Book Review: God in My Everything

A month or so ago I received a short book to review from Zondervan Publishing entitled, God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God.  It has taken me longer than normal to get through this book, not due to any fault in the prose, but because it seemed a book better digested in a thoughtful and disciplined manner. In essence what author Ken Shigematsu is attempting to do with this book is to reintroduce the modern world to the concept of a rule of life. A Rule of Life is an intentional pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for spiritual growth. While the idea of a spiritual discipline may sound foreign at first, Shigematsu does an excellent job of making these ancient practices timely and relevant to the 21st century reader.

I was initially intrigued due to the fact that I have had a life-long fascination with all things related to monasticism. In fact, when I was in high school I even briefly toyed with the idea of joining a religious order. While the desire for monastic seclusion faded fast, the draw towards a life ordered by contemplative practices never really left me.

Our lives today are not the well ordered lives of a ancient craftsman, a medieval peasant, or a colonial farmer. From the first effects of the industrial revolution, which drastically changed the natural rythms of life, to the technical revolution of the 20th century, which introduced the concept of multi-tasking into the human lexicon, we now live in a world of speed. Speed that is equated with efficiency, and efficiency is treated as an objective good. Haste, once a vice, has become a virtue. God in My Everything attempts to move us from the high speed commuter lane back to the blue highways of our collective past where life really happens.

The book is divided into 4 parts, each one directing readers towards a different aspect of creating their own rule. Shigematsu uses the image of a trellis to explain how a rule can support the whole of a person’s life from establishing solid roots, to relating to others, having periods of restoration and finally reaching out to the world at large. Each section leads the reader through a thorough explanation of the particular “trellis support” and then details how that can be put into practice in one’s own life, complete with personal anecdotes from the author’s own journey.

Shigematsu loosens theses ancient monastic practices from the dogmatic rigidity of the past in order to unmask the underlying truth of these timeless spiritual disciplines. In God in My Everything we have a rule that is sustainable and practical for our modern lives. The concepts may be ancient, but the treatment is modern, and that is what makes this a profitable read for those looking for a way to slow down and get more out of their lives.

A Reader's Week

Apropos of nothing here is a rundown of what I have read this week since last Saturday. I always find that once I get back into the rhythm of the school year my reading picks up. This year has been no different. In addition to reading the short story Mateo Falcone, the text I taught this week, and reading and grading about 35 movie reviews, which was the first essay I assigned, here is my week.

First, I finished rereading a classic sci-fi novel by Alfredt Bester, The Stars My Destination. It is a lose retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo reset in the 25th century. If you are used to sci-fi by Clarke or Asimov then do yourself a favor and try Bester. His characters are dirtier, grittier and more real, yet the overall arc is still ultimately positive. A personal favorite.

Next, I picked up a Lee Child novel that had been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years now, Deep Storm. I have read a lot of the collaborative works of Lee and Douglas Preston, but I had never tried one of Lee's solo works. I shouldn't have waited. It is just as much a page turner as the best of the collaborative works. I literally couldn't put this one down and finished it in 3 days. It tells the story of Peter Crane, a naval doctor, who flies out to an oil rig to investigate what appears to be the first appearance of an incredibly deadly disease. But the oil rig is just a decoy for a much bigger and more secretive operation. The disease is attacking residents of a deep-water research facility and it could be linked to the facility's excavations of an ancient site that might hold the key to the fate of the lost city of Atlantis. Or something even greater. Highly recommend if you want a quick and fun read.

Finally I just started reading a new book from the BookSneeze book blogger program, God in My Everything. Here is the publisher's summary: 
Ken Shigematsu was leading a dynamic, growing church in Vancouver, B.C. but felt like he was simply treading water in his spiritual life. Then a friend invited him on a pilgrimage to the holy places of Ireland, and the trip inspired him to explore the ancient practice of living by a rule, or rhythm, of life. In this book, Ken guides readers on a journey down an ancient, timeless pathway toward transformation, showing readers how to open their lives to enjoying God. He brings this ancient practice to life for modern readers through his own poignant and humorous stories— from his time as a "salaryman" in Tokyo with the Sony Corporation and his experiences as a husband, father, pastor, and friend. I like anything that marries the ancient ways with the modern, so I'll be interested to see where this goes. 30 pages in, I am intrigued.

Aside from the novels I also do quite a bit of online reading. Here is what I got through this week:

  1. Should I Stop Assigning Homework- as a teacher I found it interesting.
  2. The Two Faces of American Education- good book review.
  3. Your Casual Friends on Twitter Are Better Than Your Close Friends on Facebook- not sure I agree, but interesting nonetheless.
  4. Annotating Texts (With Pictures)- for book geeks only.
  5. GOP Wonderland: Inside N.C. Conservative Makeover- sign of the times or disaster in the making??
  6. I Quit Teach For America- one more reason big, bureaucratic solutions will never be the answer. 
  7. Bring Back Social Studies- I support anything that is pro-humanities.
  8. Scholar Says He Found New Photo of Lincoln- c'mon can you really not click on this?
  9. Secret American Subculture of Putin Worshipers- who knew?
  10. Common What? -a good primer on the current common core kerfuffle.
  11. Survival Lessons From World War Z- sounds corny, but it is actually pretty practical.
  12. The Five Friends Every Man Needs- validating.
  13. Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Better- an eye-opening and engrossing read. 
  14. Just about everything from Via Media, my one short-read obsession, and all the entries on my favorite Red Sox blog Extra Bases.

