Archive for December, 2009

Regular Read: Becoming a Woman Who Pleases God by Lisa Tatlock and Pat Ennis

Note to Pajibans:

Now, I know that any Pajibans who stumble upon this review of mine will most likely take umbrage at the view of biblical femininity that I hold so dear. I’d like to disclose here and now to all readers of my blog that I am a Christian. I’m not trying to make you one, but I’m not going to let the fact that you are part of my readership deter me from reading and reviewing the books I want to read. You are free to have your opinions and convictions about my opinions and convictions, but I’m free to have mine, too.

And I happen to believe that mankind was created to love God. We are happiest when we love Him and trust in Him. And, as a woman, I was created to love my home and the people in it. I will be happiest when I love it and them and find satisfaction in making it a place that reflects my love for God and for my family.

So I guess it’s safe to say that this review isn’t going to make it to the front page of Pajiba anytime soon. That’s okay with me. I understand that Pajiba attracts a certain kind of reader, and that girls like me are in the minority there. I love Pajiba because it provides funny, intelligent movie and book reviews, and I will continue to frequent its pages.

Yes, I enjoy well-written movie reviews. Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean I’m stupid (admit it. Some of you think that’s exactly what it means).

But I digress. Back to the book I should be reviewing.

Becoming a Woman Who Pleases God: A Guide to Developing Your Biblical Potential Becoming a Woman Who Pleases God: A Guide to Developing Your Biblical Potential by Lisa Tatlock

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Confession: I’m a legalist at heart. Underneath my veneer of laziness and selfishness, there’s a secret part of me that longs to save myself instead of trusting in God to save me. I want to be the hero. I want to be the good guy. I want to stand before God on Judgment Day and hear Him say, “I had a lot of great servants who did a great job, but you — you are something special.”

That’s why a book like this is so dangerous for a legalist like me.

So this book was written to help Christian women to embody the biblical model of a godly woman. And, while I think it contains some great tips and helpful tools for a wife, mother, and even a single lady such as myself to achieve personal goals of discipline and organization, I also think there’s a dangerous, if unintentional, emphasis on the “doing” part of biblical womanhood.

The authors, Lisa Tatlock and Pat Ennis, cover twelve different areas in which we can specifically and uniquely please God as Christian women. The authors offer lots of good practical advice on how to be a better manager of one’s home, finances, children, and personal devotions.

For a book that was supposed to be about Becoming a Woman Who Pleases God, it did a rather lackluster job of explaining the heart and motivation behind the many practical areas it addressed. That, to me, is putting the cart before the horse. In my mind, wanting to become a woman who pleases God cannot start anywhere but the heart. It must begin with theology and the gospel – we have to know why we want to please God if we want to do things that please Him. He does not look at the outward appearance, but at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

The book doesn’t completely neglect the spiritual aspect of discipline. The authors end each chapter with a study guide that delves deeper into the scriptures pertaining to their topic. I tried to do the study guide for each chapter in order to get the full experience of the book. I had to give up after Chapter Seven because I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was exhausting, having to look up so many different passages and then trying to meditate on each of them – at the rate I was going, I was never going to finish. I’m convinced that the only reason I’m even ready to write this review today is because I finally stopped doing the study guides.

And that’s the thing with this book. Does it provide lots of good advice? Yes. Does it encourage women to be excellent workers in the home? I think so. But it also paints a pretty rigid picture of what a godly wife and mother should look like. Not everyone needs charts and spreadsheets and flash cards in order to please the Lord. And those things don’t necessarily help the women who use them, either. Sometimes, those things help. But they can also enslave and lure women into a false sense of rightness with God just because they’re sticking to the program.

You might be super-faithful to the flashcards and spreadsheets and still be shocked wake up one day feeling like you aren’t really walking with the Lord. This is because faithfulness to flashcards doesn’t lead to intimacy with God – faithfulness to God does.

I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, here, so I’ll say again that I think that the authors provide some great tools and tips for those who need help to be more excellent in their home life. But let me warn you before you start that, if you’ve got legalistic tendencies like I do, you’re going to need to be extra-careful to spend good time at the feet of Jesus while you’re reading this book to make sure that you’re serving Him and not the charts.

