Little things matter. Along the way you discover they weren't so little after all.

Category Archives: Book Reviews

Corcovado jesus

Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Yes yes, I do realize that it is the end of DECEMBER and here I am working on a book club from November. That’s just the way things go sometimes, right? If I should retitle this “December Book Club” that would only work for like a few more hours, so that’s a dead end.

Peter Enn’s book, Telling God’s Story: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching the Bible, is what we’re working through and chapter three is when the author starts giving specifics about what to teach to whom and when.

In most Sunday School settings, there are lots of lessons about Old Testament characters, in addition to stories about Jesus. Enns argues that “the proper foundation is now what it has been since the first Christmas: Jesus.” He makes the point that “the Bible as a whole is going somewhere, and that “somewhere” is actually a “someone”.”

Before you think Enns is suggesting that we focus only on the New Testament, as was done to the exclusion of the Old Testament in church circles for many years, he is making the case that for our youngest children, we begin with and focus on the person of Jesus. He says “the apostles didn’t start with the background stuff. They got right to the point and talked about Jesus.” As children get older and more mature, then it is time to address the Old Testament and larger context of the New Testament.

This resonates for me because of my years as a volunteer in various churches’ children’s and youth ministries, as well as my time developing curriculum and leading children’s and junior high/senior high ministry. Kids in the earliest grades see things in black and white, and understand concrete ideas most readily. This changes as they get older, but in terms of the focus for grade 1-5, Enns stresses the validity of building a foundation of Jesus and worrying about Old Testament historical context yada yada as children get older.

One thing that makes me bristle is the focus on depravity in children in evangelical circles. We are so concerned that children “come to Jesus” that we sometimes resort to scare tactics rather than focusing on the freedom, direction, purpose and fulfillment Christ brings while here on earth. The focus is so heavily weighed towards the hereafter that it’s no wonder why people tend towards “fire insurance” (a terribly crude term) and a once-and-done mentality rather than seeing how a commitment to following Jesus plays out in our every day decisions. That’s probably why I love this line so much:

What should not be emphasized is the child’s miserable state of sin and need for a savior. …We must remember that our children’s salvation is not our work, it is the work of the Spirit. …To introduce children to the wrath of God right at the beginning of their lives, without the requisite biblical foundation and before the years of emotional maturity, can actually distort their view of God.

That’s not to say that even within the life of Jesus there aren’t many intense, adult-rated moments. Using common sense, it should be obvious that age-appropriateness is of the upmost importance. However, in my experience, common sense and age-appropriate sensitivity isn’t always used when approaching the Bible. People often fear they’ll be “watering down the Word of God” by leaving out certain parts or focusing on some things over others (although I wonder if they’d be so cavalier with the things in Bible of a sexual nature). People think they should start with Genesis and work their way through the Bible, book by book. Have you ever tried doing that? Let’s just say that most folks find their eyes glazing over by the time they get a chapter or two into the books of the law.

Enns takes a logical approach that considers child development and the overarching movement of the Bible narrative. It is the person of Jesus that draws people, it is the stories of how He treated children, how He related to women, how He reached out to outcasts and misfits — these are the stories that draw us to Him. By letting the life of Jesus speak for itself, and by studying the impact He had on the lives of the Apostles, we set a solid foundation on which they can delve into the depths of the Old Testament, historical background and prophetic fulfillment of Jesus’ life.

This chapter has two more sections, one that deals with middle grades and one that deals with high school ages. I think these areas need their own review, so I’m going to lump them together into a future post.

What is your take on this different way of teaching the Bible to our youngest children? Does it seem like a good approach to you? What objections do you have to it? 

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible ...

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible – Matthew’s Gospel (Ge’ez script) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


These are not typical book reviews as such, maybe more of book summaries? but lately I’ve been trying to read some books about the writing life and I thought I’d offer some thoughts about three of them.

