Reviews

Pachinko, by Min Jee Lin

34051011Descriptive prose, lyrical language, similes, and all those identifiers of a solid novel—there is none of that in this one.

Instead it reads like a story passed on from generation to generation, striped of the flourishes and left with only the essential and the important. It’s the story of one family held together by strong women.

Simple, pure storytelling. I couldn’t put it down till I was done!

Review: Ready or Not (NavPress)

iGgrDwAAQBAJThis book is meant to help twentysomethings as they figure out life and all that lies ahead of them.

Had I read this book in my 20s, I’m sure my life would be completely different from what it is today. However, I’m equally sure that my know-it-all younger self would have scoffed at the suggestion of reading a book to help me figure out life. (I’m grateful my God redeems and blesses even when I choose the less-than-ideal path).

So, as wonderful as this book is, I wonder how many twentysomethings  who need the help and encouragement will be open to reading this book, much less using it.

In nine chapters, the authors treat relevant topics from a practical point of view, using anecdotes, quotes, and research. At the end of every chapter are exercises,  discussion questions, and suggestions on how to apply principles learned in everyday life. The chapter titles are: Vocation, God and Us, Past and Present, Dimensions and Rhythms, Spirituality, Work, Family, Church, and Community. In these chapters a lot is covered—from how to deal with the boring and mundane to what to do when your church doesn’t meet your spiritual needs.

I especially appreciate the emphasis on connecting with and learning from others. For example, one suggestion is to interview someone at least 20 years older and who exemplifies a life of sustaining faith. The authors even give you interview questions that you can build on. They urge the reader: “Surround yourself with people you know and trust to treat your hopes and fears with the best of intentions.”

The more of the book I read, I more realized that it would fit into the curriculum of a Life Skills course or a small group study. Perhaps this type of setting would be a gentle way to force-feed the twentysomethings who desperately need to hear what this book says but who are resistant to anything that even subtly smacks of advice or self-help.

I also think this book is a great resource for older adults—parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, mentors—with a twentysomething in their lives. It has certainly helped me reframe my conversations with young adults.

(Go here for more information about the book and the authors)

FOR THE RECORD, IN EXCHANGE FOR THIS REVIEW I RECEIVED THIS BOOK FROM NAVPRESS.

 

Review: Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid (Penguin Books)

exitwest-200x300From start to finish, the book reads like the rehearsed voice of a news reporter. It’s as if the author is telling you the story in real-time with little backstory or context.

You do your best to weave the story together with the pieces you have, with what’s happening right now, but without details of the past, the whys, and the hows. As a result, there are holes in the story! But that’s okay because you quickly realize that what’s missing isn’t essential to the story. This could be anybody’s story—not just that of Nadia and Saeed.

This is a universal story is about people surviving whatever life throws at them. Who the people are, where the story happens, and even why the events occur are immaterial. The story is about life requiring—no, demanding—that at every turn we make a choice and then face the consequences of those choices. Hence the need for a detached reporter-like voice at every scene merely telling the reader what the choices are, which one the character chooses, and what happens as a result of the choice.

But every now and then, the matter-of-fact voice is broken by profound and painful truths. Here’s an example:

“That is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

As the story progresses, I found the authors’s voice grow tired and cold, like someone who has given up on possibilities. The change is so gradual that you almost forget that this is fiction, that Mohsin Hamid has complete control over the characters, the story, and even the ending. Instead you feel like the author has no choice in the storytelling because it is truth.

The storytelling is simply masterful.

Besides his superb storytelling, Hamid’s treatment of themes in the book—such as the plight of refugees—is raw with universal relevance. The story begins with Nadia losing her family for her independence, and that pattern of losing something to gain something else continues to the end.

“There was no good option for either of them. There was risk to each.”

Hamid’s treatment of life and death is clinical and also matter-of-fact. In the world of Nadia and Saeed, the possibility of death coming through a window is just as likely as death by cancer. Life is really the cancer, the death

Most all reviews of the book include the symbolism of doors. So I’m obliged to include it as well. Everything about the doors represents the uncertainty of life—from the blackness of the door to the fact that there’s nothing on the outside of the door to clue you into to what’s on the other side. There are no guarantees. Not knowing tomorrow from today makes life simultaneously feel like the beginning and the end. To pass from one moment to another is like both like dying and being born.

