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.