Book Review: The Gospel Comes With A House Key

When I was in college studying youth ministry and biblical theology, my degree professor read from “My Utmost From His Highest” to begin some of our classes and he referred to it as “The Hammer.” That’s the word that first came to mind as I read the book I’m about to review. There are clearly parts of the Bible and especially the Gospels that are woefully under-practiced in America and our culture is good about making excuses and rationalizations as to why. This book crushes those two things with a mighty swing of a basic theology of what the author calls “radically ordinary hospitality”.

Rosaria Butterfield splashed onto the scene a few years ago with The Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, which my dad strongly encouraged every teenager and adult in my immediately family to read. That work put her on the map and for very good reason. It is a unique story of transformation that only the Christian God could have written. But using her to tell it made her a must-read author to my mind and I am thrilled my senior pastor informed me about this book. In reviewing it I am not going to get fancy; I will tell you what I loved about it and then talk about the things that I was unsure about. I aim to give the benefit of the doubt so I won’t go as far as to say I do not like them. But they are things I would love ask Rosaria about if I ever got to talk to her.


Things I Loved

First, I loved just the simple premise of the book and how plainly yet boldly the challenge is laid out and exegeted: The Bible calls us to hospitality and that means doing the sacrificial thing and opening up our homes to people in extremely intimate and absolutely inconvenient ways. In the Preface on page 11, she articulates her thesis very simply: “A truly hospitable heart anticipates every day, Christ-centered table fellowship and guests who are genuinely in need.” I may be in the minority but I do not know many people who practice this. The fact she wrote this makes me think I am not in the minority. The way she uses the Bible (passages like Luke 9:44-50) and her own experience (including her daily schedule!) to support this statement is the heart of the book. It is what convicted me for nearly 200 pages. She is not afraid to be offensive by speaking a hard truth. I deeply respect that.

Secondly, I love how brutally honest she is about how rough hospitality can be in 3D. After a few dozen pages, you may think (if you are like me), “Man she sure is bragging on herself a lot.” That thought was not enough to get me to put the book down because the material was far too good, and I know that sometimes my own insecurity and defensiveness cause me to perceive other people preaching truth to be haughty. But Butterfield eventually makes sure that God’s grace is manifested through human weaknesses. She tells of a time her family adopted a daughter at 17 years old and how the girl did not take to them and as she aged out she left them behind. She tells about how when her mother lived with them it wrecked their hospitality efforts and put a strain on their family that exposed her (Butterfield’s) own sinful nature. She tells of a time her family got robbed and how no one in her house “found okay” for months. She talks about how to deal with hospitality with a “Judas,” the individual at a church under church discipline and how complicated that makes living out her thesis. By the end of the book, I appreciated significantly how Butterfield demonstrates that life in Christ is not picture perfect and that community can be ugly, messy and filled with rejection. She has a sober view of self in my opinion and does not come across as falsely humble. Any time a Christian is honest about themselves, humility should be the result. She is raw and transparent in her stories.

I also love how she brings self-righteous people like me to their knees by pointing out when church leaders get caught in sins and prove that our judgmental, inhospitable approaches to people we perceive to be more sinful than us are not biblical. Jesus got his hands and feet dirty reaching out to the people in society that no one would touch (the way she explains Jesus’ response to leprosy is masterful) and he was morally perfect. Who am I to walk to the other side of the road to avoid others? People in my circles of Christianity know Jesus ministered to the disenfranchised. Yet who among us is living as he did? We often are too worried about getting taken advantage of to really live out the story of the Good Samaritan or too concerned with dignity to bend down and associate with the dirty sinners among us. The truth is that quite often that the same pride that prevents us from ministering to those people is the same pride that leads to our own downfalls. Butterfield is at her best here, providing a searing rebuke to modern Pharisaical Christianity. Trust me, I need this. I get this teaching at my church but her skills as a writer really accentuated things I can get complacent about. Just recently I heard about a girl who got pregnant at 11 years old and my first thought was a Pharisaical one (I didn’t have sex before marriage!), even though I’ve lusted after women thousands of times in my life. I need this book for this reason.

Lastly I love how she makes a point to say that hospitality is not just receiving people but going into their homes as well. It is being a host and a guest. This is something I have noted good churches in Chicago have been promoting in recent months—why not do what Jesus did with Zaccheus and others and invite ourselves to others’ homes to evangelize and disciple them? This is definitely counterintuitive and countercultural to me but this book motivates me to try it.


What I Am Unsure About

If you have read anything by Butterfield you know it seems like she has passionate and pointed opinions about secondary things, like singing only biblical psalms and not “man-made hymns”. But at the same time, I do not know her personally so I tread very carefully in judging the things she writes that cause me to furrow my brow. One of the things in this book I am speaking to is from page 103:

“Next in the biblical family is a mom who is home and available to serve. While I am employable in a full-time way outside of the home, our family has always needed me at home, and so home I am. As a stay-at-home mom I can do one hundred helpful things for the people I love most in the world in the first thirty minutes of waking. Things that matter and cannot be farmed out to others for pay.”

