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.