"Book-o-rama (|15|)"    [ 02 ]   
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Feb 2016
 starz (5) Outrageously Superb
Outrageously Superb  
 starz (4½) Nearly Perfect
Nearly Perfect  
 starz (4) Quite Wonderful
Quite Wonderful  
 starz (3½) Really Excellent
Really Excellent  
 starz (3) Pretty Good / Enjoyable
Pretty Good / Enjoyable  
 starz (2½) Just All Right / OK
Just All Right / OK  
 starz (2) Not Very Impressive
Not Very impressive  
 starz (1½) Barely Readable
Barely Readable  
 starz (1) A Waste of Time
A Waste Of Time  
 starz (½) Hideously Unthinkable
Just Rotten Stuff  
 starz (0) Not Yet Evaluated
Not Yet Evaluated  
   1 · "George Müller of Bristol and His Witness to a Prayer-Hearing God" (Arthur T. Pierson)
   2 · "The Time Traveler's Almanac" (Ann & Jeff VanderMeer)
   3 · "Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent" (Gabrielle Walker)
   4 · "On the Path of the Immortals" (Thomas Horn & Cris Putnam)
   5 · "The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible" (Holden & Geisler)
   6 · "If God Is In Control, Why Is My Life Such A Mess?" (Michael Youssef)
   7 · "Ambient Findability" (Peter Morville)
   8 · "Absolute Surrender" (Andrew Murray)
   9 · "Skeletons on the Zahara" (Dean King) [Honorable Mention]
 10 · "The Bait of Satan" (John Bevere) [Honorable Mention]
 11 · "Don't Waste Your Life" (John Piper) [Honorable Mention]
 12 · "Art of Rush" (Hugh Syme / Steven Humphries) [Honorable Mention]
  »  · "TIME Specials: Mark Twain" (Nancy Gibbs)
  »  · "Lilo & Stitch: Collected Stories From the Film's Creators" (Hiro Clark Wakabayashi)
  »  · "Thomas Cole's Voyage of Life" (Paul D. Schweitzer)
  »  · "The Beatles · A Hard Day's Write - The Story Behind Every Song" (Steve Turner)
  »  · "Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Search" (DiMartino, Konietzko, Yang, Marshall, Gurihiru)

This was a rather lean year, mainly due to this first book which took all of 2015 to get through! Reasons for this are described below, but I blame George Müller primarily for the patchwork number of subjects this year. Due in part to this lean list, a few honorable mentions have been included from a year or two before I began writing book reviews in the first place — they're just That Good. And also, for the first time, I am throwing in a few meaningful pseudo-books that are more robust than regular magazines, but not quite true books in their own right, listed as 'bookazines' near the end. (You will see why they qualified for inclusion)

I hope you find something good to read here . . .

book: "George Müller of Bristol and His Witness to a Prayer-Hearing God"
1 · "George Müller of Bristol and His Witness to a Prayer-Hearing God" (Arthur T. Pierson) © 1899,2013 / 241 pgs
   starz (5) Outrageously Superb [5]

Trying to write a review for this book is like trying to walk among the waves curling upon a lively Hawaiian shoreline. There is just so much that hits you from all sorts of angles on nearly every page . . . I can say without reservation: of the thousands of books I have read in my life — outside of the Bible of course (which really is in a class of its own) — no one single tome has so challenged me, and affected me, quite like this one. I love true-life accounts of those who have gone before us, learning about how they figured their way in the world, in their times and places in history, striving to honor God in their ways, choices, and everything. Such Christian biographies quicken my heart and strengthen both my spirit and my resolve. But this biography... this one is a hard read full of dense prose, not at all easy to process. It is not a 'fun' book. It will tear you inside-out, but in the best possible sense.  :-]  It encourages a real assessment of one's priorities, motives, and beliefs, but not just in reflection after you have finished reading it. No. Usually in as many pages as you might plough through in one sitting. As a result, you feel tumbled and thrashed a bit in the waves of reality and possibilities... It is difficult to describe, but I could not read this book in long stretches. It was just too intense for me... I rank it so high not for the writing 'voice' which is challenging, but rather for the power of its influence upon me. This true-life account of George Müller's life is literally changing my life... I say "is" because I will ~ must ~ carve through this volume again, maybe bracing for impact next time a little more prayerfully . . .

For all of this praise, George Müller was just a man, just a regular ordinary human being like anyone else. He lived a couple hundred years ago (9·27·1805 to 3·10·1898) and died at age 92. But unlike most others, he determined to reflect the Living God during his time here on earth by realistically, boldly, and plainly committing his life to this purpose:

​“I have joyfully dedicated my whole life to the object of exemplifying how much may be accomplished by prayer and faith.”

He concluded that, in his time and culture (Bristol, England) the best way to demonstrate the reality of God through his own life was to found a number of orphanages without ever appealing to anyone, outside of God, for any means of support. He resolved to simply pray and wait upon God to provide. And time and time again, God delivered, causing Müller's chosen field of ministry to grow and grow... He accomplished his aim(s) over and again by leaps and bounds, but certainly not without some incredible stretching of his faith! And God met his faith with miraculous providence for everything from money and means to food and clothes year after year. It truly is astonishing what just this one man did in the world, how many lives he elevated for the good (both practical and spiritual) simply by taking God at His Word. ~ This is all confirmed in clear-eyed secular records from the 1800's, not just limited to some cloistered archives in the back of some church somewhere. It is a testimony to his the effectiveness of his methods that his ministries in the Bristol area continued on to 2012, well over a hundred years after his death. This book goes 'behind the scenes' allowing us to share in his great adventures that started with orphanages and concluded with far-reaching missionary efforts. It is sincerely and truly humbling to tag along in this man's shadow . . .

George Muller (1805-1898) was an English evangelist who founded orphanages in Bristol. He trusted God for his daily needs to feed the orphans. George Muller dared to trust God for "great and mighty things" (Jer. 33:3). He dared to take God at His word and ventured to establish the Orphan Houses to prove that "with God nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37). Over his lifetime, George Muller cared for countless of orphans - all without asking anyone for a penny but only by going to God, his Jehovah-Jireh.

How did George Muller cultivate this faith? George Muller's faith was no different from my faith and your faith, as he once proclaimed. But his faith was stretched by the trials he went through which caused him to trust God for the "impossible." George Muller learned to depend on the Lord from his youth. He knew also the importance of spending quality time with the Lord first thing in the morning. George Muller "delighted in God" and He gave him the desires of his heart (Psalm 37:4). Over his lifetime, George Muller read the whole bible over one hundred times which developed his faith for the Bible says that "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17).

I lifted this brief bio not from this book, but from the website GeorgeMüller.org. Among the dozens of earmarked pages and highlighted paragraphs, I simply cannot choose which point to quote directly for the purpose of this review! But in looking up more information about the man and his ministry, I came across this site which proclaims itself "the web's largest collection of George Müller quotes, photos, books, and articles." From what I can tell, it seems pretty thorough, even providing free PDF books written by Müller (including this one at this webpage). In fact, I believe I will establish the devotionals listed here as a regular part of my daily routine for 2016...

This book calls one to an otherworldly place of learning like drinking from a rich fountain, or being flushed in the face with a fresh, life-promising spring breeze — but it is not for the slight of heart. And I make no claims to piety on my own account for having picked this up; it is so intense at times that I could only handle a few pages before I had to put it down and think on what I had just discovered! (Some spiritual giant, eh?)

That is that good of a book. It's a potential life-changer.

Of the hundreds of points I could share, I will summarize with one that inspires me more than it convicts (though it accomplishes that as well). Periodic summaries for certain years are provided, mainly to demonstrate what God had done, and certain lessons Müller learned along the way. At the top of page 90 (in my printing), while recounting experiences from 1840, this note is inserted (point #5) as a general observation:

Other children of God may not be called to a similar work, but are called to a like faith, and may experience similar interposition if they live according to His will and seek His help.

What a profound relief to see this addressed so directly in the text!

I cannot be another George Müller. I don't imagine many people would be so daring; otherwise, we would see more in history and today. The truth is, I am simply not called to be a repeater of this man's life in seeking to make my mark in this world. Yet I * am * called to be the best 'Tom' I can be as God created and placed me here, in this nation, during the years my life spans here. To turn this thinking around, George Müller may have been equipped with vision and spiritual fortitude to pursue and accomplish his chosen goals in this life, but he was not equipped in the unique way God has gifted the likes of me .. or you .. or everyone else! We each have the potential to be immensely effective wherever God has planted us in time and geography. We may not be able to emulate Müller's life, but his means to pursue the Lord provide a clear map showing How and Why we may seek to honor God just as he did, only in our own different avenues and ways!

I find this kind of thinking incredibly exciting, considering the blights in our day and age that we may all challenge and/or help to eradicate! And while most of us may not operate on the scale of George Müller, we are already touching many lives around us, and some deeply to the heart.  :-)  I have heard it said: "You may be the only Bible some people will ever read." It is the responsibility of every believer to point others to Christ as we live our lives, and books like this may help us to do so.

book: "The Time Traveler's Almanac"
2 · "The Time Traveler's Almanac" (Ann & Jeff VanderMeer [editors]) © 2013 / 948 pgs
   starz (3) Pretty Good / Enjoyable [3]

This thing took months to slog through: nearly 1,000 pages of wild, torrid, reality-bending time travel tales! I actually started it before the George Müller biography, but given its subject matter and the fact that I finished it after that one, I have listed it second. And I tell you: I will not be charging into anything as gargantuan as this again anytime soon, especially no brick-thick anthologies... Reading this felt like lugging a phone book around wherever I went, and seemed at times just as dry to plow through. I took it on mainly to test my own pending time-travel narrative concepts (still original ~ W00T!) against what is already in print. Half a dozen or so of these stories are reprints I have read recently in other collections, so I just skipped those.