Book Review: Fearless

“As a rule, we don’t endorse books or movies or anything regarding the command where I work—and Adam Brown worked—but as the author writes in Fearless, ‘you have to know the rules, so you know when to bend or break them.’ This is one of those times.  Read this book. Period. It succeeds where all the others have failed.”  --Anonymous SEAL Team SIX Operator

FearlessIf you have any lingering interest in the modern military and how it wages war, it is hard to ignore an endorsement like that. And of course SEAL Team Six is now well-known as the group who finally got Osama Bin Laden, an event that happens after this book’s narrative arc. Yet Fearless is so much more than a military book; it is a story about redemption, sacrifice, heroism, and ultimately faith and its power to endure. The strongest compliment I can give this book is to say that Adam Brown’s life, what he overcame and what he willingly did, is something that will haunt me for some time.

Author Eric Blehm resists the urge to start Adam’s story where so many other Navy Seal books have begun- at BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL). He starts at the true beginning, with a boy from Hot Springs, Arkansas. A boy, who we learn right from the start, was fearless, much to his parents’ dismay. From family stories about needing to cut the legs off of his crib so that when he inevitably escaped, the fall wouldn’t be so hard, to leaping off of his parent’s roof as a kid, or out of a moving car and off of a bridge in high school, we are left with no doubt that Adam was one of those rare adrenaline junkies who constantly push themselves and those around them. But Adam was more than just a dare devil, he was also the boy who would stand up to bullies who outweighed him by fifty pounds, and who would ask the developmentally-delayed girl to dance at the prom when he thought she looked lonely. It is hard not to like him and wish you had known him then.

As entertaining and endearing as reading about Adam’s childhood exploits is, the real drama of Fearless begins after his high school graduation. It is at this point that his life takes a drastic turn for the worse. While most of his high school friends go off to college, Adam only lasts one semester, and in that short time really loses his way. Alcohol, marijuana and a sense of pointless drifting lead him to eventually take up residence in the crack houses on the edge of town. Blehm does such a great job making you like Adam throughout those first few chapters that this portion of the book is hard to read. You find yourself alternately feeling bad for him, then wanting to strangle him for what he is doing to himself and to his family.

However, it is from this place of ultimate depravity that Adam Brown’s life finds its purpose. Through friends who just won’t give up, parents who apply tough love, even though it nearly rips them apart to do so, to a local pastor who shows him a way out, Adam finds himself going from a jail cell to a place that offers his last chance at hope: Teen Challenge. This Christian faith-based program provides drug and alcohol rehabilitation services to people of all ages completely free of charge. (Full disclosure: this is my family’s primary charity, and I have seen what kind of changes this program can produce. Suffice to say this only added to the book’s appeal for me.)

While Adam’s struggles with addiction will continue for many years, this was his turning point. Soon after graduating from Teen Challenge he meets the woman who will become his wife and decides what he wants to do with his life. From this point on his life is directed by his faith and his desire to become a Navy SEAL. At this point we get the more traditional part of a SEAL story. We vicariously go through BUD/S, sniper school and eventually United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU. This last is a group whose activities are not commented on by the government, and is more generally known by its older name, SEAL Team Six- a name that should be familiar to anyone following the news over the past couple years.

As Adam travels up through the various levels of the Special Forces world, his rise is met with one obstacle after another. I won’t ruin the story by giving details here, but based on the interviews Blehm does with Adam’s former teammates, Adam gained more respect and admiration than just about anyone by overcoming what was thrown in his path. But this is not just a gung-ho, can-do soldier. The reader sees Adam grow into a humble, self-effacing, and deeply religious man. He becomes know as much for his effort to provide shoes for hundreds of poor Afghan children as he does for his classified black ops missions where he defied death countless times. His fellow soldiers admire him not only for his ability to rise to the absolute heights of the Special Forces, but for his ability to remain a devoted husband and father while so many others struggle to hold on to family life while doing the kind of work that they do. He was a warrior who would drop into the middle of hell in the black of night, and smile, because under his body armor he had on the superman underwear his kids gave him for Christmas- underwear that would be with him until the end.

The full title of this book is Fearless: The UndauntedCourage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown, and with this we know how the story will end. Knowing somehow makes it all the more poignant to read. Adam would be about my age, his kids just about the same as mine, and it was hard not to personalize some of the intense scenes that occur toward the end of this book. I think the best way to summarize Adam Brown is to share a quote from one of his favorite books, and one that was with him on his last op, Tender Warrior:

“A warrior is one who possesses high moral standards and holds to high principles. He is willing to live by them, stand for them, spend himself in them, and, if necessary, die for them.”

At his funeral one of his teammates shared this quote saying, “Adam was the rarest and truest of warriors in that he combined fierce and unwavering resolve on the battlefield with a deep and genuine compassion off of it.”

This, I think, is a fitting legacy. Fearless, a book I can highly recommend, is a fitting tribute.

Quick Review: Doing Virtuous Business by Theodore Roosevelt Malloch

Capital. It is a loaded word. It most commonly refers to monetary resources, but more and more we hear about the term social capital in regards to business. How much clout does a given professional or organization have in terms of its connections within and between social networks. Malloch brings in a third dimension to the concept of capital: Spiritual Capital.

Doing Virtuous Business explains how the most successful businesses tend to have a grounding in spiritual principles. This leads to both financial reward as well as societal betterment.  Malloch is a devout Christian, and his ideas around spiritual capital are strongly influence by Christian principles. The four cardinal virtues play an important role in his analysis. However, his points are valid beyond any religious dimension. 

