Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Legacy of Sovereign Joy

by John Piper
154 pages, 2000

I know I should know a little something about church history. And yet the distaste left over from taking it in school leaves me less than enthused at the prospect of doing this sort of reading.

Enter John Piper and a different sort of historical biography. First off, these are short - just 50 pages per person, and three biographies in total. So in just 154 pages a reader can get a good overview of three Church giants: Luther, Calvin and Augustine.

But what I also appreciated was Piper's focus on these men's weaknesses, and what God was able to accomplish through them, despite these flaws. So we are learning about men, but with the focus being on what God has wrought through them. So there are no dry dusty facts in these books – Piper shows us their hearts, and allows us to get inside each of them. I found myself enjoying, and being encouraged by a church history book!

That's why I was happy to discover that Legacy of Sovereign Joy is the first volume of a five-book series. When you read an enjoyable book it is always a thrill to discover there are "sequels."

The series title "The swans are not silent" is a quote from speaking about Augustine at his death. The man who was to take Augustine's place was so overwhelmed by his own insufficiency in comparison to Augustine that he lamented that, "The Swan is silent." But Piper wants us to know that this despair is unfounded: Augustine's voice still heard, and more importantly the message he proclaimed – God's gospel – continues to be spread. Indeed, more than 1000 years after his death Augustine had an enormous impact on the Reformation, particularly on Calvin who quoted Augustine repeatedly in his own writings.

The one caution I will add isn't relevant for this book, but applies to the fifth book in the series. The author, John Piper, is a Reformed Baptist. So on the positive sides of things, that has meant most of the figures he profiles in this series could be described as Calvinist (even if it must be after that fact, as in Augustine). But some are also Baptist, like Piper, and the case of Adoniram Judson, found in the fifth book, Piper praises the man specifically for switching from the beliefs he was born into – infant baptism – to a belief in believer's baptism. Judson made this switch while on the boat to his mission field, and knew that following his new conviction would lead to a loss of financial support from the congregation that sent him. So it was courageous for him to make the switch...but of course, we would wish that he hadn't.

However the three-pack highlighted in this book – Augustine, Luther and Calvin – are well worth the read. And here's some great news: these biographies can be downloaded as free pdfs. You can find Legacy  at www.desiringgod.org/books/the-legacy-of-sovereign-joy.

And if you want a print edition, you can buy a copy at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Arrival

by Shaun Tan
2007 / 128 pages

I am an immigrant of sorts, having moved across the border to the US, and while it was easy enough to adapt it did give me a small bit of insight into what my parents and grandparents must have experienced when they moved the Netherlands to Canada decades ago. While I don't have to learn a new language, my children are going to learn an entirely different history. They say "zee," not "zed." And almost everyone I know seems to have a gun in their home.

Small differences.

My parents had to deal with much bigger ones, and for their parents it was stranger still. It was hard to ask for help because they didn't know the language. They needed help because things were done differently here. Fortunately, they weren't the first – others from the "old country" had come before, so there was some help to be had.

This may be an overly long introduction to a book that has no words. To cut to the chase, Shaun Tan's graphic novel may be the very best possible way to share the immigrant experience with the second and third generation. It tells the story of a father who leaves his country, his wife, and his daughter, to head overseas to find a better place for them all.

It is a very strange world that he finds. One of the first things we notice is that even the birds look different. In fact, the reader will notice that these birds don't look like any birds anyone has every seen. It only gets stranger in the pages that follow: the man encounters a mystifying immigration process, and documents that are written in a language that doesn't look like any that the reader will know. The buildings, the food, the transportation - there is a uniqueness to it all. This new country looks like no real country on earth. So what is going on here?

The first time I read this graphic novel I didn't understand what was going on and stopped reading about half way through. This time around a helpful niece alerted me to the fact that this was about the immigrant experience, so what the artist was doing, by making everything just slightly peculiar, was creating a world where the reader would feel the same sort of discomfort and confusion that a new immigrant would feel upon arrival. That little insight was a big help, and turned this from a mystifying, even frustrating story, to an absolutely brilliant one. I will admit to being a bit slow on the uptake here, as the title, The Arrival, should have given me the only clue I needed as to figuring out what the book was about. But in my defense, Shaun Tan's creation is utterly original so I have not ever read anything like it.


We follow the father as he sets out to find a job, finds an apartment, tries to get the coffee machine (if that's what it was) to work, and tries to figure out where to find food and what sort of food he likes. Along the way he meets several helpful people, including people who had immigrated years before, and were happy to help someone newly arrived.

So the book is, on the one hand, about the immigrant experience, and on the other is story about the impact we can have in helping strangers. The young father would have been lost but for the kindness of strangers.

This is a large book, both in the number of pages, and in the size of the pages – 128 pages and about a foot tall – with scores of details to discover on every page. So even though it is wordless, this is a good long read. I would recommend this to immigrant grandparents as a gift they could give to the grandchildren, and one they might want to "read" with them. I would also recommend it to anyone who loves art - this is a beautiful book. Finally, I would also recommend it to students who are struggling readers. This is a book with dimension and depth, even though it doesn't have words. So it requires something of the reader - it can stretch them - even as it makes things a bit easier by doing away with dialogue.

It is also quite a good value, at just $12 for the hardcover edition at Amazon.com.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Around the World in 80 Days

by Jules Verne

2005, Brilliance Audio or Penguin Random House
read by Jim Dale
7 hours and 51 minutes

When I first encountered a Jules Verne story as a kid, I was fascinated by it, mainly because I couldn't tell if it was truth or fiction - whether the accounts of attacks on ships at sea were from the newspaper or from Verne's own inventive mind. Verne is known for that realism, for the book that so confounded me - 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - features descriptions of a submarine that influenced the later inventors of the real thing, including naming an early actual submarine after the submarine in the novel.

