Collateral Bloggage What passes for thought around here…


Book Review: Do You Believe in Magic?, by Paul Offit

I quite enjoyed Paul Offit’s Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, though it was a bit chilling to see that the dangerous and mostly unfounded paranoia about vaccines is based on arguments that have been roundly debunked basically since they were first put forth, and often more than a hundred years ago. Offit also isn’t a big fan of alternative medicine, and I’ll just give you a capsule summation of his thesis:

In the end, if a medicine works (like folic acid to prevent birth defects), it’s valuable, and if it doesn’t work (like saw palmetto to shrink prostates), it’s not.

In other words, we have ways of proving that supposed cures are actually cures: science.

The subtitle of this book is The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, but I think it’s somewhat misleading, as nearly every argument in the book is in the “alternative medicine is nonsense” category.  Now, I don’t really have a problem with that, and I agree that if a so-called “alternative” medicine works, it’s just called “medicine,” but I really would have liked a little more info on alternative cures that actually work.  But then, maybe that’s the point.  (He does give a good survey of what over-the-counter vitamins are useful and even recommended, so that’s something.)

An oft-repeated argument for alternative medicine is “what’s the harm?”, and so it’s fitting that Offit opens the book with a chapter on the tragic death of a young boy who was subjected to a dizzying and horrifying range of alternative cures for what was likely a very curable cancer.  Curable with actual medicine, that is.  Not coffee enemas, raw liver juice, and laetrile.

It’s true, of course, that many alternative remedies are harmless in an of themselves.  Homeopathic remedies, in particular, are harmless, because they’re typically just water with a fancy label.  They won’t hurt you, of course, because there’s nothing in them.  But if you use them to the exclusion of medicine which actually can help you, the math no longer works.

Offit walks through the reasons for alternative medicine being popular, including the general distrust of modern medicine, the desire of consumers to consume “natural” products, and the cornucopia of pretty celebrities proffering their own brands of remedies.

I’ve read before about scientific reductionism, and it definitely plays a part in the discussion of alternative cures.  Take antioxidants, for instance.  We’ve all heard over and over about how antioxidants seek out and destroy free radicals.  And free radicals are bad.  So consuming large amounts of antioxidants must be good, right?  Well, no.  True, some free radicals are bad, but others contribute to certain necessary biochemical reactions in the body.  So killing them would be a mistake.  In fact:

Studies have now shown that people who take large quantities of vitamins and dietary supplements with antioxidant activity are more likely to have cancer and heart disease and die sooner.

The biggest argument Offit makes is that alternative cures should be subjected to the same scrutiny as traditional cures: scientific rigor.  A Big Pharma company may spend years and millions of dollars bringing something to market, but if it’s unsafe or ineffective, they end up eating that investment.  Only if a drug is shown to be safe and effective can it be released to the public.  The same is not true of alternative remedies, particularly supplements.  Where drugs have to be carefully labeled, with all active and inactive ingredients named and all known side-effects listed, supplements need no such labeling. And Offit also makes the point that many people are suspicious of Big Pharma because of the profit motive, but the Big Supplement industry brings in huge profits.  And those companies don’t even have to prove that a given supplement contains what it says it contains or does what it says it does.  It’s a bit scary, actually.

We hate Big Pharma, but we leap into the arms of Big Placebo

This topic is controversial, there’s no question, so I’m not expecting anyone to quit taking alternative remedies on my say-so.  I’m no expert.  But I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic.  I’ll end with a lengthy quote:

If we’re going to make decisions about our health, we need to make sure we’re not influenced by the wrong things---specifically, that we don’t give alternative medicine a free pass because we’re fed up with conventional medicine; or buy products because we’re seduced by marketing terms such as natural, organic, and antioxidant; or give undeserved credence to celebrities; or make hasty, uneducated decisions because we’re desperate to do something, anything, to save ourselves and our children; or fall prey to healers whose charisma obscures the fact that their therapies are bogus.  Rather, we need to focus on the quality of scientific studies.  And where scientific studies do not exist, we should insist that they be performed.  If not, we’ll continue to be deceived by therapies whose claims are fanciful.

Next up, it’ll either be Against Calvinism (that won’t be controversial) or The House of Hades.  I've also just picked up a review copy of The End is Nigh, an anthology of pre-apocalyptic stories that looks awesome.  If you're interested, check out the website.


Book Review: Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank

Even though I maintain that NOBODY TELLS ME WHAT TO READ, I often receive book recommendations, and I’m often pleasantly surprised when I eventually read them.  (A notable recent example is Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.)

Alas, Babylon is a book my wife read in high school and was surprised to learn I hadn’t read.  But that was in 2007, and the situation was rectified.  Loved it.  So, when it showed up for $2 on the NOOK Daily Find, I snapped it up (sale’s off, BTW).