The book is written in a fairly scholarly fashion and as such is not one that can be easily skimmed. His many references to such esteemed thinkers as Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas require a fair degree of thought and “unpacking.” However, the reward is well worth the effort, as Malloch shows how strongly held principles can lead to even stronger organizations.

While this book is quite spiritual in nature it is also a strong apologetic for capitalism in an age where the very foundations of capitalism seem to be shaking. He shows how it is not “big business” that is the enemy of social justice. We simply need business to be better informed by virtuous principles.

Doing Virtuous Business uses real world examples from such well known institutions as Wal-Mart, IBM, Chicken-Fill-A  and Habitat for Humanity, to show how companies that operate according to the virtues of Justice, Fortitude, Prudence (what Malloch terms “Practical Wisdom”) and Moderation have outperformed their competitors. Overall, the book is an excellent read for those in leadership roles within any size organization. The foundational value of creating spiritual capital is beneficial to all.

When More Isn't Really More

On a blog called Reader Writer Runner I have a confession to make. I love TV. I can park my butt on the couch for an entire day watching baseball, hockey, Doctor Who or old 80's horror movies. I know; I have a problem, and worse, I have largely passed on the TV addiction to my oldest child. Luckily my wife, along with child number 2, are not nearly as into TV as we are and can keep things in check for the family. Until temptation comes along... the form of a new bundling offer from a rival cable company.

The other day we got a knock on the door from a smiling young man spreading the good news of the...wait, let me start that over. Yesterday the cable man came knocking with an offer of faster internet, double the channels and a better price. Needless to say, it would be rude not to listen to the offer, so I spent the next 10 minutes or so going over what his company had to offer. Turns out he was right about the internet and the channels, but wrong about the price. Still, at the end of the day I could have much more content at roughly the same price I am currently paying. Go for it, right?

Maybe not. In fact definitely not. Here is why.

Living in America, more is generally a default positive, but sometimes more just isn't more. Up until yesterday I felt no lack in my TV viewing options, and my internet was plenty fast enough for my needs. While in this case getting more wouldn't cost me anything extra in terms of cash, there would still be a price. 

I'd be more likely to renew my Netflix subscription to take advantage of that new lighting connection speed.

I'd find more shows that I just had to watch regularly.

I'd fall in love with the MLB and NHL networks and watch way more games than I do now.

And I would spend even more time cut off from those around me staring at a screen. Sure I could tell myself I'd limit my viewing time, or I'd only watch at night after everyone else fell asleep (most of this stuff is on demand anyway after all). But I would be lying to myself, and I know it. 

I spent the first half of this year weening myself off of excessive internet "headline" news reading so that I could spend more time with serious fare: to fill that hole with mindless entertainment would be defeating the whole point. So I passed on all those extra channels and I will keep staying away from sites like Politico and Buzzfeed. 

Time is the only resource we all share equally, how we spend it is up to us.

Book Review: Black Order by James Rollins

I love James Rollins' books the way I love donuts; they taste good going down, even if there is no nutritional value whatsoever. Rollins' has taken the mantel of master of the by-the-seat-of-your-pants thriller, a post formerly held by the likes of Clive Cussler. 

In this episode of the ongoing adventures of the SIGMA force Gray Pierce races to expose a century-old plot that threatens to destroy the current world order and alter the destiny of humankind forever. Along the way the reader can vicariously- live through a sinister fire in a Copenhagen bookstore, reveal an insidious plot to steal a Bible that once belonged to Charles Darwin, dive headlong into a mystery that dates back to Nazi Germany, witness horrific experiments performed in a now-abandoned laboratory in Poland, go to a remote monastery in Nepal, as Buddhist monks turn to cannibalism and torture, and much, much more.

Cheesy dialogue and stereotyped characters abound but the real star of the book is the far reaching "sci-fiesque" concepts that Rollins always spins his yarns around. This time it is the idea of quantum evolution. While the novel goes into a farily detailed explanation of the idea, for our purposes here a simple definition will suffice. Quantum evolution deals with the comparatively rapid transition from one stable type of biological adaptation to another distinctly different type under the influence of some strong selection pressure. What that selective pressure is, is exactly what Black Order is really all about. And for my money this is what is worth the price of admission.

For the past few years, James Rollins' novels have been my go to summer beach books, and with Black Order he has maintained his place on my ever-eclectic bookshelf.

Quick Review: Celebration of Discipline

I just finished Richard Foster's best known book 1978's Celebration of Discipline, which examines the inward disciplines of prayerfastingmeditation, and study in the Christian life, the outward disciplines of simplicitysolitudesubmission, and service, and the corporate disciplines of confessionworship, guidance, and celebration.

This book was great in that it appealed to my more traditionalist bent, but did so without much in the way of dogma. Foster takes the best from many different christian spiritual disciplines and puts them together to present what I would call a rule of life. In many ways it is a challenging read, in that it expects a lot from you. However, I tend to appreciate a religious book that doesn't pull punches. I got so much out of it that I have moved on to another of his books, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home.

Book Review: Mayflower

Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick is somewhat inaccurately titled as very little of this book has to do with the Mayflower itself. The Pilgrim's time in Holland and aboard the Mayflower is merely prelude to the epic story of the 56-year period from the sighting of land off the coast of Cape Cod to the conclusion of King Phillip's War.  

