Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Warning to those who appreciate lighthearted stories: this one is heartrending.

In The Road, McCarthy paints a landscape of ruin. Ash covers every surface, from the ground to the trees and abandoned buildings. Even the snow and rain carries ash. No more birds or fish or animals and very few people. Perhaps this is the result of nuclear fallout. The catastrophe is never specifically explained, but this is something mankind brought upon itself, and its effects are worldwide. The things that once were - the modern conveniences we take for granted - are a thing of the past. Against the bleak landscape, relationships are distilled and masks fall away. In such a world, survival is the rule.

The main characters in The Road are a man and his son. They are traveling across the once United States from somewhere in the north to the southern coast, and this book is the story of that journey. The two are never named in the story. They are simply called 'the man' and 'the boy,' and this seems very intentional: even their individuality, their names, are casualties in a dead world.

This new world of ash and soot is dangerous. The man and boy are constantly looking for food to eat and useful supplies, but there are worse dangers than hunger. Small bands of strong and armed people have people enslaved, and cannibalism is common. Bands of men roam the countryside, brandishing guns and iron bars with which to terrorize others. Anarchy is the rule of the day.

And yet ... And yet, the man and the boy are still a father and son. The man cherishes the boy and exists to protect and guide him. When he feels like giving up, thoughts of the boy keep him carrying on.

A father's love for his son shows through clearly throughout, but there is a special sweetness in scenes like the one when they find a Coca-Cola. The man opens the can and gives it to the boy to drink. He tries to give him the whole can, but the boy insists that his dad have some too. The boy complains about having to keep an eye on his father; otherwise, the man would take care of his son and not take enough care of himself.

Their conversations add further texture and realism to the characters. Many, many times, the man will explain something to the boy (in answer to a question) and then say, "okay?" The boys replies, "okay." And the man follows up with one more, "okay." If he thinks the boy is upset with him, the man will ask, "Are you talking?" meaning, "Are you talking to me?" I'm not doing it justice here, but in the context of the story, these conversations sound genuine.

For the man and the boy, there is a constant tension between helping others and preserving their own lives. The boy wants to help people, but the man has to be realistic. He tries to show mercy for the sake of the child. To the boy, he and his father are "the good guys" and they "carry the fire."

This story moves along well. The writing is fast-paced and moving, and it brings up a lot of heavy questions. When he misses the world that once was, the man is sometimes sad, but more often angry. His anger often comes out at God, and he wrestles with questions of meaning. It's not enough to bog down the story or turn it into a theological treatise, but it lends a great deal of believeability to the book.

I really had a difficult time sticking with The Road. It's well written, engaging, but very sad. I started reading this once before and quit, because it depressed me. Still, at the recommendation of a good friend, I took another stab at it. This time, though, I listened to the audio version in the car. And I'm glad I did! The reader was very engaging, keeping the story moving and using distinct voices and realistic tones for the voices.

Now, one last consideration: Is this a book for your younger teens to read? No. Absolutely not. I don't think that most of them would stick with this one anyway. The subject matter is brutal, the descriptions of dead bodies too much.

I am glad I read this one. There are beauties and realities that strike a stark contrast to the death and destruction surrounding the main characters. This story is thoughtful. It's both depressing and healthy to consider the true depravity of mankind.

Maybe that's one reason I appreciated the audiobook so much. I didn't have the opportunity to put the book down and think about it too long. I couldn't re-read passages. And that's okay.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vanish by Tom Pawlik

Amazing. Outstanding. For years, I have confined myself to a small subset of authors - and found myself in a bit of a rut. I feel like reading a thriller ... Okay, that means Ted Dekker, Dean Koontz, Robert Liparulo ... Those are excellent authors, but sometimes I need to stretch myself and look for something new. Well, in this case, I am very glad I did.

I stopped by the library the other day, perusing the 'Inspirational' section, and happened upon Vanish. I can't believe I've never read Tom Pawlik before! This author has a very natural and flowing style, and his sense of story is enthralling.

As I began reading this book, I wondered why it would be classified as inspirational. It didn't necessarily seem to have a 'Christian' message at first. Vanish starts out like a story of alien invasion, but it's nothing so simple as that. For those who have read The Taking by Dean Koontz, you'll remember how much of a twist that 'alien' story turned out to be. (By the way, I would highly recommend it as well.) This story is different, but the twist is just as unexpected. Maybe I'm not the best detective when it comes to figuring out a book, but this one kept me guessing most of the way through.

