Thursday, January 22, 2015

‘Jesus Feminist’ (Book Review)

“Jesus feminist”? The title struck me as a bit awkward. I think most people would’ve said “Christian feminist” or “feminist Christian,” even if they thought it was a bit of an oxymoron. But my curiosity was piqued, so I bought a copy. A few pages in, and I realized that I had expected something different.

For those of you not familiar with blogger Sarah Bessey, she’s known in the more “egalitarian” circles when it comes to discussing the roles of women in the Christian church. Her book title, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women – Exploring God’s Radical Notion That Women Are People, Too (Howard Books, 2013), suggested to me an in-depth study of various arguments and biblical passages, concluding with a defense of female preachers and church leaders in today’s churches. That’s not what it turned out to be, and there are both “pros” and “cons” to that.

Bessey starts out painting a very familiar scene: Christians, on all sides, emotionally and spiritually wounded from the perpetual war over gender roles, marriage, and the family. The result is defensiveness – proof-texting, cynicism, name-calling, and “consigning-to-hell” – where there should be love, kindness, and a genuine concern for those suffering around us. She seems to be calling us, at least for now, to admit that no of us has all the answers and that we have to allow each other times to grow and mature in our understanding. We need to “agree to disagree,” so to speak, and take the opportunity to get some real godly work done. There are orphans, AIDS patients, and sex trafficking victims who need our help, while nothing is gained for the kingdom by attacking our fellow believers with the same old tiresome arguments.

The solution? Christian women (regardless of their views on women’s roles) have a great opportunity before them. Enough with the sentimentalizing of marriage and motherhood that leaves no place for the singles and childless. Women have more to offer than the crafting, fashion shows, and fill-in-the-blank workbooks that masquerade as Bible studies and women’s ministries. Instead we can make a profound impact, rolling up our sleeves and serving our communities in the ways God wants us to.

That was my big positive takeaway from the book. To be honest, I’m not sure that was exactly what she had in mind. If you think the expanded title sounds a bit like rambling, then I’d say that it accurately reflects the book’s content. Bessey writes in a billowy style that might be more suitable for blogging than a book, which needs a more concise approach. This also crosses over in the book’s content, which was more messy than focused. While she effectively calls for a truce in the introduction, she tries to resurrect the debate in later chapters, tackling biblical passages instructing women to be silent in the church and to submit to their husbands. And in doing so, she gives the same weak, tiresome arguments we’re all familiar with. In addition, she seems to flop back and forth on her positions, so it’s not clear where she stands on the present state of women’s ministries, the lauding of motherhood in the church, and the effectiveness of women (or men for that matter) in preaching positions. I was left with the impression that she still needed to give herself some time to make up her own mind on these issues before writing about them for others.

I also need to call out Bessey on being needlessly divisive. She sets up a “straw man argument” insisting that “women are people, too.” This entirely misrepresents her opposition. While I have come across some who insist that women are to be owned and treated like animals, they certainly aren’t the majority of those who adhere to rigid gender roles (and often tend not to even identify as “Christian” anyway). Associating Christians who disagree with her with that view is understandably a major turn off to some readers who might otherwise take heart to her other points. In the end, Jesus Feminist will more than likely discourage any fruitful discussion among the various sides. This I think was the biggest disappointment. If another book is forthcoming, I hope the author puts more effort into building bridges than roadblocks.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

‘Orphan Train’ (Book Review)

Orphan Train – A Novel (William Morrow, 2013) by Christina Baker Kline was this month’s (January 2015) selection for the Alhambra Page Turners adult book club. Two stories are told in parallel as an orphan of today (2011) bonds with an orphan of the past (1930s). Parted from her mother and forced to live with unaccommodating foster parents, 17-year-old Molly Ayer finds herself needing to work off some community service time for a petty crime. Cleaning out the attic of 90-something-year-old widow Vivian Daly, she uncovers the story of another orphan, Niamh Power (“Dorothy”), who is put on one of the Children’s Aid Society’s “orphan trains” in 1929 and sent out to the Midwest. Niamh is just a little girl longing for a new family to love her. Instead she faces prejudice against her Irish Catholic heritage, physical hardship, and neglect, as well sexual abuse. It is through Molly, decades later, that she finally comes into her own.

