Book Review: Saffire

An intricate story with complex, diverse–if not a bit confusing–characters. The best part is that history is woven into the narrative, a piece of history that was unfamiliar to me.

The writing is wonderful, rich and creative. Many times I simply paused in awe of the author’s ability to describe a scene or individual.

My only complaint is that the characters remain underdeveloped. I finished the story feeling as if even the protagonist was holding something back from me. He remained mysterious. Certainly, all the supporting characters seems that way.

Overall, a very enjoyable read.

Who’da Thought? A Book Review of “A Curious Man”

Considering the age gap between Mr. Ripley and myself, I don’t know if you’d consider a surprise that until recently I wasn’t even sure he was real. Even after touring the Odditorium in Panama City Beach years ago, he remained something of a mythical figure in my mind—a caricature created to represent a collection of the strange and super strange.

A Curious Man, by Neal Thompson, set me straight. In this clever, engaging book, Thompson reveals the real Ripley, arguably as odd a man as any of his bizarre collections. I’ll venture to say that I’m not the only person who had a faulty perception of LeRoy Ripley, making this a fun, informative read for many Americans.

After a quick dip in the deep end, introducing Ripley in his element on one of his several international adventures, Thompson rewinds to the very beginning of Ripley’s life, a very unpretentious genesis.

Born in Santa Rosa, California, Ripley was a reserved child mostly due to embarrassment over his deformed smile—he had very obtrusive buck teeth. Perhaps it was this shyness that endeared him to a high school teacher who recognized Ripley’s artistic talent. After several miserable attempts at oral reports, this teacher, Ms. O’Meara, allowed him to present his papers as drawings. And perhaps it was this vote of confidence that inspired Ripley to submit his first comic to LIFE magazine in 1907.

Ripley’s career began there, as a newspaper comic and through a series of unfortunate events, punctuated by a handful of lucky breaks, Ripley found his niche—“an uneasy fascination with the ‘demented, delusioned, diseased and devout’ of the world,”.

Thompson does an excellent job of unraveling the real LeRoy Ripley. He frequently steps away from the close up of Ripley’s career to discuss his athletic talent, propensity for womanizing and often chauvinistic tendencies. He also provides an easy-to-understand chronology of journalism post WWI.

A Curious Man, is a fun read and informative almost by accident; the reader hardly notices the history lesson as he marvels at the main character. There is very little dialogue in the book, making for a fairly passive read, but that is easily overlooked as one is swept up in the confounding.

Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, a book review

Never before has a book intrigued and confused me so much—except perhaps the works of C.S. Lewis. Walter Wink is undoubtedly on par with Lewis in the depth, richness and profundity of his thought.

The concepts addressed in Wink’s final book, Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human, are nothing short of revolutionary to common Christian paradigms. At the same time, Wink preserves, promotes and honors the integrity of Sola Scriptura (only scripture). His words  cause the everyday, lay-believer to critically rethink all that he has simply assumed about God and God’s relationship to man.

Just Jesus begins with a number of small, almost incidental essays; unrelated chapters showing the development of Wink’s theology over time.These seem to employ circular thought to convey fairly insignificant events. But perhaps, by the time one hits the meat of the book (in my opinion) on page 77, all of these were necessary to provide context, a means of understanding how Wink came to these conclusions.

Two points in particular provide a veritable feast for spiritual mediation. I will be mulling over and chewing on these truths for years to come. First, is Wink’s explanation and endorsement of Biblical nonviolence. The second point, which informs the whole book and I imagine all of Wink’s life, is this: God is Human.

At one point or another, I think all Christians have chafed at the commandment to “do good to those who hate you” (Matthew 5:44). We’ve found Christ’s words unpalatable: to offer our shirt to the man who steals our coat, or to offer to walk two miles with the man who forced us to carry his load for one. (Matthew 5:40, Matthew 5:41)

In this book, Wink invites the reader into a classroom of college students where he taught on the subject of biblical nonviolence and uses these passages for support. He explains that in first century Palestine, under Mosaic Law, a creditor could haul a debtor into court and demand his coat as collateral for an unpaid loan.

