Sunday, January 31, 2010

Review: "Going Rogue: An American Life" by Sarah Palin

I guess the first thing to do is get my feelings about Sarah Palin out of the way, as I tried do when beginning the book. When Sarah first came on the scene, I was excited about her and what she would do for the McCain campaign. Keep in mind I'm not American so I wouldn't be voting, however that political science degree of mine keeps me interested in all sorts of elections around the world. As the campaign went on though it became clear that Sarah wasn't who I thought she was. I found myself disagreeing with some of her choices and I lost the enthusiasm I had for her at the beginning. That being said, I always kept an open mind about her, as I did other politicians. I get that we don't see what goes on behind the scenes, that politicians are at the mercy of the political machine and that who we see on the campaign trail may not be who they truly are. And so, I was hoping that Going Rogue would change my mind about Sarah once again.

In the beginning there were many times I felt I was reading a brochure put out by the Alaskan Tourism board. Other times, I felt that the campaign was still going on and she was working for my vote. I often wondered if this was a biography, or a way of holding on to votes for a future campaign. But I do get that this is a huge part of who Sarah is, to understand her, you need to understand Alaska and her early entry into politics. It was refreshing to see that she is not your typical politician, that she didn't rise through the ranks because of her bank account or who her father is, but through good old-fashioned hard work. Her early political life wasn't influenced by loyalty to the party machine, but by truly doing what those who elected her to office wanted her to do. How often can you say that about a politician?

As she got into the 2008 Presidential Race, I truly expected my opinion of her to be changed. I thought, "here we go Sarah. Here is your chance to take on all those criticisms, set the record straight, and present the truth you say you stand for." Unfortunately, I was disappointed on this front. I definitely felt more sympathy for her as I learned how much of the campaign strings were pulled by her "handlers" and how little of a say she truly had. Everything was controlled for her and no matter how many times she tried to speak up, tried to give them ideas, tried to do things her way, she was shot down. And in this I truly felt sorry for her. You could tell during the campaign that the Sarah we saw on tv wasn't the real Sarah. I often wondered, why did she allow that to happen. If she really stood for the truth, and didn't bow down to the party machine, why did she allow them to do that to her? That has been answered for me, and I get why she chose the path she did. But that is what brought me the hope that her book would be the opportunity to set things straight.

There were quite a few "criticisms" from the campaign that she skimmed over in the book, giving only one or two sentences. Of course you can say "that is not true" but tell me why that is not true. I found myself asking for more of an explanation quite a few times. Then there was the infamous Katie Couric interview. We all knew when it aired that editing can be a heck of a thing and that Sarah's team did not handle things well. However, I found Sarah's explanation of it all a little distasteful. I would have thought that time would have given her the opportunity to take the high road. And for the most part Sarah did, but bringing Katie's "self-esteem problems" into it and recounting personal things a former Couric staffer told her was a little low to me.

My only other criticism of the book is Sarah's attack on the left-wing media, bloggers, fanatics etc. Of course they did harm to Sarah's campaign, releasing personal and false details about her and of course, that is not fair. It pains me to say this but isn't that politics? Is that really only something the left-wing is responsible for? I remember her being critical of them for one specific instance and I instantly remembered another specific instance in which Fox News did the same thing. This isn't me getting political or sticking up for the left wing media, I'm just pointing out that both sides are guilty of playing the same game. And only once did Sarah acknowledge this. I did wonder if this book was just an opportunity to blame everyone else for what went wrong.

This brought me to the end of the book wondering, why did things go wrong for Sarah in the campaign? Why was everyone harder on her than the other candidates? Reading her book definitely made me see her in a different light, but it left me wondering. Was she just naive? Unprepared? Underqualified? What was it about her? Would this have happened to anyone else chosen to be McCain's running mate? Was this really her fault, or was this all beyond her control? The end of the book, and still as many questions as I went into it with.

Here's the thing about the book. If you like Sarah Palin, you're going to like the book. You are going to see the Sarah you love and you're going to cheer for her and stick up for her. If you don't like Sarah Palin, you're not going to like the book. You are going to see the Sarah you disliked and you'll consider it more political rhetoric. But if you're like me and you were on the fence about her, the chances are good that is not going to change. This one book can be read three different ways depending on your attitude going into it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Review: "God In The Alley" by Greg Paul

Greg Pauls book is an incredible look at the Sanctuary community of Toronto plagued by homelessness, drug abuse, prostitution, AIDS, and unemployment. Paul ministers to those in the community and has chronicled his path to understanding what it truly means to be and see Jesus in our world.

When Jesus came to be among the world, he didn't go to the rich, healthy or famous. We went to be among the poor, the sick, the down-trodden. In doing the same, Paul comes to see how the presence of Christ is truly here and if you want to reach out to those who are hurting it is best to "move away from thinking about 'them,' and learn to think about 'us.'"

