Book review: Bonhoeffer Abridged

Bonhoeffer Abridged: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy confused me in its title. Not having heard of the 2011 original by Eric Metaxas, I expected a sampler of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings. Instead, the book is a condensed version of a much longer one published three years ago. I didn’t realize that until several days after finishing the book, and now the reading makes more sense. While the abridging was done well, the narrative feels as if something is missing. Some scenes are described in great detail, while other parts are left untouched. Particularly jarring is the set of paragraphs that briefly dismiss claims of anti-Semitism against Martin Luther. While that may be the informed opinion of a scholar who has devoted much time and research, the issue is too weighty (and too tangential to Bonhoeffer’s story) to mention and undercut in the same breath.

My favorite part of the book is the description of his meeting, courtship, and engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer. In the midst of a grim tale about one of humanity’s darkest times, the tenderness of their story appealed even to the cynic inside of me. Snippets of their letters to each other are contextualized in a wonderfully humanizing touch. Well done.

If I have any criticism of Bonhoeffer Abridged, it is ideological rather than structural. The story’s pacing is a bit uneven and could have been trimmed more gently. I personally would have liked more description of his childhood, but that’s a quibble.

However, this portrait of a gentle, pious man who plotted murder fails to examine its subject’s contradictions. Is this a failing of the book? Not necessarily. Metaxas’ writing is lucid and accessible, if sometimes a bit simplistic. The simplifying, however, is necessary to keep the writing accessible to a general audience. But the real issue, for me, is Bonhoeffer’s jaw-dropping defiance of his church and society. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a name spoken in hushed tones today, a name that commands respect and devotion. If he lived in our current society, though, he would be reviled by at least some who would view him as a troublemaker, renegade, and imprisoned criminal.

Would Bonhoeffer want a legacy of safe, complacent Christianity that congratulates itself for its deeds? I doubt it. I would have liked to see at least some reference of this in Bonhoeffer Abridged. On the other hand, there is a curious paradox of writing: The better the book, the better I expect it to be. If I wanted more from Bonhoeffer Abridged, it’s because Metaxas’ writing and scholarship are capable of it.

Well worth the read. I’m thinking of buying a copy for a Christmas gift this year.

 

Review copy provided by BookLook, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishing

Book review: How to Survive Middle School and Monster Bots

How to Survive Middle School and Monster Bots by Ron Bates (Zonderkidz) tries hard to be a combination of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and children’s science fiction about building robots. It ends with a rollicking change of heart and happily ever after, but the main character’s unlikability hampers the story.

Howard Boward, a twelve-year-old middle school student, considers himself the smartest student at his school. He despises his next door neighbor:

Reynolds is my annoying eleven-year-old neighbor. People think I hang out with him, but I don’t. It’s more like I’m the sun and Reynolds is a tiny, insignificant planet that orbits around me. (p. 15)

Funny description by an author who specializes in comedy? Yes. Realistic depiction of how children dislike each other? Yes.

Likable character and good role model for young readers? No. It takes 124 pages for Howard to make one decision and take one action that is not self-centered, arrogant, or demeaning to others. It took me three weeks of reading this book a few pages at a time to wade through descriptions of Howard insulting others and wallowing in self-pity that the bullies pick on him at school.

The sad part is that Howard is an entirely realistic character. As Gamergate has shown us, schools are filled with nerdy, geeky white boys who feel entitled to greatness due to what they see as their massive intelligence. Howard complains about the bullying, but he never realizes how badly he treats the people around him. Attitudes like this develop into tragedies such as the Isla Vista shootings, when a former bully victim grows up to exact “retribution” on women who apparently were responsible for his lack of sexual encounters.

Howard’s narcissistic entitlement is chilling and, given the current climate of violence in our society, almost irresponsible.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the book gets better after page 124. We see Howard becoming more aware of those around him and learning life lessons about teamwork and playing fair. However, the breakneck pace of the last few chapters comes across as unrealistic when set against the first half of the book. Too much is left unexplained, presumably a holdover from the first book. The story depends on a great deal of telling and little showing, although the wild shenanigans of the robots would most likely serve as pleasant distraction for a child reader.

