters in the 220 page Titus Alone). I had no idea what was happening most of the time. We flit from scene to scene. Introduce random new characters and then move along. It is so disconnected and bizarre. Peake was beginning to show signs of Parkinson's as he wrote this last Gormenghast work, but I do not believe that can excuse the complete divergence embodied by this work. It was such a change of style and direction it is hard to explain.

To finish up I would say this, if you can get into the slow paced Titus Groan, and you enjoy it, you will enjoy Gormenghast as well. They are great literature. But I suggest you should just skip Titus Alone. It just is not worth it.

Favorite quotes: From Titus Groan: "The others were involved with counting the portentous minutes before their own particular clouds broke over them, yet at the back of their personal troubles, hopes and fears, this less immediate trepidation grew, this intangible suggestion of change, that most unforgivable of all heresies.

Two from Gormenghast: Who else is there of the direct blood-line? Only the vacant Aunts, Cora and Clarice, the identical twins and sisters of Sepulchrave. So limp of brain that for them to conceive an idea is to risk a haemorrhage.

There is nothing frightened or querulous about young Steerpike. If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing—flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it.

From Titus Alone: Cold love's the loveliest love of all. So clear, so crisp, so empty. In short, so civilized.

Stars: 4 out of 5 for Titus Groan and Gormenghast. 2 out of 5 for Titus Alone.

Final Word: Dickensian.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book 51: Forbidden Knowledge: The Gap into Vision by Donald Stephenson



Title: Forbidden Knowledge: The Gap into Vision by Donald Stephenson

Pages: 455

How it was obtained: I traded for it at used book store in Columbia.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 4 years.

Days spent reading it: 5 days.

Why I read it: I have read a few books by Stephenson, so I read one more.

Brief review: I think this is probably the last Donald Stephenson novel I will read. I just have not been very impressed. His books are easy enough to read, but I realized I just do not like his protagonists. I am not drawn to them. I do not want to be them. I sometimes pity them or revile them, but never feel good about them. This is a big deal because I like characters so much, thus when I don't like the character development I tend not to like the story.

Forbidden Knowledge is about Morn Hyland, a space cop who becomes connected to a group of pirate scum. She does what she must to survive, and this means she makes unpleasant decisions frequently. Donaldson writes in a way that pretty much only depresses me.  He's dark, with very little silver lining to redeem the characters.  Sure they are tough, but they are also sad to read about.  I was unimpressed by the story until about 2/3 of the way through, when the plot finally grabbed my attention. The pirate ship enters "Forbidden Space" where a group of aliens who are trying to control the human species through genetic warfare. That was interesting.

Overall I liked how this book progressed as I got into it some more, but honestly I was not interested enough to continue the series from here, even though it does continue for a few more books. It just was not good enough for me to consume my time anymore.

Favorite quote: "Unlike the crew, however, she didn't regret his death. Such men didn't deserve to live, no matter how expensive it was to get rid of them."

Stars: 3 out of 5

Final Word: Flat.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book 50: The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley



Title: The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

Pages: 466

How it was obtained: I bought it for a dime from the Toccoa Falls College library withdrawal pile.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: I must have purchased this book in 2001 or 2002, so about 7 or 8 years.

Days spent reading it: 10 days.

Why I read it: During college I wrote a report in my Intro to Islam class about Black Muslims. In writing that report I discovered that Malcolm X started off with a deviant form of Islam, but after his trip to Mecca he began to change his views about Islam and also his views on hating all "white devils." I picked up this book because I was interested in Malcolm X's life after writing that report.

Brief review: Wow. This book was not what I expected at all. Reading this autobiography was more compelling than I could have imagined. I was engaged in Malcolm's life from start to finish. Starting with his street hustler days in Harlem, to his conversion to Islam (as preached by Elijah Muhammad) in prison, to his break with Elijah Muhammad, to his pilgrimage to Mecca, and ending with his assassination, this book was informative and entertaining.

A few things I found most interesting about Malcolm's life. First, Malcolm X was full of hatred for what the "white devil" had done to the black man. He saw injustice, called white men out on it, and sought to fix the situation. While I do not agree with his militant tactics, I respect his unflagging devotion to righting centuries of wrongs. Second, I find his change after his trip to Mecca as completely astonishing. He completely transformed his views. He stopped saying all white men were the devil. He started pointing to the system that oppressed, and that many white men perpetuated. It is a fascinating study to look at how drastically he changed in those last few months of his life. One certainly wonders, if he had not been killed, how his new views would have changed his approach to civil rights. Third, I was impressed by the scope of the story. Malcolm's self commentary on his life ends just a few days before he was killed. Alex Haley does a wonderful job of telling the story about the rest of his life. The account of his death is simply compelling to read. I was hooked to the very end.

I think this was one of the most important books that I have read on my list. I certainly do not agree with many of Malcolm X's views (especially the young, belligerent Malcolm). But by reading this book, I can enter his world. I can understand the pain. I can begin to understand why Malcolm was so passionate about his cause. I can begin to see how important the civil rights movement was for black Americans. And I can see how far we still have to go. We still have racism in America. Even if some of it is hidden, it is still in the American system. I think America has come a long way, but this book challenges me to look deep into my own heart and see if there are prejudices that I need to eliminate. It is not always pretty.

Malcolm X lived a life very different from my own. I am glad that I read his autobiography because it helped me to understand his radically different life more than I did before. I would highly recommend reading this book. It is enlightening and challenging and different than what I expected. Well worth the time it took to read.

