Thursday, December 24, 2015

‘Without You, There Is No Us’ (Book Review)

Few outsiders get an opportunity to peek into the closed world of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, i.e. North Korea). Suki Kim is one of them. Curious about life on the other side of the concrete wall, the South Korean-born, American journalist jumped on an opportunity to teach English at the newly-formed Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the only private academic institution in North Korea, funded largely by Evangelical Christians. It was 2011, when the DPRK was preparing to celebrate the centennial birthday of its first “Great Leader” Kim Sung-Il but ironically ended up mourning the death of its second “Great Leader” Kim Jong-Il instead.

Disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher, as she puts it, Kim taught writing to the sons of North Korea’s educated class while secretly taking notes for her book, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, A Memoir (Crown Publishers, 2014). This idea of pretending, linked with the concepts of truth/honesty and falsehood/lies, serves as a running theme. Undercover Kim confronts a student body that lies about its county’s successes and living the good life as well as cheats on assignments, seemingly automatically without conscience. The students’ behavior matches her overall experience in the DPRK, where the oppressive government puts on displays for the benefit of foreign visitors, hiding the poor, underfed, and overworked peasants who make up most of the population.

Rather than merely assuming that everything isn’t what it seems, Kim’s position on the inside allowed her to see first-hand these contradictions in action. And while she is no supporter of North Korea, she maintains a healthy amount of objectivity, willing to take a critical look at herself, South Korea, and the United States, trying to understand the North Korean view. For example, she becomes more aware of how Americanized South Koreans must appear to the North Koreans when the Sinicization of North Korean culture (due to its close relationship with China) begins to bother her. Despite all the lying that had to take place to bring about the book, Without You comes across as a very honest account.

There were a few things that left me dissatisfied, however. At times, I felt that the book was a little disorganized, and the ending was definitely too abrupt. In addition, I was left wondering as to whether she ever “got closure” when it came to the pain over her family’s losses brought about by the north-south division. While I don’t doubt that Kim’s experience had a profound effect on her, she doesn’t transfer that well to the reader. The book offered very little in the way of surprises, portraying life in the DPRK pretty much how anyone who has watched a documentary on North Korea, or even – yes, I’m saying it – The Interview, would’ve imagined it. Without You is definitely a good read, but I wouldn’t say it’ll be a game changer.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Book Review)

Every year, well-meaning individuals read tons of books, magazine articles, and blog posts on decluttering and organizing your living space. Yet despite their best efforts to apply what they learn, the goal of perfection is elusive or temporary, and everything reverts to how it once was. If you’re like me, when this happened, you’d blame yourself: “I didn’t work at it hard enough,” “I didn’t evaluate my storage needs correctly,” “I’m just lazy,” etc. Maybe that’s true, but maybe it isn’t. Did you ever consider that the method was the problem?

That’s the position of professional organizer Marie Kondo (blog; other website) in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Ten Speed Press, 2014). This book is cute, feminine, and an easy read, but most importantly, its method works. Unlike your favorite magazine, Kondo doesn’t want – and doesn’t have – repeat customers. Why not? She teaches her clients how to conquer their clutter problem once and for all.

No, this is not a promotion on the “minimalist” lifestyle. The “KonMari method” is not about getting rid of things for the sake of getting rid of them. It’s not about “learning to live without.” Rather, it’s about conquering the suffocating clutter that rules people’s lives by helping the reader see her possessions in a whole new light.

That was true for me. I’ve had a lifelong battle with clutter, forming bad habits early on, learned from my hoarding parents. Rather than enjoying my possessions, I clung to broken Barbie dolls I’d long outgrown just because of a fear of not having anything. I “saved” boxes worth of Lisa Frank products, only to find the pencil erasers disintegrated and stickers unusable years later. I kept stuff just because other people wanted me to keep them, and I concocted bizarre scenarios to justify saving the strangest things. And even though I had so much, I was never happy because, rather than ruling my possessions, I was letting them rule me.

After decades of reading hundreds of resources on storage and organization, I had no results. Then I read Life-Changing Magic, and it gave me the “Ah, ha!” moment I’d been searching for. I needed to quit buying into the lie that clutter is manageable. I had to conquer it, totally and completely. And that meant getting rid of stuff…a lot of it. I asked myself, “What do I want to keep?” instead of asking, “What can I throw away?” I forced myself to be honest about not wanting to finish certain projects. I tossed conference papers and seminar notes that I had no desire to read. And I gave my collections of books, music, and mementoes their first real purges.

Whew! What a relief! I really am a lot happier now. It’s a slow process, which Kondo admits, but I can see results already, especially in how I view my possessions. They now work for me, and I can eliminate what I don’t enjoy quickly and guilt-free.

There have been hurdles. Kondo doesn’t address joint ownership and what to do when your spouse isn’t onboard with the program. She also doesn’t anticipate people’s tendency to keep things longer if they think they can sell them, something that’s incredibly time consuming and rarely pays off in the end. Maybe garage sales and Craigslist don’t have the same allure in Japan as they do here in America.

There has also been some skepticism on my part. I remain unconvinced that everything should be stored upright. It’s worked pretty well for somethings, like socks, but I’m sure Kondo’s ruining her laptop by storing it like a book! I also think that she discounts the enjoyment that storage containers with their sleek, uniform look have over old cellphone boxes and such. In my opinion, cardboard boxes need to go.

All things considered, however, I love Life-Changing Magic. If you have a problem with clutter ruling your life, than I wholeheartedly recommend you take a look at Kondo’s book. Sure, it reads a bit awkwardly, possibly due to the translation. And as Japanese culture and the Shinto religion permeate the book, you might have to think about how to “translate” it into American culture. But I hope that none of this will discourage you from giving the KonMari method a chance. I’m sure glad I did.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I Got Peanutized!

My Peanuts Character from the Get Peanutized Peanuts Movie Website

I grew up absolutely loving Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang. My mother's childhood fanaticism was passed on to me at an early age. A stuffed animal Snoopy. Picture books. Puzzles. Comic strips. Paperback comic books. VHS tapes. The only thing I disliked was the giant Snoopy at Knott's Berry Farm. Too much for 3-year-old me!

Now that I'm older, I don't have as much time for Peanuts. Calvin and Hobbes and Heart of the City replaced it as a favorite read, and I've long forgotten the lyrics to "A Book Report on Peter Rabbit" and "Lucy Says" and all the other songs I'd so religiously memorized. But once in a blue moon, I'll pick up my mom's hardback collector's editions and fall in love with it all over again. Thank you, Charles Schultz, for introducing me to the Red Baron, Beethoven, and the coolest music genre ever ("Snoopy music"). Now that I have been peanutized, I no longer have a childish dream of being Lucy. Now I can be her rival!

