February Minireviews – Part 2

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just don’t have a lot of things to say about.  Sometimes it’s because it was a super meh book (most of these are 3/5 reads), or sometimes it’s because it was just so happy that that’s about all I can say about it!  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

I seem to have a lot of these this month (plus, it’s just been a month of bad weather so lots of extra reading time!) – Part 1 can be found here.

The Basket of Flowers by Christoph von Schmidt

//originally published 1823//

I believe that I have mentioned Lamplighter Publishers in the past.  They are a Christian publishing house that finds old, out-of-print books with strong moral/Christian messages and reprints them in absolutely beautiful hardcover editions.  While I think their efforts are praiseworthy, they also frequently choose books that are a bit too simplistic for me to genuinely enjoy, and The Basket of Flowers falls into that category.

The story focuses on Mary, a young woman of strong moral fiber, who lives with her father, James, a gardener.  James is a widower, and does his best to raise Mary up into an upstanding and worthy individual.  When a jealous neighbor blames Mary for stealing a valuable ring, Mary and her father are banished from the region.

There was a lot to like about this story, which had its moments of excitement and interest, but every time anything would happen, James would go off on a long and prosy sermonette, and while I generally agreed with what he was saying, I couldn’t help but think that he made for a rather dull conversationalist.  And really, that’s the way the whole book was.  I agreed with virtually every life-lesson presented, but the author seemed so busy presenting life-lessons that there wasn’t a great deal of time left for the actual story.  I can see this being used as a read-aloud for younger children, but I’m not sure it has enough kick to engage older readers.  Still 3/5 and I did enjoy the melodramatic ups and downs of Mary’s life.

Amazing Gracie by Sherryl Woods

//published 1998//

Just a random chick lit kind of book I picked up somewhere along the line.  This was a pleasantly relaxing but ultimately forgettable story, and not one I particularly anticipate rereading, so it is off to the giveaway box!

Lost States by Michael J. Trinklein

//published 2010//

I love nonfiction books about random topics, and I also love maps.  Lost States incorporates both things!  Basically, Trinklein looks at a BUNCH of territories that almost became states, or wished they could become states, or would  be really cool if they could become states, etc.  He covers everything from random ways to divide the Northwest Territory, to the possibility of some of our current states splitting (California, Maine, and Texas have all considered it in recent years), to current US territories, to western states that didn’t quite make the cut.

While the book is really enjoyable – and also full of color pictures and maps, making it fun to read – it’s also very brief.  Each potential state only gets one (oversize) page, and one page of pictures/maps, so you don’t get a lot of details about anything.  There is also plenty of Trinklein’s snarky humor to go around, but luckily I enjoyed that part, too.

All in all, Lost States wasn’t necessarily the most educational nonfiction read I’ve come across recently, but it was quick and engaging, and gave me a lot of random trivia to pull out during those awkward conversational silences that come up from time to time.  4/5.

Wedding Date Rescue by Sonya Weiss

//published 2017//

This was one of those random Kindle books that I got for free or possibly 99¢.  It was a perfectly happy little romance that involved both a fake relationship trope and friends-to-more trope (two faves).  However, the last 15% of the book felt weirdly rushed.  There was a lot of time setting everything up and exploring the reasons that the pair were hesitant to make their relationship real, and then all of a sudden all their problems were solved in like five minutes and everything was sunshine and rainbows.  It felt abrupt, and I wasn’t convinced that they had legitimately worked through their problems.  Still, a 3.5/5 for a book that basically relaxing fluff.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

//published 2017//

I actually totally loved this book.  It had a very likable protagonist, a crazy madcap character who reminded me of Jackaby, and some super fun world-building.  While the story was an easy 4/5, it ended on a complete and total cliffhanger without really resolving any of the main plotlines.  The next book isn’t due out until sometime this year, so that always aggravates me.  Still, I will definitely be continuing this series as it appears.  It was so nice to read a children’s book that I felt like I could actually hand to children!

Wrestling Prayer // by Eric and Leslie Ludy

//published 2009//

Sometimes you read a book that you don’t really want to read, because you know reading it is good for you.  Wrestling Prayer was that kind of experience for me.  I honestly was scared to read this book, because I knew that it was going to challenge me on a level I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be challenged on.