While their famous survival of the first harsh New England winter leading to the first Thanksgiving is all here, that part of the story only takes up about twenty percent of the book. In reality, Philbrick offers the reader a complete history of Plymouth Colony from 1620-1676. The majority of the narrative focuses on King Phillip's War which happened right in my home town making this book really come to life for me.

Philbrick is a historian, as the fifty pages of notes and nearly 40 page long bibliography can attest to, but he is also natural storyteller who is able to make this story a compelling one. Most interesting to me were the human aspects of the tale. Neither the Pilgrims nor the Native Americans were saints, and both contributed to what was ultimately the tragic loss of almost the entire population of Natives throughout New England. These were real people with very human motivations, both noble and selfish. 

Another fascinating aspect of reading this book was learning that much of the sanitized history I remember learning in school was simply wrong. I remember learning that Squanto was the friendly Indian who helped the Pilgrims communicate with their new neighbors. In fact, while he certainly was one of the most prominent interpreters for the Pilgrims he was also openly scheming against both them and Massasoit (of the First Thanksgiving fame) to try and take over the New England tribes for himself. In the end he dies a traitor. Another false-history was what I had been told of King Phillip. I always imagined him as the noble warrior trying to win back his land from the encroaching English. In reality he was largely a coward who took every opportunity to run from a fight and after falling into the beginning of the war became largely irrelevant afterward. The entangled alliances that brought most of the Native population into conflict with the three English colonies reminds one of the start of WWI. As always, history repeats itself.

A solid read from start to finish I can highly recommend Mayflower to history buffs and general readers alike.

On a side note, the fact that my town was mentioned repeatedly in the book caused me to do a little digging of my own. Turns out my town was attacked and burned to the ground during the initial onslaught of King Phillip's War, with the invading Natives coming right over the hill on which I now live to attack the main garrison which stood just down the street. History alive indeed!

Paris: by Edward Rutherford

Paris is a unique book, both in subject matter and in structure. In brief, it tells the story of the city, from early medieval times up through the second World War and everything in between. While many works of historical fiction have been set in Paris, and others have told the story of particular events that have taken place in the great city, I can think of none that strive to tell the story of the city itself. 

Rutherford accomplishes this feat by following a group of families as they travel down through the ages, sometimes feuding, sometimes intermingling, sometimes existing in complete obscurity from one another. Following the narrative thread through the first half of the book is a bit challenging as he does not write his tale in chronological order. One chapter you are dealing with the inner workings of Versailles, the next it is the roaring 20's and Paris is being "invaded" by American artists. However, once you approach the novel's halfway point you find yourself invested in the little triumphs each family has had and rooting for one group or another.

Even though the reader's sympathies may lie with one family or another, Rutherford has clearly been careful not to create a clear protagonist/antagonist relationship between the various clans. Each family has its heroes and villains. It is almost because of this that you identify so closely with certain groups. One family in particular has a member who does some rather unspeakable things which caused me to wince as I rather liked the family as a whole. It seemed more of a betrayal since I had formed a relationship with this group of individuals.

Through following these families I even learned a bit about Parisian history that I had been hereto unawares. I of course knew about the storming of the Bastille, but I did not know a main objective was to get at the gun powder stored there. I was also unaware of the complicated relationship many of the upper classes had with occupying Germans. These and other tidbits of history made the book both enjoyable and educational. Overall, Paris was a great book that I can strongly recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, Paris the city, or history in general. 

On a side note: all good fiction should somehow change us, or at least inspire us in some way, and Paris was able to do that for me. It inspired me to look into my own history a bit. My family had been in the same town for 6 generations and my kids are the fourth generation to live in my house. Granted, my hometown is no Paris, but this novel got me wondering if there are some stories worth researching about my own past. You really can't ask for much more than that from a novel.

Summer Reading List (2013)

Grades have been recorded, graduation and banquet have been attended, and I slept in until 8:00 this morning. All of which means summer has officially started and I can begin to plan out how I will spend the next 8 weeks of break. While a good portion of my time will be devoted to logging miles out on the various trails around my house and writing (new teaching plans for the coming year, freelance clients, and creating a new paid subscription service, which I am pretty excited about), a fair amount of my summer will also be spent reading. Below is a list of books I intend to read, but I would love additional suggestions if anyone has some. (All summaries from Amazon)

Paris by Edward Rutherford
"Moving back and forth in time across centuries, the story unfolds through intimate and vivid tales of self-discovery, divided loyalties , passion, and long-kept secrets of characters both fictional and real, all set against the backdrop of the glorious city—from the building of Notre Dame to the dangerous machinations of Cardinal Richlieu; from the glittering court of Versailles to the violence of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune; from the hedonism of the Belle Époque, the heyday of the impressionists, to the tragedy of the First World War; from the 1920s when the writers of the Lost Generation could be found drinking at Les Deux Magots to the Nazi occupation, the heroic efforts of the French Resistance, and the 1968 student revolt. " 

I am actually in the middle of this epic novel already. A student who shares my taste in books gave it to me about a month ago after reading it herself and giving it a huge two thumbs up. However, between grading finals and finishing off the school year I just have not had time to finish it. It is a fantastic book if you like historical fiction and I can't wait to finish.