Favorite quote: I told him, "What you are telling me is that it isn't the American white man who is a racist, but it's the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racists psychology in the white man." He agreed.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Final Word: Provocative.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Book 49: Youth Culture 101 by Walt Mueller



Title: Youth Ministry 101 by Walt Mueller

Pages: 480

How it was obtained: I bought it at the National Youth Ministry Conference almost 3 years ago.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: I started reading it right away, but I did not finish it until this month.

Days spent reading it: About 3 years, but I finished half of it in about a week when I buckled down to finish it.

Why I read it: After seeing Walt Mueller at NYMC, Susan and I knew that we had to pick up his book and read it. He was incredibly knowledgeable about youth culture and specifically about how media shapes their worldview.

Brief review: Walt Mueller's book Youth Culture 101 is sure to be the standard by which all other youth culture books are evaluated. It is well documented, well thought out, and well presented. Mueller starts off with an overview of why culture is so important to understand, and further explains why youth culture is so unique. Mueller is especially impressive when it comes to youth and media. He dedicates a few chapters to the subject. He talks about how media (movies, music, TV, advertisements, etc.) really influences us. His main approach is to talk about how it impacts youth, but one cannot walk away from this book without evaluating your own media consumption. It's crazy actually how much we are exposed to in any given day.

Mueller has a simple message. We need to evaluate the message of media in our lives, not just consume the product it promises. He helps Christians to critically look at these influences, run them through a grid of how they line up with Biblical values, and then encourages us to act on how they compare. He has other resources that go over these same principles. It is called the 3-D approach to media. And you can find it, along with other resources on youth culture, at www.cpyu.org. His website is a great resource for youth pastors and parents who want to understand the youth they are living life with every day. However, media is just one facet of this book. Mueller covers a wide variety of youth culture topics including: Media, Marketing to teens, Peer Pressure, Sex, Materialism, Substance Abuse, and Depression and Suicide. It is a book full of helpful statistics, facts, interpretations, and ideas for how to counsel students.

The chapter that really scared me in this book was the chapter on teens and sex. It was heart-breaking and challenging. If I could hand it out to every parent I knew, I would. Just a few shocking statistics for you: "70 percent of young women and 62 percent of young men today have had sexual intercourse by age 18." If that makes you cringe, the statistics for oral sex are increasing in an alarming way as well. "By the time they reach the age of 19, three-quarters of all teenagers will have engaged in oral sex." That's 75 percent!! 75 percent!!! Mueller states "Oral sex is now more common than sexual intercourse among teenagers." And most of those teenagers do not consider oral sex to be breaking an abstinence pledge. "One study showed that among students who said they'd made and kept an abstinence pledge, 55 percent had participated in oral sex." One last word on this subject, the craziest part is that many of our middle school students are beginning to engage in these activities. Parents and youth workers, it is NOT too soon to talk about sex with your kids. They are getting a sex education from their friends, music, TV, movies, and school. If you want to give them a Biblical perspective on sex, YOU have to speak up. I know it can be scary, but after reading these chapters I am convinced that parents and youth workers must do a better job of educating our youth about what the Bible says about sex. They are already hearing it, but are they hearing it from the most important people in their lives? I was personally challenged after reading this chapter and plan on having some talks and lessons in the upcoming months about healthy relationships and sexual purity. I hope you will too.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who works with youth. You need to know about the world these students are living in because it is much different than when you were a student. Youth culture has changed rapidly in the past decade and it continues to accelerate in how rapidly it changes. Mueller's book is helpful because it lays out some of the basics, but also gives us advice for how to address the issues from a Biblical perspective. It challenged my personal walk and my teaching patterns as well. My copy of this book is marked up, with notes in the margins, and thoughts scribbled throughout the whole book. I would highly recommend this books to parents as well, but the size might be daunting. I think Mueller has written some other books that are more approachable, but really this book was not as big as it seems on the outside. With large fonts, ample spacing between lines, and wide-margins make this 480ish page book read like a 250 page book. It is very readable, well documented, and very practical. One of the best books on ministry I have ever read.

Favorite quote: "Today's teenagers desire real relationships that are characterized by depth, vulnerability, openness, listening, and love—connectedness in their disconnected, confusing, alienated world."

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Final Word: Vital.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book 48: John Adams by David McCullough



Title: John Adams by David McCullough

Pages: 656

How it was obtained: I bought it for a quarter at a garage sale.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 2 ½ years

Days spent reading it: 10 days.

Why I read it: I read 1776 by David McCullough and really enjoyed it. I thought I might like his biography of John Adams as well.

Brief review: I am not usually a biography person. David McCullough is changing my mind. John Adams is a phenomenal account of one of our founding fathers. McCullough, rightly, throws us right into the American Revolution and fills in John Adams' back story as the biography progresses. McCullough is in control of the story the whole time. He masterfully weaves the primary sources of John Adams' life into the narrative. There is enough to keep us in touch with how the characters themselves felt, but not so much to overwhelm the reader.

John Adams' story really is remarkable. I was totally drawn into Adams' world. In this biography you feel his triumphs, and his failures. If there is anything that falls short in McCullough's telling, it is that we love Adams too much. Even though Adams has faults, it is difficult for the reader to recognize those faults or accept them.

There were a number of highlights in this book for me. First, it is interesting to see that the political scene during Adams' day had striking similarities to today. Newspapers were one-sided. Politicians were accused of (and committed) adultery. This sometimes ruined or advanced their careers. Political parties made clear lines that hurt the nation, fighting for their party instead of what is right for America as a whole. The world seemed like it was in moral decay.  There were even boring sermons, and thankfully some not so boring .  And I could say something about the French (like here), but I'll (sort of) refrain.

