Archive for January, 2011

Cannonball 13: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

Wonder BoysWonder Boys by Michael Chabon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t LOOOOOOOVE this book.

Excellent writing? Check.
Interesting characters? Check.
Laugh-out-loud moments? Check.

But, somehow, it just didn’t strike any real emotional chord with me.

The story is told in first person by Professor Grady Tripp (played by Michael Douglas in the movie). He’s fat, struggling, loves to get high, and just found out that his wife has left him and his mistress is pregnant.

He picks up his editor from the airport, who has picked up a transvestite on the plane. But at a party thrown by the head of the English department (Grady’s boss, and his mistress’ husband), they meet a young student of Grady’s, James Leer. Terry Crabtree, the editor, immediately ditches his tranny date to pursue young James.

Wacky hijinks ensue.

Maybe that’s what it was; the characters were a little too quirky for my tastes. As much as I enjoyed Grady, I couldn’t help but to be reminded at nearly every turn, “THIS IS FICTION! WINK, WINK!!” I could certainly identify Grady’s struggle to follow up his first successful novel with a second novel that was going nowhere fast. But, at the same time, it was hard for me to sympathize completely with him when he keeps making bad decisions while high as a kite.

And the ending seemed a little too neat for me. Meh, I don’t know.

At the end of the day, I still liked the book. I just didn’t love it the way I wanted to, that’s all.

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Cannonball 12: The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles, #1) by Rick Riordan

The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles, #1)The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book is lame.

I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, so I thought I’d get right to the point. In the spectrum of Rick Riordan, there’s the good (e.g. The Battle of the Labyrinth) and the bad (e.g. The Maze of Bones). The Red Pyramid, unfortunately, follows in the vein of Riordan’s contributions to The 39 Clues series.

The plot is pretty standard fantasy fare: two kids find themselves embroiled in a race to save the world. They find that they have mystical powers and that saving the world is their destiny. In this case, the Kane kids find that they are Egyptian royalty descended from the Egyptian gods. Looks like Riordan is trying to take the corner market on EVERY mythology. What’s next? Norse? Indian? Native American?

The story is told from two characters’ points of view: Carter Kane and his sister, Sadie. I don’t generally object to stories being told from multiple points of view (About a Boy, for example, is a great example, although I suppose it isn’t fair to compare Rick Riordan to Nick Hornby), but Riordan’s use of the trope was tired and poorly done.

Okay, so, after their mother died, Sadie was raised in England by her grandparents while Carter went globetrotting with his American archaeologist father. So, of course, whenever we hear the story from Sadie’s point of view, Riordan has to stick in some obligatory English slang because, oh, right, Sadie’s English. But is she English or a bad stereotype? Really, Riordan, could you have been any more ham-fisted with your portrayal of the Brits? They don’t all talk like back-alley chimney sweeps who watch too much BBC America.

chimney sweeps

'ello, guvna!! CHEROO!!!

The other problem I had with the dual points of view was that the voices weren’t exactly distinct. I often read several pages into a chapter and was startled to read that Carter had a crush on Anubis, only to find that this particular chapter was being told from Sadie’s point of view. I just don’t see the point of telling a story from multiple points of view when one will suffice, and adding a second viewpoint won’t enhance the storytelling in any way.

Finally, I’m really starting to get tired of characters in fantasy books who find that they have supernatural powers, and then respond to them with unnatural aplomb. If I find that I can suddenly interpret hieroglyphics despite the fact that I have never studied them, I’m not going to shrink back modestly and keep this information to myself — especially if I just saw my father imprisoned in a golden coffin and swallowed by the ground. I’m going to be, like, “HOLY CRAP, I CAN READ HIEROGLYPHICS!!!” and freak out.

omg

That’s what I disliked most about this book, and I’m finding it more and more often in the genre: the characters reactions to the situations in which they find themselves simply don’t ring true. Their reactions are just so false; it’s a glaring reminder that THIS IS FICTION!! Sure, I know that I’m not likely ever to discover that I’m descended from ancient Egyptian gods, but that doesn’t mean that I want to be reminded at every turn that I’m dunking myself into a work of fiction. No, I want to immerse myself in it, lose myself in that fictional world and, for the time that I’m there, forget that there is any world but the one I’m reading about. It’s hard to do that when the characters are so paper-thin.