The other good news is that the book does show Howard learning how to interact with others as a decent human being instead of a rotten, bratty kid. However, I would have liked to see Howard come to this change gradually. The overnight Cinderella transformation made for a satisfying but unearned ending.

Would I let my child read this book? Yes, if my child enjoyed robot stories or read everything available. I’d be careful, however, to point out Howard’s need to grow into a better person. We can enjoy stories of flawed characters without having to condone mean-spirited behavior from our protagonist.

 

Review copy provided by BookLook, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishing)

Book review: Andi Under Pressure, by Amanda Flower

A while back, I reviewed the Samantha Sanderson books (Book one and book two) by Robin Caroll. I liked the premise, but I objected to the potential lessons from the book. Cheat, spy, eavesdrop, and steal information without impunity. Print inaccurate libel of a grown man’s business and be cheered as the hero of the story! I was dismayed but still pointed out the positive aspects of a much-needed niche of Christian children’s literature.

Happily, I’ve found a wonderful alternative. Children acting in child-appropriate ways, making child-appropriate mistakes, and a great setting of a young girl sleuthing at a science and technology camp. Amanda Flowers’ book, Andi Under Pressure, has its fair share of flaws but is a lovely story that should interest readers of all ages.

First, let me praise Flowers for writing a capable second installment that stands on its own. While I am sure that reading book one, Andi Unexpected, would add to the enjoyment, a reader can dive in with Andi Under Pressure and enjoy it. After the death of her parents, Andi has moved to her aunt’s house with her older sister Bethany. She’s made friends with the boy next door, and both of them attend a summer science camp at the local university where her aunt teaches English. Presumably, this action takes place in book one.

When unexplained mishaps occur in the chemistry lab at science camp, leading to the injury of the chemistry instructor, Andi and her friend start sleuthing. They learn more about the town history, a mysterious janitor on campus, and the backgrounds of their fellow campers and camp counselors. In the process, Andi comes to a better understanding of her older sister’s homesickness, her aunt’s efforts at childrearing, and the paths people take after serious life losses.

The best part about this book: I like Andi. She’s a girl I’d like to have as a friend, daughter, or student. She makes mistakes, but she means well and has a sound moral center. This carries far more weight than preaching or descriptions of Sunday School classes. (In fact, the overt Christian content of this book is kept to a minimum, which allows its message to come across clearly.) Unlike Samantha of the Samantha Sanderson books, who made me uncomfortable with her arrogance and disregard for adults and ethics, Andi acts appropriately for her age and learns from others. She has to re-examine her dislike of a fellow camper, and she learns more about life in general. All of the supporting characters are written nicely. None of the characterizations are deep, but each character’s appearance adds to the story. The science setting is unique for the targeted age range (10-14), and it shows girls doing well in a traditionally male-dominated field.

The main problem with the book: It ends too abruptly. Yes, it does resolve the main plot points, but it’s told as a quick wrap-up rather than allowing the readers to process what happens. The brief nods at diversity are not egregious, but they’re still superficial.

Still, Andi Under Pressure is a fine book and one I recommend highly.

 

Review copy provided by BookLook, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishing.

Book reviews: Game Changer and Snap Decision

Today, I’ll review two football-themed books, Game Changer by Kirk Cousins and Snap Decision by Nathan Whitaker. As serendipity would have it, reading the books together allowed me to enjoy them more.

I had no idea about “playbook” or “scout team,” so I was glad I read Game Changer first. Cousins does a great job of explaining football terms so a newbie can understand, but he gives enough detail to interest football fans. What impressed me most was his first chapter. He describes giving a speech to represent players at an event:

If you enjoy watching his speech, you’ll enjoy the book. Caveat: Cousins is a better speaker than writer, so some of his “life lessons” sections come across as heavy-handed and a bit simplistic. That said, he gives a much-needed message for adolescents (and adults, to be honest) today: Get your priorities straight, don’t expect to have everything handed to you, and work hard. His example of a playbook as a guide for life is well done and easy to follow. As a teenage boy (his target audience), I would love reading about Cousin’s career and get impatient with the sermonizing. Still, I might read at least part of it. As a teenage girl, I would read only if I were a voracious reader (willing to read anything) or enjoyed football. As a parent, I would feel completely comfortable giving this to my child to read. We need more sincere and humble role models like Kirk Cousins.