Second, issues surrounding the Civil War were not absent from the founding of the country. The North/South divide was evident even in the founding of the nation. There were issues of economics, culture, slavery, and state's rights even in the beginning. They would simply come to a head in the Civil War. Slavery especially was a real issue during this time. One question that is constantly raised, but never resolved, is: How could men like Jefferson and (gasp!) even Washington promote the God-given freedom of all men, but kept slaves even until their deaths?  Adams did not have slaves and abhorred the idea.  He was true to his principles even when it was not popular or advantageous.  I respect that a lot.

This biography was fantastic. I loved reading it from start to finish. I think McCullough has a master's touch in writing history. He really pulls us into the time period. Through his writing I felt like I was actually there. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone. It is a must read for history lovers. And in truth, it is a book that inspires. Adams' history is America's history. Here was a man who gave everything for his country, and laid the foundation for the freedom America enjoys today. If you take the time to read this tome (and it is pretty long), you will definitely be rewarded. It is rich with lessons about life and liberty that we can all apply to our lives. I highly recommend.

Favorite quote: [In commenting about the French Revolution]: "But he had 'learned by awful experience to rejoice with trembling.' He could not accept the idea of enshrining reason as religion, as desired by the philosophes. 'I know not what to make of a republic of thirty million atheists.'"

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Final Word: Revolutionary.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero



Title: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero

Pages: 227

How it was obtained: I bought it just before I moved to Thailand.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 4 months.

Days spent reading it: 3 weeks.

Why I read it: The senior pastor at my church, Dave Young, suggested reading it to the elders of our church. I took him up on his suggestion.

Brief review: Peter Scazzero makes a very compelling argument that our spiritual health is tied to our emotional health. In seminary I read The Emotionally Healthy Church (EHC), and I remember loving the openness and honesty of Scazzero's writing. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (EHS) is along the same lines as EHC. EHS simply brings the concepts of its predecessor to the layman.

In this book Scazzero shows by examples from his own life, how our emotionally immaturity has stunted our spiritual growth. There are so many ways that we can be emotionally immature. There is a lot of material in this book. I could easily see a church using it as a text for a Sunday School or small group material. The first half of the book deals with the problems that being emotionally unhealthy bring. The second half is a roadmap to emotional maturity. Scazzero illustrates very heavily from his own life throughout. As a reader I was captivated (again, because I already read the story once) by Scazzero's struggles as a pastor. A church split, a wife who stopped going to his church, reaching the end of his own strength, and then seeing the redemptive path after he opens up to his hurt, anger, and pain instead of burying it.

I would highly recommend this book. It is fairly easy to read, and very informative. There is so much information that it's almost impossible to digest it all, but I think everyone could at least start down the road that Scazzero plans and profit from his advice. Scazzero has a pastoral heart and it shines through in this book. He wants people to connect with God in a personal way, and he does that by trying to bring us to a more balanced view of our emotions and how those emotions affect our spiritual walk.

Favorite quote: Many of us know the experience of being approved for what we do. Few of us know the experience of being loved for being just who we are.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Liberating.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book 47: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett



Title: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett  

Pages: 983

How it was obtained: I picked it up for a quarter at the library.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 2 years.

Days spent reading it: 9 days.

Why I read it: I think my dad first recommended this book years and years ago. And while Oprah's recommendation created a buzz around this book, I don't read books because Oprah says so. I was interested in the epic scale of the building of a cathedral in medieval Britain.

Brief review: Here is an epic book about life, death, struggles, victory, revenge, and love. The core of the story revolves around the building of a new cathedral in Kingsbridge, England. Follett has created wonderful characters and has a compelling plot. There are many ups and downs throughout the novel for our protagonists, but the general direction is always up for the heroes. While Follett definitely gives the characters adversity, the reader always has a suspicion that the good guys will overcome. Progress will always be made. But even this predictability is alright because the depth of the characters changes with each new trial.

At first I thought I loved this book. But as I got towards the end, I realized that I am fundamentally at odds with a number of Follett's main ideas. I realize that the church in this time period was messed up. But in this book, one gets the idea that the church then (and today by inference) was only interested in the power it could gain for itself. True spirituality is completely missing from most of the Christian characters. The exception happens to be one of the main characters. Prior Philip is always written in a positive, if slightly naïve, light. We come to love Prior Philip, and I think perhaps Follett did too, which is why Philip stays pure, even in the midst of the rest of a corrupt system.

My other problem with this book is Follett's depiction of love. He seems very antagonistic to how the church has defined marriage. Marriage is only a technicality that the church enforces, in his view. In fact, Follett points out the church's "hypocrisy" about love multiple times stating that the monks could enforce marriages, but have no idea what true love was because they themselves could not marry. The truth is Follett's idea of love is often superficial. His characters are attracted to each other, have sex, and are in love. Little else is said about their "loving" relationship. His characters do sacrifice for love's sake, but are always regretting or whining about that sacrifice. I could go on, but I won't.

My last word on this book is this: I would have highly recommended this book to anyone until I started hitting the numerous adult situations that are in this book. There is a lot of sex going on in this book, and Follett sometimes goes out of his way to describe what is going on to the finest detail. Completely unnecessary and unwanted, but it ties into his view of what love and marriage are.

Even with that, The Pillars of the Earth is an epic book. It is a compelling historical novel that is difficult to put down. I would recommend it with the above caveats about its content and themes.

Favorite quote: In both cases, weakness and scruples had defeated strength and ruthlessness.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Grandiose.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Max by James Patterson



Title: Max: A Maximum Ride Novel by James Patterson

Pages: 309

How it was obtained: I bought it with Susan.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 6 months.