This compendium is divided into four sections: Experiments (14) / Reactionaries and Revolutionaries (16) / Mazes and Traps (17) / Communiqués (18), along with a few stand-alone articles dropped in for good measure. All told, over 70 time-travel treatments can be found here. Unfortunately, every sci-fi/fantasy-related collection of this magnitude is obligated, it seems, to contain a percentage of certifiable rot in the form of thinly-disguised porn or erotica, and this giant volume is no exception. Because of this (and the fact that a majority of these stories that are just plain boring), I would have ranked it 2½ stars at the most. However, despite all the poop ribboned among its pages, some truly wonderful tales can be found in the mix. The good stuff is definitely better than "barely readable" as defined in my ranking system, so those stories elevate the slime-status of the others. (I'm looking at you, Le Guin, Klages, and Bear, just to name a few pervy agenda pushers)

Speaking of the stand-outs, my favorites include: "Vintage Season" (Kuttner & Moore) which does a wonderful job revealing the simultaneous wonder and commonality of future tourism from the perspective of the past, "Life Trap" (Barrington J. Bayley) which portrays a disquieting Edgar-Allan-Poe-like revelation about life after death, "The Most Important Thing in the World" (Steve Bein) which captures a genuine (and surprising) sense of romance amid time-travel mishaps, and "Loob" (Bob Leman) which not only reads like a Stephen King characters study, but answers what altered timelines might 'feel' like if recognized as such and/or missed . . . Good stuff!

Ray Bradbury's classic "The Sound of Thunder" is also included here, as is a two-story combo (divided by 500 pages) telling the same convoluted plot from the opposing viewpoints of one time-crossing protagonist. I have always been fascinated with that particular trope (best realized, in my experience thus far, in Robert Silverberg's novella "In Entropy's Jaws" sadly not a part of this collection). Harry Turtledove does his best here — "Forty, Counting Down" and "Twenty-one, Counting Up" — but as is often the case, one side drags a bit ..and it gets unnecessarily dirty.  :-|  It's a fun conceit, but ultimately boring. The best take on this sort of thing I have seen lately is the 2012 movie "Looper".

— Speaking of fun looping time-travel shenanigans, check out this video: "ECHO" (7:50) ~ It starts out kind of slow, but stay with it ~ it's worth it!

Besides the stand-outs mentioned above, I think I enjoyed the four 'insert' articles the most: "Top Ten Tips for Time Travelers" (Charles Yu), "Time Travel in Theory and Practice" (Stan Love), "Trousseau: Fashion for Time Travelers (Genevieve Valentine), and "Music for Time Travelers" (Jason Heller). Each of these are brief, fun, and packed with info. That last one actually sent me on a quest to look up a promising selection of the time-travel related songs and/or albums that I had never heard of before!

So, if you need a general volume of time-travel stories, or just something to stop armor-piercing bullets, this book may be the ticket. Otherwise, I'm trading it off after posting this book-o-rama report.

book: "Antarctica: An Intmate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent"
3 · "Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent" (Gabrielle Walker) © 2013 / 390 pgs
   starz (4) Quite Wonderful [4]

This was a much nicer read than the 'TT Almanac', like tagging along with Gabrielle as she experienced first-hand what Going To Antarctica is really all about.  :-)  I dove into this book after watching a documentary (in theater, best way) showing "Antarctica: A Year on Ice". I kind of obsessed on what it must be like to travel to the bottom of earth and dare to live there for any extended period of time, writing 2015's first blog post about this. In many ways, visiting Antarctica is not unlike going to another planet, with all the risks and challenges inherent in such a venture.

Unlike the rest of my reviews, I will not go into a lot of detail and quote samples of text because I happened to stumble upon this review (by John Capouya) that covers all those bases if you really want a blow-by-blow account of this book. Suffice it to say that I found the first half enthralling, full of incredible details and you-are-there moments of discovery. Gabrielle travels around the continent to visit different national outposts and research stations ~ even at the South Pole ~ meeting people from all over the world at the bottom of the world. She imparts some fascinating history (both epochal and human) and I was with her every step of the way — until she caught up with some drill teams coring down into sub-glacial lakes and seas. Her passion for that science fills the remainder of the book, along with a lot of save-the-planet banner waving. Now I'm all for Saving Earth of course [cha.. I live here] but don't want to read chapter after chapter of commercials about it. Establishing awareness is one thing; running that pump exhaustively for the last half of a book made me want to just pack up and vacate The Ice entirely.  ... Maybe that's her whole point ...

book: "On the Path of the Immortals"
4 · "On the Path of the Immortals" (Thomas Horn & Cris Putnam) © 2015 / 382 pgs
   starz (3) Pretty Good / Enjoyable [3]

◄ Just look at this cover!  :-)  That was half the reason I picked this thing up, the other half being the Twilight Zone subject matter which strikes mighty close to what I presented last summer in my eschatology update post. I present here my take on this book as a readable thing, but admit that it's a bit too X-Files/Close Encounters of the Third Kind even for me. It's a fun read, though, if you wanna just bounce around in such ideas for a while ~ but enter at your own risk . . .

The first thing I noticed is how it starts out by describing how much I should have read their previous book ("Exo-Vaticana"), which I had not, and which has an even more insane cover... Tom and Cris co-wrote this thing in tag-team form, ending up with something that feels like one part travelogue, and one part "In Search Of..." from the 1970's, leaning toward a faux Indiana Jones style of adventure. They touch on all manner of esoteric occurrences, suspicions, and manifestations of weirdness, describing for instance glowing orbs in Sedona, Arizona. I have hiked around Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon plenty, and have never seen any mysterious floating orbs (or encountered any power vortexes for that matter, which is not their thing in this book, but * is * part of Sedona's new age / make-believe / crystal-power / cultural vibe) Then again, they say this phenomena seems to focus around a particular place: Bradshaw Ranch. Perhaps I oughta drag a kid or two along and we should go check it out...

Plenty of B&W photos populate this book, which is fun. A picture on the bottom of page 78 shows Bell Rock, asking if it is "Home of the mothership?" Ann and I conquered Bell Rock just a couple of years ago ~ who knew?  :-)  Another photo on page 290 shows a supposed 'gate of the gods' carved directly into a massive boulder, set in action by who-knows what kind of lost ancient incantations. There's a doorway like this cut into a gargantuan free-standing stone structure just north of Kingman, AZ, on the way to Las Vegas. I have driven right past it for decades. Maybe we ought to jump out of our SUV with a slurpee in one hand and a camera in the other and Go Exploring... might be able to 'star-hop' on over to Nibiru or something... They just opened up a White Castle right across from the Mirage Hotel on the Strip, incentive enough to make the five-hour pilgrimage to Vegas sometime this year. I'll let you know we I find anything on the other side of that stone doorway besides, you know, more stone. (For the record, I am not a gambler and don't much care for Vegas at all .. but I take Ann once in a while for some show or exhibit . . probably take her to Blue Man Group next time ~ Maybe Not - just checked on ticket prices)

Anyway - they go into alarming details regarding "Project L.U.C.I.F.E.R." which seems like a blatant search for extra-terrestrial life (or confirmation of something on approach from space). L.U.C.I.F.E.R. is part of a deep space telescope complex located atop Mount Graham just a couple hours' drive from Tucson, AZ - and is all controlled/operated by the Vatican. Seriously. This whole idea actually seems to hold up under scrutiny as other sources verify this level of weirdness going on there. (Check into it for yourself, it's pretty wild)

They also aren't shy about writing about an ancient Hopi prophecy involving a star (or alien-like being) called the 'Blue Kachina', UFO's (natch), portals and other dimensions, Watchers, OOPARTS (out-of-place/time artifacts), giants and Nephilim (Nephilim star gates) .. . They quote freely from ancient sources of questionable authority, including the 'book of Enoch' and something called the "Qumran War Scroll", among others. Their summary statement is found at the start of the last paragraph on page 276: "The mystery religions and secret societies seek to open the old portals and welcome back the ancient gods." By 'ancient gods' they mean demons. While the theology is sound (ie, other self-or-otherwise proclaimed 'gods' outside of the one REAL God) their divulging of 'secret societies' and the means and methods of such, and everything else these two describe just starts getting tumbled in a maelstrom of wild-eyed gobbledy-gook toward the end, concluding with a rather unfortunate chapter focusing on phallic symbolism in mysterious ancient structures.  :-/

There are some interesting ideas presented in this book and, I presume, in their other titles. But there are also a lot of wild-eyed theories and suppositions that feel a bit like an Old West, Raiders of the Lost Ark version of "Chariots of the Gods" rather than sound research and widely verifiable proofs. I subscribe to the idea that where there's smoke, there's fire... So, as off-the-grid though as they may coast in their narrative(s), I do think they criss-cross a few Very Real situations that most people just don't know about simply because their lives have never tripped over such wires. Take ancient giants (think: Goliath). I used to scoff at the idea that such giants actually existed in the real world . . until a friend and I just went off on a lark and started researching what the Bible (and plenty of other sources) specifies about fallen angels and the "sons of Anak" (Anakites) .. Pretty sobering to discover confirmation of such oddities across a number of ancient sources .. .

book: "The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible"
5 · "The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible" (Joseph M. Holden / Norman Geisler) © 2013 / 420 pgs
   starz (4) Quite Wonderful [4]

All through time, certain men have risen up to Conclusively Disprove the authenticity of the Bible once and for all, only to dredge up so much hard evidence that they became convinced of not only its message, but its narrative and the very Being of God Himself! These were, to a man, staunch atheists.. or at least agnostics. They discovered what millions of people have learned through history: exploring the Bible and its claims with honesty and integrity leads to revelation of the One True source of everything. As such, time is a friend to Biblical archaeology. More and more evidence is regularly uncovered which only validates the Bible's historical claims (as opposed to, say, the Book of Mormon, which provides precisely * zilch * hard evidence for all of its wild declarations). In fact, the Bible is widely regarded as the most reliable source for ancient historical authenticity... But hey, don't just take my word for it - look into it for yourself; you may be surprised at what you discover! Plenty of other deep thinkers have been . . .