Now, of course as a man married to a Chicago Public School teacher who is paid pretty well to experience some of the most frightening aspects of humanity, all to be salt and light to inner-city children, I wonder at first exactly what she means by that. Other parts of the book make me think that it is not as myopic as it may sound. Part of the issue is that stay-at-home/homeschooling debate has created a lot of scars, for all kinds of people. But setting aside this baggage, which biblically I should do to live in community, I can try to understand Butterfield better here. She and I are absolutely on the same team. We can sharpen iron with iron on topics like these.

Another thing that gave me a bit of pause is her willingness to bring the government and politics into the discussion on hospitality. Now, I agree with everything she said, but I come at it with a bias. Also, I have zero issue with Christians calling out politicians on their words about people who are different, especially those who are not from America. But on the issue of policy I am less clear how much the Bible says about what a sovereign nation is required to do in the compassion vs. national security debate. I appreciate how plainly she speaks and the risks she takes here, but I am not sure how much I agree with every jot and tittle of her conclusions. I vote for compassion but I have Christian friends who think differently so I do not consider this an absolute truth issue, as some people on both sides seem to want to.


Overall this is a necessary book for 2019 America. It has messed with my mind in the best way possible. I hope to practice it, even with a baby coming. Because as Butterfield teaches, our excuses, even those that involve the protection and safety of our children, can at times succumb to the weight of Biblical demands to love the unlovable and to allow others to infiltrate our most secure dwelling: our home. I recommend it to all Christians everywhere.




500 Words or Less Reviews: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

*This review will be spoiler-free.*

 

One of the biggest complaints I heard about the original Fantastic Beasts movie was that it was so far removed from the original series, it didn’t feel like a Harry Potter story. To me, it still had a good plot and great characters and is worth rewatching, but I sympathize with that complaint.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald gives us much more of the original canon in subtle and overt ways, but still does a fine job of keeping the narrative separate from Harry’s era at Hogwarts so that it can stand on its own legs and tell a fresh story without the weight of massive book scrutiny.

Eddie Redmayne is back as the peculiar Newt Scamander, who another character aptly describes as a man who doesn’t care for power or prestige but for what is right. Scamander may not ever rise to the level of characters like Hagrid and McGonagall in my mind but he is a welcome addition to the Harry Potter universe.

They chose Newt’s book to be the title of these films and while the films themselves are not truly about the beasts that he loves so much, they do play a significant role in plot development. And Newt unleashes a new, wondrous, Jim Henson-esque creature that steals some scenes.

Johnny Depp is surprisingly quite modest in his titular, antagonist role. For a man who has made a living off of being magnificently weird as unique characters, he doesn’t try to do too much here. I suppose the backstory from the original series, the characters “look” and the script are enough and he doesn’t have to be outrageous to bring Grindelwald to life. If anything, I thought he was too subdued.

Jude Law is as brilliant as you would expect and Dan Fogler reprising his role as Jacob is even funnier and more sympathetic than the first go round. The rest of the cast is a mixture of decent to bland.

There are twists galore in this movie but I must see the rest of the series before I can judge them.

On that note, without revealing anything, I will conclude by saying the ending will have people talking until the third part is released. And my only comment in this review is to say that it is imperative to me that they do not make the same mistakes that were made with The Cursed Child. As mentioned, a significant part of what makes these movies work so far to me is that they are separated from the seven-book/eight movie story enough that they can let these movies breathe without fear of them clashing with the original. They may be nearing dangerous waters.

The Harry Potter brand is clearly at a crossroads. The crucial plot decisions of these next three movies will swing the post-book series material either into the “It was nearly all terrible” or “Fantastic Beasts was fantastic and we barely remember The Cursed Child.” I’m eager to see the result.

 

Three stars out of five.




500 Words of Less Reviews: The Count of Monte Cristo (Book)

 

Sprawling, epic, multifaceted, ingenious. Those are just four great words that describe the 1462-page unabridged copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. This massive work was written by Alexandre Dumas. It was published in 18 installments in a popular French newspaper. Do you want to know what happens? Everything. Everything happens. The tale recounts the long story of the young, promising seaman Edmund Dantes. On the eve of his marriage to the beautiful Mercedes, three jealous rivals (technically four, but he is very drunk and doesn’t really know what’s going on) plot to get him thrown into prison for treason.

Halfway through this term, he is on the brink of madness and committing suicide when he meets the kindly, wise, industrious and extremely knowledgeable Abbe Faria. For the next few years, the abbe bequeaths to Dantes all of his substantial earthly knowledge and on his final deathbed the knowledge of a vast fortune hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. After the death of his friend, teacher, and mentor, Dantes escapes and indeed finds this mountain of treasure securely hidden on the island for many, many years.

Despite the wise words of the abbe that revenge will not bring him peace, Edmund (who now calls himself The Count of Monte Cristo) spends the next ten years concocting an incredibly complex plan of vengeance of the men involved in his wrongful imprisonment with almost 1200 pages worth of carrying out his end game.

The synopsis I have just given might be sufficient to describe the recent 2002 movie adaption of the book (it is to that popular adaptation I will be referring to when I mention the film version), but it is certainly not an adequate representation of the novel itself. The staggering complexity of the novel is something the movie did not even hint at. I love the movie, I really do, but it is barely an outline of the real deal. It is really only minorly inspired by the full story. The real story is infinitely more complex, rich, and, as mentioned, sprawling. When I say that everything is in this book I mean there is just that. And that is only a slight exaggeration. There is action, adventure, mystery, comedy, drama, romance, and at least a hundred subgenres in each of these genres. There are stories in stories and stories in stories in stories.

