Category Archives: reviews

Leaving Egypt by Chuck DeGroat

One of the most disorienting things in life is suffering. Even when we know all the right things about how the world is fallen and broken in every way, pain jars us, and makes us question who God is and our relationship to him, in part because “we are not often told that once we’ve been delivered into freedom, the hardest times may still be ahead” (pg 75.) As we journey through life and its inevitable suffering, we need to be reminded of the truth, and Leaving Egypt is an able and welcome guide.

By using the Exodus narrative as a structure, author Chuck DeGroat guides us through four parts of the Christian life. (1) Egypt: Facing Our Fear, (2) Sinai: Receiving Our New Identity, (3) Wilderness: Entering the Furnace of Transformation and (4) Home: Experiencing New Identity and Mission. Though each part is essential, well-written and helpful, I felt most drawn to the third section. As the subtitle declares, we often find God in wilderness places, and it is good to be reminded of how God is at work in the midst of suffering and how he uses our suffering teach us.

Though DeGroat shows the hopefulness and promise in suffering, he is also very honest about its difficulty. There are no formulas for quick fixes, but a deep and real acknowledgement of the pain and darkness we all grapple with and a helpful framework for lament.

Though theological and thoughtful, this is a very practical and applicable read. DeGroat draws from many years of experience as a counselor, pastor and professor to help readers understand how this Exodus narrative intersects with their own lives and struggles. There are also questions at the end of each chapter for personal reflection or group discussion.

The Exodus story “invites us to look back at where we’ve been and remember God’s relentless love for us despite our many failures” (pg 154.) Even though we may feel like we prefer the safety and familiarity of our own Egypts and enslavement, God longs for us to move forward. As we journey through our own difficulties and pain, Leaving Egypt reminds us of the truth of who we are, as believers united to Christ. I know I will read it again (a rarity among Christian books for me) and appreciate its simple, clear wisdom. I have already recommended it several times, and would commend it to anyone in the church. (9.5/10)

I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. The opinion expressed is my own.

March Books

Wonder by R. J. Palacio was fantastic. Read a full review here. (10/10)

Looking for Alaska by John Green was a spring break re-read. I liked it better this time around, it’s very thought provoking and a solid debut for Green, one of my favorite authors for young adults. (8.5/10)

Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser is a must read for people who love cities or want to understand why cities are and will continue to be so important. Triumph takes interdisciplinary look towards the future of urban centers and shows why some cities thrive and others falter. (8.5/10)

The Circle of Seasons by Kimberlee Ireton, like the name implies, examines the church year and how it contributes to a life of faith. It’s a a good introduction I’d recommend to someone starting to observe the church calendar. (8/10)

Leaving Egypt by Chuck DeGroat was fantastic, full review next week. (9.5/10)

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds… I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

From the first page of R.J. Palacio’s debut novel, Wonder, readers are rooting for Auggie Pullman, who due to the 27 surgeries needed to help correct his craniofacial abnormalities, has been homeschooled all his life. But now, he’ll enter the middle school at Beecher Prep, like a lamb headed for slaughter.

Auggie is keenly aware of how people react to his face, from averting their eyes to staring to talking behind their hands about him. Auggie, his parents and his sister had created some level of comfort on their block and in their normal routine, and even through things like a toy astronaut’s helmet he wore everywhere when he was a few years younger. But now it is time to face the world, and readers come along for the journey.

Although Auggie is a character that induces a great deal of sympathy, there is a depth and realness to his character. He loves Star Wars, he tells good jokes, and he loves his dog, not unlike most of the young boys I know. Because he is more than his exterior, this book is able to transcend the “after school special” land that a book about a child with a birth defect often remains in.

Palacio’s choice to tell the story through sections with different narrators is what propels it into award-winning territory. Hearing from Auggie’s point of view is very important, but hearing from his sister Via, and some of the children at school adds another dimension to Wonder that works to its advantage. And it’s rare that so many points of view are given and done well in a book for young readers.

