Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Murder of Abraham Lincoln

by Rick Geary
2005 / 80 pages

Author and illustrator Rick Geary has created a series of graphic novels about Victorian-era murders. While I don't think I'd be much interested in reading others in the series (I don't feel a need or a desire to learn about Lizzie Borden or Jack the Ripper) The Murder of Abraham Lincoln is a title I would recommend to anyone interested in American history.

It starts with Lincoln presenting his second inaugural address. Geary gives a brief accounting of the end of the Civil War, and intersperses it with parts of Lincoln's speech - it is a great opening to a great book. We are then told a little of assassin John Wilkes Booth's background, and his motivations, and are introduced to the co-conspirators. The last third of the book takes place after Lincoln is killed, and shows us the man-hunt for Booth, as well as the country's reaction to the assassination.

A graphic novel is a compelling way to tell this story, first because Geary uses this format to shows us the layout of Ford's theatre (where the assassination took place), escape routes, and other maps, and second because pictures, properly used, can tell, if not a thousand words, at least a couple hundred or so. This volume is only 80 pages, but there is a lot of information packed into it - it gives readers a great feel for the time, and insight into the still brewing conflict that had almost split the country asunder.

The only concern I have with this volume is that it casts some suspicion on Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton. The author doesn't directly accuse Stanton of having a hand in the assassination, but he does raise questions about him: "Was he guilty merely of overzealousness in the execution of this office - or do his actions indicate an intent more nefarious?" I'm only passingly familiar with other accounts of Lincoln's life and death, but have never heard these questions before, so I wonder how legitimate they might be. But Stanton is a relatively minor character in this story, so this is only a minor concern.

I would recommend this book for anyone 12 and over (the illustrations have been done with restraint - there is no gore to speak of) and I'm sure adults will enjoy it, and find it educational as well.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Ambition

by Lee Strobel
Zondervan, 2011, 286 pages

I came to this book with some skepticism: the author is a well known pastor and author, but up until this point he has never written fiction. And on top of that, there's some reason to be skeptical of whole genre of Christian fiction - many Christian authors think good intentions, or a good message, are an adequate substitute for good writing.

But Strobel pulls it off. The actual writing is only ordinary (there's room for improvement, but it never gets in the way of the story) but the plot is solid, layered, and satisfying. It helps that Strobel, a former journalist, and the pastor of a very large church, is writing about what he knows: one of the main characters is a journalist, and two more are megachurch pastors.

It's hard to summarize the plot because it's hard to nail down which of the cast is the main character. Is this the story of Tom O'Sullivan, a lawyer and gambling-addict who owes some big money to some scary sorts? Or is this the story of pastor Eric Snow, who is considering a run at the US Senate? Or might it be about Garry Strider, a cynical reporter who has no time for God, but does have time to investigate one of His churches? I've never read a book where it was less clear who the protagonist was, and while that might have some critics saying the book lacks focus, I actually found it an intriguing change. In other books, where the protagonist is clear, you know who definitely isn't going to die. In this one, because it all seems up in the air, the reader is left guessing who will, and who might not make it to the final page.

So let's give another go at a plot summary. The Ambition referenced in the title is for the US Senate seat that suddenly becomes available when a scandal forces the current senator to resign. The governor is going to appoint the replacement, and he has narrowed it down to two men: Eric Snow, megachurch pastor, and former highly successful Internet entrepreneur; and Judge Reese McKelvie, long time friend of the governor, and the man credited with cleaning up corruption in the state's court system. Both want the job, but what will they do to get it?

I don't want to give too much away, so I'll finish by highlighting some points I loved about the book. First, while not all the characters are fleshed out, there isn't a cliched stock character among them. These all seem like real people, wrestling with real problems. God can help them, but the God described in this book is not like the fairytale godmother who inhabits many other Christian novels, granting everyone's wishes. God is powerful, and good, but He doesn't always act as the characters want Him to, or in ways that they understand. Only about half the cast is Christian, and while there are no real conversion scenes for the half that isn't, the whole cast is forced to wrestle with what really matters in life. The book goes deep, and does so without getting preachy. And it starts off with a bang - a hit takes place in the very first chapter - and it continues on at this crisp pace.