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: It is the next book in the apparently unending Maximum Ride series.

Brief review: This fifth installment of the Maximum Ride series goes back to the heart of the first few books. It's style and content were more akin to the origins of the series. It was definitely an improvement over the last two books (Saving the World…, and The Final Warning), but it still does not quite recapture the magic of the first two books. I guess we can't have everything.

The best part about this book, the EXCESSIVE talk about Global Warming has been dropped. Max and her flock still deal with environmental issues, but it's not as blatant or forced as it was in books 3 and 4. On the down side, I think Patterson still cannot quite figure out who his antagonist is in this series. Is it a faceless corporation? Or do we have a specific mastermind behind the scenes? And as he struggles to find a main antagonist he struggles with the henchmen that have been changing in the last few books as well. He just cannot seem to find the right kind of bad people because he keeps creating and discarding them. Although you won't hear me complaining that he did not bring back "The Uber-director" from The Final Warning (he was just plain silly). But I believe that if this series is going to change from mediocre to great, Patterson must find an antagonist worthy of Max and her flock. They are such great characters, there has to be an equally great foil to oppose them.

This book almost makes me believe that this series could get better. I am almost convinced, but it just was not quite as great as I was hoping. Actually, I thought it was going to conclude the series, but it definitely did not do that. There is plenty of space to continue this series for a long, long time. Let's just hope it keeps getting better and not getting worse like The Final Warning.

Favorite quote: "It's a real, living creature, and according to our telepath, it's full of rage and a desire to kill." We all looked around for a minute until we realized that the 'telepath' was Angel. Well, 'telepath' sounds better than 'creepy little mind-reading kid,' so I was cool with it.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Better.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Book 46: Servants of the Servant by Don Howell, Jr.



Pages: 307

How it was obtained: I bought it from the bookstore when I was at CIU.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 5 years.

Days spent reading it: Read on and off for 5 years.

Why I read it: Dr. Howell was a professor of mine at Columbia International University. I really respected him, and looked forward to reading his book. Parts of this book were assigned in some of the classes that I was taking during seminary and I thought that they were good chapters.

Brief review: Servants of the Servant is a book about Biblical Leadership. In this book, Don Howell develops a biblical theology of leadership by creating leadership profiles of OT and NT leaders. Howell does a good job of taking the biblical text and drawing out practical applications about leadership. These leadership profiles are a core strength of this book. I especially like how each chapter ends with a one-page summary of the key elements of leadership that are developed in a particular character's life. In addition to these profiles, Howell also looks at the life and ministry of Jesus with an extended treatment. While I thought these chapters on Jesus' ministry were well researched and would probably be considered the heart of the book, they did not interest me as much as the leader profiles. Perhaps I liked the simple patterns of the profile chapters over the longer evaluation of Jesus' ministry and teachings.

Overall I thought this book was well done. The chapters are simple enough for a layperson to understand except for the first two chapters, which are word studies in Hebrew and Greek. However, it is clear that this is a work for the academy. There are copious footnotes and details for this to be a solid resource at the college and seminary level.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn what leadership looks like when developed through a Biblical Theology paradigm. Pastors and those in ministry could certainly profit from many of the leadership profiles that are included in this book. This book might be a bit heavy for the average person, but the time spent is well worth it.

Favorite quote: "Samson's adult life fails to fulfill the promises of his youth as he egregiously violates all three regulations of the Nazarite. Pious parents, a happy youth, early impulses of the Spirit, and a special identity do not guarantee spiritual success in later life. No lasting redemptive fruit survives his demolition activities."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Solid.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Last Colony by John Scalzi



Title: The Last Colony by John Scalzi

Pages: 320

How it was obtained: I bought it on my new Kindle!!!!

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

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: It is the next book in the Old Man's War series.

Brief review: The Last Colony is the continuation of the story that began in Old Man's War. I have enjoyed the series so far. I love how John Scalzi writes. He has great plot and characters.  And he's funny, which is always wonderful.

In Scalzi's stories, humans are not the only sentient beings in the universe. They are actually a small portion of the universe's population. And all of these alien races are fighting for every scrap of world out there. In order to stop the fighting a coalition has formed. No more colonizing planets, in essence a freeze on colonizing is declared. Anyone who resists is destroyed. So, being stubborn like we are, the humans decide they will not kow-tow to alien forces. The humans plan to establish a colony on a planet called Roanoke. And in a smooth move, when the colonists warp to their new home, they realize that they have been warped to an entirely different planet. The colonists find out they are a part of the galactic power struggle and have been put in hiding to embarrass the coalition. That's when the story really takes off as Roanoke colony pushes the universe to the brink of war. Always fun to read about!

I enjoyed the book a lot. It was not quite as original as Old Man's War or The Ghost Brigade, but it was enjoyable. I look forward to reading more of Scalzi's work. He has a great imagination and is definitely a Sci-Fi author to keep watching.

Favorite quote: "Neither Jane nor I were under the illusion that we could create universal harmony through dodgeball, of course. That's a little much to rest on the shoulders of a game played with a bouncy red ball."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Engaging.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book 45: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien



Title: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

Pages: 365

How it was obtained: I borrowed it from my parents. The cool part is that I found the original receipt in the back of the book. One of my parents (dad?) paid $11.39 at Walden Book on September 17, 1977 (the year it was released). This is a first edition hard back I have in my hands.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: A few years. I think I bummed it from my parents when I got married, 5 years ago.

Days spent reading it: 5 days.

Why I read it: I liked The Lord of the Rings (who doesn't?), and my parents had this lying around the house. So I snagged it and figured I would read it one day.