Overall rating: 4 out of 5 gingersnaps

 

Snap Decision by Nathan Whitaker should have been a five-star book. The book is filled with tidbits about football scouting, professional play, and Florida (I could feel the hot, humid weather as I read the book). Also, the premise is great: an eighth grade boy playing football has to decide between telling the truth about his injured teammate (removing him from eligibility for the rest of the season) or lying (allowing his friend to continue playing the game).

Several compelling narrative arcs never find resolution. Why does it matter that Chase’s mother is friends with a singer? Why bring up his sister’s nightmares when nothing happens as a result? Why constantly refer to his father’s leaving the family when it doesn’t serve an integral part of the plot? Why have an older boy serve as a role model without tying up any of his plot threads? Whitaker gives us rich storytelling, but a well-crafted narrative should show us a purpose for each word written.

Also, in a trend I particularly hate about youth fiction, Whitaker self-consciously includes a superficial nod to diversity. In about five references throughout the entire book, Whitaker uses race as a way to objectify. Unlike gender, in which Megan is shown as a capable player who serves a crucial role on the football team, race is sprinkled in as an afterthought. Two characters are identified twice as second-generation Chinese American, which is described as “different” and “showed on their faces.” (Please tell me that I don’t have to explain why this is not acceptable.) Let me repeat my mantra regarding race in fiction: Do it properly, or don’t do it at all. A white author writing a story about white characters (who are never identified as white) is not a problem. A white author writing a white story about white characters and then only identifying the two non-white characters by race? Not okay. If this was a decision made by editors or a marketing team, it was the wrong decision. If it was Whitaker’s decision, surely as a professional writer he should understand the implications of calling someone terms such as “milk chocolate” as a shorthand to fill a diversity quota (Just ask Naomi Campbell, for starters).

The biggest problem, however, is that the main character never consciously chooses anything. The critical moment of the plot, when Chase has to answer for his friend Tripp’s readiness to return to the game, passes by without any commentary or internal struggle. When it is portrayed as the “snap decision” of the story, we as readers need to believe that Chase could make the wrong choice. Kirkus Reviews has criticized this story as “flat” and “lacking in energy,” and this is why. Even Chase’s final triumph is orchestrated for him by his coach and teammates.

Is this book a story I would let my child read? Absolutely. Does it have a good message? Yes, and it provides a great deal of easy-to-understand information on concussions and the dangers of playing contact sports. Does it have useful and interesting information for a football-crazed child who might be a reluctant reader? Very much, to the point that I (as an uninformed adult) was interested. I will recommend this book to teachers and parents looking for Christian themed fiction for their children and students, but I hope that book two of this series will bring tighter narrative, respectful diversity or none at all, and a protagonist who actively struggles to make good choices. If so, I believe Whitaker’s vast background knowledge will bring readers a unique and fulfilling story.

Overall rating: 4 out of 5 gingersnaps

(Review copies provided by Book Look, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishing)

Book review: Framing Faith

I was excited about the newest book for review, Framing Faith by Matt Knisely. Combining photographic expertise with discussions on faith sounded perfect, and I couldn’t wait to get my copy. I was disappointed, however, by two points: The book lacks structure, and it also lacks concrete detail. The foreword promises that the book similar to sitting down with Knisely in a coffee shop. Sitting down with someone in a coffee shop can make for wonderful conversation, but the meandering, tangential paths of coffee shop conversation do not translate well in this book. To compound the problem, Knisely speaks in the most general of terms instead of grounding us in the moment–ironically, while he exhorts his readers to be present in the moment. I wanted to read about a photographer’s craft, right down to the jargon that makes little sense to outsiders. When an expert talks about his or her area of expertise, the enthusiasm is infectious. Instead, Knisely uses a vague term such as “perspective” with brief references to personal anecdotes and the merest hints of familiar Bible stories.