As Jesus told this story, most of His audience were the poor. Likely, many of them had even experienced this humiliating ordeal. Then Jesus went a step further than The Law, suggesting that the debtor offer up his shirt also. Considering the clothing of that time, this would have left the poor man completely naked.

Wink explains Jesus intent:

“Put yourself in the debtor’s place and imagine the guffaws this saying must have evoked. There stands the creditor, beet-red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand and your underwear in the other. you have suddenly turned the tables on him. You had no hope of winning the trial; the law was entirely in his favor. But you have refused to be humiliated, and at the same time you have registered a stunning protest against a system that spawns such debt. The creditor is revealed not to be a “respectable” moneylender but to be a party in the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution.” (pg. 79)

After expositing the story of walking a second mile, Wink concludes, “From a situation of servile impressments, you have once more seized the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice.” (pg. 81)

Far from endorsing impotent passivism, Jesus is essentially suggesting unconventional warfare; win the argument by retaining self respect and the power of choice. I finished that chapter dumbstruck. How had I never seen those passages so clearly before? Then, I came to Wink’s essay, “Ezekiel’s Vision”.

I could only do this chapter a pitiful disservice in my attempt to relay all of Wink’s wisdom. It is here that the significance of the title is revealed. Wink’s “struggle to become human” was the consummate mission of his life because:

“And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN…It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness—which is to say, we are capable of becoming human.”

Doesn’t this incite your curiosity as to why Jesus referred to Himself as, “The Son of Man”? Wink reveals that a more accurate translation is, “The Son of The Man”. What does this mean?

There is much to ponder in this fascinating book, Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human. The concepts are deep and the prose are wordy. However, if we are called as Christians to meditate on God’s Word day and night, Wink’s final work is an excellent resource to inform that pondering.

Marital Counseling in the Context of a True Story

By the time a couple finishes the first round of premarital counseling, most are willing to admit that marriage requires, and affects, personal change. All will affirm that marriage involves cherishing and being cherished.

However, only after the rings are exchanged, the threshold crossed and the first dinner bloopers endured, does light dawn on the truth that these aspects of marriage are not only true, they are nonnegotiable and they are mutually dependent.

Jane Kirkpatrick’s trilogy, Emma of Aurora, The Change and Cherish Trilogy, is a fascinating, didactic work of historical fiction. In her remarkably accurate account of the life of Emma Wagner Giesy, Kirkpatrick quietly unveils the perils, the promises, the possibilities and the purpose of marriage.

Emma Wagner Giesy’s life was fraught with perils. She had a strong mind and a ferocious sense of independence. Neither bode well for her in the ultra-conservative, communal Christian colony in Bethel, Missouri, where she grew up. She fell in love with Christian Giesy, during a Christmas morning church service in 1851, as she studied him across the isle dividing male and female worshipers.

Her subsequent marriage to Heir Keil’s right hand man, immediately set her at odds with the colony’s undisputed leader. Tension simmered as Emma worked to manipulate the men in her life to respect her wishes, something unheard of in the patriarchal colony. But she won more battles than she lost and eventually found herself the lone woman accompanying her husband and a small group of scouts westward to find a new homestead for the growing Bethel colony.

Perils of loneliness, physical pain, rejection and exhaustion assaulted Christian and Emma’s marriage. I watched as Emma and Christian changed, almost imperceptibly, learning to cherish each other in spite of their differences.

God’s promises prevailed over and over in this true, rich story. Kirkpatrick uses Emma’s voice to recall Scripture frequently. Familiar Biblical texts became Emma’s lifeline when her husband seemed distant and unfeeling. At the same time, Emma and Christian’s vows to each other endured continuous refining fire, but emerged stronger.