Brief review: This is a difficult book to review. For starters, it is not a novel. It is more in line with ancient epic mythologies. Think Homer or Ovid. So reading it was a beast. Not that exciting. But it is a comprehensive overview of the complex world that Tolkien created. This book tells the tale of the world from its creation up through the events recorded in the LOTR.

The problem is that each tale is told in a very archaic language (thee, thou, etc.). I mean it really feels like you've broken open the 1611 King James Bible, only it is about elves and dwarves. It is hard to explain, but Tolkien makes you think you have picked up a classical tale of the olden days. Too bad it is told as dry as toast.

Plenty is written through the internet about The Silmarillion. It was published by Tolkien's death by his son Christopher. It is probably very different than Tolkien intended, because he died before he completed it. It has received shaky reviews ever since. People cannot seem to agree—is it a work of genius or is it a bloated mess? I would say somewhere in between.

There are glimpses of wonder in this compilation of stories. I loved some of the last tales in the book. The tale of Beren and Luthien was one of my favorites. But other chapters are just plain dull. The problems are numerous. In a work this ambitious, you never really get to know some of the key players in a satisfactory way. Also, for whatever reason, Tolkien gave many of the important (and related) characters similar names. For example, in one of the major families that is used, we have Fingolfin, Finarfin, Finrod, and Feanor. That gets very confusing when you are introduced to all of them in about 10 pages. I never kept them straight in my head and had to constantly refer to the family chart in the back of the book. Thankfully there is a comprehensive index of names and places that gives a brief synopsis of who or what they are.  Ye olde englishe doth not helpeth the causeth either.

I would not recommend this book to just anyone. And even of Tolkien fans, I would only submit this book to the die-hard fans. There were some good pieces in it, but you had to dig through a whole lot. Not for the faint of heart.

Favorite quote: Long was he at work, and slow at first and barren was his labour. But he that sows lies in the end shall not lack of a harvest, and soon he may rest from toil indeed while others reap and sow in his stead.

Stars: 3 out of 5.

Final Word: Dry.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Year in Review


I can barely believe that a year ago I began The Patrick Challenge. It started as a plan to work through all those books that have been piling up in my house for years. And now, I only have a handful left. Optimistically, I hope to be done by New Year's. Realistically, maybe February or March. I have 10 books left to go! I just finished the Silmarillion and will post a review of it soon.

Just for fun, I've been compiling statistics of my reading habits. These statistics are for all the books I read this year (which have all been reviewed on this blog), not just the original Patrick Challenge books. Enjoy!

Total Books Read: 66

Books Read Daily (Average): 0.18

Books Read Monthly (Average): 5.5

Total Pages Read: 21,983

Pages Read Daily (Average): 60

Pages Read Monthly (Average): 1,832

Average Stars: 3.9

Average Book Length: 333 pages

Longest Book: A Game of Thrones at 837 pages.

Shortest Book: Knuffle Bunny at 40 pages.

Least Favorite Book Read: The Fourth Hand by John Irving

Favorite Book Read: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Fun Facts according to Cha-Cha:  

Americans read an average of 11 books a year, while the average Briton gets through eight books. (Crushed those averages this year!)

It takes the average person 7 days to read a 500 page book, but some can do it in 3 days! (Susan can do it in one day, if you leave her alone. Actually Susan tends to only read books in one sitting. I keep telling her she's going to have to change that habit. She doesn't listen.)

Thanks for reading and for celebrating one year of the Patrick Challenge with me! How are your reading lists doing?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Book 44: Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov




Title: Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov 

Pages: 480

How it was obtained: I bought it on half.com.

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

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: I wanted to finish the last of the Foundation series that Isaac Asimov wrote.

Brief review: This is the seventh and final book in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. It was finished just before Asimov died in 1992. In the Foundation chronology it comes just after Prelude to Foundation and just before Foundation. It is really a direct sequel to Prelude to Foundation, but more importantly it is a very gratifying conclusion to the series.

Forward the Foundation chronicles the life of Hari Seldon in 10 year increments. At each decade mark something significant has happened to Hari or his plans for psychohistory. I think this book shines because it reads more like four short novels rather than one long novel (which I've commented on about Asimov's writings before). The character of Hari Seldon is fleshed out a little more, as are many of his associates and family members.

Forward the Foundation is a much better conclusion to the series than Foundation and Earth (the last book in the Foundation timeline). It struck me as almost nostalgic. This is good, because I think that the series really struggled during Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth. I think Asimov really liked the character of Hari Seldon, and so in Prelude to Foundation and this book, we catch a glimpse of a great character during some crisis moments. These crisis moments are my favorite part about the Foundation series.

This was a fitting ending to a fairly solid series. I think it fleshed out Asimov's vision of Hari Seldon who is sure to be a titan among Science Fiction fans for decades to come. Thanks Isaac, job well done. I would definitely recommend this book to Foundation fans, it was worth it.

Favorite quote: "But together…our power is awesome!" (I know, it makes no sense without context, sorry!)

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Gratifying.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book 43: The Fourth Hand by John Irving


 

Title: The Fourth Hand by John Irving

Pages: 352

How it was obtained: I bought it for a dime at the library.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 2 years.

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: I liked other John Irving novels (A Prayer for Owen Meany is incredible). This book was in good shape, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Brief review: Ok, I feel like I need to review this book by saying two things. First, John Irving is an incredible story teller. He draws you right into his world. The narrative is smooth. He is a natural story teller. No doubt about it.

Having said that, the second piece of information about this book is: The Fourth Hand could have been a Harlequin Romance novel. There were more adult situations in this book than I am comfortable admitting I read. I cannot ever recommend this book to anyone based on the content alone.

