Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

books

August 21, 2009

Free Stuff Fridays

It’s time for another Free Stuff Friday. This week’s sponsor is Evangelical Press. As you may well know, Evangelical Press is a non-profit mission organization based in the UK but with an increasing presence on this side of the pond. It’s mission is to place sound Christian books and sound biblical teaching within reach of as many people as it can across the world.

Stars in Gods SkyThis week they are offering five prizes, each of which is a copy of Faith Cook’s Stars in God’s Sky. Cook is quickly making a name for herself as one of the foremost Christian biographers. This book, her latest, offers a series of short biographies of important Christian figures. According to the publisher, “In her typically engaging and enthralling style, Faith Cook shows us how God graciously works in individuals’ lives. Among others here we find the encouraging short stories of John Foxe, Fanny Guinness, John Gifford and ‘Grimshaw’s men’, Paul Greenwood and Jonathan Maskew. ‘Those who turn many to righteousness shall shine like the stars of heaven for ever and ever’ (Daniel 12:3).”

Michael Haykin says of this book, “One of the great principles of God’s Word as it relates to history is that every life that God touches is valuable. This book demonstrates that vital truth abundantly. From the somewhat famous to the completely obscure—though not to the Living God—Faith Cook reveals the polychromatic grace of God at work in the fabric of our human existence. In doing so, she excites us to praise the God of all grace and to rejoice that all who are in Christ are called to service.”

Rules: You may only enter the draw once. Simply fill out your name and email address to enter the draw. As soon as the winners have been chosen, all names and addresses will be immediately and permanently erased. Winners will be notified by email. The giveaway closes Saturday at noon.

(The giveaway is now closed)

August 21, 2009

Here is (yet) another list of books I read that will not be receiving extensive reviews.

ShakedownShakedown by Ezra Levant. Unless you are Canadian, you have probably not heard of Ezra Levant. Let me fill you in. Several years ago he was publisher of Western Standard magazine and made the decision to print the infamous Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. He did so because they were newsworthy and he wanted to use them to illustrate a story. He soon found himself before his province’s Human Rights and Citizenship Commission where he was charged with the offense of “discrimination.” It was only after a long, embittered and expensive fight that he managed to avoid charges becoming, I believe, the first person to be cleared of such crimes. He wrote Shakedown to record his experience and to draw attention to these Human Rights tribunals that happen all over Canada and which have taken for themselves outrageous powers that circumvent all manner of justice. In fact, they get awfully close to charging Canadians for “thoughtcrime,” that Orwellian phrase that looks beyond what a person has actually done to what he may have intended to do. His story is shocking and, we hope, marks the beginning of the end for the Human Rights Commissions’ most intrusive and outrageous powers. (Do note, that those these commissions exist and exist all over the country, the vast majority of Canadians, even ones who are outspoken about their faith, have never been noticed or charged by them).


Culture of CorruptionCulture of Corruption by Michelle Malkin. In this book, currently perched at the top of the New York Times list of Bestsellers, Malkin looks to “Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies.” In chapter after chapter totalling almost 300 pages, Malkin provides an exhaustive look at President Obama and the men and women who work with him. She provides extensive documentation, making much of what she says awfully difficult to refute (though, of course, she focuses almost exclusively on what these people have done wrong, not on what they may have done well over their careers). It somehow manages to be shocking and yet not at all surprising to hear of the massive amounts of corruption and immorality in Obama’s inner circle. After all, power typically comes to those who fight for it and even more typically to those who fight for it tooth and nail. While I would imagine that almost every administration has multitudes of skeletons in the closet, surely not all have so many as Obama’s. I’m glad these people are running your country rather than mine!


The Man who Made ListsThe Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall. I picked up this book rather on a whim as I was scouring my local bookstore. It is a biography of Peter Mark Roget, best known for creating his famous thesaurus. It traces the life of a man who was a very odd but still compelling character. As his biographer says, “Though he had a host of female admirers, was one of the first to test the effects of laughing gas, developed the slide rule, and narrowly escaped jail in Napoleon’s France, he is best known for making lists.” And make lists he did with an almost obsessive passion. Though Kendall occasionally steps beyond what he actually could know from the historical record into the realm of conjecture, he still crafts an interesting biography of a strangely fascinating man.


In the Presidents Secret ServiceIn the President’s Secret Service by Ronald Kessler. The dust cover for In the President’s Secret Service proclaims, “Never before has a journalist penetrated the wall of secrecy that surrounds the U.S. Secret Service. … After conducting exclusive interviews with more than one hundred current and former Secret Service agents, bestselling author and award-winning reporter Ronald Kessler reveals their secrets for the first time.” It may be true that no journalist has penetrated that wall of secrecy until Kesller. The problem, though, is that this wall of secrecy broke down enough for him to write a book, it remained in place enough that he was not able to cite or document what he discovered. Hence we have a book, a bestselling book, that is crammed full of unsubstantiated assertions. Now this is not to say that Kesller has just fabricated what he presents as fact. But any historian worth his degree will balk and know that little that Kesller says has any historic value.