There are so many richly drawn characters and subplots here that for sizable chunks of the book the count isn’t even involved or is but a secondary character. One of the overarching of these characters: God. Not surprisingly, almost all talk of God is exempt from the theatrical rendition. As a result, I think the ending is very different and the conclusions of the count are very different from the cut and dried tale on film.

In conclusion, although the trip is long and sometimes tedious, it is a trip incredibly worth it. Here’s to them making the wise decision to make this into a two-week miniseries.

 

This is the cover of the edition I read.




Three Things I Love About Audiobooks (And Three I Don’t)

As a man who went from farm boy in Tookeydoo, SC to pastor in inner-city Chicago, I do not mind change. Not even in small things. Except when it comes to reading. I have never for one second read a book from a Kindle or any similar device and do not plan to. I just can’t do it. Not having a physical paper book in my hands is about as comfortable as trying to write with my left hand.

Until recently, I had felt similarly about audiobooks. I’ve listened patiently as friends like Josh Crowe have informed me that listening to works like the Harry Potter series is an amazing experience. I nod politely but think, “Nope. Never gonna do it.”

Yet one day this April I had an epiphany: a huge reason I hate driving in Chicago’s bumper to bumper traffic is that I feel like I’m wasting time. If I’m going 70 MPH at least I feel like I’m doing something. When I’m going 0 MPH, I go from calm to irrationally angry in about six seconds. Music helps a lot of people, but not me. No, I needed something else. And so I purchased an Audible account on Amazon, a website I adore about like I adore Chick-fil-a.

In the last three months or so, I have listened to about 16 audiobooks. I’ve listened to everything from a two-hour long self-help book in Spanish to a 27-hour Steve Jobs biography. And I’ve listened enough to start forming opinions about this medium. Here are are a few things I consider advantages to audiobooks over actually reading a book:


1. The Voices

The very first audiobook I listened to was As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, written and narrated by Carey Elwes. Elwes was already high up on my list of cool people, but his reading of this work was just enthralling.  His accent is exquisite. He did impressions of people like Andre the Giant that were sublime. I would guess he made the book twice as entertaining with his voice than it would have been had I read it. 

Later I listened to The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The narrator’s voice was rustic and pitch-perfect, especially when he read the dialogue of the father and the son. The writing is already packed with emotion but the reader really brought it to life.

Another notable one was Gabriel Wyner reading his work, Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It. Not only was the material incredible and effective but Wyner, who is an opera singer, conveys an enthusiasm through the reading that can be felt in his timbre and inflections. He reads with joy and I can even see him gesturing in my mind’s eye several times in the book. Extremely well done.

 

2. The ability to “read” while walking and driving

I started this to have something to make me feel productive while driving, as I said above. But then I realized that I spend nearly an hour a day walking to and from work. And while I often use that time to listen to Polish, I could also use it to listen to books. Before 2017 I was about a 15-20 book a year guy. Last year I read 50 without a conscious effort to up the normal count. This year I decided to read every free second I can get and I’ve read a lot more. And it was beginning to annoy me that I was losing precious time doing things where reading is impossible. Now that has been solved.

 

3. Zero shipping and storage issues

I love Amazon Prime in part because I can see a book I love and have it in my hands in two days. Now, with Audible, I don’t have to wait but a few seconds. Also, occasionally, with physical books, I will get the wrong book or my order will be lost or late. Not an issue with audiobooks. And then there’s the storage issue. I love bookshelves and having a reading room, but every time I’ve moved, the boxes of books have created extra work. And I don’t have infinite space in my house. Now I have a way to add to my library without taking space from my home.  Admittedly this is an advantage to a Kindle but this was never enough motivation in and of itself.


And here are three things I don’t love:

 

1. It’s easy to lose focus

If I’m driving and a car in front of me swerves then it will take me a few seconds to be able to refocus back to the book I’m listening to. Audible has a 30-second rewind feature, but it’s unwise to manipulate while driving. Also, even when I’m walking sometimes a loud motorcycle will go by and I will miss some of the book and I’m too lazy to rewind. Plus, in general, I just have an easier time getting distracted and letting my mind wander when listening than when reading. Admittedly, this is a character flaw more than a book flaw. Audiobook from Amazon has thought of very easy ways to combat a lot of this.

 

2. I lose my place sometimes

This is a problem more with my phone than with the medium, but it happens sometimes that if my phone gets bumped then the place will skip and I won’t be able to remember exactly where I was. And it takes a while to figure it out. That is frustrating but does not happen very often.

 

3. Selection is limited

The selection is not terrible, but I can find just about anything on Amazon books. On Audible, this is not the case. That’s just the nature of it. Not every book has been recorded to hear or will be recorded. But to be honest, Audible is a supplement to my regular reading, not the main source. So this is a minor complaint as well.


One final thought on price…I didn’t include this as a positive or a negative because it depends. I have found books on Audible for $5.95 often but I also can’t find books I want for under $25 sometimes. Audible does run sales though where you can get 3 “credits” for $35 and then buy any three books you want (one a month for three months), which is often cheaper than the physical copy of books. So Amazon is still finding ways to eliminate potential complaints.

Overall I am quite pleased with Audible and I plan to use it until I die. Some may think audiobooks don’t count as real reading and that is fine. But my soul needs them to keep myself sane at times.