The good news: It’s still a terrific book.

The bad news: It’s a terrible OCR rendering of it, with weird typos that seriously detract from its readability in places.  So when you click the image this time, it’s not going to take you to the eBook version but rather a paperback version.

Still and all, the book is highly worth reading, as it’s truly one of the classic post-apocalyptic novels.  Written in 1959, the book draws from author Pat Frank’s experiences in government work and time as a war correspondent.  This book and On the Beach, published in the same year, represent kind of the polar opposite views about the potential for the world recovering from nuclear war.  Where On the Beach presents a decidedly pessimistic view, Alas, Babylon paints a more hopeful outcome, with humanity (as represented by the small town of Fort Repose, Florida) surviving and rebuilding.

The story is set in the aforementioned Fort Repose, a small town in central Florida, and I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything to tell you that after the characters are introduced and the setting established, war hits.  The U.S. is nuked, hard, and Fort Repose is left to recover.  Despite not being directly impacted, so to speak, the citizens of Fort Repose are forced to cope with the collateral damage of the war, including the fear of fallout, the loss of basic services and supplies, and the all-too-realistic menace of bandits who prey on the weak.

It’s a simple story, following a terrific main character in Randall Bragg as he transitions from a kind of a shiftless black sheep into a leader and provider.  There’s quite a bit of social commentary in the book, as Randy quickly realizes that color barriers have to go, quite a progressive thought in the late 1950s.  Interestingly, the question of gender roles isn’t given the same consideration, which I guess I’m not surprised by, but it still stands out as a bit odd.

In addition to the interpersonal drama and social commentary, the book has its share of exciting scenes, particularly when bandits begin to close in on Fort Repose.  I’m actually shocked the book has never been adapted to the screen, though one could argue that Jericho was a loose adaptation at least of the core premise.  Evidently there was an episode of Playhouse 90 that adapted the book, and I’d love to see it if anyone has a copy.

I’m not sure what it is about the post-apocalyptic genre that so appeals to me.  I guess it makes me wonder how I’d do in a similar situation.  I certainly admired Randy Bragg and hope I’d at least be someone he’d find useful, though my skills mostly consist in lifting things.  Ask me to wield a tool and you get what you pay for.  But still, lifting is good.  And I can cook, which could come in handy.  What about you?  Are you attracted to the genre?  How would you do if the power went out?  The zombies rose up?  The robots took over?

Next up, it’s Paul Offit’s tremendously informative Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.  I’m also back to reading Against Calvinism, still reading Letters From a Skeptic, and just started The House of Hades.  So I’m keeping my eyes busy.


Book Review: All You Want to Know About Hell, by Steve Gregg

(Warning: Theology book review.  And also a bit of gushing.)

Steve Gregg’s Revelation: Four Views: A Parallel commentary is such a great book that it easily overcomes the two colons in its title.  His latest work, All You Want to Know About Hell: Three Christian Views on God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin is likewise awesome enough to overcome the terrible title and awkwardly long subtitle that includes the words “Final Solution.”

His Revelation book took a controversial topic (interpretation of Revelation) and set it out in such a logical and balanced way as to be an indispensible tool for studying that most difficult of books.  In the same way, this book lays out an evenhanded look at the three views of Hell taught by evangelicals today.

As I mentioned above, the title is terrible, and Steve himself has said as much on the Rethinking Hell podcast.  It’s not the title he wanted, and it implies that his book might be a sister book to Randy Alcorn’s excellent but imperfect Heaven.  No, Steve isn’t discussing the nature of Hell so much as its purpose.  So while there isn’t much time given to “are there real flames?”, the entirety of the book deals with the bigger questions like “Is Hell forever?” and “What does Hell say about the nature of God?”

For those not in the know, who might have been raised thinking there was the Christian view and then a variety of heretical views, the three views taught by respectable evangelical scholars are:

  1. Eternal Conscious Torment, aka Traditionalism
  2. Conditional Immortality, or Annihilationism/Conditionalism
  3. Universal Reconciliation, or Restorationism/Christian Universalism

Most assume that #1 is the only biblical view.  Quite simply, that’s just incorrect.  Steve Gregg rightly shows that far from being unbiblical, the other two views can actually marshal more scriptures in their favor than can the Traditional view.  Of course, theological arguments aren’t won or lost on the strength of the numbers of verses supporting them but on the proper interpretation of all the scriptures.

The book is laid out in very logical format, as you’d expect if you read Revelation: Four Views.  It starts off by introducing the topic and explaining why it’s important.  The long and the short of it is that the nature of Hell says something about the nature of God. 