In the President’s Secret Service is, in a sense, two books. On one hand it is a book about the Secret Service, detailing how the organization came to be, how it has evolved over the years, and telling how it works, even today. This side of the book offers little that is original. On the other hand, this is a tell-all of sorts, where Kesller shares what he learned during his interviews with former Secret Service agents. This is the part of the book that has received much attention in the press. With one chapter dedicated to every President since Kennedy, Kessler shares some of the behind-the-scenes facts about each of them. He tells how Jimmy Carter was considered the most arrogant and obnoxious of the President’s; how Kennedy’s agents were constantly on the guard during his trysts, guarding against his wife blundering into one of his affairs; how Lyndon Johnson engaged in constant philandering at the White House and at his ranch; how George and Barbara Bush were very kind to their agents, almost welcoming them into their family and even remaining at the White House over Christmas so the agents would not have to be on the road for the holiday. It is mostly the kind of facts we would assume based on the character of the Presidents. The reader who is surprised to learn that Kennedy was sleeping with Marilyn Monroe or that Jenna Bush was hardly an ideal person to guard is a person who has not done a lot of reading. But even here, Kessler, by his inability (or refusal) to cite his work gives us little reason to trust him or to believe that he has done any more than read a couple of books and filled in the gaps in a could-be-true way.

In the President’s Secret Service is tabloid history packaged with undergraduate-level research on the Secret Service. It is interesting at a gossipy, human-interest level, but as serious history it fails badly. The writing is mostly passable but, as I see it, a sentence like this deserves no place in a serious work of non-fiction: “As with all Presidents, some people totally lost it when meeting Regan” (116). That is, like, totally unacceptable. Where was Kessler’s editor?

The serious chapters in this book seem like an attempt to legitimize the tabloid qualities. The sordid stories of America’s leaders have been used to sell the book, drawing people into a title that would otherwise be of little interest. Kessler also attempts to lend the book some legitimacy by seeking to show that the Secret Service is underfunded and underequipped for their role and that, if the situation is not remedied, at some point they will lose one of the people they seek to protect. While this may be true, Kessler fails to be convincing, perhaps largely because of the very nature of the book which is, at its heart, just not very serious.

August 03, 2009

My vacation is over. But as luck would have it, my first day back is a holiday, so I guess that extends things by one day. Today is Canada’s annual Civic Holiday. I don’t think anyone really knows why this holiday exists except as an excuse to enjoy a day off in what is usually about the best part of the Canadian summer. I’ll actually be working much of the day, catching up on the work and the emails that have been piling up while I’ve been laying low, but I will be taking some time to hang out with my family (and with my mom whose visit is just about over). Normal blogging will resume tomorrow. For now, here’s a rundown on a few of the books I’ve read over the past week or so.

Magnificent DesolationMagnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin (with Ken Abraham). This is Aldrin’s second or third stab at an autobiography, but the first I’ve read. I saw it on the New York Times list of bestsellers, timed to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the moon landings, and thought I’d have to give it a read. I was rather disappointed. I don’t know that I can say it a whole lot better than this Amazon reviewer did: “At one point in the book, Buzz Aldrin observes: ‘I kind of like David Letterman’s quirky humor, it is like mine’. This pretty much sums up the annoyingly self-centered storytelling of the book. As others have pointed out, the space-program related parts are boilerplate, nothing new or interesting here. The rest, 85% of the book, is self-centered crank, crank, crank, descent into depression and alcoholism, page after page of self-quotations from speeches and pitches of the same old ‘Mars cycler’ or go-to-space-lottery half baked ideas. For a 3-year old to misbehave and throw a tantrum in order to get attention is normal, and most get over it in time. Buzz Aldrin is still stomping his foot, ‘me, me, me’.” Perhaps that is overstating the case a little bit but reading this autobiography, which begins with the countdown to Apollo 11 and carries on to the present day, primarily details life after NASA. The most interesting parts of the book, then, are the in the opening pages. After that the reader is forced to walk with him through the dissolution of his first marriage (and his second and the first twenty years of his third), affairs and girlfriends, drunkenness and clinical depression, and the rise and wane (and rise and wane) of celebrity. It was forty years that Aldrin stepped on the moon and it seems that since then he has been trying to find some return to glory. So far it has not happened. This is a pretty dismal tale and one that is not only quite boring but also poorly-written. I love to read biographies of heroes, but the more I read of Aldrin the more I see that he is no hero. Desolation described the moon, it described much of Aldrin’s life (by his own admission), and it describes this book. You’ll want to take a pass on this one (or at least wait for the paperback).


FordlandiaFordlandia by Greg Grandin. This is a fantastic book that tells of “The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City.” Author Greg Grandin tells the strange tale of Henry Ford’s obsession with creating a utopian American-style city in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest. Built initially to provide rubber to the Ford company, the city, built on a tract of land twice the size of Delaware, became something of an idealistic obsession with Ford. Soon he had a city complete with golf courses, ice cream shops, indoor plumbing and, of course, Model T’s rolling down broad paved streets. Needless to say, Ford’s idealism fought an epic battle with the jungle as the Amazon constantly fought back, obliterating the rubber crop and infecting so many of the people who ventured there. The Brazilian work force came into conflict with Ford’s strict mores. The author aptly shows how Ford sought to export his own brand of American idealism and how badly he failed in the end. It’s just a fascinating tale and one that is well worth the read.