Questions or comments? Please tell us below.

 




Review: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.” – Fred Rogers

 

The Mr. Rogers I remember was a TV personality that had a warm and welcoming opening song and changed his jacket for a sweater and played with a trolley. He did voices in the Land of Make Believe and spoke gently and kindly to his audience and was good friends with people like Mr. McFeely. Thanks to him, I have known what a duckbill platypus is since I was five.

The Mr. Rogers of Won’t You Be My Neighbor I did not recall. And for that reason, among many others, this story needs to be told. God communicates to us so clearly through narrative. Our Bible is chock full of them. Biographies teach us things that ‘How To’ books never could. We need lives–real, heroic, inspirational lives–to help us make sense of this corrupt world. Fred Rogers is the modern example par excellence as to why.

Thanks to this documentary we get to see how big a visionary he was, seeing TV as the future before it was even the present. We get to see him fight for funding for it, using meekness to speak boldly and change the circumstances. We get to see him provide entertainment for kids that was wholesome and countercultural. We get to see him talk to children in a courageous, competent and congenial way about things like assassination, low self-esteem and anger. Things that seem daunting to talk about in private, much less in front of an audience. He taught against racism in as innocuous yet powerful a way as possible, in a time where it was terribly needed. He taught that it was OK to be sad without being patronizing. He talked through issues about emotions in an emotionally intelligent way, to such a level that my educated and experienced teacher wife was blown away. She could not believe how much he knew about how to talk to children, especially since it was 40 years ago before a lot of modern research was popular. Mr. Rogers was ahead of his time and in many ways a genius.

Most of that was surprising to me. But the stories went deeper. Mr. Rogers was known for dealing with children, but he worked with adults. And he proved that you can speak the truth to someone about a very hard subject and still make that person feel deeply in their soul that you love them so much they see you as a surrogate father. We in the U.S., even in Christianity, haven’t all figured this out. For this reason as much as any, I adore Fred Rogers. And until I watched this film, I had no idea.

If you have noticed that this documentary is rated P-13, I want to be clear that the previous paragraph is a part of why. The heaviness of real-world issues and interpersonal relationships isn’t always for general audiences. Yet there are other things that cause it to be rated as it is. Though Mr. Rogers lived a mostly G-rated life, his story is told by others. And as such, there were a few profane words in the interviews and a reference to a prank on set that is not something I would expect parent readers of REO would want small children to see. Also, Fred Rogers got angry at times about issues facing children in the US, especially when it came to what was on TV. And this documentary shows some of what Mr. Rogers hated.

My criticisms of this work are minor. I loved the music from the trailer and wish they had used it more. The transitions from story to story seemed a bit awkward at times to me, but another review I read said they were perfect so perhaps that is something I do not understand about documentaries. And finally, the cursing in the film is something at least at this point that has me torn. I suppose the point of this is for teenagers and adults to be inspired and to tell his story without many filters. Yet considering what his life stood for, I wish it were appropriate for kids. I suppose the kids still have his 1700+ TV episodes to watch.

Mr. Rogers talked a lot about love in his life. But he proved that while talking is easy and living is hard, it must be done if we want to make a difference. Love is unapologetically inconvenient. Mr. Rogers practiced it both in public and private, as valiantly and humbly as he could. At least according to those who knew him best.

I recommend this documentary to everyone who has been touched by Fred Rogers in any way, which would be millions of people all over the world, even nearly 15 years after his death.

Four stars out of five.

 

 




Reading Ever On: March 2017

Here are the books we read last month and what we thought of them…


Gowdy Cannon

North! Or Be Eaten (Wingfeather Saga Book 2) by Andrew Peterson

North! or Be EatenI wrote about the first book in this series last month and I finished the other three in March. They are excellent and get better with each volume. They will be added to my rotation of favorite fantasy series, of which I read at least a little every day. This one has my favorite scene of the Wingfeather Saga, when Janner faces a situation so dark and discouraging it was like Andrew Peterson read my journal from my worst days and made it into a fantasy plot. This book is hard to put down start to finish.


The Monster In The Hollows (Wingfeather Saga Book 3) by Andrew Peterson

The Monster in the HollowsThe action-packed adventure continues in the third installment and it gets really good with the three main character siblings starting at a new school. Having done this before in my personal life, I was enthralled. And the climax, centering around the book title, is wild and unpredictable. I am ready to read this again.


The Warden and the Wolf King (Wingfeather Saga Book 4) by Andrew Peterson

The Warden and the Wolf KingPeterson set the bar high in the first three and the pay off in this concluding volume (much longer than the other books) is worth it. There are secondary characters developed in an alternating scene (this happens in prior books but not as in depth as this one). I admit I didn’t appreciate this as much as I could have if I had loved those characters as much as the main ones, but the overall story and ending is emotional and satisfying. I recommend this series to anyone who loves Narnia, Hogwarts or Middle Earth or even if you do not.


The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter

The Art of Biblical NarrativeWritten by a Jew and rather short for a volume on biblical interpretation (183 pages, since it focuses on one genre of the Bible), the thinking in this book is levels beyond what I am capable of and I thoroughly benefited as a result. A professor at Moody recommended it to me years ago as a book way out of the common Christian sphere on the topic and this was at least my third reading. Highly recommended for hermeneutics junkies and anyone interested in how to get into the world behind the Bible text to get its meaning. If nothing else, I would read it just to see how the author explains why the Genesis 38 story of Judah and Tamar interrupts the Joseph narrative.


