Monday, October 28, 2013

Review of "Never Go Back" by Lee Child (a Jack Reacher Novel - 2013)

There are some things that Child does better than anyone else writing today. One of those things is keeping the reader turning the pages. For me, no one is better today at ending a chapter with a hint or clue that makes me anxious to answer a many mystery.
But ultimately, his Reacher character is not as deep a guy as Child seems to think he is and he can't ever really change. So when this story opens with some intriguing possible changes in Reacher's life... (mini-spoiler) Will he rejoin the army? Find true love? Be a dad? Of course not, because he must continue as a wanderer who rights wrongs. And there is a certain satisfaction in the formula. But most of the novels are like very well made episodes of "Have Gun Will Travel". Like going to In and Out Burger, a good, filling meal, but never very different from the last time you went.

And I small complaint about how Child continues to deal with the hospitality industry. In books before, he has portrayed night auditors as crooked fellows who gladly sell empty rooms off the books to take all the money for themselves. Not happening with me, Reacher. This time, he goes to a motel in West Virginia and pays three twenty dollar bills for two $30 motel rooms. The clerk doesn't ever ask for a credit card or for a deposit or I.D. which leaves the guest free to steal the TVs. And even in a hotel, they only take a $50 deposit? No protection from theft or room damage. Oh well, most readers, rightly, don't care. They probably shouldn't, the important thing is keeping the plot moving, which Child does well.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Eleanor Rigby in Prose: a Review of "Nine Inches" by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's Press - 2013)

Okay, let’s deal with the title first. It’s the title of one of ten short stories in a collection. On the cover it is used for a naughty pun, but in the story it is the distance Jr. High couples are to keep between themselves during a school dance. Every story in the book is about the distance between people, every story in the book is about loneliness in one way or another.

Perrotta uses both first and third person forms, but each story focuses on a someone who feels separated from the world, by circumstances beyond control (for example, an head injury that rips a high school player off the football team) and some circumstances foolishly chosen (adultery makes more than one appearance.)

Though I enjoyed parts of Perrotta’s last couple of novels (“The Abstinence Teacher” and “The Leftovers”) and I appreciated his bold attempts to deal with religion in our culture, the tone and substance always seemed off to me (an Evangelical Christian.) With the exception of “The Chosen Girl” (a fine, sad piece) this collection eschews religion and focuses back on the suburbia that he has covered so well in “Joe College”, “Election” and “Little Children”.

Perhaps what I love most about Perrotta is his willingness to dive into the world of adolescence, from the perspective of parents, teachers and, of course, young people as well (capturing the voice of youth quite well for someone who’s getting up there… he’s 52 at publication date, a couple of months older than me.)

Sex (occasionally with a bit of graphic detail) is often an aspect of these tales, but rarely does it bring people together. There are also scattered outbursts of violence from characters whose frustration, boredom or impotence seeks an outlet, but nothing brutal enough to move the book to the Mystery or Crime fiction section of the bookstore.
Ultimately, several of the stories do migrate to glimpse of hope that come when someone remembers the good that can be done with a kind word or a tender touch.

Oh, and I haven’t mentioned that as always, Perrotta is funny. Don’t expect Comedy Central, but I did laugh out loud at times. Though you might be just as likely to fine yourself a little teary eyed.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

In Defense of the Same Old Thing (a Review of Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking” – Broadway Books, 2013)

In a book full of studies and personal anecdotes, the most heartbreaking are those of parents who don’t understand the personality and disposition of their child and force them into awkward, even damaging situations.

For instance, parents of an introverted child, new to a neighborhood asking their daughter on her birthday to take cupcakes to children she doesn’t know in the hope she will make new friends and learn a lesson about giving. Those misguided parents in this example aren’t in the book, I’m talking about my own family and my poor, introverted daughter.

I know this technique is a bit tired and hackneyed (“And that person….Was Me!”) but in my defense, Cain uses the same technique in the book. But I think everyone, extroverts and introverts will find themselves in these pages and better understand their family, school and work relationships.

One of the most interesting thing I found coming from studies of introverts is the idea that most introverts are not just shy about new people, they tend to dislike new things in general. They tend to prefer taking their time getting to know new places and situations and prefer to study a few things in depth rather than many things superficially.

I was very pleased that Cain deals with the importance of these concepts in the church. There are churches geared to extroverts (loud, big mega-churches where everyone is expected to sing loud and hug the neighbor they don’t know) and churches geared for introverts (small liturgical congregations where silence has a place along with a consistent order of worship.) But if we believe the church should a place that, according to the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28 has “neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free”, than we probably should find a way that it includes introverts and extroverts.

Among the many fascinating studies mentioned in the book, I was very interested in a study of phone conversations. It was found that when introverts and extroverts talked on the phone, extroverts were much better at determining if the person they were talking to was happy or sad. But if introverts and extroverts were listening to two parties in a taped conversation, introverts were a little better at reading the mood.

Of course, there are strengths and weaknesses to all personality attributes, but we need to realize we need each other, learning to adapt and learn from each other. This book is a good place to start if you haven’t given these issues a lot of thought (this probably means you, fellow extrovert.)

