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!

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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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