Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Andy Weir has managed to create an exciting book about numbers. The Martian is a fun book. It’s a quirky book with an engaging main character, but it is not a perfect book.

Its perfection lies in the fact that the main character is as much an alien to the reader as he is to the world he finds himself in. He is an earther stuck on an inhospitable planet where he faces starvation, death by cold, death by thirst if he is not rescued. But he is also an alien -- a martian if you will-- because unlike the rest of us Earthers, he is an astronaut. Astronauts are not made like you and me. They are constantly heroic, they don’t allow fear to oppress them, they know stuff.

Our hero is in danger, but there is absolutely no doubt in the reader’s mind that he will save himself and stay alive until he is rescued. In that respect, the bus has no tension. And yet tension is everywhere because the hero Mark Watney is constantly on his toes and constantly having to muddle through botanical, mathematical, engineering experiments. This is where the fun comes in. The Martian feels like a survival manual. It feels like nonfiction. The reader is constantly being taught about space, chemistry, physics, and botany. But it doesn’t feel as if one is being taught. One is simply being pulled along breathlessly in the wake of a kind of superman whom one cannot identify with but whom one likes because he has good humor and seems like a humble but smart guy.  

But as I said, the book has problems.

The problems are mostly in the sections that are told in the third person. It is here where the author shows that he has much to learn about writing scenes, descriptions, and real characters. The third person narration didn’t add much to the book  and only shows the shortcomings of the author. All that said, I recommend this book highly if you are a math geek and if math doesn’t give you a headache.

This is a short review. A larger review of this book will be up at THE FAN in August 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: NIV Spiritual Renewal Study Bible

I really love this Bible.. well there is my usual caveat: I like the NIV but I love the NLT. But you know...other than that....

The basic subtext of the commentary in this Study Bible is Restoration. One executive editor is  David Stoop, a psychologist and founder of New Life Ministries, which offer counseling and treatment across America. The other executive editor is Stephen Arterburn, who has a masters n Education. So there is this pervasive idea that the person reading this study Bible has been through a hard time --perhaps even endured some destruction in her life-- and is ready to rebuild her life, her relationship with God, and to allow God to lovingly rebuild her.

I know that all sounds like pychobabble but that's just me. The commentaries profiles, etc do not sound like psychotherapy. They really do feel spiritual. And trust me, I have a real dislike for anything that hints, sniffs, reeks of psychobabble...probaby because I've often found Christian psychologists to be more psychological than Christian. But that's just me. Perhaps.

Unlike the Spirit-filled Bible which has a lot of names I recognized, the writers and editorial staff of this book are unknown to me. (That's not saying much, of course. . .but it goes to show that a great Bible study doesn't have to be written by folks who are famous in Christendom.)

The Study Bible begins ith a User's Guide which discusses how to examine our lives. It's a short little feature but that alone is something every christian should read.

Then a list of features follow:

The features in this Bible are similar in many ways to those found in other Bibles but there are also some differences.

There is the usual Bible Book Introductions, Text Notes, Devotional Reading Plan, Spiritual disciplines devotionals, spiritual discilplines profiles, and Character Profiles. But difference here is the focus on spiritual discipline as a means of renewal and restoration.

Each Bible Introduction includes: The Big Picture (a synopsis of the Bibe book), Spiritual renewal themes found in the particular book (for instance, the spiritual renewal themes in Genesis are A Good Creation, A Ruined World, Promises of Redemption, and Hope for Reconciliation.)

The Spiritual Keys Devotionals,  Devotional Reading Plan, spiritual discilplines profiles, and Character Profiles are all interspersed throughout each book and each chapter also contains insightful notes for Bible verses at the bottom of the page.  Indexes to all these are included in the back of the Bible.

The index to text notes include such psychological terms as boundaries, commitments, communication, complacency, peer pressure, compromise, choicesdenial, rationalization, discouragement, self-esteem, blame, accountability, wholeness, inventory.

There are seven keys -- the ones found in the beginning introduction:
1) Seek God and Surrender to him
2) See the truth
3) Speak the truth
4) Accept responsibility
5) Grieve, forgive, and let go
6) Transform your life
7) Preserve Spiritual Gains

All these have subtopics and verses that apply.

Seriously, this remedies the biggest flaw of the Celebrate Recovery study Bible which felt as if all we got was a litany of blaming former victims. I mean I understood the sorrows of the folks in celebrate recovery but the book felt a bit constrained by the whole recovery terminology. (But i digress.)