Paul tells some amazing stories of people in the Sanctuary community, who were up against all odds their entire lives. People don't grow up in this community, they end up there. They are young and old, rural and urban, poor and rich. They come from every walk of life and due to circumstances beyond their control they end up in a life of poverty, hurt and trouble. And yet, through Paul's church and ministry, many of these people do end up coming to Christ. It's a long road out of their situation and for many they often fall back after finding Christ, but the most important thing they come away with is that God loves them despite their circumstances. They come to know that Jesus came for all, and especially for the troubled to help them find peace.

Throughout his work, Paul not only witnessed people changing their lives, but he was transformed as well. He learned that the Spirit of Jesus is still very much in this world, and that you can see the presence of God where you least expect it. And when you do, you realize that that it makes sense His spirit was there all along.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reading Now

"God In the Alley: Being and Seeing Jesus in a Broken World" by Greg Paul (2004)

From the back cover:

"Sam has survived physical, sexual and substance abuse, terrible violence, and life on the streets. Wendy lives for the next high on crack, oblivious to her boyfriend's love. Neil is dying of AIDS.

These are the people of inner-city Toronto. Look into their distorted obscure faces, their fractured lives, and catch a glimpse of the sublime. Greg Paul calls them tragic heroes - individuals who can offer a testament to God's love and mercy.

With emotional depth and spiritual intensity, Greg's compelling stories reveal that people with desperate lives have precious lessons to teach us about the character of God. God in the Alley offers a profound message of grace and calling that each one of us needs to hear."

Review: "Changing My Mind" by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is a British author who has experienced great success in writing novels at a young age. She is also the writer of numerous essays and Changing My Mind is a collection of published and unpublished essays written for specific occasions.

The first section, "Reading," is best read by the literary scholar. Those who do not have a deep understanding of British and European fiction may find themselves lost at times as to what she is saying.

The second section, "Being," makes the book more accessible to every reader. The essay "One Week In Liberia" is a fascinating account of the country and the troubles it faces. "Speaking In Tongues" looks at the challenges faced by people who are members of more than one societal group and find themselves "double-voiced," attempting to speak for each group.

The third section, "Seeing," is Smith's take on the entertainment industry. Her collection of movie reviews titled "At the Multiplex, 2006" is a great take on mainstream movies, especially her comment "Date Movie is less than nothing. It's a new concept in crap."

The final section, "Feeling," is an intimate look at Smith's own family. Reflections on Christmas, her father's war story and his love for comedy are revealing and heartwarming. Any reader will think of their own families while reading these essays.

Changing My Mind is an interesting collection of essays, taking on very different topics. Most require an in depth knowledge of literature, British culture and writing. For an understanding of what makes a good essay, the book is a good read. But for one looking for a good read, this is probably not the best choice.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Review: "Stones Into Schools" by Greg Mortenson

In 1993 Greg Mortenson attempted to climb Pakistan's K2, the world's second highest mountain range. His attempt failed and he ended up recovering in a small village named Korphe. As residents of the village nursed him back to health, he made a promise to one day return and build a school. From that promise came an international humanitarian organization which promotes education especially for girls throughout remote areas of Pakistan. This story is chronicled in Mortenson's 2006 novel Three Cups of Tea.

Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off, tracing his efforts to build more schools in a new country - Afghanistan. To date, Mortenson's organization, Central Asia Institute (CAI) has built more than 130 schools in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Stones Into Schools is a fascinating look at an area of the world that we in the West are cut off from (in fact, these areas are almost completely cut off from the rest of the world.) This is not the Afghanistan we see on the television, where women are subjugated to second class status and where a deep hatred for the West prevails. Instead we see an Afghanistan where fathers are desperate for their daughters to go to school, where there is a genuine appreciation for Mortenson and the others who are able to help them, and where everyone understands that the key to their country's future lies in the education of girls.

Mortenson and his co-workers go to extraordinary lengths to make the wishes of Afghanistan a reality. They face perilous winters, Taliban opposition, poor functioning government agencies, illness, and violence. And yet in every situation, no matter how remote the region is they are able to make good on their promise and give thousands of young girls an opportunity they may not see otherwise.

Mortenson provides stunning insight into how education makes a difference in this world, how it is the strongest weapon we have against extremism and how it is a basic and fundamental right everyone should have access to. He daringly goes to areas of the world most have never heard of and would never dare to go to change the lives of people he has never met. It is no wonder that Mortenson's novels are required reading for Military counterinsurgency classes.

Stones Into Schools is an incredible reminder of how one person can make a difference in this world, how we are all more alike than we think and how the world can be transformed through education.