This book is a brutally honest look at what Christianity should look like, and why so many of us are willing to settle for a lesser version.  (Hint: getting the real deal means making some real sacrifices.)  While a lot of so-called Christian leaders out there pander to our selfish whims by reassuring us that we all need “me time”, the Ludys stand firm on a pattern of Scripture that shows that God isn’t particularly interested in part-time followers.

Wrestling Prayer is about way more than prayer – it’s about getting serious about following Jesus, about recognizing what that really means, and living a life that reflects it. This book is about confronting the fleshly weaknesses in your life and ousting them. It’s about claiming the promises of God for yourself in the way that they were meant to be claimed.

I really liked how accessible this book was. It’s not written in a dry, academic kind of way. Instead, it’s completely full of practical, useful information – which can make it all the more difficult to swallow!  The Ludys never come across as holier-than-thou – they never write from the mountaintop.  They don’t claim to have all the answers, and they are very clear about the differences between the “prosperity gospel” (“Of course God wants you to have the convertible you’ve always wanted – give us all your money and He will make it happen!”) and genuine, Christ-centered prayer that brings real results.

I don’t really see this as a book that would appeal to non-Christians.  It’s pretty clearly written for those who have already taken the first step.  But even if you are not a follower of Christ, reading this book about how it should look may be intriguing for you.

Honestly, I’m not ready to jump on board with the Ludys yet, but it’s not because I think they’re wrong.  It’s because I think they’re right, and I’m just not quite ready to make the sacrifices in my personal life that I know need to be made – kind of the same way that I know I would be able to loose weight if I’d stop eating a bowl of ice cream every day, but I’m just not quite to the point where I’m ready to take that kind of plunge!

4.5 for some brilliant writing – and the half-star off is actually just because Eric Ludy kept saying, “with boyish (and girlish) faith” like a zillion times and it was driving me crazy.  Just say “child-like” already!

All in all, Wrestling Prayer gave me so much to think about – more, really, than I want to think about.  It’s a dangerous book.  Highly recommended.

 

The Divine Conquest // by A.W. Tozer

Also published as God’s Pursuit of Man.

//published 1950//

Wow, I don’t even really know where to begin with this book.  It is so incredibly challenging and thought-provoking.  It should come with a warning label – Don’t Read Unless You Are Ready to Be Convicted and Change Your Life.

I don’t mean to be rude or exclusive, but this is really a book for Christians.  I don’t see a non-Christian taking anything away from it, other than, perhaps, the urge to learn more about this mystery that is the relationship between man and God.  But Tozer is primarily writing to people who have at least a basic knowledge of Christianity – although he will challenge you to consider what exactly “being a Christian” means in real life as well.

Each chapter is a little essay, and they all build together to a cohesive overall message.  Tozer begins by discussing different aspects of the Christian faith, and how willing we are, as a rule, to “settle” for just sort of a cow-like behavior of coming to church when we’re supposed to, sitting in the pews, and then going home.  However, Tozer reminds us that becoming a Christian means accepting the Word means inviting an external force to change who we are from the inside out.

The argument of this book is the essential interiority of true religion.  I expect to show that if we would know the power of the Christian message our nature must be invaded by an Object from beyond it; that That which is external must become internal; that the objective Reality which is God must cross the threshold of our personality and take residence within.

Tozer reminds his readers, without mincing words, that becoming something means that you are changing, and changing means that you also are un-becoming things.

It is impossible to travel south without turning one’s back upon the north.  One cannot plant until he has plowed nor move forward until he has removed the obstacles before him.

In this day and age of constant fear of offending people, reading this book was like a drink of cool water on a hot day.  Tozer says flat out that, “Whatever stands in the way of spiritual progress I have felt it my duty to oppose,” and he does it firmly and without apology.

There is so much in this book.  I’ve underlined scores of passages.  After a few chapters of talking about turning one’s life around, Tozer begins to remind his readers that God does not expect us to do this on our own – and the rest of the book is devoted to the Holy Spirit.  When I first read this book, circa 2007, I had grown up in the church and attending churches and Bible studies and Sunday School and everything you can think of my entire life.  I had embraced the Christian faith as my own as an adult.  Yet I realized that I could not recall a single sermon on the topic of the Holy Spirit.  Tozer challenges his readers to embrace this aspect of God, not in the speaking-in-tongues-rolling-in-the-aisles way, but the fact that He does indwell the children of God and is there to help us make decisions, to live purely, to understand Scripture.  And instead of coming to Him, most of the time we just ignore Him.