Wait, I lied: there is one thing about the book that I dislike even more than the false tone of the characters. It’s the fact that this whole book is supposed to be a transcript of a recording. The book is supposed to be a tape that was left behind for someone to find it, and the reader is supposed to have been meant to find it. While I appreciate Riordan’s attempt to make the reader feel as thought they’re a part of the story, this gag wears thin after the first two chapters.

The Kanes are leaving an urgent message for whoever finds it. They keep prodding at each other to hurry up; the reader is given the impression that they don’t have much time, and that someone may be after them.

So how the heck did they find time to leave 516 pages-worth of transcribed notes?? That’s a pretty long recording. And where the heck did they hide the tapes?? It must have been hidden in, like, the biggest hollow stump of all time.

If I had actually found the tapes and listened to them, the bad guys would have caught up to me and chopped my head off before I was done listening to Tape #1, and the Kane kids would be out of luck.

Look, Riordan, I’d appreciate it if you thought your literary gimmicks through before deciding, “Hey, this would make the story more compelling!”

I spent more time on The Kane Chronicles than it deserved (especially if you include the time it took to write up this review, which I won’t, since it was rather cathartic), and I hope that this review will spare you the same ordeal.

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Cannonball 11: The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus #1) by Rick Riordan

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ahh, here it is: the continuing saga of the half-bloods. I thought the Percy Jackson series was decent, and I did think Rick Riordan found some clever ways to incorporate Greek mythology into a children’s fantasy/adventure series. And I was also ever-so-grateful when he stopped his series at a definitive five instead of dragging it out for ten when it was better told in five.

So when I found out that he was planning a new series that would cross over with the Percy Jackson series, my curiosity was piqued. And I knew that I could count on my buddies JN and BN to lend me the books when they came out.

The Lost Hero is the first installment of The Heroes of Olympus. The hero of our story is not the one who is lost; it’s Jason Grace. He finds himself sitting in the back of a bus, holding hands with his girlfriend, Piper McLean, and joking with his best friend, Leo Valdez. The only problem is that Jason has no idea how he got there or who Piper and Leo are. He can’t remember a thing.

It’s unfortunate that Riordan felt the need to start his book on such a false note because the rest of it was plenty of fun, and filled with adventure. But this was a lame, lame way to start a series.

Look, if I suddenly found myself on a bus with an unexplained case of amnesia, I wouldn’t just sit there and yammer about what to do. I’d FREAK OUT. I’d start go nuts, and I’d certainly draw the attention of whatever authority figures were nearby. And if my boyfriend suddenly couldn’t remember who I was, then I wouldn’t just look crestfallen and try to speculate about ways in which this could have happened. Once again, I’d FREAK OUT. I’d demand that he be taken to a hospital right away so that he would REMEMBER ME. Then, maybe we could go back to holding hands.

jason bourne

Mmm, Bourne.

But, no, the kids on the bus just keep things under wraps until, of course, the monsters show up. Jason (are you sure your last name isn’t Bourne?) seems to instinctively know how to handle himself in battle, and he’s good with his weapon. But not good enough, apparently, because it takes a li’l deus ex machina in the form of Annabeth Chase, a son of Iris named Butch, and some pegasi to get them out of their mess.

As it turns out, Annabeth’s boyfriend, who is none other than Percy Jackson, the hero of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, is missing.

As usual, Riordan drops plenty of broad hints to his reader along the way. By the time that we actually find out the truth about Jason’s heritage, we’re like, “I GET IT. Just spit it out, already!!”

Riordan does a decent job of incorporating mythology into his story; that’s really where the strength of these series lies. Apparently, he decided to write this series because there was still so much mythology that he hadn’t explored in his first series.

This book was a fun li’l adventure, aside from the lame beginning. I’d be willing to read the rest of the series.