I found the personal anecdotes a bit unsettling, such as the description of observing a girl at a camp for those with Down’s syndrome. Surely we have moved beyond using Down’s syndrome as a shorthand for plays on emotion? I am not moved by the shocking observation that a girl with Down’s can, indeed, be kissed by a boy and enjoy it. Had Knisely taken the time to capture the moment in greater detail his point might have come across more clearly, but in this context the few paragraphs felt uncomfortably similar to using a disability to make a point. Children with Down’s syndrome are capable and intelligent human beings, not objects of pity or surprise that they are, indeed, real people.

The book was a wonderful idea, and some of Knisely’s observations are lovely. Perhaps a second edition could re-vamp the structure and present the book in a more unified format.

This book is recommended for fans of Matt Knisely, but others may want to look for more solid works on faith.

(Review copy provided by BookLook, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishing)

Book review: NIV Teen Study Bible

Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of specialty Bibles. Unless it’s a different translation, there’s no need for a new Bible every few years. However, receiving free review copies gave me a chance to “test drive” a few different Bibles. I would rate the Teen Study Bible as adequate. If your teen does not have a Bible yet, it might be worth purchasing. However, a good-quality hardback NIV Bible will do just as well–and will not be embarrassing for your child to carry to college or adult Bible studies. For that reason, I’m automatically rating this Bible a bit higher than I normally would because it’s not fair to dock a teen-specific Bible for being a teen-specific Bible. That said, it still falls short of the mark.

The good: The paper quality is nice, the layout is clear and easy to read, and the colored informational inserts are appealing. If I were a new teenager given this Bible, I would spend some time glancing through the special sections. The Apostle’s Creed is sprinkled throughout the Bible, along with life-application tips similar to an advice column.

Here’s the problem: If I were a teenager, or if I were a parent giving this Bible to my teenager, I would not want the Bible interpreted for me in facile ways that may or may not agree with my particular denomination’s teaching. This is not, for example, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. This is an NIV Bible that should, at face value, be ecumenical. Different denominations (and congregations, not to mention parishioners) have different theological interpretations of hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, alcohol consumption, or divorce. With just one glance through the special sections, I found one “advice column” that smacked of wishful thinking (The advice about alcohol is to avoid drinking? Who thinks that will be sufficient to help teenagers with drinking problems?) and another that promoted some seriously flawed social agenda without any theological underpinning. Had I purchased this Bible for my teenager, I would have returned it. Supplying helpful information, such as maps, historical context, glossaries, and a conversion of Biblical measures to modern-day metric and imperial units is great. Organizing information into reference charts is also wonderful. Preaching theologically unsound and over-simplistic sermons, not so much.

This all sounds quite negative, so let me reiterate what I said earlier: I am not a fan of special-interest Bibles. If I were, I might not be so critical of the specific texts of the “life application” inserts. Does this Bible try to make Scripture accessible to a teenage audience? Absolutely. Do I like the execution? For the most part, yes, but I still feel that a standard NIV Bible is a better bet.

Book reviews: NIV Fast Facts Bible and NIrV Adventure Bible for Early Readers

 

Two book reviews today. Because they are Bibles and I don’t have a lot to say about each one, I’ll review them together. First is the NIrV (New International readers Version, meaning a simplified edition of NIV) Adventure Bible, published by Zonderkidz.

Children’s Bibles are tricky. When I was in third grade, I was given a Good News Bible (with a few line drawings every 100 pages or so) and expected to read at an adult level. Since then, publishers have put out illustrated story Bibles for toddlers and preschoolers. Those are terrific, but most children’s Bibles use adult-level translations despite their eye-catching covers, illustrations, and attempts to get kids interested. This Bible is no exception, but it’s a nice effort.

Viewing this book from a child’s perspective, the cover immediately grabs my attention. The 3-D “moving” picture (when you tilt your head from side to side) is great, as are the full-color illustrations and little sections such as “Did you know?” and “Life in Bible Times.” I like the illustrated introductory page to each chapter with basic facts about the author, purpose of the book, and main themes. My favorite section is the “Words to Treasure” that highlights key Bible verses.