Michelangelo and The Pope's Ceiling by Ross King
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling recounts the four extraordinary years Michelangelo spent laboring over the vast ceiling while the power politics and personal rivalries that abounded in Rome swirled around him. Battling against ill health, financial difficulties, domestic problems, the pope's impatience, and a bitter rivalry with the brilliant young painter Raphael, Michelangelo created scenes so beautiful that they are considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. A panorama of illustrious figures converged around the creation of this great work-from the great Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus to the young Martin Luther-and Ross King skillfully weaves them through his compelling historical narrative, offering uncommon insight into the intersection of art and history."

I picked this one up for a buck at the most recent library sale. Looks interesting.

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick
"Nathaniel Philbrick became an internationally renowned author with his National Book Award winning In the Heart of the Sea, hailed as spellbinding by Time magazine. In Mayflower, Philbrick casts his spell once again, giving us a fresh and extraordinarily vivid account of our most sacred national myth: the voyage of the Mayflower and the settlement of Plymouth Colony. From the Mayflower's arduous Atlantic crossing to the eruption of King Philip's War between colonists and natives decades later, Philbrick reveals in this electrifying history of the Pilgrims a fifty-five-year epic, at once tragic and heroic, that still resonates with us today."

Since I (along with millions of others) can trace one branch of my family tree back to the Mayflower, and since there is a plaque commemorating King Philip's War right down the street from my house, I thought this might be a good book to read. 

The Inner Jefferson by Andrew Burstein
"Thomas Jefferson's personal life has always been a puzzle to biographers. Even his contemporaries found him difficult to know. In Jefferson's correspondence, however, Andrew Burstein has found a key to the inner man. This penetrating and thoughtful portait confronts widespread misunderstandings about Jefferson's romantic life and provides insight into the contradictions that still surround our third president."

I have always been a huge Thomas Jefferson admirer, so this book really appeals to me. One of the best books I read last summer was Thomas Jefferson and The Classical World, so here is hoping this new Jefferson book is just as interesting.

Black Order by James Rollins
"A sinister fire in a Copenhagen bookstore ignites a relentless hunt across four continents. Arson and murder reveal an insidious plot to steal a Bible that once belonged to Charles Darwin. And Commander Gray Pierce dives headlong into a mystery that dates back to Nazi Germany...and to horrific experiments performed in a now-abandoned laboratory in Poland.

A continent away, madness ravages a remote monastery in Nepal, as Buddhist monks turn to cannibalism and torture. Lisa Cummings, an American doctor investigating the atrocity, is suddenly a target of a brutal assassin. And Lisa's only ally is Painter Crowe, director of SIGMA Force, who already shows signs of the baffling malady.

Now it is up to Gray Pierce to save them both as SIGMA Force races to expose a century-old plot that threatens to destroy the current world order . . . and alter the destiny of humankind forever."

Pure beach read, but hey, it is a summer reading list after all.

The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
This is a book that really needs no summary as it is a classic. It has been sitting on my shelf for a while as one of those Things-You-Should-Read books. I think I will give it a go this summer. Then again, I may not. Placing it on the list is my way of trying to motivate myself for this one.

Well, that is my list so far, but I am open to suggestions. Read anything good lately?

Quick Review: A Brief History of the Normans

A Brief History of the Normans: The Conquests that Changed the Face of Europe is an interesting if a somewhat "textbookish" read. While most people associate the Normans with the Norman invasion of England in 1066 their history is far older. The name of course comes from the term ‘Norsemen’ and they were one of the most successful warrior tribes of the early medieval period. Rulers over vast swaths of Europe from the Baltic Sea to the borders of Eastern Europe, they both influenced and were influenced by numerous cultures. However, their presence was most firmly felt in the area that eventually took their name: Normandy. From there they set out on a number of military campaigns, while also introducing political and cultural innovations innovations that paved the way for late medieval society. 

 Written by an eminent french historian, Francios Neveux, this short book is both informative and readable for the armchair historian. My only complaint is that it can be a bit dry at times. A stronger emphasis on primary sources may have alleviated this aspect, but it also may have made it a less accessible read.

Book Review: Sent

"If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Matthew 19:21. 

This has to be one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament, especially for those of us living in the affluent West during the digital age. All too often Christians (and I would assume this phenomenon is not exclusive to Christianity) pick and choose which Bible passages or which dogma to follow, and Matthew 19:21 is never high on anyone's list. But this is exactly what the Alans of Chapel Hill, NC attempt to do in the new release by WalterBrook Multnomah Publishing. Sent is the story of one family who literally sold everything they had to move to a third world country to work as missionaries. However, while the motivation behind the book is honorable and the potential for a riveting narrative is there, Sent leaves too many questions unanswered or unexplored. 

The book opens with a lot of promise. Hilary Alan, her husband, Curt, and their two children are living the American dream. A beautiful home, a fast-track career, talented, successful children and an active church life all come together to create a "made for TV" family. But living a life that seems taken straight out of the Mitt Romney playbook just is not fulfilling enough for them. So they sell off all they have and move half way around the world to southeast Asia to help rebuild communities after the Tsunami of 2004. 

A tale like this one has so much potential to be a page turning and life affirming read. As I made my way through the first few chapters, which dealt with the Alans discerning of their future and the subsequent letting go of a lifetime’s worth of accumulated baggage, both physical and emotional, I found myself wondering what the future would hold for them. What would day-to-day life be like? What steps would they take to help these people who have been utterly devastated by nature at her cruelest? What exactly goes into “rebuilding a community?” I craved some nuts and bolts details about a journey I could never imagine myself being brave enough to take. 

