Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’

Cannonball 32: The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's WifeThe Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Man, I have been having the worst luck with Holocaust books, lately.

The Zookeeper’s Wife was recommended to me by a dear friend. The story itself is actually quite remarkable. It’s the true story of Antonina and Jan Żabiński, who ran the Warsaw Zoo during World War II. After Poland was taken over, Antonina (the titular character) and Jan began helping the Underground by harboring Jews in the zoo, in the animals’ empty cages.

It really was amazing, how they used their zoo and their wits to save lives and to survive themselves during this harsh and uncertain time.

So why did I only give it two stars? Because, dear God, Ackerman’s writing made me want to puke. I mean, it wasn’t Tatiana-de-Rosnay-bad, but it was pretty bad. Basically, what Ackerman did was read through Antonina’s letters and interview surviving relatives and stuff. Then she thought to herself, “What must Antonina have been thinking? What must Antonina have been feeling?”

But I highly doubt that Antonina thought of herself as a character from a book, and that she didn’t organize her thoughts as though her mind was a screenplay. There was a forced drama to Ackerman’s writing that, to me, cheapened the genuine gravity of the events of the book.

And maybe this part isn’t Ackerman’s fault, and I know I’m pickin’ nits, here, but I also took issue with the dust jacket book summary, which made a big deal of the Żabińskis being Christian. That’s actually why my dear friend recommended the book to me: “It’s a really great story and it’s so interesting and, oh, they were Christians and –”

There were nothing but cursory mentions of God in the book. I’m not saying that I think the Żabińskis were bad people just because they didn’t God it up enough to satisfy the likes of me — far from it; they were heroes — but I did feel a little misled. I’d expected there to be much more in there about how their faith informed their decision to join the Underground, and it just wasn’t in there. And, from what I could gather, they were Catholic. Get your facts straight, publishers. That’s just lazy.

I think that the Żabińskis’ story is incredible, and I think they deserved a better write-up than they got. I hope that, someday, some other writer does this story justice and washes the memory of The Zookeeper’s Wife from my brain.

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Cannonball 31: The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen

The Discomfort Zone: A Personal HistoryThe Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Discomfort Zone is author Jonathan Franzen’s personal memoir. In the book, he covers stories of growing up in a Midwestern, Protestant town with Midwestern, Protestant values.

The beginning chapters of the book really shine. They’re engaging and beautifully written. But, for me, Franzen starts to lose steam after the second chapter, and the book ends with a bit of a whimper.

Still, those first two chapters alone make the entire book worth reading. Given the chance, I’d love to drown in those words again.

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Cannonball 39: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

My Life in FranceMy Life in France by Julia Child
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s like I was born to read this book. Or that this book was written just for me.

I love, love, loved Julia Child’s memoir of her life in France. Not only was it a firsthand account of a remarkable experience, but her nephew, Alex Prud’homme did an excellent job of capturing her voice and personality in the book.

I never really thought about how much work goes into a cookbook. She not only had to research the recipes and make sure that they worked, but she wanted to explain why she did things a certain way and how things should look and feel and smell and taste.

This cookbook changed the face of the American home cook, and it amazes me to look at my cookbooks now and think about how she impacted the way that they were written and even how we look at cuisine today.

She made French cuisine accessible to the American housewife, but, in doing so, she opened a door. She encouraged cooking enthusiasts to be open to new experiences, to try new things, to fail miserably and try again, and to believe that they could create these culinary masterpieces with the right ingredients, a little know-how, and the confidence that anyone can be a good cook.

I want to be her. Like, I want to move to France and take classes at Le Cordon Bleu and learn how to break down chickens in nothing flat. I want to breathe beurre blanc and steam fish and make a really “chickeny” roast chicken.

julia child

This could be me. This SHOULD be me.

Unfortunately, my oven’s broken right now. But I’m excited about seeing all of the wonderful things I can do in my kitchen without one. Thanks for the inspiration, Julia. I owe you one.

On a side note: YAY!! I’m all caught up with my reviews for Cannonball Read!! No more backlogged reviews!! Now I can just review ’em as I read ’em.

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Cannonball 36: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981 by Iain H. Murray

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981 by Iain H. Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading Murray’s first volume on the life of Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I was practically foaming at the mouth to read the second volume.

It did not disappoint.

This look at the second half of Lloyd-Jones’ ministry covers his ministry at Westminster Chapel, his relationship with InterVarsity, his eventual rift with this ministry, spiritual depression, illnesses, and, above it all, his supernatural faith in a supernatural God.

Murray painstakingly researched his subject. I’m sure that his personal admiration for the man made that process a lot easier. And, through Murray’s faithful research, people for generations to come will have a clear picture of this man, whom God used so mightily in His kingdom’s work.

It’s hard to put into words what I enjoyed most about the biography. I enjoyed so many different things. Murray shows Lloyd-Jones’ unwavering conviction that the Word of God is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). He also shows Lloyd-Jones’ spiritual sensitivity in dealing with controversial issues.