The main character (his name is Patrick), loses his hand to a lion at the beginning of the novel. He becomes the recipient of a hand transplant, but the oddities increase when the wife of the (deceased) hand donor wants to visit the hand. It could have been interesting. Instead it was trash. Patrick is a jerk that has a ridiculous power over women. They all want to sleep with him, and he lets them. He has no real morals. I'd call him reprehensible. And he does not seem to change very much through the book. Alright, so he does a little by the end, but I don't buy the change. It is forced and not very consistent with the character.

So, what I am basically telling you is avoid this book. Sure, it's well written, but the content is trash. John Irving should know better.

Favorite quote: You can never exactly imitate someone else's love of a movie or a book, Patrick now believed.

Stars: 2 out of 5.

Final Word: TMI.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries



Title: Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries.

Pages: 224.

How it was obtained: I bought it from Amazon.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 2 months.

Days spent reading it: 4 days.

Why I read it: Susan and I saw Mark DeVries at a youth ministry conference. We were really impressed with his presentation (we only had the abbreviated version of it too!). We looked at each other and decided right away that we would be picking up his book. Definitely worth it.

Brief review: Sustainable Youth Ministry is a general guide to the confusing world of youth ministry. Mark DeVries walks his readers through both the abstract and the practical.

DeVries has great organization for this book. He opens a topic and then explores 4 or 5 subpoints for the topic. He covers everything from ministries that are stuck to church politics. I actually finished this book a few months ago. I underlined a lot. As I was flipping through it again tonight, I thought to myself, "it would be good if I read through this book again, at least the underlined points." Why? DeVries covers so much information, it is impossible to absorb it all in one reading. The best part is that so much of this book is practical. It is easy to immediately implement many of his suggestions.

This is definitely a niche book. It's only going to be helpful to people concerned with youth ministry. But for those in youth ministry, I can give no higher recommendation for a book. This is a treasure trove of guidance from a youth ministry veteran. You must read it. Not much else to say.

Favorite quote: Youth workers who don't feel over their heads, who don't feel they're overwhelmed and failing at times, may simply not understand their jobs.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Final Word: Practical.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book 42: The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum



Title: The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum  

Pages: 646

How it was obtained: Susan and I bought it after we read the Bourne Identity.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 4-5 years.

Days spent reading it: Umm, I first started reading this book 4-5 years ago (was it really that long ago?!?). Then a combination of boredom and school work kicked in, and I put it down. I later picked it up again and read to about the 200 page mark. Was mildly interested, but ended up quitting again. This time I picked it up and skimmed the first 200 pages (that I had already read, twice) and knew I had to power through this time or I would never be able to read it again—I was tired of the opening scene. 3 days was all it took me to finish it this time through.

Why I read it: I read this book to get through the Bourne trilogy. I really liked the Bourne Identity. A few others tell me the third book in the trilogy (The Bourne Ultimatum) is well worth it. So that's the goal.

Brief review: To start with, this book is absolutely nothing like the movie. Where the differences in the Bourne Identity were huge, at least the basic plot and characters were the same. That is not the case with the Bourne Supremacy. So if you liked the movie, I'm glad to hear it. The book is an entirely different experience.

I enjoy an intrigue novel occasionally. This book just bothered me. For starters, it is freaking slow. The reason I had to read the first few hundred pages multiple times is because I got bored over and over again. It does get better in the last 200 pages, but so much of this book was unnecessarily complicated (in my opinion). The reader never has a clear picture of what the heck is happening. I had no idea what was going on during most of the book. There are all of these subtle conversations, and I'm not that subtle. Just tell me what's going on, and get on with the story. The truth is, I cannot even give you a brief synopsis of the plot because it is so convoluted. So some key words that you can put all together and make your own book with: assassins, black ops, China, economics, identity theft, the Canadian Embassy, Charlie-Delta-Cain-Carlos-Jason Bourne. There you go, clear as if you had read it yourself.

Other elements annoyed me about this book as well. The pacing, the confusing as heck plot, the random government officials (their conversations are the worst!), the schizophrenic main character, it all contributed to a book that I would not slug through again. I would definitely skip this experience if I could. But since I'm such a stubborn person, I knew that if I did not finish the book this time through, I would never pick it up again. And I don't like to quit much. So I finished it. It wasn't pretty, but it got done.

So my recommendation, if you are looking for a good spy novel, skip this one. Some enthusiasts will of course read this book no matter what. Heck, I did. But really, it was not worth the trouble. But I do feel great having actually completed it! That was probably the best part of the day. I am hoping the Bourne Ultimatum was worth slugging through this book first.

Favorite quote: "This thing is filled with lousy ducks!" screamed the commando, staring around at the banks of wooden cages on all sides, the odor overpowering, sickening. A particular fowl, in its infinite wisdom, chose the moment to squirt a stream of excrement into the assassin's face.

Stars: 2 out of 5.

Final Word: Slooooooooooooooooooow.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book 41: The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins



Title: The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins

Pages: 316

How it was obtained: Christmas present from Rob and Kathy, my in-laws.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 20 months.

Days spent reading it: 5 days.

Why I read it: I read the first chapter while I was in seminary for a class. This book had a lot of "chatter" around it, so I decided I had better pick it up and read it.