#peanutizeme #peanutsmovie #peanutsmovie2015

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

‘Jesus, Jihad and Peace’ (Book Review)

Prooftexting the Bible to find an Islamic presence in the “end times” is not new, but I did find an interesting twist in Jesus, Jihad and Peace: What Bible Prophecy Says About World Events Today (Worthy Publishing, 2015) by Michael Youssef, head of the Leading the Way with Dr. Michael Youssef ministry and pastor for The Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, Georgia. In this book, the author connects the premillennialist expectation of a coming “Antichrist,” a tyrannical political and religious leader who subjugates the whole world, with the Muslim expectation of a coming Twelfth Imam (or Mahdi, according to some Shia Muslims), who will save mankind. Youssef sees the development of Islam as having been purposely guided by Satan so that Muslims are preconditioned to accept the Antichrist as someone sent from God and on the same side as Jesus, so to speak. Instead, however, he’s predestined to be everything Christ isn’t: the ultimate enemy who is defeated only after persecuting Jews and Christians worldwide.

Although in summary the argument might look plausible, Jesus, Jihad and Peace fails to convince, resorting to sloppy exegesis to make the associations between the Bible and the present work. I got the impression that promoting a particular anti-Muslim agenda was more important to the author than presenting a biblical eschatology. As a Christian, I can only say that the end result was really embarrassing. Youssef carefully selects passages from the Bible and the Koran, picks and chooses what he likes from history and current events, and judges the two religions by different standards. He does this so that he can present the least offensive view of Christianity and the most offensive view of Islam and call them both “genuine.” I suspect that he does this out of personal motivation, as a native Egyptian raised Coptic Orthodox, who has likely witnessed if not actually experienced oppressive elements of Muslim rule. Whatever he reasons, they unfortunately led him away from his main responsibility as a pastor: setting aside his own biases and engaging in sound hermeneutics so that he can present what the Bible actually teaches rather than what he wishes it taught.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Click Here (Book Review)

Ah, seventh grade. Best known as the period during which beautiful, smart, confident children suddenly become awkward, self-conscious not-children-but-not-adults. Life suddenly produces all sorts of new pressures and expectations from parents, teachers, and friends. Kids quickly learn the meaning of unrequited love, and bullying takes on a whole new level. Seventh grade’s reputation is so bad I’ve actually met two different pro-school people who’ve made an exception for junior high or middle school, saying that it should be outlawed and homeschooling made mandatory for kids during those pubescent years. Yes, they were serious.

When things are tough, the clear solution is to find someone who has it worse. Kids at this stage in life often take comfort in reading about characters with which they can empathize but also laugh with – laugh at? – when embarrassing situations occur. That’s why Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010) has been such a roaring success. Along the same vein is Click Here (To Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade): A Novel (Little, Brown, & Co., 2005/2006) by Denise Vega. The heroine Erin Swift isn’t pretty, isn’t popular, and isn’t really brainy either. She’s having a tough time navigating through seventh grade, which is filled with new experience after new experience and disappointment after disappointment. But she finds solace in her computer club activities and electronic diary keeping. Then comes the unexpected twist, and a slight nod to Louise Fitzhugh’s classic Harriet the Spy (1964). Erin has to learn how to survive on a whole new level and learns some valuable lessons in the process.

Click Here was a quick, entertaining read. The characters were memorable. I also felt that there were a lot of positive lessons for kids: Don’t prejudge other kids. The person you’re avoiding now might turn out to be a terrific friend. You might not be good at everything, but you can find something that you enjoy that you are good at. It’s okay if your crush doesn’t work out. Just learn to move on.

The downside was that I never felt like someone my niece or nephew’s age was relating what happened at school last year. It was more like I was listening to someone much older reminiscing about her junior high experiences. I felt as though the author wasn’t making an effort to research about what kids today like, but instead chose to impose her own dated likes on her main character. A real seventh grader (or at least one uninterested in history) would have said that the history classroom was covered with posters of “a bunch of dead people.” rather than listing them by name, unless it really mattered to the plot. (And then it would’ve been better to just add that to the teacher’s dialogue.) When it came to costume issues, the original Karate Kid (1984) would’ve made a better “old movie” reference than To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). And Erin’s friendship with the school janitor might have seemed quaint decades ago, but it just came off as creepy in a more contemporary setting.

So if asked if I’d recommend Click Here, I can only offer a shrug. How the book’s strengths and weaknesses balance out would depend on the reader. Both parents and kids could find something to like about it, and maybe it would spark some healthy intergenerational discussion about the frustrations seventh graders are facing and have faced.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Finding the Perfect Morning Routine (Out of a Sea of Less-Than-Ideal Ones)

Coffee Break by Kenny Louie (Flickr)
Establishing some sort of morning routine is not new to me. Keeping it for more than a week is. Whatever I set up – whether it involves daily Bible reading, exercise, or chores – it all seems to fall apart pretty quickly. That can be attributed partly to laziness and partly to having an irregular schedule when it comes to sleep, meals, work, school, etc. pretty much all my life.

I suspect that the real problem is that I tend to be way too ambitious with my to-do lists. Or maybe I’m just not choosing things that really do energize and motivate me, but things I felt I “have to” do. As a participant in the “Create a Perfect Morning Routine” class with Skillshare, my goal is to create a plan that is not only manageable, even on a fully packed day, but is also filled with enjoyable activities that won’t leave me searching for an excuse not to do them. I need a routine that’s not about chores and things I need to get done, but one that prepares me for the stressful day ahead.

My Primary Focus
My primary focus is destressing my life. I want to begin my day feeling refreshed and optimistic about what lies ahead.