As Sent progresses the clear narrative voice of Hilary emerges and we get to see the experience largely through her eyes. Her husband, Curt, and their two children do not factor into the book’s overall focus as much as I would have liked. It isn’t that Mrs Alan’s views are uninteresting, so much as they are limited. Her experience tightly revolves around her faith, so we read a lot about the establishing of their house church and her personal witnessing to those around her. We watch as she builds relationships with the people she encounters, but those relationships are often clouded by an employer/employee dynamic that falls short of authentic in this reader’s opinion. There is also a fair dose of look-how-great-my-kids-are narrative sprinkled throughout. As a parent I understand the temptation to shine a light brightly on those who mean the most to you, but this is hard to pull off as a writer without it coming across a little too saccharine.  

It is not clear from the text why we never hear about Curt’s position within the community. He is officially hired to manage the rebuilding process, but aside from a single anecdote about a false tsunami warning (which is actually one of the more powerful sections in the book) we hear little to nothing about how this process works. This is an unfortunate omission as I think that story would go a long way towards battling the stereotypes that often surround the idea of missionary workers. I realize that critics of the movement are not the intended audience for this book, and perhaps my own fault-finding here revolves more around the idea that I wish Alan wrote a different book- one that told how Christians can be the hands and feet on the ground, serving and helping, rather than just witnessing to those for whom they feel called to serve. 

 Overall, Sent is a good, but not great, book. If you are a Christian with evangelical leanings then this book will probably resonate with you. Seeing someone literally give it all up to go and do God’s work is a powerful thing. However, if you have reservations about the evangelical movement this will not necessarily allay those concerns, which is unfortunate. People like the Alans are doing amazing things all around the world - rebuilding homes, feeding families, teaching the poor and changing lives. A book that focused on the concrete aspects of this work could show those who have a stereotyped view of the evangelical movement that there is more going on here than simple proselytizing. Sent just isn’t that book.

Book Review: Children of Jihad

I'll come right out at the start of this review and say that this is an excellent, and in many ways, eye-opening read. Many of the misconceptions the average American holds about the Middle East could be remedied by a weekend spent reading this page turning adventure story of a young American's travels among the youth of the Middle East. Jared Cohen, who would later go on to work in the US State Department under both President Bush and President Obama,  skillfully makes use of his own youthful fearlessness as a journalist to produce a revealing look at the youth of Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. 
Most 23-year-old graduate students fortunate enough to earn a Rhodes scholarship spend their time and stipend in the hallowed halls of Europe's finest schools. Cohen took a somewhat different path spending his time trekking through the Middle East. Children of Jihad details his travels and the people he meets along the way. Each of the five sections open with a brief overview of the history of the region which often includes some of the author's own misconceptions about the youth he is preparing to meet. Cohen, as a Jewish American, is understandably nervous about the adventure he is having, yet again and again his preconceived notions are proven false as he meets a youth culture that is predominantly pro-American and friendly. Regaling readers with anecdotes that rage from meetings with Hezbollah to debating politics with internet savvy 20-somethings, Cohen presents a Middle East that wants to join the rest of the world but is being held back by governmental forces they are trying to resist.

What I enjoyed most about this book were the one-on-one relationships that Cohen developed with young people from each country. Almost without fail they were eager and willing to share their stories; eager to have the outside world get a taste of the real Iran, Iraq, Lebanon etc. First, he meets two women from the University of Tehran, and is introduced to the city’s nightlife where women shed their head-to-toe coverings and dress like normal western students partying well into the night. For the youth of Iran this is their way of rebelling against the ruling authority. In fact, late night underground "rave" style parties are something of a recurring theme throughout Cohen's travels. 

Later he has a sit down with a Hezbollah general who, while surprisingly polite and approachable, mainly offers the traditional talking points. It is later, when Cohen is able to speak candidly with the foot soldier, the youth, that he realizes that many of them clearly differentiate between governments and citizens stating that they have no problems with Jewish people or Americans individually. The author doesn't romanticize them. Tales of their violence are present as well, but it is the conversations at the local fast food restaurant about a need to connect to the wider world that really pull the narrative along.

In the end what Cohen ultimately finds is that our western stereotypes simply do not fit the world he witnessed.
As an American Jew traveling in the Middle East during this age of terror, I should have been unwelcome, I should have felt unsafe, and it should have been impossible for me t engage on any level with people that I have been told hated my country and religion. But I found that the easy, monolithic characterization of "us versus them" fails to take into account the humanity and the individuality of all the people who make up "us" and "them." And the "them" I met ... should make all of us hopeful for the future. (270)

The Dream of the Rood- Lines 10 - 20

  The Ruthwell Cross 

Continuing on my quest to translate one Old English poem by the start of the next school year I here present lines 10 through 20 of The Dream of the Rood.