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim CroweI’m nothing if not teachable so I read this in an attempt to try to understand the thoughts behind many who maintain that there is still a significant amount of racial injustice in the US, notably in the judicial system. As a white male I want to read what people who think differently than me have to say but also to filter it critically.


The Wayside School Series by Louis Sachar

The Wayside School CollectionWeird and random is my wheelhouse and so this trilogy of children’s books has been my absolute favorite since the late 80s when they first came out. You have a boy who counts with the wrong numbers but always gets the right answer. You have a girl who loves dead rats. You don’t have a 19th story to your building (the builder said he was very sorry). The original, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, was so popular Sachar wrote the sequels due to an avalanche of fan demand. I wish he’d never stopped. Wayside School Is Falling Down and Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger take the character development of the first book and add in zany and nonsensical plots that make me laugh and leave me giddy. Perfect reading for small kids who love silliness and for adults who are under great stress (hand raised for me these days buying my first house), I will be reading these til I die. I can’t wait to read them to my kids.




Ben Plunkett

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireJust a few days ago I reviewed Goblet of Fire, which you can see here. I will dispense with regurgitating everything I said, but I will warn you once again that you should be prepared for a big book. But that will very likely mean nothing even if you are, like me, normally a very, very slow reader. What would usually take me several months to read, only took me a little over one. And I promise you won’t regret the adventure. There is a nearly seamless flow and flawless writing from section to section. The only flaw in this book is Rowling’s traditional information vomitation courtesy of our big baddy Lord Voldemort.

If you haven’t read The Sorceror’s Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, and The Prisoner of Azkaban yet, you will want to read those classics first before delving into this masterpiece.




Mike Lytle

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Tim Keller

Making Sense of GodI am not a Calvinist, but I firmly believe I am predestined to enjoy anything that Keller writes. Whether he is discussing prayer, dealing with pain and suffering, or the importance of work in our lives I always find his books thought provoking and convicting. That being said, I especially like the way he handles apologetics. His newest book, Making Sense of God tackles many common objections that religious skeptics have and explains how rational and reasonable the Christian faith really is. Keller doesn’t belittle those he disagrees with and always presents his arguments in a calm, measured tone. I also appreciate how he is more focused on the big picture than trying to prove each and every small point. This is a good read for believers and skeptics alike.




Phill Lytle

The Bands of Mourning: A Mistborn Novel by Brandon Sanderson

The Bands of MourningThis is the third installment of a four book series. It’s the second series set in the Mistborn world. At this point, Sanderson is working at a level most authors would envy. His writing is at turns exciting, intense, funny, emotional, and always interesting. With great characters and a wonderfully complex plot, The Bands of Mourning is further evidence that Sanderson is at the top of his game and he isn’t going anywhere any time soon.


Taliesin (The Pendragon Cycle, Book 1) by Stephen R. Lawhead

TaliesinThe Pendragon Cycle is Lawhead’s unique take on the Arthurian legends. He weaves the myth of Atlantis with Fifth and Sixth century Britain to create a world that is both believable and fantastic all at the same time. The story is engaging and vibrant. The themes are rich and complex. The characters are bigger than life yet completely relatable. I’ve read this series at least seven times and I never tire of venturing back into the world of bards and warriors, princesses and prophets, priests and kings.




Nathan Patton

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsI am continuing to read this series with my sons (their first time, my billionth), and they are continuing to enjoy it immensely.

Check out fellow REO contributer Ben Plunkett’s review of this book here.


Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

Destiny of the RepublicI didn’t really know anything about James Garfield, other than that he was a president of the United States and was assassinated, before reading this fascinating book. Not only does the author tell Garfield’s history, but she also includes a biography of his murderer, Charles J. Guiteau, and a selective biography of inventor Alexander Graham Bell who worked tirelessly to help save Garfield’s life. In addition to the political history, this book also explains much of the scientific and medical history of that time and how the medical practices of that time especially may have contributed to Garfield’s death.

The story of James Garfield the man was absolutely captivating. He could have been one of the greatest leaders of our country rather than being remembered only for having died while in office.

I hope to find a good biography on Alexander Graham Bell to read soon.





500 Words or Less Reviews: Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire

The Harry Potter books have been climbing in page length ever since The Sorcerer’s Stone. The biggest gulf is between The Prisoner of Azkaban and the present book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Like the  massive fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (which I will review at a later date), the 734-page The Goblet of Fire is a veritable Monster Book of Monsters. I freely admit that I am a very slow reader and that it would normally take me six months to read a book this size. It says a heaping helping about it that I finished it in just over a month.

I’ll go ahead and say it: The first 145 pages are a masterpiece, with the Weasley’s reigning supreme. I could have spent the entire book with that family—especially Mr. Weasley. His encounter with the Dursley’s in the fourth chapter (“Back to the Burrow”) is one of the funniest incidences…ever. But this is not the only reason these pages are awesome. There is a nearly seamless flow and flawless writing from section to section: The dark opening with Voldemort and Pettigrew; the Dursley and Weasley encounter; the International Quidditch Cup; and the debacle with and introduction to the Death Eaters. Yeah, for this bit Rowling surely summoned the superhuman writing powers.