Positive Habits
Devotional Bible Reading, Exercise, Listening to Music, Journaling, Meditation, Prayer, Self Improvement, Staying Informed, To-Do List

Daily Focus
Option 1: Journaling
Option 2: Listening to Music (Pandora channels, Amazon Prime Music, or Classical KUSC FM 91.5 radio)
Option 3: Prayer
Option 4: Devotional Reading (Bible)
Option 6: Self Improvement (reading self help books)
Option 7: Staying Informed (BBC News, NYTimes, NPR, theSkimm)
Option 6: Creating a To-Do List

Ideal Morning Routine
7:00 a.m. – Wake Up
7:05 a.m. – Check Email and Text Messages (in case of anything important)
7:10 a.m. – Daily Focus (preferably with hot chocolate or a vanilla latte)
7:35 a.m. – Exercise (Daily Yoga app on Android phone)
7:50 a.m. – Meditation (Calm app on Android phone)
8:00 a.m. – Begin day

Note: This morning routine was created as the project for the “Create a Perfect Morning Routine” class on Skillshare, taught by freelance designer and illustrator Jeff Finley, author of Wake Up: The Morning Routine That Will Change Your Life. My review of the course: Sure, it needs some editing, and some slides with bullet-points would help. At times I even found the content a little dull. However, I was finally motivated to establish a workable morning routine, and for that reason I'm grateful for this course. Therefore, I recommend it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Studying Genesis, Part 1: Mankind’s Need for Redemption

Agry (Ararat) view from plane under naxcivan sharur by Самый древний (Wikimedia Commons)

“In the beginning…” This is the opening of the first book of our Bible, hence its title in Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית (Bereshit, “In the beginning”). Two stories are shared: The first tells of an all-powerful God who speaks the world and everything in it into existence out of a watery chaos. He creates people in His image and charges them with reproducing and ruling over the rest of creation. The second story is about God’s intimate relationship with these people, shown by how He provides for their needs and sets rules for them to follow, including those concerning what to eat. The relationship intact, man works in a fertile garden paradise, naked and unashamed. However, this relationship is damaged when man violates God’s law.

Next comes a series of accounts of ancient men, their families, and their deeds, each account introduced as “the book of [the] generation of [X],” hence the collection’s Greek title: Γένεσις (Genesis, “generation”/“birth”/“descent”/“lineage”). Across all of these accounts is an apparent theme: mankind’s perpetual sinfulness. There are two ways God addresses the problem: divine punishment and divine plan.

The use of punishment is illustrated through the first cycle of stories from Adam to Noah. Adam and Eve disobey God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. As a result, they are exiled from the Garden of Eden and prevented from accessing the Tree of Life. The ground is also cursed. Cain kills his brother and is also exiled, doomed to become a fugitive and wanderer, who ironically builds the first city. Sin continues as Cain’s descendant Lamech also murders. Sin also continues as other descendants of Adam engage in wickedness, which may have included cult prostitution. Because of this sinfulness, God decides to destroy mankind.

Yet out of this evil rises one righteous man named Noah, a descendent of Adam’s son Seth, a man who walks with God rather than hiding from Him. Noah’s father, the other Lamech, prophesizes that he will be the one who will put an end to God’s curse upon the ground. God recognizes Noah’s righteousness and chooses his family to be saved from destruction. The world returns to a water chaos, and a new world emerges. The second cycle begins: Noah is a sort of a second Adam, and the ground is no longer cursed. When Noah builds a sacrifice to God, He is appeased and promises never again to curse the ground because of man’s sin. Then God charges Noah with reproducing, settling across the land, and ruling the rest of creation. New laws are set concerning what to eat and the killing of one’s fellow men. God also makes a covenant (i.e., agreement, contract, promise) with Noah to never send the flood waters again to destroy mankind.

The ground now free from a curse, proves bountiful for Noah. He enjoys the fruit of his labor, naked and unashamed, in a new paradise. However, one of his sons, Ham, sins. In response, Noah curses Ham's son Canaan. Then the descendants of Noah’s sons refuse to settle across the land, preferring to congregate in one place. God forces them to scatter by confusing their languages. Generations later, God calls Abraham, a descendant of Noah’s son Shem. Abraham becomes sort of a second Noah. God makes a covenant with him, promising to make his descendants a great nation and bless all of the nations of the world through him. What then follows in the rest of the book are the accounts of the generations of Abraham’s descendants, called the patriarchs, telling their stories leading up to the creation of this promised nation.

What does this story mean for those of us reading it today? In these first chapters of Genesis, we are given an idea of what God is like and how He’s chosen to deal with humanity. Like the ancient Israelites, we can see the book as sharing their “origin story,” explaining how and why they came to be. As Christians, we can see how mankind has sinned and continued to sin through the ages, but also God’s plan for mankind’s ultimate redemption beginning to unfold.

Note: This Bible study lesson was written for and presented at the July 3, 2015 meeting of a young women’s Bible study, for which I am currently facilitator.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

‘Smart Girl’s Guide to God, Guys, and the Galaxy’ (Book Review)

Growing up, I read a lot of neat little books – both Christian and secular, both good and bad – advising how to dress, act, and survive the teenage years. That might have been ages ago, but I confess that genre can still pique my interest. So it’s no wonder that I picked up a copy of Smart Girl’s Guide to God, Guys, and the Galaxy: Save the Drama! and 100 Other Practical Tips for Teens (Shiloh Run Press, 2014) after stumbling across it online. Authored by Susie Shellenberger, editor of the now defunct BRIO and Sisterhood Magazine, and stand-up comedienne Kristin Weber, Smart Girl’s Guide promises helpful advice with a dash of humor.

To be honest, I expected a lot more from Smart Girl’s Guide. While there are a few unexpected gems, like “Take an apologetics course,” much of the advice – and the reasoning behind it – is cliché: Respect your parents. Study your Bible. Dress modestly. Trust God rather than peers. In a huge market like young adult nonfiction, something unique is needed to make one book stand out from all the competitors, either in the topics covered or in how the advice is offered. Smart Girl’s Guide appears to have neither. It’s just another fish in the sea.

That’s not to say that the authors didn’t put a lot of effort into it. It just doesn’t really show. The content is generally boring, and the jokes tend to fall flat. It would’ve been easily improved by organizing the hodgepodge of tips around particular themes and eliminating some of the vagueness and repetition. There’s also room for expansion. I would’ve also liked to see lists of suggested books and classic movies that aren’t limited to a few of the authors’ favorites. And some of the tips require more research to actually carry them out. That might not seem like a big deal, but guides like this should aim to be comprehensive, requiring little additional work so that the kids will actually complete the tasks.

I also thought that the perspective offered was often too adult. Kids should be learning how to protect their personal information online and manage online account settings, not relying on a crutch like a junk email account to handle spam. They shouldn’t be signing up for online contests anyway considering the legal age requirements. And while window shopping at a mall might be a waste of time for the authors, it’s a convenient and relatively safe activity for teens. The authors’ alternative – hiking in the wilderness, with no mention of getting a chaperone – might sound like a great idea to many non-parents, but it’s probably one of the most unsafe things teen girls could do.