The book’s philosophical solution to the inevitability of uncertainty is this: With every new beginning, there is loss—and with that loss, you often lose a part of yourself. And if you’re not willing to fill that void with something else, discontentment brews.

Review: Whisper by Mark Batterson

9780735291089Often claiming to hear the voice of God is to admit you’re bat crazy. So even when we have such an experience, we often keep it to ourselves rather than make a public announcement.

Whisper unfortunately does not deny that looking crazy is one of the outcomes of a lifestyle in communion with God:

Faith is the willingness to look foolish. Noah looked a little crazy building a boat. Sarah looked a little crazy shopping for maternity clothes at age ninety.  The wise men looked a little crazy following a star to Timbuktu. Peter looked a little crazy getting out of a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. If you aren’t willing to look a little crazy, you’re crazy. And when it’s the will of God, crazy turns into crazy awesome (p. 101)!

Using personal stories, anecdotes, and biblical truth Mark Batterson builds a strong defense for the connection between God and us that grows through communication and intimacy. And key to this relationship is the “voice” of God that intervenes into our lives, leading us into God’s will.

Batterson emphasizes that God’s “voice” does not necessarily manifest itself in thunder or audible words like it did for Moses on Sinai. Instead when we open our minds, our hearts, and our senses we can “hear” Him speak to us in seven love languages: through Scripture, desires, doors, dreams, people, promptings, and pain. In his exposition of each love language, Batterson brings to it his pastoral perspective. For example, about God speaking through doors, he goes beyond the usual “when one door closes, another opens.”

God closes doors to protect us.
God closes doors to redirect us.
God closes doors to keep us from less than His best (p.107)

And about pain:

. . . pleasures turn into pain when we misuse and abuse them, but make no mistake, every pleasure in its purest form is a gift from God. Yes, we can turn them into sinful pursuits when we try to meet legitimate needs in illegitimate ways. But pleasure is a gift from God nonetheless. He whispers through those pleasures, and we should give thanks for them. But we better pay close attention to pain too. . . .

Nothing gets our full attention like pain, It breaks down false idols and purifies false motives. It reveals where we need to heal, where we need to grow. It refocuses priorities like nothing else (pp. 172–173).

While I loved the way Batterson dissects God’s voice and presents it as a tangible tool for the Christian life, I was a bit weary of the many anecdotal references.  I would have preferred less of them and more biblical insight and support for the excellent points He makes.

He also retells stories from his other books, and this too I could have done without–but then, I understand how first-time readers of Batterson would need these stories as context for the content of this book. This was not a big deal–I just speed read through those parts

The above two observations are pretty minor. Batterson’s writing and his passion for Christ, as always, rises above these and all else.

Responding to God’s voice, gentle promptings, strong presence, and undeniable assurances are all testimonies of who He is and who we are in Him. This book confronts and challenges the reader to not only listen for God’s voice but to respond to His calling—to understand Him and to live in His will.

Go here for more about Mark Batterson and his other books.

For the record, I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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Review: The Berkeley Bowl Cookbook by Laura McLively

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 8.43.47 AMThis is a chronicle of author Laura McLively’s adventures with her local grocery store, Berkeley Bowl Marketplace which is known for its over a thousand varieties of  fruits and vegetables.

The Berkeley Bowl reminds me of Lotté, my local favorite where I don’t recognize most of the produce. So I shop there Google image search in land, looking for the English name and possible recipes. This cookbook is going to take my grocery shopping and food experimentation to a new level!

If you are a vegetarian or love trying new foods, this cookbook is a must. While the retail price is bit more than most ($35), I think it’s worth the price. Trust me, you don’t want to wait for a sale to get this one. Get it now, and you’ll be eating ceviche tonight—a vegetarian, non-fish ceviche made with aloe vera and mango (p. 90)!

If that ceviche is not adventuresome enough for you, try the unique flavor combination of the Green Garlic Soup with Lemon Cardamom Yogurt (p.111) or the delicate Fiddlehead Tempura with Sriracha Crème Fraîche (p. 95)

For the record, I received this book for free from Penguin Random House for reviewing it on my blog.

Review: Zen Camera by David Ulrich

zenBefore smartphones and Instagram filters, like many others, I didn’t dare share my photos with anyone let alone with the world, But today apps and quick lessons on YouTube can make most photos worth a second look.

