Christopher Buckley is one of my favorite authors. But this is not one of my favorite of his books.
Buckley’s books follow a similar path. Washington insiders, in a cynical, but somewhat believable way push a line that seems absurd, but much of the time you could actually see things working out in real life like they do in his books. It is satire. What makes Buckley one of my favorite authors is that he ridicules all sides of the political spectrum, he keeps his books funny and in the end his heroes usually see the error in their ways.
But this book is not as funny as most of his other books. It is satire, and you can see him poking fun at lobbyists, at the defense industry, at the media. But it is not sharp, it is not very funny and it feels phoned in.
What I am most disappointed in is that I do not really like most of the characters. In many of his others books, the characters, even when they do reprehensible things are still people that you want to root for. The reader wants these people to turn out well. In this book, I would be fine if all of these people had a big accident and disappeared. The only likable people in the book are the Chinese President, his aid and the head of the NSA. And none off them are really the main characters, so 85% of the book I am reading about people that I really don’t care about.
I like Christopher Buckley, but I would encourage you to skip this book. Instead, read Supreme Courtship, God is My Broker or Boomsday, all are worthy of your time.
Michael Chabon is one of those writers that has been recommended to me and I have been meaning to read for a while. I didn’t really know anything about it, but The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 so it seemed like a good choice when I saw it on sale a while back.
Joe Kavalier escapes out of Prague just before World War II breaks out and moves in with his Aunt and cousin Sam Clayman in New York City. Sam finds out that Joe is an artist and together with Sam primarily writing and Joe primarily drawing, they become the great comic book writing duo of Kavalier and Clay.
Their main comic book hero, the Escapist has great success, but World War II breaks out and things that have been going well, no longer are going well.
I really do not want to give away the story, but it is a wide ranging story. There is war, love, death, family, magic and more. Chabon is a great descriptive writer and this is a long book, but I was engaged virtually the entire time.
Toward the last third of the book I started getting a bit frustrated because it seemed everything was going wrong. But at the end I was also a bit frustrated because the book was wrapped up a little too nicely.
I have zero regrets that I read it. It is one of my favorite books I have read this year and I will totally read more books by Chabon. But endings are hard and it seems to me more and more that there are really very few good endings.
originally published on my blog at Bookwi.se
When I was an elementary student I had two ‘go to’ reading choices, a set of children’s biographies (more historical fiction than biography) and the Illustrated Classic series.
The children’s biographies gave me a pretty good sense of history and historical figures (although probably 80 percent of each book was fiction.) And the Illustrated Classics gave me the rough outline of a number of classic books.
But as I read many of those classics again as an adult I have a hard time remembering if I actually have read the full version or the children’s abridged versions prior to re-reading. (And there is often a pretty large difference.) Stories that I loved, I sometimes love even more reading the full original version. And sometimes my memory of the story is nothing like what the actual book is like.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was written originally as a play in 1905 and then novelized. It is a swashbuckling novel of heroes and light romance. But in many ways reading it again it feels more like a 1940s pulp fiction than a classic.
The hero (Sir Percy) is perceived as bumbling and slow (but very rich) by everyone, including his wife. In reality he is cunning and a great fighter. It feels like Zorro (but I looked it up and Zorro was written 14 years later.) That same secret identity idea really took off with the comic book superheroes.
Marguerite St Just (Sir Percy’s wife) was a great actress in France prior to their marriage and married Sir Percy because she thought she could love the dim witted rich man because he would be devoted to her. But right after they are married Sir Percy find out that Marguerite’s testimony condemned the Marquis de St Cyr to death. And so Sir Percy is often distracted or away and he stops letting the marriage be more than part of his disguise. (Marguerite did not intend to give testimony, but both was tricked and hated the Marquis because the Marquis had had her brother beaten because of her brother’s romantic interest in the Marquis’ daughter.)
From the beginning of the book the basic plot points are already set and the reader really knows what it going to happen. It is a fun little book and because the kindle edition is free and the audiobook was only $0.99 (and I used a coupon to make it free) it was worth the time to read and get the full version of the story.
This is certainly not what I would call a great classic. But rather a reminder that all ages have had their popular fiction. And I did enjoy it as a swashbuckling popular fiction book. In many ways it channeled the best of the Three Musketeers and Andre Dumas.
For some reason that I can’t really explain, I always have felt I did not like Charles Dickens. But the only two books that I can remember reading of Dickens (Great Expectations and The Tale of Two Cities) I liked. Maybe it is like feeling like you do not like a food, but never actually trying it.