One line that is repeated by the teenager characters in the book is “the universe was not kind to Auggie Pullman.” And though this is true, and painfully real to readers, Wonder is not bogged down in Auggie’s suffering. It’s a book with a great deal of heart and joy, and a message that will resonate with both children and adults without seeming forced or contrived. The universe may not always be kind, but we are all able to be. I am thankful for the reminder. (10/10)

I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. The opinion expressed is my own.

February Books

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is a novel that explores Hemingway’s first wife and their experiences in Jazz Age Paris. If you liked Midnight in Paris, I’d recommend it. (7.5)

How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr was fantastic. It’s a YA novel told in two voices, each relatable to high schoolers. I was absorbed in the story of the adoption, and of Jill’s grieving process. (9)

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes was a sweet read aloud. The chapters were long and a little verbose, but the girls liked the story. We probably should have read it over the summer when we had more time in each reading session. (7)

Jesus + Nothing = Everything by Tullian Tchividjian was reviewed in full here. (8.5)

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson was a fascinating look at the beginning of Hitler’s regime through the experiences of the American Ambassador and his family. (8)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is celebrating its 50th year of publication in 2012. It holds up remarkably well and I can’t wait to share it with Kate and Lexi. (10)

Jesus + Nothing = Everything

Tullian Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything examines the fundamental truth of the gospel and how to embrace Christ’s finished work for believers. I would not describe it as an exposition of Colossians, but Colossians features prominently. I would not describe it as a spiritual memoir or a particularly personal work, but occasional details of Tchividjian’s difficult year transitioning through a church merger and feelings of inadequacy provide a thread for readers.

Readers can think of Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything as a way to recalibrate and assess our functional beliefs and ask ourselves if we are adding anything to the gospel. There are many good books in this stream right now, and I find that a good thing. Like this book asserts, the gospel is not the first step of the Christian life, it’s the hub. We must constantly remind ourselves of the fundamental truths, we never grow out of them. And so reading this book and others like it (Steve Brown’s Scandalous Freedom comes to mind) from time to time is a good exercise for all of us, because we are prone to “think of the gospel as God’s program to make bad people good, not dead people alive” (pg 116.)

Though Jesus + Nothing = Everything is focused on fundamentals, there is a great deal of meaty content to ponder. For example: “Our performancism leads to pride when we succeed and to despair when we fail. But ultimately it leads to slavey either way because it becomes all about us and what we must do to establish our own identity instead of resting in Jesus and what he accomplished to establish it for us” (pg 46). “The gospel alone empowers and emboldens us to press on and strain forward with no anxiety over gaining other people’s sanction or good opinion–even God’s! All the care and love and value we crave–full and final approval–we already have in Jesus” (pg 92.)

The book moves backwards from Everything to Nothing to Jesus, and then forward again. The structure is not bad in itself, but Tchividjian is fairly repetitive. This is a good trick for preaching, to repeat sentences that summarize your point well, but in writing it can feel poorly edited, (e.g. he said that exact same thing three pages ago.) It wasn’t a huge distraction, and it did help me not to miss any critical points, but it was quite noticeable.

Overall, Jesus + Nothing = Everything is a helpful read for any Christian. I’d particularly recommend it for those coming out of more legalistic traditions and trying to overcome those tendencies. As we walk in faith, it is easy to stray into moralism. This book is a reminder of the simplicity of the gospel – that Jesus himself, his life and his work, are worth everything. Nothing in our hands we bring, simply to the cross we cling. May we not forget. (8.5/10)

I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. The opinion expressed is my own.

January Books

I have attempted this several times but never made it through a year. Let’s see if 2012 can be the year I write at least a sentence about every book I read!

