Book Review 44: Gray Matters by Brett McCracken

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“Christians have a hard time with nuance, gray areas are not out strong suit.”

“Discernment is a tricky business, much more complicated than a checklist or matrix of black-and-white criteria. And it begins on the inside, with an awareness that while discernment is a virtue we should all aspire to, it doesn’t look exactly the same for all of us.”

“Legalism has tainted my generation so much that we don’t even want to go near rules or think in terms of “dos and dont’s.” In the process we’ve lost the idea that character and virtue matter.”

Those three quotes set the thematic scope for my latest book review, Gray Matters: Navigating The Space Between Legalism and Liberty by Brett McCracken. This is my first non-fiction book review for 2013 and I’m glad waited until now to review this important book.

McCracken makes the argument that we have gone from one side of the pendulum as legalists and separate ourselves from the culture to the other side of the pendulum as hedonists and accepting everything the culture has to offer. The author shows throughout the book that there is another route to take instead of those standby positions by having proper discernment and learning how navigate those nebulous areas in our lives.

Gray Matters is divided into four sections (Food, Music, Movies, and Alcohol) that covers an area where Christians have taken one of the aforementioned standby positions.  McCracken begins each section with a historical and biblical perspective on how Christians have dealt with those issues.  Then he offers guidance on how to become more discerning with these gray areas.

The most controversial section of the book is the Alcohol section.   Should Christians drink alcohol?  The author walks a fine line……like a dental floss line in this area but I appreciate the fact he didn’t shy away from its dangers and tried to present an objective view on probably one of the most scrutinized gray areas we could have as a believers and followers of Christ.

McCracken has written a much-needed and courageous book in Gray Matters. As Christians, we claim to believe that Christ has the right to speak into every area of lives, then we need to be honest with ourselves and learn how to deal with the gray areas in our culture.  The author skillfully shows its not about retreating from the world and waiting for the second coming.  Also, its not about accepting everything the culture provides and trying to prove you are not one of those stereotypical fundamentalist Christians.   But, it is about having good judgment and faith in Christ that he can guide you through all types of situations in your life.

Gray Matters is one of my favorite reads of the year and will get a highly recommended must read for Christians and even non-Christians who want to learn some principles on having discernment in their daily lives as well.

Bravo to Brett McCracken for being courageous and may this book create authentic dialogue amongst believers in the faith.

Wisdom of Kammbia 3.30: The Importance of the Writer-Reader Relationship

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I believe this quote should make writers realize the importance of the writer-reader relationship and that we don’t disrespect that connection.

“What disrespect we writers have for the people who read our work. Our readers don’t expect perfection every time we publish a book. They expect a good read, something to take them from their lives for a few hours. They hope to get a memorable read, but escape will do. They’ll even settle for a bad read now and then, if you’ve already provided them with hours and hours of pleasure before.”

{Kristine Kathryn Rusch}

Book Review 43: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith AKA JK Rowling

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I had made it a personal policy to not read and review for this blog the hottest or most publicized novel of the year.  However, I did almost break my policy last year with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  But, I decided against it.

Well, my resistance has finally dropped with The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith AKA J.K. Rowling. I must admit the pseudonym controversy got me intrigued and I knew I had to read and review this novel.

The Cuckoo’s Calling tells the story about the death of Lula Landry, one of England’s most famous supermodels.  She fell from her high-rise loft in London and the police have ruled the death as a suicide. However, John Bristow, the deceased’s brother refuses to believe it was a suicide and hires private investigator Cormoran Strike to investigate the supermodel’s death.

Strike is a hard-livin’ detective who is on the brink of financial and personal ruin when Bristow arrives at his office to see if he will take on his dead sister’s case. The private investigator agrees to Bristow’s request and enters the world of high fashion, fame, and how wealthy Londoners really live.  Also, he is the son of a famous singer and because of that connection gets him entrance into this world without much resistance.

Rowling creates various twists in the plot in order to keep the reader guessing if the supermodel’s murder was really a suicide. The strength of the novel was her descriptive narrative and keen observation of human behavior.  Here’s an example:

“Her antipathy towards Strike seemed to have evaporated. He was not surprised; he had met the phenomenon many times. People liked to talk; there were very few exceptions; the question was how you made them do it. Some, and Ursula was evidently one of them, were amenable to alcohol; others liked a spotlight; and then there were those who merely needed proximity to another conscious human being.”

That passage was early in the novel and it showed Rowling’s strengths of the aforementioned traits that made The Cuckoo’s Calling an excellent  read. But, I must admit there is not a lot of action in the story.  It made me think if Rowling was writing this novel as a tip of the cap to P.D. James.  I could see James writing a novel like this one as well.