While the premise of Orphan Train was touching, a number of issues left me dissatisfied overall. Many plot elements were just too predictable, making it difficult to really get into the book. Character types and inter-relationships were repeated, both across Niamh’s and Molly’s stories and within Niamh’s story itself. Now, you can argue that that’s the point of the parallel, but there’s still a line drawn between similar and the same. In addition, as Niamh’s childhood and young adult stories are told through her reflective aging eyes, there’s not a lot of emotional baggage that need unpacking, even though some painful experiences are mention. The result is a conflicting sense that she’s gotten over her past while it’s still haunting her. Rather unconvincing, in my opinion.

When it comes to the historical part, I liked how the Baker Kline took the Orphan Train Movement and made it Niamh’s personal story by focusing on the elements that were directly related to the character’s life experiences. However, this fell apart when the author’s preliminary research becomes Molly’s, and a unique experience gives way to regular history with generalizable facts. The result is the yawn-inducing history lesson that doesn’t motivate the reader to go explore himself. This also is indicative of how the author narrates in general. Readers are constantly being told things rather than being shown them through the action and dialogue. The result is a rather sterile read.

I also was disappointed that the author didn’t attempt to personalize World War II in the same way as the orphan train period. Instead, she follows the “grand narrative” of how an American citizen viewed the war, missing an opportunity to develop Niamh’s unique perspective. Irish immigrants weren’t exactly thrilled with the idea early on of fighting a war for Great Britain, but neither heroine touches upon that point when the issue of Irish oppression is raised.

Flaws aside, Orphan Train makes for an interesting read because its setting offers something different from much of the mainstream historical fiction. And if it helps preserve a little slice of American history that most of us know nothing about, that we can certainly benefit from reading it.

Friday, January 16, 2015

‘Adoration: Mary of Bethany – The Untold Story’ (Book Review)

Practically everyone has heard of Mary of Magdala or “Mary Magdalene,” whose reputation has grown from popular books like The Da Vinci Code and from recent speculation about the contents of the Valentinian gnostic text known as the Gospel of Philip. But Mary of Bethany, associated with “the other Mary” (Matthew 27:61, 28:1; c.f. Luke 24:10), has not enjoyed much time in the limelight, save maybe the recent (and not terribly well-received) The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2013) by composer John Adams. Her relative unpopularity should be a surprise to those of us who grew up attending Sunday School because the stories of Mary versus Martha (Luke 10:38-42), Lazarus being raised from the dead (John 11), and Mary anointing Jesus (John 12:1-11) are considered core curriculum for any age.

Well, as it turns out, Mary of Bethany has a fan, and a mega-one at that. Author Martha Kilpatrick, a blogger for Get Along with God and founder of Shulamite Ministries, believes that “Biblical characters are to be our intimate mentors.” She puts action behind her words with a poetic reinterpretation of Mary’s life in Adoration: Mary of Bethany – The Untold Story (SeedSowers, 1999). I wish I could tell you great things about this book, but while I agree that biographies of the early saints can make inspiring reading material for Christians, I was truly disappointed with Kilpatrick’s sub-par work.

The first indication of bad things to come was the author’s “Statement of Faith” that took the place of a proper book dedication. In it, she claims to be Jesus Christ’s “Shulamite” (referencing the standard translation for the feminine version of Solomon, which the female character in the Song of Songs is called). In other words, she identifies herself as the Messiah’s personal lover – either literally or figuratively – and this belief is fundamental to her faith. (Even more so than the resurrection, apparently, since that’s not even specifically mentioned!)