This book is precisely what it claims to be, no more, no less .. which is to say that it is quite academic, filled with data and charts and B&W photos of genuine artifacts. It is really wonderful for what it is, but is not something I think most people would ever pick up and just read. The seven section titles speak for themselves:

Part One: The Reliability of Old Testament Manuscripts
Part Two: The Reliability of Old Testament History
Part Three: The Reliability of New Testament Manuscripts
Part Four: The Reliability of New Testament History
Part Five: Introduction to Archaeology
Part Six: Archaeology of the Old Testament
Part Seven: Archaeology of the New Testament

A glossary is included in the back along with a lengthy appendix of existing New Testament manuscript papyri (with descriptions). I find it interesting to note how, time and time again through the centuries, secular historians sniffed at fantastic-sounding accounts put forth in the Bible as factual events. For the longest time Jericho was thought to be a myth.. until the ruins of Jericho were found just as described in the Bible, its walls fallen unaccountably outward. King David was long considered just a hero of legend, until evidences of his physical reign and kingdom began to be unearthed. The list goes on and on, growing with each passing year. As a preview of what can be found here, I will replicate a data table (pg 129) that demonstrates the weight of evidence comparing the Bible to other ancient manuscripts widely trusted for their historical authenticity:

New Testament Manuscripts Compared to Other Ancient Sources
Plato Dialogues       4th century BC            AD 900 c. 1,250 years    20
Homer Iliad       9th century BC            400 BC c. 500 years    643
Herodotus The Histories       484 to 425 BC            AD 900 c. 1,350 years    8
Aristotle Assorted Works       4th century BC            AD 1100 c. 1,400 years    5
Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian Wars       460 to 400 BC            AD 900 c. 1,300 years    8
Aristophanes Assorted Works       448 to 385 BC            AD 900 c. 1,300 years    10
Sophocles Assorted Works       496 to 406? BC            AD 1000 c. 1,400 years    193
Julius Caesar The Gallic Wars          58 to 44 BC            AD 900 c. 950 years    10
Tacitus Annals of Imperial Rome       AD 58 to 120            AD 1100 c. 1,000 years    20
Pliny the Younger History of Rome       AD 62 to 113            AD 850 c. 750 years    7
Suetonius The Twelve Caesars       AD 70 to 140?            AD 950 c. 900 years    8
Greek New Testament Manuscripts       AD 45 to 100      AD 117 to 325 30 to 300 years 5,800 +
Non-Greek New Testament Manuscripts       19,200 +

As you can see, not only is the gap between original events and written accounts many centuries shorter for New Testament sources than secular manuscripts, which themselves are considered bona fide history-validating documents, but the number of still-existing N.T. manuscripts outnumber ALL of these secular sources by thousands. This means that cross-referencing original manuscripts is compounded thousands of times over for Biblical materials, not to mention secular sources that also corroborate Biblical persons and events. This is just one of the many evidences (provable, verifiable) that confirm the Bible as a historical source of Truth, and why books like this hold a place in our library.

book: "If God Is In Control, Why Is My Life Such a Mess?"
6 · "If God Is In Control, Why Is My Life Such A Mess?" (Michael Youssef) © 1998 / 222 pgs
   starz (4½) Nearly Perfect [4½]
    1 ·  Is God Really in Control?
    2 ·  Hidden for God's Purposes
    3 ·  Faith That Risks Everything
    4 ·  When Triumph and Tragedy are Partners
    5 ·  Stop Wobbling and Take a Stand
    6 ·  Clinging to the Promises of God
    7 ·  Dealing with Depression and Discouragement
    8 ·  When the Innocent Suffer
    9 ·  Looking in All the Wrong Places
  10 ·  For Such a Time as This

Flipping from hard science to theology, here is another book I have been meaning to read for some time but have just never gotten around to until now. Michael Youssef is one of my favored pastors featured on AM station KPXQ 1360, along with other heavy-hitters like Chuck Swindoll, John MacArthur, David Jeremiah, James MacDonald, R. C. Sproul, John Politan, and Alistair Begg. I probably heard about this book on one of his programs years ago. It is full of contemporary stories and applicable Biblical accounts that expose and/or explore these chapter topics (listed at right):

I find it both surprising and refreshing how Michael takes on one seemingly taboo subject in particular: depression and discouragement in Christendom. Following God can sometimes lead to some serious faith-stretching circumstances, some of which may cause one to question not only the essence of faith itself, but the very existence of God..! Even some of the greatest 'heroes' in the Bible wrestled with crippling doubts. The legendary prophet Elijah was one of them, and this book does not shy away from his bouts with manic depression. Being a Christian is not about being perfect or "good enough", but about acknowledging one's very need for help and pursuing God's ways and means as the only reasonable ultimate solution. God also puts His children into seasons of 'hiding' sometimes, not to thwart us, but to prepare us for profound and effective service/living in this life. Allowing God to do His work deep inside your heart, soul, and mind is a prime ingredient of true Christian faith. It is such a simple thing, but it is not easy... not with our chest-thumping, I-can-do-it-MY-way pride gumming up the works . . .

For instance, Esther dared to enter the king's courtroom unbidden to beg for the survival of her people. Such audacity earned one an automatic death sentence in their time and culture, yet her commitment to the will of God, come what may, shines boldly from Scripture: “I will go to the king even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16) The apostle Paul faced innumerable (and truly horrifying) hardships for living out his faith and sharing the Gospel in cities around the Mediterranean Sea. He was beaten, whipped, falsely accused, thrown into dungeons, shipwrecked, and chased from town to town in a state of constant peril. Yet he never lost sight of the Truth and the Majesty and the Value of God (consider Hebrews 12:1-3). There are countless examples in the Bible ~ and beyond ~ of people daring to simply believe God and trust in His faithfulness, which denotes a relationship extending waaaaay beyond the confines of this life . . .

At the heart of this book is a call to embrace even the roughest seasons in our lives which seem to make no human sense — not out of some self-imposed stupidity or fatalism, but in a trusting manner seeking the Lord's will perhaps like never before. True followers of Christ should view all such trials as part of God's absolute control in and among the circumstances of our lives, working within us the very nature and character of Christ (another facet of Christian living) both for His Glory and our ultimate good. Of course this kind of thinking flies directly in the face of our human pride, and therein lies our greatest struggle. The same sunlight that melts wax also hardens clay. It is not sunlight that is the problem; rather, sunlight simply provides the occasion by which the true nature of things may be revealed. It is not our circumstances that prove most difficult to overcome, but our misguided attitudes and improper reactions to them which cause the most consternation (both immediate and long-reaching) for ourselves and others. Trying circumstances are a normal part of this life. In fact, Jesus * promised * that His followers would suffer persecution and hardships even beyond what is common in this life! Scripture declares: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you...” (1 Peter 4:12-14)

God promises to work good in/through/from all things that happen in the life of His faithful followers (see Romans 8:28). This may mean temporal good, but it most assuredly means Eternal Good, which is so much more ridiculously valuable . . . ( Talk about your ultimate Return On Investment! ) And consider this:


We either believe and trust in the ultimate sovereignty of God Almighty — or we don't. Everyone suffers in this life, no matter who you are or how you choose to live and seek to protect yourself and those around you. The question is not * if * you will suffer, but * how * and * why * suffering will befall you and yours. Faith in Christ Jesus allows God to leverage that suffering not only to help us grow closer to Him, and in Him if we allow it, but also helps us to become better and not bitter as a result of our afflictions. And as an added bonus, those who are 'born again' view death honestly as just the opening of a portal to glorious REAL Life, stepping as it were from this comparatively black and white existence into what Real Colors are meant to look and feel like, what True Living is meant to be... Jesus Himself said, “I go and prepare a place for you.. I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am... If this were not so, would I tell you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1-3) Pain is inevitable in this life. Don't waste your pain by grumbling and grousing and hardening your heart / mind / spirit like brittle clay, but rather leverage it into Hope, Truth, and Better Living both here-and-now and forever after... I think of imperfect warriors like Joni Eareckson Tada and Nick Vujicic as excellent examples, just to name two . . .

God delivered Esther from certain death, and as a direct result of her faithfulness, saved the Israelites from genocide under Persian rule. And God not only protected and provided for Elijah while in the throes of his deepest depression and darkest fears, but also established his work in this world in a BIG way. This statement is true: God will always have the last word! Think about that ~ could be a game changer.  :-)  This book explores such sureties in the bold, wincing light of life's greatest challenges ~ a very good read for anyone looking for hope!

book: "Ambient Findability"
7 · "Ambient Findability" (Peter Morville) © 2005 / 190 pgs
   starz (2) Not Very Impressive [2]

I have collected hundreds of books over the years, filling our library through happenstance with (as it turns out) even a few hard-to-find volumes, all representing a wide range of topics. I pick them up along the way with every intention to read every one, but suddenly another one or two (or eight) jump into my hands to read first. A good percentage of our library remains unread now. So I pluck one from our shelf on a whim now and then and give it a go. This one was no doubt purchased during the wave of O'Reilly books featuring pencil-sketched critters on the front that used to choke entire sections of Barnes & Noble bookstores. This book is all about patterns and linking online threads, published at a time when the Internet truly felt like an open untamed Wild West theater, when establishing networks and online data centers was still a fledgling science. Reading this now, it clearly shows its age but I kept on going in hopes that it might play out like an episode or two of that old excellent BBC science series, CONNECTIONS / CONNECTIONS II, where James Burke would toy with semantics and skip from fascinating point to point like hopping from one floating-in-space Roger Dean island to the next . . . It kind of starts off that way, but toward the end just wanders almost indifferently into Who-Cares-Anymore territory.