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Cannonball 10: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading Everything is Illuminated, I didn’t have very high hopes for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I found Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing a little too self-absorbed and indulgent for my tastes.

But Foer really hits his literary stride with this book. I was deeply moved by this tale of life, loss, and growing up.

Oskar Schell is nine years old. His father, Thomas, was killed in the 9/11 attacks. After his father’s death, Oskar finds a key when he accidentally breaks a vase of his father’s. The key was in an envelope labeled “Black,” which is written in red pen. This brings him to the conclusian that the key belonged to someone by the name of Black. He’s convinced that this key will allow him to find out something significant about the father he loved and wasn’t done getting to know, and he begins a hunt for the owner.

We also get to hear the story of his grandparents. They both survived the bombing of Dresden and lived to see the tragedy of 9/11. His grandfather, also named Thomas, was in love with his grandmother’s sister, who died during the bombing of Dresden. Thomas comes across Anna’s sister in New York. By this time, he has lost his powers of speech and keeps a notebook with him to be able to communicate with others. Foer unfolds their story through letters that Thomas has written to the son he never met, and through Oskar’s grandmother’s letters to him.

The book also makes use of some “gimmicks.” Oskar has his grandfather’s camera, and Oskar’s photographs are interspersed throughout the book. Oskar finds his father’s name written on a pad of paper at a stationery store where people are trying out different colored pens. We get to see pages from Oskar’s grandfather’s notebook. I generally roll my eyes at these types of shenanigans, but Foer actually used them thoughtfully to enhance the story, as opposed to using them as diversions to distract from the story. His use of photographs and color in particular makes the story seem more real to the reader.

thomas schell

A page from Thomas Schell, Sr.'s notebook.

I read other reviews of the book after I finished it and was surprised to see so much vitriol leveled at it. Some critics accused Foer of taking advantage of readers by using 9/11 as the backdrop of his novel. It was rather bold of Foer to write a novel about 9/11 less than five years after the tragedy. But I think time has been kinder to the novel than the critics have been, and I didn’t personally find it to be as cloying and sentimental as Foer’s harshest critics.

Others found Oskar to be a little too precocious to believe. But I think that his voice was spot-on for a smart kid who has suffered such a tragic loss. Sure, he knows a lot more than your typical nine-year-old, but I like that Foer made him kind of an arrogant, little punk. Smart kids are generally arrogant like this. And he’s still got the emotional maturity of a nine-year-old: he yells at his mom, does reckless things without thinking of the consequences, and holds onto impossible hope.

Overall, I thought it was a powerful book about coping with loss, and Foer has completely redeemed himself in my eyes for Everything in Illuminated.

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Cannonball 9: The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian FaithThe Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

About two years ago, there was a “gospel revelation” at my church. We’d always been a faithful, Bible-believing church, and we thought that God was blessing us because of that. Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods, played a huge role in showing us our legalism; showing us that we were counting on our own good works to earn God’s blessing instead of trusting that He would bless us by His grace alone. We believed that we were saved by His grace and faith alone, but we secretly believed that, after He saved us, we had to make sanctification and growth in our lives happen by our own power.

Two years later, I’m still learning what it really means to believe that God alone change me and make me more like Jesus. And I can tell that The Prodigal God is going to play a significant role in my continued growth as a Christian.

My pastor had been quoting this book for months before I actually read it, so I was familiar with the basic premise of the book before I began reading it for myself.

inigo & vizzini

Many people have the mistaken notion that the word “prodigal” means “morally loose” or “wayward” or “bad.” But according to Dictionary.com, “prodigal” means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.” The son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) was definitely prodigal; he spent his entire inheritance in no time at all.

But Tim Keller’s premise in the book (and the reason for the title) is that no one spends as lavishly, recklessly, and extravagantly as God Himself. He not only gave His own Son to pay for humanity’s debt of sin, but He also continues to give riches of grace to those who believe.

In the book, Keller examines the parable. It’s commonly thought (and preached) that the point of this parable is to show sinners that God will accept them no matter what they do. But this is only partially true. While the story certainly illustrates the sinfulness of the younger son and the mercy and love of the Father, many people overlook a third key character in the story. Actually, the older son is even more important to the story than the younger.