So given all the photography tools out there, one would think another how-to book, let alone a hardback, full-color, meticulously indexed book, on the subject would not be worth the purchase. I’d agree, except this is not the usual type of how-to book; this is more like the master classes that are so popular these days: it’s a journey with an experienced man and his lens. And with him your eyes are opened anew to perceptions hidden in plain sight and you experience life from a magical point of view.

David Ulrich’s Zen Camera begins: “Photography is a powerful form of visual expression, available to everyone” (enthusiastic emphasis is mine). He continues, “No experience is complete, no meal finished, no friendship consummated until we have taken a picture. The photograph replies, I was here. I witnessed this event, met this person, or relished this experience.”

In this book, Ulrich teaches the foundational principles of photography in six chapters, titled: Observation, Awareness, Identity, Practice, Mastery, and Presence. Each ends with assignments and a challenge to capture something new. Yet, in spite of the homework and tips, he goes beyond the how-to’s, beyond sharing his experience and expertise. He grounds it all in a deep appreciation of beauty and the creative power of human beings.

An added bonus is the details and thought the publisher has put into making the book itself a piece of art. From its size to its scattered photographs to the cover, it’s too beautiful to be shelved with only the spine visible. Mine has found a place on my coffee table.

Published by Watson-Guptill, 2018, 217 pages.
For the record, I received this book for free from Watson-Guptill for reviewing it on my blog.

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Review: I Was a Child, by Eric Kaplan

If you’re expecting a typical memoir, you’ll be disappointed. I Was a Child is more like an illustrated storybook for adults. To appreciate it you must let go of the usual expectations of a memoir to enrich you with new insights into the human psyche or inspire you to make positive changes in your life.

Abandon those lofty pursuits for a few hours. Instead, snuggle up in your favorite blankie, preferably with easy access to cookies, and travel back to the simpler times of childhood. I promise it’ll be worth every minute.

Both Kaplan’s words and drawings spill from the voice of unbridled youth—straightforward, honest, perceptive, unbiased. The child’s point of view is so pure, I am amazed at how the adult Kaplan stayed out of the head of his younger self.

And the drawings! Oh. My. Goodness. Throughout the book, Kaplan’s cartooning was the string that yo-yo’d me between personal and universal truths. It made me see both the normal and the absurd child in me. Kaplan’s story is my story, it’s everyone’s story. It’s about retracing life through the eyes of a child, yet understanding and appreciating all of it through the maturity of adulthood. It’s about sifting through events, religion, pop culture, and less-than-perfect people and realizing that, in spite of the flaws and shortcomings, there’s plenty left that’s good, plenty left to shape and mold us into unique individuals.

Here’s Kaplan’s own summary of I Was a Child:

I Was A Child, published by Blue Rider Press, 2015, 210 pp.

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Book Review: Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 3.17.09 PMBesides my father, several hundred are pastors in my circle of family, friends, and church activities. So I’m well acquainted with the varieties in which they come. As a teenager, my favorite kind was those with a bad-boy history (Note to self: Rewatch The Cross and the Switchblade).

But NONE of the pastors I know look like or talk like Pastor Nadia. Even the ones with a past of worldly notoriety are just as, or almost as, tame and predictable as every other pastor. Sure, there’s the occasional ponytail or a tattoo peaking out of a sleeve once in a while, but for the most part, all the pastors I know are cut out of more or less the same cookie mold. The frosting may be different on each, but the cookies are all the same.

Reading Pastor Nadia’s unorthodox, unfiltered narrative was like eating a fudge cookie after a lifetime of vanilla. It made me somewhat uncomfortable–I liked it, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted the content to infect my soul. It’s like my brain was stubborn, resisting her use of colorful, unholy language to describe holy content.

So while reading Accidental Saints I had to remind my stodgy righteous self to do more than hear the raw, straight-from-the heart voice of  Pastor Nadia. And when I truly listened, I saw her and others—not as mere people—but as God’s children. They were testimonies of grace and compassion, of discovering Jesus. Yet the book is not really about the men and women who meander into Pastor Nadia’s life and ministry.  Each chapter is about how she finds in someone new a little bit of God. The book is also a guide for the reader on how to turn everyday encounters into opportunities to be like Jesus—to be a saint.

Oh, and if I’ve lead you to believe every page is filled with expletives, that’s far more true. While there’s a small sprinkling of them over the 200 some pages, there is also a mother lode of descriptive gems that reflect Pastor Nadia’s intimate knowledge of her Savior. Here’s one:

I need to be broken apart and put back into a different shape by that merging of things human and divine, which is really screwing up and receiving grace and love and forgiveness rather than receiving what I really deserve.