The first is one that often comes highly recommended: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (do you still underline book titles? Just go with me on this, okay?). This is a look into why we write, what to write and how to write. She is one crazy lady, painfully honest about the times when she is full of self-doubt and hypochondria. There are times when that wears a little thin in this book, but overall I think it is a good primer on being brave and writing honestly, and how to approach the blank page without listening to the internal censor we all have. One freebie I’ll tell you about her tactic of viewing a story through a one-inch picture frame — describe that one inch the best you can and don’t worry about all the other details of where it will lead you. She also offers sincere advice about the life of a published author, and that it cannot fulfill a person if she wasn’t fulfilled before she was published. Wise words to an anxious audience, many of whom hold publication as their primary goal, no matter what the cost.

The next book I’ve found referenced frequently is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Yes, that Steven King. I’m not a big science fiction/ horror/ suspense reader, but he is such a household name and has published so many books, that one must allow that he knows what he’s doing. He is a fan of some certain crass words throughout his writing (and Anne Lamott doesn’t hesitate to drop quite a few bombs in her work either), but when you move past that, his book is chockabrock full of insights and encouragement. The first portion of the book is a short memoir, the main section is about the process of writing, and the third is written after he had a terrible accident and came back to writing five weeks after being hit by a minivan (he was not in a car, by the way, when he was hit by the minivan). I marked up this book more than Anne Lamott’s and will definitely come back to it along the way as I try to keep plugging away at my own writing. (Doesn’t “my own writing” sound official? It’s so very not official! But I’m having fun, at any rate.)

The third book I found worthwhile was The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. She is an editor and author, and this books walks through the entire process of being published, from the rejection letters to the release date and promotion tour. It reveals answers to the many mysteries surrounding the steps of publication, things that are a bit tricky to find if you don’t know exactly what you ought to be asking — she even describes the way book jackets are chosen. She is sympathetic to writers and reminds them that editors aren’t trying to be jerks by sending them rejection letters or taking a long time to get back to them. I found her book very interesting, even from a reader’s position, since I’ve always wondered how some books get such lame covers that seem to have nothing to do with the contents of the book inside.

None of these, I’m afraid, are holiday reading. But if you’re tired of the ‘T’was the Night Before Christmas’ and want something outside the current season, I think any one of these could be a good distraction. And if you’ve never thought about writing, they may even motivate you to give it a try, even just as an exercise in the possible. Best of luck, and I’d love to hear what books have spurred you to action over the years.

My dear friend Erica suggested I read Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson, and since I value her opinion, I gladly picked it up. I started reading it on an afternoon when my three kids were being cared for by their grandparents, and I had some alone-time. I got a piece of cake from a tasty bakery and sat down with my dessert and a good cup of coffee.

Not long into the book, I could hardly enjoy one more bite of my cake nor sip my coffee without thinking about the impact my actions were having on the world at large. It kinda felt like I was eating cardboard rather than decadent three-layer chocolate bliss. And my coffee tasted like brewed guilt diluted with half and half of ignorance, rather than the nicest java.

Julie Clawson is kind enough to remind us all through the first chapter of her book, “Don’t panic” which I appreciated even as my snack cemented in my throat. She calmly and matter-of-factly details how many of the choices we make in our everyday lives have significant impact on the world at large. And I mean significant. We’re talking about slave labor, strip mining, long-term repercussions significant. But she also describes how difficult it can be to find alternatives that are mindful of both the environment and the workforce that is employed to deliver certain goods to local stores (one example Clawson used was trying to find a bra that was made with organic cotton AND produced using Fair Trade standards — much more difficult than she thought it would be).

I had to return the book to my pal, but some of the chapters that I remember include: cocoa, coffee, gasoline, debt, clothing and food, and there were probably at least six more chapters. Each of these included practical steps a regular person could take to change the kind of impact she makes.

Even though she told me not to panic, it was overwhelming to even consider reading the entire book through in one sitting. I read it bit by bit. There were way too many things that I should do but would mean a financial investment or complete change of routine, which, as the mother of three kids six and under, I just didn’t feel up to doing. Yes, I am that lazy. So I picked ONE thing to change, and I’ve done it, and it’s an everyday sort of thing.