When Jesus told this parable, He was speaking to a group of Pharisees and scribes. They were criticizing Jesus for showing kindness to “sinners.” His audience had much more in common with the older brother than the younger: they were responsible, faithful, diligent, good people. But at the end of the parable, they are outside the party, and they are angry with the Father. And they are angry because He has shown mercy and grace to the irresponsible, selfish, reckless son.

Which one is really the good son? Sometimes, it's neither.

The heart of the older brother is one of outrage at God’s recklessly abundant grace to the undeserving because, in their eyes, it’s unjust. These sinners don’t deserve grace; they don’t deserve mercy or kindness or love. But these older brothers conversely believe that they themselves are deserving; they deserve everything that the Father has to offer. But they don’t think that any of it is because of the Father’s generosity or love. They think it’s all because of their own hard work.

Keller faithfully unpacks the gospel truths contained in this parable with simple language and razor-sharp insight. He points out the common attitudes and thoughts of “older brother” types, and he corrects them with gentleness and an ever-gracious eye.

This book has significantly impacted my own view of my good works and the purpose for them. It has greatly helped me to see the sinfulness of my desire to earn God’s favor, to reject His gifts and earn them so that I may be praised and respected as well as He, and to criticize, scoff at, and belittle others because they are not like me.

But the best part is that it has reminded me that I can’t fight these attitudes by standing outside and working like a dog. No; I need to go into the party and receive grace and blessings alongside my prodigal brother from our prodigal God.

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Cannonball 8: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I didn’t really get all the hype over this book.

The story concerns young Jonathan Safran Foer (yes, the main character has the same name as the author), a young American Jew on a quest to uncover his family history in the Ukraine to research a novel he wants to write. Assisting him on this quest are Alex, his translator, Alex’s “blind” grandfather, and his “seeing-eye bitch,” Sammy Davis, Jr., Jr. There are shenanigans. I didn’t think many of them were too terribly interesting.

The parts with Alex narrating were spectacularly hard for me to read. He speaks in this fragmented English, full of malapropisms. I take one look at that page full of hyphens and unreadable English and I have to fight every instinct that urges me to just skip it.

There are flashes of brilliance, however. Foer’s account of the history of Trachimbrod, the shtetl from which Foer’s ancestors are believed to have lived, is often moving and well-told. The story of Brod, Foer’s great-great-great-etc. grandmother, was just so sweet and sad.

But I think the book was way over-hyped for me. People kept talking about how funny it was, and I didn’t laugh once. And people continually rave about how it was such a groundbreaking book and that it would usher in a new era of modern literature and stuff. To me, it just seemed full of cheap gimmicks and self-importance. Ooh, look at what I can do!! I’m inventive! It seemed more a master’s thesis on literary gymnastics than an actual novel.

Overall, my impression of the book was one big “meh.” After reading this one, I can’t say that I was all too eager to read any more Foer. But I did.

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Cannonball 7: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The CorrectionsThe Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is there such a thing as a functional family? I’ve seen a few, but not many. I grew up in an first-generation Korean-American home, and it was rife with conflict. In addition to the usual generational-gap clashes that most families contend with, we also had to deal with the language gap and the culture gap.

I’m thirty-three and still live at home, and while the conflicts have mellowed out and become less frequent, the feelings of alienation from my parents are still uncomfortably present. As I’d hoped, I changed and matured as I got older. I thought this would make it easier to understand them, and it has, but I’d always expected that understanding them would make it easier for me to love them; to bear with them and be patient with them. It was and is frustrating to find that, despite understanding how difficult it was for my immigrant parents to run a business, raise three children, and stay married despite all the difficulties, I can’t seem to buck my bitterness and anger at them for certain injustices I’d suffered at their hands, including being saddled with the impossible hopes and expectations that every pair of immigrant parents has for their children.

heaf

It’s a sad and oddly comforting thing to discover that families with a bare minimum of such obstacles have to fight this frustration, too. That’s one of the overriding themes of The Corrections, and it’s perhaps why the book resonated so much with me.

