Book Review: A Return to 25 Tales From Our Youth (Sort Of)

Fractured Fairy Tales told by A.J. Jacobs; Bantam Books; copyright 1997; 183 pages

More than once I’ve read something by A.J. Jacobs and got a good laugh. His narrated versions of the Fractured Fairy Tales from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends made me want to go to YouTube and watch those clever episodes I watched as a kid. Jacobs did a wonderful job translating them to print.

These “Tales” are silly take-offs of original fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, The Princess and the Pea, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rumpelstiltskin. We remember them with delight even though they were a little twisted. Or maybe because they were twisted. Jacobs adds a bit of description because we miss the visuals we’d have if watching the stories on TV. Honestly, it’s not a distraction; it adds to the stories. Artwork is mostly of the frustrated Fairy Godmother. (Weren’t her expressions great?)

The compelling thing about reading the fractured fairy tales is how you can almost hear those voices from the cartoons. The voice characterizations were, in my opinion, more fun—not to mention more varied and less annoying—than the voices used in modern cartoons for kids.

And because fairy tales were a big part of our lives when Rocky and Bullwinkle first made the scene, even we could see the absurdity of how twisted the plots became. I mean, who ever heard of a witch worth her salt who needed a little girl to teach her how to fly a broomstick? (Way to go, Gretel.) And what a surprise that the witch didn’t eat them but instead…wait, no spoilers.

Jay Ward’s satirical and subversive Fractured Fairy Tales came to us before the age of “politically correct.” They’re just as witty and clever as you remember them. And full of puns. Let’s not forget the puns.

I think on one of those nights I can’t sleep and figure I may as well be up, I’ll pull out my copy of Fractured Fairy Tales and treat myself to a bedtime story. A good laugh is every bit as good as a good toddy.

Fractured Fairy Tales is available from Better World Books and Amazon.

**psst! BWB provides book donations based on your purchases and supports education and literacy programs. Check it out. Buy from them.**

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life: a book review

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life by Henri Nouwen; copyright 2013; Harper One; 256 pp. (audio 7 hr. 14 min.)

Nouwen wastes no time in his story before he defines his conception of discernment. To him, discernment is finding the spiritual answers that help us live our lives from day to day. Even more, he says–and this seems to be his purpose for writing–discernment is listening to the voice of God to find a purpose for our lives.

God speaks to us, he says, directing us as we discover what we’re passionate about. And once we’ve determined what we’re passionate about, God directs us to fulfill our purpose in His Kingdom. Vocation, however, is not the same as passion, according to Nouwen. Work can be anything we do to accomplish tasks. When we’re fulfilling our purpose, the work comes so easily and is so gratifying, we come away not even feeling like it was work. It becomes ministry at its best. Because it’s ministry at its best, it also means it’s service to others. And as we so often say, it’s “not about us.”

In fact, Nouwen makes the case that the attitude of humility helps us discern God’s meaning in things more correctly. Conversely, discerning God’s meaning brings humility.

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who spent nearly twenty years as a professor, also lived the Trappist life for a short time and worked with the poor in South America. But he discovered his purpose according to God’s will at L’arche Daybreak community in Ontario. Here, he worked with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

So, according to Nouwen, the idea is to listen. To God, to mentors, to those who’ve gone before us, and to the rhythms of our lives. Nouwen often quotes Thomas Merton, apparently a role model for him. It sounded like Nouwen felt kinship with Merton because their pilgrimages were similar. Both struggled with finding where they belonged if they were to serve God the way they hoped to. For me, hearing some of Merton’s ideas was a bonus because I enjoy his works as well.

Nouwen is considered among the mystics; at least I’d put him in that category. He talks a lot about his experiences in learning discernment, and for the most part, the stories are pertinent to the narrative.

Since I was reading an audio book, which he narrated himself, my mind would wander because he tends to ramble as he drops little gems of wisdom. But I want this to be a go-to book so I’m probably going to buy a copy. Then I’ll be able to mark it up and take notes in the margins. There’s meaty content and wisdom here I want to experience a second time.

Happy reading and be a blessing to someone today.

Humilitas: a book review

Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership by John Dickson; copyright 2011; Zondervan; 196 pages

Did I tell you about the time a local service group gave me a medal for my humility? Then someone saw me wearing it in public and I had to give it back. Just kidding. The author of Humilitas sort of makes the same statement, which is one we all know by now: Just about the time you think you have this humility thing nailed, you’ve shown that you probably don’t.