All of this is great, and I plan to give the Bible as a gift to a child at my church. But, and this is always the problem with children’s Bibles, the actual Biblical text is too difficult, the font too small, and the lines too close together. I understand it’s cost-prohibitive and too heavy to print larger font and make the book much heavier, but perhaps we could have had a volume one and two? The NIrV is a nice simplification, but it’s still a lot of dense text. From my experiences as an adult trying to read in a foreign language (the closest I can get to remembering what it’s like to be a new reader), I can attest to the importance of manageable amounts of text per page. Otherwise, it’s easy to give up. I would love a children’s Bible that goes beyond the very limited storytelling of toddler Bibles but doesn’t expect children to read the entire text of the Bible at once. This Bible says it is for ages 6-10, but it would take an accomplished and perseverant 6-10 year old child to read this book.

However, based on the other available children’s Bibles (which aren’t many, besides toddler versions), this one is satisfactory. On its own merits, I would give the NIrV Adventure Bible three and half stars. Compared to other children’s Bibles available, I give it four.

 

NIV Fast Facts Bible: Fascinating Trivia From the Most Read Book in History was, quite frankly, a disappointment. Considering the price ($29.99) and blurb/advertising, I expected a great deal more information and sturdier construction than it offers.

First of all, a Bible should be able to withstand years of use. There is no reason for a paperback Bible that will get torn, bent, and disfigured with just one careless trip in a backpack.

Second, the “Fascinating Trivia” (which I was excited about, and I planned to give this book as a gift to a friend), amounts to one scant page at the beginning and ending of each chapter. The NIrV Adventure Bible contains far more information, in hardcover, full color, and for only two dollars more, than this paperback version. Honestly, even as an adult, I’d choose the NIrV Adventure Bible over this one. Almost everyone who might be interested in this book would already have at least one Bible (not counting these two I’ve received for review, I believe I own six if not more). I can’t even recommend this as a first Bible to own because the paperback makes it a poor choice for durability.

If the “fast fact” pages were collected into a small pamphlet and sold as supplementary material, I could recommend it. As a full Bible, this one misses the mark. I give this one two stars.

Review copies provided by BookLook, a subsidiary of HarperCollins.

A Mother’s Secret (Hearts of the Lancaster Grand Hotel) book review

 

  • Title: A Mother’s Secret
  • Author: Amy Clipston
  • Print length: 309 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Publication date: June 3, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 4 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 3 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 5 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 4 gingersnaps (recommended)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

The periphery details:

A Mother’s Secret is book two in Hearts of the Lancaster Grand Hotel, a series of romances set in an Amish community. I did not read book one, and I was still able to enjoy this book as a stand-alone. The book also includes a glossary of terms used in the Amish community, a family tree, and a set of discussion questions.

The book:

(From the publisher)

 

Carolyn Lapp longs to have a traditional Amish family. But she lives on her brother’s farm with her parents and her 15-year old son, Benjamin. Carolyn has never revealed the identity of Benjamin’s father and lives daily with the guilt and shame of her youthful indiscretion. Her brother simply will not forgive her.

 

His answer is to arrange a practical marriage for Carolyn to Saul, a widower with a little girl. But Carolyn isn’t convinced that Saul really loves her and believes he is simply looking for someone to help raise his daughter.

 

When Benjamin causes trouble at a local horse auction, horse breeder Joshua Glick decides that he must be taught a lesson. Carolyn and Joshua are unmistakably drawn to each other, but Joshua mistakenly assumes that Benjamin is Carolyn’s brother. Carolyn fears that if he discovers the truth, her past will destroy their budding romance.

 

After years of shame and loneliness, Carolyn suddenly has two men vying for her attention. But which of them will give her the family—and the unconditional love—she’s longed for?

The positive:

The writing is more tell than show, Clipston relies heavily on cliches, and the paper-thin plot is no more than a series of romance novel tropes cobbled together. Still, the book is charming. In the world of Christian fiction, this is the equivalent of the new Avengers movie: you know you are being manipulated to cheer, but you do it anyway. Pleasant, formulaic, and inoffensive, this novel ends with a happily-ever-after that satisfies even if it is not quite earned.

