Category Archives: Books

Book review: A novel of women surviving ISIS

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“Today is Nazo Heydo’s wedding. The day she will set herself on fire.”

Thus begins What Comes with the Dust: Goes with the Wind, Gharbi Mustafa’s gripping novel about women who survive the abuses of the Islamic State.

I have read Gharbi Mustafa’s first novel, When Mountains Weep, which is the story of a Kurdish boy coming of age when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tried to exterminate the Kurds. I knew Mustafa was as excellent novelist, so I was looking forward to this second novel about the suffering of Yazidi Kurds under ISIS. I was totally blown away by this new book. Mustafa’s first book was very good; this book is great.
What Comes with the Dust: Goes with the Wind is a long title, which comes from the Yazidi religious legends that are explained in the book. It is a story about two Yazidi women, Nazo and Soz, and their struggle to survive. Nazo must escape slavery from ISIS to reach her forbidden lover. Soz is a female soldier who fights ISIS but also struggles with a secret love. Their fates are intertwined in a heart-wrenching story taken directly from the events we see on the daily news.
In 2014, the world watched in horror as Kurdish helicopters dropped relief supplies and tried to rescue thousands of Yazidis on Shingal Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, trapped there by ISIS. Since then, the United Nations has recognized the Yazidis re the targets of genocide by the Islamic State.
Who are these Yazidis? Why are the Kurds so eager to rescue them? Why is ISIS so eager to destroy them? This novel answers these questions, even though it is a work of fiction. In story form, the novel unravels the mysteries of the Middle East to western readers. Along the way, Mustafa shows us the mysterious religion and culture of the Yazidis, and contrasts these peaceful people with the fanatical cruelty of ISIS. Rich in culture and characters, and jarring in its account of jihadist brutality, it is a story that keeps the reader turning the pages to the end. I simply could not put it down until I finished.
Gharbi Mustafa is uniquely qualified to write this story. A Kurd himself, Mustafa is professor of English at the University of Dohuk in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He has personally interviewed Yazidi women who escaped ISIS, and knows the culture like few writers in the English language. As a novelist, he writes in a way that is at once deeply moving and enlightening. It is well worth the two hours and 200 pages.

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Four great children’s Christmas books

Parents and grandparents often look for great books to share with their children at Christmas. Here is what I consider to be four of the best children’s Christmas books. One is sentimental, some are humorous, and one will help a child deal with suffering.
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One of my favorites is Alabaster’s Song: Christmas through the Eyes of an Angel by Max Lucado. It tells the story of a boy who believes he hears the angel on the Christmas tree singing. Then miraculously, the gap-toothed angel appears by the boy’s bedside, a boy like him, and tells him what it was like to sing to baby Jesus. Children of all ages will enjoy this book, but parents, watch out, because you may get a lump in your own throat at the way the story ends.

HowTheGrinchStoleChristmas

In my list of favorite children’s Christmas books, I have to include the classic book that I loved when I was a child, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss. This beloved book has been made into a popular cartoon TV show, that includes the song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” In recent years, a live-action movie was also made, but I still prefer the cartoon that follows the book word-for-word. It is hard to improve on the whimsical rhyme of Dr. Seuss.

Most readers already know the story, of how the Grinch couldn’t stand the noise that all the “Who’s down in Whoville” made on Christmas morning. So he decided to steal all of their toys on Christmas Eve. What he never anticipated was that they would still sing on Christmas morning without any presents at all. I love the climactic lines:

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!/ It came without packages, boxes or bags!”/ And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. / Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!/ “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store./ Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”

The changed heart of the Grinch has put the word “Grinch” next to “Scrooge” in the Christmas vocabulary of the English language. Every child deserves a chance to hear a parent or grandparent read it to him or her directly from the book, and follow it with a heartfelt discussion about the real meaning of Christmas.

CajunNightBeforeChristmas

My third selection is Cajun Night Before Christmas, by “Trosclair,” edited by Howard Jacobs. This is a regional favorite in Louisiana, but I have read it to children in Georgia who loved it.

Imagine the famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” told in the dialect of south Louisiana, with St. Nicholas gliding across the bayou, with “eight alligator a pullin’ a skiff.” Of course, the alligators have French names:

“Ha, Gaston! Ha, Tiboy! Ha, Pierre an’ Alcee’! Gee, Ninette! Gee, Suzette! Celeste an Renee’!”