I came to reading The Cuckoo’s Calling as someone who had never read the Harry Potter books or her first adult novel, Casual Vacancy.  I had read one of the reasons Rowling wanted to write under a pseudonym was that her work could be judged on the basis if it is good or not.  And not to be judged through the lens as a celebrity novelist.

Well, if this was a first novel by Robert Galbraith…..it would be an outstanding first novel.  But it is Rowling’s second adult novel and deserves to be judged on its own merits as a crime fiction novel.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is one of my favorite reads of 2013 and Rowling is an engrossing, powerful storyteller.  It was worth breaking my personal policy.

Book Review 41: Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

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Middle Passage is the story of Rutherford Calhoun, a free black man, living in 1830’s New Orleans.  Rutherford is a thief, hustler, and womanizer who has lived a nomadic, vagabond life and somehow stayed out being sold into slavery. Well, there’s a prim and devout woman named Isadora Bailey that is in love with Rutherford and wants to marry him.  However, he refuses to marry her and ends up leaving New Orleans via the ship called The Republic.

On the ship, Rutherford learns the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the convoluted relationships between blacks and whites of that time.  The captain of the ship, Ebenezer Falcon, is a hard-driving, eccentric disciplinarian that’s hated by his crew. But, he is fond of Rutherford and two men develop a surprising friendship that will eventually test their loyalty to each other and the rest of the crew.

Rutherford gets caught in the middle of a slave rebellion of The Republic which eventually leads to the ship’s demise. He is deeply affected after the outcome of the slave rebellion and begins to examine the true meaning of his life. There is a surprise ending that caught me pleasantly off guard and brings the novel full circle.

Johnson has written an intellectual, philosophical page-turner that is part Moby Dick, part Gulliver’s Travels and part Invisible Man. I can see why Middle Passage received the prestigious National Book Award in 1990 for best novel.  It deserves to be mentioned with Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and Kindred by Octavia Butler as one of the best novels ever written about slavery.

Book Review 40: Cold Fire by Dean Koontz

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A little over a decade ago, I went on a Dean Koontz reading binge.  I read at least ten or eleven of his novels and I couldn’t get enough of them at that time.  However, my reading tastes has changed quite a bit over the years and I really didn’t have a desire to go back re-read any of his books.

Well, I looked on my bookshelf  a couple of weeks ago and saw I had a copy of Cold Fire. I must admit that Cold Fire is the one Koontz novel I have kept on my bookshelf since that reading binge. I don’t have a reason why I’ve kept that novel. But it was still there and I decided to give it a second reading.

Cold Fire is the story of Jim Ironheart, a mysterious man who has a supernatural ability to save random strangers from perilous life-altering events.  As a result, Jim has become an unlikely superhero.

One of his missions to Portland, Oregon, he has a chance encounter with Holly Thorne.  She’s a local reporter that was interviewing a teacher who recently published a book of poetry. Upon leaving the school, Holly sees Jim rescues a student from being hit by a truck. Jim treats the episode like a policeman or firefighter doing their job and Holly is taken by his modesty and self-effacing persona.

Afterwards, she decides to use her journalistic skills and track down this modern-day superhero.  Holly’s investigation into his background leads her to travel to Southern California and ends up becoming a part one of his missions.  By the end of that mission, Holly is convinced there is a lot more to discover about Ironheart.

Eventually, Holly persuades Jim to explore his past in order to find out about his supernatural ability and that’s where the painful memories of childhood, family abandonment, and the ability of books to create your own world comes into view.  By the end of novel, Jim faces up to those issues and learns where his gift actually came from.

Koontz’s strengths as a page-turning storyteller were on full display in Cold Fire.  He is a master at creating suspenseful scenes that makes you want to keep reading.  Also, Koontz has the ability to combine science fiction, fantasy, suspense/thriller, horror, and even aspects of spirituality into a genre gumbo of best-selling commercial fiction.  In this aspect, Koontz is similar to the musician, Sting.  Both men in their respective fields have taken various genres like a master chef would for a meal and use the right ingredients from each genre to create popular art that is uniquely their own.

After reading it for the second time, Cold Fire holds up surprisingly well. It will be the one Koontz novel that remains on my bookshelf.

Wisdom of Kammbia 3.28: 25 Things A Dad Should Teach His Son

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I just saw this list today and I thought it would be good to share.  These twenty-five things are not the final word on what a father should teach his son.  If there are others I’ve missed, please reply and add them to the list.

Also, if you as father (like myself) not have done all of these things with your son or sons….this will be a good guideline to keep in mind and some things to try with your son or sons in the future.  This list is not an indictment on fatherhood but an encouragement for fathers.  And sometimes men….we do need encouragement as well.

Here’s the list:

1) Speak in public—there’s power in the spoken word

2) Read good books-leaders are readers (Both fiction and non-fiction.  We have to stop this belief that reading fiction is only for women.  Sorry, that’s not true.)