The Lamberts seem like an American success story on the surface. Enid and Alfred are still married. Their eldest son, Gary, is a successful banker with a family. Chip was pursuing academia, but changed his career path to write for the Wall Street Journal. Denise is a renowned chef.

But underneath the facade, every family member is struggling. Alfred has Parkinson’s disease, and is slowly succumbing to dementia. Enid is in denial of Alfred’s condition. Gary is an alcoholic who is slowly losing his self-respect to a manipulative wife. Chip lost his professorship because of an affair with a student, and he’s writing unpaid contributions for the Warren Street Journal, not the Wall Street Journal. Denise lost her job as a chef when she slept with her boss — and he found out that she’d also been sleeping with his wife.

(WARNING for conservative readers — there are a few graphic sections that I had to skip.)

Enid is determined to get the entire family together for one last Christmas in St. Jude, their Midwestern hometown, and this brings to light their myriad struggles with one another as well as their personal struggles.

Chip feels guilty for being such a disappointment to his parents, and resents his father for setting his expectations too high. Gary resents his mother for demanding too much of him, even as he’s struggling with his marriage. Denise feels guilty for behaving in ways that she knows would shock her conservative parents, but, at the same time, feels restless and trapped by her parents’ notion that she is still their sweet, little girl.

As the eldest of three adult children, and the only one still living at home, I could identify a little with all of the Lambert children. Like Chip, I feel the need to protect my parents from my struggles, and sometimes resent them for adding the burden of their expectations to my burden of trying to keep my head above water. Like Gary, I’m bitter that my parents depend so much on me, but still fight me when I give them advice. Like Denise, I wish I could have been a better daughter, but I’m just not.

I was surprised to see that this book got so many negative reviews on Goodreads. One of the most common comments I saw was that none of the characters were likeable; they were all selfish and flawed. I had no idea that there were so many undamaged people out there.

For my part, I can identify with the characters mainly because they were selfish and flawed. In their selfishness, I see my own. In their bitterness and unwillingness to see their parents’ point of view, I see my own impatience with my parents. Every time they ask me to interpret an official letter from English, when they ask me to call customer service, when they ask to borrow my car, I have to fight my primal urge to tell them to they’re adults and should fend for themselves; after all, I had to figure all of this stuff out on my own.

But, sometimes, it’s easier to understand things if you remove yourself from the equation. And, in writing this book, Jonathan Franzen has given every child and every parent an opportunity to see from the opposite point of view; to see that it’s sometimes worth risking disappointment to preserve intimacy; that it’s worth swallowing pride to get the help you need; that just because love is silent doesn’t mean it’s not there.

It’s helped me to understand that, while my love for my parents is flawed, it’s still love. I can either focus on the flaws until I’ve destroyed it or focus on the foundation of love that is there and work, however slowly, towards healing.

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Cannonball 6: How to Cook Like a Top Chef

How to Cook Like a Top ChefHow to Cook Like a Top Chef by Chronicle Books
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

***WARNING: Long, personal anecdote ahead. For the review, skip ahead to the noted section.***

When I was in my early twenties, we had a Secret Santa gift exchange at my church. We were supposed to give our recipient a small gift every Sunday in December until the big reveal and the final, big gift at the Christmas party.

Week One went by, and I got nothing. During Week Two, I stood about empty-handed and smiling wanly as my friends squealed over their stocking stuffers, guessing who their Santas were. By the time Week Three hit, I finally received something: one of those 99ยข plastic canes filled with M&Ms. With gritted teeth behind a forced smile, I swore that I would have vengeance if the final gift didn’t make up for the winter of my discontent.

bad santa

Who was my Bad Santa???

The party finally rolled around, and everyone started revealing themselves to their recipients. I stood forlornly in the corner, fuming as the festive air of the room was punctuated with shouts of joy and surprise.

Then, my friend H revealed himself. He approached me sheepishly. “Merry Christmas, I’m your Secret Santa, hope you like it,” he rattled nervously. He handed me a hastily-wrapped package.