“The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility” is Dickson’s thesis for the book, and I believe he proved it well. The book digs into topics like the logic of humility; why the ancients didn’t like the idea of humility; how practicing humility lifts the people around us; why humility can generate abilities; and why humility is better than ‘tolerance.’ His research is nicely balanced with stories, some of them about his own encounters with people who he believes are humble. Dickson cites other literature, other topic experts, and well-known stories, but the research never makes the book unreadable. On the contrary; it’s readability is one of the reason it shines.

Several examples of great people who’ve demonstrated humility (and some who haven’t) give insight into how we respond to leaders as we examine their character. It becomes clear that we all know someone who isn’t necessarily in the public eye or in leadership who makes an excellent impression because of their humility. Those people may not even have great intelligence or great physical resources to draw on. It’s more of a heart issue than a head issue. The author includes a whole chapter, “Cruciform,” about Jesus of Nazareth and how He redefined greatness through humble living and service.

Consider Dickson’s definition for humility: The noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. People who give to others seemingly without even thinking about it usually have a positive impression on us. We may not even realize at the time we’re being impressed. But that’s the thing, Dickson is saying. Humble people aren’t trying to impress.

Steps to become (more) humble come at the end. They seem to make good sense. Becoming humble, as with any virtue, comes with practice. As we say, it’s a journey, not a destination. I was pleasantly surprised with Humilitas. That impression began when I read the author’s dedication to his mentors, “who know more about this subject than I do, but would never presume to write about it.”

This one will not only be a ‘repeater’ for me, but a reference book. I mean, after all, they took my medal away. I need all the help I can get.

Happy reading and be a blessing to someone today.

“Why Can’t We Trust God?” A Book Review

“Why Can’t We Trust God?” By Thomas Wise; copyright 2020; Zion Press; 123 pp.

Mr. Wise has a good premise for his book. Some of the questions he supposes to answer are questions people in pain often ask. There’s a lot of good information and plenty of references to scripture telling stories about biblical characters who learned to (or failed to) trust God.

However, Wise, a university professor, more often sounds didactic in his writing than encouraging. From the wording in the title to the tone of the whole thing, it seems to me that he’s more interested in loading the reader with information than helping the hurting to find some peace. The subtitle reveals what the author intends to convey in the book but is buried in the negativity of the cover title’s treatment. In fact, the subtitle isn’t even included on the cover.

References to sources and the websites associated with them fall into the narrative early on and became distracting to me. They would have better been equipped with superscripts, referring them to the bibliography (‘References’) at the end of the book. The people he cites are most likely other scholars and I’m sure they’re credible sources, but the parenthetical references make the book hard to read.

When Wise begins each chapter with a heading including one of the “four sorrows” we deal with in our journey to trust, he does well, but again he buries the idea in long descriptions. I would have enjoyed hearing more stories from people he’s talked with. They would have helped me, in addition to his personal experiences, relate to others who’ve had the same challenges.

Perhaps Wise’s audience is other scholars or the people in “organizational leadership” that are mentioned in his bio. That might explain the nature of the tone and the content. However, I believe that in a book written to answer questions about why it’s so hard to trust God in our pain, those people in leadership would also be better served with hope and encouragement. This book reads more like a lecture or seminar.

Again, the premise is sound. I applaud Wise for tackling the subject. Throughout history—with biblical characters being excellent examples—people just like any of us struggle with trust. I appreciate his few personal stories; his pain is real. But overall, I don’t agree with most of the other reviews I’ve read.** I expected a more personal approach since pain is a hard topic to talk about. When I ask “Why” questions, I’d rather someone tell me “how and why I can trust God” instead of emphasizing “why I can’t.”

** I waited to read them until I’d written my own review so I wouldn’t be influenced one way or the other.

This review is for a book of which a reader’s copy was provided by the author through Book Crash.

“Hey Grandude” : A Book Review

“Hey Grandude” by Sir Paul McCartney; copyright 2019; Random House; 32 pages

Like many children, my kids loved being read to. “Hey Grandude!” is a book I’m sure my son would have wanted read more than once at bedtime. “Read it again” he’d say.

Grandude has four of his “chillers” staying at his house and with his magic compass, they go on adventures to the ocean, the desert, and a snowy mountain. There’s fun and danger in every trip. Grandude’s magic begins with a postcard he pulls from his pocket. (Maybe that “Wish you were here” is the real magic.) I’d say this one is best read at bedtime seeing as it ends with some tired-out grand kids.

Kathryn Durst’s illustrations are colorful and fun. The target age group is 4-6 years and I’m not sure some of the language would be something they can understand without having it explained. But the story includes a compass, a spyglass, a stampede, an avalanche, and postcards. Considering the nature of communications methods in place today, kids will most likely have to have “postcards” explained.