3) Play an instrument-especially because of this discipline required

4) Play individual, two-person and team sports

5) Build a fire

6) Camp out-pitch the tent, cook stuff over the fire, the whole thing

7) Carve a turkey

8) Light a grill 

9) Jump start a car

10) Tie a knot-such as a bowline, square knot, taut-line, and figure eight among others

11) Use basic tools—hammer, saw, wrench, screwdriver

12) Paint a room-trim and all

13) Handle a gun and a knife—for safety, protection, sport, and hunting

14) Skin an animal

15) Be a gentleman–open doors, stand when a woman approaches at dinner, etc. (Don’t let political correctness stop us from doing this.  Chivalry is still okay in the 21st century.)

16) Grow stuff–and not just a Chia pet

17) Iron a shirt–and do laundry and other work around the house in a manly way

18) Manage money–keep a balanced checkbook, show generosity, and learn basic saving and investing (consistent giving to your church or favorite charity)

19) Shake a hand–strong shake and look’em in the eye

20) Give a man hug—skip the side hug, and go arms spread eagle with bold back slaps (I know most men are still uncomfortable with this one)

21) Keep vows (our word is still important)

22) Dress like a gentleman–coordinate pants, shirts, jackets, ties, belts, socks, etc…appropriately  for the occasion

23) Tip-for example at least 15% at a restaurant, $1 for a checked coat, $1 per bag for curbside check in at airport, etc.

24) Serve others—-shovel walks, help with heavy loads, etc.

25) Handle loss—sports and games in preparation for loss in work and relationships (This is a big one for our sons)

 

There is the list.  Thanks to Randy Stinson and Dan Dumas for coming up with it.

Book Review 39: Captives (Safe Lands #1) by Jill Williamson

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What is freedom?

That question is the one that kept coming to mind as I read The Captives (Safe Lands Book 1) by Jill Williamson. It is a YA Dystopian novel and not a genre usually read. (However, I did read and review the wonderful Book Thief by Marcus Zusak last year.) This novel was recommended to me by a blogger and reader I trust and I’m thankful for her recommendation.

The Captives is set in a futuristic Colorado and revolves around a family that lives off the land in a village named Glenrock.  The family believes in Christianity and follows its values. However, one of the sons decide he’s had enough of the old ways and beliefs of his family and is determined to make a name for himself in Denver City.  Denver City is a modern utopia and has everything one wants especially for a teenager.

The son devises a plan to get his family to leave Glenrock and join him in Denver City.  However, the plan doesn’t go as expected and there are some disastrous results because of his choice.

While in Denver City, the family learns how the people of the city lives and is in stark contrast to how they lived in Glenrock.  Pleasure and Entertainment is the main lifestyle for people of the city.  Women are used as baby factories for the state and being in a committed relationship or marriage is considered outdated by the citizens.  The city decides on where you will work or what career path you must take and there is a harsh punishment for those who try to buck the system.

However, the eldest son of the family was not around when the rest of his kinfolk were taken into Denver City.  He decides he must go into the city in order to rescue them.  But, he learns quickly that once you come to Denver City it’s not that easy to leave.

Since this is the first book of the series, the author finishes the novel with a few open-ended questions that needs to be answered in the subsequent books of the series. Williamson has written a solid, thought-provoking YA novel that put a smile on this middle-aged reader’s face.  This is the one of the best novels I’ve read so far in 2013 and would recommend it for readers 14 and up.

Wisdom of Kammbia 3.27: What Is Friendship?

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A friend loves at all times,
And a brother is born for adversity.” {Proverbs 17:17 ESV}

Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.” {Proverbs 27:10 ESV}

Those two verses of scripture got me to thinking about friendship. What is friendship? Why is so important to the human experience?

Well, I had a conversation with someone last week that told me they were leaving our church for another church closer to home because of the lack of friendships they had.Friendship in our culture is fractured. We have work friends, after work friends, church friends, and childhood friends. Unfortunately, not of these friends really intersect or interconnect with each other in today’s modern life. However, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my Christian life is that God connects our entire life together: family, work, social life and even friends. So I believe it’s important to bring every area of life together into a cohesive unit for his Glory.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned about friendship and how it can be interconnected to all the other areas in our hectic, fast-paced lifestyle:

1) In order to have friends, one must become a friend: Because of our disconnected and fractured lifestyle I just mentioned it has become harder to be a friend. With the demands of work, family, and church, it has become much easier to only focus on your life rather than someone else’s life. And it hard to become a friend when you are only focused on yourself and your immediate concerns. Also, friendship takes time and there is a rhythm to every friendship. Some friendships have a rhythm like a rock-n-roll tune and some friendships have a rhythm like a smooth jazz song and we must pay attention to what the rhythm of the friendship is and don’t force it to be something it is not.
2) Don’t go into a friendship with an agenda: I believe we as Christians can be guilty of this principle quite a bit. We start a friendship by inviting them to church or a bible study without ever really getting to know them as human beings. Sometimes we can see them more a soul to be saved than an actual friend. I understand the desire for that, but people want to be appreciated for who they are first not what you want them to become. I remember the person who led me to Christ nearly a decade ago and she knew my passion for novels and music. We started a friendship from there and she never tried to force the Bible on me or tried to get me to go to church with her every Sunday. She took a genuine interest in what I was interested in and the friendship developed a rhythm from that point and over time it led me to having a spiritual life. Please keep the agenda out of friendship and people will be more open into becoming your friend.