I have read this story aloud to my family and to children in public schools over the years, and it always produces loud laughter, even among those who aren’t familiar with the Cajun culture. There have been many imitations of this book, such as the Cowboy Night Before Christmas and the Redneck Night Before Christmas. But none have surpassed the originality and pure fun of Cajun Night Before Christmas.

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My final selection is All Is Well: A Story for Christmas, by Frank Peretti. Peretti is the best-selling author of the Christian thriller This Present Darkness, but he is also the author of one of the most touching Christmas books for children that I have ever read.

All Is Well is different from other children’s Christmas books for several reasons. It is on the reading level of an older child, perhaps about fifth grade. It is on the emotional level of a single mom who is struggling to make ends meet at Christmas. The story takes place in July, not during the Christmas season. Yet is most certainly a Christmas story, especially for those who going through tough times during the holidays.

If you are looking for a cute Christmas book for your child, this is not your book. But if you need encouragement to make it through Christmas, this may be the best book you could read, especially to a child who doesn’t understand why God is allows suffering and hard times.

Book review: “Snoop: A Spiritual Memoir of a Vietnam Army Grunt”

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Snoop: A Spiritual Memoir of a Vietnam Army Grunt (Published by Parables, 2016), by C. Wayne Harrison, is a 98-page book that tells stories of war, grouped together for devotional reflection. That may sound like an unusual approach, but Harrison makes it work.

Harrison was a private in the U.S. Army, who fought in the jungles in the Vietnam War in 1969-1970. Today he is Baptist minister in Booneville, Mississippi. In ten short chapters, he recalls his desire to be a soldier and relates in vivid detail the horrors he experienced in the war. Although the stories tend to move chronologically from early in his life through his year in Vietnam, the chapters are more thematic in nature, with titles such as, “The Heart of a Soldier,” “The Hands of a Soldier,” “The Hardships of a Soldier,” etc. Each chapter opens with a passage from the Bible, then focuses on stories that relate to the theme of the chapter, followed by some discussion questions and a prayer.

The reader identifies with the young man, who is nicknamed “Snoop” because of his lapel pin of Snoopy, the dog who imagined he was a fighter pilot, in the “Peanuts” comic strip. Some descriptions of war in the book may be disturbing to young readers, and the stories certainly are sobering even to mature readers. I believe Harrison’s writing will connect well with soldiers who read the book, and would make an excellent resource for military chaplains or anybody, especially soldiers, who are willing to reflect on God’s purpose for their lives.

The book is well-written, using excellent images and descriptions, and is easy to read, although I noticed a typo on p. 64, where the word “scar” was spelled “scare.” There are black-and-white photos of Harrison as a young soldier in the back of the book. In interest of full disclosure, I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author, with no obligation to write a favorable review.

Book review: “Mark Twain: A Life” by Ron Powers

TwainPowers I just finished reading Mark Twain: A Life, by Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, Ron Powers (Free Press, 2006). This is an in-depth biography of the famous writer and humorist Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. At times, it seems too detailed, as it covers more than I wanted to know. Nevertheless, Powers does an excellent job of helping the reader understand the complexities of the man, and he also helps the reader understand American culture during the 19th century, as the two are so closely intertwined. This is a biography, not a literary critique, so Powers does not put heavy emphasis on analyzing Twain’s writing, although he does give a balanced discussion of how literary critics have judged his works, with special attention to his greatest work, Huckleberry Finn.
Some new things that I learned about Twain:
*he traveled extensively as a young adult and for the rest of his life
*he had a lost love that he never forgot
*he had a fierce temper
*he believed in God, but was turned off by the hypocrisy he saw in church, causing him to struggle in his faith
*he was a sucker for bad investments, but famously paid off his debts
*he had friendships with famous Americans, such as Henry Ward Beecher, William Dean Howells, Helen Keller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ulysses S. Grant
*he almost fought a battle against Ulysses S. Grant, but later became a close friend of Grant, and published Grant’s autobiography
*during his latter years, he turned to political satire
*the context of some of his famous one-liners
Speaking of one-liners, I must mention a few of my favorites from the book:
“Preachers are always pleasant company when they are off duty.”
“I worked in a bookstore, but didn’t like it because the customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort.”
“He would rather decline two drinks than one German verb.”
“The new hobbies in the election year 1876 are politics and pornography. But I repeat myself.”
“Do you know why Balaam’s ass spoke Hebrew? Because he was a he-brayist.”
“When I was a boy everybody was poor but didn’t know it; and everybody was comfortable and did know it.”
“You can’t pray a lie– I found that out.” (quote of Huckleberry Finn)
“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
If you love Mark Twain and American history, and you don’t mind reading a long book, you will enjoy this biography. If you don’t want to wade through 736 pages to learn about Twain’s life, or if you are more interested in a literary analysis of his writings than the story of his life, you may want to read a different biography.