The Bible Characters in the character profiles are the usual folks...but given that renewal spin.  I really liked the one about Herod's Family and greed.

The spiritual disciplines, devotionals, and profiles show the disciplines as:
Bible study and Meditation, Fasting, Prayer, Repentance and confession, Service, Silence, Solitude, Spiritual Friendship, Stewardship, Worship.  All these also have subtopics. For instance the spiritual friendship subtopics include "But isn't God enough?" "Friends for life." "Maintaining our relationships" "Touching heart, soul, and body" and "Marriage: A most intimate friendship."

I heartily recommend this book. I received this book from Zondervan at no cost for a fair and honest review.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Review: Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Dark Eden
Chris Beckett

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Corvus (January 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848874634
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848874633

  • Wow, this is a great book! I've always loved anthropological scifi, where we see the power of culture on human affairs. I also like speculative fiction where a writer comes up with a speculation...a kind of "What if?" and then we get to see the ramifications of all those "what ifs."  Part of the fun of what if stories is being aware of how the smallest thing affects or is affected by that great what if proposition.

  • So then, imagine an Adam and Eve couple, stranded on a dark planet with no sea and no sun. They decide to have children and they have told these children about the world they came from. These tellings are passed on through subsequent (often mutated because they are inbred) generations. How is a spaceship to be described?  Why it's a boat in the starry swirl sea above!    

  • This what if speculation of the novel comes very close to being a parable and some folks might fnd themselves being uncomfortable with that. What is this book saying about Oral Tradition? (and in a subtle way, about the gospels, since the gospels --according to some-- were oral traditions?) And what is the mix of truth and misunderstanding? What is the purpose of story? To inspire? To change? To lock us into tradition? What if the story has elements of conservatism and revolution in them? What to choose? When do you revolt against Elders? When do you listen to them? Should you stay in a static place awaiting rescue from the sky or should you move on from the old doctrine, so to speak?

  • Other readers might find the book hard going because there is a whole lot of talk about "slipping with" folks. Morals are different in a world without talk of God and where the idea of Jesus has disintegrated as the King of the Juice. (We get the feeling that either Angela wasn't too bright or the tales she told got diuted over the years.)  I'll also add that "juice" is the word for semen in this book.

  • Well, there are a lot of words for stuff in this word. The author is new at coining words, and of course one has to read this story intuitively in order to feel what a certain word might mean. It's not that book is meant to be a puzzle but you'll have to muddle through a bit and sometimes you might not fully understand what a "leopard" looks like or what trees on Dark Eden actually look like.

  •  Since this is full-on speculative, I can't say the writer set out to challenge the Garden of Eden Biblical narrative. There is only one line there which seemed to be a dig at religion. But there is a feel in the novel ...a kind of arrogance toward old stories, and the author does seem somewhat proud of himself as if he has shown his readers that he is an honest seeker after truth who has struggled with accepting anything by faith and he understands their quandary. In that way, certain parts of the story feels downright smug and other parts feels wrong. If a person of faith had written a story with the same premise, that person might have included a god or might have had more insightful things to say about the idea of traditional storytelling. But then the believer would have a different purpose. I also think that a modern Christian writer would probably not have created such a culture. Christian writers are notably dishonest and prudish about sexuality and there probably would have been some dishonesty in exploring the sexual culture of the descendants of Angela and Tommy.   

  • And yet, the ramifications of the story works out so well in so many fine and wonderful details that one can't be too angry. Atheists will use it to show how wise they are in their opinions. Some might even use this book to mock religious people. But I don't think this is what the author fully intends. This is the beginning of a series so who knows where the author will go with it? Does he intend to mirror other events in human history and Biblical history? We already have the makings of tribes and as the book ends, there are hints of tribal warfare coming in FAMILY. As such, we can't make any decisions about the author's feelings about faith in a god or gods of anykind. Not until he makes the people of this world "make" a god or if a god presents himself to the people of Eden. At present there are moments in the narrative when some great coincidence happens and one finds one's self asking why. Why has hero John Redlantern found this relic? Why did the adventurous group from FAMILY find what they found? Is it just by chance? Is it providential guidance from a god or from the universa God? Is it just a writer doing the easy stuff and creating coincidences in the plot?  We shall see.

    All in all, this is an amazing book.