Brief review: In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins gives us a ground-breaking book that will be talked about for years to come. His basic premise is simply this: The heart of Christendom has shifted from the "Northern" hemisphere (think North America and Europe) to the "Southern" hemisphere (think, Africa, Asia, and South America). What is so shocking about this premise is that the Northern hemisphere not only did not see the shift, but we are still in basic denial of the shift. I mean think about it. Picture in your mind, right now, the typical Christian. You're answer is probably something like this: a white middle class male American (or maybe a European male). That answer is wrong, wrong, wrong. Demographically the typical Christian is a lower class, African (or Asian or Latin American) woman living in a village. She is might be from Nigeria (or Korea, etc. etc.). The numbers are there: Christendom in the Global South has re-emerged and is ascending once again as the heart of Christendom. The power shift and especially economic shift have not followed suit yet, but rest assured, they will.

What I loved about this book was Jenkins process. He's a historian and a scholar, so the first few chapters have a ton of statistics. As soon as I'm thinking, "Hey, I wonder who he is including in this 'Christian' number," he has a chapter dedicated to who is included (almost anyone who self-proclaims to be a Christian). Even if I disagree with what numbers he chooses, I recognize the position he is put in as a historian and respect his decisions and thank him for explaining his method.

There are some fantastic issues raised in this book. Jenkins talks about the differences that are expressed in the Global South (by which he means mainly Africa, Asia, and Latin America). As soon as one begins to think, "gee that sounds strange and perhaps syncretistic," Jenkins has a chapter on the idea of cultural adaptation and syncretism. One area that I think Jenkins considered cultural adaptation that I would consider syncretism is in the area of ancestor worship. He never outright said it was good, but he certainly talked about the advantages that were lost to Christianity when the Church ruthlessly refused to accept these practices. But, in general, Jenkins made me think and probe and re-evaluate what I should consider an acceptable cultural adaptation. It is SO difficult to think about Christianity being expressed in a different way from current Western practices. But I accept that it can and should be expressed differently in different cultures. I just fear (like many) the end result down the road. I think all Westerners do. But we have to admit, how we express ourselves today is not how the 1st century church expressed itself. Christianity can change its forms without changing the message.

In addition to these issues, Jenkins also compiles a short history of Christianity in modern Africa, Asia, and Latin America. These chapters give hope to those who are afraid to let go of the controlling grip of Western dominance. Jenkins shows that the views of the Global South will be more traditionalist, orthodox, and supernatural than the North. As a case study he simply uses homosexual ordination. While American and European thinkers are crying out for sexual freedom, our Southern counterparts are staunchly opposed. And they are beginning to work together to block homosexual ordination. Interestingly, in some denominations (like the Episcopalians in the USA), individual conservative churches are fleeing their "liberal" overseers and seeking to be led by Archbishops from Africa and Asia. It seems the guardians of the faith are in the South.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the changing face of Global Christianity. It is clear that a watershed event has occurred, and we are just now becoming aware of this change. Also, this is a great resource for missionaries working in these areas. Jenkins has numerous and insightful discussions about what the demographic shift means for Christians who live in or near Muslim nations (which is especially pertinent to Africa and Asia). Jenkins' observations are a welcome check to those who think that Islam is the only global religion that is growing. (See his other work, God's Continent, for more information about Christianity and Islam in Europe and America. I reviewed it here, it was Book #5 on my Challenge List). I would also recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a history of Christianity, outside of the West, over the last hundred years or so.

I thought this book might be difficult to read, but it was not too bad. The first few chapters are statistically heavy, but that dwindles as the book continues from statistics to analysis, narrative, and application of the information. I am sure this book will be used in colleges and seminaries for the next decade. It actually surprises me that it was not immediately made required reading when I was in Seminary—the observations Jenkins makes are that important. Definitely worth reading.

Favorite quote: "If the church had to choose whether to appeal to the Catholics of Brazil or Belgium, of the Congo or France, then on every occasion, simple self-interest would persuade them to favor the burgeoning Southern community. Of course the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church are so conservative: they can count.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Global.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The PAPA Prayer by Larry Crabb



Title: The PAPA Prayer by Larry Crabb  

Pages: 201.

How it was obtained: It was in my office when I arrived in Thailand.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 0 days.

Days spent reading it: 1 week.

Why I read it: My Church is having a Church retreat in November. We are using this book as our theme for the weekend, so I figured I'd brush up on what we will be teaching on during that weekend.

Brief review: In this book, Larry Crabb talks about how we pray. His main premise is that we often approach God only if we want something. We only use prayer to force God's hand in our lives. Crabb thinks this is not only wrong, but a reversal of how we should approach God. Instead Crabb proposes prayer should first be relational. This book does have a "formula," but Crabb is clearly against us using this prayer as a formulaic way of relating to God. I think he understands this model is only one way we should relate to God. It has its shortcomings, but I think it is pretty solid.

Crabb's proposal is to pray using this acronym: P-A-P-A. Present yourself to God (talk to God openly about where you are at in your life). Attend to how you are thinking of God (is He to provide for me like Santa Claus, or like a loving parent who knows what's best for me?). Purge yourself of anything that blocks your relationship with God (basically confession). Approach God as the "first thing" in your life (remove all other idols, and actually take time to relate with God).

The principles are pretty sound. I like Crabb's plea for us to be honest in our prayer walk. I also like the appeal for us to be relational with God, stop viewing Him as a "Cosmic Santa" (as I read somewhere else) who gives me everything I ask for and think I need. There should be more to our prayer lives than just asking God for stuff (even good stuff).

I do not have anything negative to say about the book. I think it was a helpful way to think about prayer. But I just was not drawn into this book completely. I think I simply might not like the way Crabb writes. He's not terrible, I just am not captivated by his writing. Oh well. My only other beef was with the tag lines on the book cover. They are terrible. "You think you know, but you have no idea. The PAPA Prayer. The prayer you've never prayed." It's a little cheesy, and probably not Crabb's doing, so I won't hold it against him—just his publisher.