Reformed readers will quickly realize that the author, Lee Strobel must be Arminian - there is a definite, though hardly potent, Arminian flavoring to the book.  One other area that might cause some concern to Reformed readers is the presentation of two miraculous healings. Some Christian authors (Peretti, Dekker, etc) treat miracles as common place, but the characters in The Ambition treat both occurrences as skeptically as most of us would - there are a lot of charlatans in the world. However they also know better than to dismiss the possibility that God did choose to heal instantly. The miracles are presented as genuine but rare, which is indeed how we see God operating today.

A final caution: near the end of the novel one character takes God's name in vain. I find this a particularly inexplicable thing for Christian writers to do, since you will never find one making use of the f-word. So it is not a matter of realism – if it were, then f-bombs should pepper their work, as they do everyday life (though I don't think realism is a sufficient justification in most situations). But the fact is Christians authors have more reverence for this four-letter obscenity than they do for God's name. It only occurs once, so far as I noticed.

That notable flaw aside, an engaging novel I would recommend to teens and adults, and probably more so to men than women as all the main characters are men. A very fun, quick read.

You can buy it by clicking here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Peek-a-boo!

I most often pass on recommendations of books I find exceptional. This time around, though, I am going to be passing on two recommendations from someone else: my one-year-old daughter. These two board books are among her very favorite, and not because of the text.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
by Eric Carle
Philomel Books, 1969, 22 pages

This book is over 40 years old now, and still as popular as ever. The plot is summed up by the book's title - it is about a very hungry caterpillar who eats and eats and eats for a week, and then builds a cocoon and turns into a beautiful butterfly. There are two different aspects of this book that make it one of my daughter's favorites:

1) The inside pages are very easy for little hands to turn because they vary in width from the rest of the pages. On Monday the caterpillar eats through one apple, and the page with the apple is only a fifth as wide as the rest of the book; on Tuesday he eats through two pears, and that page is two fifths as wide as the rest, and so it continues with three plums (three fifths as wide) four strawberries, and finally five oranges, in which the page is back to the normal full width.

2) The page covering what the caterpillar eats on Saturday is a two page spread of colorful cake, ice cream, cheese sausage pie watermelon and more, and it looks good enough to eat. Our little one likes to turn to this page first, and will flip back to it again and again and again.

by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
Viking Juvenile, 1997, 32 pages

The setting of this book is England, and it appears to be right around World War II (judging from the Daddy's uniform). The "plot" is very simple - the story starts with a baby in his crib, waking up in the morning and looking around to see what he can see. We follow him through the day, always seeing through his eyes at what he can see, until his day ends and he heads to bed. It is the construction of this book that fascinates my daughter - on the first two page spread the baby is in her crib on the left hand side, and the right page is all white, but with a large round hole cut through it so that we (and the baby) can "peek" to see what is on the next page. And once she is done peeking, she turns the page, and then spends her time looking at all the activity going on in the fully-revealed page. The illustrator, Janet Ahlberg, fills her pictures with layers of detail - there is so much there I don't even mind paging through it again and again.... and again and again and again! So we get to play a game of peek-a-boo five times as we read through the book, peering through these holes to see what comes next.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Miniatures and Morals: the Christian novels of Jane Austen

by  Peter J. Leithart
Canon Press, 2004, 197 pages

Leithart begins Miniatures and Morals with a chapter titled, “Real men read Austen” and while it is far from clear that men do, Leithart does clearly establish that they should.

What does Austen have to offer male readers? First off, her male heroes are examples of good and godly masculinity – though Austen’s novels are not Christian in anything like the way that today’s “Christian fiction” is Christian, her faith is displayed in how she distinguishes good from evil. Darcy, Knightley, even Edward Ferrars are all clear Christ-figures, willing to sacrifice themselves to do what’s right. They are real men, masculine not because they are macho, but because they show servant-leadership.

Austen’s villains are equally instructive; they are men who toy with women’s affections, showing them special attention with no serious intent. They are, in more modern terminology, “players.” Because Austen allows “men the opportunity to see romance through the eyes of an uncommonly perceptive woman” we can use Austen to learn what to, and what not to do, when interacting with the fairer sex.

The six chapters that follow each tackle one of Austen’s six novels and each ends with 8 or 9 questions, making it a great resource for book clubs. And it is an absolute must for any Austen fan – I could not put it down.