Original Text

Ne wæs ðær hūru fracodes gealga,
ac hine þær behēoldon hālige gāstas,
men ofer moldan ond eall þēos mære gesceaft.
Syllic wæs se sigebēam, ond ic synnum fāh,
forwunded mid wommum.  Geseah ic wuldres trēow,
15 wædum geweorðod wynnum scīnan,
gegyred mid golde; gimmas hæfdon
bewrigen weorðlīce wealdendes trēow.
Hwæðre ic þurh þæt gold ongytan meahte
earmra ærgewin, þæt hit ærest ongan
20 swætan on þā swīðran healfe. Eall ic wæs mid sorgum gedrēfed,

Literal Translation
Nor was there certainly shameful gallows
but he there beheld holy ones
men over earth and all this glorious creation.
Amazing was victory beam, I sin stained
badly wounded with defects. See I glorious tree
covering honored joy shining
adorned with gold. jewels has
covered splendidly the rulers tree.
nevertheless I through that gold beheld could
destitute former struggle that first was back again
bleeding on the right side. All I was with sorrow troubled,

My Attempt at Poetry
It was certainly not a shameful cross 
there, but holy ones, men over earth and all
glorious creations beheld him there.
Amazing was that victorious cross, and I sin-stained,
badly wounded with defects, I saw a glorious tree
honored with coverings, shining joyously
adorned with gold. Jewels had
covered splendidly the Lord's tree.
Nevertheless, I could behold through that gold
the old battle of the destitute, that
it first began to bleed on the right side
I was all with trouble sorrowed,

Trying Some Translation

It has been 20 years since I sat in Professor O'Shea's Old English class, so I really can't say what brought on this sudden desire to revisit some traditional OE poetry. All I can say is that it is April vacation and I find myself with a copy of The Dream of the Rood by (probably) Caedmon and an OE dictionary. The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Christian poems in OE and an example of dream poetry. Rood is from the OE word rod 'pole', or more specifically 'crucifix' and it relates a vision of the writer speaking to the Cross on which Jesus was crucified.

I figured I would try my hand at a literal translation and then work up a more fluid and, well, poetic version. What follows are the first ten lines of the project. The Original OE Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst secgan wylle, hwæt me gemætte to midre nihte, syðþan reordberend reste wunedon! þuhte me þæt ic gesawe syllicre treow on lyft lædan, leohte bewunden, beama beorhtost. Eall þæt beacen wæs begoten mid golde. Gimmas stodon fægere æt foldan sceatum, swylce þær fife wæron uppe on þam eaxlegespanne. Beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle, fægere þurh forðgesceaft. My Literal Translation Listen, my vision best report I will what I dreamed in the midnight Went speech men to their sleeping place to dwell Seems to me then was visible an amazing tree On high bringing forth bright light converting giving light to the wood. All that beacon was surrounded with gold. Gem studded beautifully at its earth edge, while there five were up on that crossing place. Behold there the angel noble fully beautifully through the all through-out. My (extremely amateurish attempt at a) Poetic Translation Lo' the best vision I will tell, what I dreamed at midnight, After men went to their beds to sleep It seems I saw a wondrous tree On high bring forth glowing light turning the wood to light. The entire beacon was covered in gold. Beautifully gem-studded at its earthen base, while there were five upon the crossbeam. I beheld there the princely angel, beautiful throughout all eternity.

The Price of Pleasure

One of the best things about reading online is how easy it is to get lost down one rabbit hole or another. This happened to me the other day when I happened to start browsing through The New Atlantis. After reading about how we need to view athletes in the steroid era, and about how property rights in space could be set up, I stumbled across a four-year-old article by Alan Jacobs on Ian M. Banks, a science fiction author who created an entire series of novels largely based on his world-building skills. But I am not all the way into that rabbit hole yet, because the story I want to write about isn't one of Banks' novels, but a short story by Ursula Le Guin which Jacobs references briefly in his article about Banks. (See what I mean; one thing leads to another, which leads to another, ad infinitum.) 

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas was written by Ms. Le Guin in 1973 and she won a Hugo the following year for her efforts. There is almost no plot to speak of in this short, seven page long story; instead we are presented with a picture of complete and utter happiness, with a caveat. In the story, Omelas is a utopian city where everything is wonderful, except for the city's one horrifying secret: the good fortune and pleasure of Omelas is possible because of a single unfortunate ten-year-old child who remains in constant misery, locked away in a cellar. He never sees anyone, speaks to anyone and has likely been driven mad because of his torment and isolation. Every citizen of Omelas is shown this child upon reaching maturity. The entire civilization willingly lets one child suffer so that millions can have the perfect life.
Most people from Omelas are brought to tears upon seeing this atrocity, but they eventually accept it and try to live lives worthy of the child's suffering. Le Guin ends her tale stating that a few individual souls do leave Omelas after seeing the child, but to where, no one knows. The reader is left with the obvious question lingering in his mind: Is one person's suffering justified if it brings an untold number of people absolute happiness?
At first blush most of us would of course answer in the negative, but upon deeper reflection is this scenario actually that foreign to we who live in the civilized western world? While our situation may not be so black and white as Le Guin's imagined Omelas, we too are often complicit in prospering on the suffering of others. (Who makes the clothes on our backs, the rugs under our feet, and more and more often, who grows and harvests the food on our tables?) 
On the other hand, does the world in some existential sense need suffering? If we were to be transported to some Utopian fantasy land would we really enjoy it? A life without suffering is a lot like a book without conflict- nonexistent. It is an interesting conundrum.
Of course this is what good fiction does. It forces you to analyze your own situation in light of a metaphorical world and take stock of exactly what you believe and how you act on those beliefs. 

First Thoughts on Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad. At only 132 pages it is technically a novella and as I stated in a previous post, it was one of my favorite books in high school. It is written as a frame narrative with Conrad retelling the story of his main character Marlow, and his job as an ivory shipper on the Congo River. As Marlow floats down the Congo, he becomes almost obsessed with investigating Kurtz, an ivory-procurement agent. While brief the narrative of Heart of Darkness explores a variety of themes, most of which are, well, dark.  The darkness inherent in all men's hearts, the evils of colonialism, racism, and savagery versus civilization all have parts to play here. I am going to be revisiting this book throughout the year, but upon my first read through in over 20 years I wanted to present some initial thoughts.