Creation Regained by Al Wolters is a book I’ve been meaning to read for about 10 years. Geared towards students, it’s a good look at the implications of the gospel through all creation. (8.5)

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas is a well written look at a fascinating figure worth reading about. But somehow, I felt like this biography was a little too close to hagiography, and also projected quite a bit of 21st century evangelicalism onto the subject. Still, it’s a good read. (6.5)

The Fault in our Stars by John Green made me laugh and cry and think. Word to the wise: there is a lot of good work written in the Young Adult genre that you might enjoy, that is neither dystopian nor vampiric. TFioS is my favorite of Green’s novels so far, but I probably need to re-read Looking for Alaska now that I know his writing better. (9.5)

I re-read Compassion, Justice & the Christian Life by Robert Lupton with some friends this month. If you are interested in practical wisdom about loving the poor, I recommend this simple book. (9)

Hippie Boy by Ingrid Ricks was an unfortunate Kindle Lending Library choice fueled by my interest in all things LDS. It is a decent, but unremarkable memoir, and not as much about Mormonism as the blurb suggests. (4)

I really wanted to like The Shaping of a Life by Phyllis Tickle. And there were moments I really enjoyed. But I did not love it, nor did I find it as engaging as many other spiritual memoirs. (6.5)

The Underdog was Markus Zusak’s debut novel. It’s quirky and fun, but read The Book Thief, that is Zusak’s masterpiece. (6)

I wrote a full review of Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick here. (6)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is thought-provoking and like The Fault in our Stars, made me feel a wide range of emotions. It read well and didn’t feel like a translation. I think this is a book people either really like or really don’t, and I’d recommend it more cautiously, even though I enjoyed it. (8)

Give Them Grace

Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of JesusGive Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Give Them Grace asks readers a very important question: how does believing the gospel change the way that you parent? Fitzpatrick asserts that if the way that we parent is the same as a devout Muslim or Jew, there must be something wrong. I think this is a paradigm shift that is very important for Christian parents, and one that I have been excited to see more and more of in books written in the last five to ten years.

The overall message of the book will be a balm to many readers. Resting in grace, parenting with humility, dependence on God, these are all messages that parents need to be reminded of. There are no guarantees and no quick fixes. Parenting is hard. I think many parents will find this an encouragement on many levels.

Because I have seen her books recommended in presbyterian circles so often, I was genuinely surprised by how un-covenantal this book was. (Fitzpatrick has a Sovereign Grace / Reformed Baptist background.) In the first several chapters alone, it talks many times about not presuming your children are regenerate, that they might pray a prayer just to please you and if they aren’t saved, they don’t have the Holy Spirit and therefore can’t obey God’s law from the heart. In examples of how to speak to a child, parents say things like “someday you’ll know how wonderful God is and how much he loves you.” Worse yet, speaking to an older child, “Because you don’t believe in Jesus’s love for you, your whole life will be spent trying to win and never being satisfied. And then you’ll have to stand before God, and all you’ll have is your record of failure. Striking out isn’t the worst thing that will ever happen to you. Living your life to win something other than Jesus is.” In example “scripts” there are different things to say to unbelieving versus believing children.

This is hard for me to read, even though I know that my children might turn away from God and need to be spoken to as an unbeliever, I think that it can be very confusing to children to speak to them as if they do not have faith. Let’s not encourage doubt or for them to question whether they “really” believe, let’s teach them to rest in God, as he is the author of their faith, anyway.

Though Fitzpatrick explains a fully orbed portrait of discipline that looks like discipleship, she uses the word “discipline” as a synonym for “spanking” which irks me. Parents say “I must discipline you” which is true generally, but what they mean is “I am choosing to spank you for this infraction.” It’s a pet peeve. Reading her model for talking to a child who defied his parent by not stopping playing when told it was time for dinner, shocked me. “If you believe that he has loved you and received punishment for you, then this kind of punishment will help remind you to live wisely, and the pain of it will soon be gone. But if you don’t believe in his great goodness, then the punishment you receive today will be just the beginning of a lifetime of pain. Today, you can ask for forgiveness, and I will forgive you, and if you ask him, so will the Lord. But if you wait, if you harden your heart and refuse to change, then a day will come when it will be too late to ask for forgiveness.” This sort of talk feels manipulative to me.