Crazy for the StormCrazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad. I bought this book after seeing it make appearances on most of the best-seller lists. This is a “Memoir of Survival” according to the subtitle, and it tells of Ollestad’s survival after a plane crash that took the life of his father and his father’s fiancee. Though that plane crash provides some cohesion to the story and though it was a life-defining event, it was a matter of only a few hours. So the survival in the story is much deeper-rooted in Ollestad’s story of his relationship to his father. His father was a strange, egocentric man who had a very odd relationship to his son, constantly pushing him to do things he had no desire to do. Ollestad both idolized and despised his father. The story is interesting enough, I suppose, but after reading to the end I could think of few reasons that I would want to recommend this to anyone else beyond the usual human interest reasons. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with the book, I also did not find enough right with it that I’d recommend it to others. I wouldn’t bother with it.


The Lost City of ZThe Lost City of Z by David Grann. This is “A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon,” according to the book’s subtitle, and it is a good one. Set in the jungles of the Amazon (that makes two books set in the Amazon, doesn’t it?) this book tells of the famed explorer Percy Fawcett who, in 1925, ventured into the jungle to find the lost and fabled city of El Dorado (which he knew as the city of “Z”). Like so many before and after him, he disappeared and was never seen or heard from again. Almost a century later, David Grann, a man far more at home on the couch than in the jungle, became intrigued by the story and set out to try to find out what happened to Fawcett and whether the mythical civilization he set out to find had even existed. I will not spoil the story by telling what (if anything) he found, but I will tell you that it is a joy to find out. The book is very well-written and very nicely paced. You’ll enjoy the biographical aspect of the story as it shares the life of Percy Fawcett and you’ll equally enjoy Grann’s efforts to track him down. This is not going to be the definitive book on El Dorado and ancient Amazonian civilizations, but it does provide plenty of fascinating information that before this has only been found in dry and scholarly journals. I recommend this one!


MillionaireMillionaire by Janet Gleeson. John Law was “The Philanderer, Gambler and Duelist Who Invented Modern Finance” and, in Millionaire, Janet Gleeson provides a brief but timely overview of his life. Born in Scotland and, after winning a fatal duel exiled from England, Law ended up in France where he was eventually given the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. In the early eighteenth century he almost single-handedly overhauled a French economy that had been devastated by wars and opulence. He quickly became one of the most famous men in all of Europe. He did all of this by moving France away from the gold standard that had been the foundation of her economy and in place introduced a system of fiat currency. He also founded a New World trading company that promised great riches. The French economy experienced an enormous boom-then-bust cycle that introduced the term “millionaire” but then left many of those former millionaires as little more than paupers. During this time of great financial upheaval we would do well to study the lessons of the past and Law’s story has a great deal to teach us, I am convinced. Millionaire is a great place to start. For a book dealing with a topic that can be as dry as finances, this book moved along well and never bogged down in numbers or in boring detail. Economists would want to read something more in-depth but for the rest of us, this is ideal. I recommend it!

July 17, 2009

I do not intend to continue posting these “Books I Didn’t Review” article with the frequency I’ve been doing so lately. But this summer I’ve been enjoying reading books outside of the Christian genre and I’ve been read a lot of them. It has been a refreshing break for me. I’ve still been enjoying at least one Christian book per week, but my recreational reading has taken me far and wide. In Canada we have a bookstore chain called Indigo, headed by Heather Reisman. She offers lists of “Heather’s Picks” and the beauty of it is, if you buy the book and don’t like it, you can return it, no questions asked. So I have been gleaning from her list (skipping over the many novels she recommends), browsing through other lists, and reading a variety of books.

Here are some of the titles I’ve enjoyed:

Tears in the DarknessTears in the Darkness by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman. In the first four months of 1942 American and Filipino soldiers fought a long and brutal battle for the tiny Philippine peninsula of Bataan. The battle ended with the surrender of 76,000 Americans and Filipinos, the worst defeat in American history. After the battle these men were subjected to unbelievable cruelty that began with a long, forced march across Bataan to a prison camp. The soldiers who survived this march, ravaged by tropical diseases, were starved and beaten and worked to death as slave labor. Thousands died. Those who endured would never be the same. Tears in the Darkness, a current New York Times bestseller, focuses on the story of the Bataan Death March and its aftermath. It takes Ben Steele, a young American soldier, as its protagonist, and looks primarily through his eyes. The book is unique in that it does not end with the liberation of the prisoners but with the trial and conviction of the Japanese officer deemed responsible for much of the cruelty and deprivation. The authors have constructed an absolutely fascinating account of this part of the war and this is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Second World War. Because the book focuses on one central character, its appeal will go much further, though, to anyone who would want to marvel at the unimaginable torture a human can endure with nothing but the will to live to sustain him. This is one of this summer’s must-read books!

Prisoner of TehranPrisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat. This memoir comes from Marina Nemat, who was born and raised in Iran but, surprisingly, as a Roman Catholic. In 1982, at just sixteen years old, she was arrested on false charges by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and thrown into the notorious Evin prison. There she was tortured and condemned to die for her supposed acts of sedition. But in a rather remarkable twist, her life was spared by a prison guard and interrogator who pleaded for her life because he had fallen in love with her and desired to marry her. Nemat is a bold protagonist who refuses to sell out her mind by believing all the lies told to her, yet she is human enough to surrender when stubbornness might cost her life. The conflict that rages in her heart and mind throughout her imprisonment is fascinating. She also offers a insider’s perspective on the radical transformation that occurred within Iran before, during and after the Islamic revolution. This book has the kind of characters and plot twists that seem more at home in fiction than fact. Yet it is a true story, or so Nemat claims. It seemed to me that the story fit together just a little bit too well and I began to wonder if perhaps the author had taken some liberties with the facts. A search of the internet revealed some controversy to that end with accusations flying both ways. Regardless, whether it is read as fact or a blend of fact and fiction, this was a Heather’s Pick that I enjoyed thoroughly. It makes for an excellent “evening or two” kind of read.