I carefully undid the paper (I’m not a tearer) to reveal a big, paperback book. Mexican Cooking for Dummies, the cover read.

I was furious.

mexican cooking

Just what are you trying to say about my intelligence?

I didn’t know how to cook; didn’t really care much about it, and was he trying to say he thought I was stupid? Still, I didn’t want to cause a scene or seem ungracious.

“Thanks, it’s great,” I managed between bared teeth.

When I got home, I tossed the book onto a bookshelf and forgot about it.

But, months later, guilt began to set in. He was still fairly new to our church, and my reception to his gift hadn’t been very gracious. And he didn’t really have to participate at all.

I thought I’d show him that I really was grateful by putting his gift to good use. It was almost May, and I thought Cinco de Mayo would be the perfect opportunity to put a Mexican cookbook to good use. But I already had plans for the fifth, so I planned a Doce de Mayo celebration instead, and invited H and a bunch of our friends.

I planned my first-ever meal, complete with appetizers, drinks, soup, main courses, sides, and a dessert. I bought all of the ingredients. I started cooking.

guacamole

Whenever there's a potluck, everyone demands that I make guacamole. It's become the last word in guacamole at my church.

The party was a hit (despite the fact that lunch was served about two hours late), and I was hooked on cooking. And I have H to thank for it. What I thought was a lame gift turned out to be a life-changer.

And, ten years later, H strikes again. He and his girlfriend (also an H) got me How to Cook Like a Top Chef for Christmas.

***REVIEW***

I’ve never before read a cookbook cover to cover, and certainly not in two sittings. But I am a huge “Top Chef” fan, and this book has it all. It’s the latest “Top Chef” cookbook, and it’s filled with recipes, information, technique tips, interviews with chef’testants, and mouth-wateringly beautiful color photos on every page.

fabio's chicken

The recipe I'd been drooling for: Fabio's Roasted Chicken with Herb Roasted Potatoes, Caramelized Cipollini Onions, and Grilled Lemon with Leafy Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette

It’s beautiful and glossy, and has recipes that are simple to make for the novice home chef as well as more challenging recipes for the self-made culinary artist.

My only tiny, tiny nitpick is that there just aren’t enough recipes. There’s plenty of material there for the “Top Chef” fan, but not quite enough for the dedicated foodie. I’d rather have another recipe than read about chef’testants’ tattoos.

H, H, and I are planning to get together soon to try out some of these recipes. And if the fate of Mexican Cooking for Dummies is any indicator, then How to Cook Like a Top Chef is going to end up a beat-up volume with food-stained and water-blistered pages — true signs of love in the kitchen.

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Cannonball 5: The Bookends of the Christian Life by Jerry Bridges

The Bookends of the Christian LifeThe Bookends of the Christian Life by Jerry Bridges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Back before there was a gospel revelation at Cornerstone Bible Church, there were rumblings of the change to come. I read The Disciplines of Grace with my Bible study (then called “Flock”) and it began to stir in my heart the beginning of a greater understanding of grace, mercy, and love of God.

Since that change in my understanding of the complete work of the gospel began with a Jerry Bridges book, it’s only fitting that another should contribute so much to my growing understanding of the magnitude of the gospel.

The Bookends of the Christian Life compares the two anchors of saving faith to two bookends that keep the books (i.e. Christian life) from falling over. First of all, it looks at the righteousness of Christ. Jesus lived a perfect life. He never sinned; not even once. And, when He died on the cross, He paid the price that I ought to have paid. Not only did He bear the punishment I deserved, but He also transferred His righteousness to me; when God sees me, He treats me as though I have lived Jesus’ perfect life.

This is so important for the daily Christian life. When sin enters my heart, when I make mistakes or simply give in to temptation, it’s tempting to let guilt paralyze me. I’m afraid that I’ll lose what I received from Christ, and I’m tempted either to just give up or scramble desperately to try and make up for it.