Another part that needed work was the titled advice about dealing with the opposite sex. “Have guy ‘friends,’ not boyfriends” sounds like a brochure headline for a one-way trip to the “friend zone.” And trust me, don’t ever go there. It’s lonely. I’m not saying girls can’t have male friends, but they often want more than that. They want attention, love, and sex. Those are biological realities, and God’s responsible for them. We need to quit pretending that these desires don’t exist or that they are somehow abnormal or bad. Instead, show teens how to be more selective in whom they date. Promote group and chaperoned dates to avoid being put in compromising positions. And encourage more honest parent-teen talks about things like sexual temptation and pornography. Since dating is probably the main topic of interest to most teen girls, I think that the authors missed a huge opportunity to make a real impact on their readers’ lives.

Perhaps my expectations were a little high, but nevertheless I was left disappointed. And that’s rather unfortunate because, of all the books in the series, Smart Girl’s Guide has the most potential. Teen girls eat up this kind of stuff, and their parents will often buy it for them. A book marketed to teen boys (The Guy's Guide to God, Girls, and the Phone in Your Pocket), their mothers (The Savvy Mom's Guide to Sons), or teen girls’ fathers (The Smart Dad's Guide to Daughters) are more likely to sit on the shelf.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

‘Oh, Yeah, Audrey!’ (Book Review)

Last year must have been a big year for Audrey Hepburn fans because Oh, Yeah, Audrey! A Novel (Amulet Books/Abrams, 2014) by Tucker Shaw is the second teen novel inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and written by a man) that I’ve read that was published in 2014. At its bare bones, I liked the book. SPOILER ALERT! Teenaged Gemma, obsessed with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, meets up in New York City with other fans she’s met online. Their goal is to complete a walking tour of places associated with the book and movie and finish up with a movie screening, all in honor of some anniversary. Blinded by her love and admiration for Holly Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn), Gemma refuses to see the character for what she is: a prostitute. Gemma is convinced that the men in the book just liked handing over money for the sheer privilege of being in Holly’s company.

The meetup and tour get started, but Gemma quickly finds herself swept off her feet by one of the guys she met online. So much so that she abandons the rest of her friends and the tour. And who wouldn’t? Dusty is filthy rich and well-connected. He buys Gemma a vintage evening dress (previously owned by Hepburn herself). He takes Gemma to an exclusive art gallery opening, an overbooked classy restaurant, and an underground music venue. Gemma is infatuated with him but unaware that Dusty doesn’t share her feelings. He just considers it all advance payment for the services she’s expected to render at the end of their evening.

With this storyline, I think Oh, Yeah, Audrey had a lot of promise. However, when it comes to the execution, I would’ve preferred more. The book got a really, really slow start. And I mean really. Over 100 pages in (out of 243 pages total), I still didn’t know the plot. The author could’ve speeded things up by jumping right into the action, revealing the necessary background information as each character was introduced rather than placing so much at the beginning.

The characters didn’t need so much introduction anyway. They were rather cookie-cutter, even for Young Adult Fiction. It’s far-fetched enough to have one rich guy spending money like water on the heroine, but to be honest, two is a bit ridiculous. The book also fed off of some particularly annoying stereotypes: all Californians are rich, all Asian men are gay, and all gays are fashionable. All this wrapped up into one dreadful character, or should I say caricature. Or maybe it’s brilliant parody of Mickey Rooney’s dreadful portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. I can’t tell. At any rate, it does raise the question of why a Japanese-American would be so in-love with the whole Breakfast at Tiffany’s craze.

As for improving the main plot: I would’ve liked to have seen Gemma come into conflict with Holly Golightly’s other unseemly characteristics, not just her escort service. It seemed as if Shaw’s heroine had read a rose-colored version of Truman Capote’s short-story, free of theft, racism, and slander. The subplots also could’ve benefited from further development. I don’t think Shaw got his money’s worth out of them. Gemma and her friends come to terms with their sort-of-enemy way too early in the course of the story. Gemma’s parental issues seem relegated to needless filler. I also think that the significance of the heroine abandoning the walking tour for a date is lost when the reader considers that she and her friends together had abandoned it to go shopping and checkout the Hepburn dress auction beforehand.

I guess in the end I have to admit disappointment. Oh, Yeah, Audrey had not just an entertaining story to tell, but also an important lesson about how naïve young people can end up in trouble. I really wish the book had been a draft, not the finished product. Some teen girls will probably like it, but I think it ended up as merely a shadow of what it could’ve been. If asked, I’d have to recommend Being Audrey Hepburn by Mitchell Kriegman instead.

Monday, June 22, 2015

‘Going Clear’ (Book Review)

After reading insider Jenna Miscavige Hill’s tell-all memoir Beyond Belief about her growing up in the Church of Scientology, I thought it would be a good idea to read something that would give me a slightly more objective view about L. Ron Hubbard and his religious creation. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013) was just the thing.

In this book, author Lawrence Wright pulls together material from considerable research and numerous personal interviews to tell story of one of the newest and one of the most controversial religions around today. He starts off with Hubbard’s early life and goes into his wobbly career with the U.S. Navy, his involvement with the Occult, and his stormy relationships with his wives (both official and common) and children. This helps the reader really put Hubbard’s science fiction writing, development of Dianetics, and founding of Scientology into a larger perspective.

While at first, Going Clear might appear as a Hubbard biography, later on the book shifts focus, discussing the suspicious take-over by David Miscavige, the church’s turbulent relationship with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, charges of abuse, and other scandals and lawsuits. Wright fills his narrative with testimonies of members past and present, both famous and not-so-much, providing a variety of perspectives about Scientology, its legitimacy, and where it’s headed.

As the work of a previous Pulitzer Prize winner, I wish the book had been a smoother read. It seemed to jump from here to there at times, probably because there was so much information and so many people to discuss. It made it difficult to remember who was who sometimes. However, I really appreciated how Wright took the time to explain a lot of scientologists’ practices and beliefs. One problem I had had with Hill’s book was that she often seemed to assume her readers knew what she was talking about, and the Scientologese (Scientology unique set of acronyms and vocabulary) is not always easy for a casual reader unfamiliar with the religion to remember.

Some readers might take issue with me calling Going Clear “objective,” and I admit that’s a bit of a stretch. A better word choice might be “fair.” Wright lets both side have their say, while he does betray his own position at times. For example, I think he could’ve been more critical of filmmaker Paul Haggis when discussing Haggis’ upset about the church’s support of CA Proposition 8 (2008) concerning the legal status of same-sex marriage. I thought that Haggis’ correspondence with church officials provided an excellent illustration of how celebrities were accustomed to receiving special treatment. Here was one who thought he had a right to demand a change in the church’s doctrine and political position, regardless of the view of the church’s leaders or other members. Haggis’ behavior shows what problems the church faces when constantly catering to high profile members’ sense of entitlement, and I think Wright was too focused on the discussion about the treatment of homosexual members to make observations like these.