As I guessed, further reading reveals how this sort of bridal mysticism plays into her retelling of Mary’s story, where the sister of Martha and Lazarus has a special, intimate (although not sexual) relationship with the Savior. In the Bible, Martha complains that Mary is listening to Jesus’ teaching instead of helping her in the kitchen, but Jesus verbally corrects her. In Adoration, what is one short line of praise for Mary from Jesus is embellished into a dramatic story of two sisters in perpetual conflict. Mary becomes the angelic virgin and Martha the evil whore (although not literally, of course) in this classic but tiresome dichotomy.

Mary is reserved, patient, obedient, and spiritually in tune with Jesus. Martha is brash, jealous, confrontational, and controlling. They’re like the hero and villain in a child’s book. And because Kilpatrick is blinded by her own brand of Mariology, she can only see the sisters in this way. Every opportunity is taken to tarnish Martha’s reputation and criticize her for being demanding and trusting in her own knowledge. The author is especially cruel when she gets to Lazarus’ death. Because Martha’s every motive, word, and deed are suspect, her daring proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, which should serve as proof of her own profound understanding and faith, is ridiculed. Even in that glorious moment, Kilpatrick wants Martha to be shamed. Instead, I think the author should be ashamed for going to such great lengths to demonize a saint.

Now, maybe you don’t mind a little “artistic license” when it comes to retelling Bible stories. I would agree within limits, and I believe Kilpatrick went far beyond those limits. To worsen the reading experience, her poetry is unimpressive. It’s poorly-written prose, broken up in imitation-poetic fashion, making it difficult to read. And I am being nice.

Also, the author was rather sloppy about her research, relying too much on her own imagination. Even though minor references to ancient Jewish burial customs appear all over the Bible, she prefers to believe that the hired mourners were really disciples of Mary, eagerly following their religious guru everywhere. From just Martha’s complaint, Kilpatrick concludes that the family was poor, since obviously rich people would have servants to tend to kitchen duties. Really? A poor family can’t afford to feed so many guests. Poor people don’t have family tombs. They can’t afford to hire mourners. And they really can’t afford to save any money, let alone store a year’s wages in the form of inedible perfume.

Speaking of which: I’ll also be contentious over her line about pure spikenard being a “sweet oil.” I don’t think anyone who has actually gotten a good whiff of the stuff could’ve written that line with a straight face. Kilpatrick is just caught up in her imaginative storytelling, writing sensual lines about Jesus and Mary sharing the scent (pun intended). It apparently never occurs to her that Jesus would’ve likely had to wash when entering Jerusalem for the Passover feast. No, He has to be comforted with Mary’s ointment even to His last breath.

Yes, I know Kilpatrick was just trying to be romantic. She wanted a dramatic story and got one by creating a villain and bending the truth behind the details. The result is a childish spoof that makes a beautiful story ridiculous. All I can say is that her carelessness shows that she seriously needs to put more thought into what she writes. I still think Adoration had a lot of potential, but the poor execution earns it a Fail.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

‘Angel Investing’ (Book Review)

With the growing number of technology start-ups and the popularity of reality television shows like the Canadian Dragon’s Den and it’s American spin-off Shark Tank, terms like “angel investor” and “venture capital” are becoming household words. However, how to actually survive and thrive in this sort of investment market is still a great mystery to many. For those looking to fund these sorts of high-risk businesses, help is needed. And that’s exactly what Angel Investing: The Gust Guide to Making Money & Having Fun Investing in Startups offers.

Author David S. Rose is a veteran angel, founder of the New York Angeles investor group, and CEO of the online platform Gust, which connects moneyed members to entrepreneurs. In Angel Investing, Rose shows the novice the ropes, covering basics such as the differences between equity investment and lending; and among accelerators, angel investor groups, and venture funds. Readers will learn how to evaluate an entrepreneur’s potential, what to realistically expect from their portfolios, and how to be actively engaged in a business without becoming a nuisance. Rose also discusses what to expect in case of an acquisition, where your company is bought out by another one, and bankruptcy, where your chances of losing your entire investment is high. I particularly liked the author’s warning against trying to maximize financial return and social impact simultaneously. While it’s a nice idea that we could make money while being “do-gooders,” Rose points out that each project needs to focus on one goal.