Tom Pawlik has that same gift for imagery that I've always enjoyed in Ted Dekker's books. Both authors do a great job illustrating various aspects of God's character through story.

I came away from Vanish with a sense of satisfaction. It made a lot of good points, without coming off preachy. And the ending was realistic and believable. The book is as good - and as believable - as anything out there. But it's also SAFE and worthwhile reading to recommend to your older kids. Now that I've finished, I'm passing this one to my teenager who enjoys thrillers, and I've already reserved Pawlik's next book at the library. Yea!

This Present Darkness by Frank E. Peretti

I just finished re-reading this groundbreaking novel. I remember reading it when it first came out in 1986 and being utterly blown away. This is Chrisian fiction?! I had no idea what other books would be written by authors following the trail blazed by Mr. Peretti. It was my first big step into the category of 'thrillers,' and I was amazed. Enough reminiscing, although I'm sure that many others could echo these thoughts. What about the book itself?

This one is a bit difficult to explain. The author maintains his storyline on two levels: one level tells the story of physical activities, and another shows what's going on behind the scenes in the spiritual realm. Think angels vs. demons, light vs. darkness. The piece that makes this interesting is the way that the two levels interact and play off each other.

The central plot revolves around the humans, and the spirit characters win or lose according to how they can influence those people. The spirits whisper thoughts into minds and give nudges at just the right times to move the story along. Angels are strengthened when people pray, while demons find strength in numbers and in their own pride.

Now, for those who enjoy realism in a story, you might struggle to suspend your disbelief a few times as you read the book. Most things will have you thinking, "Wow, could it really work like that?" There will be times where things seem a bit unbelievable even from the perspective of a spiritualy sensitive Christian.

The pastor, Hank, can call out demons by name - and that always fixes everything in this particular story. Okay, well, it is a story after all, not a theological treatise. And, in our stories, we like a good hero. A theology instructor once explained:

"We often base our idea of the normal Christian life on our own experiences - and lack thereof. Instead, we should base our views on what the Bible tells us, and if our experiences don't match up, then maybe we're not exactly living the normal Christian life as prescribed in the New Testament."

That's not a word-for-word quote, but hopefully, you get the idea. Just because there are some things in this story that we don't often encounter (e.g., casting out demons), that doesn't make them unreal.

Almost every plot twist in this book traces back from the obvious physical occurrence to some subtle spiritual cause. In one sense, that's just too easy. We all like to think, "the devil made me do it" when we actually have our own set of motivations. Still, this book makes me wonder how oblivious we are to battles happening all around us. (See my wife's blog for more on some of our struggles and battles in the journey of adoption.)

By the end, you might be thinking, "That seemed to work out a little too nicely." Maybe so, but I am a firm believer in Romans 8:28, that God orchestrates things for our good. I see this in real life, so I don't have too much difficulty believing when it happens in the story.

Well, this reads more like a sermon than a book review, but I guess I got carried away. I recommend this book for all people of all ages. At the very least, it will probably spur some interesting conversations.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Catacombs by Paul McCusker

Many fictional accounts have been written about the persecution of Christians, and I avoid almost all of them. I read the Left Behind series, but it felt like a fairy tale to me. Would Jesus really want to spare his church the pain of persecution? What about when Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow me"?

In a time of political correctness when the government would like to dictate our morality, Catacombs feels eerily realistic. Unlike many other books about persecution, this one doesn't try to place any timeframe around its events. There are no allusions to prophecy or end times. This is simply a picture of a place where Christianity is outlawed.

If you are like me and enjoy happy endings, you may choose to avoid this book - and I wouldn't blame you. Personally, I had a very difficult time getting into it and then staying with it. I noticed myself thinking, okay, it's going to get better now; something good is going to happen. But that's not the point of the book. It's sad, but then again so is the whole subject of persecution.

Still Catacombs is so good that it merits the journey. It's a kind of sweet sadness to see how faith might play out under extreme circumstances. The government in this book resorts to electric shock, torture, and even death in its attempt to stamp out Christianity from the world. As a result, people learn what they are really made of, and we get a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said:

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. - Matthew 10:37-39

People in this book are forced to make choices. They must decide whether following Jesus is worth their lives. Catacombs has really challenged me to examine my faith. Would I stay true to Jesus in such a situation? I think so, but it would have to be a supernatural work of God.