Movie review: “Unbroken”

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I loved Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, Unbroken, about the amazing life of Louie Zamperini, so I was excited to hear that a movie version was being made. However, I was concerned when I heard reports that director Angelina Jolie had cut out the story of Zamperini’s Christian conversion.

The life of Louie Zamperini was made up of three inspiring stories of redemption: athlete, war hero, and Christian servant. Any one of these stories would make an great book or movie. The first story is how he was changed from a troubled boy into an Olympic runner through the inspiration of his big brother. The second story is how he survived air battles with the Japanese, a crash and 45 days afloat in the Pacific Ocean, and horrible torture in a Japanese P.O.W. camp through his personal determination. The third story is how he was saved from alcoholism, post-war trauma, a broken marriage, and bitterness toward the Japanese when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior at the Los Angeles evangelistic crusade in 1949 that made Billy Graham a world-famous preacher. The book tells all three of these stories; the movie tells the first two.

When I went to see the movie, I knew the conversion story would not be told, so I went with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the movie did include the same foreshadowing of his spiritual conversion that is found in the book: the Christian message he heard growing up in an Italian Catholic home with a praying mother, and the promise he made to God when adrift in the ocean that if God would save him, he would serve Him the rest of his life. The movie ends with his homecoming after the war, but the text on the screen briefly tells the viewer that Zamperini “made good” on his promise to serve God, and that he returned to Japan to forgive his captors.

So the story of Zamperini’s faith is not omitted from the movie, but it is greatly abbreviated. The movie itself is very well done. The acting, filming, musical score and drama is top-notch and faithful to the story found in the first two parts of the book. If you have read the book, you will still enjoy the movie. If you have not read the book, I encourage you to see the movie and then read Laura Hillenbrand’s book to get “the rest of the story.”

Favorite children’s Christmas books: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

HowTheGrinchStoleChristmas  In my list of favorite children’s Christmas books, I have to include the classic book that I loved when I was a child, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss. This beloved book has been made into a popular cartoon TV show, that includes the song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” In recent years, a live-action movie was also made, but I still prefer the cartoon that follows the book word-for-word. It is hard to improve on the whimsical rhyme of Dr. Seuss.

Most readers already know the story, of how the Grinch couldn’t stand the noise that all the “Who’s down in Whoville” made on Christmas morning. So he decided to steal all of their toys on Christmas Eve. What he never anticipated was that they would still sing on Christmas morning without any presents at all. I love the climactic lines:

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!/ It came without packages, boxes or bags!”/ And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. / Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!/ “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store./ Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”

The changed heart of the Grinch has put the word “Grinch” next to “Scrooge” in the Christmas vocabulary of the English language. Every child deserves a chance to hear a parent or grandparent read it to him or her directly from the book, and follow it with a heartfelt discussion about the real meaning of Christmas.

Favorite children’s Christmas books: “Cajun Night Before Christmas”

CajunNightBeforeChristmas   Continuing my series of reviews of favorite children’s Christmas books, today’s selection is Cajun Night Before Christmas, by “Trosclair,” edited by Howard Jacobs.

Imagine the famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” told in the dialect of south Louisiana, with St. Nicholas gliding across the bayou, with “eight alligator a pullin’ a skiff.” Of course, the alligators have French names:

“Ha, Gaston! Ha, Tiboy! Ha, Pierre an’ Alcee’! Gee, Ninette! Gee, Suzette! Celeste an Renee’!”