Like many classics, I was first exposed to Great Expectations as an abridged children’s book. I am pretty sure I read at least one additional abridgement in high school or college (not for school but pleasure) but I think this is the first time I have read the whole book.
With so many versions of the story in my head (I have seen at least one if not two of the movies in addition to probably two abridged versions), the basic story is not a surprise. Simon Vance (as always) did an admirable job narrating the audiobook. And like many classics, I think it could have easily been cut by at least a third without a problem. But according to Wikipedia, Dickens originally intended it to be twice as long, but his publisher restrained him. (Thank goodness).
The basic story is familiar. Pip helps a convict escape as a young child. And he is asked to come play with a girl and her deranged (but rich) adopted mother, Miss Havisham. Later, Pip is approached by a lawyer and told a benefactor is going to make him into a gentleman, but he can not know the benefactor until the benefactor reveals themselves to him. Pip assumes it is the crazy rich woman and goes to London leaving his kindly brother in law that is raising him (and his now incapacitated but cruel sister) behind with nary a thought.
With lots of money but not a not a lot of sense, Pip lives the high life with a good friend. He is still in love with the girl, Estella, who was always beautiful but heartless. As he ages he is influenced by a cast of characters, some good and some not as good. Eventually his benefactor reveals himself as the escaped convict, and not Miss Havisham as he had always assumed. His hopes are dashed. Both because he is ashamed of his benefactor and because he had always assumed that Miss Havisham had desired that he and Estella were to be married as part of him being remade into a gentleman.
The problem with the convict coming back is that he is still wanted and through many threads coming together, there are people around Pip that know the convict and want to see him face execution.
In many ways this is a morality play similar to Les Miserable. The convict has made good, has changed his ways, has helped to raise a child to make up for his past wrongs. It is also a coming of age story that seems to draw on the prodigal son and early romance stories, warning the reader to be content with their station and not seek after what they cannot have.
This is a classic of the best sort however. It is a true story of being thankful for the simple things in life (or else everything else will fall down around your ears.) I don’t remember reading many classic books with so many threads that seemed to all come together in the end. Maybe that was more common than I am aware but it is definitely one of the things I either didn’t remember from previous versions or were edited out of the abridgements.
I have seen the 1998 movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke and it deserves its low ratings. I looked around for a free way to watch the 2013 version, but couldn’t find it. I did watch part of a 2013 stage version. But it was dark in ways that I am not sure is true to the story (although it is technically true to the story.) I gave up after about 30 minutes.
The 1946 version is available on youtube and it is both true to the story and seemed to keep the spirit of the work and was quite well done (and can be seen free) but it did play with the ending a bit. More problematic was that it squeezed the timeline of the story so that it felt like things happened one after another instead of the years between some of the scenes. And that made the movie feel a bit less weighty than the book.
And it always seems that movies try to play with the content of books and somehow seem to make the stories less important. Maybe it is the nature of cinema, but it is a rare movie that is better than its book.
originally published on my blog Bookwi.se
Dallas Willard is one of the originators of the modern spiritual formation movement. Willard, and his protege, Richard Foster, have done much to refocus the Evangelical world on spiritual disciplines and intentional focus on spiritual growth.
Renovation of the Heart is the most comprehensive book I have read by Willard on the why and how of truly changing (and he means heart, mind and actions). As I read the book, I kept thinking of Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7:15 about doing what he does not want to do and not doing what he wants to do.
Willard responds to this common frustration not by creating a five step program or some other silver bullet, but a fairly detailed discussion of what it means to really change. This is a fairly dense book. I spent more than three weeks working on it and really I am not sure how to review it.
On the positive side, there is real spiritual wisdom here. On the negative side, there is a lot of rabbit trails and it could have been organized better. I also listened to the book as an audiobook read by Willard himself. He is not the best reader and I think even if he had been a good reader, this is content that should be read in print, not listened to on audio.
I am planning on re-reading it in a little while. I was given this in hardcover a while ago, and then picked it up on Kindle when it was free, but it wasn’t really until recently when I have become more interested in spiritual direction and spiritual formation that I really had much interest in reading it (and picked it up on audible when it was on sale).
Over the past couple months I have been meeting with a spiritual director and this book was helpful to the discussion of our last meeting. It seems I keep having the same revelation but it wasn’t really until reading this book that it sunk in. Knowing something is important, but knowledge by itself does not create change.