Tozer says all of this much, much better than I ever could.  If you’re a Christian (or thinking about Christianity), I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  I’m still being challenged by it.  Tozer’s writing rarely feels dated.  Instead, it feels like he is writing today, and writing directly to his reader.  It’s like reading a letter from a well-loved but somewhat strict uncle.

Read The Divine Conquest.  But only if you’re willing to make some life changes along the way.

Reclaiming Christianity: A Call to Authentic Faith // by A.W. Tozer // Compiled & Edited by James L. Snyder

//published 2009//

Last September I reviewed another of these collections of Tozer’s sermons, Living as a Christian, and the beginning of my review of that book summarizes a bit about Tozer himself and how Snyder came to be going through his sermons and turning them into collections of essays.  Reclaiming Christianity is another of these sermon/essay collections that I was picking up now and then throughout the spring.  While they are loosely connected because of their common theme, each chapter is a complete lesson unto itself.

Tozer is always a challenge to read.  He isn’t afraid to shine a bright light on things we’d rather keep hidden – don’t read Tozer if you aren’t willing to face the fact that you probably have several areas of your life that you conveniently ignore and hope they just go away on their own.  But, as Tozer says, “The epistles do not advise; they command,” and Tozer reminds his readers that if you have claimed your place as a child of God, you are now bound to a life of continuing maturity and purity – the Scripture is no longer just some suggestions.

And while Tozer definitely plays hardball, he never comes through as condescending.  He writes like an older brother, or a sage old grandfather – someone who wants to help you avoid the mistakes that he’s made and is willing to take your hand and help you through.  It is so obvious that his words spring from love – love of God, and love of the brethren.

I think the way that Tozer reminds his readers that accepting Christ is only the first step of a process is really excellent.  While it is THE step that grants you a place in heaven, it isn’t genuine unless it changes other aspects of our lives as well.

We have people showing us that we ought not to be holier than thou, but that we ought to say, ‘We are the same as you, only we have a Savior.’

This would be like two men dying on hospital beds in the same ward and one saying to the other, ‘I have what you have but the only difference between us is that I have a physician and you don’t.’

You could not interest a dying man in another man who is so well off because he had a physician.  If the physician could not cure the fellow, what was the good of the physician?  …

If I go to a sinner and say, “I am exactly the same as you, the only difference is that I have a Savior,’ but I do all the same things he does – I tell the same dirty jokes he tells and I waste my time the same way he does and I do everything he does – and then I say, ‘I have a Savior, you out to have a Savior,’ doesn’t he have the right to ask me what kind of Savior I have?  What profit is there for a man to say, ‘I have a physician’ if he is dying on a cot?  What does it profit a man to say, ‘I have a Savior’ if he is living in iniquity?

Tozer isn’t a read for the faint of heart or for those not willing to be challenged.  He does not soften his words or sugarcoat anything.  But if you are looking for more depth and grit in your Christian walk, you would be hard pressed to find a better place to start.

NB: Not actually one of my #20BooksofSummer.  Ah well.  ;-)

Sunsets // by Deborah Howard

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//published 2005//

This book, subtitled Reflections for Life’s Final Journey, is, in short, a book about death.  And while it wasn’t necessarily the most uplifting book to read, Howard approaches this subject with hope and encouragement.

Deborah Howard has worked as a hospice nurse for many years, and eventually felt compelled to write this book as an aid to guide people through the process of having a loved one die, or even knowing that the reader is facing death himself.  Howard is a Christian, and this book is unapologetically so.  While there is a great deal of emphasis on God, eternal life, and the perspective towards death that that mindset brings, Howard also provides much information about hospice that is useful even if you are not in agreement with the tenents of Christian faith.