I would like to say that, whatever biases might have penetrated the rest of the book, Wright’s conclusion was quite fair. Christian readers might think of 1 Corinthians 15:12-34 and how Christianity stands or falls on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead when, in Going Clear, Wright notes the significance of a statement made by Scientology’s then-spokesman Tommy Davis. In effect, Scientology stands or falls on Hubbard’s claims that Dianetics helped heal him from his war wounds. As Wright shows, Hubbard unabashedly lied about his war record and exaggerated his health problems. All I can say in response is “Case closed.”

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Wife Takes Husband’s Name, Race, Ethnic Identity

(My Patient Fusion profile still unchanged as of 12:05 PM, June 16, 2015)

You might think gone are the days when census enumerators would “guesstimate” a person’s race and human resources personnel would “correct” employees’ forms behind their backs. But perhaps they’re not.

As some of you may know, I sprained my knee during an exercise/dance class on April 30 and have been trying to recuperate while juggling appointments with my primary care physician, orthopedic specialist, and MRI clinic. Yesterday, I was tending to some related paperwork and took the time to register on to Patient Fusion, the online platform for sharing medical records that the orthopedic office uses. Just imagine my surprise when I logged on and found my profile completed with the wrong race and ethnic information.

That’s right. “Race” was filled in with WHITE. “Ethnicity” with HISPANIC OR LATINO.

Say what?

I’d blame the Tramadol, but I’d quit taking it weeks before my appointment because it was making me nauseous. I was definitely in might right mind when I checked in and filled out the forms. Thought maybe the office staff had just gone with the first thing I checked off (WHITE) and didn’t notice the second (AFRICAN AMERICAN). That would explain the first mistake, but not the second. And after thirty-plus years of being repeatedly mistaken as Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, et al. - by my own kind even – I’m not about to mark HISPANIC anywhere. This was a medical form, not an appropriate place for jokes.

So I called up the orthopedic specialist's office and alerted one of the staff members to the problem. As we were talking, he said he was correcting it, but there’s no change yet. Maybe the system takes 24 hours to update. But that’s not really what’s bothering me. It’s his excuse.

To relate the conversation in a nutshell: He said that the office didn’t ask patients to self-identify on their forms because some might fear discrimination by staff. (I suppose that’s a valid concern since I think 100% of the staff and a majority of the patients are Armenian. The few nons might be uncomfortable.) However, government agencies request demographic information on patients. (Makes sense. They compile lots of statistics on how often certain groups use certain services, which groups are at risk for certain health problems, etc.) The staff’s solution – and I got it straight from the horse’s mouth – is to check off whatever boxes they deem appropriate based on the patient's last name and appearance on the photo ID.

Never occurred to them to look at me instead of my ID, which would’ve likely led them to think BLACK or even mixed. Never occurred to them to compare my spouse’s name (identified as such and listed under “Emergency Contact”) with mine and look up the national origin of VAUGHN instead of ESTRADA. I suppose they never thought that (1) they’d guess wrong and (2) in this digital age, they’d be found out.

Am I angry? Not really. It’s highly amusing. For years I thought the biggest problem was us “mixies” not being allowed to check off two or more races. Now that I’m married though, I guess people just assume I’ve adopted my husband’s identity.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

‘The Lost Girls’ (Book Review)

At first I was disgusted. Then I became really angry. In the end, I was puzzled. I’m referring to my reactions to John Glatt’s recently published The Lost Girls: The True Story of the Cleveland Abductions and the Incredible Rescue of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus (St. Martin's Press, 2015). The book is a complex piece of investigative journalism highlighted with witness testimonies, court records, news cast transcriptions, and the like. It was highly effective. I got scared of the criminal Ariel Castro. I sympathized with his victims’ families. I got mad at the Cleveland police and the FBI. But this emotional roller-coaster ride was a bit surprising, when I thought about it. Unlike many authors who write specifically to produce a desired emotional response, Glatt takes a “Just the facts, ma’am” approach.

That’s not to say he downplays the victims’ suffering. Not at all. In fact, he shows quite well just how terrible kidnapping, rape, and other atrocities really are. But I got a sense that he was letting me, the reader, come to that conclusion myself. The Lost Girls contains many points of view, many in conflict with each other. Glatt shows that some of the evidence against Castro was rock solid and some was weak. He shows how much effort the police put into the investigations, and yet also how much they – carelessly? accidently? – overlooked. And he even allots space for the defense’s arguments, excuses, justifications.

While “disturbing” is probably the best word to describe this book’s contents, I’m glad I read The Lost Girls. Kidnapping and rape are terrible. It’s mind boggling to think of victims tolerating it for even a day let alone a decade. While that did happen in this instance, maybe it will be less likely in the future. Books like this have the potential to raise public awareness and perhaps encourage us to change things for the better.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ (Book Review)

The amount of scholarly research on Jesus Christ is mindboggling. So I can easily appreciate an author’s efforts to synthesize a lot of information into something suitable for mass consumption. In other words, an easy read. And who better to write such a book than Reza Aslan, a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside with degrees in Religion? Aslan knows how to weave layers of complexity together yet never lose track of his aim to tell an engaging (if rather irreverent) story, as No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, his work on Muhammad and Islam, attests. His latest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013), continues in the same vein, reimagining the one Christians call “Lord” as not merely as illiterate peasant and spiritual teacher, but as a political revolutionary.

Now a number of authors have sought to associate the “historical Jesus” with the Pharisees; others with the Essenes. So it’s really no surprise that someone is now suggesting the Zealots. After all, as Aslan spends much of his book pointing out, many messianic claimants of the 1st century were calling for a violent overthrow of the oppressive Roman government and the punishment of crucifixion was greatly associated with the crime of sedition. With these two key arguments, along with some supporting evidence from the Gospels, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to convince a reader that Jesus of Nazareth, filled with zeal for God like the ancient Israelite leaders, founded a movement that sought to wipe the Promised Land clean of a pagan foreign power with the same fervor that he wiped clean God’s Temple of the moneychangers. It makes for an interesting and plausible story. However, there is far more that Aslan is leaving out of his neat little narrative.

While the story told in Zealot is built on ancient histories, biblical passages, and modern scholarship, readers may notice that Aslan engages in some blatant proof-texting in order to make his point. He accepts what he wants to accept at face value, and dismisses or outright ignores anything that might suggest a contrary view. The Gospels are accurate and trustworthy only when it suits him. That is, we can believe in a whip-wielding messiah and his sword-wielding disciples because that is consistent with zealotry, but not in a message of turning the other cheek or preaching to all nations.