At risk of giving away Emma’s darkest, most transformational peril revealed in Book 2, I’ll simply tell you that through Emma’s story, Kirkpatrick helps the reader to understand God’s promise, “All things work together for the good of those who love Him”, often requires that we believe, “With God all things are possible”.

Finally, Kirkpatrick’s uses Emma’s story to show the purpose of marriage. God designed the union of man and woman in marriage to be unlike any other relationship. The aggravating truth of our stark differences can make marriage one of the most difficult relationships. But it is through the pain of changing that we understand how much God cherishes us. It is in learning to rest in our Father’s love that we become able to accept the differences of others, gently accept God’s changing us, and become able to cherish another human being.

This book is an excellent, unparalleled read. Kirkpatrick develops vibrant, multi-dimensional characters. None is flawless and the reader’s loyalty vacillates, even occasionally leaving the heroine.

The conclusion left me with a deeper self-awareness. It cultivated introspection, an attentiveness to the changes God longs to make in my own life. At the same time, the book left me with peace, a confidence that I am cherished, even as I am changing.

Book Review: Burning Sky

I didn’t like her much, this heroine. In spite of her determination, resiliency and resourcefulness, I struggled to identify with her. Her choices angered me. Her independence and chilly demeanor almost hurt my feelings.

It takes an extraordinary writer to plant within the reader reservations about the protagonist, to engender a dislike, and then to cultivate and tend that emotion until it evolves into humble respect, indeed genuine affection. Lori Benton is such a writer.

Willa Obenchain is introduced in the first chapter of Benton’s novel, Burning Sky. However, she remains nameless, and therefore seems almost heartless, for many pages. She is first observed in an act of charity, rescuing a wounded Scotsman, who fell from his horse and lay alone facing certain death in the wilderness of northern New York during the volatile years of the Revolutionary War.

But Willa’s kindness is an act of duty, not of tenderness. Repeated loss blunted her ability to give or receive love. As the story unfolds, Willa’s own past is revealed piece by piece, always against her will. Rarely does Willa admit any of her story to another, instead holding all things close and tight within.

Willa had been kidnapped by Indians when she was a mere 14 years old. She spent twelve years in an adopted family, steeped in a culture considered foreign and savage by her race. Willa eventually found peace within the tribe and her position in Wolf Clan. But again, death and violence raped her sense of safety and belonging. Her Indian husband was killed in battle, her two daughters perished and finally, even her adopted mother died. Isolated, rootless, Willa trudged alone back to the people of her birth, not sure if they still lived or would welcome her.

There Willa’s two lives intersect. When she arrives back at the cabin of her youth, her biological parents are gone, likely dead. Along her travels, she has acquired the wounded Scotsman, planning only to tend his wounds and bid him leave. With nothing and no one to claim, she plans to live out her solitary days on her parents’ land.

Perhaps this is why I found Willa so unlikable. I haven’t the fortitude to accept such loss, turn and challenge life to embrace me alone, with nothing else to lose ever again. I am far to needy, far to easily broken. I must gather all possible sources of life and cling to them, nurturing every relationship for mutual sustenance.

Brilliantly, Benton brings new characters, one at a time, into Willa’s tight circle. Each one in a sense, pitching stones against her resolution to remain lonely. There’s the convalescing Scotsman with his Bible, bold faith and budding affection for her. An Indian harboring love for her as well, but vacillating between a longing for her as a clan sister or a wife. Long lost relationships with the people of Shiloh, the nearest city, are shaky. How should she be considered: Recovered daughter of their own, or as if she represents all their fears of the mysterious indigenous people?

Benton’s description of the New York landscape is exquisite. From broad colorful strokes of the countryside, to the minute details of Willa’s eyes and the Scotsman’s voice, her story vibrates with almost tangible realism. In this context, like a potter at his wheel, continuously shaping a vessel, Benton sculpts and refines Willa’s character to the very last page.

I write this review humbly. Benton skillfully wrought from me admiration, even affection for Willa Obenchain.

Burning Sky is a rich experience, not only of historically accurate imagination, but of personal revelation for the reader.