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Whew, I’m Back.

Okay, so it’s not like I have a huge readership, but I still feel that I owe the two or three of you regular readers an explanation for my unexpected and unannounced hiatus from the blog.

1. I wanted to take a short break after NaNoWriMo and it just got away from me.
2. I ended up having to work on this crazy project (this, this, and this, to be specific) and it totally devoured all my free time for, like, three weeks.
3. A close friend experienced a particularly traumatic family tragedy and I just had to be there for her.

But I've been thinking about you, reader(s), and I'm coming back to you.

Please open up those lovin' arms and watch out — here I come.

Cannonball 12: The Sword Thief (The 39 Clues #3) by Peter Lerangis

The Sword Thief (The 39 Clues, #3) The Sword Thief by Peter Lerangis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
When I was younger, I used to despise Koreans. I would get really embarrassed when all the other Korean kids started drawing Korean flags on their backpacks and notebooks and writing “KP” (“Korean Pride”) on everything they owned (I still think I was a tiny bit justified in that embarrassment. That’s pretty lame, yo).

But, as I grew older, I realized that, whether I liked it or not, being Korean was part of my heritage, and trying to cut that off was like cutting off my nose to spite my face. I learned to accept the good things that came with the culture (the emphasis on diligence, integrity, and respect) and to watch out for the bad (arrogance in achievement, undue emphasis on success in the eyes of the world, and the tendency to bury emotions and affection down where no one can find it, not even you).

Besides that, I realized that Koreans have the best cuisine in the world. Seriously, Korean food is tha BOMB.

And then I read The Sword Thief and now I hate Koreans again.

The third book in the 39 Clues series (I can’t believe I’m only one-thirteenth of the way through this series. Kill me now) contains two elements that I find absolutely repulsive. The first is a mysterious Korean uncle to two white kids (you still haven’t explained this to my satisfaction, writers), who alternates between wanting to help the kids and wanting to hurt the kids to help himself. Through it all, he’s creepy as creepy gets, and the picture of an actor posing as him on one of the collectible cards was even creepier because the book makes him sound like an old man, but the man in the picture was youngish. Creepy uncle of eternal youth? Creepy.

And his name is supposed to be Alistair Oh? Shenanigans. Strike three, writers.

The second creepy-as-all-get-out element is Amy Cahill’s crush on her COUSIN. Ew, ew, and EW. I don’t care that they’re probably not that closely related. There’s even a scene where Ian Kabra, the handsome cousin (GAG) “lightly brushes her lips with his” or some crap like that. EEEWWWW!!!! Excuse my while I puke!!! That is so not appropriate, I don’t know what to say. And the worst part of it is that it’s not even being played for laughs, or with any hint of irony. When the writers of “Arrested Development” put romantic tension between George Michael (the adorable Michael Cera) and his cousin Maeby (the also adorable Alia Shawkat), at least there was a chance she was adopted and it was all played for laughs anyway. But The 39 Clues is taking this über-seriously. As serious as the hereditary diseases that result from inbreeding.

Other than that, the adventure part of this novel was pretty much the same old schlock I’m getting used to seeing from this series. Kids race around exotic foreign location, avoid baddies, run into baddies, somehow elude their grasp and manage to be the first to find the next clue in the series.

Three down. Thirty-six to go. *sigh*

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Cannonball 11: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, #3) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw by Jeff Kinney

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
With The Last Straw, Jeff Kinney recovers from a lackluster sophomore novel, Rodrick Rules, but is unable to recapture all of the magic of his original hit, Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

This installment of the series picks up after the Christmas of seventh grade for the eponymous wimpy kid, Greg Heffley. He gets a series of predictably lame gifts from his family and his doofus of a best friend, Rowley. The rest of seventh grade unfolds in typical junior-high fashion, complete with awkward moments with the opposite sex, family strife, and that all-too-familiar sense of wanting to belong and not knowing how to make it happen.