Aslan’s not any kinder when it comes to modern scholars. Much of what he says is commonly accepted as the “mainstream view” of the life of Christ. Yet Aslan often gives a sense of finality to his claims that scholars as a rule try to avoid, and opposing views, when he cares to mention them, are not always thoroughly cited. For example, John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography is enlisted as an ally when Aslan wants to argue against the commonly-held eschatological view of the “Kingdom of God.” However, when discussing the purpose of John’s baptism, Crossan’s reasons – given in the exact same book - for questioning the reliability of Josephus, the Jewish historian who defected to the Romans, are never mentioned. It seems that Aslan is willfully misleading his readers, working overtime to create the impression that his views make up the consensus and face very little opposition.

Now I don’t want to discourage you from taking a look at the book. While I would caution against putting too much stock in Aslan’s claims, I think that reading Zealot does have its value. Aslan brings 1st century Judea with all its political and religious conflicts to life, summarizing hundreds of years of scholarly research and archeological discoveries in a few hundred pages. For a Christian, this can help clarify the Gospels’ context. While many people might intend to read up on these subjects, too often scholarly books and articles, like those listed in Aslan’s bibliography, can appear rather intimidating or just too time consuming at first glance. Something more readable like Zealot could make a good starting point for learning more about the “historical Jesus” and the time period in which he lived.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

‘The Oklahoma Gamblin’ Man’ (Book Review)

While we might associate the gangster era with big names like Al Capone and big cities like Chicago, there were, of course, small-time country hoodlums as well. Oklahoma’s Rex Albert Tanner was one of them, and his son, musician Gary Rex Tanner, has captured his adventures and misadventures in a colorful biography titled The Oklahoma Gamblin’ Man (Two Little Frogs Publishing, 2014).

Born July 4, 1913, Rex Tanner was a bit of a trouble-making kid who developed a knack for gambling. This, we might say unsurprisingly, led to a life of bar fights, clashes with the law, and run-ins with more dangerous criminals. Eventually, Rex moved to California for work – joining the “Okie” migration without really even being aware of it – and later settled down and opened a plumber business.

Gary Tanner doesn’t pretend to be a historian writing a well-cited academic tome. Rather, the book is a compilation of the father’s stories as son remembers them with photos, newspaper clippings, and original song lyrics interspersed throughout. That means a lot of holes and repetition. This format can make it difficult to see the story unfold or to understand it in the broader context of America’s early to mid-20th century. However, it still creates a highly personable read. The dialogue boasts slang; the narration a light casual tone. You can almost hear Rex Tanner laughing as he tells one story after another. The foul language and racism can be a little off-putting, but I was glad that Gary Tanner didn’t try to sanitize it in order to present the characters in a more palatable way. While it does have its flaws, The Oklahoma Gamblin’ Man is a sweet tribute to an earlier generation.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book and music CD through Bostick Communications. There was no obligation to write a favorable review.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

‘God’s Indemnity’ (Book Review)

Many Christians are eagerly waiting for Jesus’ return. I’ve lived through a few predictions about when this was to have occurred, and I have heard a few more dates offered that are still in the future. But I’d never heard anyone before suggest 2017 was the magic number. So with my curiosity aroused, I read Cheryl Williams’ God’s Indemnity: Would 2017 Find You SCALPED or Fully Covered? (Outskirts Press, 2015).

The book wasn’t what I was expecting. The author’s intent is not to provide a succinct theological argument for Christ coming in 2017…or even “soon.” There isn’t the lengthy analysis of Matthew 24 or numerological calculations based on the Book of Revelation that we associate with authors like Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye. While Williams does see signs of the times in the ebola outbreak and the rise of ISIS, her belief rests more on gut feelings and interpretations of her own dreams. She takes Jesus’ imminent coming as a fact, and says that that fact needs to be in the forefront of people’s minds so that they will repent of their sins in time. (That’s where the SCALPED acronym comes in.)

While Williams might intend to get readers fired up about Jesus’ second coming, I suspect that it will have an opposite effect. She acknowledges that people are disillusioned by nearly two thousand years of expectation, yet she doesn’t provide any real basis for hope in her own prediction, which I’d say is vital for the success of her book. While that author never explicitly self-identifies as a Seventh-Day Adventist, the tell-tale signs are all there: Sabbath (Saturday) observance. Creation versus evolution. Even a comment about Pope Francis that seems to attack him directly instead of the Roman Catholic doctrine in question. (But she refrains from calling him the Antichrist.) As someone obviously coming from some sort of Millerite background with its history of failed predictions, she needs to put more effort into defending her date if she hopes to convince anyone.

I think God’s Indemnity represents a lot of hopes and dreams for the author, but it ultimately proves only to be an unfulfilling read. Even aside from the theological issues, there’s a general need for editing and thoughtful reconsideration of many subpoints. There’s also a problem with the term “indemnity” (i.e., insurance). Williams’ use of it apparently stems from a confusion with “assurance.” The book certainly discusses “assurance” in God, but I can’t say it discussed “insurance” at all. And if God told her in a dream to title it God’s Indemnity, then He would’ve meant the latter.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Bostick Communications. There was no obligation to write a favorable review.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

‘Beyond Belief’ (Book Review)

Scientology has always been a bit of a mystery religion to me; that is, a mystery because, to be frank, I know very little about it. Having never actually read any of L. Ron Hubbard’s books (or those of his critics, for that matter) or personally known a self-identified Scientologist, it’s been pretty easy to ignore, despite having actually driven past the church on Sunset Blvd. a number of times. Sure, everyone around me seemed to have an opinion: It’s a dangerous cult. Dianetics is a lot of psychobabble. Et cetera. But what adherents actually believe and practice were never made clear to me.

Jenna Miscavige Hill’s “tell-all” memoir Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape (HarperCollins, 2013) has changed some of that. Niece of the current Scientology leader Dave Miscavige and co-founder of, Hill talks about what life was like for her with both parents in the elite Sea Org and being raised by the system. Even though she was prevented what most of us would call a “normal” childhood, Hill remained committed to Scientology for years, rising up its ranks. Eventually, she had enough: Enough of the E-Meters and auditing sessions designed to root out subversive behavior. Enough of the favoritism and inconsistencies. Enough of authorities keeping her from being with those she loved. In the end, Hill left Scientology kicking and screaming…literally, if I read correctly.