Sounds good so far? Well, for those who would rush out and buy this book as a sure-fire way to getting rich, I want to add two words of caution. First, this book was written for Accredited Investors (i.e., people with mega-bucks who are permitted by the government to blow large amounts of money on start-ups that will in all likelihood fail). So you might be thinking, “What’s in it for the Average Joe?” Well, most of us at some time or another have been asked – or will be asked – to participate in a “Friends and Family” investment round. Now, armed with this book, you can learn to think like the multi-millionaires and billionaires and critically evaluate a business’ potential before dropping your life savings into your nephew’s big idea.

Second, angel investing is definitely more of an art than a science. It’s not a given which firms will be successes and which ones failures. (Don’t believe me? Check out the Apple chapter in the documentary film Something Ventured.) Most of the statistics are “guesstimations” based on Rose’s experience, not backed by hard data, nor expected to ever be. He talks about what generally happens, what entrepreneurs usually do, what problems often arise, etc., and builds his recommendations from this. But few things, aside from a few laws, are really set in stone. While it might seem like I’m being a “party pooper,” note that this is reality for any kind of investment or speculation – including Bitcoin, people! Angel Investing won’t eliminate risk, but it can teach you how to be a better informed investor.

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

‘Kickin’ Lenny Saves the Day’ (Book Review)

Lenny opened one eye and looked around his room. He saw something in red pajamas rush by his bed. Was it…? It was!

“Spider-Manny!” Lenny yelled, as his little brother jumped on top of him. The tall stack of peanut butter sandwiches that Manny was carrying came tumbling down on them. They were a sticky mess!
This is how Kickin’ Lenny Saves the Day (MTS Publications, 2014) should’ve started. But it didn’t. Instead, readers are treated to a tedious narrative complete with pseudo-adult dialogue and unrealistic family dynamics. They deserve better: Something exciting. Something that will inspire a love of reading.

What is Book #1 in the Kickin’ Lenny series about? We have a workable premise: A kid’s first week of school that involves an embarrassing kickball incident and a run-in with fourth-grade bullies. The author Michael Stubben, however, is too nice to his hero. The embarrassment subsides quickly. No black eyes are involved. The hero sheds no tears, and it never even occurs to him to lock himself in his bedroom to pout. The ending is the worst. It only teaches kids that violence solves everything, and that 3 and 5-year-olds are a match for 9-year olds. (Maybe that’s so in their dreams when they’re Spiderman, but most definitely not in real life!)

I wish I could say something nice about Kickin’ Lenny Saves the Day, but I really can’t. The book is neither interesting nor age appropriate. What 6 to 9-year-old with a 3rd-grade reading level is going to want to read a book about a kindergartener? And what 4 to 5-year-old is going to sit through a book without pictures? To make it worse, Stubben seems unable to follow the basic structure of any novel: conflict, climax, and resolution.

You might think I’m being unfairly harsh, but I think the author needs a reality check. Kickin’ Lenny Saves the Day is not about to become the next big thing in children’s literature. Instead, it’s destined to sit untouched and unloved for many years to come.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a favorable review.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

‘Surviving Triple-Negative Breast Cancer’ (Book Review)

In March of 1989, my mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. My parents, determined to fight it out, took to reading all they could on the subject, spending an enormous amount of time at the University of California, Irvine medical library. Later that year, after my father began his Ph.D. program and could actually check out books, I remember them bringing home gigantic black volumes with long words and gross pictures. They became completely absorbed in studying this disease, the effects of chemotherapy and radiation, and the consequences of postponing the treatments (since by then it was apparent that my mother was also pregnant). It was obviously a daunting task, being pre-internet and all. And I think the only reason why my parents didn’t let themselves get too intimidated by the research was partly because the situation was desperate and partly because they both had their Masters degrees. At any rate, I’m convinced that they would’ve welcomed an easier way to start their search than with the card files on obscure academic journal articles.