The first thing I was struck by, which I am sure went right over my head in Mr. L's sophomore English class, is how deeply philosophical the text is. His constant juxtaposition of the wild and the civilized is really  more about man's inner heart and outer facade. In a lot of ways it is reminiscent of Golding's main theme in The Lord of the Flies: humanity stripped of its outer covering of culture is violent and frightening. At its core this is a religious theme about the inner fallen nature of man. As Marlow comes upon his first outpost along the Congo he sees this duality and remarks on it.
"And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck of earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion." 
Evil, or truth. The wilds of the Congo seem an apt stand in for man's true nature which lies in wait for each of us. Civilization holds back the Congo- for a time. But in the end of course, Kurtz, Conrad's symbol of composite man, is swallowed by that patiently waiting force.

This imagery comes back into play again and again, and as readers we are never quite sure of Conrad's stance. While the rape and destruction of a native people is clearly on his mind, at the same time one can see his own moral ambiguity coming through the narrative. While on route to meet Kurtz for the first time Marlow's steamboat is attacked. However, this is no fierce, animalistic repulsion of western civilization, but a pathetic and mournful affair.
"...from the depths of the woods went out such a tremulous and prolonged wail of mournful fear and utter despair as may be imagined to follow the flight of the last hope from earth."
If Conrad wanted to show a proud and noble savage, the likes of which were both popular and familiar to his readers through such works as The Leatherstocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper, he could have painted this particular scene in a much more flattering way. Instead there is a realism the presages a more postmodern take on the colonial impulse.

Since the point of this year's reading experiment is to try to read less broadly and more deeply, over the next few months I intend to try to delve a bit deeper into Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Until then, if you have read this classic and have an opinion about it I'd love to hear your thoughts. You can find my on Twitter or G+.
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Serious Reading of Current Events

One of my goals this year is to spend more time reading serious, thoughtful analysis of current affairs and less "news." The idea is that while day-to-day stories may change, the essential nature of the current world doesn't, and deeper thinking about the bigger issues of the day will actually be much more edifying than keeping up with the latest twists and turns of the U.S. Congress or the Euro-zone. With this in mind I recently read Voting Against Freedom by Joshua Kucera at the Wilson Quarterly.

Kucera's basic premise is that if people had paid attention to how former Soviet Block nations responded to the fall of the U.S.S.R. they would not have been so quick to be cheerleaders for the "Arab Spring". He makes an excellent case. He points out the fact that even though many of these countries could have gone the democratic route they did not. More importantly, they don't see this as a failing of their respective nations.
Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project have found that the percentages of Lithuanians, Russians, and Ukrainians who believe that a “strong leader” is preferable to a democratic government have risen significantly over the past 20 years. A survey last year of 10 ex-Soviet states by the Russian research institute Integration found that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is even more popular in other parts of the former Soviet Union than in Russia itself. “People want a strong hand, stability, growth, and prosperity,” explained the institute’s director, Sergei Moroz.
As a long-established democracy (really a republic, but for the purposes of this argument democracy works) we in the U.S., and to a lesser degree Europe, tend to paper over how messy a democracy is. Many countries who have ousted former dictators through protest and revolution do not want more chaos. They crave stability, and the best way to achieve stability is through a benevolent strongman. To illustrate the point he convincingly contrasts Kyrgyzstan, widely described as an island of democracy in the former Soviet Block, to Kazakhstan which is still ruled by the same man who was in control in 1991. Needles to say Kazakhstan is stable, with a growing middle class while Kyrgyzstan struggles with various factions all trying to vie for power resulting in a lot of legislative chaos. 

When these nations look for societal models to copy they do not look to democracy and the west. After all, the closest democracy geographically is India, and it is anything but a glowing example of modernity and prosperity. A much brighter light is given off by the likes of Singapore, where a strong handed Communistic government is ushering in modernity. It isn't perfect by any stretch, but it is stable (for the moment) and one can see the appeal to nations trying to rebuild. When they look at democracy they do not see a path to prosperity.
Sean Roberts, an anthropologist and Central Asia specialist at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, writes that “most citizens of Kazakhstan, and perhaps most post-Soviet peoples outside the Baltic states, engage the concept of democracy much as they embraced communism before—as a mostly empty ideological framework to facilitate deference to the authority and power of the state, not as a system of formal institutions that can effectively represent people’s interests and make governance more successful in serving the people.” Roberts further observes that “if many Americans saw in the end of the Cold War the victory of American ideals, per [Francis] Fukuyama’s ‘end of history,’ most former Soviet citizens viewed it more as an ‘end of ideology,’ or a sign that grand ideals are essentially incompatible with the realities of life.
To return to the main point of this post, why, as Egypt and the rest of the Middle East was rioting in the streets, did the U.S. and Europe cheer them on as if a wave of democratic reforms were all but assured? We had a perfect model to look to that was only 20 years in the past- hardly ancient history. In fact to countries in the old Soviet Block "the Arab Spring was seen from the beginning more as an outbreak of chaos and Islamist extremism." Surely this view was not hidden away. Did scholars, pundits and thinkers from these nations not share these opinions? Why did no one listen?

Rather than listen to the pundits on CNN or the opinion makers at The Washington Post, we should be looking to recent history and global scholarship when trying to analyse current events.