By the end of page one, the reader knows exactly how the story will end. There are no surprises here, but Clipston makes the read a pleasant journey. If you want a family-friendly story as a diversion for a few hours, this is a sure bet. I enjoyed reading about a family that has its foibles but genuinely cares for each other. I rate this book four gingersnaps, not because the writing is outstanding, but because the book clearly defines its premise from page one and delivers exactly what it says it will. If you enjoy the first few pages of the ebook sample, you’ll like the book.

The not-so-positive:

While the Amish community Clipston researched may have a stylized, limited vocabulary and repeat the same words in every conversation, in a novel this reads as inferior writing and a distraction. In some places, it felt as if Clipston had to justify her glossary by repeating the same words as many times as possible.

While I enjoyed the sweetness of the romance (a few romantic touches at most), others might have difficulty with a subplot of chastising a teenage girl for talking with a boy. Still, given the context and acknowledgment by the girl’s father that he was too harsh, it works. Potential readers should be aware, though, that some of the patriarchal attitudes toward women and sexuality may not be their cup of tea.

 

 

 

Conclusion: A Mother’s Secret is a pleasant, formulaic read filled with cliches and feel-good moments. Recommended as a quick, light read.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    .
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.

Take This Cup (The Jerusalem Chronicles) book review

 

  • Title: Take This Cup
  • Author: Bodie and Brock Thoene
  • Print length: 388 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Publication date: March 25, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 2 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 3 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 4 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 3 gingersnaps (average)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

The periphery details:

Bodie and Brock Thoene are two of my favorite authors of gripping Christian fiction. Their Zion Covenant series stands out as a testament to their ability to make memorizing Bible verses (specifically, verses of Isaiah) seem like a privilege won thanks to the death-defying adventures of our predecessors. I chose to review this book, despite it being the second in a series (and not having read the first) because I love their work.

The book:

(From the publisher)

Nehemiah, the young son of a Jewish woman, a weaver from Jerusalem, is born and raised among the Jews who didn’t return to Jerusalem from the Exile. Educated by Rabbi Kagba, one of the magi present at Jesus’ birth thirty years earlier, Nehemiah grows up with the expectation of a soon-coming Messiah. Could the Yeshua of Nazareth, who is walking the earth, reportedly doing miracles, be that Messiah?
When young Nehemiah must travel the long caravan road to Jerusalem, he is charged with an unusual mission—to carry a mysterious object back to the holy city of Jerusalem . . . an object whose reappearance heralds the Messiah’s arrival.Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem just as the final events of Jesus’ earthly ministry are coming to a climax: the Feast of Dedication, the Triumphal Entry, the last cleansing of the Temple, and culminating at the Last Supper in the Upper Room. Only Nehemiah understands the true sacrifice that is to come as he makes the cup worthy of his Savior.

The positive:

The Thoenes are able writers who spin a tale with skill. They dramatize the last few months of Jesus’ life as told through the eyes of a shepherd boy, along with dream cameo appearances by Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel.

There was a lovely scene between Joseph and Nehi, the shepherd boy, in which they talk about not losing hope.

The use of “Sparrows” for the homeless boys in Jerusalem was well done.

The not-so-positive:

I wanted to love this book. I really did, but it fell so flat that it took me two weeks to finish. I fell asleep for the first five or ten times I tried to read the book. I only managed to finish by using the text-to-speech feature on my Kindle and listening to large chunks of the book while ironing.

It took me most of the book to figure out why this book was dull, and I’ll list them here:

  • Nehi (Nehemiah), the shepherd boy, never does anything wrong and never experiences character growth.
  • The dream visions from Joseph were probably meant to be inspiring, but they felt too much like a deus ex machina to squeeze in narrative that Nehi could not have known.
  • The constant repetition of “This cup is an amazing treasure that will change history” felt forced and did not build a sense of awe and grandeur.
  • None of the characters experience growth or change.

If you want a dramatized version of the Bible verses, akin to a Passion Play, this is a nice (but wordy) way to imagine what it might be like to wave palm branches while shouting hosannas as Jesus entered Jerusalem.

If you want a well-crafted story that can stand on its own merits, this is not it.

Warning: Spoiler!