Bridges cites two enemies to the gospel: self-righteousness and persistent guilt. Self-righteousness thinks of the cross as an eraser, wiping the slate clean so that they can fill it with its own good works. This can have the (often unintended) side-effect of feeling as though God owes us something for our good works. But the truth is that we can’t count our righteousness without also counting our sin, putting us right back at square one. But if we count the cross as having paid for ourselves, then we can also count the righteousness of Christ as our own. But instead of breeding the pride and entitlement that self-righteousness does, it breeds humility, gratitude, and joy at what Christ has done.

It also kills guilt because the work of Christ is sufficient. We no longer need to bear the weight of our sin because Jesus has already paid it all. Once we believe this, we are freed from the guilt of sin. But we’re not free to just do whatever we feel like doing, which is really just enslavement to sin; we’re free to obey and love God because we’ve been empowered to do so.

The other bookend is the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s because of the power of the Holy Spirit that our lives and our hearts can be changed. And this power is always at our disposal, ready to help. We can have confidence that we will grow and change because it has been promised to us.

Bridges cites one more enemy of the gospel: self-reliance. The clean slate strikes again: this time, instead of causing us to feel like we deserve God’s favor, it makes us feel as though we need to earn God’s favor. But this is an affront to the cross. It presumes that the work of Christ is not enough. But remembering the power of the Holy Spirit reminds us that we don’t need to work for our own righteousness any more than we need to work to make up for our sin. It’s all been taken care of by the work of Christ already.

This is a short, simple work that simply highlights the truths of the gospel in light of the gospel. It was a balm for my soul in trying times. If you ever feel as though it’s tough going to follow Christ, turn to these truths and let the gospel comfort, encourage, and strengthen you.

This book is a quick, satisfying gospel shot, and if you want to live that reflects the gospel, it’s a great place to start.

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Cannonball 4: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek LoveGeek Love by Katherine Dunn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

We’ve all had our freak moments. Well, at least I know I’ve had mine; those moments when I’ve felt alienated from the rest of humanity because of the monster zit on my chin or because I couldn’t stop crying when my dog died (few of my close friends and family are dog lovers) or because I like to eat kimchi with spaghetti. But, sometimes, it’s those moments of alienation that deepen our human experience; it’s the fact that we’re all freaks on some level that unites us as human beings. I think this was the point that Katherine Dunn was trying to make with her novel, Geek Love.

I just wish she’d put a little more humanity in her characters because her geeks were freaks that I just couldn’t understand.

Olympia “Oly” Binewski is an albino hunchback. Her parents, Al and Crystal Lil, are carnies who have bred their own freak show: Arturo (“Arty”), the Fish Boy with flippers; Electra (Elly) and Iphigenia (Iphy), the Siamese Twins; and Fortunato (“Chick”), a normal-looking boy with powers of telekinesis. I suppose the point of the book was to show that being a freak on the outside doesn’t mean you’re not human on the inside, but it was difficult for me to sympathize with the characters and see their humanity when they made such off-the-wall life decisions. Perhaps part of Dunn’s point is that society makes freaks out of people who are different, but I don’t think she did a very good job of showing that, if it was.

hunchback

As Oly is rather nondescript for a circus freak, she doesn’t have her own act. Instead, she’s responsible for various tasks around the show, such as selling tickets and hosing Arty down after each show. But, as a result, she’s more of an observer than anyone else in her family. She’s best qualified to tell the story of the Binewskis, which hinges on her brother Arty’s Machiavellian rise and fall.

Arty is a thoroughly detestable character, constantly manipulating those around him and showing no love for anyone. I just couldn’t understand why everyone in his family seemed to love him so much; some, to the point of incest (gross). The family, for the most part, puts up with Arty’s scheming, and he manipulates them more than any others, which eventually leads to their demise.

fish

With such a dysfunctional family life, you’d think that Oly would be a sympathetic character, but I found myself oddly unable to feel anything for her. I’m still not sure what it was about her that I just couldn’t understand; ultimately, I think that Dunn failed to give me anything real to connect with in Oly, or in any of the other characters, for that matter.

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just narrow-minded and unsympathetic. But if being turned off by this weirdly flat tale of radioactive children and megalomaniacs makes me a freak, then I can live with that.

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