Sunday, April 05, 2015

Book review: Rasmus and the Vagabond

Astrid Lindgren is best known as the author of the Pippi Longstocking series of books, but her portfolio includes dozens of non-Pippi titles. "Rasmus and the Vagabond", published in 1956, is one of the most underappreciated.

Rasmus is a 9-year-old boy living in an orphanage in Sweden. He and his best friend Gunnar spend their days digging up potatoes, avoiding "The Hawk" (the strict head of the orphanage), and daydreaming about being adopted some day. The descriptions of what life post-adoption would be like are what give this book its heart. The Hawk is all business, but Rasmus longs for her motherly touch and relishes the rare occasions when he receives it. His greatest wish is that a couple would bring him into their home so he'd have a mother of his own who'd put her arm around him.

Rasmus decides to leave the orphanage in the middle of the night. Trouble is, he has no plans for what to do once he's out in the world. On the first day, he befriends a homeless drifter named Oscar, who becomes a mentor to Rasmus and shows him how live life on the road.

The adventurous part of the book occurs when Rasmus and Oscar two witness a crime, and then pursue the criminals.   Along the way, they put their lives and freedom at risk.

The kids who read this will enjoy the adventures, but this book has depth that made it enjoyable for this adult. The boy's longing for parents, for someone to love him, is the heart of the story, and it makes "Rasmus and the Vagabond" worth reading for anyone of any age.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

In The Heart of the Dark Wood, by Billy Coffey: A Book Review

"In the Heart of the Dark Wood", Billy Coffey's 5th book, is, like the others, set in the fictional town of Mattingly, Virginia, using many of the same characters as in the previous books. The new novel is not a sequel in the strictest sense, but certainly is built on the stories already told, particularly "When Mockingbirds Sing". That heartbreaking, yet hopeful story included a tragedy which caused tremendous damage (emotional as well as physical) to the entire community. 

In "Mockingbirds", we were introduced to Allie, a young girl whose mother was taken away by the tornado, her body never found. The new story focuses on Allie's search for her lost mother. Allie believes her mom is the focus of her search, but it becomes apparent that she's actually looking for closure, for healing, for her dad's freedom from addiction, and for the restoration of her faith. Along the way, Allie's friend Zach discovers, at the age of 12, that he is much further along in the journey to manhood than he knew. 

Despite the 370-page length, this book managed to keep my interest as I followed Allie, Zach, and her pooch Sam on their trek through the woods. Once I reached the end, the payoff was huge. The conclusion to the story was powerful, and I didn't see it coming. 

When I finished "In the Heart of the Dark Wood", I felt closer to God, and gained a greater appreciation for His sovereignty, how much He is in control, and how much he loves us and cares for us in creative ways. 

Disclaimer 1: The book opens with a scene in which Allie experiences her first period. It made for some awkward reading, but trust me when I say it's essential to the story. I mention this in case you plan to let your kid read the book, as I did.

Disclaimer 2: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Moment You Can't Get Back

He left out the "E".

A year earlier, the boy won his school spelling bee, and then took 3rd place in the area bee. That day's winner, Ansun Sujoe, ended up sharing the national title. By finishing just two places behind him, the boy saw himself as just a step away from qualifying for a trip to Washington. So he resolved that next year was going to be his year. He began, 7 months early, to study the list of several hundred pretty hard words. He studied in the car and at home, often at the expense of time with the TV or video games.

The goal was to make it to the nationals, but before that could happen, he'd still have to achieve 1st or 2nd place in his class, and then for his school, in order to match last year's progress. Now, on this night, here he was, one of 3 remaining contestants in the school bee. He only had to last longer than one of the others. The boy was asked to spell a word he knew well. But his excitement at getting such an easy word led him to go a little too fast, and from his mouth came F-I-E-R-C-L-Y.

As a parent, it was a hard thing to witness. The shocked look. The busted dream. The idea that all these months of studying were for naught. The look of loss on his face. The quest to go all the way to the nation's capital had ended before he could even make it out of his own school.