But he also paints the portrait of the pastor as a family man. He was devoted to his wife and daughters, and could hardly stand to be separated from them. He was a die-hard patriot, and Wales was the home that he loved more than any other place in the world, despite his faithful ministry in London for so many years.

He looks at the Lloyd-Jones’ life during World War II, and how it changed them as it changed the nation.

Above all, Murray faithfully shows what Lloyd-Jones himself believed with fervor: that he was just an instrument, and the true skill lay in the hand of the One who wielded it. While it’s clear that Lloyd-Jones was mightily used to promote the gospel and the kingdom of heaven, all the praise goes not to Murray or to Lloyd-Jones, but to the God of heaven.

I benefited greatly from reading about Lloyd-Jones, as well as from reading excerpts of his writings that the author saw fit to include. I look forward to reading more of Murray’s biographies in the future.

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Cannonball 34: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, 1899-1939 by Iain H. Murray

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones the First Forty Years 1899-1939David Martyn Lloyd-Jones the First Forty Years 1899-1939 by Iain H. Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I actually didn’t know much about D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones before my friend Mark lent me this book. I’d heard his name attached to Christian quotes here and there, but I didn’t really know much about him, his ministry, or his legacy as a pastor and preacher in England.

Well, Iain Murray has opened my eyes to the treasury of wisdom contained in the words of Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Murray is a faithful biographer who actually had the privilege and blessing of working for the subject of his biography. He presents a faithful telling of Lloyd-Jones’ early life, upbringing, conversion, early medical genius, and sacrifice of that genius for the sake of God’s call to a pulpit ministry.

Lloyd-Jones loved the Word of God. God gave him a special gift to understand and teach the Scriptures to people. He also had a special gift for evangelism. God used his gifts many times to convict people of their sinfulness and need for a Savior: Jesus Christ. God used him to bring about a sweeping spiritual revival in England.

Murray includes excerpts from Lloyd-Jones’ sermons that really drive that point home. I wish I’d written down the passages in the book that impacted me most; he had such a clarity when it came to the Word of God.

And Murray is, in my opinion, the most talented Christian biographer of our generation. I was first introduced to his biographies when Cornerstone Bible Church‘s pastor James recommended his Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography.

His account of Lloyd-Jones’ early ministry is a gripping read, and a testament to God’s faithfulness in the life of one man. One of my biggest takeaways from reading both of these biographies is that the same God who used Edwards to spark the Great Awakening of the 1700s and the same God who used Lloyd-Jones to bring revival to England in the 1900s can bring revival to us today.

I pray that this would start with Cornerstone Bible Church, and in my own heart.

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Cannonball 31: A Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary

A Girl from YamhillA Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many other girls my age, I grew up reading Beverly Cleary.

Her books about Ramona Quimby spoke to me like no other books did. While I always told people that my favorite book was Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a trip to a land of chocolate? Yes, please), I was always inevitably drawn back to Ramona and Beezus and Henry Huggins. While I loved the fantasy world of Willy Wonka, it was the realism of Klickitat Street that always called me back.

It’s a credit to Cleary’s writing that, as a child, I never questioned the time period in which her books were set. Of course, they were set in the present time — for me. I was later shocked (and by “later,” I mean “fifteen minutes ago”) to discover that the first Ramona book I ever read, Ramona and Her Father, was written in 1977, the same year that I was born.

Ramona was just like me. Her family was down on their luck. Her dad, like mine, was really an artist, but had to resort to working at a store in order to make ends meet. She wasn’t that cute. People thought she was a pest more often than not. She got into plenty of trouble when she didn’t mean to. I could identify with Ramona.

Reading Cleary’s memoir of her childhood was like a window into her writing process. You always hear that you should write what you know, and Cleary did just that. But she did it with a rare combination of matter-of-factness and sympathy that no one else seems to be able to do.

Writers these days seem to depend wholly on magic and adventure and angsty drama to captivate the reader. Cleary’s writing is remarkable simply for how unremarkable her subject matter is. She writes about ordinary kids living ordinary lives. But she writes in a way that kids can identify with, and it makes them feel understood. To me, that makes her worth ten J.K. Rowlings.

But I digress. Back to the book I’m supposed to be reviewing. Cleary writes about herself in much the same way that she writes about her characters: matter-of-factly, yet sympathetically. Many of the circumstances in which her characters find themselves were adapted from her own experience.

Despite her unassuming writing style, she lived through some remarkable times. She grew up during the Great Depression. Her father’s having to work at jobs he hated in order to support the family was the inspiration for Mr. Quimby’s job at the local ShopRite.

Cleary relates the stories of her childhood and adolescence in much the same way that she tells her audience about Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins. The book was a compelling read, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page.

Now, I want to indulge myself for a moment, here, and take a minute to rant about a movie that’s scheduled to come out tomorrow. Ramona and Beezus claims that it’s going to show you Ramona like you’ve never seen her before. “This summer, imagination runs wild!” claims the trailer announcer dude.