Nevertheless, since kids usually ask for an adventure story to be read over and over, so they’ll hear something new each time it’s read (isn’t that always the case on re-reads?) and maybe add to their vocabulary. There’s some “Zing Bang Sizzle” for most kids who have the imagination to lose themselves in the adventures.

Happy Reading.

5 Good Reasons to Read Books

It’s “Read Across America Day.” And whether or not you live in the United States of America, reading is fundamental (to quote an old slogan).

I learned to read while sitting at our kitchen table eating breakfast**. I learned how to sound out words like riboflavin, barley, lecithin, syrup, and all those other things I was feeding my tummy. My big sister also helped because she was a ravenous reader. I suppose she hoped I would be too. When we sat outside the small downtown grocery store while Dad and Mom ran in for a few things, she’d help me with the words on the big old signs that told us what the specials were that week. Hamburger, Wheaties**, margarine, Wonder Bread.

Me, ignoring people who say I have too many books.

Consider these five good reasons to read, whether it’s books; newspapers; magazines; your email (Especially the ones from your boss); your Twitter feed (Unless it gets nasty. Then run. Run away very fast); or that text your spouse just sent so you don’t get in trouble (Unless you’re driving because that could cause trouble).

  1. Read because you can inform yourself and others.
  2. Read because it can be relaxing.
  3. Read to kids because you’ll teach them that reading is important. It’s also a great way to bond with them.
  4. Read because it improves your vocabulary
  5. Read because it’s your assignment for school and you want to pass the class

To celebrate Read Across America Day, try one of these ideas.

  • Read a book and tell someone a little about what you’re reading
  • Encourage someone to read
  • Help someone learn to read
  • Finish that book. Come on, you’re almost done
  • Tell us in the comments what you’re reading

It’s also the 116th birthday of Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss gave us fun characters and some crazy worlds to visit. They lent themselves to memorization because, whether we noticed it as a kids, he was teaching us in a fun way about poetry.

Here’s a blog about books and reading from Why Not Books. The blogger includes a list of the Why Not 100 with links on his site for such lists as Harry Potter incantations; Beatles Songs as Book Titles; Books Written by Kids; Banned Books; Freaky Fictional Presidents, and more. Now those might make for some interesting reading.

The Why Not Books blog also includes a list of classic Dr. Seuss characters. How many Dr. Seuss characters can you name? What’s your favorite Dr. Seuss book?

In case you were wondering, I did become a rabid reader, just like my sister. She ended up recommending books to me as I grew. Her tastes ran to classics and she is six years older than me, so I was about thirteen years old when I read “Anna Karenina” at her suggestion. Thanks, Laura! What a ride it’s been.

Be a blessing to someone today. Read aloud to them, even if it’s talking through the clues and answers to your crossword puzzle.

“Frog’s Rainy-Day Story” A Review

Frog’s Rainy-Day Story and Other Fables by Michael James Dowling; 72 pp; © 2019; Carpenter’s Son Publishing; Illustrations by Sarah Buell Dowling

“Frog’s Rainy-Day Story” presents fun ways to teach family values and lessons about life. Kids are familiar with animals like frogs, rabbits, foxes, crickets, beavers, owls, and all the other creatures who are the characters in this book. Through the animals’ conversations in each tale, children can learn how to interact with the world and one another.

Mrs. Dowling creates beautiful drawings of animals and simple scenery. I especially liked their expressions and how understated the color is. Rather than being in bold colors, the artwork doesn’t distract from stories that are meant for learning. That’s not to say the stories aren’t fun. They are. But the simplicity adds to the tone of the book.

Some of the lessons include being kind, making choices, generous or selfish attitudes, and spending money. Since the reading level is second grade, most children will understand, especially since the book provides a glossary at the end.

“Frog’s Rainy-Day Story” also welcomes families to dig deeper into the lessons by using their “Burrowing Deeper” study and questions on the website. The stories, used in this way, can help children with personal reflection and help families find a way to make family devotions fun.

When parents explain how the story relates to their child’s life, they’ll probably need to draw from their own knowledge of the Bible. Each of the eight stories ends with a comparison of worldly wisdom to biblical wisdom. These are helpful, but I sometimes didn’t see how the story depicted what the author was hoping to express. Most of them, however, have obvious morals.

This husband and wife team has a winner here. Not only is the book useful and fun, but it’s a quality publication. The size of the book gives it a typical children’s book feel and the fact that it’s a hardcover means it should last for years.

In addition to finding the book for purchase at the authors’ website, you can find it at Christianbook.Com and on Amazon.

This review is with thanks to Book Crash and the authors for providing a reader’s copy.