However, I appreciate the stand the authors have taken against forcing children to show repentance after being spanked. Many evangelical authors espouse this idea, and I know many adults who remember faking repentance and lying to avoid further punishment.

Many readers will appreciate the attempt at coupling of theology and a philosophy of parenting with more practical advice. I feel like I talk to my kids fairly theologically but the models were a stretch, and I couldn’t imagine talking to my children like that. However, it did incite me to think about how I would phrase a similar discussion, and that sort of premeditation is always helpful in parenting.

This is a good addition to the already crowded Christian Parenting shelves at bookstores, but I am still waiting for a book that I feel more comfortable recommending.

Still & My Life with the Saints

StillStill by Lauren F. Winner

Still by Lauren Winner is aptly subtitled “Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.” It is a collection of reflections from the middle, from a place of messiness, doubt and despair. That terrain is familiar to many and the ability to feel less alone in those moments by reading this book makes it worthwhile.

Winner directly informs readers that this is not a memoir. If you are looking for juicy details about her marriage falling apart, you won’t find them here. In the moments the book got the most personal and vulnerable, it connected most deeply with me as a reader. But I understand why there is a sense of discretion, and at times, detachment, in the writing as well. Winner is very respectful of her ex-husband, placing the blame for their shaky marriage and its dissolution squarely on herself and her issues. If she had delved more deeply into the personal, this respect would have been hard to maintain.

The writing is poetic and beautiful, as readers have come to expect from Winner. “Notes” fits well, as the chapters vary in length from a few sentences to many pages, and include many quotes and ideas from poets, writers, theologians and friends.

Overall, there is a hope in Still. Instead of fleeing when she felt far from God, Winner stayed in her church, stayed in her community, and learned to feel God’s nearness again. Her means of doing so may not work for others in the middle (and this book is very far from setting itself up as a model for others or self-help by any means) but it is a testimony that one can feel engulfed by anxiety, doubt and despair and start to believe more deeply again. And that is a beautiful message to the church. (8/10, expected to release January 31, 2012, I received an advanced copy from the publisher, which in no way affected my review.)

+ + +

MLWTSMy Life with the Saints by James Martin

Winsome and wickedly funny, My Life With the Saints is part history, part theology and part memoir. Sharing about his own life and discovery of a variety of saints in the Catholic Church, James Martin helps readers to see the encouragement we are able to find from other Christians (living and dead) while striving to follow God with our own unique gifts and experiences.

Far from being dry, Martin’s interactions with the saints serve as a model for how others can study the saints for themselves, as companions and friends. He includes men and women, from many different ages of the church. As a Jesuit priest, Martin has a thoroughly Roman Catholic theology of the saints, but I think protestants can also learn a great deal from this book. (9/10, seeing Father Martin on Colbert again reminded me to pick this up off my shelf. Thanks Stephen.)

How to Get a Job… by Me, the Boss

Earlier this summer, Sally Lloyd-Jones graciously offered to send me a copy of her newest book to review. We received it the week we were moving, and it got misplaced for awhile. Here is our long overdue review!

The third in a series of fun books narrated by a know-it-all little girl, How to Get a Job… by Me, the Boss by Sally Lloyd-Jones is child’s eye view on the process of employment. From brainstorming about what you’d like to be to the practical steps to get there, it’s all covered in this volume. Both Kate (7) and Lexi (5.5) really enjoyed it. We have read the other books in the series, so they were familiar with the concept, lots of insight wrapped in wit and child-like goofiness.

The girls comprehended enough to laugh at all the right places and to ask good questions. However, the ground covered was more complex than How to Be a Baby… and How to Get Married… so I am not sure it will be as easily understood by preschoolers as those are, but now my kids know about resumes!

Both my girls are very interested in art, and they loved Sue Heap’s illustrations. Kate spent a while studying to try to decide what mediums she used (Publisher’s Weekly says crayon and acrylic paint.) Of course, this is great fodder for talking about what kids want to be when they grow up, and the steps it will take to get there. Sally Lloyd-Jones is a great storyteller, and we are all glad when we share her gifts together. We’ve read this several times already and I’m sure we will continue to enjoy it for many years to come.