A luxury that I enjoy is coffee. I’ve stopped buying it at coffee shops very often (is anyone else experiencing sticker shock at paying $4 for a medium latte??), and mostly brew it at home now. Because of this, I know about coffee, I like coffee, and I now like to drink it knowing that my financial investment in a specific company is not rewarding the inhumane or unethical treatment of the people doing the dirty work of producing it for me. Because of Everyday Justice, I’ve started buying Fair Trade coffee whenever I can, sometimes holding off on buying coffee if the store doesn’t offer Fair Trade, and from local companies if I can find it. One that has been pretty easy to find is City Kid Java, a company based in Minneapolis and an offshoot of Urban Ventures. If you haven’t heard about Urban Ventures, it is an amazing non-profit that has committed to breaking the cycle of poverty in their Twin Cities community. I’ve since discovered that my church has started brewing City Kid Java too! Aside from that specific brand, I was also able to find Fair Trade coffee at Costco, Cub and Byerly’s, and it’s never been über expensive compared to the other brands.

It may not seem like an important change, but if you knew how much coffee I drink, you might realize that it is a bigger impact than you thought. And it was easy to do – it really only involved taking a step to the next two feet of the coffee shelf at the store, in addition to becoming aware of the issues that surround coffee production. Thank you, thank you. Okay, please hold your applause. Settle down now. Really though, I’m such a pathetic, typical American (not at all like you, Gentle Reader); I’m all for making a difference, especially if the work necessary to make that happen is only lifting my arm to the left rather than to the right. Whew! Tough stuff.

This book is one that you can pick up, read a chapter, then go around thinking about that chapter for weeks, or even longer. You don’t need to chuck your old life and implement all the suggestions she makes, but I would bet that if you read Everyday Justice you won’t be able to go away from it without at least wanting to do something different in your everyday decisions. In a way, it is a big pat on the back, because the book acknowledges the significance of the individual and the ability to make a difference in the lives of  others just by buying gas from a different station or trying out the local Salvation Army store for certain items (note: once you start looking at thrift shops for things you need or want, it might become an addicting challenge). In any case, it is good to know some of backstory about the items we use everyday, and if nothing else, this book is informative and you’ll go away more knowledgable than you started off, which, in my opinion, Dear Reader, is nearly always a good thing. I highly recommend Julia Clawson’s Everyday Justice and I’d love to hear your reactions if you get a chance to read it.

If you want to check her out, here is an interview she did and I think it is pretty current.

Don’t waste your valuable brain cells or time on a book called Pretty Little Mistakes by Heather McElhatton

Last summer I got all excited because on a radio news program they featured a local author who had published a new work of fiction. The hook on her line was that the book was a choose-your-own-adventure story. But hers had hundreds of potential outcomes and twists. It sounded really ambitious.

When I was young I loved reading choose-your-own-adventure books. They all must have come as a set because the books all looked the same — title arched across the top, big illustration in the center, the author’s name (which I can’t remember) on the bottom, same number of pages, paperback, easily fit in your hand. They were maddening because some of the choices made you end up in jail or eaten by a giant squid, even if you went back and tried to change the choices you made. Great stuff for a voracious young reader.

Please allow me to take this opportunity to caution you against Heather McElhatton’s Pretty Little Mistakes. Within the first chapters, there is a gratuitous amount of low behavior and crass language, and the choices made within the chapters go from bad to worse. I thought it must just be the choice I made in the previous chapter that would throw me into such a terrible story situation, so I went back and made the other choice offered to me, and still ended up reading about promiscuous behavior, illegal drug use, and avant-guard art that featured sculptures of genitalia set on fire. No, I’m not kidding. And I only read for about five minutes! In addition, many of the chapters are one page long, which makes the emphasis squarely on the plot, rather than the character. It moves things along, certainly, but doesn’t ever establish a reason to care why any of these things happen.

I was so disappointed. McEllhatton has such a creative mind and it is amazing that she could come up with so many twists and turns in this novel. The cover claims that it has 150 endings! But the choices she details are ones that end up in brokenness, twisted relationships, murder and ultimately the author’s own wasted talent.