One of the more helpful sections (which again, really wasn’t new, I just heard it differently) was about becoming a different person. Not through willpower, or correct knowledge but by becoming the type of person that is the type of person that does what you want to do. We do this in part by actually just doing what you want to do, knowing you are forcing yourself and not always doing it willingly. And creating the discipline it takes to actually change.
Personally I am extraordinarily undisciplined. But I intellectually know that my spiritual growth is lessened because I am not consumer of scripture as I should be (I like reading theology and history, and even commentaries more than scripture itself.) But the way I become a consumer of scripture is in part by being a person that intentionally sets aside time to read scripture. In some ways it is pretty easy. But Williard is clear that while we have a role, spiritual growth is not about willpower. It is about being open to God working in us as we respond to him.
Williard is setting aside space after conversion where we need to respond to God. This is not about justifying ourselves to God or saving ourselves by our own works. Salvation is something else. Sanctification (or progressively becoming more like Christ as some others put it) is voluntary. We can choose to participate with the Holy Spirit in our transformation.
And I think this is where so many get uncomfortable. They emphasis salvation by Grace to the extent that they can allow no role for us. Willard and Foster and others are careful to emphasize that we are not saved by our own works (although some others still believe we have some role in accepting our salvation), the emphasis here is after salvation. That is not to say there are not dangers of legalism or spiritual pride. Legalism and spiritual pride are always the dangers of spiritual growth. But we cannot refuse to progress spiritually because there is a danger of sin.
This is not a book I would recommend to someone that is starting on the spiritual formation investigation. It is too dense and meandering and always careening on the edge of spiritual danger because Willard is assuming a fairly mature believer as the reader.
One example of this is that Willard repeatedly emphasizes the need for a church grounding as we focus on spiritual formation. But so much of the book is written to the singular you. In an interview in Discipleship in the Present Tense, James KA Smith talks about the difference in approach between him and Willard. Smith very clearly respects Willard, but Smith believes that Willard can be easily read to place the role of the individual above the role of the church.
And I agree with Smith, throughout the book, even with his frequent comments about the church, there is an underlying individualistic focus. I think a mature believer can read that and give proper weight to Willard’s warnings. But many would read Renovation of the Heart as justification for why they should leave their dysfunctional church and go it alone because they are ‘much more serious about spiritual growth than any church they know of.’
Frankly I am not sure I am spiritually mature enough to get what I need to be getting out of this. So I will ruminate and come back again later.
originally posted on my blog Bookwi.se
I am a big fan of fluff reading. Some turn the noses up at the idea of a book that does not fully engage the mind or bring up deep ideas. I am certainly not opposed to big idea books. But you just can’t only read big idea books, or you are distorting part of the purpose of reading.
Her Royal Spyness series is a light cozy mystery series. They are set in the early 1930s with Georgie (the 34th in line to the throne) as the main character. Her family is broke and she is trying to make it on her own. But she keeps stumbling into (or being pushed by the Queen) into situations where she has to use her head to solve the mystery.
Royal Blood is the fourth book in the series. And Georgie is starting to find her place as a detective. Her would be boyfriend Darcy, (if they can ever get together), is clearly some sort spy/secret service agent. There have been a number of hints, but it has not completely come out yet. So he is good muscle and and a stabilizing force, but it is mostly Georgie that is solving the mysteries.
This is a cozy mystery, so I don’t expect any hard hitting crime drama. But I think the books are better when Georgie is actually taking charge and investigating instead of just falling into situations. At times Georgie’s lack of confidence and ‘woe is me’ attitude is over played. She is a royal, she has been trained in all of the social niceties and she has been providing for herself for the past year now. So some of the little girl issues need to start dropping away.
Darcy and Georgie do not end up together at the end of this book (but there is a better footing than the previous book.) At some point the romance will be dragged out too long, but right now it is fine.
read A Passion for God first about three years ago. It is one of those books that has stuck with me more than most.
The main reason is that Tozer is a perfect example of something that theologically I don’t really have a category for. Tozer, by nearly everyone that knew him’s estimation, was a real and passionate man of God. But at the same time he was distant from his family (especially his wife), personally lonely and probably leaned toward clinical depression.
It is not that I don’t think Christians can be depressed or lonely. I certainly think they can. But Tozer, like several other pietistic leaning pastors that I have read or read about seemed to lack many of the interpersonal tools of relating to those closest to him (while pouring forth energy on others.)