You can't really see it in this image, but the line across the top reads: "What We Find Changes Who We Become". I fully subscribe to such meta-thinking. It was probably while considering this statement, weighing book in hand, that drew me to it rather than some other dusty-shelf choices. It is full of such quotes like this new favorite of mine:

The future exists today.
It's just unevenly distributed.
— William Gibson

The author, Peter Morville, is currently the president of 'Semantic Studios' which is "an information architecture and findability consulting firm." ~ Of course it is. ~ He is widely known and respected as a genuine information architect/guru concerning the Internet and its structures. While I do share his enthusiasm for cartography, effective design, and social and virtual patterns, analyzing and reviewing such occurrences can get a bit dry after a hundred pages or so. Even for me. His more recent book called "Search Patterns" (also O'Reilly) features a colorful butterfly perched atop the title, posing beneath a line that calls for this creative focus: "Design for Discovery". Irene Au (Director of User Experience, Google) describes that book as "a delight to read — very thoughtful and thought provoking. It's the most comprehensive survey of designing effective search experiences I've seen." ~ So there you have it. Other reviewers declare it in decreasing terms as "a must-read for everyone collaborating on a search application" / "At least 50% waffle" / "Colorful metaphors without any value" . . . This book is nothing if not a preamble to the new butterfly one.

So here is my conclusion: if you're in the online search-engine business, Morville's probably your kinda guy... but if you're everyone else, don't bother digging into this fossil. (I will be more discerning from now on when selecting an older book from our collection ~ lesson learned)

book: "Absolute Surrender"
8 · "Absolute Surrender" (Andrew Murray) © 1895,2014 / 106 pgs
   starz (5) Outrageously Superb [5]

I got to visit Washington D.C. twice in 2015: once to meet Department of the Interior personnel and gauge their distance-learning benchmark successes, and another time to accept a design award from the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. (Here is a link to that trip if you're interested) Some people like to sleep on flights lasting for hours, or hope to chat up some captive audience strapped in a seat beside them. I like to catch up on a book or two.

This one almost did not make the cut as it is just so slim and struck me as sounding rather generic in the vast pantheon of Christian titles. But I had exhausted all other reading options by the time I settled in for the last leg of my return journey, and so fell into this little volume somewhere between Chicago and Phoenix. Perhaps I was primed to receive its message as the nucleus of this book directly addresses a passage of Scripture that has always confounded me to some degree. Jesus declared the following:

  “I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
  “Which of you as fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg,
will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

—  Luke 11:9-13 (echoed in Matthew 7:7-11)   
Like all sincere Christians, I have often prayed for this very thing, namely to be filled with God's Holy Spirit, wondering as time goes by why I still seem to merely stumble about in my own limited human power rather than evincing the genuine and very Real POWER promised by God... (see Ephesians 1:17-21) This book plunges right into this apparent contradiction, pointing out early on that "When God gives the Holy Spirit, His great object is the formation of a holy character." (pg.13) The Bible stresses the need for us to consecrate ourselves insomuch as we may by our choices in habits, interests, the company we keep, and the passions we pursue — not as if to conjure some holiness on our own merit (consider Isaiah 64:6) but just like athletes condition themselves through physical disciplines, we are to train ourselves in spiritual means to diminish fouling up our own pursuit of God, shunning impurities that oppose God's very work in and through our lives. The best part of the message of this book (for me) is the admission that not only can I NOT achieve any such degrees of holiness, but that He WILL, in and through me, as I let go of my striving for it, simply by asking in faith! This is the core virtue of the 'Sabbath Rest' Jesus describes as essential in the lives of His followers. And for the first time, due to this little treasure of a book, I finally understand * HOW * this principle is actuated in one's life! Pray believing that He will do exactly as He promises —[ God does not lie! ]— and rest in Him just like a branch rests in the power and strength of its nurturing vine (see John 15:1-8). We truly can rely on Him to make up the difference in our strained, ongoing lack (see also Philippians 1:6).

   Learn the lesson that the natural sun shines upon you all the day, and you enjoy its light, and wherever you are you have got the sun; God takes care that it shines upon you. And God will take care that his own divine light shines upon you, and that you shall abide in that light, if you will only trust Him for it. Let us trust God to do that with a great and entire trust. (pg.89)

   Close personal actual communion with Christ is an absolute necessity for daily life. (pg.99)

   In conclusion, let me gather up all in one sentence. Christ Jesus said: “I, the living One who have so completely given myself to you, am the Vine. You cannot trust me too much!” (pg.104)

All of this takes the heat off in essence, making practical sense when Jesus says: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) I have seen this in sporadic measures in my life, most of the time to my complete shock. Even during some of my darkest (read: wildly imperfect) days, the perfect light of Christ yet shone through me in spite of me! ◄ THAT is the work of the living God as expressed in Scriptures like this:

We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God
and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but
not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed...

—  2 Corinthians 4:7-9   
This short book hit me with such 5-star intensity by introducing into my thinking, my spirit, my being, the understanding of precisely HOW to rely on God to essentially make up for the slack of my own earnest-but-limited faith, much like the desperate father found in Mark 9:14-29 who cried, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” This practice-through-prayer literally frees me up to [A] TRUST in His faithfulness to work in and through me, [B] REST in His means, plans, and providence, and [C] PRAY with a confidence that has hitherto eluded me most days of my life. Since adopting this measure in my spiritual life, I can truly say that I have made great strides in shunning darkness from my life, sidestepping sin more than before, and perhaps most noticeable, living with a deeper sense of PEACE. I so very much look forward to what GOD may do next in my life, where He will lead me spiritually, what He will choose to do in or through me ~ not because of me, but because of HIS faithfulness as I yield to His incredible POWER . .. ! ~ I am so grateful for Andrea Murray and this small but powerful theological divulgence!

book: "Skeletons on the Zahara"
9 · "Skeletons on the Zahara" / (Dean King) © 2004 / 352 pgs
   starz (5) Outrageously Superb [5] ─  'HONORABLE MENTION' REVIEW

I currently live in Phoenix, Arizona, where it gets so hot in the summertime that over a hundred people usually die from heat-related causes. I often wonder what it must have been like back in the early days of the vast southwest territories when Indian nations determined the fate of anyone passing through this region, and there was no air conditioning. Honestly, how did anyone survive back then galloping around on horses and working all day in the Arizona sun with no AC to escape to? Citizens of today's first-world nations take creature comforts for granted that, until the last hundred or so years, not even * kings * could manufacture. Now we fly around the world in air-conditioned comfort, summon any music ever recorded at the touch of a button, communicate instantly with whomever we desire using Star Trek-ian handheld devices, and enjoy hot and cold running water on tap ...not to mention indoor plumbing! These are conveniences common to most everyone reading this, but which eluded Pharaohs and world leaders of every era. Now if we don't have them, we whine about it from our modern position of self-entitlement . . .

All of these things were unknown in the world just 200 years ago. One's health and welfare often rose or fell upon the mercies of nature. Death at younger ages was common. Essential communications could travel only as fast as the swiftest sea-going vessels ...if they completed their journeys. To travel abroad was not some exciting idea bubbling over with wonder; rather, it was a costly and dreadful prospect usually undertaken only after all other options had been eliminated. For millennia, international trade relied almost exclusively on sea merchants, but there was a good chance those setting out would not return from such 'adventures'. The fate of one such vessel, the Connecticut Brig Commerce, along with her brave crew, are described in this true-life account in and around the Sahara Desert.

The Commerce embarked from Connecticut on a May morning in 1815, bound for New Orleans, then Europe, then the Cape Verde Islands located some 350 miles west of Africa. She would return to America loaded with salt, a commodity high in demand after the War of 1812 compromised a number of vital trade routes. Bricks and hay were delivered to New Orleans, where the Commerce picked up flour and tobacco before setting sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Gibraltar. Once there, they traded for wine and brandy, then set a southwesterly course in the middle of August to the Cape Verde Islands. They never made their destination.

Rounding the western edge of Africa where the Sahara Desert meets the ocean is a treacherous route, infamous in those days not for rough seas only but also raiding Barbary corsairs. Wandering nomads patrolling those forsaken shores considered anything that washed up as a divine gift, free for the taking to divide, sell, use, or enslave depending on the boon. Dense fog and bad readings led the Commerce to crash upon a reef off the shore of Cape Bojador (now Morocco) around 11:00pm on the night of August 28, 1815. Waves pinned the ship into the reef and wrenched it asunder. The crew of twelve escaped to shore in a leaky longboat after salvaging scant little in their scramble to safety, only to be found by a Bedouin tribe who killed one of their men outright. The remaining men escaped to sea and drifted for days, their supplies dwindling. They were finally forced to return to shore some 200 miles south, still abreast of what was then known as the great 'Zahara': an uncharted and seemingly boundless expanse of utter desolation.

This book is a compilation of two earlier accounts, one written by Captain James Riley (37 at the time) and another by able seaman Archibald Robbins (then 22), each of whom wrote of their harrowing adventures after returning to America. Their survival was all but miraculous, as virtually every account of ships lost on these shores ended in the complete loss of all hands, not to mention whatever cargo they carried. President Lincoln cited Riley's narrative "Sufferings in Africa" along with the Bible and "The Pilgrim's Progress" as the most influential books from his younger years. Nearly 200 years later, Dean King happened to find an old copy of that Captain Riley's book on a library shelf one day and decided to research the history behind it, which in turn led to compiling sources and writing this more complete version detailing their trials and misadventures. What an astonishing story . . .