Now, I know, Dear Reader, that some of you are like me, and when I warn you off about this book, you will find yourself sorely tempted to check it out. But please, if you must, find it at the library and do not use one penny of your income to support this book.

A Review of Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

While trying to come up with books to review, I discovered that I have a few that I just can’t get enough of. Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is one of those books. I’ve only read it through one time, but I’ve picked it up and read bits and pieces here and there since then, simply because it is so full of insight.

Donald Miller tends to be somewhat sarcastic, sometimes snarky, and self-depreciating. While in his earlier books these characteristics got to be tedious, making me cringe to read the mean things he said to the people he encountered, this book is less filled with those things and more focused on changing his story. I must say that throughout his previous work he was honest about being a jerk, though, and most of the jerks I know don’t realize it about themselves. Anyway, it sounds like he needed the change, and we get to be a party to the steps of his transformation.

The part that jumps out at me when thinking about this book is the point he makes and proves with his own life about choosing one’s story. He gets off his couch and starts challenging himself to do some crazy stuff that he’s never done before, stuff that he is scared of, stuff he’s not sure he can actually do. And we get the privilege of watching what happens to him. It’s great. But besides the voyeuristic pleasure there is in hearing about this guy joining a group to ride across the country on a bicycle with very little advanced training (just as one example), we get to see how this changes who he is, changes his story. And it is more than just “creating memories” although there is value in that aspect as well. He discovers things about himself and about others that he never would have known if he hadn’t made the essential decision to take a risk and invest in his own story, his own life.

Just to give you one little snipett, in one portion of the book he re-tells a scene that happened to a friend of his who had a teen-aged daughter who was making crummy choices: dating a questionable guy, telling lies, and generally veering from the path her parents had laid out for her. The dad reviews the situation and realizes that he has not offered his daughter a better story to be a part of. Then he does something about it. He offers his daughter the chance to be a part of something better, something more meaningful and interesting and worthwhile. And she quits her previous behaviors and jumps in to this new endeavor with both feet.

I love it. I loved the imagery of the adventures Miller and his friends take on. Even though the book includes a lot of sitting around or waking up late and then sitting around, this helps to contrast Miller’s old life with the one he is striving to create for himself. Which of us makes a resolution and immediately casts off our old habits or vices? That’s what makes this book authentic. The author doesn’t pretend that he has immediately arrived once he decides to liven things up, and that gives me more of a chance to connect with him and what he’s trying to accomplish; I too have tried to turn over many new leaves, only to find them flipped back over a few weeks later. But Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is good at inspiring me to flip over just one leaf and see what that can do for me and those around me; my family and friends, even those I meet just in passing. It challenges me to be purposeful about my life and decide consciously what I want it to be about.

It’s a worthy read, and one that I think you’ll come back to over and over again.

Mostly Just Fluff: A Review of Karen Kingsbury’s Like Dandelion Dust
The author of this book makes sure that the readers all know it has been made into a Hollywood movie. Did you see it? The book claims it came out in August of 2010, but I sure didn’t see anything about it, even though the book cover highlights the fact that the movie version stars two nominees/winners of prestigious acting awards.

And that’s how we start the book Like Dandelion Dust, with pages of dedications, thank-yous, and self-congratulating acknowledgements. Now, I don’t see this as an over-arching pet peeve of mine, but I do find it a bit tacky to drag out the beginning of a book in this way. It requires the reader to page through extra material in order to even find the first page of the story. I wish she had included it in the back of the book, rather than assuming that I am one of her loyal readers who feel an emotional attachment to her career. If a book is worth it, I will read these types of things in the back once I’m done reading it. But to place them ahead of the story seems presumptuous.

Is the book worth the trouble of flipping the extra pages to find the beginning? Well, sure, I guess. How’s that for a half-hearted endorsement? On the one hand, I read it quickly since the story moved along and it had a very limited number of characters. In that sense, she made some smart, strong choices: characters with definite personalities, a terrible crisis they had to face, growing tension between the characters, and a pleasing denouement.