The one fact, above all others, which I have desired to get across is that our view of hell is inseparably joined to our view of God.  I believe that many Christians have simply assumed that they already know what the Bible teaches about hell, and have formed their notions of the character of God to accommodate their theory.  My suggestion is that this is doing things backward.

Steve then continues into some basic background on the issue, including a discussion of Lazarus and the Rich Man (about which I blogged some time ago), how best to understand the important words Gehenna and Aionios, and a chapter about the views of the early church (spoiler alert on that: all three views were represented).

Having laid the groundwork for a more specific discussion of each view, Steve then takes each view in turn, first presenting a positive case for each, then cross-examining each from the perspective of the other views.  In each section, he heavily quotes supporters of the various views.

One thing I particularly admired about this book, especially given the dreadful title, was the clever headings for each view:

  • First, the Bad News (Traditionalism)
  • The Bad News is Not As Bad As You Thought (Conditionalism)
  • The Good News is Better Than You Thought (Universalism)

BTW, I’m crediting Steve with the clever heading titles and giving him a pass on the book title, since I know he doesn’t like it, either.

I can say that I find the book evenhanded, but it’s mostly because I’m not committed to any of the views.  Oh, I’m pretty solidly against the Traditional View, and this book certainly didn’t push me one way or another on that, but I really haven’t decided between the other two.  I’ve read both cases, and they each have their strong points.  I certainly hope the Restorationist View is correct, as I’d imagine most would hope.  But I remain unconvinced by it, even though I’m certainly open to it. 

I’m sure someone coming from a solidly Traditionalist perspective could find it outrageous that the other two views are even treated as orthodox or evangelical, and that makes me a little sad.  I won’t pretend to respect that kind of lack of genuine introspection.

With regard to Traditionalism, I appreciated this quote:

A number of the points made in favor of the traditional viewpoint depend heavily upon traditionalist presuppositions being read into the texts.  With very few exceptions, the passages presented as evidence are assumed to support the endless duration of conscious punishment, without the passages actually making any direct reference to such a concept.

I think this is largely accurate.  I think a person undertaking to read the Bible through for the first time after having been raised in the church already has a solid idea of what Hell is like.  So it’s perfectly understandable that they’d read that into the text and never question their starting point.  The same could be truly said for a number of other positions commonly held today.  (For that matter, someone raised Universalist or Annihilationist could have the same issue.)

It’s tough to reevaluate our basic assumptions and let the text speak for itself.  It’s actually quite painful when you find that your long-held views aren’t as obvious as you once thought.  And changing your views doesn’t always go over with your family and friends:

….”reformed and always reforming”…is an ideal more easily affirmed than followed, since intellectual inertia is often strong, and the tradition is often embraced by those whose approval has some impact upon our social acceptance, our finances, our reputations, and our careers.  To be “always reforming” is an excellent way to guarantee that we shall offend the maximum number of our conservative friends.

And yet it’s a worthy endeavor, and it’s the reason I read through the Bible every year.  My changing views aren’t a result of ignoring the scriptures; they’re a result of reading them.  Still, though, I appreciated this tidbit Greg Boyd linked to.  It’s in an article by Roger E. Olson titled “How to Solve a Theological Dilemma when Scripture Doesn’t Clearly Solve It” (emphasis added):

8. Back to fundamentalism versus non-fundamentalism: A fundamentalist will reject this entire method of solving theological and doctrinal dilemmas because it admits ambiguity in the Bible about even some important theological and doctrinal issues which is impossible from a fundamentalist point of view.  Many non-fundamentalists will also reject this method for a very different reason: they are so comfortable with ambiguity (and perhaps afraid of fundamentalism) that they don’t feel any need to settle doctrinal and theological issues about which the Bible is not crystal clear.  Both approaches have problems, however.  The fundamentalist approach leads to numerous schisms and divisions to say nothing of imposing personal opinions on the Bible and making all doctrinal and theological issues equally important.  The opposite approach leads to warm, fuzzy spirituality devoid of cognitive content and leaves inquiring minds without satisfying answers.

All that being said, I highly recommend this book.  It’s a terrific resource and would make a great group study that would likely spur healthy (and loud) dialogue).  But I also recommend, as Steve would (and does, frequently, on his radio program), a thorough reading of the whole Bible.  It takes time, but it’s worth the effort.

Next up, it’s Alas, Babylon, which is a re-read for me of a very classic post-apocalyptic book.  I’m also reading Do You Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, and Letters from a Skeptic (no longer free, but under $4 from B&N and Amazon as an eBook).