The west coast of the Sahara is nothing but rugged ocean, bare rock, sand, and intense relentless heat. No fresh water, no vegetation, no fauna to speak of. The only souls living anywhere near the sea were camel-riding tribes wandering the wastelands to trade from one city to the next. Their desert-bound routes reflected the larger sea-faring trade routes crossing the oceans beyond their shores; however, their livelihood was no less hazardous. After landing for good, Captain Riley led his men inland for a short time before the heat nearly killed them all. He resigned to cast their fate upon any nomads they might encounter rather than seal their doom wandering across the sweltering wastelands, and were soon found by a caravan of the Oulad Bou Sbaa tribe. Hoping not to be killed on sight, Riley offered up his crew and himself as slaves in exchange for ransom payment he promised in blind faith, hoping to secure such means if they could manage to be taken to a particular coastal city hundreds of miles north along the coast. There he hoped a British consulate (whom he did not even know) might arrange for their extradition. Failure on his part to deliver would mean certain death at the hands of their captors. The arrangement itself was risky in the extreme as this culture worked slaves near to death, then either traded them away or killed them outright, or simply left them to die. Riley and his crew were stripped of their meager belongings and split between two caravans. Thus began weeks of brutal enslavement during which time they suffered severe starvation, extreme dehydration, sunburn so bad their skin sloughed off, merciless sandstorms, routine beatings, and running alongside camels over roughshod searing rocks and through burning sands. On occasion, they might receive camel's urine or milk as sustenance, but shriveled to skeletal shadows of their former selves, riddled with illness and plagued by injuries. Not a few succumbed to death.

In time, a Sahrawi nomad named Sidi Hamet brought Riley and a handful of his remaining men to the coastal town of Swearah (modern-day Essaouira) where the British Vice Consul to Mogadore, William Willshire, learned of his fate. He gathered together Riley's promised ransom of $1,200 and two double-barrel shotguns while delicately negotiating for their liberation. Sidi Hamet, satisfied with his payment, made good on his promise and freed the men. (Within weeks it was reported that Sidi Hamet's caravan had fallen into the hands of vicious thieves. Hamet did not survive)

Riley had started the journey weighing 240 pounds; now he weighed less than 90. Others were worse off. Of the Commerce's original crew of 12, Riley managed to bring five men along with him to safety. Yet for the rest of his life he suffered chronic arthritis and encephalitis, lingering reminders of their enslavement in the Zahara. Not surprisingly, Riley became an outspoken advocate for the abolition of slavery. He lobbied toward this end in government and occasionally traveled abroad as needed, but fell gravely ill and died during one such a journey. He was committed to the sea in March of 1840.

Note to self: Next time you're having a bad day, read this book again!

book: "The Bait of Satan"
10 · "The Bait of Satan" (John Bevere) © 1994,2014 / 182 pgs
   starz (4) Quite Wonderful [4] ─  'HONORABLE MENTION' REVIEW

For nearly a year (2001 to 2002), I served as a leader on staff in what grew to become a mega-church in Las Vegas, Nevada — not in any kind of official pastoral role, but as a paid director overseeing many different volunteer ministries. I also taught a number of classes, and continued to play their grand piano during most worship services for 7,000 to 10,000 parishioners on any given weekend. Those were busy times. In fact, I can say without reservation that I have never worked so hard in any job capacity before or since, nor for as many hours per week (often topping out at 80+/week).

This particular church meant well but was right rough on volunteers. Consider that Las Vegas is a desperate city, perhaps one of the most despairing in America. Such a myriad of needs, ripe for ministry and running so deep and rampant, can seem positively overwhelming. Unfortunately at that time, the most common response by our clergy to thinly-spread, stressed-out volunteers was a grinning encouragement to "just stretch, brother..." (This has since become a long-standing joke among my church friends) By the time we moved away, I was one crisply burnt husk of expended effort! I spent a full year in a healthier church in a different city to fully recover from that experience. (That's right, kids, imperfect people can be found in churches, including me) Since then, I have served faithfully and joyfully at Desert Breeze Community Church (web link) in a wide gamut of ministries. And yes, I still play keys about half the time on the weekends.  :-)  (No I am not paid; just one of many enthusiastic [and appreciated] volunteers)

I'm diving down into these historic weeds because this book was written primarily for an audience of pastors and church leaders who, entrusted to guide others by word and deed, may just as easily fall prey to one of the most pervasive sins in our modern culture: the sin of offense. ~ Heh.. you thought I was going to write something about sex didn't you? Not that sexual deviancy isn't an ongoing problem in the world (always, wherever humankind exists, even in churches) but this book tackles the more culturally accepted practice of Taking Offense.

I cannot begin to parse out different sections or points from this book in any concise way. I have read it through three times since 2002, and the spine is broken from handling. Entire pages are marked up with highlights and notes underscoring all manner of causes, fixes, and resolutions that provide guidance for readers such as myself. Like the more recent George Müller biography (above), this is another book that literally changed my life. Real-world examples, including historical Biblical accounts, abound throughout its pages, detailing people who had plenty of opportunity to take offense, and either did so (usually with horrific results for everyone) or rose above it and chose not to take offense, allowing God to settle their scores (per Romans 12:19). Such thinking is as uncommon today as it was then.

When Jesus was wronged, He did not wrong in return but committed His soul to God,
who would judge righteously. We are admonished to follow His steps.     (pg.17)

Not to say Jesus was some kind of pushover — far from it! Just read His scathing verbal assaults against the pompous religious leaders of his day (Matthew 23), or when he fashioned a whip [!!] and went after the money-changers who set up their wares right inside the temple courts (John 2:13-17). Whether gentle or firm, He always handled things appropriately. We, on the other hand, generally just aren't good enough to qualify for the genuine moral right to take offense! That truly is God's prerogative ~ not ours. This in no way advocates becoming a door mat in the world, but rather adjusting our hearts so as not to take, or claim, offense. Trust me.. it is much easier to navigate life this way.  :-)

I have given this book just 4 stars because it addresses a clerical audience more than the common everyday man, with stories and anecdotes that reflect this; otherwise, I would absolutely give it a five-star rating and encourage everyone to read it no matter what your walk in life. There is so much more to this book, I am not doing it proper justice. I believe anyone claiming to be a follower Jesus Christ could benefit greatly from reading this. It's like having a Christian counselor in a book, with real-world practical advice (and reasoning) for anyone hoping to engage in ministry ~ or sensible life, for that matter. Not everyone is called to stand behind a pulpit, but everyone who follows Christ is a minister to one degree or another. As mentioned earlier:

"You may be the only Bible some people will ever read."

book: "Don't Waste Your Life"
11 · "Don't Waste Your Life" / (John Piper) © 2003 / 192 pgs
   starz (5) Outrageously Superb [5] ─  'HONORABLE MENTION' REVIEW

I don't think I can review this book without offering some of my favorite contemporary quotes to demonstrate the level of wisdom found in this dog-eared copy of mine. If I begin quoting from the thing directly, I just will not be able to stop myself from copying virtually the whole thing here ~ I know myself too well! So consider by way of introduction, the tone and wisdom found in this truth:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep
  to gain what he cannot lose.”    — Jim Elliot

John Piper is probably my favorite living Bible scholar. He has written a stack of books, but his most well-known call-to-action is this statement: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him!” He calls this concept 'Christian Hedonism' and dares his readers (and hearers of his sermons) to embrace this pursuit with total abandon. In other words, pursuing God is the highest, noblest, and most life-affirming goal to which any human can possibly hope to aspire. And I whole-heartedly concur. There simply can be no better pursuit in this life than to draw near to the Creator Himself! The One who gives life can (and does) work in, and through, those who seek after Him with all of their passions. This is a bold message found one way or another by souls bold enough to lift their gaze beyond the horizons of this life and this world . . .

John Piper warns his readers not to waste their lives on "fatal successes", encouraging us to let go of even that which may be good in pursuit of what is best for this life and eternity. This concept is itself a rock-solid Biblical principle. He introduces some soul-shaking deep thoughts in this book; however, not all of it poses any real risk at all, when you really think it through. What if you could * KNOW * for a certainty the outcome of a sure bet, with guaranteed multiplied winning results? That is what pursuing the Christian faith is like! But such ambition does come at a cost, at least in this brief life. (Consider the incredible returns described in Matthew 13:44-46 and Mark 10:29-30) This reads like a playbook in some parts, and in others like some kind of life-during-wartime field manual. But no matter how you slice it, universal truths shine through his words, as echoed in this oft-quoted maxim:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words;
  watch your words, they become your actions;
    watch your actions, they become your habits;
      watch your habits, they become your character;
        watch your character, for it becomes your Destiny.

He writes with no-nonsense aplomb in this manner, aiming to at once to bring to mind the sobering reality of this life's brevity while spurring the reader to action that will literally bring eternal value not only for the instigator, but everyone touched by his or her actions. This is soul-quickening stuff for those wishing to Live Intentionally! Here (below) is a taste of the frank manner in which he communicates. In today's mamsy-pamsy culture, this is nothing less than a stiff but refreshing breeze of Honest Truth:

    There is no point in romanticizing other religions that reject the deity and saving work of Christ. They do not know God. And those who follow them tragically waste their lives.

    Jesus is the litmus test of reality for all persons and all religions. He said it clearly: “The one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). People and religions who reject Christ reject God. Do other religions know the true God? Here is the test: Do they reject Jesus as the only Savior for sinners who was crucified and raised by God from the dead? If they do, they do not know God in a saving way.

   That is what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Or when he said, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). Or when he said to the Pharisees, “If God were your Father, you would love me” (John 8:42).

   It's what the apostle John meant when he said, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23). Or when he said, “Everyone who...does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God” (2 John 9).

If we would see and savor the glory of God, we must see and savor Christ.