The First TycoonThe First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles. This is a long and occasionally dense biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a character who continues to fascinate well over a century after his death. He is a character who is quite difficult to understand and, therefore, one who many biographers have portrayed unfairly as one dimensional. Stiles portrays him, accurately I think, as a brutal businessman but a man who had a tender heart toward those he loved and who did have some room in his heart (and his pocketbook) for acts of kindness and charity. Vanderbilt is a fascinating study of opposites, really, in his love-hate relationship with family members and business associates. For every noble character quality (which history has largely ignored) he has three or four ignoble. What interested me most of all, I think, was seeing how so much of what he did was motivated not by the desire to be wealthy, but by the desire to punish those who would dare to cross him. There were times when he risked the economy of the nation for reasons no more noble than personal vendetta. His pride seemed to know few bounds. Money was power and power was a game to see who could win the greatest, most resounding victories. If there was one thing I’d wish for this biography it would be that there be a little more of the man and a little bit less of his business transactions. However, Stiles would likely make the case that to know the man’s business is to know the man himself and he may well be right. While The First Tycoon can occasionally bog down in the details just a little bit, it remains a very readable biography of a character whose importance to America (as that first great business tycoon) is difficult to overstate.

The Victorian InternetThe Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. In this book Tom Standage writes of “The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers.” He shows, quite well, how the invention and popularization of the telegraph in many ways foreshadowed the world wide web. In a matter of just years the world shrank through this amazing new communication medium that was almost infinitely faster than the train and steam boat which, until that time, were the fastest bearers of information. If the book has a downside, it would be where Standage seems to over-reach just a little bit, reading the telegraph through the lens of the internet instead of the other way around. Still, it is fascinating to learn of “online” communication that saw men and women meet and marry through the wires much as people do today through the web and to read of the way society struggled to adapt to a medium of communications that was light years ahead. There are some good lessons for us to learn here. This is a book that will appeal to anyone who is interested in technology or history or the confluence of the two.

Accidental BillionairesThe Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. I read this book because I wanted to understand the history of Facebook—a program (a site, a lifestyle) that is changing society. The book’s cover (a picture of a red, lacy bra and a couple of cocktail glasses) and subtitle (A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal) should have tipped me off that it was not going to be serious history. Mezrich writes the book in the style of dramatic narrative which apparently means “when I don’t have facts, I’ll just make ‘em up and when the story gets slow, I’ll fabricate a sex scene.” He does provide lots of interesting facts and shares the rather brutal history of Facebook (from Mark Zuckerberg essentially stealing the idea from people who had asked him to create a very similar social media site to the backhanded way that he forced his co-founder out of the company). I suppose it is a tale of money, genius and betrayal, though I don’t see how sex really enters into the true tale except as much as it would for any group of college students (except, of course, as a selling feature). So this is Mezrich’s take on the story, written in a tabloid fashion where what is true and what could be true blend together. The framework of the facts seems to line up with what I’ve read elsewhere but the very nature of the book makes it somewhat less than trustworthy. Still, if you want to know how Facebook came to be, how it evolved from a week’s worth of work for a college student to a company valued in the billions dollars, this seems to be the only show in town. Even then, read Wikipedia first to see if it offers enough to satisfy your curiosity before plunking down the money for this book. Even at just $16.50 it’s hard to believe that it’s worth the money.

MoneyballMoneyball by Michael Lewis. This was a book I read purely for pleasure. This was a #1 national bestseller and has been available since 2003, so I am guessing many of you have already read it. Somehow I only got around to it now. In this book Lewis went on a search for answers, seeking to find out how the Oakland A’s, one of Major League Baseball’s poorest teams, could keep competing against teams with payrolls two or three times higher. And, indeed, the A’s have been competitive year after year. The book focuses in predominantly on Billy Beane who has been General Manager since 1998. It’s a very interesting book, though some of Beane’s “genius” has been exposed by the light of history (some of those draft picks that everyone else laughed at have, indeed, been laughable). But it’s still a very enjoyable read and one any baseball fan will enjoy, even six years later.

Tiny DancerTiny Dancer by Anthony Flacco. You may remember this as one of the few “feel-good” stories to emerge shortly after the US went to war in Afghanistan. Anthony Flacco relates the story of Zubaida Hasan, a nine year-old girl from a tiny village in rural Afghanistan who had been terribly injured in a kerosene fire. Burned and disfigured beyond recognition, Zubaida was taken by her father to the city where an American Green Beret saw her and took pity on her. She was eventually flown to the United States where she received first-world medical care and had her disfigured body rebuilt by Dr. Peter Grossman, a famed burn surgeon. At the same time she became almost a surrogate daughter to Grossman and his wife, Rebecca, as she lived with them through the long year of surgery and recovery. You can read more about Zubaida and her rather remarkable story at zubaidatinydancer.com. At the very least look at the before and after pictures and marvel at the blessing of modern medicine. Though this book stumbles into one of my pet peeves, putting thoughts into the characters heads—thoughts the author could not possibly have known—it is still quite a good read and worth the evening or two it will take to get through it. Though the book is only a few years old, it seems to be out of print so you need to find it in the bargain area (as I did) or buy it used.