The sting of grace is not unlike the sting of being loved well, because when we are loved well, it is inextricably linked to all the times we have not been been loved well, all the times we ourselves have not loved others well, and all the things we’ve done or not done that feel life evidence against our worthiness. Love and grace are such deceivingly soft words—but the both sting like hell and then go and change the shape of our hearts and make us into something we couldn’t create ourselves to be (p. 180).

Accidental Saints has made me question the status quo of my Christianity.  And that’s a good thing—even if it makes me squirm a little.

If you have 20 minutes and 47 seconds to spare, here’s Pastor Nadia talking about her journey from a life of self to one where Jesus is central :) One of my favorite parts of this is towards the end: “God will use all of you—not just your strengths, but your failures and your failings and your brokenness. God’s strength is perfected in human weakness—so your brokenness is fertile ground for a forgiving God to make something new and make something beautiful.”

For the record, I received this book for free from Crown Publishing Group (a subsidiary of Random House) for reviewing it on my blog.

Book Review: A Minute of Vision for Men by Robert Patterson

Screen Shot 2018-02-01 at 11.05.08 AMMy first thought when I received this book was that it’d be a great gift for Chris, a colleague at work. [Nothing better than a gift that costs nothing :)]

But first, the review. So I read it at record speed, noting the following:

From the title to the colors to the content, the book is touted as a book for guys. But a lot of the content could be relevant for women too. While I get the rationale behind a devotional just for men, especially in a book culture where there are a lot more books specifically for women than there are for men, I’m not a fan of segregating daily devotional material by gender. Just my very subjective preference :)

That being said, if you’re a trivia buff looking for great stories with details about people and events, this book is perfect for you.

The title is almost like God pleading, “Please, just give me one minute of your day.” How could anyone say no to that! This book is a great baby step for a man—or a woman— wanting to invest in their spiritual health.

Having made these observations for my review, I presented the book to Chris. “Thanks,” he responded. “But does it come as a podcast?”

“There’s a Kindle version,” I offered.

“Hmm. I prefer listening to my devotions while driving to work.” [Note to publishers: While Chris is just one guy, he just might be representative of many men out there—Under a minute is great, but even better is being spoon fed an audible version ;) *sigh* MEN!]

Check out other great books from Tyndale House PublishersAnd for the record, I received this book for free from Tyndale Blog Network for reviewing it on my blog.

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Book Review: In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day, by Mark Batterson

battersonNot all great preachers are great writers. Mark Batterson is one of the few who are. Like my favorites, Max Lucado and Charles Swindoll, Batterson has the cadence of a poet and the wisdom of a pastor.

This book includes profound thoughts that are beautifully crafted. Here are a few:

God is in the business of strategically positioning us in the right place at the right time. A sense of destiny is our birthright as followers of Christ.

We’re inspired by people who face their fears and chase their dreams. What we fail to realize is that they are no different from us.

In the beginning, the Sprit of God was hovering over the chaos. And nothing has changed. God is still hovering over chaos.

Your ability to help others heal is limited to where you’ve been wounded

The premise of this book is that you can experience success and blessings when you boldly chase after dreams that come from God—be it those revealed in the faintest of whispers in your subconscious or those packaged in calls heard loud and clear. The book then goes on to prove this premise by shuffling examples and practical lessons, beginning with Benaiah.

And because I’m a sucker for nobodies who surface as heroes, I love that Benaiah and his lion-chasing bravado on a snowy day is the foundation of this book (despite reviews—like this one—that question the heroic details of the story). For me a story doesn’t  have to be accurate in order to inspire and motivate me. The storyteller and preacher in Batterson were successful in making me assess missed opportunities, while recalibrating my life lenses with a vow to make the rest of my life on earth more accountable to my Creator God.

In spite of the much needed motivation I received from this book, I did find that everything from the illustration of Benaiah to the contemporary examples to the practical tips could have been sandwiched into a much shorter book. The repetition of some content and fillers had me speed reading through much of the book. Other than this shortcoming, I really like this book and have passed it on for someone else to benefit from its encouragement.

For more information about the book from Waterbrook Multnomah, go here. To learn more about Mark Batterson and his ministry, go here.

And for the record, I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.