I actually only had a vague notion of what hospice does before I read this book, so I found those parts of the book extremely interesting and informative.  Howard talks about how hospice was founded with the idea that people who are dying deserve to do so with dignity, with as little pain as possible, in their own homes, and surrounded by those they love.  She says that the founder of hospice was horrified by the way that those who were dying in hospitals were more or less considered failures of the medical profession.  (Granted, this was decades ago when hospitals were quite a bit different from what they are now.)

Having recently watched a loved one suffer through the final stages of cancer, I sincerely wish that I had been more familiar with hospice and the alternative that they offered.  While we were comfortable and cared for in hospital, there will always be something impersonal and vaguely routine about the care there.  Looking forward, with another relative diagnosed with terminal cancer, it was encouraging to understand that for someone like him, who hates hospitals and strangers, there is another option for him, and that he can spend his final weeks in his own home.

Howard emphasizes hospice as an alternative to the growing movement of assisted suicide.  Because patients who are enrolled in hospice have a terminal illness and a prognosis of less than six months to live, and all potentially life-saving options have been exhausted, the goal of hospice is not to help the patient “get better.”  Instead, their goal is stated as helping the patient “remain comfortable and free of suffering for the rest of his/her life.”  This is done, not by putting the person to sleep as though they are worth no more than a dog, but by providing them with equipment and medication that they need to make their final days as comfortable as possible.  Enabling someone to be in their own home, surrounded by their own family and loved ones, creates a situation where the focus can be on the joy of the patient’s life.

Throughout the book, Howard opens each chapter with the next part of a story of a hospice patient and his family.  She uses this story to illustrate the various stages of dying, from diagnosis onward.  Howard is realistic in her portrayal of human response to dying: we don’t want to!  But as she discusses the different stages and puts them into an eternal perspective, the reader is shown how death is inevitable but does not have to be viewed with terror.

She reminds the reader that preparation for death can (and should!) take place at any time in one’s life, not just when a life-threatening prognosis is given.  We do not know when our last moment will be – it can happen at any time.  I greatly liked the line she quoted from Dr. Charles Hodge:  “It is important that when we come to die we have nothing to do but die.”  In another place she tells a story of St. Francis –

It has been said that someone found St. Francis working his garden and asked him, “What would you do if you knew that you would die in ten minutes?”  St. Francis replied, “I’d try to finish this row.”

Howard discusses what happens after death, as well.  She believes in the Biblical definition of eternity, obviously, so although she examines other beliefs, she mostly does so to show how she does not believe that they logically fit into the real world.  I can see where a non-Christian may be greatly offended by much of this book, but I also think that it is a book that can put forth a challenge to that non-Christian’s beliefs.  If nothing else, it gives the reader much to consider, as so often we prefer to pretend that we will never die, when in fact we all will.

As I said at the beginning of my review, Sunsets wasn’t a super cheerful read.  But I still came away from it encouraged and informed.  I feel like I have a lot more information about hospice, and some clarified thoughts about death and the afterlife.  Howard’s book is written in a gentle and loving way.  It is never harsh or disparaging, even when she is discussing beliefs that she does not believe are true.  I would strongly recommend her book to anyway who is facing the challenge of becoming a caregiver for a loved one who is terminally ill.  This book is full of practical and helpful information to guide people through this most difficult of times.

Living as a Christian // by A.W. Tozer // compiled & edited by James L. Snyder

A.W. Tozer was a minister who lived, wrote, and preached in the early-to-mid 1900’s.  Known for his soundly and unapolgetically Biblical teaching, his most famous book, The Pursuit of God, has been in print constantly since it was written in 1948, and is still as insightful and challenging today as it was when it was first published.

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//published 2009//

In the early 2000’s, James L. Snyder received rights from Tozer’s estate to sift through Tozer’s many recorded sermons and compile them into books.  Thus, in the last ten years, several “new” Tozer books have appeared, even though Tozer himself died in the 1960’s.  Living as a Christian is one of these books.  Challenging and gritty, Tozer’s writing isn’t afraid to make the reader examine her life.  Reading Tozer is like opening the curtains of a dark room to let the sunshine in so you can really, really get down to the cleaning the room needs.