But like Superman, Rowling has her kryptonite: tedious information relation. What makes it especially ridiculous in Goblet of Fire is that it is done this time by Lord Voldemort, making him come across like the stereotypical villain who has to reveal his whole long story so the hero has time to foil his plans. That is pretty much exactly what happens here. While I loved the scene, it was kind of ruined with Voldemort makes his tedious rant: “First I blah, blah, blah” then I “blah, blah, blah” then “This really long thing happened” and “blah, blah, blah, etc., Mwahahahaha!” All of this leaving Harry ample time to formulate and carries out his escape plan.

I more often go in for the view that with works of writing less is more. The writers of smaller works have successfully honed their craft, cutting out all fat of any kind. This certainly does not mean that a longer work can’t be great. The Goblet of Fire is a perfect example of this happening. Rowling is one of those authors who absolutely needs room to spread her creative wings and shows that more can really be more. The abundance of space here not only allows her to completely flesh out the central Triwizard Tournament plot but also to flesh out more amazing side plots than you can shake a stick (or wand) at.

But like all of the preceding books, the fault I mentioned was still far, far outweighed by the greatness. In part because of the first 145 pages, but also almost every single paragraph, character, and plotline of the following 589 following pages, this is definitely my favorite of these first four classics.




500 Words or Less Reviews: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

For an explanation as to why we went to see this movie in spite of controversy surrounding it, please go here.

 

After a two year wait to see this “tale as old as time,” we were not disappointed in the least. I (Kayla) have played Belle in the musical before and have seen the 1991 animated feature more times than I have fingers and toes for. And I’ll admit: there are minor differences in plot, conversation and music in this version that were a tad unnerving for about the first 30 minutes. Yet once the movie settles in, the novelty of live action and the heart of the classic story make this an exceptional viewing experience.

There was some public doubt about whether Emma Watson could pull off this role. Whether or not you wanted her to get this part, most would agree she is a fantastic actress and her European roots give her an advantage as Belle. At the very least we both agree she has separated herself from the 10-year role she had as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies.

The plot altering showdown with wolves and the Beast is cinematography at its finest and incredible to behold in live action. As a first time viewer, I (Gowdy) was mesmerized by this scene and how the story unfolds from there. The Beast becomes captivatingly sympathetic that he is extremely attractive from that moment on. The magic of Disney storytelling is absolutely at its finest during this stretch of the two main characters interacting, culminating with the renowned images of them dancing together. Fans of The Beauty and the Beast story in any version will appreciate how easy it is to get lost in fantasy of those few moments. The perfect lyrics, the immaculate music, the heart-stopping improbable romance…this is why Disney has made a gazillion dollars over the last few decades.  They capture the absolute best of human imagination and make it feel so real.

Not to be outdone at all is the castle staff-turned-castle objects, who are utterly endearing and show how far our uninhibited technology has become at making anything possible on the big screen. Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, et. al, add much depth and humor. Luke Evans as Gaston is a fine antagonist and Josh Gad as LeFou brings plenty of laughs and personality. We have very few criticisms with the film in general, especially with acting and the portrayal of the characters.

And, on a final note, we are sure people are curious about the aforementioned controversy. It is our opinion that it was much ado about nothing. Nothing about LeFou is stated plainly in regards to sexuality. You can make assumptions (we try not to in real life) and the “moment” that caused the headlines can be interpreted how you wish, but we are both doubtful that many people can find any of it offensive. If you have questions you may ask them below.

We plan to see it again, and I (Kayla) have never seen a movie twice in the theater.  It’s that good.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of Five




Reading Ever On: February 2017

Here are the books we have read this month and what we thought of them…


Gowdy Cannon

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2 by John Tiffany (Adaptation), Jack Thorne (Adaptation), J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildI reviewed the play here and some of my thoughts are similar about the screenplay being in book form. It’s a quick read for a Harry Potter book, since it’s not really a book (308 pages that I knocked out in a day. Other than the first two I never knock out a HP book in a day). There are pros and cons to this that are obvious and more covert: Potterheads long for more canon material but this wasn’t written by Rowling alone, which does irk me a little. It is designed for the stage and so only reading the script causes the reader to miss some key things, like effects and nonverbal communication. Scorpius’s impact most notably suffers from not seeing the play live. Yet those who cannot or choose not to go to London want to experience it, so they sold it as a book.

As I said in my play review, they reintroduce a lot of the original stories. It has the same feel as going back home to my parents house and seeing that they’ve knocked down a wall or redone the bathroom. It’s weird, but not in a bad way. Overall, it is a fun read and I’m not haughty enough to say it’s a must read for fans of the series, but it does have Rowling’s stamp of approval and it is able to both add to and honor the heart of the original works. I’d much rather have a 7-book volume on Harry’s parents and Snape but I will take whatever I can get from this already classic fantasy series.