[As I mentioned, I received a review copy of the book from its publisher, which in no way influenced my opinion.]

Falling Together by Marisa De Los Santos

Falling TogetherFalling Together by Marisa de los Santos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After enjoying her last novel quite a bit, I was excited to get a hold of Marisa de los Santos’ Falling Together. The story of three college friends who experience a rift after graduation, de los Santos covers the familiar ground of loneliness and community as themes.

This story is told primarily from the perspective of Pen, a single mother struggling with the loss of her father and her deepest friendships. I liked this character but I didn’t identify with her as deeply as I did Cornelia in Belong to Me. I found the plot also more forced, and the flashbacks not as powerful as they could have been. I don’t think readers got a full enough picture of the friendship of Cat, Pen and Will. They are told how special it is more than shown.

De los Santos has a background in poetry and her writing is marked with loveliness. All of the description of setting and place were beautiful and I enjoyed her writing of some of the secondary characters in particular.

Overall, Falling Together is a feel-good read that many will enjoy. I just didn’t think it was De Los Santos’ best.

[I received a review copy of the book from its publisher, which in no way influenced my opinion.]

Winter Light by Bruce Ray Smith

Winter Light: A Christian's Search for HumilityWinter Light: A Christian’s Search for Humility by Bruce Ray Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Winter Light by Bruce Ray Smith is one man’s journey towards humility. In the form of a journal, it exposes deep, honest thoughts about pride and moreover, surrendering fully to God. With poetic prose and bare thoughts, it provides a model for Christians of prayer and meditation.

So few have been exposed to rich and meaningful examples of the spiritual disciplines in this day and age. As we rush around, we neglect listening, waiting and contemplation. Smith’s insights and experiences expose both our lack of practice and the great impact these disciplines can have on our souls.

There is a great amount of wisdom found in Winter Light, lessons born of struggle and hardship. I know that I will be revisiting it again and again to contemplate and continue to digest all that Smith shares in this short work. Its structure lends well to picking up and putting down, brief thoughts that provide the fodder for lengthy meditations.

Obviously, Winter Light is quite unlike what is typically published in mainstream evangelical circles. It was not written by a guru and doesn’t tell readers what to do. But by its example, readers will see how they can lay themselves bare before God and their neighbors, as well. I’d commend it to any Christian. (9/10, I received a review copy from the publisher, but these thoughts are my own.)

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger's WifeThe Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht may have been the most anticipated debut novel in years. In no small part because Obreht was named by the New Yorker last year as one of the Top 20 writers under 40, at the tender age of 24 (a list they will probably publish again long before she hits 40.) And so when I received an advanced reading copy of The Tiger’s Wife, I wondered if I would be saving it for my grandchildren and bragging about my first look at such an important piece of literary fiction.

Narrating the story is a young doctor named Natalia, who learns of her grandfather’s death while on a humanitarian mission to vaccinate children in an orphanage now across the border from her home and tend to any pressing medical needs. Her nation has just suffered a bloody civil war and her memories of her grandfather and the war intermix with her story of dealing with the aftermath.

The novel is filled with the spirit of such authors as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie with lovely folklore and magical realism. Like others who write in the genre, the style is wandering and occasionally confusing. I had to really concentrate to comprehend what was going on in parts.

The writing is lovely and there are moments of true cohesion where everything is working together and it almost took my breath away. But then there are large parts where I felt like I was enduring to get to another good part. Maybe it’s a little too broad, a little too wandering, a little too literary.

The Tiger’s Wife is receiving the praise that many projected years before publication, and Téa Obreht became the youngest author to receive the Orange Prize this June. She is an exciting young writer and I hope she continues to grow and develop and improve upon this solid beginning.

4 of 5 stars. [I received a review copy of the book from its publisher, which in no way influenced my opinion.]