While Beyond Belief was certainly an eye-opener into the hidden world of Scientology, I closed the book with mixed feelings. It really was poorly written. Like many other memoirs, the story is weighted down by the author trying to account for absolutely everything, as if it were a courtroom testimony rather than a general retelling of the most important events. There were a number of obvious typos and needless repetitions. The book wasn’t terrible; just sloppy and disorganized. I don’t fault Hill. She isn’t a writer by profession, and any problems can be easily blamed on her inadequate Scientology schooling. However, I do fault Lisa Pulitzer (the “with” co-author) and the editing staff at HarperCollins who all should’ve known better. Hill had an important story to tell, but I really wonder if this book will really help her cause.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

‘Max and Bear’ (Book Review)

Many a child has initially neglected a particular toy, doll, or book only to make it a prized favorite later on. Max is no different. He wants to play with “Sophie the Giraffe” or glow-in-the-dark Turtle, but never Bear. Bear is disappointed but waits patiently for his time to come. Then one day Max gets sick, and only Bear can comfort him. Bear finally gets the love and attention he’s always wanted.

This is the story behind Max and Bear (Archway, 2014), inspired by author Pam Saxelby’s grandson and his own toy. While I liked the overall plot, I feel that the book could’ve used a few more drafts. Rather than engaging a toddler, it’s more likely to try his patience.

The story seems to move at a snail’s pace, and there were needless characters such as the gift-giving friend and the pet dogs. Cluttering the narrative were “wordy” sentences and a number of details irrelevant to anyone outside of the author’s family. I also think that talking about Max being put to bed between him eating too much avocado and him getting sick just breaks up the flow of the story. Don’t be surprised if your child completely misses the cause-and-effect connection.

As for the accompanying illustrations, Stephen Adams has made them nice and large. However, there’s too much repetition, and the object of interest is often not prominent enough for a toddler to spot immediately. The story doesn’t need to be interrupted by a game of “Where’s Sophie the Giraffe?”

In the end, Max and Bear doesn’t deliver. The paper pages are impractical for a target audience that tears up board books. And the content is unlikely to hold most children’s attention for long. While I trust that Saxelby didn’t intend to write a book that’s merely a nostalgic momento for Max’s parents and grandparents, that’s what I’m afraid it turned out to be.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

‘Little Baby Buttercup’ (Book Review)

This has got to be one of the cutest toddler books I’ve ever read. Little Baby Buttercup (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015) is a “Mommy and Me” story about daily activities and growing up. Readers will join Buttercup, as she eats, plays with blocks, “helps” her mother in the garden, and explores the outside world of nature and busy people around her.

Author Linda Ashman tells the story using bouncy rhymes that are simple and fun, propelling the story forward. The vocabulary presents a few opportunities for your child to be exposed to new words, like “traveler” and “journey,” and learn to pay attention to sounds, not just actions. While the story follows a bunch of mini-adventures, there is still a sense of dramatic structure. There’s a definite build-up, followed by a point of conflict – rain! – and a calming resolution. Not always what’s expected from a toddler book. Impressive writing, indeed.

Bringing to life Buttercup’s world is illustrator You Byun. She uses sort of an East-meets-West style of drawing and feminine-looking watercolor painting to create pictures that look “vintage” without being “outdated” and “Asian-inspired” without causing the reader to feel like she’s looking at manga. The illustrations are bright and large, sure to capture and maintain a young child’s attention. They are also relevant to the story, driving home the ideas and sounds that Ashman presents.

I think Little Baby Buttercup is all around adorable. There is a diverse multicultural crowd of kids at the playground and people moving about the town. I wouldn’t say it’s geographically ambiguous, because there’s an obvious east-coast town feel. However, California babies can easily identify with squirrels, coffee shops, and getting caught in the rain.

Before you rush out and buy this book, note that, while Little Baby Buttercup is clearly targeted at toddlers, it boasts a jacketed hardcover and paper pages. You might want to hold off on it, or at least store it in a safe place, until you’re sure your child knows that books are not to be torn and eaten. Properly cared for, this book could be read and loved well into the early grade years.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Monday, March 23, 2015

‘My Senior Year at a Christian Fundamentalist College’ (Book Review)

Author Jeri Massi has spent much of her career reporting on sexual abuse committed by clergy at what are called “Independent Fundamentalist Baptist” (IFB) churches and universities. This research has led to books addressing legalism, patriarchy, and spiritual abuse in churches today. Since Massi is a novelist at heart, it’s not surprising that she would also find inspiration for fiction in these real-life tragedies. This is what Secret Radio: My Senior Year at a Christian Fundamentalist College (Twenty-Five Years Ago) By Grace Jovian (Jupiter Rising Books, 2014) is all about.

We’re introduced to college senior Grace Jovian, probably named in honor of GRACE, the organization that investigated Bob Jones University’s handling of complaints of sexual abuse. As the book opens, her summer vacation has been ruined and her spiritual foundation rocked by the discovery that all is not squeaky clean in her family. Upon returning to college, Grace begins to question everything she’s been brought up – brainwashed? – to believe. Once a model female student, her newly-found open-mindedness leads her to befriend the religious outcasts and butt heads with the college’s entrenched authoritarianism and androcentrism.

To be honest, I think this book and I got off on the wrong foot. One of the first things I noticed was that the cover and frontispiece unabashedly make “Grace Jovian” out to be the author. Sure, the copyright stuff and the “advisory” clearly show that the book is a novel by Jeri Massi, but who’s actually going to read those? I felt that the author or publisher was purposely trying to mislead the public into thinking this fictitious work was an autobiography and that the events told were true. Believe me when I say that questioning the author’s integrity is not the most enjoyable way to begin reviewing a book.

Once I got into the story, I’ll admit the Secret Radio sort of grew on me. Massi knows how to keep a story moving forward and hang on to her audience. Yet even as I turned each page, curious about what would happen next, there was a nagging feeling that all wasn’t right with the book. I don’t just mean to point out the typos and too-small margins. There were fundamental problems with how the novel was worked out.

When the reader first meets Grace, it seems that she has already rejected, in just one summer, everything her faith and identity has been founded on. Those of us who have gone through those sorts of experiences know that, in real life, it often takes years of reevaluating your beliefs before you can confidently claim to hold new positions. Grace, however, seems to do so overnight. We don’t see her struggling against, say, an entrenched belief in male superiority. She just decides it’s wrong, and assumes that the reader hearing her story will go along with that. It’s enough to wonder if the character really ever held those views at all. Or more appropriately said, Massi doesn’t convince me that her character was ever the “fundamentalist” she was supposed to have been.