On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (The Wingfeather Saga #1) by Andrew Peterson

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of DarknessWith a fairly hearty endorsement from many on the staff of REO, I bought this book last Fall in an attempt to stretch myself in fantasy reading outside of the same three authors I continuously read. My first attempt didn’t get very far: it’s certainly a unique opening and out of my Tolkien-Lewis-Rowling comfort zone. Filled with a brand new world and described often by footnotes, I got bogged down. But I tried it again this month and I pressed on and by mid-book I was hooked. Entertaining characters, cliffhanging chapter endings, a classic good vs. evil thread that runs through it…it’s got it all. The story resets itself often – it seems an adventure is about to begin but it stalls for the greater story being told. The ending was not quite as enjoyable as other similar works. And while not close to graphic, there is violence and death, which surprised me based on the assumed young target audience for the book. But overall I like it and recommend it. Andrew Peterson’s skill as a storyteller in song transfers admirably to children’s fantasy.


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

BlinkA year ago, I released an article for REO on how I talk to my wife and talked about sarcasm. This spawned a discussion where fellow contributor Michael Lytle told me about a book that made the case that sarcasm isn’t always a bad thing. I finally got around to reading this best seller this month. I’m to the point in my life where I don’t mind having my pre-understandings turned upside down if presented with logic and research and practical examples. This book does exactly that on the topic of how we think, evaluate and make decisions. Can you learn more about people better from seeing their room for 20 minutes than from interacting with them for a year? If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes or similar works in that genre, you will probably like this.


Michael Lytle

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly ElegyThis has been called the “must read” book of the year. Some have claimed that is the best book to read if you are wanting to understand how Trump could have won the election. I have no idea if either of those things are true, but I will say this was a fascinating book. Based on what I had read ABOUT the book I was expecting more social and political commentary. While the book did have some of that, it is really just one man’s story, and that is not a bad thing at all. The themes of the book really hit home with my family having just adopted a child who was born into the exact type of environment this book describes. Mamaw and Papaw have quite an extensive vocabulary so be warned that the language gets pretty rough in places.


Think Like a Freak (Freakonomics #3) by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

Think Like a FreakI loved Freakonomics, the first book by this writing team. I was about 10 years late to the party in reading that book but found the information to be very interesting. I may not agree with all their conclusion, but I love their unconventional way of looking at problems. Think Like a Freak is not quite on the level of Freakomomics but still very much worth your time. The authors have a way of taking subjects that I did not even realize I was interested in and making them enjoyable and informative. Any book with a chapter titled – “What do King Solomon and David Lee Roth have in common?” will always have a place in my heart.


Phillip Lytle

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life by Donald Miller

A Million Miles in a Thousand YearsI started reading this in 2015. I got about halfway through and gave up on it. There were things about it that I really loved but Miller’s writing style frequently got on my nerves. He makes great effort to sound dumb and intelligent all at once and it doesn’t work as well as he thinks it does. I finished it last week and my feelings really didn’t change much in the intervening years. I wish I had better things to say about it. I just didn’t connect with it.


A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet #1) by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in TimeThis was the second time I read this book and I walked away more impressed than ever. L’Engle not only tells a thoroughly interesting story, but infuses it all with so much heart it’s hard to describe. I’ve yet to read the rest of this series but that has quickly become one of my highest priorities in the coming months. As for the story, it’s an amalgam of science fiction and fantasy elements with a heavy dose of spirituality and faith. Beautiful stuff and I can’t recommend it enough.


Shadows of Self (Mistborn – Alloy Era #2) by Brandon Sanderson

Shadows of SelfThis is book two in the second Mistborn Trilogy. This trilogy is set a few hundred years after the events described in the first trilogy. It’s a world of Allomancy, Feruchemy and Hemalurgy. Take my word for it: If you enjoy fantasy/action, then there are few series better than this one. Sanderson has always been skilled at world building and compelling, intelligent plotting, but it’s with this second trilogy that he really shows off his sense of humor, something that was lacking in his early works.


Nathan Patton

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly ElegyWhile this reflection on the culture of the Appalachian hillfolk is certainly relevant in our current political climate, I read this book for more personal reasons. My parents both come from regions of the country considered to be culturally “hillbilly”: my father from the Appalachian area of southern Ohio and northeastern Kentucky and my mother from the Ozarks of southern Missouri. They both come from working class families of Scottish or Scotch-Irish descent.

I had a drastically different upbringing and family life than the author thanks to the grace of God and the good life choices of my parents and their parents and so on, and I never have actually lived in a true hillbilly culture or region myself. Due to the wide variety of places I’ve lived and their cultures, I don’t fully belong to any culture, but I feel a connection to this one on some level and wanted to learn more. This book did not disappoint.

Warning: this book does contain quite a bit of strong language.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter #1) by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneI’ve read the Harry Potter books several times and count them among my favorites. This time I read this book with my boys (ages 8 and 10), and it was their first time. They enjoyed it immensely and can’t wait to start the next book.

Check out fellow REO contributor Ben Plunkett’s review of this book here.


The Monster in the Hollows (The Wingfeather Saga #3) by Andrew Peterson

The Monster in the HollowsWe have been reading The Wingfeather Saga (The Monster in the Hollows is the third book in the series) together as a family, one chapter a night, for several months. This is my third reading, my eldest son’s second reading, and everyone else’s first. I hope to do a more thorough review at some point, but I enjoy the entire series immensely, and wholeheartedly recommend it.


Unstuffed: Decluttering Your Home, Mind, and Soul by Ruth Soukup

UnstuffedOn it’s own, I don’t think this book would really inspire much change in my life and habits. However, I found it to be encouraging and complimentary as I am attempting to implement lessons learned by last month’s reading of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting.


Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One DayI read this book because it was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t.


Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Odd and the Frost GiantsAn unlucky, crippled Norse boy helps Odin, Thor, and Loki attempt to retake Asgard from the frost giants who captured it and banished the Norse gods to Midgard. A very enjoyable read, suitable for young adults.


Steelheart (Reckoners #1), Mitosis (Reckoners #1.5), Firefight (Reckoners #2), and Calamity (Reckoners #3) by Brandon Sanderson

SteelheartMitosisThe Reckoners trilogy (Steelheart, Firefight, and Calamity) and short story (Mitosis) is Brandon Sanderson’s take on super heroes and villians. For the past decade, some ordinary people have, seemingly at random, gained super powers, but all have become evil, and chaos has ensued. The Reckoners are a group of normal people who attempt to fight back against those with super powers, called “Epics”, as well as try to discover why these people became Epics and why they are all evil.

This isn’t my favorite of Sanderson’s stories, but it was still interesting and fun to read. Even the worst of his stories (and this isn’t the worst) are better than most sci fi and fantasy authors’ best stories.

FirefightCalamityThis series is targeted at young adults, but I think it is better suited for those at the higher end of that age range.


El Deafo by Cece Bell

El DeafoThis graphic novel contains the story of how author Cece Bell became mostly deaf as a young child and dealt with being treated differently as a result. I really like the message of turning a disability into a super power.

One of my kids was assigned this book for summer reading for school last year, and all of my kids absolutely love this story.


The Time of Our Lives: A conversation about America; Who we are, where we’ve been, and where we need to go now, to recapture the American dream by Tom Brokaw

The Time of Our LivesIn this book Tom Brokaw describes the idea of the American dream from the perspective of the past and the present and suggests solutions we can implement in order to ensure the American dream is achievable in for future generations.

I agree with him on many of the problems he describes, but don’t necessarily agree with all of the solutions. It was thought provoking though.

I listened to this one rather than read it, and I do really enjoy listening to Tom Brokaw regardless of what he’s actually saying.


Jonathan Postlewaite

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll

Six FrigatesI have no idea what a mizzenmast or a jib is. Fortunately for me, my lack of maritime vocabulary did not keep me from enjoying this book about the early days of the U.S. Navy. The author not only tells his reader about things at sea during those days, but also about the political climate in the fledgling republic that would become the United States of America. The book covers the historic campaign against the Barbary pirates and then moves on to the War of 1812. I learned a lot from this book and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about early American history.


Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship by John F. MacArthur Jr.

Strange FireWhile I’m not a complete cessationist like MacArthur, I did appreciate his very thorough examination of the Bible’s description of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. I also appreciate how he didn’t pull any punches when calling out the heretical words and behavior of many of the best-known purveyors of the Word of Faith movement and the prosperity gospel. I do not think it is fair, however, to use the extreme examples of charismatic theology to characterize everyone who is a part of that very large camp.





500 Words or Less Reviews: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

First of all, poor, poor Aunt Marge. How the blazes was she to know Harry was a powerful wizard in training? Why did no one tell her before she made such a huge mistake. Such a horrible thing as being all blown up should never happen to such a kindly, good-natured soul. Kidding. Totally deserved it. Anyway, although I do wish there had been a much greater appearance by the ghosts, this was probably on par with the second book but not as good as the first. There were many other interesting new plot points, characters, and creatures. These are a few of my favorite things: Professor Lupin, time travel (I’m a sucker for time travel), and the Dementors.

For so many reasons my respect for Rowling’s creative genius has been bolstered by each of these three books. There were a lot of ingenious, creative touches in this current work. The Dementors as the embodiment of depression: Genius. I have read that as she was writing this book she began treatment for severe depression and that the Dementors were a direct inspiration of this. And the obvious cure to make you feel all better: Chocolate! Madame Pomphrey apparently keeps lots of it on hand, probably taking a nip now and then herself—for medicinal purposes, you understand.

Most of the dialogue in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is really good. However, there are two pretty sizeable dialogue wastelands in this one. Both are awkward portions of relating a lot of information. The first occurs in the middle of the book. Harry overhears Cornelius Fudge, Minerva McGonagall, Filius Flitwick, and Rubeus Hagrid while they are hanging out at a bar in Hogsmeade. First of all, maybe it’s just me but these four don’t seem like they would hang out at a bar with each other. It just seemed awkward. Second, the dialogue of this portion seemed longer than it really was because it was not that well written. Same thing for another overlong dialogue wasteland toward the end of the book when Lupin, Sirius, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have another overlong and awkward “information-relating” conversation. While the information related in both was crucial to the plot, I wish Rowling had done it less awkwardly. Rowling is a superior author in many ways, but she is not J.R.R. Tolkien who can get away with this (See “The Council of Elrond,” a chapter in Fellowship of the Ring which is almost entirely a long conversation of massive “information-relation).

Where Rowling particularly shines to me is the many small passing details like Harry’s mirror reflection talking back to him or the giant squid propelling itself dreamily across the surface of the lake or Dumbledore addressing Dereck, a first year student, at a Christmas party, causing him to turn bright red. These are only three examples of what Rowling does best: Imaginative and insightful detail. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rife with them. And thus, Rowling achieves another timeless victory.