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I particularly objected to the miraculous reappearance of Nehi’s parents at the end, when they had been presumed dead for the bulk of the book. The book takes great pains to show how Nehi can identify with homeless orphan boys, only to throw him into the joyous arms of his parents a dozen chapters later. Considering the enormous drama involved in the Passion itself, this melodrama was unnecessary and cheapened the narrative. Children do lose their parents to early death, and false death came across as a way to play on the heartstrings of the reader and not because it made narrative sense.

 

Conclusion: Take This Cup gives a dramatized version of the Passion through the eyes of a young shepherd boy. Well-meaning but wordy and slow-moving.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    .
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.

Please Look After Mom book review and giveaway

If you haven’t yet read Kyung-Sook Shin’s international bestseller, Please Look After Mom, you’ve missed out. Published as Omma rul Put’akhae in Korea in 2008 and translated into English by Chi-Young Kim and re-published in 2011, Please Look After Mom is an unforgettable story of a family coming to terms with the loss of its mother. So-nyo Park, an elderly woman in poor health, gets lost in a crowded train station while going to visit her adult children and grandchildren with her husband. The novel is both an intimate portrait of one family’s tragedy and a metaphor for losing what was once dear. So-nyo is both literal mother and representation of a past that can never return. Stunning, moving, and well worth the read.

Warning. This book is not for you if:

You require a happily-ever-after ending and all plot points resolved in a nice, tidy bow.

You are intolerant of ambiguity and multiple possible interpretations of a story.

You need immediate answers to questions posed by the story.

You are unwilling to read a story told in the second person.

You expect all stories to follow a typical pattern.

You are unable to enjoy a book that is unfamiliar to you.

You dislike any fantastical elements in a story.

Still with us? Great! If so, read on. I will give a copy of this book to one random commenter on this review*. No hidden agenda here, just a deep love for the book and an eagerness to introduce it to new fans. Again, you will not enjoy this book if the above characteristics apply to you. Consider yourself warned!

First, the drawbacks. A few of the scenes were over the top, especially the one about the orphanage. I won’t give specifics to avoid giving spoilers, but the plot point fit too perfectly into a tear-jerker formula. For a book that brought me to tears with its understated prose elsewhere, the orphanage scene went too far. Also, some of the husband’s scenes became repetitive. He’s a jerk who took his wife for granted, and Shin establishes that early on.

The narrative about the oldest son is the only section written in third person. While this may have been an effort to show emotional distance, it seemed inconsistency rather than an artistic choice. In contrast, when the mother uses “I” for her narrative, it’s a clear and effective choice to change the tone of the story.

Other than these few points, Please Look After Mom is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I became so involved in the story that I searched book reviews to find out what happened to the mother. One of the reviews warned against reading spoilers and said the book should be savored slowly, learning details as the pages reveal them. I would give the same advice to anyone picking up this book. Do not read spoilers, or you will ruin the book for yourself. My only caveat would be not to expect a tidy, happy ending. As long as you’re willing to go where Shin leads you, this book will be well worth the read.

Why do I love this book so much? It’s difficult to explain without spoiling the plot, but there are two scenes that stand out. In one, So-nyo apologizes to her daughter for expressing dismay at the birth of her daughter’s third child. Through So-nyo’s perspective, we understand this dismay as a mother’s love wanting to protect her child from the sacrifices of raising three children.

In the other, So-nyo sinks into depression and finds comfort when she accidentally touches another woman’s mink coat. The softness soothes her. Without knowing the enormous cost of furs, she calls her recent college graduate daughter and asks for a mink coat as a gift. With only a small hesitation, the daughter agrees and arranges for a shopping date. When So-nyo’s daughter-in-law’s shock and envy at the new coat make So-nyo realize the cost, her daughter lashes out.

“It’s the first time Mom ever asked me to buy something for her! Stop it!” (p. 204)

Such a tiny scene, but the power ripples throughout the entire book. How many of us have known someone, mother or otherwise, who cared for us without asking anything in return? Even for those raised in abusive or neglectful environments, there is usually at least one person who makes an impact.

Please Look After Mom is a life-affirming read about the power of love.

 

 

*Anastasia Vitsky and Governing Ana have not received any compensation, financial or otherwise, to write this review or offer the giveaway.