Tozer thoroughly understands the strange balance that is the Christian life: that our good deeds do not save us or make us better.  Only Christ’s sacrifice, and our acceptance of it, allows us to eternal life.  But that very acceptance is only the first step in our pursuit of God and holiness.  Our good works stem from this.  Tozer preaches a strong line of no-compromise holiness to those who have agreed to follow God.  Not only does he not expect non-Christians to live up to these standards of holiness, he doesn’t really expect them to understand why anyone would.  Tozer’s writings are, for the most part, directed to Christians, to strengthen, challenge, and encourage them.

Someone may say, ‘Mr. Tozer, how can a man cleanse his own heart?  How can a man purge his own soul?’  I might ask you how can a man wash his own hands?  He cannot; he can only subject his hands to water and detergents and they do the washing.  If he does not subject himself to water and detergent, he will not be cleansed.  Just as a man is clean by washing his hands and yet cannot wash his hands, so a man’s heart is cleansed when he cleanses himself, yet he cannot cleanse himself.

Living as a Christian is a collection of writing based on the book of 1 Peter, which is actually one of my favorite epistles.  Peter wrote to a group of Christians who were being persecuted for their faith following the burning of Rome.  Peter encourages his readers to stand firm in their faith, and helps them to understand why trials and trouble are a part of our lives even after we have come to Christ.  Tozer expands on Peter’s writing, show how what he said then is just as applicable to our lives today.

Snyder has given us seventeen chapters, most only about 10-15 pages long, making them very accessible chunks to digest.  Tozer is never condescending or superior, but he is also never soft and never compromises.  Some people may have trouble with his hard-line approach, especially in our day of universal acceptance and the constant fear of – gasp! – offending someone, but I don’t think that anyone who genuinely reads Scripture can deny its overall hard-line approach.  It is not called the Sword for nothing.

One of the things that I love (LOVE) about Tozer is his insistence that Scripture is not inaccessible or difficult to understand.  He believes that God has given us a letter that is very clear in its terms and conditions, and that our efforts to make it muddy or complicated are because we don’t like what it says, not because it is actually hard to understand.

You can throw your flesh into the effort, and with strong religious determination break your teeth and batter your own head black and blue but never get anywhere.  You can do that in theology too.  The simplest explanation of any text it just what it says.  you read it, get on your knees and take it at its plainest meaning.  As Mark Twain quipped: ‘Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they don’t understand, but for me I have always noticed that the passages that bother me are those I do understand.’  You will have time enough following the text you understand without seeking piously underneath the surface to bring up some esoteric meaning that God never put there.

Tozer’s emphasis is always that God intends us to start where we are and work towards Him, and that the best way to get anywhere is to start on the path you can see and follow it, rather than worrying about where the path is a few miles away from where we’ve begun.  Those parts of the path will be clear when you get there.  So many people refuse to accept any Scripture unless they can understand all of it, rather than beginning with what they do understand, accepting that, and building from there.

A heresy always hunts obscurity, and false teaching always hunts the difficult text.  You see, it is as if I were to take you to my farm and say to you, ‘Here you will find apples and peaches and grapes and watermelons and cantaloupes and sweet potatoes … now, this is all yours, take over.’  And then I came back a month later and found my guests half starved, and said to them, ‘What’s the matter?  You look undernourished.’

They would say, ‘We are undernourished because we have found a plant we cannot identify.  There is a plant behind  the old oak stump back there in the near end of the far field, just over the hill, and we have stayed one month trying to identify this plant.’

‘But you’re starving!  You’ve got so many other plants around you, but you look sick.  What’s the matter with you?’

And they would reply, ‘We’re worried about this one plant.’

That is exactly what many of God’s children do.  They starve themselves to death knee-deep in clover because there is one little old plant … that they cannot identify.  Heretics are always starving to death while they worry about that one passage of Scripture.

While this is an excellent book and one that I definitely recommend to anyone wanting to know what the Christian’s life ought to look like, it is, at times, obvious that this book was mostly transcribed from sermons.  There are sections that are a bit repetitive, as Tozer reviews something he covered in last week’s sermon – which would make sense if you were listening to him and it had been a week since you heard the last lesson, but can bog down the book a bit when you read the last lesson just yesterday.

Still a challenging and insightful book that is a really wonderful contrast to the lazy compromises so prevalent in our churches today.