As with the first time I read the book, the most damning sentence in the book is a quote from Tozer’s wife who remarried after Tozer died. Her standard answer when people asked how she was doing after re-marrying was a variant of: ‘Aiden loved Jesus but (her new husband) loves me.’
Dorsett unlike most Christian biographers does not shy away from this difficulty. In fact, I suspect that it is this difficulty that drew him toward Tozer as a subject.
In spite of the fact that as a Christian that believes in the universality of sin and the fact that God frequently uses broken people for great things, I (and I think most other Christians) still expect our Christian leaders to be whole, healthy and examples. But no one today would look to Tozer as an example of how to relate to your wife or raise your children. While none of Tozer’s children left the faith or held long term resentment toward Tozer that is not the case with many other family members of some of our less exemplary Christian heroes.
Tozer is just one example of many recent and older pastors and Christian leaders that did great things for God and genuinely seemed to have the anointing of God on them, but were far from perfect in their personal lives. One of my personal heroes, Brennan Manning is an alcoholic and in his recent memoir has said the only thing that keeps him from drinking now is that he is too weak to do anything by himself (including getting a drink.) John Yoder, a great theologian and pacifist, is now known for his sexual harassment and abuse of women around him. Jonathan Edwards (and many others) owned slaves.
In small and great areas, many of our great heroes of the faith were far from sanctified and holy. And I am torn about how and whether to recommend some of the spiritual writings of those whose sins seem most repugnant to me. But does that just hide the fact that all who have gone before have been sinners? Is it just my personal blindness to sins that are less repugnant to me that allow me to embrace some while having difficulty with others? (Let alone all those that I just don’t know enough about to know about their sins.)
I do not have a theological answer for why God seems to still work through broken people (and people that are still broken and filled with sin after their conversion and throughout their ministry). I do not have an answer about how sanctification really works (although I do believe that sanctification is a real goal of all Christians and that we should be striving after becoming more Christlike, of which, a part of being Christlike is becoming more holy.)
I re-read this book in large part because I want to keep this story in the front of my consciousness. That tension seems to be part of the long term issues within the Christian church. We will not solve it. I think living with the awareness that God does use us in spite of our weakness, and at the same time, our sin keeps us from being fully used by God in some areas, is difficult but a necessary part of Christian maturity.
I am an unabashed fan of NT Wright. I have read most of his popular level books (except the commentary series) and a few of his more academic oriented books. I appreciate his focus on calling people to a fresh look at scripture and his ability to take scripture seriously while maintaining real academic quality.
But on the whole I was disappointed by this book. It is a re-working of articles that have previously appeared elsewhere. Most of them were commissioned by US journals or from chapters in books that were for US audiences, so as a Brit, he is most of the time consciously writing for the North American Evangelical audience.
His basic arguments, like most of Wright, is that given historical realities of the original writers and audience, we modern readers tend to be missing the intended point of the original writers.
As with most Wright he needs to go through a fairly long narrative to be able to help the reader understand his point. And I think that is why his full length book treatments are better than these shorter issue based chapters.
The problem is not so much the individual chapters, but that in almost every case, he has a better response in a full length books (and he frequently tells the reader that there is more to the story if you want to pick up another one of his books.) So his first three chapters on science and religion, the historical Adam and the resurrection were all better handled by his book Scripture and the Authority of God.
The fourth chapter, The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women, is actually one of the two issues in the book that was new to me (although he says he has brought up several of the issues before in his commentary series.)
The fifth chapter is theoretically about environmentalism, but is really a short version of his Surprised by Hope book about eschatology.
The sixth chapter is the only chapter that I think might be better as a chapter than the book. Wright's Evil and the Justice of God was decent, but in this chapter he does a better job of summarizing by saying, we cannot solve the problem of evil. Instead, God has chosen to give us scripture, not as a way to intellectually solve the problem of evil, but as a way to remind us that God is with us through difficult times.
Several of the later chapters are more political and this is where likely a number of bad reviews will focus. Wright have a very good defence of why a scriptural church is a political church. And Wright also is theologically consistent with his politics. The problem for many readers is that those politics do not match well with our US political systems. So Wright is 'conservative' about sexual issues, 'liberal' about environmentalism, international debt and immigration policy, and off the political map in regard to terrorism. He is against anabaptist retreat and attempts of re-creating Christendom. As I have said in regard to his discussion of politics in other books, I think he is theologically right about most of his points, but he is not a great economist, political historian or political theorist. (And I agree with him in a large number of his political stances.)