I first learned of America's very first missionary, Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), by reading about him toward the end of this book (here is my 2014 5-star review of his biography, if you're interested). Living so boldly, aiming to foster real and [eternal] lasting value, is a reality worth pondering. There will come a day when each of us realizes that it is * THE * Reality. (Take a moment to consider Romans 14:11 & Philippians 2:9-11) Matters rich in such eternal significance appeal to me greatly. And though I wish I could say with certainty that I pursue such things with all my heart, the truth is, I don't. My attention still flits away to the latest 3D CGI blockbuster movie, or I get all tangled up in the minutia of this life and the demands felt by single parents everywhere. I wish I could make more of a difference in this world and the lives which intersect my own. I believe that a good many people feel this way when they put down their cell phones and, for a moment, pause long enough to spend a thought or two on these concerns .. . This book helps focus such thinking into real, tangible change, and genuine action. Or at least that is how it affects me. When this * whiff * of a life is over, I do not want to look back at all the days/months/years that I have so · absolutely · wasted · wishing for a wild chance to do it all over again so I might, on pass #2 (or 18, or 35,497) finally VALUE what rightfully should have been valued in the first place, and act accordingly..! (Why is that so hard for us human beings?) The Bible declares in no uncertain terms that we get one [1] ONE shot at this life here on earth: “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). ~ This is it. ~ There are no 'do-overs', no second chances. Eternal Matters are weighed upon what we invest ourselves in here and now... the pursuits we prioritize today. ~ I value books like this one because it helps me turn away all those distracting colored lights which so easily cloud my vision, so I may take a long concentrated, refreshing look at What Really Matters. I pray God will help me make the most of my time left here on this planet, as well as ALL others who dare to pursue such ambitions for His name's sake . . .

Teach us to number our days, that
we may gain a heart of wisdom.
  —  Psalm 90:12    

book: "Art of Rush"
12 · "Art of Rush" (Hugh Syme / Steven Humphries) © 2015 / 270 pgs
   starz (4) Quite Wonderful [4] ─  'HONORABLE MENTION' REVIEW

Some 40 years ago, scoring a new rock or pop album meant acquiring a real piece of art along with your vinyl press record(s). I speak of those old 12" x 12" album covers, meticulously designed both front and back and on the inside faces in fold-outs. Even the flimsy record sleeves inside would often feature extra artwork along with the lyrics. And they were BIG, something you could hold up in front of you and scrutinize in detail with a friend or, in my case, pin up on a wall after thorough examination and proper discussions were had. Finding meanings and metaphors (intentional or otherwise), inside-jokes and the like, was a transcendent bonus for every music fan.

I started investing in music at a time when cassettes were out-pacing vinyl album sales, and can count on one hand the number of turntable records I ever purchased in-store. But over the years, through garage sales, my older brother, and Bookmans, I picked up quite a few . . not to drop them onto a record player — I listened to my cassettes (and eventually CD's) — but for their artwork! For years, my writing studio walls were plastered in classic albums by Boston, Kansas, Journey, Yes, certain Windham Hill selections (fantastic design photography) and of course Rush. These inspired me like a shelf full of classic books might inspire other writers. * THIS * oversized collection celebrates decades of artwork by Hugh Syme, Rush's premiere cover art magician.

This thing is so massive and weighty you could use it to club a rhinoceros into submission. AND it comes with a nifty album-sized insert featuring Rush's current oceanfront 'R40' sign on one side, and all their albums and DVD covers on the other (see below for my prosaic photo attempt). Thick, glossy, un-numbered pages showcase most of their album covers (front/back/inside), punctuated with colorful accounts of how and why certain design elements came together, including a lot of fun behind-the-scenes details about their pre-Photoshop (pre-computer-age) struggles to realize whatever crazy visual concept they dreamt up for each album.

1. RUSH (3/74) — Their eponymous album cover (not designed by Hugh Syme, but Paul Weldon) suffered a printing error, yielding a pink "RUSH" across the top instead of the striking red "RUSH" evident in the original artwork. All they could do was laugh it off and keep on rockin'...  :-D
2. FLY BY NIGHT (2/75) — Drummer John Rutsey left the band and Neil Peart took his place (all on good terms; they're Canadian, eh?) ~ Neil expanded their lyrical base, time signature repertoire, and overall musical inclinations. (Good find!) Their second album cover was produced just before befriending 21-year old Hugh Syme . . .
3. CARESS OF STEEL (9/75) — First collaboration: Hugh hand-sketched some haunting silvery scenes of the Necromancer and the Fountain of Lamneth, only to have the graphics company 'AGI' booger it all up, blotching it into some coppery/brass-looking mess and surrounding that with a dismal midnight bluish-greenish wash. (Strange what some people choose to do with assumed creative license)
4. 2112 (4/76) — The red star of the Solar Federation, along with the Starman opposing it, instantly became some of the most iconic imagery ever presented in the world of rock. Their means and processes for creating it all are described in detail here. :-)
5. A FAREWELL TO KINGS (9/77) — How they snuck on-site to photograph their lanky marionette 'king' is pretty entertaining reading!
6. HEMISPHERES (10/78) — They went for real brains in this photo shoot, but after mucking around in a morgue, the medical department of the University of Toronto provided them with a detailed brain model that served everyone's needs much better...  :-]
7. PERMANENT WAVES (1/80) — All manner of interesting facts are shared about this photo shoot and the resulting collage featuring Paula Turnbull (who later became a top model in Paris) and a number of visual gags.
8. MOVING PICTURES (2/81) — The punny and metaphorical nature of Rush and Hugh Syme continued on the classic cover of "Moving Pictures" showing people being emotionally moved by the pictures and the movers who are moving pictures . . .
9. SIGNALS (9/82) — A dog sniffs eagerly around a fire hydrant on this album cover. With limitless options to represent such a vast concept as 'Signals' they chose to do this . . . ♥!
10. GRACE UNDER PRESSURE (4/84) — One of their darkest and densest albums is properly reflected by this appropriately dystopian cover.
11. POWER WINDOWS (10/85) — This is perhaps my favorite (studio) off-the-shelf/play-in-order Rush album, featuring another definitive cover brimming with excellent metaphors.
12. HOLD YOUR FIRE (9/87) — Solid red with a reverse-embossed title and three hovering red spheres; the best stuff is found in the gatefold within, featuring some huckster juggling flaming bowling balls and visual puns that are by now de rigueur in Rush's printed artwork.
13. PRESTO (11/89) — They actually wrangled a bunch of live, smelly, messy rabbits to manage this photo shoot of them popping out from a floating magician's hat... A very cool cover, but Hugh vowed to never again work with rabbits!
14. ROLL THE BONES (9/91) — The haunting visuals for this cover (and inside images) took a lot of effort, but produced a stunning cover.
15. COUNTERPARTS (10/93) — Simple on the outside, the unfolding booklet is packed full of counterpart-ian imagery and text . . .
16. TEST FOR ECHO (9/96) — Fantastic cover art and packaging for a truly awful album. I particularly dig Geddy, Alex, and Neil (very tiny) using ropes to ascend the stone inuksuk.
17. VAPOR TRAILS (5/02) — Poignant and significant after incredible personal tragedies blasted the band, the fireball cover "represents the burning fire of life. It is a beautiful painting," says Geddy, "and off of [the ball of fire] comes sparks and trails and whispers... Those are very symbolic to me, they represent memory, spirit, all sorts of things that are connected to life." ~ "And the things that we leave behind," adds Alex...
18. FEEDBACK (6/04) — Embracing the psychedelic visuals of the late 60's, this is a throwback/homage to their basement-practicing days in the suburbs of Toronto, with covers of a few favorite songs that inspired them at the start of it all . . .
19. SNAKES & ARROWS (5/07) — This is NOT a Hugh Syme cover (Neil specifically chose an ancient East Indian painting) though he provided loads of extra work for inside artwork, as well as the live album and DVD releases.
20. CLOCKWORK ANGELS (6/12) — Another harsh red cover (featuring "2112" on the clock face, in 24-hour time: 9:12) replete with runes and a steampunk concept-album story. ~ Personally, I think their pre-release single "Caravan·BU2B" featured a more engaging design, but what do I know...

The book also offers some narrative regarding most of their 'live' albums, including hilarious details about trying to collect the people and props from their preceding eight studio albums into a sweeping collective gatefold image for "Exit...Stage Left". Unfortunately, supporting graphics and photos for their live albums seem to be rather lacking beyond this...  :-[

All told, Hugh Syme has created a couple hundred album covers for other bands, not to mention plenty of private and commercial work ~ AND he continues to play keyboards every day! As a matter of fact, it is his synthesizer intro that opens the unmistakable "2112 Overture". He also plays mellotron on "Tears" and can be heard on "Different Strings" from PERMANENT WAVES. He even got a piece of the action in MOVING PICTURES, playing synthesizers on "Witch Hunt". Not too shabby for a world-renowned artist who also tickles the studio ivories... Maybe I will run into him someday at RushCon and we can chat about keyboards, pianos, Rush, and art — yes, "RushCon" is an actual thing... for 15 years and counting. .. you would think I would have known about this before now... ~ Learn something new every day, eh?  :-)

The book ends with accolades written by Rush admirers from other bands and personalities in the music biz, which is sort of cool, I guess, but not what I had hoped for in an ALBUM COVER ART BOOK (just sayin') ... They could have used all that space for more, you know, album art from their anemic 'live' release offerings, and/or video productions, especially when I * know * there must be some scratch or setup BTS shots from their analog days ...maybe even concept art predating certain layouts... Oh well... this is why I retracted one star from Absolute Perfection . . .

 "Art of Rush" album cover insert


book: "TIME Specials: Mark Twain"
  «  "TIME Specials: Mark Twain" (Nancy Gibbs [editor]) © 2015 / 96 pgs
   starz (4½) Nearly Perfect [4½]

This is a thin but immensely informative overview of the life and times of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) filled to the brim with engaging articles and more photos and maps than I suspected such a compact collection would contain. The first article, entitled "America's Original Superstar", hits the nail squarely on the head and sets the tone for everything that follows. Mark Twain was a consummate entertainer leveraging his words, world travels, and speaking tours to amazing effect, but his many business ventures failed horribly! Like millions before me, I have enjoyed a number of his books ("Huckleberry Finn", "Tom Sawyer", "Innocents Abroad", etcetera) but never really made a point to study the man and his life. For those of you who, like me, just haven't found the time to slog through his no-doubt-entertaining-but-wandering narratives evident in his recently published (MASSIVE) three-volume autobiographies, this may satisfy your curiosity about the man, and might even set you on a course to revisit some of his American classics. Untold books have been written about him and his works, but I was so impressed by this compilation and its succinct yet engaging approach that a new section in my book-o-rama reviews seemed appropriate to broadcast this kind of quality.