This is what came to mind when I read Surviving Triple-Negative Breast Cancer: Hope, Treatment, and Recovery (Oxford University Press, 2014). The author, Patricia Prijatel, is a health journalist who, after being diagnosed with TNBC, a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer, undertook the same sort of research that my parents did years ago. Recognizing that many other patients could benefit from a concise book that guides the reader through the basics, she wrote Surviving TNBC.

In a warm tone, filled with empathy, Prijatel educates her readers on causes, treatments, risks, statistics, and other information while providing an extensive number of references for those who don’t mind delving further. You might ask why I think books like this needed. Sure, we have Wikipedia, but that doesn’t cover a whole lot. And it’s not like the average reader is going to want to go directly to the medical journals cited. Prijatel’s book does that for you. In other words, it has the potential to encourage those who never liked school to educate themselves about the disease.

Where I think the book’s chief disadvantage lies is the likelihood of it quickly becoming outdated, especially since TNBC is a “newer” disease about which more is constantly being discovered. It also is a bit technical at times, when I think an easy-read approach is warranted. In addition, I wish that it had a comprehensive bibliography at the end, rather than just the end notes after each chapter.

Is Surviving TNBC a tear jerker? Not really. While Prijatel does tell her personal story, she’s writing an informative book, not a biography. Readers looking for an emotional connection with another survivor might have to look elsewhere. Luckily though, Prijatel has a blog, Positives About Negative, that I suspect allows for more personal interaction. And from the looks of it she seems to be doing well, despite various setbacks – something in which her readers can most certainly take comfort.

Disclaimer: I received a uncorrected advance reading copy of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a favorable review.

Friday, January 9, 2015

‘#Newsfail’ (Book Review)

It’s a sign of the times that a book title is in the form of a hashtag. For many disillusioned with mainstream politics, #Newsfail: Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will (Simon & Schuster, 2014) might be a welcomed treat. Authoring this humorous commentary on the American political landscape is the goofy comedian-journalist couple, Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny, best known for Citizen’s Radio, their independent online radio show that some might call “left-leaning” and others might call “radical.”

Style-wise, #Newsfail has a lot in common the work of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, although I doubt the authors would appreciate the comparison. Kilstein and Kilkenny have an opinion about nearly every current issue people are talking and arguing: climate change, “rape culture,” the “gay agenda,” gun control, drug reform, and more. They also have some strong words for the political situation and role of corporations and the media today. However, most of what they have to say boils down to strong language and weak arguments. But I don’t think the authors are really trying to convert anyone to their side. They’re here to entertain their fans, so even some allies might find it difficult to take #Newsfail too seriously. (Hence, why it’s categorized as “Humor.”)

If you have the stomach for a lot of ad hoc “it’s just so” arguments and “we represent the people” claims, then go for it. Between their rants are some hilarious and charming stories about how the couple got together, created their radio show, etc. While I’m far from being on board with their politics (a big exception being “rape culture” – disgusting it certainly is!), I found their book a nice quick read: the sort of thing that’s suitable for an airplane carry-on. I could appreciate it in spite of itself. The only thing I’m left wondering is, why – for all their ranting against corporate media and sponsors – did they go with a big-time publisher? Ironic, definitely.