“Gracie Lou Wants a Zoo” A review

Gracie Lou Wants a Zoo by Shelly Roark; Illustrated by Simone Kruger;  36 pp; Little Lamb Books; copyright 2019

Gracie Lou has a pet turtle, George. But she wants even more pets. Because her family lives in an apartment, each time she asks her parents for a new pet, they tell her “no.” It’s no wonder; the animals she wants require some pretty special circumstances. She asks for a duck, a giraffe, a monkey, and an elephant.

Dad reasons with her, telling Gracie God has a plan for her, even if it means she wants a zoo. Nevertheless, she has a tantrum and complains to George as she crawls into bed.

That night, Gracie’s wish comes true. She now has a duck, a giraffe, a monkey, and an elephant. But at what cost? The presence of them all proves to be more than she expected.

The illustrations in “Gracie” are fun and colorful with even the insides of the front and back covers featuring cute animals. “Gracie Lou” is long enough to tell a good story, and short enough to fit into a bedtime ritual. Gracie’s experience can help moms and dads explain why kids don’t always get what they want, and that God has a plan for them if they will be patient and see the wisdom in waiting.

In looking up the title on a couple book websites, I didn’t find a suggested age group for “Gracie Lou,” but would suggest ages 2-6.

I think one of the best parts of the book is watching the animals. George smiles and blinks in response to Gracie Lou. The giraffe eats potato chips as he sprawls on the couch with the TV remote. A rowdy monkey flings books from the bookcase. The purple elephant raids the fridge. Clever framed “photos” on the walls in the apartment add to the scenery.

Shelly Roark is the award-winning author of “The Bubble Who Would Not POP.”

Bookcrash provided a copy of the book for review.

Another One Bites the Dust

Those of us who write mostly for publication in magazines now have fewer and fewer markets to sell our work to. With the internet and the electronic age, writing for print becomes a struggle for us. We have to dig deeper to find publications taking freelance work. We have to agree to sell a different kind of “rights” for our work (Electronic rights now become part of the deal.) There are even more ‘interesting’ ways in which we’re expected to submit our work.

Today, in reply to my request to an editor for the magazine’s most recent theme list, the editor said there was no theme list because they’ll be discontinuing publication with their January/February 2020 issue. In the last five years, we’ve lost many markets that used to take our work. They don’t take freelance work anymore because, in an effort to save money, they use in-house writers. They can no longer afford to even publish because circulation is down.

While this is discouraging, I have to remember that my aim in writing isn’t to get quantity writing into print, but quality writing. I understand that in writing for Christian markets, which is my main audience, God determines what happens throughout the whole process. It’s certainly not about the money. Paychecks can be few and far between. I tell my friends or anyone who asks about my writing, “If I did it for the money, I wouldn’t be doing it.” (I will say, however, the occasional check in the mail puts gas in the van.)

I figure if only one person is comforted, humored, edified, lifted up in spirit, challenged in their thinking, or blessed in any way by something I wrote, I did my job according to God’s will. As a matter of fact, I’ve had people call me on the phone to express how my writing had an impact on them. Imagine my joy.

The number of print markets we freelancers have to sell our work to has become smaller. But that fact doesn’t mean God won’t somehow use what we do get published to further His Kingdom. On earth as it is in Heaven.

So be a blessing to someone today.

 

“The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man” a Review

“The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man” by Michael Chabon; Balzer and Bray; copyright 2011; 40 pp.

It doesn’t hurt that “Astonishing Secret” is written by one of my favorite authors. It doesn’t hurt that it’s about a superhero. I love superheroes. It doesn’t hurt that it’s funny. I love to laugh. It doesn’t hurt that it’s fun to look at the pictures.

 

We’re supposed to guess Awesome Man’s secret identity and along the way, if you’re paying attention, you’ll figure it out. He tells us about his awesome powers, but confesses he smashes into things—and sometimes on purpose. Because “When you are a superhero like me, sometimes you have to smash into things.”

 

He has a Fortress of Awesome, Moskowitz the Awesome Dog, and an arch nemesis–the Flying Eyeball. If he gets into trouble and his powers get away from him, he retreats and gets all ‘positronic’ again.

Chabon has captured the essence of comics with sound effects in humongous letters: “Skreech” “Sklurp” “Ska-runch.” Hey, it also doesn’t hurt that the author has had a love relationship with comic books his whole life (almost). Jake Parker’s illustrations couldn’t be cleverer. He works wonders with bold colors, also reminiscent of comic books.

Awesome Man puts me in mind of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes and his alter-ego Stupendous Man. Except I don’t think Calvin, erm, Stupendous Man can hug mutant Jell-O.

The clues are there, but even if you figure out Awesome Man’s secret identity early in the story, I bet you’ll want to read it again, even if your child doesn’t ask you to.

But I bet he will.