I would recommend for anyone who needs to break out of their prayer rut of asking from a list, or someone thinking about how prayer can be more about my relationship with God. Definitely worth a quick read.

Favorite quote: Efforts to worship God without first getting to know Him tend to reduce worship to mere appreciation when God cooperates with our agendas.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Amen.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell and Don Golden


Pages: 218.

How it was obtained: Susan gave it to me as a Christmas present.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 10 months.

Days spent reading it: 1 day.

Why I read it: Rob Bell fascinates me. He often challenges my view of Christianity. He makes me think about the how and why of Christianity today. And I like his odd writing style.

Brief review: Rob Bell and Don Golden walk through the story of the Bible with a particular eye towards how God frees the oppressed and is opposed to oppressive empires. According to the introduction they take their cue from what is being called the "New Exodus" perspective. Basically, I think they see the Exodus as the primary imagery for salvation in the Bible (almost more so than the Cross, which is slightly disturbing).

There are some creative and good ideas in this book. Bell and Golden made me think deeply about what it means to have power and wealth. Some questions I tried to think through while reading this book included: How have we (Americans) obtained power and wealth? What are we doing with this power and wealth? What can we be doing differently? Is the way that we have obtained power and wealth by oppressing others? And if so, what should we do about that? Is America really an empire? Is it comparable to Rome during Jesus' time? What would Jesus think about America? How would he correct us? How would he commend us?

I appreciate the creativity of Rob Bell. I think this book is an interesting look at the overall story of the Bible. My only problem is that in a book like this, Bell is forced to downplay important elements of the Bible in order to make his point. For instance the title of the book is "Jesus wants to save Christians." But a much better (though less provocative title) would be "Jesus wants to liberate Christians." Salvation in this book is much less about a relationship with Jesus (however you phrase it), and instead liberation from oppression is the driving metaphor. I do not disagree with the metaphor Bell uses, but it leaves the title a little misleading. Of course, Rob Bell would not be Rob Bell if he was not probing and provoking and making the modern Christian rethink how we relate to the post-modern culture. So he has to have a provocative title about Christians being saved.

This is one of those books I would like to read with a group of people. Some who really like the ideas in the book, some who really hate the ideas in the book, and some who fall between these extremes. I think this book would be fascinating to discuss with others who were interested in it. As a theology student, I also think it would be interesting to do a research paper in an advanced theology class comparing and contrasting Bell's views with Liberation theology, or looking at his view of the atonement. There is plenty of material to read through and think about for a paper like that (and countless other papers if one was interested). Bell is not the originator of many of these ideas, but he is a popularizer of ideas. He is a master at presenting ideas. He is very creative, keeps your attention, and he knows his audience.

I would recommend this book to most people, but not everyone. I think it was interesting to read and think through. Not everyone is going to like Bell's take on things (I know I often do not), but at least he makes us think about what we believe. And that is always good in my book.

Favorite quote: At the height of their power, Israel misconstrued God's blessings as favoritism and entitlement. They became indifferent to God and to their priestly calling to bring liberation to others.

There's a word for this. A word for what happens when you still have the power and the wealth and the influence and yet in some profound way you've blown it because you've forgotten why you were given it in the first place.

The word is exile.

Exile is when you forget your story.

Exile isn't just about location; exile is about the state of your soul.

Exile is when you fail to convert your blessings into blessing for other people.

Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Challenging.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book 40: Life at Blandings by P.G. Wodehouse




Title:
Life at Blandings (Omnibus) by P.G. Wodehouse. This omnibus contains the books Something Fresh, Summer Lightning, and Heavy Weather.

Pages:
828.

How it was obtained:
Susan and I bought this at a Borders a few years ago.

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

Days spent reading it:
1 month.

Why I read it:
I enjoy P.G. Wodehouse, I think he's a comic genius. So we bought this book thinking, "Hey, three-in-one, that's got to be good."

Brief review:
Wodehouse is a fantastic comic writer.  His characters are fun and light-hearted, and even his characters are out shined by the incredible comic plots that Wodehouse creates.  The craziest things happen at Blandings Castle.  I've noticed that Wodehouse likes to write about two things:  stolen goods and engagements.  Random objects, like pigs and scarab beetles, are stolen.  Then returned. Then stolen again.  And Wodehouse makes the romantic plots of Shakespeare seem simple and straightforward by comparison.  Wodehouse must think people in love are literally crazy.  And maybe it's true.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a good solid chuckle.  Wodehouse is a master wordsmith.  But you have to get used to the pace and tempo of the writing.  It's quick and witty.

I would say this volume is a great place to be introduced to the Blandings characters, but the size would probably put most people off.  Instead, pick up the single volume copies of Something Fresh or Summer Lightning which are both contained in this edition.  If you enjoy British humor, you won't be disappointed.

Favorite quote:

"When one considers how keenly London, like all large cities, resents physical exercise...if you run because you wish to develop your lungs or jump because jumping is good for the liver, London punishes you with its mockery. It rallies round and points the finger of scorn." -from Something Fresh

"A certain critic--for such men, I regret to say, do exist--made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.' He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy." -from intro to Summer Lightning


"This," said the Hon. Galahad, "is the hour of the day that searches a man out.  It makes him examine his soul.  And I don't want to examine my soul.  I expect the thing looks like an old boot.  So, as I say, amuse me, child.  Sing to me.  Dance before me.  Ask me riddles."-from Heavy Weather

Stars:
4 out of 5.

Final Word:
Hilarious.