July 13, 2009

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about endorsements (or blurbs, if you prefer)—the little lines and paragraphs you see on the back of a book giving you good reasons why you really ought to read it. I have done this as I’ve gone through a process of defining my ministry, what I will give time to and what I will not give time to. Endorsements, when done right, take a lot of time and often for very limited results. So I have wanted to figure out the circumstances in which it makes sense for me to go through the effort of providing them. I thought I’d share just a bit of what I’ve come up with.

Practically, here is how endorsements usually work. Several months before a book actually shows up on store shelves (often as much as six months before) an author or publisher (or sometimes an agent or other representative) will contact people whose name and endorsement have the potential to help readers decide to purchase a book. If these people agree they will receive a copy of the manuscript, either in electronic format or, more commonly, printed on 8.5 x 11. They will have a certain period to read the book and provide their endorsement of it. Sometimes these endorsements must be provided on official forms while other times they can be informally emailed through. Of those asked, only a few will accept the manuscript and of those usually only a few will actually provide an endorsement; so sometimes, when you see a long list of endorsements for a book, it may be that the author was hedging his bets, so to speak, and had the good luck of having everybody actually come through. Endorsements are provided based on a draft copy of the manuscript so it is possible that the text may change between the writing of an endorsement and the publication of the book.

As you would expect, endorsements are volunteer efforts (except, I’m sure, in exceptional and unethical circumstances). However, there can be some “tit-for-tat” in endorsements where one person feels obliged, for one reason or another, to provide an endorsement. Perhaps there is some kind of reciprocation for endorsing a book or speaking at a conference. Also, if you read closely, you will sometimes see that a single endorsement, written in general terms more about the author than his book, may be used on multiple titles. It may even be just a line or two taken from an article that is completely unrelated to this book or any other.

A good bit of thought goes into the arrangement of the endorsements on the back cover and in the first few pages of the book. The biggest names will go first and will appear on the back cover; the lesser-known names or the ones least likely to be meaningful to the target audience will appear at the bottom of the back cover or perhaps only inside the book.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about endorsements:

Endorsements matter. I would gladly forgo endorsements for my books, but I don’t think my publisher would be pleased with me if I did so. Potential readers do look at the back cover of a book to see who has endorsed it, though I am quite convinced that they look more for the name than the actual words. I have a certain number of names I look for and, if one of them happens to have endorsed that book, it immediately interests me in a way it might otherwise not. So endorsements do sell books and, therefore, they do have value. I consider them a necessary evil.

We endorse books and authors. Because endorsements matter, authors have to be very careful with who and what they endorse. Ultimately we endorse authors as much as their books (and perhaps more than their books). In just a few lines it is difficult to draw the kind of distinction that might say, “I disagree with this person’s core beliefs but do think this book is worth reading.” Instead, we see the name of the author, the name of the endorser, and draw a line from one to the other. Hence, if I am going to endorse a book, I have to agree with the vast majority of the book and 100% of the core theology. But I also have to appreciate the author and his ministry. As much as I might like to, I cannot neatly separate the two because those who see the endorsement will not neatly separate the two.

Quality is important. So many Christian books really have very little to say that is not derived from other books and so many others are poorly written. I want to encourage quality by providing endorsements for books that are genuinely well-written and objectively good. There are a couple of books I endorsed early on for which I would no longer provide an endorsement because the quality was just not there. One particular book has done more to shape my philosophy (and theology) of endorsements more than any other. I read the book again, after it had been printed, and was really embarrassed at what I had put my name to. I want my name on a book to have value and will no longer endorse books that do not display good quality.

It is no great honor. Being asked to endorse a book is not necessarily any great honor. The very nature of endorsements tend to mean that the requests are of the “what you can do for me” variety. That sounds terrible, but there is some truth to it. I am not asked to endorse books because people like me; I am asked because my name may help a few people decide to purchase it. I remain grateful for requests to endorse books, humbled even, but I also know that it is no occasion for pride.

It is okay to say no. I politely refuse the majority of the endorsement requests I receive. I feel no obligation to anyone to endorse his book (and neither do I expect him to feel obliged to endorse anything I write) and this gives me the freedom to say no. Nor do I feel that it’s part of my “core ministry.” Therefore I don’t want it to dominate my time (which it could). I do write a fair number, but this is just a small part of what I could write. I suspect the same is true of most people. When I do write endorsements, I prefer to focus on books that have fewer rather than more endorsements (or potential endorsements). When a person sends me a manuscript, I often ask how many endorsements they already have or expect to get. If that number is more than four or five, I typically explain that I will instead focus on books that have received little attention.

Not all endorsements are equal. As I read more and more books, I quickly learn the people whose endorsements mean more to me than others. For example, when I see Mark Dever’s name on a book, it tells me a lot about that book—it is a valuable endorsement. I know that Mark puts a lot of thought into his endorsements and that he is very careful with what he puts his name to. I have learned to trust him. There are other names I see that tell me little and would do little to convince me to buy that book. There are a few who will convince me not to buy that book. This is true for most serious readers, I am sure, no matter the genre they prefer to read.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about that.

But let me ask you: how important are endorsements to you when you consider purchasing a book? Are you often persuaded to buy a book based on the blurbs on the back cover? Or do you just ignore them and try to judge the book on its own merits?