However, there was a cute kid at stake, which seems like a cheap shot to me – I mean, what heartless cynic would you have to be to not be moved by hardship experienced by a child? I know that Kingsbury wanted to connect with the emotions of her readers, but I couldn’t help but feel a tad bit manipulated, even as I felt bad for the poor kid and the situation he and his family faced.

It was clear that Karen Kingsbury wanted the characters to struggle with their relationships with one another and with God, which I’m all for, but the treatment she gives God is abbreviated and doesn’t go into much real detail. I thought the way she handled the child’s interest in God was the most accurate, an organic growth from a single seed of observation. The adults are more herky-jerky, falling into more stereotypical roles – even when these stereotypes are true to life they can still be written with more attention to the specific individual and why that person holds that viewpoint. Oh! I almost forgot one more detail: on page 223 there is a glaring mistake. Suddenly Bill’s wife and Molly’s sister is referred to as Brenda. Before and after this, she is called BETH. Big whoops. I figure that if I, the reader, can catch this, the people making their living by proofreading novels really should have seen it.

All in all, the book was light entertainment, much like a soap opera when there’s nothing else to watch on a summer afternoon. It has some action, intrigue, and stories, and if that’s what you’re looking for, this will do you fine.

I went out for a special coffee date with a dear friend about a week ago. When she asked me what I was reading, I answered, “Nothing! It is driving me crazy!” She quickly recommended a book she had recently enjoyed. Two days later, another dear friend asked me if I was reading anything interesting, and when I answered in the negative, without a word she dashed out of the room. A moment later, she returned with a book that made me literally squeal aloud. It was the same exact book my other friend said I should read. The name of the book? The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

I won’t go into a big recap of the story line, but just know that it is set in Mississippi in 1962 and explores the relationship between white women and the black women they employ to raise their babies, clean their houses, do their laundry, keep their secrets and cook their meals, amongst other things.

I burned through this book in three nights, staying up way too late even though I knew I would be up in the middle of the night with a daughter who was learning to stay in her toddler bed (or learning how to come out of it, depending on your point of view). Even though I knew I would spend at least a couple hours sleeping on the floor next to her bed come 2am, it was worth the sleep deprivation.

The characters are complex, much like the situations in which they find themselves…even if they seem oblivious to the complexities. The interactions between the two sides are not easy to stomach, as my “modern” sensibilities are offended by the way the white women speak to and treat those in their employ. But even in the midst of that messed up hierarchy, there are those few women who form a genuine bond, and some change their previously held views — or maybe more accurately, they realize and adopt a well-considered view rather than just going along with the way things have always been.

The book flows well with plenty of action and dialog to move it along, and though it raises difficult issues, it allows the story speak for itself. There are one or two characters that I wonder about, mostly why are they included, but I’ve come to think they serve best as a foil to other characters, allowing the other characters to express their side of the story. Even the one incident with what can only be described as a random flasher, serves to reveal a different side of one character who seems one-dimensional beforehand. There is domestic abuse, rampant racism, gender inequality, and discrimination of all sorts. But the story ends up being about overcoming these obstacles, or functioning within them in the hopes of telling the real tale.

I found it almost impossible NOT to ask what this book, set in 1962, says about current society. Are things so different? Are we not still segregated to a certain extent? Are there not still people who are looked upon as second-class, asked to work silently at those jobs that much of middle-class America would consider beneath them? Just get the job done and go home, right? But what if “home” is not originally this country and that person has entered illegally? Is it then fair to treat that person as less human? Less deserving of a fair wage or legal rights? Hey, listen, I’m just askin’. I don’t have any hard, fast answers here, but is it hard to miss the parallels between the treatment of blacks under southern Jim Crow laws before the Civil Rights Movement and the debate going on currently about immigration (do I dare mention the law passed in Arizona?). I wonder what we’ll have to say about it when we look back 50 years from now.

%d bloggers like this: