Reviews

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.
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Feature image by Debra Trejo on Unsplash

Reviews

Review: On the Block, by Doug Logan (Moody Publishers)

9780802414724The subtitle of this book is strung along the bottom of the cover, like an afterthought, almost as if the author doesn’t want to scare off the reader :)

So first take a good look at the cover: Visualize your home and church in that urban grid. Read the title (and subtitle) and think on it. Let it all sink in for a long minute. And if you feel even the slightest of stirring in your heart, I urge you to read this book from cover to cover!

This book is about empowering people is to be disciples after Jesus’ own heart—a people who live the gospel in their broken neighborhoods. In a culture where only 17% of churchgoers have heard about the Great Commission and also know what that means, we need more resources, more motivation, more examples of living our faith in our everyday lives.

Doug Logan draws from lessons learned from his church’s experience in a neighborhood plagued by drug abuse, violence, and poverty. This book is full of real-life examples of what works and what doesn’t, of what happens when the “church’s mission engagement [is] infused with true compassion.”

Chapter 12, for example, outlines missional living like this: Missional living must be  . . .

  • intentional
  • developed
  • natural
  • networked
  • bathed in prayer

Applying the his principles, One of the things Logan’s church did was buy dilapidated houses, fix them up, and have church members move right into the neighborhood —enabling the church to truly be part of the fabric of the city. Of this he says:

We adapt and adjust to the community around us. We will get pushed past our comfort and color zone. But in our discomfort we know God is at work. We do life in our community soul-food spots and alongside the cool older man who fixes cars for cheap. I get my candy and chips regularly from the corner store, and the store owner knows me. He speaks Spanish to me, calling me papito and I call him papi! On the block we say, “We up in here!” As believers we desire to be received by the residents in our city. We want to know our neighbors and we are committed to living amongst them as friends and sons of God (p. 151).

Logan challenges every church to be “barrier breaking, aggressive, faithful, fearless evangelists who want Jesus in the hearts and on the lips of all people.”

Get the book and accept the Great Commission today.

For the record, I received this book from Moody Publishers for this review.
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Feature image by Jaay dev Singh on Unsplash
Personal Ramblings

Death Row Granny and Me

 

One sleepless night while shamelessly googling myself, I found my name in  . . .

wait for it . . .

murderpedia.com.

(Until then, I didn’t even know that was a thing.) And that’s not what I expected to find!

An excerpt of what I had written so long ago that I don’t even remember writing it is quoted in the entry for Velma Barfield, aka Death Row Granny. Here it is:

In 1978 Velma Barfield was arrested for murdering four people, including her mother and fiance. She was on death row, confined in a cell by herself. One night a prison guard tuned into a 24-hour Christian radio station.

Down the gray hall, desperate and alone in her cell, Velma listened to the gospel message and accepted Jesus as her Saviour. The outside world began to hear about Velma Barfield and how she had changed.

During the six years she was on death row she ministered to many of her cellmates. Many were touched by the sadness of her story and the sincerity of her love for Christ as well as the beauty of her Christian witness in that prison. Just before her execution, Velma wrote “I know the Lord will give me dying grace, just as He gave me saving grace, and has given me living grace.”

Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” On earth Velma Barfield paid the price for her crimes. The hideous nature of sin is that while we can be forgiven them and freed from them, we, like Velma Barfield, must still face the consequences of our sins. At least until Christ returns, sin is here to stay.

Sin cannot be eradicated. And for being born into this world, each of us has a price to pay. This does not mean that we receive a death sentence the moment we are born. Although we cannot avoid the consequences of our sins, in Jesus we can overcome them. At the judgment hall, Jesus’ blood washes away our sins and clothes us in His righteousness. [Fylvia Fowler Kline is assistant director of the Stewardship Department for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists]*

*I left that position in 2001

Here is Barfield before her execution in 1984:

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Feature image by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash

Reviews

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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Feature image by Zugr on Unsplash

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Personal Ramblings

Leon’s Lawn

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Photo credit: Garden Solutions, Flickr

It was the drought of 1999

Leon wasn’t much of a gardener. Plastic flowers thrust into the soil were proof. But his lawn was his pride. He mowed that lawn once a week, every Thursday at 6 pm, and watered it every day. It was the best lawn  in the neighborhood.