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

Thursday, January 8, 2015

‘Against All Odds’ (Book Review)

A risky combination of drug addict and drug dealer, Joe Tarasuk would be expected to have had a rough life. Now rehabilitated and on the right side of the law, he shares his story in Against All Odds: A Miracle Journey of Recovery and Success (Together Bound, 2013). Readers can follow him through his troubled childhood, dangerous life on the streets, prison sentence, mental hospital stay, cultic experimentation, and family tragedy to his successful recovery and growth in Christian ministry. Tarasuk is the founder of CrossRoads Freedom Center, a residential recovery program for those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. Although he doesn’t come out and say it, I suspect the purpose of his book is to raise awareness among Christians about the need for such places of healing and to also provide a source of comfort for readers who might be experiencing similar problems.

While I can admire an author who bravely steps out on a limb like this to share his tragic story with the public, I honestly couldn’t get into Against All Odds. Something about the overall tone made me uncomfortable, and I couldn’t sympathize with the lead character. Tarasuk illustrates perfectly why “baby Christians” (i.e., new converts) shouldn’t rush into ministry. How was he supposed to affect change in other people while he was still struggling so much himself? No, I don’t think someone has to have a perfect life before trying to help others. But I do think he got his priorities mixed up. Getting the help that he needed and that his wife desperately needed should’ve come before anyone and everything else. The way things continued to unravel in his life – personally, financially, and in business – seem to be the natural consequences of this.

Other issues: I think Against All Odds could’ve benefit from a few more drafts. The content was unbalanced: too much detail in some places and not enough in others. For example, from the CrossRoads website and the book’s dedication, a reader would get the idea that two turning points in Tarasuk’s life were being raped as a child and later meeting Charles Colson, founder of the Christian outreach program Prison Fellowship. Yet the author mentions these almost in passing. Many times it seemed like he was just reciting events instead of trying to engage the readers in a meaningful story. I really wish Tarasuk had sought the assistance of an experienced coauthor or had gone with a traditional publisher with a grouchy editor. The author has something important to share, but unfortunately it was lost on a sub-par book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

‘Prosperity Every Day’ (Book Review)

The path toward financial success or financial freedom can often seem daunting. Sometimes you just need to start your morning with some encouraging words. Prosperity Every Day: A Daily Companion on Your Journey to Greater Wealth and Happiness (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) is here to help. This devotional book gives short inspiring passages – most only a few sentences long – by artist Julia Cameron and musician Emma Lively, reflecting on the spiritual aspects of prosperity and motivating the reader to pursue a more fulfilling life.

To give you a taste, here is the entry for December 1:
Money madness takes many forms. Financial anorexia is one of them. We refuse to deal with money, so we underearn and underspend. We get “high” on our lack of money.
While this is not normally the kind of book I’d pick up, I found it parts of it inspiring and motivating, during a time of a lot of job stress and financial worry. It particularly spoke to me on the subject of procrastination, something I’ve had to struggle with for a good three decades. The authors also have a lot to say about debt, money mismanagement, dependency, and issues of pride. Lacking practical advice, the book is not an instruction manual about how to get out of debt or become rich. Rather, it encourages the reader towards those goals.

While the book isn’t “religious” per se, it is “spiritual” and freely references God, the Creator, and the Spirit. This sort of bothered me because I was constantly wondering what the author meant, but the vagueness might appeal to a large number of readers coming from many different backgrounds. Something else that I didn’t like was the amount of repetition. Because I was reading a whole year’s worth of entries (including a leap year one) in less than two months, I found myself asking, “Didn’t I just read this?” However, for someone not reviewing it but going at a normal-once a day, this might not be an issue.

I’d like to make one last comment, and it’s not related to the content. It has to do with the timing of the release (January 2, 2015). This book – like a calendar – is supposed to be bought in December, so that it can be utilized and appreciated all year long. It would’ve made a great Christmas gift. Now anyone who buys it will have to start a few pages in or wait until a new year begins again. That shows very poor marketing, and I’m puzzled as to why neither the publishing staff nor the authors noticed. It would be unfortunate for Prosperity Every Day to never have a real chance because everyone’s already gotten their daily devotionals for 2015.

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