The tone of this novel is closer to that of the first book in the series, which was a relief for me. I liked that the first novel was focused on being a painfully ordinary kid, as opposed to focusing on the circumstances surrounding said ordinary kid. The second book seemed more focused on the tough-luck circumstances of Greg’s life.

It’s not the circumstances that we identify with; it’s the character. We may not all get filmed hanging from a tree in Wonder Woman underwear, but we’ve all been embarrassed. The third book came back to that mentality a bit more. Sure, the circumstances are exaggerated, but they’re not the focus, really, which is what saved the book in my view.

I didn’t enjoy the first book because bad stuff happened to Greg. I enjoyed it because that bad stuff was a great backdrop off which to show Greg’s personality and character. It made me vividly remember my own struggles to feel comfortable in my own skin as a middle-schooler. That was the magic of the first book.

The Last Straw was a solid installment in the series, but the original recipe is still my favorite.

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Cannonball 10: Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray

Barry Lyndon (Oxford World's Classics) Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I used to be a compulsive liar.

When I was young, I would lie all the time – to my parents, to my teachers, to my siblings, to my friends. Whenever I was asked a question I didn’t know the answer to, I’d just make one up. I once told my little brother that they made a cast of Abraham Lincoln’s face after he died and then shrank it with that machine from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and used it as the mold for the modern penny. Hey, he’s the one who believed me.

It wasn’t until I hit high school that I became a Christian and my conscience caught up to my tongue. That was around when I started to value integrity more than getting away with stuff.

But I think my secret past as a liar is what helps me to identify with the main character of Barry Lyndon. We both grew up poor, we both wanted to make a better life for ourselves, and we both had no qualms about telling lies if it meant getting us one step closer to our goal.

One of my favorite things about this book was that it was told from a liar’s point of view, so you really have to read between the lines. But Thackeray leaves just enough meat on the bones so that we can imagine what the animal originally looked like before it was flayed by Barry’s embellishments.

It’s a highly entertaining rag-to-riches-to-rags story, but there’s an undertone of pathos to it. In spite of his high-spirited style of storytelling, there are places where his happy-go-lucky veneer wears thin and the reader can see the desperation underneath that drives Barry to do all the crazy things he does. He wants to be comfortable, loved, and, above all, respected.

But his machinations get steadily darker and more desperate until all we can do is pity and maybe even despise him for what he’s allowed himself to become by the end of the novel.

After looking at what’s under that veneer, it’s hard to laugh at his antics.

The moral of the story: don’t lie, kids.

***

In a slightly related story, my fobby Korean boss was recently telling me not to believe a tenant who claimed that his rent check was in the mail.

“He always lie, Jenny,” he said. The girl who worked here before me was named Jenny. I’ve been working here six months and they still call me Jenny all the time.

“He say he send check, but he don’t, Jenny,” he continued.

“So he’s a lying liar who lies,” I offered.

“Yes,” he agreed, shaking his head disapprovingly. “His pents is on fire.”

That made me laugh.

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Cannonball Read 9: One False Note (The 39 Clues #2) by Gordon Korman

One False Note (The 39 Clues, #2) One False Note by Gordon Korman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I firmly believe that writing for kids should still reflect good writing.

Just because they’re kids doesn’t mean that you should throw in a bunch of explosions or fighting to keep them interested. No, I believe that children, like adults, learn how to write from what they read. I’m not just talking about grammar, here. I’m talking about style, descriptions, expression — the whole shebangbang.

And the better the writing is now, the better it will be in the future, when today’s kids grow up and write books of their own.

This is why I’m so disappointed with this book. Gordon Korman wrote This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall when he was only twelve — it was published when he was fourteen. The Bruno & Boots series was full of fun and energy — I wanted to move to Canada and attend Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies so that I could engage in shenanigans with the boys at McDonald Hall. His characters were believable and had a lot of depth under all the fun.

How can it be that Korman’s writing got worse as he got older?

After reading The Maze of Bones, the only things that made me read the second book in the series were that: A. my nine-year-old buddy BN was looking forward to lending it to me, and B. the second book was written by Gordon Korman. I figured that if anyone could rescue this series from a crappy second installment, it was Korman.

I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.