"If you teach a boy, you educate an individual; but if you teach a girl, you educate a community." - African Proverb

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Reading Now

"Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays" by Zadie Smith (2009)

From the inside cover,

"Changing My Mind finds Zadie Smith casting an acute eye over material both personal and cultural.

How did George Eliot's love life affect her prose? Why did Kafka write at three in the morning? In what ways is Barack Obama like Eliza Doolittle? Can you be overdressed for the Oscars? What is Italian feminism? If Roland Barthes killed the Author, can Nabokov revive him? What does 'soulful' mean? Is Date Movie the worst film ever made?

Changing My Mind is journalism at its most expansive, intelligent and funny - a gift to readers and writers both. Within its covers an essay is more than a column of opinions; it's a space in which to think freely."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: "Pagan Christianity?" by Frank Viola and George Barna.

Pagan Christianity? is a fascinating look at current church practices and where exactly their roots lie. It asks and answers the question "are we really doing things by the Book?" The conclusion of the book is that the roots of many of our current day church practices lie in pagan culture not in the New Testament or first century churches.

Much controversy has surrounded the book, in that many people look upon it as a criticism of the church and fear that this book will contribute to a mass exodus from the church. This is not the aim of the authors, rather the book is an opportunity for readers to understand the history of church practices and to ensure that we are hearing the Word of God.

Topics such as this in Christianity can often turn into a "fire and brimstone" sort of preaching. We are made to feel poorly if we find that we have been led down the wrong path. But that is not the case when it comes to Pagan Christianity? The book challenges you to think about the ways in which you practice your faith. It asks you to decide if the way in which you worship is hindering your encounters with God. It doesn't judge you for what you do or what you will do.

The church has gone through three major historical periods of change - the era of Constantine, the Protestant Reformation and the Revivalist period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During these times the surrounding culture had a remarkable influence on church practice. The book looks at the effect these periods had on:

*the church building
*the order of worship
*the sermon
*the pastor
*dressing for church
*music ministry
*tithing and clergy salaries
*baptism and the Lord's Supper
*education of the clergy

It is truly amazing to discover how much things have changed from the way the first century churches practiced their faith. Does this mean that we are now participating in a pagan faith? Certainly not. But as readers we are challenged to ask ourselves if such things are appropriate and to consider if we should continue in this way.

Pagan Christianity? has many outstanding features. It is thoroughly researched with a wealth of footnotes for further study. Each chapter ends with real questions posed to the authors following the first release of the book. In doing this, they take on the critics of the book and further defend their assertions. And never does it judge the reader.

Begin this book with an open mind and you will truly be challenged in your thinking. As the authors say on page 250, "If you are a disciple of the Revolutionary from Nazareth...the radical Messiah who lays His axe to the must eventually ask a specific question. It is the same question that was asked of our Lord's disciples while He walked this earth. That question is: 'Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?' (Matthew 15:2)"

I highly recommend that all Christians read this book. Not to start a revolution or to tell them that they are wrong in what they are doing, but so that each Christian can make an educated decision when it comes to the practice of their faith and so that they can be confident that they stand in truth. Whatever your decision at the end of this book, you will definitely be enlightened on the history of the church.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What I'm Reading Now

"Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs, In Afghanistan and Pakistan" by Greg Mortenson (2009)

From the inside cover,

"Over the past sixteen years, Greg Mortenson, through his nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI), has worked to promote peace through education by establishing more than 130 schools, most of them for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The story of how this remarkable humanitarian campaign began was told in his bestselling 2006 book, Three Cups of Tea.

Picking up where Three Cups of Tea left off in late 2003, Stones Into Schools traces the CAI's efforts to work in a whole new country, the secluded northeast corner of Afghanistan.

Stones Into Schools brings to life both the heroic efforts of the CAI's fixers on the ground - renegade men of unrecognized and untapped talent who became galvanized by the importance of girls' education - and the triumphs of the young women who are now graduating from the schools. Their stories are ones you will not soon forget."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: "Inside the Kingdom" by Robert Lacey

Inside the Kingdom is a deep and insightful history of Saudi Arabia. Robert Lacey provides not only his outsider on the inside perspective of the kingdom but also presents a wealth of first hand accounts from everyday citizens right up to royalty.

Beginning with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 and ending with what the future holds for Saudi Arabia, Lacey presents a kingdom defined by its paradox. It is a modern state with extraordinary wealth and run by a royal dynasty, yet it is home to a powerful religious establishment that attempts to turn back the clock to the time of the Prophet Mohammad.

Lacey traces the development of the religious order, the interdependency of Saudi Arabia and the United States, the rise of Osama Bin Laden, and how it has all led to the current political climate. No topic is left untouched - women's rights, communism, the Gulf War, holy warriors, and Guantanamo Bay all factor into the story and Lacey does an excellent job of weaving these and other topics into the complicated society that is Saudi Arabia.