3) You are not going to click or connect with everyone you attempt a friendship with: I’ve had to learn this one especially among other believers in the Lord. People have different personalities or temperaments and sometimes you can click someone better than another person. Don’t take it personally. We as human beings are unique and distinct and will always gravitate towards some people more than others. I heard the concept that we should “date for friends like we do when we dated for our spouses.” Oops…I know that may be sensitive subject for some of you, but I like the concept though. Sometimes it may take a failed attempt or attempts at a friendship in order have a real friendship thrive.

Well, I hope these tips will give you some encouragement and that we all pursue genuine friendship.

Wisdom of Kammbia 3.26: Is Classic Literature Relegated To The Same Fate As Classical Music?

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My wife and I went to the Symphony this weekend for our date night.  We both wanted to try some different than the usual dinner and a movie for our night together.  We thought going to the San Antonio Symphony would be just the thing to take a chance on.

Well, I must admit both my wife and I were falling asleep during the 1st piece by Mozart (Piano Concerto No. 22) and though the second piece by Shostakovich (No. 8) was louder and more interesting than the Mozart piece. I still had trouble staying awake and we both left the theatre before the Symphony ended.

I’m a music lover.  I listen to everything from Jazz, R& B, Rock, Gospel, and Country. So I’m always open to good music regardless of genre but I have never fallen asleep on a musical performance even if I didn’t like it.

I’ve been thinking about that experience all day (Even during the San Antonio Spurs-Memphis Grizzlies Western Conference Finals playoff Game 1. Go Spurs Go!! ) and wondered do modern readers have the same experience that my wife and I did at the symphony.

How many readers have given up reading The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne?  Or Moby Dick by Melville?  Or a fat novel by Dickens like David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby?

If so, what can be done about it?  Has pop culture affected our ability to be able to read those aforementioned works or listen to a Mozart or Shostakovich?  Or is both classical literature and music relegated only to the elite in our society?

As you can read, I have more questions than answers or a solid opinion on this blog post.  I would like to know how others feel about it.

I decided a few years ago to make sure I read one classic a year.  I started with Madame Bovary by Flaubert and a couple years ago I read David Copperfield by Dickens.  Last year, I read Utopia by More. I’ve learned in reading these classics than human nature is basically the same regardless of the time period and it has taken me out my comfort zone from the contemporary literature I’m used to reading.

So how can we keep classic literature from suffering the same fate as classical music?  Or is it a lost cause?

Wisdom of Kammbia 3.24: Who Is The Best Novelist? (Elite 8 Round Part II)

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We have reached the Elite 8 in the Sixty-Four Novelist March Madness Style Tournament to determine whom readers believe is the best novelist or the most beloved novelist. The winner of the Stephen King Bracket will face the winner of the Cormac McCarthy Bracket.

Here are the results from The Sweet 16 round in the Stephen King bracket:

1 seed Stephen King vs 29 seed Tony Hillerman (King beats Hillerman 80% to 20%)

2 seed John Grisham vs 24 seed Sidney Sheldon (Grisham beats Sheldon in an unanimous decision)

3 seed Dean Koontz vs 23 seed Elmore Leonard (Leonard beats Koontz 66% to 34% in an upset.)

5 seed Ray Bradbury vs 21 seed Anne McCaffrey (Bradbury beats McCaffrey 75% to 25%)

6 seed Tom Clancy vs 20 seed Michael Connelly (Clancy beats Connelly 75% to 25%)

7 seed Anne Rice vs 19 seed Richard Paul Evans (Evans beats Rice 66% to 34% in an upset.)

8 seed Nora Roberts vs 18 seed Dennis Lehane (Roberts beats Lehane 55% to 45%)

11 seed Robert Heinlein vs 15 Jan Karon (Heinlein beats Karon 75% to 25%)

Here are the Elite 8 Match-ups: (vote for the Author you want to win the match-up)

1 seed Stephen King vs 23 seed Elmore Leonard

2 seed John Grisham vs 19 seed Richard Paul Evans

5 seed Ray Bradbury vs 11 seed Robert Heinlein

6 seed Tom Clancy vs 8 seed Nora Roberts

Vote often!