With an unintentional, momentary slip, the boy was done for the year, just like that. The missed "E" took less than a second. One tiny snippet of time did him in.

Oh, how he wanted that moment back. The unfairness of it all! But what's done is done. There is no do-over. No rewind button.

I felt bad for him that night, but I am proud of how he handled it. He'll bounce back, and a lot of good will come from this unexpected turn of events that changed the course of the upcoming weeks.

A single sliver of time can change everything. I think of others who also have one moment they wish they could have back. The paraplegic who injured herself as a teen while diving with friends in a pond. The man whose wife is devastated by the words he said to her in a rage. The 20-something who put a kid in the hospital with her decision to run that red light. The athlete who feels he let his team down when he let that ball go in and then out of his hands. A soldier in the VA hospital, learning to use his prosthetic leg, because he failed to notice that IED on the side of the road in Baghdad. The prisoner in San Quentin doing 20 years because he bowed to peer pressure and participated in this buddies' crime.

Do you have a single second in time you wish you could get back? I do, and I'm not alone. Many have regrets about something we did, said, or allowed in one moment, at some point in our lives. Something we did, or something we chose not to do. Either way, our lives were affected.

The two big lies

We all have an lying enemy who wants nothing more than to keep us from walking in the truth, and when it comes to regrets, two lies pop up on a regular basis.

Lie #1: That moment defines me. This is crucial: don't fall into the trap of thinking that that one moment speaks to who we are. It doesn't. We may have messed up, but the instances where we did the right thing are too many to ignore. We are not defined by our slip-ups.

However, we can certainly be defined by how we respond to such moments. "It's not about how you got knocked down, but how well you got back up" sounds like a tired cliche, but it's 100% true.  While God doesn't allow us to have a do-over, to press Rewind, He does take great interest in our reaction.

Lie #2: If I could have a do-over, my life would be so much better now. The great thing about our God is that He's not surprised by these things, and He can and will use all these things to fit His purposes. The exciting thing is that we get to watch it play out. The boy who lost the spelling bee exhibited great character and maturity when he held his composure and congratulated the two kids who finished ahead of him. He likely learned a few lessons through this ordeal which will make him into a better young man. When we accept that these important life-changing moments are not random, we can better embrace His guidance on the new unexpected path that our life has taken. Someday, we may even look back on it and see God's wisdom in the entire thing.  

Wait....God is a God of Second Chances, Isn't He?

God is so gracious to us that He finds ways to redeem our bad moments, but He's not in the business of erasing them as if they never happened. Despite David's sincere repentance, God didn't make Bathsheba un-pregnant.  If you had a moment that you want to have back, I am sorry: you cannot get it back. The uniqueness of God is that He chooses to redeem our bad moments rather than simply erasing them. Trust me when I say this is good news.

Restoration: The real meaning of Jeremiah 29:11
"'For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope."  Sadly, Jeremiah 29:11  is widely misunderstood because so often, it's taken out of context.

This is not a Word-of-faithy, feel-good, everything-will-turn-out-alright verse; God is scolding His people when He utters this statement. For crying out loud, He's promising them 70 years of captivity as a consequence of their sin.  But a proper contextual understanding of His promise actually yields us great news: even as we come to realize that bad things are going to happen, God is going to find a way to wipe the mud off of this thing and clean it up.

God is in the restoration business. But restoration doesn't mean He pretends the bad moment didn't happen. He doesn't give that moment back to us so we can do it better and avoid the fallout. He redeems it. He restores us where it's need most: on the inside (Psalm 23:3: "He restores my soul")

No, you cannot have that moment back. But if you will hand it to God, He'll do more with it than you could ever imagine.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Top 5 Weird Al Songs That Are Better Than the Original

In a passing conversation recently, I mentioned "Eat It" to my son, and it became clear that, not only did he have no idea who Weird Al Yankovic is, he was equally unfamiliar with Michael Jackson's "Beat It", the song that "Eat It" was based on.