If you got this far, you must be a good friend of mine.  Probably with initials CK.  ;)


Book Review: Divergent, by Veronica Roth

I tend to be a late-adopter when it comes to young adult fiction, and it certainly has some advantages, the chief of which is the ability to rip through an entire series without having to wait for new releases.  It worked with the Gregor the Overlander series, the first Percy Jackson series, and got a 66% successful rating on the Hunger Games set.  (I had to wait for Mockingjay.)

And so we come to the Divergent series, about which I’ve heard many raves.  And it’s good stuff.  I went ahead and picked up the series a few weeks ago when it cost about $15 on the NOOK store, so I’ll likely read them in fairly quick succession.

The first entry in the series, Divergent, builds an interesting dystopian world around the concept of factions.  That is, the citizens of Chicago are divided into five factions representing the core values of their society.  The factions (and their values) are:

  • Candor (truth-telling)
  • Erudite (knowledge)
  • Amity (peace)
  • Abnegation (selflessness)
  • Dauntless (courage)

The story follows Beatrice, raised in Abnegation, as she prepares to take the tests that will help her decide which faction to officially join.  Her choice is complicated by the fact that her test comes back inconclusive or divergent, and she’s warned by her test administrator that divergence is dangerous.  Why it’s dangerous is slowly revealed through the book, culminating in a pretty terrific conclusion.

As a sci-fi premise, I’m of two minds about the whole thing.  On the one hand, I don’t believe for a second that only a fraction of test subjects would come back divergent.  I think most people would.  On the other hand, it makes for an interesting philosophical commentary on how we try to fit people into easy molds and how society is probably the worse for it.  So I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a cool story.

I won’t reveal further plotlines, so unless you’ve seen the trailer for the upcoming film, you’ll have no idea which way Beatrice will go (sarcasm).  But I seriously won’t spoil anything else.

The book is exciting, and Beatrice is a fairly easy character to root for, and while there are some cardboard-cutout villians, the main good guys are drawn well enough to make up for it.  And of course, the book sets up extremely well for the rest of the series.  I guess I should get to reading the other books.  And I totally will, because I’ve got no 2014 To Be Read list.  Woo!

Aaaaand I’m going to leave it at that for today.

I picked up Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic, which is still FREE from both the NOOK and Kindle stores right now, and I’ve been shift-reading it with Alas, Babylon, which makes two re-read books in a row, and both of them excellent.  I’ve also finished Steve Gregg’s excellent (albeit terribly titled) All You Want to Know About Hell, so I’ll write something up about that one for next week if at all possible.


Book Review: Nascence, by Tobias Buckell

I need inspirations to write, because a.) I enjoy writing and b.) I’m really lazy when it comes to actually writing things other than blog posts.  I have ideas, and I need to start writing them before they slip away.

Nascence: 17 Stories That Failed and What They Taught Me, by Tobias Buckell, was a nice kick in the pants for me, though it took me longer to read than it probably should have. It’s the last of my 13 for ‘13 list, finished with a whopping several hours left in 2013.  One reason it was the last book on my list was that I had a hard time with it at first.

As the subtitle would suggest, Buckell sets out 17 stories that aren’t what you’d call perfect, weaving them together with a simple narrative of what his philosophy of writing was at the time, what he was trying to do, and why it didn’t always quite work.

At first, I wrinkled my nose a bit, thinking Why would I want to read crappy stories?  And it’s true that the first few stories aren’t high art, but the way Buckell would point out why they didn’t work made it a learning experience, even if the experience wasn’t always altogether pleasant.

But as the book progressed, the stories got better, and I started to see the reasons for it.  Different character viewpoints, a clearer idea of *what’s the point?*, and better world-building.

I particularly appreciated the survey of three different incarnations of a single story, with the third go at it being really quite a tremendous story and seemingly just barely related to the previous attempts.  It was an interesting view into the process, often painful, of starting with a concept and sometimes having to gut it and rebuild in order to get it working.

The other obvious secret of how I managed to finish it up quickly was that I had nothing else to read.  During the year, I’d periodically pick up the book (on my NOOK) and figure I’d read one story and shelve it again for a while.  But if I didn’t have time to sit down and take in the story in a sitting, it was hard to get the point.  Once my reading list cleared at the end of the year, I was able to give the stories the kind of attention I should’ve given them all along.  I’m glad I did.

I actually haven’t read any of Buckell’s other work, but based on the final story in this one, I’ll look for his stuff in the future.  (Also, I’ve enjoyed him as a Guest Geek on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Next up, I’ve started on reading whatever the heck I want, so I picked Divergent, Steve Gregg’s All You Want to Know About Hell, and Alas, Babylon.  Finished the first, close on the second, and just started the third.  Maybe I’ll even manage to read my age again this year!


Book Review: The Simplified Guide, by David Hazelton

(I received this book as a review copy.  I was under no pressure to write a favorable review.)