I also am weary about who exactly is the target audience. Plainly clothed and 470-pages thick, Secret Radio is not exactly set to attract younger readers, and attract younger readers it must. Stereotyped black-and-white characters engaging in juvenile behavior such as snooping, pranking, and sneaking out doesn’t make serious literature. On the other hand, the issues discussed in the book are not what would normally be deemed “appropriate for children,” and debate over religious doctrine would likely bore most young readers. I think I would’ve preferred a novel addressing the same problems but in a way that would appeal to adult readers: a heroine who actually seems conflicted, realistic supporting cast members who lie on the continuum between “totally good” and “totally bad,” and a main plot incorporating the sorts of tragedy that inspired the story in the first place. Then I’d say Massi was on her way to publishing a winner.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

‘Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity’ (Book Review)

Opinions differ as to what fundamental beliefs and practices make someone a Christian. When someone wants to promote a particular set of them, he painstakingly shows how each item in the list is “backed by Scripture.” Yet, the final product is still a man-made construction built on the wobbly foundation of selective prooftexting. You can’t find every item on the list in one place, and certain things are made conspicuous by their absence.

So we turn to the Bible itself. Is there some sort of list provided in there that we can work with? Arguably, the best candidate is Hebrews 6:1-2 (ESV):

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
Since the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews didn’t go into more detail about these basics, author D. Thomas Lancaster, a non-Jewish preacher who left the evangelical church to embrace Messianic Judaism, has done so for us. Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity (First Fruits of Zion, 2014) morphed out of an expository sermon series on this passage, from which Lancaster identifies six basic teachings that make up the foundation of Christianity: repentance from dead works, faith toward God, instructions about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (p. 9). Each teaching is summarized in the introduction, but is also explored later on in more detail.

The chapter that I appreciated most was the one on “washings.” Many Christian authors will go to great lengths to discuss Christian baptism in the New Testament without providing a context in which to understand it. Lancaster, however, discusses its origins as an ancient Jewish purification ritual and its practice by the early church as put forth in the Didache (i.e., The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles).

The chapter I wasn’t too impressed with was the one about the “laying on of hands.” Lancaster starts off making a very convincing biblical argument that this was necessary for a new convert to receive the Holy Spirit, but then balks, concluding otherwise. He seems unwilling to take such an extreme position merely because it makes him uncomfortable.

Where I would’ve liked further discussion is on “faith toward God.” The author builds a case for “faith on God” over “faith in God,” but doesn’t even address the translation issue of “faith” (i.e., belief) versus “faithfulness” (i.e., fidelity). I find this extremely puzzling because the latter choice would have fit so well with his interpretation of “faith” as a matter of behavior, not belief.

Despite a few difficulties, I generally liked Elementary Principles. Lancaster takes seriously a passage that too many teachers overlook because they’re eager to get to the “good stuff” – the heavy, advanced stuff – when sometimes their students need to review the basics to make sure everything is in order. These sermons can serve as guidelines for preachers and teachers to design their own sermons and lessons on these topics. (They might face a few challenges though since, being a collection of sermons, the book lacks endnotes and a bibliography to facilitate further study.)

Something else Lancaster accomplishes is staying on topic, not getting sidetracked on tangents or bogged down in a lot of controversy. This has its pros and cons. Even though the author set out to provide some simple answers, I felt that the book inadvertently raises more serious questions than he might have anticipated. Why is this all-important list only included in a book whose canonicity was seriously disputed? And why doesn’t the Bible contain a primer for us explaining these elementary principles? These issues are clearly beyond what Lancaster intended to cover in these sermons, but I hope he endeavors to take them on some point in the future.

Monday, March 16, 2015

‘Where Is Baby?’ (Book Review)

There are many books designed to introduce babies and toddlers to prepositions used to describe spatial relationships (e.g., above, below, in, out). Where Is Baby? by Bonnie Ferrante (Single Drop Publishing, 2014) is not as attractive as most of them. The basic idea – using an actual baby’s photographs to illustrate the concepts – is clever, but the finished product lacks the sort of polish that most shoppers are often looking for in toddler books.

Where most similar books succeed and this one fails is with the pictures. They need to convey clearly what is said in the narrative. When “Baby is peeking around the chair,” the chair is barely shown. Ditto for “behind the door.” “Baby is below the tree” looks like “in front of” and really should be “under.” “Baby is under the hat” should’ve been replaced with “The hat is on Baby.” And unless the reader is introduced to “Baby’s sisters,” there’s no way a child will be able to identify the older girls that way. Not unless the child is the one featured in all of the pictures.

While I do like the feel of the book, the cut-and-paste cover makes it look like a DYI project. Inside, the pictures are nice and large. However, some are not in the best focus, and others are too dark. The selection was probably made from a previous album rather than a planned photo shoot. It’s the sort of book you’d flip through and think, “I can do this.” And I agree. Take your own baby’s photos, and make your own book. You’ll be happier with the result, even if it looks amateurish, and your child will be thrilled.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Friday, March 6, 2015

‘Railway Ribaldry’ (Book Review)

Like most American children, I was first introduced to engineer Rube Goldberg’s wacky machines through Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, and other vehicles of modern culture. However, unlike most American children, I was also introduced to Goldberg’s British counterpart, W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944). My parents had a book of his illustrations, and I spent way too many hours during my formative childhood trying to make sense of it rather than struggling through my McGuffey Readers. So when I recently received a reprint of Railway Ribaldy, Being 96 Pages of Railway Humour (Old House, 2014), sweet nostalgia was in the air.

In 1935, the Great Western Railway (GWR), which linked London to west England and Wales, celebrated its one hundredth anniversary. Well-known World War I illustrator Robinson produced Railway Ribaldy to commemorate the occasion. His cartoons are political and cultural commentaries on the railroads in general and the GWR in particular, suggesting in a highly imaginative way how they evolved into efficient and comfortable means of transportation. That is, with fantastic contraptions that defy physics and the adaption of some of strangest social practices that have been giving laughing readers belly-aches for close to a century.

So if you’re in the mood for some entertaining visual stories documenting railroad “history,” check out this new edition of Railway Ribaldy. I’ll admit the book suffers from an unattractive cover design. The colors and lettering especially scream “outdated” rather than “timeless.” I feel that Robinson deserves something with a bit more posh. I also fear that too many readers will give up too easily on it. Some of the jokes are sure to be lost on today’s American readers, as there are no notes explaining some of the nineteenth century public’s concerns and the GWR’s dilemmas. Yet that can be seen as another opportunity for the reader’s imagination to take over. All flaws aside, I hope your family will enjoy this volume just as much as mine did.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.