LIFE & TIMES: Samuel Clemens was born November 30, 1835 and died April 21, 1910. Both occasions corresponded with the appearance of Halley's Comet. As a young man, he and his younger brother, Henry, pursued careers as riverboat captains on the Mississippi River. Sam spent a lucrative four years just soaking up his time on the river; however, Henry died as a result of a riverboat boiler explosion. Soon after, the Civil War broke out and ceased almost all traffic and commerce on the Mississippi. So Samuel Clemens made his way Out West to seek his fortunes beyond that horizon. (Man did that ever work out for him!) An 1865 publication of one of his stories — under the pen name "Mark Twain", a riverboat term meaning two fathoms — opened the door to what would become one of the most celebrated writing careers in modern history. His professional connections and opportunities (both good and bad) enabled him to travel extensively from Hawaii (then known as the 'Sandwich Islands') to Europe, Israel, and eventually all the way around the world. Colorful social commentary and witty observations filled his reports of his many travels, and a growing international fan base received each new publication with eager enthusiasm. In 1870, he married a young woman generally considered above his station, Olivia (Livy) Langdon. They moved and traveled about, she acting as his editor, and eventually settled in a grand house in Hartford, Connecticut. (This has since become the Mark Twain Museum) They had four children: a boy, Langdon, who died not long after birth, and three daughters — Susy (1872–1896), Clara (1874–1962), and Jean (1880–1909). No direct descendants of their union survived past a single grand-daughter, Nina (1910-1966). Here is a short list of some of his seminal works:

"The Innocents Abroad" (1869)
"Roughing It" (1872)
"The Gilded Age" (1873)
"The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876)
"A Tramp Abroad" (1880)
"Life on the Mississippi" (1883)
"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884)

A fantastic, full-spread pictorial map (pgs 42-43) details his globe-trotting excursions, each one color-coded to his published travelogues. But it wasn't just all good times and success. His friends, colleagues, inspirations, and imitators are featured, certainly, but so are his most prominent rivals, criticisms, and cataclysmic losses... including the premature death of his most beloved daughter, Susy, from spinal meningitis at age 24. And though Twain is harshly criticized today for honestly representing the social mores and vernacular of his era, he often leveraged his pen against slavery, prejudice, and injustices wherever he saw them. For instance, despite its indelicate language and rhetoric, "Huckleberry Finn" is a profoundly anti-slavery story.

This history of the man concludes with a nod toward Hal Holbrook and his singular career of impersonating Mark Twain in a one-man show entitled "Mark Twain Tonight!" which he has performed over 60 years now ~ longer than Mark Twain played himself! Countless other writers, leaders, and entertainers are touched on for a few pages near the end — then it's done, just like that. Just like life. Granted, Mark Twain's time on earth was nothing if not extraordinary, spanning some of the most pivotal decades that defined America's very heart and soul. Since then, his influence has stretched both broad and wide across most national borders and cultures. He still influences to this day, as his voluminous autobiographies were not published until a 100 years after his death (at his insistence) and yet have still flown off the shelves as best sellers! (That's some Voice!) This alternative and slight compendium offers a more manageable alternative for casual readers, but only scratches the surface of the man and his works. Read this to get to know about him and what he was like. Read his books to actually feel the heartbeat of America.

book: "Lilo & Stitch"
  «  "Lilo & Stitch: Collected Stories From the Film's Creators" (Hiro Clark Wakabayashi [editor]) © 2002 / 128 pgs
   starz (4) Quite Wonderful [4]
Disney! + Aliens! + Hawaii!

What's NOT TO LOVE in Disney's 42nd animated feature film "Lilo & Stitch"!?

We are recent converts to the world of Blu-ray. Over the years, "Lilo & Stitch" has risen to rank among our Top Five Disney movies. So naturally, during my ongoing efforts to level-up our family faves (mainly by trading old DVD's toward used blu-rays at Zia Record Exchange), I scored a blu for this movie and decided to compare both versions at home to determine whether such measures really are worth it. I popped in our "Lilo & Stitch" DVD, watched a random scene for a bit, then exchanged it for the blu-ray and checked out the same scene. Truly, it was as if dark shades had been removed from our TV screen! The colors and lines noticeably popped in precision like I had not seen since its theatrical release. And the backgrounds! Instead of just tasteful splashes of watercolors forming a nice-but-bland backdrop, they * sang * with a new vibrancy I could barely look away from to watch the primary action! I could not believe the difference ~ it truly is that amazing! (Here is a nice info-packed web page comparing blu-rays to DVD's if you're interested)

This little excursion renewed my interest in the production of this film (©2002), so I looked up what art books might be available. Scant few, it turns out ~ but this one is really something different. This movie is something of an anomaly in Disney's animated feature vaults, and so is this book: not a straightforward 'making of' art book like most of the genre. Sumptuous full-page reproductions and ample origin source treatments fill its oversized pages. While that is nothing unusual in such books, the lead members of this flim's production crew got to 'talk story' about how they were able to make this film. In that way, it has a feel about it, page after page, like just 'hanging loose' in the best Hawaii sense. This collection is like a 'shaka'-art book colored in ohana!

For the uninitiated, this movie is about a renegade space alien, Stitch, who escapes to earth and befriends another social misfit in the form of young Lilo. Part of the challenge for the production team was creating an ornery, nasty little alien creature that anyone might feel compelled to pet and run away from in equal measures. They also wanted to show a certain level of dysfunction in fractured families in a way that would both endear them to the audience, but also make us understand why their current situation will not really work in the long run. Most of the movie is set in a real location: a rustic Hawaiian town on the southern edge of Kauai, called Hanapepe (HA-nah-PAY-pay). Recognizing certain locales around Kauai as they appear onscreen is part of the fun for us. My chicklettes and I point out one spot after another and declare, "Hey, do you remember when we were there?"  I am certain this interactive effect was intentional.  :-)

Stories from or about the artists, producers, and many more range the gamut from the initial story pitch to the origin of Stitch as a character (including a skeletal examination of his arm-retracting anatomy, pg.77) to color palette choices, a somewhat more realistic human character design, voice artistry, and a whole lot more. Though the visual flavor of this film always reminded me of Disney's "The Jungle Book" (©1967), I learned that they modeled the look-and-feel of their environments after the watercolor sensibilities seen in "Pinocchio" and "Dumbo" and even "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (©1937-1941). This is obvious to me now, but I still liken this movie to the soothing, inviting, overgrown goodness featured in "The Jungle Book". But that's just me and my non-professional animator-wanna-be opinion .. . and/or my timeless desire to live in a LION KING type jungle full of lush beauty and, well, the bugs are another matter, now that I think about it . . .

Perhaps the most impactful elements of this fine art book are bits of wisdom sprinkled in among the narrative. For instance, during preproduction some of the lead artists met with animation legend Maurice Noble ("Snow White", "Fantasia", "Dumbo") hoping to gain invaluable tips and perhaps even some constructive criticism from his decades of experience. He reviewed some of their best efforts and offered this assessment: "If you folks can paint like this, then you won't have any problem doing a whole film in this style. We did it. No reason you can't." From his point of view, they were all ready and set to dive into full production! ~ No matter how talented you become, it's just sometimes nice to receive validation like this from someone you respect and admire, you know?

Another quote (pg.53) that stuck with me is from Ollie Johnston, another giant among animators from yesteryear. He said, "Don't animate drawings. Animate feelings." Though he spoke of his craft, it can be applied to music or writing or teaching, or even just living life! This may be a thin art book for a film, but there seems to be so much more packed in between its covers . . .

~    Not an image from the book, but I couldn't pass it up — Hawaii evenings feel like this    ~
 Lilo & Stitch

book: "Thomas Cole's Journey of Life"
  «  "Thomas Cole's Voyage of Life" (Paul D. Schweitzer) © 2014 / 74 pgs
   starz (4) Quite Wonderful [4]

Living in Phoenix, Arizona, I rarely get over to the East Coast. But every now and again my duties at work send me off to Washington D.C. ~ There is so much history there that I make every effort to visit a museum or two, some Smithsonian exhibit(s), or just traverse the streets and sites where our forefathers literally created our nation of united states. During my last visit (May 2015), I got to explore the National Gallery of Art (NGA). I could have spent a full week there examining the incredible, innumerable works of art spanning centuries of mankind at his creative best. Most pieces there are accompanied by a plaque displaying historical and/or formative details. I found myself scribbling notes to research later on the internet, so enamored was I viewing wing after wing of such astonishing beauty and boundless creativity.

I stepped into a curious space at one point, an antechamber created by an intersection of four larger rooms. The walls here played host to oversized seasons depicted in Thomas Cole's "The Voyage of Life". Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter correspond to the four main seasons in a man's life: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. The hopes, dreams, struggles and passions, and ultimate resignation/resolution of every life are conveyed in these lush compositions. I stood there spellbound, poring over countless little details, reading the commentaries beside each panel . . .

[1] "The Voyage of Life: Childhood"
 The Voyage of Life: Childhood
[2] "The Voyage of Life: Youth"
 The Voyage of Life: Youth
[3] "The Voyage of Life: Manhood"
 The Voyage of Life: Manhood
[4] "The Voyage of Life: Old Age"
 The Voyage of Life: Old Age

Like most art, photographic reproductions do nothing to convey the genuine majesty of viewing these in person with optimum lighting and proper presentation — a lesson I learned while appraising the shimmering gold leaf and embarrassingly rich hues filling the walls of this museum. Why this four-part masterpiece captured my imagination above all the other treasures here still eludes me. But somehow I could visualize the action as if it were my own, almost smell the aromas of nature, the fauna and approaching storms, feel the mingled sense of opportunity and dread, all draped beneath the certainty that God, through it all, guides His faithful homeward .. .