I have read this story aloud to my family and to children in public schools over the years, and it always produces loud laughter, even among those who aren’t familiar with the Cajun culture. There have been many imitations of this book, such as the Cowboy Night Before Christmas and the Redneck Night Before Christmas. But none have surpassed the originality and pure fun of Cajun Night Before Christmas.

The book is available in many book stores and at amazon.com here.

Favorite children’s Christmas books: “Alabaster’s Song” by Max Lucado

AlabastersSong    Parents often look for great books to share with their children at Christmas. For the next few days, I will share what I consider to be four of the best children’s Christmas books.

One of my favorites is Alabaster’s Song: Christmas through the Eyes of an Angel by Max Lucado. It tells the story of a boy who believes he hears the angel on the Christmas tree singing. Then miraculously, the gap-toothed angel appears by the boy’s bedside, a boy like him, and tells him what it was like to sing to baby Jesus. Children of all ages will enjoy this book, but parents, watch out, because you may get a lump in your own throat at the way the story ends.

The book can be found in many Christian book stores, and on Amazon.com here.

Book review: “Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales”

DeadLawyersTellNoTales If you like John Grisham, you will probably like Randy Singer. I have read many of Singer’s legal suspense novels, and I found his plot twists to be consistently good, often better than Grisham. Singer is a Christian writer who avoids profanity and has a Christian worldview to his books. As a Christian myself, I really like that. But if you are not a Christian, don’t let that put you off, especially in Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales. Although his previous novels are not “preachy,” this novel is even less so. Singer simply weaves a captivating story of redemption. Landon Reed, a former SEC football quarterback who went to jail for taking a bribe to throw a game, wants to redeem himself by becoming a lawyer and helping others. He is an imperfect man who nearly falls again, and then gets caught up in a law firm where somebody is slowly killing every lawyer at the firm.

From beginning to end the plot kept my interest. Each short chapter seemed to end with something that made me want to read the next chapter and learn how the plot would resolve. Singer is a lawyer himself, and is able to describe complicated legal situations with clarity and detail. But what made this story engrossing in the first half was the theme of forgiveness and a second chance. In the second half, the plot accelerated and I couldn’t put down the book until I finished. This is probably Randy Singer’s best book to date.

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Book review: Joe McKeever, “101 Cartoons”

101Cartoons  Recently, I had the pleasure of enjoying some pancakes with Joe McKeever. When he noticed that the waitress was friendly, he immediately pulled out a pad and pencil, asked her to stand still and smile, and in a few moments he had drawn a wonderful cartoon of her likeness. She was so excited, another waiter came to ask about it, and he gladly drew another one. Everywhere he goes, Joe draws pictures of people. You might say that he’s the quickest draw in the West.

McKeever’s cartoons were published for years in Pulpit Helps and are still a regular feature in various Baptist newspapers through Baptist Press. Now McKeever has published a great collection of some recent favorites, entitled 101 Cartoons. Each cartoon is a full page, and nearly all are in full color. Most of the cartoons poke fun at religious subjects, as is illustrated by the photo at the bottom of this review. Others, like the cover photo above, poke fun at life in general.

McKeever has a corny sense of humor, which I like. He pokes fun at pastors, deacons, pastor search committees, hypocrites in church, seeker-sensitive churches, Calvinism, fickle church members, Facebook, smart phones, politicians, TV, the lottery, sports, health and exercise, among other things. Some of the cartoons make a serious point, such as the one that shows a man in a wheelchair in front of a church with inaccessible steps, who says, “I’ll bet this is a real pretty church on the inside.”

The print is large and easy to read, and as you can see from the photos, they are very colorful. It makes a great coffee table book for enjoyable conversation with family and visitors.

101 Cartoons is available from Amazon.com or you may purchase it directly from the author and he will inscribe a personal greeting and cartoon inside the front cover for you. Send a check for $15 for one or $27 for two, to Joe McKeever, P. O. Box 855, Kenner, LA 70063. In the interest of full disclosure, Brother Joe gave me a complimentary copy of his book along with the pancakes; however, he did not ask me to write this review– I was glad to do that myself!

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(If you see a video ad below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.)