The second installment in the series takes the kids from France to Austria to Italy. This time, they’re chasing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. We get a lot of nice Mozart factoids along the way, but I’m dubious as to the accuracy of some of them. For example, the book claims that Mozart had a twin sister. He did have a sister, but they weren’t twins. What’s up with that, Korman?

But my biggest beef with this volume wasn’t the inaccuracies. It was the lack of style.

Maybe it’s because he was given such crappy characters to work with in the first place, but the book was just as two-dimensional as its predecessor. I guess I was expecting too much — if Korman read Rick Riordan’s installment and then tried to copy his (flat) style, then he did too good a job. Korman, sometimes, it’s okay to turn down a job.

Really, the only thing One False Note really does is get the Cahill kids from France to Italy, from whence they will fly off to Japan. *sigh*

Man, I miss Ellen Raskin so much.

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PAJIBA!!!

I made it, Ma!

Imagine my surprise when I opened my Google Reader yesterday to find that my favorite Cannonball Read so far got the royal treatment: it’s an official review on Pajiba!!!

Now, there's a sight for sore eyes.

Thanks, Abe. I owe it all to you.

This is so exciting! I mean, I didn’t expect it to happen so fast!

Also: SQUEE!!!!

That is all.

Read the original review.

Read the review on Pajiba.

Cannonball 8: Diary of a Wimpy Kid #2: Rodrick Rules

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, #2) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was pleasantly surprised by Jeff Kinney’s Diary of Wimpy Kid.

I didn’t expect much from this book, which looked like a sloppy, lazy effort to get a cheap laugh and a quick buck from a young readership that doesn’t know any better.

But I was pleasantly surprised by Kinney’s take on the woes of life as a nerd in junior high. I found it insightful and sympathetic and refreshing.

Kinney’s sophomore effort was more of the same, but it suffers a little from the fact that his device of an illustrated diary is no longer novel. When we read the sequel, he can’t rely on innovation to distract the reader from the writing anymore.

Kinney’s writing isn’t bad, but he’s no C.S. Lewis, that’s for sure. It’s a good thing his illustrations are still moderately amusing.

One of my least favorite things in a book is when the author dangles a carrot in front of the nose of the reader to get them to keep plugging through the book. They promise a juicy plot point and build it up like it’s going to blow. Your. Mind. But then they reveal the secret, and it turns out that the carrot was cardboard all along. If you’re going to hype up that secret from the beginning of the book, you’d better deliver, Kinney.

However, my biggest disappointment with Rodrick Rules is that, in my opinion, Kinney bit off more than he was able to chew. He tried to deal with themes of fitting in, sibling rivalry, friendship, and secrets, but he wasn’t able to develop any of those themes as fully as he did in his debut effort. It’s the Curse of the Sophomore Album: The Literary Version. He tries to replicate the magic of the original, but his efforts come off contrived and hollow.

As a whole, I can still think of worse things to read out there. But, to be honest, the only reason I still plan to read the third book in the series is that I’m a little obsessive-compulsive when it comes to reading series. I have to finish, no matter how bad the series is (I’m looking at you, Francine Pascal).

And there’s also the fact that I won’t be able to refuse the kids who lend me these books. They look at me with those excited, young faces and I can’t help but to say, “Yeah, I’d love to borrow another 39 Clues book!”

I hope Kinney learned from his mistakes on this book and that Book 3 will surprise me.

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Cannonball 7: Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I finished this book a few days ago, but I couldn’t write the review without crying until now.

Team of Rivals deals primarily with Abraham Lincoln’s political savvy. He went from a hayseedlawyer on the fringes of the American consciousness to one of the greatest and most respected leaders in our nation’s history — in world history, even.

The book is about Lincoln’s shrewd leadership, but its heart is about his character. Lincoln was a political genius, yes, but it was his integrity and humility that strengthened him to stick to his political convictions. It was his knack for giving humorous illustrations to set his adjutants, friends, colleagues, and even his enemies at ease that earned the respect of the American people in the most difficult trial our nation has ever faced.