I wanted to show him the Weird Al song, but "Eat It" is only funny if you know "Beat It."  After showing him the videos for both tunes (he laughed), he went off to do this own thing, while I remained at the desktop and allowed myself to get sucked into Youtube's collection of Weird Al songs and clips.

The realization hit me: many of the songs that Weird Al made in fun are actually better tunes than the ones being parodied. Here, then, is my list of the best Weird Al creations that are better than the original:

5. "Achy Breaky Song"

Original: "Achy Breaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus

Comment: This one is unique in that the entire point of the Weird Al song is to dis the Billy Ray original.

4. "Do I Creep You Out?"

Original: "Do I Make You Proud" by "Taylor Hicks"

Comment: Most "American Idol" winners are contractually obligated to issue an embarrassingly bad first single composed by music-mill writers, and "Do I Make You Proud" is one of the most bloated of the lot.   "Do I Creep You Out" captures the song's soap-opera-ness and adds lyrics which exploit the melodrama in the best way possible.

3. "Jurassic Park"

Original: "MacArthur Park"

Comment: Weird Al uses Steven Spielberg's movie adaptation of Michael Crighton's novel to take a swipe at Barney the Dinosaur as he takes on the song with the worst lyrics in music history (low point: "Someone left the cake out in the rain/I don't think that I can take it/Cause it took so long to bake it/And I'll never have the recipe again/Oh NOOOOOO!")

2. "Ricky"

Original: "Mickey"

Comment: Basing it on "I Love Lucy" is genius. Toni Basil's "Mickey"is one of most irritating songs of my lifetime. 

1. "Yoda"

Original: "Lola" by the Kinks

Comment: Although "Lola" is highly regarded among critics and even made the list of 500 Greatest Songs by Rolling Stone magazine, in my view, it's pretty lousy.  I fully realize that my assessment of "Lola" makes me lose credibility with music snobs, and I'm comfortable with that.

How about you? What is your favorite Weird Al song?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Review: Samantha Sanderson On the Scene

"Samantha Sanderson On the Scene" is the second book in Robin Carroll's series about a girl who strives to be an investigative journalist. The main character, Sam Sanderson, is a 7th grade cheerleader who wants to be a journalist, so she investigates crimes so she can write about them in the school paper. The focus on these books is to look at issues faced by middle-schoolers, and for this book, the issue is a tough one: a character's parents are getting divorced. The complication is that Sam finds it hard to sympathize with the girl, Nikki, who's kind of mean. But when Nikki becomes victim of a string of attacks, Samantha steps up and works to put a stop to it.

Because this is a line of Christian books, parents should know that this books contains some bible verses, a chapter about Samatha's church. Also, Nikki turns out to not be so mean after all.

My 12-year-old daughter liked the book, and she's in the target demographic. I received a free copy of the book as part of Book Look program, in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review: Crater Trueblood, by Homer Hickam

Crater Trueblood is the third in Homer Hickam's Helium 3 series of novels, after "Crater" and "Crescent".  The main character in all 3 novels is Crater, who, in the course of the story, transforms from a young man who works as a Moon-based miner to an owner of a search-and-rescue business who ends up saving the world. And in this case, "the World" means what remains of humans, who no longer live on Earth but on the Moon.

A young female protagonist, Maria, is an antagonist for part of the story, but it's fairly obvious from the get-go that she and Crater are meant to be. Other characters include Crater's brother and business partner, and then there are litle creatures called gillies, kind of like pets but who have minds of their own.

My son read the first Crater book at the age of 10, and now, at the age of 12, has completed the new one. This series is among the very few works of fiction being offered by Christian publishers these days in which the target audience is young pre-teen or early-teen boys. If you have a son in that age range who likes adventure, the Helium 3 series is well-written.

The publisher, Thomas Nelson, offered me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.