Then came the mandatory water restrictions. No one was allowed to water their gardens. Neighbors wondered what Leon would do.

Miss Sally, the diplomatic, empathetic member on the Home Owner’s Association board was delegated to visit Leon to ensure he did not violate the restriction.

“What are you going to do, Leon?” Miss Sally asked with genuine concern.

“I’m going to pray,” Leon said

“That’s good, but you may want to consider mowing your lawn less frequently to keep it from burning from all the sun and not enough water,” Miss Sally gently suggested.

“Can’t do that,” Leon responded, “Been mowing my lawn every Thursday, Spring and Summer, since I moved here 40 years ago.”

Thursday came. 6 p.m. There were many eyes peering out the window. Leon’s garage door opened, and out he came pushing his mower. He stopped, looked heavenwards into the blistering sun, and raised his arms up high. After praying, Leon proceeded to mow.

Every week, it was the same. Every Thursday Leon prayed, then he mowed—but he never watered his lawn.

The neighbors watched and talked about it.

And throughout that drought of 1999 Leon’s lawn stayed green.
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Feature image by Simone Dalmeri on Unsplash

Reviews

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.
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Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash
Personal Ramblings

Love that Sticks

In our car every morning, before we pull out of our driveway, Roy and I pray together. On some days the prayer is longer than usual. (I confess, there are some rushed mornings when one sacrilegiously drives with eyes on the road while the other prays, head bowed and eyes closed).

But this Monday morning, even though we were running late, we didn’t start the car; we stopped for an extra long prayer. It had been one of those weekends, and the week wasn’t looking any better.

Preoccupied with the long list my prayer had left at Heaven’s door, I went through my morning ritual at work–connected my laptop to the big monitor, watered my  office plants, tore open a granola bar, got a cup of tea–and began answering my emails.

And it was only then, as my finger scrolled down the monitor and my eyes followed the cursor to the bottom of the screen, did I see the sticky note someone had left for me.

Faith makes all things possible—loves makes all things easy.—Dwight L Moody #919lovethatsticks

I googled the hashtag #919lovethatsticks and learned it’s a WGTS campaign that fosters a kinder world (they have other ideas that are just as easy and rewarding–like the Drive Through Difference).

The sticky note was just what I needed. And now I’m going to leave notes too when impressed to do so. The note also has me reminding myself: I’ve got everything I need to take on anything—faith in God and the love of family and friends.

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Feature image by Anastasiia Krutota on Unsplash

Reviews

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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Feature image by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

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Reviews

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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Feature image by Kristin Brown on Unsplash

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Personal Ramblings

The Van Gogh Portrait of Gratitude

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 3.32.35 PMMaybe you’ve heard this story before, but I learned of it just few weeks ago,  and was fascinated by how the inability of one person to see value in something cost a family a fortune.

Very early one winter morning in 1883 Félix Rey, a young medical intern who had yet to graduate, worked hard to save a hallucinating patient who had suffered blood loss. The patient was Vincent van Gogh and the blood loss involved a severed ear and a prostitute—but that’s another story!

For several weeks young Félix cared for van Gogh, saving him from infection and possible death. When he finally recovered and returned home, van Gogh painted this portrait of Félix Rey as an expression of his eternal gratitude. While Félix became both a friend and advocate of van Gogh, he wasn’t really a fan of van Gogh’s artistic representation of him. So the painting was left propped somewhere inconspicuous in his home—that is, until his mother noticed that her chicken coop had a hole!

For the next two years of so, this van Gogh original did nothing more than keep chickens in their place—until one day an admirer of Van Gogh’s work heard about the painting in the chicken coop and bought it from Félix’s family.

Today the Félix Rey portrait hangs in the The National Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Its estimated auction value is $50 million.
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Feature image by Ståle Grut on Unsplash