Goodwin carefully details the background of each member of Lincoln’s Cabinet. She doesn’t just set forth the facts of their biographies — she paints a picture of each man’s character and personality. She brings them to life the way only a truly gifted historian can.

She also gives the reader a feel for the zeitgeist of the era. We Americans have all studied the American Civil War in school. But textbooks and lectures can’t convey the emotional state of a nation in peril. She gives examples of Americans from many different walks of life — North and South, slave and free, rich and poor — to show a broad view of how the war affected every American. No one came through unscathed.

And of course Goodwin describes Lincoln’s own life and character in careful detail. What makes the book so powerful is Goodwin’s ability to take a subject of thousands of biographies and bring him to life afresh. The reader learns about Lincoln’s agony over the personal cost of the war to each American — Northern and Southern alike. We see his level-headedness in handling delicate situations involving indelicate men. We see the strength of his conviction as he graciously but firmly led his Cabinet while still humbly considering their counsel in every matter.

We see why the nation was so devastated by his assassination. To lose their leader at the end of its most difficult trial must have been a terrible blow to a nation already weakened by war. It’s a credit to Goodwin’s writing that we feel the grief of the nation as we read her account of Lincoln’s assassination and the aftermath. I wept as though I had lost a personal friend.

But, aside from Lincoln’s wife and sons, no one felt the loss quite as deeply as his Cabinet — the eponymous “team of rivals” that he assembled to give him a balanced council to advise him.

Secretary of State William Seward was nearly assassinated himself, and had to cope with his own recuperation as well as the loss of his friend, colleague, and President. Seward had bid for the Republican nomination in 1960, but lost out to Lincoln. After much hesitation and political maneuvering on Lincoln’s part, he finally reluctantly accepted the post of Secretary of War. He was the first member of Lincoln’s Cabinet to recognize the President’s genius. He was Lincoln’s most trusted friend.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton couldn’t say the President’s name without weeping for weeks after his death. He had his fair share of conflicts with the President — when they first met, he was called in to handle a case that was originally given to Lincoln. No one ever told Lincoln he’d been replaced, so he showed up to court. Stanton ignored his presence and proceeded to present the case. Afterward, Lincoln admiringly said that he needed to go home to learn how to become a lawyer. Stanton rather brusquely dismissed his ability to do so.

But he quickly learned that underneath Lincoln’s simple manner and unassuming demeanor was a quick wit and an uncanny ability to assess a critical situation, along with the patience, wisdom and self-control that it took to wait before making important decisions (and nearly all of the decisions he had to make during his tenure as president would be crucial). It was Stanton who uttered, “Now he belongs to the ages,” at Lincoln’s deathbed.

Oh, man, so much for a tear-free review.

It’s no easy task to write an extraordinary book about an extraordinary man who led a nation in an extraordinary time with a team of extraordinary men. But Doris Kearns Goodwin has risen to the challenge, driven by her passion for Lincoln and his legacy. Her work is, in a word: extraordinary.

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Cannonball 6: Comforts from the Cross: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time by Elyse Fitzpatrick

Comforts from the Cross: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time Comforts from the Cross: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mrs. Fitzpatrick is one of my favorite Christian authors.

She has a clear and casual writing style — reading one of her books is like having a heart-to-heart with the woman herself. She’s personable and sympathetic — and she’s spent a lot of time at the foot of the cross.

Comforts from the Cross is a 31-chapter devotional. It contains a month’s worth of reflections on the cross of Christ and how it frees us from the burden of sin and guilt, how it comforts us in times of trouble, and how it bolsters our faith to live for His glory.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick understands that the gospel doesn’t stop at “Jesus died for our sins.” This book is committed to reminding the reader that, yes, Jesus saved us by His grace — and He promises to make us holy with that same grace.

It’s such a departure from the common American view of the gospel — that Jesus died for you, so you’d better make it up to Him by being a good person. This is a abominable twisting of the true gospel message, and it greatly saddens me that so many assume that this is what the Bible teaches.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Fitzpatrick for reminding us that Jesus died to set us free from that kind of thinking. May we continue to depend on Him, and not on ourselves, for growth in character and faith.

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