I was not so confused by Around the World in 80 Days, but I can imagine Verne sitting at his desk with a huge world map on the wall, multiple railway and shipping timetables, and numerous travel books. His intrepid 19th-century hero, Phileas Fogg, faces numerous obstacles that threaten to upset the connections between the many different forms of transportation he needs to complete his meticulously planned trip around the world.

Who is this Phileas Fogg? Not the dashing hero one might expect - though he is a proper English gentleman. Instead, he is a rich, eccentrically predictable man, so predictable that he fires his personal servant because he runs the bath two degrees hotter than usual. His new valet, Passepartout, is overjoyed to be working for such a blandly predictable man after a more madcap youth of his own, so when Fogg takes a wager at his gentleman's club that with the new methods of transportation, traveling around the world in 80 days is possible for anyone, and then has to prove it by undertaking the trip himself, Passepartout's reactions make the voyage both amusing and exciting.

One aspect of Verne's writing that is often forgotten is his capacity for lighthearted irony, when one or more of the characters (sometimes the narrator, as in Journey to the Center of the Earth) is not quite as adventurous as the others. There is plenty of genuine high adventure - deciding to rescue an Indian princess about to be burned on a funeral pyre, coping with a detective who is sure that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England, seeking to cross the ocean on a boat that is slowly being burnt down to the waterline - but the tension between the suspense of Fogg's journey and the mix of incredulity and frustration on the part of Fogg's servant is particularly funny when the book is read aloud by an able reader, like Jim Dale (in the audiobook version).

What also helps makes this book one of Jules Verne's most adapted stories - with multiple movies and an epic miniseries - is the combination of romance and one of the most suspenseful endings in fiction, as Phileas Fogg arrives in England prepared to lose his fortune as he calculates that he has arrived a day late.

While this is in no sense a Christian book, Fogg is an admirably honorable man (though obviously involved in gambling) who is willing, when the chips are down, to jeopardize his wager for the safety of others - and Passepartout is both courageous and loyal to his new and unexpectedly mobile master.

One qualification on Verne himself - Journey to the Center of the Earth deals with a trip not only inward but supposedly also backward in time, as the protagonists see the characteristics of various geological ages. Though the story never mentions evolution, and puts creatures of various so-called epochs together, Verne does seem to be accepting the commonly accepted idea of long ages of time with various creatures appearing first in specific eras. Not much room for a young earth there. That said, except for a certain lack of clarity about Sunday activities, Around the World in 80 Days is not so problematic.

To get a free e-book version, go here.

Otherwise the audiobook version I listened to can be had at Amazon.com here, and Amazon.ca here. Various inexpensive paper versions are also available.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

More wordless wonders

My oldest daughter is 4 and while she loves books, she can't read yet. So it is quite a treat when we find a really good wordless book, which Dad can "read" through with her the first time, and which she can then read through on her own, or to her little sister many times afterwards.

More and more of these "wordless wonders" are being made, so I thought I would share a couple of my favorites here. Be sure to also click on the "wordless" in the tag cloud in the righthand column of this page to find others.

The Hero of Little Street
by Gregory Rogers
32 pages / 2012 / Hardcover

This one is a favorite for me because it has a Dutch flavor (and so do I). The story begins with our hero – a little boy with a Charlie Brownesque look about him – managing to lose a trio of bullies by popping into a museum. Since he's there, the boy decides to take a look. And after he contemplates some modern art pictures and sculptures he comes across a room full of masterpieces, including Jan van Eyck's Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife. While passing by the piece our hero catches the eye of the Giovanni's little dog, and down he comes, right out of the painting! 

Jan Van Eyck's original (left) and a couple frames from Gregory Rogers (right) showing his version
The two of them then dance and jump and chase one another through the museum, until they come across a sheet of music lying on the ground. Where did it come from? Ah, wait! The two of them notice that it must have been dropped by that lady at the piano - that lady in Jan Vermeer's painting Girl at Piano. So in they jump, right into the picture, and return the music to the grateful girl.

This leads to some more dancing, accompanied by the girl at her piano, before our hero and his dog head off further and deeper into this painting, opening a door and entering Little Street, Deflt in seventeenth century Holland!

To say this is an inventive book really doesn't suffice! An art loving parent could use this to introduce their children to some of the masters, and anyone of a Dutch heritage could use it to show what the Netherlands looked like back three centuries ago. And young children love it for the sheer rollicking adventure. It ends with our hero back in modern day, but now equipped by his time-traveling artistic adventure with just the tool he needs to help him with those bullies.

You can buy it Amazon.com here (clicking here will also help support this site, as Amazon will send us a small percentage, at no cost to you).

The Boy and the Airplane
by Mark Pett
40 pages / 2103 / Hardcover

This is a simple enough story - a boy gets a toy airplane as a present and an errant throw results in the plane getting stuck on the top of a roof. We then get to see him try everything from a ladder (too short) to a lasso, to a pogo stick, to try and recover his plane. But when nothing works the boy settles on a long term strategy that, while it will require patience, is sure of success: he plants a seed and waits for it to grow into a mighty tree that will be tall enough for him to climb and recover his plane.

Whoops!

I am not going to spoil it here by telling you the end, but it is sweet, and completely satisfying. This was just a joy to read with my little girl!

I will note it is a pretty quick read, so it might be a good one to borrow from the library, rather than buy... but if you do want to buy it, you can find it at Amazon.com here. The author has also made a worthy sequel, titled The Girl and the Bicycle.