I’m generally reluctant to accept books to review, just because of my normal reluctance to read anything anyone asks me to read, including myself.  Nobody tells me what to read, even if it’s me!

But occasionally I make an exception if something suits my fancy, and in the case of David Hazelton’s very nicely-done The Simplified Guide: Paul’s Letters to the Churches, things worked out pretty well.

One thing that attracted me to the book was the fact that it dealt with an area of the Bible I’d just freshly read.  Another was that it would lend itself to contemplative reading, meaning the kind of book that could be taken in bite-sized chunks.  So it took me a bit longer to finish than I’d originally intended, but not entirely because I was busy reading other things.  For the most part, I kept reading this one alongside whatever else I was reading and only shelved it when I needed to buckle down on finishing another title.

With a title like The Simplified Guide, I wonder if there will be future entries in a series of books, perhaps taking Paul’s pastoral letters, or the writings of John.  If so, I’d be interested to give them a look, because this entry in the (possible) series is pretty terrific.

Rather than walking through Paul’s letters one by one, The Simplified Guide breaks out Paul’s teachings through all the letters into logical groups, starting with Right Beliefs, moving to Right Conduct, and finishing with Right Relationships.  Paul has much to say on all three subjects, and each is broken down into a Q and A format perfectly suited to a small group study.

It also works well as a nightstand book to be read through at a measured pace, which is how I approached it.  I think it’s certainly better suited to group consumption and discussion, but that’s hardly a knock on it. 

What I really appreciated was Hazelton’s approach to thinking about Paul’s letters the churches in general.  That is, that the letters weren’t aimed at clergy.  They were aimed at the churches, and therefore the average church-attender.

He wrote to the whole church---to regular Christians, like you and me---about the daily challenges that we confront in our walk with Christ.  Far from dry works of abstract theology, Paul’s letters provide practical instruction to people without any special theological training or educational credentials.

Now, it’s true that Paul’s letters contain some fairly heady theology, but Hazelton is absolutely correct that a person of normal intelligence should have no problem grasping the practical side of Paul’s teachings, grouped into the categories I listed above.

One thing Hazelton does an excellent job of is steering clear of controversy, and he does it by side-stepping thorny issues without ignoring them altogether.  So he doesn’t spend any time trying to convince anyone of a particular view of God’s sovereignty in Romans 9, but just points out that there are debates in that area. 

One thing I have a really hard time with these days is commentators being too dogmatic about their own opinions while giving no room for other options.  Memo to commentators: you’re not infallible.  Stop acting like you are.  Pretty much any time you write the words “The Bible clearly teaches,” your next words will likely directly contradict another author’s words that follow the same phrase.  It’s Mutually Assured Destruction, Bible style!

Hazelton is evidently wise to this and didn’t fall into the trap.  Instead, he presents a nice survey of Paul’s teachings without getting bogged down in secondary issues.  Nicely done there!

This is not to say that I agreed with every point Hazelton made.  In fact, I found a few things to disagree with, which is one of my spiritual gifts, but they’re the kind of things that would make good discussion points during a Bible Study, and not ones to get into in a review of the book.

The main thing I appreciated about this book is that I’ve been reading and re-reading Paul’s letters for the last ten years or so, and it’s easy to start reading the words but letting them just go in one eye and out the other.  This book gave me a chance to think about specific issues again and look at them with fresh eyes.  It allows the reader to see the forest of Paul’s teachings rather than just the trees of whatever letter is being read.

I should also mention that the length of the book is another point in its favor, at basically two hundred pages.  Not too long, not too short.  Just right for a small group study or a leisurely individual read-through.  Highly recommended!


Book Details:

The Simplified Guide: Paul’s Letters to the Churches
David Hazelton
ISBN-13: 9781937756840
Published by Deep River Books
Publishing Date
$9.99 (NOOK)


Book Review: The Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical Books

I find it a bit strange to contemplate writing any kind of book review for something that’s considered part of the Bible by Catholics and Orthodox Christians, so I’ll just write down a few thoughts about it.  But the fact is that I’ve wanted to read these books for a number of years, and it seemed like a good collection to add to my 13 for ‘13 list.

It’s a King James Version, so that made it a bit cumbersome to read, and it’s done in the KJV format where each verse is its own paragraph, which makes it require a lot of page turns to finish even one chapter.

However, since I’d finished my yearly Bible reading in November, sliding in the Deuterocanonical books worked out pretty well, just taking five chapters a day or so.

As I mentioned above, the Old Testament canon is somewhat disputed, with Catholics and Orthodox Christians taking an extra eight books in theirs, while Protestants and most Jewish groups exclude them.  Technically, “Apocrypha” refers more to an appendix of the King James Bible, which included the Deuterocanonical (second canon) books and a few other books and fragments of books.