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Review of "How to Pray When You're Pissed at God" by Ian Punnett (Harmony Press, 2013)

If the title of this book makes you angry, that’s okay. One of the main arguments of the book is that anger is a healthy emotion, if it is dealt with in a healthy way. So free to say, “I feel angry when I see vulgar language used in a religious context”. You know, say it in the phraseology that therapists use. What? Using the stilled jargon of psychiatry is sometimes not satisfying way to express anger? Yeah, well, that’s another argument that Ian Punnett makes in this short, but helpful book about prayer.
Though Punnett is ordained in the Episcopal Church and he writes in the acknowledgements that “the main intention of this book was to honor God” it is not strictly a Christian book. He wanted to write a book about the appropriateness and benefit of angry prayer for everyone, even atheists and agnostics. He cites medical studies that show that prayer and meditation are healthy and other studies that show healthy expressions of anger are healthy and argues that therefore anyone could benefit from expressing their anger through prayer.
I found it interesting that though he thinks angry prayers are helpful to all, he also mentions that Islam has no place for such prayers. The Koran notes Job was righteous, but doesn’t say anything about his railing against God. The angry Psalms are not a part of the Koran. But angry prayer is a rich part of the Jewish tradition and Punnett interview various rabbis that make that point.
Punnett also makes it clear that anger can be very unhealthy, in fact dangerous, when it is misdirected or is habitual. One of the reasons expressing anger in prayer is important is that it may allow us to move one from our anger. If we are angry about something that takes place in the workplace, it is not healthy to kick the dog or yell at our children or even kick the children and yell at our dog. The healthy response is to stand up for ourselves in a respectful manner at the workplace AND bring our anger before God who can handle it better than dogs and children.
One of the best features of the book is the use of the Psalms from Scripture as a model for praying out our anger. Punnett writes about an experience from his days as a hospital chaplain. A mother asked Punnett to help her son stuck in a hospital bed to “turn to God”. Punnett talked to the boy, and found that the boy was not thrilled with not sick and not being able to play with his friends and especially with the hospital needles. Punnett assured the boy that there were times Jesus wasn’t pleased with His situation either. He taught the boy the words, "Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?" (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) And the boy found strength in shouting out those words when he was given a shot (the nurses hated it.)
Punnett has a wonderful section where is reworked Psalms for people in different situations, such as “An Angry Prayer for Somebody Suffering with Depression During the Holidays” and “An Angry Prayer for a Victim of Bullying by the More Popular Kids”. I did think though that he overdoes it in using the violent language of the Psalms (the knocking the teeth out kind of stuff.) It makes sense for the angry prayers about street gangs and child abusers, but not so much for the angry prayers for those who cut you off in traffic or make campaign commercials.
Oh, and I wasn’t too keen on the title when I first saw it on the shelf, after reading the book I came to see that the “Pissed” was not gratuitous. Punnett makes that case that some pretty harsh language can be found in Scripture and that sometimes people need to pray freely without worrying about their vocabulary. I think he’s right when he says that God can take it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Powerful Pull of Prayer

Sandra Bullock stars in this film, “Gravity,” about an astronaut who has to keep the space shuttle going at 55 mph or it will blow up; it’s subtitled “Speed 3”…. I kid, I kid.

Really, this is a film about prayer in space. You may think I’m kidding about that, but I’m not. You can enjoy this new film from writer/director Alfonso CuarĂ³n as a straight adventure film, but there is more going on than the story of astronauts trying to get home.

George Clooney, along with Bullock, plays an astronaut doing repair work on a space telescope when a barrage of debris from an exploded satellite sets the two adrift in space. The rest of the spare 90 minute film is about their attempt to make it back to earth.

Now, if you don’t like tension in your film viewing experience, you may wish to pass this movie by, because as events go badly for our space travelers early in the film, they quickly get worse and the tension keeps ratcheting up.

But does any of this have to do with prayer? Early in the film, radio contact with Houston control is lost, but Clooney keeps talking as if they’re listening, updating his status. Bullock asks him why he keeps talking. He responds that Houston may well hear him, even if he can’t hear their response. Many of us become frustrated in our prayer lives because we feel like we’re talking to a brick wall; no one’s listening. But silence doesn’t mean God isn’t listening. It might just mean He’s listening but giving us space to talk. Psalm 4:3 assures us that “the Lord hears when I call to Him.”

It’s interesting that objects related to prayer (not strictly Christian) are seen throughout the film. In a Russian spacecraft, there is an icon of a saint. In a Chinese craft, a small Buddha statue sits on top of a control panel.

Later, the film is more explicitly about prayer. In fact, one character says, “No one taught me to pray.” Many of us are under the mistaken impression that we need some kind of magical formulation of words in order to get God’s attention.

There are things to learn about prayer (the Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request to be taught how to pray), but it’s interesting what sound is heard immediately after this character says, “No one taught me to pray.” Because I don’t want to spoil plot points and because it would take too many words to explain, you’ll just have to take my word for it that the sound is a baby’s cry.

Psalm 18:6 says, “In my distress I called to the LORD: I cried to my God for help. From his
temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.” We don’t need a secret formula to pray to God. He hears us when we cry.

“Gravity” does have some harsh language earning it a PG-13, which understandably might lead some to choose not to see this film. Fortunately our harsh language won’t keep God from hearing us. There are also some gruesome images in the film, which might make some in the audience turn away. Fortunately, God doesn’t turn away from our pain.

The famous tag line for the movie “Alien” was “In space no one can hear you scream.” The tag line for “Gravity” could be “In space God will hear your cry.” He hears it on earth as well.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Short (Like the Book) Review of Michael Card's "The Walk"

A book about two men whose work has brought me great encouragement through the years, musician Michael Card (whose album "In the Beginning" was playing in the room when Jill was born) and William Lane (who wrote what has proved for me the most useful commentary I've encountered, his work on Mark.)
Card writes about Lane as his mentor, as a college instructor and then for a couple of decades after that as a close friend.

The book is a moving story of discipleship, and a reminder of what is worth accomplishing in life. Card writes about Lane never completing what he thought would be his magnum opus, a study of the Apostle Paul. But he writes that he came to see something as more important. "While the call may be to write books or sermons or poems, the deeper call will always be to give ourselves away to others whom God places within our reach."
A short book, well written, is a very good thing.