    I'll be writing a longer review for this on The Fan sometime in September. Til then....
    I received this book through the blogging for books website. 

    Friday, August 08, 2014

    Review: The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible

    Review: The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible
    Dr William H Marty
    Dr Boyd Seevers
    Bethany House
    ISBN: 978-0-7642-1128-7

    The Quick-Start Guide to the Whole Bible is a good book for Christians who need to understand the timeline, summary, and spiritual significance of the books of the Bible. It is a good starting place for Christians who wants to get a basic idea of each Bible book before reading it. That means the entire Book of Psalms or the book of Isaiah are distilled into four succinct pages. The writing is accessible and informative. 

    Sometimes, one finds one's self wondering why a particular book was written in the first place. Especially when for the price of this book, one could get a book which gives much more indepth commentary ..or even buy a good used printed study Bible from Ebay or a new study Bible on kindle.

    How shall I describe this book? Well, it's somewhat useful for those who have never read their Bibles or for people who know Bible verses but who really don't know why or when each Bible prophet wrote his book. Think of it as the Cliff Notes edition of the Bible, although Cliff Notes would probably be more indepth. 

    There is another book, published a few years ago, called:
    The Whole Bible Story: Everything That Happens in the Bible in Plain English by Dr. William H. Marty
    Yep! The same author. I really liked that book. This book looks like the outline for that book. So... I ask again: why was this version needed?  Did someone say an even smaller summary of the Bible was needed? 

    The authors should have given their manuscript to folks who know nothing about the Bible. Why do I say this? Bevause sometimes the belabor seemingly unimportant points and ignore important points. When they belabor an unimportant point, the knowledgeable Bible reader finds herself feeling she has subtly been indoctrinated into some picayune pet authorial doctrine. For instance, in Genesis, they go out of their way twice to mention the Sethite theory and to declare that no one is sure who "the sons of God" is. (This seems to be done to make the reader aware of the Sethite doctrine.) Yet, earlier in the Genesis chapter, the authors don't comment on what the meaning of the "serpent" might be. If ever there was a place which needed a comment about what folks not "knowing" or agreeing on an interpretation, shouldn't this be it? No, really! Serioiusly! It's not as if I want the author to jump around from book to book, but if they said something to the effect of: "the book of Revelation defines this serpent as Satan" then I'd be cool.

    And speaking of the Book of Revelation, the authors repeatedly say that the book was written by John. Well, yes, the book is written by John but John also says it is also a revelation given by Jesus. And John was directly told what to write to the seven churches. Instead, the authors say that John describes Jesus as being the source and subject of the book of Revelation. A comment which felt kind of mealy-mouthed to me. If the authors wanted to be fair, they could have said that "some people -- not us, mind you-- believe that these were actual visions. But we feel that John was consciously using apocalyptical metaphor."  I understand that authors need to cover their butts in case they offend testy argumentative Christians but I wish this book had been more honest about what the authors actually believed. Instead, we get a feeling of authors putting themselves in a safety-zone in order to have a book that is the lowest common denominator among denominations. Of course writing a book about the Bible...well, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. We Christians are pretty argumentative. Still, for all their generalize summary of the Bible books, one does get a strange feeling that one is being treated to a party line.

    Call me a cynic but I tend to think that many Christian authors of big publishing companies try to keep themselves safe. They write about the same 600 or so topics.  Christian publishing houses just like selling books. Christian authors don't seem to really care about writing better than their competitors. They just imitate each other. I can imagine the editorial meeting for this book: "Let's put 'Quick-Start Guide' in the title. Folks like the words 'guide' and 'quick-start' and will buy our book. And this book will really help those folks who don't want to read the Bible."  

    There is nothing reallly bad about this book. It could certainly help a lot of people. But there really isn't anything all that great about it either. There are countless other books that seek to encapsulate the Bible and who do a better job. Heck, one can go on the internet and find used study Bibles that are more helpful... and those study Bibles INCLUDE an actual Bible.  

    If you can afford to, and if you really hate reading the Bible and want to pretend you have, I'd suggest getting Dr Marty's other book. Or David Pawson's Unlocking the Bible. It's a little bit more expensive and it is kind of heavy to carry around but it's much more helpful than this one is. The chapters describing each Bible book are like introductory sections in a Study Bible. One leaves the book feeling dissatisfied...and vaguely looked-down upon. 

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