The actual Deuterocanonicals include additions to some of the existing Old Testament books, including extra material in Ezra, Esther and Daniel, as well as other historical books including Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees, plus some additional Wisdom literature and prophetic works.

Luther considered the books to be non-inspired but edifying and included them in an appendix of his 1534 Bible.  Though to be fair, Luther also rejected several New Testament books including Revelation, Hebrews, James and Jude.

I personally enjoyed the books of Maccabees, as they record a bit of history not covered in the Old Testament (also, the events surrounding the origins of Hanukkah), and both the books of Wisdom and Sirach had some intriguing bits.  And hands down, my favorite bit of KJV-ish was this from Wisdom:

Wisdom 6:10

For they that keep holiness holily shall be judged holy.

That’s a whole lot of holy!

In terms of theology, there’s not much that sticks out as novel, with a couple of exceptions.  For instance, the Bible is pretty silent on the matter of man’s inherent immortality (critical to the Eternal Torment view of Hell and yet notably absent from the actual text).  But there’s this in the Deuterocanon:

Wisdom 2:23

For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity.

So that’s pretty clear.  But again, not in the Protestant Bible.  Another bit of seemingly Catholic doctrine is supported here:

2 Maccabbees 12:44

For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead.

Prayers for the dead.  Potentially supporting the notion of prayers for the righteous dead that their passage through Purgatory will be swift.  Again, not something Protestants would generally hold to.

One of the bits I found really interesting was the Prayer of Manasseh, which fills in (though in an apocryphal way) the repentance of King Manasseh, which isn’t even hinted at in 2 Kings but is clear in 2 Chronicles.

Overall, I’m glad I read this collection, and I’m sure I’ll give it all a look some other time, though I’ll look for a more modern version so I don’t have to contend with the language quite so much.

I’ve got two more reviews pending to finish out last year, including the last entry on my 13 for ‘13 list, which also happened to be the last book I read, and the review book I was sent.  I’ll get those up in the next week or so.


My Year in Reading 2013

As I do every year, I've assembled here (adding three or four titles at a time) my complete list of books read in 2013.  I still don't count audiobooks, even though some consider them a perfectly acceptable form of reading.  I don't.  (Though I enjoy them regularly.)  So this is all either on my NOOK or in print.

Actually, the NOOK vs. Print thing is really getting quite one-sided.  I read seven books in print this year.  Everything else was either purchased (or free) from the NOOK Store, or from Library2Go.  I’m really a e-reader now.

It was another down year for me, and I wonder if this is the new normal.  I’m barely even reading my age anymore.  But that may be because I’m getting older.  Nah, can’t be that.

On a positive note, I managed (barely) to finish my 13 for '13 reading list.