So yes, I picked up this book to take a hint of the originals home with me. Actually, Thomas Cole created two complete original sets of this series, each a bit different. This book chronicles not only much of his life, but also his inspirations, the means of creating each version of "Voyage of Life", and the provenance (chronology of ownership) of both series. I find all of this eminently fascinating, of course.  :-)  Lots of pictorial details are presented along with the narrative, but pages 22-23 and 28-29 portray the panels of 'Childhood' and 'Manhood' exceptionally well in this oversized book. What a glorious thing: I can pull this from our shelf and revisit these exquisite treasures any time I like! Granted, it is nothing like standing before them in the estimable setting of a museum, but from 2,000 miles away, it seems a convenient enough consolation.

If you ever get the chance to visit the NGA in D.C. or some equivalent art museum, there is no telling which work(s) of wonder will leap from the canvas and resonate in your heart, mind, and soul. Don't trust the limitations found in pictorial library books or coffee table collections. There is just nothing like seeing such art in person!

book: "The Beatles: A Hard Day's Write"
  «  "The Beatles · A Hard Day's Write - The Story Behind Every Song" (Steve Turner) © 1994,2009 / 382 pgs
   starz (4) Quite Wonderful [4]

This is a surprisingly comprehensive little book. In case you didn't know, there are about 50 zillion books out there about the Beatles. I wasn't looking for any such thing when I thumbed through this one at a Barnes & Noble. But a cursory glance through the intro's and a few select pages compelled me to buy it, read it, and include it in my annual review.

Without going into exhaustive technical detail, this book touches not so much on how the Beatles' songs were crafted, buy WHY they were made, explaining the sources and/or the stories behind every one of their songs in a breezy narrative with lots of supporting pictures. In fact, I had never before seen a good many of the surprising number of color photos from their earlier years as are featured in this book. The page count is misleading, though. This is a very quick read, more useful perhaps as a quick source of trivia rather than something to read like a novel or biography.. but I found it just as entertaining. It is divided into two color-tabbed sections: the years/albums leading up to "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and everything from that album onward, including "Free as a Bird", "Real Love", and the trio of anthologies released in the mid-90's. (No post-Beatles solo careers are addressed directly in this book)

The loves and passions of John, Paul, George, and Ringo shine brightly through quite personal accounts featuring their favored co-musicians (Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, the Birds, the Beach Boys, and pretty much anyone from Motown, just to name a few) as well as the women they loved (Jane, Pattie, Cynthia, Yoko, etc.). It does not shy away from their search for truth and meaning which dragged them into drug use and transcendentalism, which sometimes informed their music. Each album is summarized in brief, relaying some a feel of the times in which each record was created, followed by a write-up of each and every song. It is entertaining to review which tunes were publically maligned for suspected drug references that the Beatles, then and now, claim were developed with no such nefarious purposes. Other songs, however, which seem to be about a love interest may have been written with broader intentions in mind... This book explores this and a great many other secrets surrounding their timeless music. Some of their songs I already knew about, but a good deal more really surprised me. A recurring contrast between John's tendency toward pessimism and Paul's natural optimism pops up again and again through their source material and lyrics. A handy Chronology is even included starting on page 359, beginning in July 1940 with the birth of Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) and concluding on December 31, 1970, when Paul McCartney legally filed to dissolve their business partnerships. Depending on your own level of Beatlemania, you may know most or all of the facts presented in this book, but I will conclude with some song-tastic revelations that I found surprising . . .

"Paperback Writer" (pg.156) — The background vocals for this song were inspired by what the Beatles heard on the Beach Boys' groundbreaking album "Pet Sounds"
"I'm Only Sleeping" (pg.165) — One of their songs falsely associated with drug use, this is simply John expressing how much he really enjoyed lazing in bed and sleeping. Seriously. (This theme would manifest in the real world three years later during his political 'bed-in' demonstrations with Yoko Ono)
"Here, There, and Everywhere" (pg.167) — One of the Beatles' self-described best love songs, the creative measures Paul took in crafting this song (also emulating the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows") sheds light on his ability to draw beautiful tunes as if from the very air...
"Yellow Submarine" (pg.168) — Yet another song falsely attributed to drugs, this really is just a fun, face-value children's song intentionally written with short words and easy-to-visualize verses.
"With a Little Help from My Friends" (pg.192) — An afternoon with the Beatles at the end of March, 1967, describes how this song was composed.
"She's Leaving Home" (pg.199) — There is quite a story behind the inspiration for this song. While I was somewhat familiar with it, this provides a much more detailed account than I had ever realized...
"Hello Goodbye" (pg.220) — The story behind the formation of this song, Paul knocking out chords while he and a friend barked opposite words at one another ~ very cool!
"I Am the Walrus" (pg.233) — A mishmash of (mostly) nonsensical words and ideas knitted together by John in his blatant attempt to confound any proper analyzation of at least this Beatles song...
"Back in the USSR" (pg.242) — Paul wrote this as a sort of combination of the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry, singing about Russia and Eastern European locales in the same way many American beaches and cities had been celebrated in 60's pop music. Released in the middle of the Cold War, Viet Nam, and the Communist threat, this number naturally implied even more unintended ramifications for the Fab Four.
"Dear Prudence" (pg.245) — John wrote this lovely bittersweet tune about Prudence Farrow who spent a little too much time locked away in self-imposed exile while learning meditation practices with them in India. (This number foreshadows the kind of music John would go on to compose during his solo years)
"Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" (pg.249) — The checkered history of this fun, bizarre song is explained, including a slip-up or two during recording (that the Beatles decided to keep) and a who's-who account of most everyone associated with its creation. It is as grim as the song sounds light-hearted.
"Good Night" (pg.282) — The sad facts behind this love-it-or-hate-it-purposefully-over-produced song colors it in a new way for me. (I always thought Julian Lennon got a raw deal)
"Because" (pg.311) — John borrowed from Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to draft this haunting little number. Listening it to it afresh, the similarity is unmistakable.
"Free as a Bird" (pg.328) — This song positively drips with George's mid-90's trademark guitar (not a bad thing) and Jeff Lynne's trademark ELO production (also not a bad thing). How it came together in the first place with the three surviving Beatles building a complete song from an old demo recording of John's is explained here. Quite nice. :-)
"Real Love" (pg.331) — This is the other post-John-Lennon engineered interpretation of one of his demo's, lovingly repurposed and expanded by Paul, Ringo, and George Martin.

book: "Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Search"
  «  "Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Search" (DiMartino, Konietzko, Yang, Marshall, Gurihiru) © 2014 / 240 pgs
   starz (4½) Nearly Perfect [4½]

Raising three daughters on my own, I provided all manner of grrrl-empowerment books, movies, and even graphic novels for them to peruse at their leisure. Once in a while, a title actually proved interesting enough for me to page through one or two of them. We all loved the original "Avatar: The Last Airbender" TV series, and always hoped to learn the truth behind such unanswered questions as: "Whatever happened to Zuko's mother?" and "What happened next? What did they all end up doing after reclaiming the Fire Nation?" We knew Uncle Iroh was set, having retired to a quiet life operating his tea shop in Ba Sing Se . . but what about those zany kids? They were young, full of energy and ideas, and not afraid to take the world head-on!

Like "Star Trek: The Next Generation", a new Avatar series eventually did get produced - also removed from its forerunner series by a couple generations. "Korra" featured an industrialized steampunk world and a few adventurous Avatar-y encounters, along with a handful of memorable characters and a few funny moments, but lacked the steadfast magic of the original series. It also ended according to some warped producers' contemporary political agenda rather than the established mythology that endeared "Avatar" to millions of fans in the first place. We were so disgusted, we didn't bother with the fourth and final season but rather excised "Korra" permanently from our collection. The original series is so much better, its characters, its charm, exposition, adventures, plots, in-world tech and challenges . .. just an all around classier piece of art. (And more fun, too!) Since Korra was a bust, we found ourselves re-watching the original series probably once a year. Then I discovered these graphic novels. They capture the same magical fun and flavor of the original series, to a greater or lesser degree, moreso in "The Search" than in the others so far, which is why it is featured here. And they answer some of those lingering questions left unanswered in the TV series, tracking with the kids as they continue to grow older...  :-]

I admit that including a hardcover comic anthology in my reviews is a bit of a stretch, as it does not qualify as a book per se. However, anyone wishing to return to the original age and characters to find out What Happened Next will not be disappointed! Three compendiums have been released thus far, but I will include the upcoming fourth one (below) scheduled for release in October, 2016. All of them are just a collection of shorter periodicals, each following a lengthy story arc, but I prefer these hardbound collections as they are expansive in design to allow for developers' notes and commentary in the margins ~ kind of like watching a favorite movie with the commentary track on.  :-)

If you have never really checked into any of this at all, do yourself a favor and pick up the original series on DVD (three seasons), preferably with kids around who will just love it! The Avatar universe is a bright, imaginative mashup of Japanese, Korean, American, Inuit, and all sorts of other colorful cultural references and mythos, with a virtual Halloween basketful of hybrid animals and monsters thrown into the mix! There is plenty of accessible political intrigue, engaging family dynamics (both fun and dramatic), and legends that can influence the storylines and/or literally come to life and get directly involved as a nuisance or a boon! Fantastic locations abound with architectural set designs that reflect ancient cultures both real and imagined. Very cool, very fun, and through it all, the main characters manifest an Americanized personality base that rings genuine to their entire world-wide audience. (Kind of a culturally surprising point, in my opinion, but it works) These graphic novel collections continue what the original series started . . . I just hoping hope they knock one out focusing on Uncle Iroh in retirement after serving as a general in the Hundred Year War, and his stylish tea shop, the Jasmine Dragon! The series is just so full of fun, wonderful, and intriguing characters ~ there is a lot more to this old 'Dragon of the West' than meets the eye . . .

book: "Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Promise" book: "Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Search" book: "Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Rift" book: "Avatar: The Last Airbender, Smoke and Shadow"
(2016)  03