Here’s the thing: Ramona didn’t have all that much imagination. Seriously, the extent of her imagination was to make an owl looking off to the side at anything but another owl, or to create a crown for herself out of burs. She didn’t take these huge flights of fancy. She got into scrapes, sure, and her dad thought she had spunk.

The Ramona in this movie seems to fit the generic Hollywood mold of “special” — that is, she has an overactive imagination, an annoyingly irrepressible spirit, and gets through all of her young life’s troubles on sheer sparkle.

But what allowed generations of kids to identify with Ramona was that she was so refreshingly ordinary. It made kids feel as though they were free to be normal. This new Ramona has little in common with Cleary’s Ramona.

And don’t even get me started on Beezus. Beezus is supposed to be depressed and afflicted with acne, not some generically pretty Disney drone.

Thanks, Hollywood, for reducing some of my most treasured childhood memories to a generic Hollywood fluff piece.

For the discerning reader, go read The Girl from Yamhill. If you’re anything like me, you’ll hope that our current recession will at least breed more writers like Beverly Cleary.

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Cannonball 15: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve never been to Chicago.

I’ve heard so much about it: its museums, its history, and especially the food. I’ve always wanted to go.

After reading Erik Larson’s book about the 1893 World’s Fair, my interest in Chicago’s history is slowly gaining on my obsession with the food scene there.

Larson’s book explores the events surrounding 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition. The author fastidiously chronicles architect Daniel Burnham’s arduous task of creating the White City: a confluence of the day’s finest architecture, art, culture, and innovations — the best America (and the world) had to offer all in one convenient location.

He also guides the reader down a twisted path branching off from the main road: how serial killer H.H. Holmes (the eponymous “Devil” of the book) capitalized on the World’s Fair by luring victims to his infamous “Murder Castle” with low rates and his charismatic charm.

The book is nothing if not fascinating — Larson’s subject matter serves him well here. The obstacles Burnham and his colleagues had to surmount in order to make this Fair happen were staggering. The inventions that debuted at the Fair are fascinating (e.g. the Ferris Wheel. And did you know that the US runs on alternating current because Westinghouse submitted a lower bid to power the Fair based on AC? So interesting).

And the lurid details of Holmes’ escapades are gripping as well. I have a morbid fascination with serial killers (what drives someone to repeatedly commit the most heinous act possible?), and Larson’s account of Holmes’ “work” did not disappoint.

However, the book did suffer from the constant change of pace as Larson switched from story to story. Add in a tertiary subplot (the assassination of Mayor Carter Harrison) and you’ve got a trifecta of interesting storylines that have little in common aside from their setting.

The Devil in the White City was an ambitious project for any author to tackle. Larson did the best with his source material, but I can’t help but to wish that he’d decided to write three books instead of one.

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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 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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Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor… and 20% of Your Retail Purchases: The FairTax Book

The FairTax Book The FairTax Book by Neal Boortz

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I got this book from a friend who recommended it because he agrees with the concept.

Written by a politician and a libertarian pundit, this book explains the FairTax proposal.

I first heard of the FairTax when Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee backed it during his 2008 presidential run. Getting this book from my friend provided me with the opportunity to finally find out what the FairTax was all about.

It’s an interesting proposal, certainly. I can understand the appeal of having a flat percentage sales tax that comes with a monthly stipend for living expenses since I spend far less than I earn (You mean some people out there spend more than they earn? *chuckles* Oh, to be young and naїve again). And there certainly is a lot that I hate about our current tax system.

I know that some detractors claim that it would be too easy to cheat the FairTax system. But I wonder why I, an honest taxpayer, have to suffer because some chump decides to try and cheat the system. We honest folk are the ones who suffer most when someone else cheats on his taxes. We bear the cost of the countless amendments and changes to tax law. I’d be thrilled if more money was put into finding and punishing tax evaders as opposed to pumping money into reforming our current tax system.

However, the FairTax leaves some gaping holes that make me very uncomfortable. According to the book, the best way to implement the act would be cold turkey — i.e. starting January 1st the year after it’s passed, we would just start issuing the tax. No mention is made of whether retailers would adjust their pricing to reflect the new tax or if they would be given any help to understand the new policy. No mention is made of what would happen to the thousands of IRS employees that would be unemployed (yes, I understand that the fact that we need thousands of IRS employees just speaks to the current system’s inefficiency. I never said that the current system was working fine).

And my biggest problem with the book was Neil Boortz’s often inflammatory language. It smacks of propaganda to me and it makes a book harder to read for me, even if I agree with the policy underneath it all. I understand that Boortz is a radio talk show host and that this is just kinda how they talk. But I just didn’t appreciate the tone of the book, that’s all.

At the end of the day, though, I think we can all agree that the current tax system leaves much to be desired, and I have to admire Boortz for trying to bring a potential solution to the nation’s consciousness and Rep. John Linder for sticking to his guns for ten years. It’s more than I’ve done, I’ll give them that.

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