July 10, 2009

Free Stuff Fridays

I got busy today and forgot all about this week’s Free Stuff Fridays. Thankfully I remembered with enough time to launch it before day’s end. This week’s sponsor is Ligonier Ministries and they are offering a prize fitting for this, the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. Five winners will each receive a Reformation Trust John Calvin Book Set. This includes three great hardcover books: Living for God’s Glory by Joel Beeke, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology edited by Burk Parsons, and The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steven Lawson.

Reformation Trust

I suspect Living for God’s Glory is the one that will most interest most of this site’s readers. “In this comprehensive survey of Reformed Christianity, Dr. Beeke and eight fellow contributors offer twenty eight chapters that trace the history of Calvinism; explore its key doctrinal tenets, such as the so-called five points of Calvinism and the solas of the Protestant Reformation; reveal how Calvinists have sought to live in devotion to God; and survey Calvinism’s influence in the church and in the world at large. In the end, the book asserts that the overriding goal of Calvinism is the glory of God. Saturated with Scripture citations and sprinkled with quotations from wise giants of church history, this book presents Calvinism in a winsome and wondrous fashion.”

Be sure to visit Ligonier’s blog this month for a lot more Calvin-related articles and specials.

Rules: You may only enter the draw once. Simply fill out your name and email address to enter the draw. As soon as the winners have been chosen, all names and addresses will be immediately and permanently erased. Winners will be notified by email. The giveaway closes Saturday at 2 PM.


July 04, 2009

I guess this is going to become a regular feature around here—a list of some of the books I didn’t review. The fact is that I receive far more books than I could ever read and that I read more books than I could review. Yet many of these are perfectly good books—excellent books even—that deserve some kind of a mention. So this allows me to draw attention a few of the ones I just couldn’t get to, whether good or bad (Click here for a previous roundup).

First off, here are a few titles I read but have not reviewed in full.

Meeting God Behind Enemy Lines by Steve Watkins. Steve Watkins was not always pastor of Kenton Baptist Church as he is today. In 1987, after deciding he was not eager to face four years of college, he decided to join the Navy with a view to being one of the elite Navy Seals. Not lacking in ability or motivation, he did just that and began a successful career in the military. He served in Iraq during the Gulf War but eventually left the Navy to pursue the pastorate. He graduated from the Masters Seminary in Los Angeles and, since then, has been serving Kenton Baptist Church in Kenton, Kentucky. This biography recounts his career in the armed forces and his eventual conversion. It is an enjoyable read, especially for those with an interest in military affairs. Watkins offers an interesting description of his conversion and is careful to ascribe all glory to God.

Good Mr. Baxter by Vance Salisbury. This short biography of only just over 100 pages does an excellent job of introducing the great Puritan pastor and writer Richard Baxter. As any short biography ought to do, this one led me hoping to find a much longer treatment of the life of this fascinating character.

50 People Every Christian Should Know by Warren Wiersbe. This book offers fifty short biographical sketches of Christian figures of varying importance, ranging from Katherine von Bora to A.W. Tozer and had its genesis in magazine articles in Moody Monthly and The Good News Broadcaster. It combines two previous books, Living with the Giants and Victorious Christians. As a collection of short biographies it does with excellence exactly what is sets out to do—provide a mere introduction to important Christian figures. There is am emphasis on figures in some way related to Moody, but this hardly detracts from it. It’s an excellent choice to read just a few pages at a time.

Here are some books I’ve received but have chosen not to review:

The Cross: 38,102 miles. 38 years. 1 mission by Arthur Blessitt. This is an autobiography of the man who has carried a cross across America and across the world, visiting every country and island group in the world. Neither he nor the book interests me enough to read it.

Religions of the Stars by Richard Abanes is another in a long list of books in which Richard Abanes looks at contemporary cultural themes through the lens of Scripture. Here he shows “What Hollywood Believes and How it Affects You.” He looks at a list of several popular religions: Kabbalah, Scientology, Mormonism and so on. I’m not quite interested enough in the subject matter to read it.

I’ve received several titles from DayOne, many of which look excellent. DayOne, a relative newcomer to the North American markets, is publishing a lot of books these days (several per month, it seems) and they are filling a lot of gaps in the publishing field, I’m sure. Many of their books are eminently practical, seeking to help Christians consistently apply biblical truths. A few of the recent titles are:

  • Darwin and Darwinism 150 Years Later by Ian McNaughton and Paul Taylor
  • Evolution: Good Science? Exposition the Ideological Nature of Darwin’s Theory by Dominic Statham. This title and the one before it are part of the “Creation Points” series.
  • Same-Sex Marriage: Is it Really the Same? by Mark Christopher
  • Merchant to Romania: Business as Missions in Post-Communist Eastern Europe by Jeri Little
  • Jesus: The Life Changer by Simon J. Robinson. In this book Robinson seeks to stand in the shoes of some of the people who met Jesus to give a first-person account of their encounter with the Lord.
  • Simon Peter: The Training Years and Simon Peter: Challenging Times by Helen Clark.
  • Six-Day Creation: Does it Matter What You Believe? by Robert Gurney. Needless to say, this book maintains that it does, indeed, matter what you believe.
  • Teach Your Family the Truth by Brian Stone

Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal by Keith Yandell and Harold Netland. This may be the kind of book I’ll refer to in the future as needed, but it’s not one I would prioritize at the moment.

Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square. I don’t think I’m smart enough to read it.

Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship by Scott Aniol. This carries an endorsement by Ligon Duncan so much be good. But it has been on my shelf for long enough now that I guess I’m not likely to read it.

Teaching Acts by David Cook. I like the look of this book and will keep it around for if and when I do need to think about teaching Acts. It is part of a series of similar books published by Christian Focus that helps teach a teacher how to teach. It looks very, very helpful for that purpose.

Did the Resurrection Happen? by Gary Habermas and Anthony Flew. This would be interesting, I’m sure, but I can’t prioritize it.

Let’s Study Matthew by Mark E. Ross. This series, published by Banner of Truth and edited by Sinclair Ferguson, expands to include Matthew. These are valuable little guides for person Bible study. They come highly recommended.

Psalms: Songs Along the Way by Kathleen Buswell Nielson continues P&R’s “Living Word” Bible Study series. Aileen enjoys using these studies to provide structure to her times of personal devotion.

Courage to Stand: Jeremiah’s Message for Post-Christian Times by Philip Graham Ryken is, well, I guess you can pretty much figure it out by the title.

Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong features John MacArthur and the leadership team at Grace Community Church. It offers Christian wisdom on a variety of contemporary topics ranging from the cult of celebrity and homosexual marriage to environmentalism and birth control. While I have not read it cover-to-cover, I have referred to several of the chapters and have enjoyed what I have read there. It looks like a good volume to keep on my shelves for future reference.

Practical Prayer by Derek Prime. Here’s another one I keep thinking I’m going to read but then don’t actually get to. Sooner or later I should, I suppose, as it looks like a good read.

The Fine Line: Re-envisioning the Gap Between Christ and Culture by Kary Oberbrunner. I’m sorry, Kary, but I just can’t read another Christ and culture book right now. My apologies!

Desperately Wicked: Philosophy, Christianity and the Human Heart by Patrick Downey. Again, I’m pretty sure this one would make my head explode.

Stars in God’s Sky by Faith Cook is another compilation of the short biographies Cook is known for.

July 03, 2009

Free Stuff Fridays

It’s Friday and that means I’ve got another Free Stuff Fridays for you. This week’s sponsor is Shepherd Press, a name I’m sure most are familiar with. “Shepherd Press is committed to provide God’s people with solid biblical books and materials. … At Shepherd Press we look for materials that … will enable us to identify the idols of the heart that pollute our service to Christ, keeping us mired in confusion, unable to obey God. They will also encourage us that we can “do all things through Christ who gives [us] strength.” Remember the gospel is for Christians. We daily repent and cast ourselves on the abundant grace of Jesus Christ.”

This week five participants will each win a copy of Paul David Tripp’s new book Broken-Down House: Living Productively in a World Gone Bad along with his previous title Lost in the Middle. “Sin has ravaged the house that God created. It sits slumped, disheveled, in pain and groaning for the restoration that can only be accomplished by the hands of him who built it in the first place. The good news is that the divine Builder will not relent until everything about his house is made new again. The bad news is that you and I are living right in the middle of the restoration process. We live each day in a house that is terribly broken, where nothing works exactly as intended. But Emmanuel lives here as well, and he is at work returning his house to its former beauty.”

Here is a video in which Tripp describes this book:

Rules: You may only enter the draw once. Simply fill out your name and email address to enter the draw. As soon as the winners have been chosen, all names and addresses will be immediately and permanently erased. Winners will be notified by email. The giveaway closes Saturday at noon.


June 26, 2009

Free Stuff Fridays

It’s Friday and, as you know, that brings us to another edition of Free Stuff Fridays—an opportunity for you to win some free product from a great sponsor. This week’s sponsor is Timberdoodle, a supplier of homeschooling curriculum and related material. They are offering five great prizes. Each of five winners will be able to select a set of Jungle Doctor books (there are two sets of six books—winners will be able to select one or the other). This is what they say about these books:

Popular For A Reason
In the 1940s there was probably no more crucial calling than that of a missionary, no more intriguing place than Africa, and no more gratifying task than that of a doctor. Mix the three together and you have a series of mesmerizing children’s books that have inspired multiple generations of children to serve God regardless of the cost.

Bringing Medical Help To A Primitive Culture
Born in 1910, Paul White was an extraordinary Australian missionary who labored several years as a physician in the African nation of Tanzania. The Jungle Doctor series is based on his experiences working in the bush and recounts the struggles of providing medicine in a primitive colonial hospital.

Epidemics, Drug Dealers, Witchdoctors, Wildlife… vs. The Gospel
But epidemics weren’t the only battle the doctor faced. Satan used drug dealers, witchdoctors, and menacing wildlife in an attempt to choke out the doctor’s Gospel message. Yet Paul, clearly a gifted communicator, effectively shared God’s love with Tanzanian families in a unique way that made complete sense to them. If your family likes read aloud books, know that these are some of best, for there is much to discuss in nearly every chapter. From the idiosyncrasies of the Australian language and how diseases are spread to the dark side of unbelief, each volume is an education in itself. First published in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Jungle Doctor series has been translated into more than eighty languages, including Braille, and is newly reprinted for another generation.

You can read more by looking at the first set or the second set at the Timberdoodle site.

870-601-2.jpg

Rules: You may only enter the draw once. Simply fill out your name and email address to enter the draw. As soon as the winners have been chosen, all names and addresses will be immediately and permanently erased. Winners will be notified by email. The giveaway closes Saturday at noon.