This is a substantial book that provides you with a complete understanding of how Saudi society functions, why it's citizens feel the way they do about their government and the world, and aids you in forming your views on one of the most important countries in the Muslim world.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What I'm Reading Now

"Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices" by Frank Viola and George Barna (2008)

From the inside cover,

"Many Christians take for granted that their church's practices are rooted in Scripture. Yet those practices look very different from those of the first-century church. The New Testament is not silent on how the early church freely expressed the reality of Christ's indwelling in ways that rocked the first-century world.

Times have changed. Pagan Christianity? leads us on a fascinating tour through church history, revealing this startling and unsettling truth: Many cherished church traditions embraced today originated not out of the New Testament but out of pagan practices. One of the most troubling outcomes has been the effect on average believers: turning them from living expressions of Christ's glory and power to passive observers. If you want to see the trend reversed, turn to Pagan Christianity?....a book that examines and challenges every aspect of our present-day church experience."

Monday, January 4, 2010

Favourite Reads of 2009

I read quite a few books in 2009 but five really stood out.

1. "The Book of Negroes" by Lawrence Hill (2007)
A young girl is abducted from her home in West Africa and forced into slavery in the US. She later gains freedom in Canada and gets her name into the Book of Negroes, earning her way home to Africa as an adult. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant historical fiction. Examines the issue of slavery in Africa, the United States and Canada and presents a side of the story lost in the history textbooks. (Also titled "Someone Knows My Name" in the US.)
2. "Push" by Sapphire (1997)
The book that has been made into the movie "Precious." A heartbreaking and redeeming story of a young women who is up against all odds. Her life is tragic and you cannot imagine anyone having to endure what she does, but this story also shows the power we have to not only rise above our circumstances but to help others rise above their circumstances. A must-read and the movie is a must-see as well.

3. "Dear Fatty" by Dawn French (2009)
Dawn French is half of the hilarious French and Saunders and star of Vicar of Dibley among many other things. Her story is hilarious, heartwarming, fascinating and endearing. One of the most brilliantly written memoirs I have read in that the entire book is written in the form of individual letters to friends and family. A concept that is engaging, open and from the heart. Absolutely Fabulous!

4. "In The Land of Invisible Women" by Qanta Ahmed (2008)
On a whim Ahmed, a young British Muslim doctor accepts a position at a hospital in Saudi Arabia. Her book is a fascinating look at Saudi Arabia from an outsider on the inside perspective. It is a land of incredible contrast and her book reveals what life is really like for women, both Saudi and foreign, living in the Kingdom. Very revealing.

5. "The Brightest Star in the Sky" by Marian Keyes (2009)
My last read of 2009 was a great one. In the beginning it is about the separate lives of people living in the flats of a house in Dublin. Soon their lives become intertwined and a story of friendship, love, tragedy and heartbreak occurs and their lives change in incredible ways. One of those books that make you say "ahhhhhhhh" partway through when you truly understand the forces at play. A sweet story that brings out every emotion inside of you and leaves you smiling as it comes to an end.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What I'm Reading Now

"Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia" by Robert Lacey (2009)

From the inside cover,

"Saudi Arabia is a country defined by paradox: It sits atop some of the richest oil deposits in the world and yet its roiling disaffection produced fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. It is a modern state, where wealthy princes and tycoons raise futuristic cities in the desert, and yet its powerful religious establishment would roll back its values fourteen hundred years to the time of the Prophet Mohammed. To fully understand our interdependent twenty-first-century world, we must understand Saudi Arabia."

A Little About Me

For as long as I can remember, I have been reading. My mom says that I taught myself to read at the age of 3. I believe that. My mother would read me a story every night before bed and from a very early age I was in love with books.
As a kid I loved The Berenstain Bears. I can still remember the thrill of a new book being released. As I grew older I loved the Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley Twins and anything by R.L. Stine or Christopher Pike.
In university I lost my love for reading. It must have been all those massive history textbooks I had to read. Whenever I had any downtime, the last thing I wanted to be doing was reading. But as soon as I began reading for pleasure again, my love came back right away.
Now my reading interests are extremely varied. I love British chick lit, biographies, cookbooks and books about nutrition, Africa and getting organized. But I'll read anything that sounds interesting. And don't get me started on my magazine obsession! I love the Toronto Public Library System. I get all of my books from there, because if I were to buy half of the books I want to read, my husband would make me get a job. And I love being a stay at home mum.
With a 3 year old and a 6 month old it's hard to find the time to read as much as I would like. I try my best to read a book a week, often curling up at the end of a very busy day with a good book and a cup of tea!