If there is a main theme in the book it is that we are now all Epicureans. It is the focus of the chapter on Idolatry, but comes up multiple times throughout the book. Essentially this is not unlike what some others describe as modern Deism. But Wright believes that Epicureanism is actually a better description. The short description of Epicureanism is that it is a believe that the gods don't really care about us or at least don't have much influence over our daily lives, so we might as well live for pleasure because that is something we can do.
The rest of the chapters not mentioned are basically the same. Good topics, fairly well handled by Wright, but always feeling a bit too rushed and too thematically squeezed into the book. On the whole, I would just suggest that you read Wright’s others books and skip this one, unless you are really interested in his take on Epicureanism or Women in Ministry.
Personally, I think you should start with Scripture and the Authority of God, then read Surprised by Hope and Simply Jesus and expand from there as you have time and interest.
3 stars is probably too harsh, but I give very few 5 stars and this just isn't quite a 4.
I am continuing to really enjoy the Church of England Series. Mystical Paths is the fifth of the Church of England series and is the start of a spinoff series about Nicholas that starts with High Fliers. There is one more in the Church of England Series, Absolute Truths. But that book goes back to the 1960s again and revisits the original protagonist that started the series, Charles Ashworth.
Mystical Paths broke the series format again. This book is mostly a mystery/thriller. Christian Aysgarth, the oldest son of Neville (subject of books 3 and 4) died in 1965. But Katie, his wife is still troubled with the thought that it was not an accident, but a suicide (and she is to blame).
Nicholas, with his psychic powers, so a like but so different from his father’s, wants to bring healing to Katie, but instead brings her pain. So as penance Nicholas seeks out the truth of Christian’s death.
Of course being the Church of England series, Nicholas has to confront his own sin and the way it separates him from God and distracts him from his own path and calling.
It is a very different feel, not only the elements of mystery, but also paranormal thriller. Because one of the very real possibilities is the Christian was possessed by a demon and/or is a ghost currently haunting those that were around him.
Again, this is a very different sort of book from traditional Christian fiction. There is a lot of sex, drugs, alcohol and other sins in this book. But I think it serves well the intent of most Christian fiction to get the reader to examine their faith and seek out a deeper faith.
(originally published on my blog, Bookwi.se)
When I was a kid I loved James Bond movies. And I still mostly like new James Bond movies. But as I re-watch old ones the cartoonish villains bug me. Lasers to shoot down rockets, stealing all the gold in Fort Knox, etc. are just a bit silly.
I stumbled on the movie of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service sometime last year and made it through 20 or 30 minutes. The set up is a bit ridiculous. The bad guy has a lair in the Alps where beautiful girls go to get rid of their allergies. James Bond sneaks in find out what is going on.
The movie was a bit silly, but the book was actually the best of the Bond books I have read. And from a story perspective, it seems to be one of the more realistic. It involves bioterrorism, but I won’t reveal the actual story.
This is also the book that is famous for Bond getting married.
As much as I enjoyed it, this is the last of the Bond books I have purchased and I think it is the last I will purchase.
GK Chesterton’s biography of St Francis is one of the classic biographies of St Francis and Chesterton attributed his work on this book to his eventual conversion to Catholicism. Both of which were good reasons to read (listen) to this book.
I have started paying attention to the audiobook discounts when you first purchase kindle books. So I picked this book up at the beginning of July when I had some promotional credits at Audible. I might have been better served by reading the kindle version instead of listening to the audio version. Chesterton is not the easiest author to read. He has a lot of asides and his fairly conversational writing style takes some getting used to. That and he is brilliant.
Chesterton’s biography of St Francis is not a traditional biography. Instead it is partially a biography and partially an exploration of the state of the Catholic church at the time of Francis and how Francis changed the Catholic church during his time and after. So if you are looking for a traditional biography, you will probably be disappointed by this book. It has biographical details, but not many of them.
Honestly my main reluctance to read this was that I assumed it would be hagiography and I really do not like reading hagiography. I want to read about the person, but I assume that the reality of the person is important (not just how great they are.) Chesterton is not writing hagiography. He is fascinated by Francis, but that does not stop him from see Francis as a real person.
Chesterton does, however, defend the traditional views of Francis, including the miracles. He does this not so much because of his superior evidence, but to counter the idea that miracles must be made up because we are in a more modern world that does not believe in miracles.
If this is your first view of either Francis or Chesterton, you might want to at least read the wikipedia page first to give yourself a little background going in.
(Originally published on my blog, Bookwi.se)
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