  1. Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman. NOOK Store. One of the must-have cookbooks in existence.  Seriously.  Get it.
  2. The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood, by David R. Montgomery.  Library.  Terrific primer on geology and how it reveals ancient catastrophes and doesn’t provide much evidence for Noah’s flood.  At least not a global one.
  3. The Racketeer, by John Grisham.  Library.  A bit of a comeback here for Mr. Grisham.
  4. Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, by Rachel Held Evans.  NOOK Store.  Terrific and thought-provoking. An honest look at questioning faith and coming to embrace the questions.
  5. Wild Pitches, by Dirk Hayhurst.  NOOK Store.  Deleted scenes from Out of My League.  Great stuff!
  6. A Short History of the World, by Christopher Lascelles.  NOOK Store.  A terrific high-level overview of World History.
  7. So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler's Guide to Time Travel, by Nick Hurwitch and Phil Hornshaw.  NOOK Store.  Altogether entertaining and quite adequate if not superb.
  8. Impulse, by Steven Gould.  NOOK Store.  The Jumper series has been entirely enjoyable.
  9. Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, by Gary Taubes.  NOOK Store.  An excellent primer on why we should get our carbs from vegetables, not grains.
  10. Out of this World: All the Cool Things You Wanted to Know About Space, by Clive Gifford.  NOOK Store.  This was a free title and quite enjoyable primer on astronomy.
  11. Ender's Shadow, by Orson Scott Card.  From my personal library.  I read this one to the Swimmer Dude.  Excellent as usual.
  12. The Gate Thief, by Orson Scott Card.  NOOK Store.  A nice follow-up to The Lost Gate.
  13. Farside, by Ben Bova.  NOOK Store.  Another cheap one, and enjoyable enough as a brain-rester.
  14. The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again, by J.R.R. Tolkein.  NOOK Store.  Still kinda boring after all these years.  Yeah, I said it!
  15. The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, by Lierre Keith.  Library.  Shocking, riveting, and validating.  Good stuff.
  16. Storm Front, by Jim Butcher.  Library2Go.  Very enjoyable.  Now I've got a new series to burn through.
  17. Blindness, by Jose Saramago. NOOK Store.  Every bit as good as the first time I read it.
  18. The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, by Lee Smolin.  NOOK Store.  Ugh.  Very good for a bit, then painfully boring for a bit more.  Overall, tough to recommend.
  19. Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher.  Library2Go.  Quite enjoyable once again.  I’ll pick up more at some point.
  20. Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn.  NOOK Store.  Ah, remembrances of days gone by, before Lucas screwed everything up.
  21. Wool Omnibus Edition, by Hugh Howey.  NOOK Store.  One of the best things I read this year.
  22. Earth Afire, by Orson Scott Card.  Library.  Up and down a bit, but the up parts were quite enjoyable.
  23. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney.  Silly and light, perfect for my son, who by the way has read all of them now.  (No review for this one.)
  24. The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson.  Library2Go.  A friend nagged me for years to read this one.  Glad I did.  Incredible book, though I’m still a bit mystified by it.
  25. Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It), by Brian Jones.  NOOK Store.  Cheap, but not worth it.  One of my least favorite reads.  Does not make a good case for Eternal Hell.  Not that I’d want him to, but I expected more.
  26. Death Trap: Robot Wars, Book One, by Sigmund Brouwer.  NOOK Store.  Another cheap one I used as a read-aloud.  Gotta savor those.
  27. Inferno, by Dan Brown. Library2Go.  I wasn’t in a big hurry to read this, but it was actually back to vintage Dan Brown, which isn’t great but is at least entertaining.
  28. Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, by Paul A. Offit.  Library.  Chilling, given how similar the current anti-vax movement is to its earlier versions, and it’s every bit as responsible for death now as it was then.
  29. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel.  NOOK Store.  I’d been meaning to read this for a long time, and it’s the sort of thing I love: history of science as told as the history of the people doing science.
  30. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving.  Library2Go.  Short and sweet, and not quite what I expected.
  31. Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph, by Dennis Prager.  NOOK Store.  A good primer on what American values are and where they come from.
  32. Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz.  NOOK Store.  It’s getting to be one of my favorite books.  (Review from last year.)
  33. Farewell to the Master, by Henry Bates.  Read online.  Very different from The Day The Earth Stood Still, and not in a uniformly positive way.   Still, worth reading.
  34. The Bible: English Standard Version.  NOOK Store.  A classic, of course.  Finished right around my birthday.
  35. The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch, by Thomas Thwaites.  NOOK Store.  In my wheelhouse again, what with popular science and all that.
  36. Planet of the Apes, by Pierre Boulle.  Library.  A re-read for me, and every bit as enjoyable as the first time.
  37. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, by James Thurber.  Library2Go.  Brief but charming and hilarious.
  38. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson.  NOOK Store.  Not quite my cup of tea, but enjoyable enough.  I don’t see myself continuing the series.
  39. The Apocrypha: Or Deuterocanonical Books of the Bible.  NOOK Store.  Quite interesting in places, but not something I’ll be reading every year with my other Bible reading.
  40. The Simplified Guide: Paul's Letters to the Churches, by David Hazelton. Review copy.  I'll get a review up in the next few days, but this is an excellent resource for a small-group study of the Pauline Epistles.
  41. Nascence: 17 Failed Stories and What They Taught Me, by Tobias Buckell.  Received as a gift.  At times it was irritating to read fairly bad stories, but as the book progressed, the stories improved and I found I could understand why they improved.  Good stuff.

Book/Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

I’m not sure when I first watched a Danny Kaye movie, but I’ve seen The Court Jester, The Kid from Brooklyn, Wonder Man, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty approximately sixty-eleven times each.  I can pretty much recite all four movies on command, and though they’re very different films, they’re all very much Danny Kaye movies.  That is, awesome.

I remember hearing that Jim Carrey or Jack Black was in line to star in a remake of the classic 1947 film, and the prospect frightened me quite a bit.  So when I saw that Ben Stiller was going to be starring in a remake, I was skeptical.  Until I saw the trailer.  And read the story.

The thing is, the 1947 movie is a very rough adaptation of basically the name of the main character and the basic premise of a repressed man who lives a very adventurous life in his daydreams.  But that’s about it, with the exception of the repeated sound “tapoketa-poketa-poketa” from the daydreams.  (Well, okay, one of the dream sequences was lifted straight from the story.)