June 19, 2009

A couple of weeks ago Dr. Mohler supplied a suggested summer reading list. My tastes and Dr. Mohler’s run pretty much the same when it comes to recreational reading so I thought I’d go ahead and just read this entire list of ten books. I’m now forty percent of the way through (math wizzes will do the math and figure out that this means I’ve read four of the ten) and thought I’d report in.

The Unforgiving MinuteFirst up was The Unforgiving Minute by Craig Mullaney. Mohler says “The Unforgiving Minute is in account that mixes courage with intelligence and deep patriotic commitment with a reflective mind. This book is an account of education, growth into manhood, and the demands of leadership. It unites the intensity of battle with the anguished thoughts of a young man who desperately wants to be worthy of the trust invested in him.” I found it a fascinating read and one that was atypical for war memoirs (of which I’ve read many). Mullaney is both a jock and an intellectual, a guy who is as comfortable in the halls of academia (he was a Rhodes scholar) as he is in the wrestling ring (where he was quite an accomplished athlete). He is far from a Texas Republican (like the authors of many of the memoirs I’ve read) and yet he’s also not quite the Rhode Island liberal we might (unfairly) expect for a guy who is part of the Obama-Biden Transition Team. He offers a poignant look at coming of age on the battlefield that is reminiscent of the similar memoirs of men like Eugene Sledge and Erich Maria Remarque, to whom he is clearly indebted. Forewarned is forearmed and, as Mohler noted, there is a little bit of profanity in this book, though it is mostly descriptive and happens on battlefields (where, by all accounts, there tends to be a fair bit of profanity). If you are interested in war memoirs, this one is a must-read.

With Wings Like EaglesNext up was Michael Korda’s With Wings Like Eages. I’ve always had a deep fascination with the Battle of Britain (which probably began the day I saw the movie of that name) and read this book like it was a spy thriller. Mohler says “With Wings Like Eagles is an accurate and well-written account that takes the reader into the drama of those days and the lives of the pilots. Korda places the Battle of Britain within the larger context of the war and, in the end, makes clear that, had Britain fallen, the world we know would be a remarkably different place.” It is, indeed, both accurate and well-written. It is also perfectly-paced, never getting bogged down in the details. It is deep enough to give a good sense of the ebb and flow of the battle, but not so deep that it becomes inaccessible. If I was forced to come up with a negative for this book, I’d point to the author’s esteem, and perhaps even over-esteem, for Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. In fact, in many places the book reads almost like a biography of Dowding. While his importance to the battle and to the eventual Allied victory in the Second World War has long been under-appreciated, Korda may be just a little bit too positive toward his hero. Nevertheless, this is a very good book and one that describes an exceedingly important battle that without doubt changed the world.

Hunting EichmannThe third book I read was Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb. The book describes how a group of survivors along with a fledgling spy agency hunted down the man who engineered much of the Holocaust. And, of course, they quickly brought him to justice in a moment that was pivotal in Israeli history and in Israeli self-identity. Mohler says “Bascomb has written the only full account of Eichmann’s capture and its aftermath. He tells the story with great skill, and he sets the record straight on a number of questions. The most interesting fact about the search for Adolf Eichmann in the years after World War II is the fact that he was not even on the top list of wanted Nazi criminals at the war’s end. Eichmann’s central role in administering the “Final Solution” and the murder of millions of Jews in Germany and central Europe became evident only in the years after the war.” This is a book that reads like a novel, or close to it, in any case. It reminded me a fair bit of James Swanson’s Manhunt which also described the historical account of hunting down a notorious killer (and which is also well worth the read). Like that book, I couldn’t put it down until I had read the last page. I knew little about Eichmann and even less about his life after the war, his capture and his trial. This book provided the facts on all of these matters and did so in a fast-paced, compelling way.

War War One a Short HistoryFinally, just this morning I finished World War One: A Short History by Norman Stone. Mohler says “Without flinching, Stone tells the story of the hubris and insane optimism that brought Europe into this disaster and he recounts the blunders and grinding murderousness of this war. Most Americans want to know more about World War I and, most importantly, they want to understand what that war meant. World War One: A Short History is a great place to find those questions answered.” It is difficult to do justice to as great an event as the First World War in only 180 pages, but Stone does as well as we could hope. He does particularly well in describing the causes of the war and in showing at the end of his narrative how this war was really the prelude for the even greater, even more costly Second World War. Though it is relatively easy to read, it can be a little bit difficult to follow simply because so much had to be left out so this could be, as it claims, a short history. Still, anyone who is eager to read a brief overview of the War, or anyone who seeks to understand some of the background to the Second War, would do well to read this book.

That brings me to four out of ten. For Father’s Day I’ve requested three more from the list: Sultana, The Third Reich at War (which, based on its size, is clearly going to be a challenge) and Horse Soldiers. That will leave me with Masters and Commanders, Maverick Military Leaders and For the Thrill of It. Speaking of which, for the thrill of it, I also picked up the novel City of Thieves which Mohler also recently recommended. It’s going to be a busy summer. I’ll check in again when I’ve scratched a few more off my list.

One more quick note. While browsing the shelves of my local bookstore a short time ago, I came across What I Read, a little reading journal. It simply offers a place to record the books you’ve read along with a few brief comments about them. I’ve quite enjoyed using the journal and think it would make a perfect gift for any reader. So take a look and consider getting one for anyone you know who loves to read. They’ll love it.

Pages