But the Walter Mitty in the story is married (and henpecked), whereas Danny Kaye’s Mitty is kind of a loser who lives with his mother, works for an overbearing boss who steals his ideas, and pretty much just slides by while dreaming of bigger things.  It’s done to hilarious effect in the movie, with Kaye’s singing and physical comedy in full bloom.  I can’t recommend the movie highly enough.  I think everyone should watch it.

But since I knew that the new movie was another loose adaptation of the story rather than a remake of the classic film, I was able to appreciate it for what it is: A really solid and inspiring family film.  In short, I loved it.  It’s quite terrific.

Ben Stiller not only stars in the film, but also directed it, and I’m really impressed with some of the decisions he made.  The opening credits are done in a clever way, and the opening scene is quiet but effective in introducing Mitty without ever resorting to, well, anything but visuals.

The scene transitions are clever, and the shot composition is done with a sort of photographic quality, which makes sense given that Mitty is a “Negative Assets Manager,” meaning he handles incoming photos for Life Magazine

If there’s a fault with the movie, it’s probably that the mustachioed (and bearded) villain is perhaps a bit of a cardboard cutout, but on the other hand, who hasn’t worked for that kind of prick?  He’s a typical corporate raider type who doesn’t understand the history of his company, yada-yada-yada, but it doesn’t really matter.  The story isn’t really about a clash between Mitty and Beard Guy.  It’s about Mitty doing something.  And he does.

I realize I’m raving a bit, but I’m just extremely impressed with the film.  I love the original.  I love the new.

Also, the story is worth a read, because it’s pretty hilarious, especially if you’re a fan of the original film.  It’s also extremely short and could easily be read in ten minutes or so.  I found it in several collections of short stories at my library, so it shouldn’t be hard to find.  So go find it!  And watch the new movie!  And the old one!

(BTW, I wrote this up because I was looking through my end of the year “Everything I Read” list and realized I hadn’t reviewed the short story.  And that just could not stand.)

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Favorite Books, 2013

(Edit: somehow I missed Wool on my fiction list.  That’s a no-brainer!)

Though the field is smaller this year than normal (Down ten books from my old average.  Stupid Words With Friends, distracting me all the time!), here’s a list of the best things I read this year (titles linked to my review of each):

Favorite Reads, Non-Fiction:

Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It, by Gary Taubes.  Just a great resource about how counting calories isn’t a good way to lose weight and keep it off, and how the way we eat affects our bodies.  Turns the logic of the energy imbalance idea on its head: Whatever makes us fat makes us overeat, and not the other way around.  Highly recommended.

Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman.  Quite simply an invaluable resource for any home cook.  Why can I make pancakes and biscuits without a recipe?  Because Ruhlman taught me the ratio.  Now if those only weren’t part of the “Why” from the previous title…(there are plenty of non-carb ratios, though).

Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, by Paul A. Offit.  Science!  No place for wimps!  Offit traces the history of the anti-vax movement and shows that the same discredited arguments keep on showing up despite the whole science thing.

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, by Lierre Keith.  Another indispensible resource.  People turn to vegetarianism out of concerns for health, animal welfare, and the environment.  Lierre Keith carefully explains why the vegetarian diet fails on all three counts, and it all comes down to one thing: agriculture.

The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood, by David R. Montgomery.  Science!  It works!  No, not all cultures have a record of a global flood.  Yes, many local floods have happened, but Noah’s flood doesn’t explain fossilized sea life on mountaintops.  Science does.  Great stuff and a terrific primer on geology, and again one of those things where the old discredited arguments keep coming back up.

Honorable Mention: Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, by Rachel Held Evans

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Favorite Reads, Fiction:

Wool Omnibus, by Hugh Howey.  Just a terrific science fiction, post apocalyptic feat of awesomeness.  Characters you get to meet and enjoy and identify with, an intriguing premise, and a great payoff.  What more could you ask for?

Planet of the Apes, by Pierre Boulle.  Such a fun read, especially if you’re at all a fan of the movies.  And if you are, there’s something different here, because none of the films have really adapted the ending.

Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz.  Yes, fine!  I recommended this one last year, too.  But I read it again this year, and it was one of my favorite reads again this year.  My blog, my rules!

Blindness, by Jose Saramago.  Yes, all right, I get it.  I recommended this one in 2009.  Fine!  But again, I re-read it and loved it again.  Happy?  No?  Door’s on the right!

Inferno, by Dan Brown and The Racketeer, by John Grisham.  I know.  Two books on one line, but they’re grouped for a reason.  These titles are books by authors who had generally been disappointing me lately but were totally worth reading.  So if you haven’t been thrilled with Grisham or Brown lately, you may consider picking up one of these.  But it was obviously a down year for fiction.

Honorable Mention: The Diamond Age, or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, by Neil Stephenson.

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Next up, I’ll pull together a list of everything I read this year and further lament that there aren’t more titles on the list.