I recently read Brother Yun's non-fiction account of persecution in China. Here in McCusker's book - as in real life - we see that God gives grace to his people to stand up under whatever evils man can throw their way. In one of the sweetest, most heart-rending scenes of the book, a number of Christians are able to face their own deaths with peace because of God's presence.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. But be warned: you may feel as though you have been through an emotional 'wringer' when you're through.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mr. T by Mr. T

This book, written in 1984, is Mr.T's autobiography: his story in his words. Mr. T makes this point very clear in the beginning. This is raw 'T' - no ghost writter, co-author, or filter of any sort.

First, I would like to point out what a surprise this book was for me. I knew that Mr. T played some tough parts, but I always thought of him as just another actor who enjoyed lifting weights. Boy, was I wrong!

Mr. T had a rough childhood, growing up in the ghettos of Chicago. He talks about prejudice and how the 'projects' were a notion concocted by white men to keep blacks out of sight and under foot. In support of this idea, Mr. T goes into detail explaining how the police responded to crime in the projects only in cases where the victims were white. He talks about how he and his seven older brothers protected their family and enforced their own form of justice.

This book tells about everything from Mr. T's days playing college football and serving in the military to his time as personal bodyguard to Leon Spinks (former heavyweight boxing champion of the world). Mr. T has always strived for excellence in whatever he does, and I've come away from this book with a more informed respect for him.

This was not a particularly enjoyable read for me, but it was educational. In addition to his life story, Mr. T explains a lot about his views on God, some of which I support and some I do not. Still, it's Mr. T's life and his story, so he can tell it any way he wants.

Finally, the question I always think about: Would I recommend this book to my kids? My answer: Maybe when they're older. The book includes a lot of rough details. Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that we hide the ugliness of racism and poverty from our kids. They need to know about such evils (but not necessarily to this level of detail). As a man, I respect the strength that Mr. T has found in God. As a parent, I'm going to quietly return this book to the library ...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ripple Effect by Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is one of the best-kept secrets of teen literature. He's written scripts for the Adventures in Odyssey radio series and a number of books with those characters, most notably the Passages series (think alternate realities).

As with all good books targeted to a teen market, Ripple Effect is very fast paced, and at just 204 pages, it's a quick read. The story is interesting, even if it does require a significant suspension of disbelief. Although such terms are never mentioned, this puts me in mind of 'string theory' and the idea of 'parallel dimensions.'

Ripple Effect is the first installment of a new Time Thriller Trilogy. Book two came out this year, and I hope to read it soon, but I'm number three on the waiting list at the local library. (Maybe Mr. McCusker isn't such a secret after all.)

The main theme of this book can be summed up in two words: eternal perspective. Because of the subject matter, I would not be surprised to see this theme further developed in the next two books. The characters are continually being challenged about what to believe of the world in general - and other characters in particular. Their experiences open them to a wider view of things, to the possibility that what we see may not be all there is.

McCusker makes no secret of his commitment to God, and his writing reflects that without becoming preachy. This book in particular reflects a positive worldview without going much further. One thing I really appreciate about Ripple Effect is its positive portrayal of parents and other adult figures (a rare thing in today's teen books).

Okay, to the adults out there, keep in mind that this is written for our teenage friends. That being said, the interactions are emotionally charged, and the characters are always wondering who to believe and what to think. (Of course, that's not to say that adults have everything figured out; we're simply more practiced at hiding our insecurities.)

I am definitely going to recommend this one to my kids. There is a shortage of quality books for teens, but this is one.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Relentless by Dean Koontz

As with all Koontz novels, Relentless is well written, fast paced, and engrossing. Unlike most thrillers, this book is well seasoned with humor. In that respect, it's a lot like an earlier Koontz book, Life Expectancy, in which a menacing clown and assorted circus performers (aerialists) threaten the life, liberty, and happiness of a long line of bakers. This book is certainly less tongue-in-cheek, but it's still a fun read.

The main character in Relentless is an author. (It's never explained what types of books he writes, but they aren't thrillers.) His wife is a writer and illustrator of children's books, and his six-year-old son is a certifiable genius. These are the good guys, and Koontz does a good job of making them a likeable family, filling in their lives with laughter and an eccentric extended family. If the whole book focused on characters like these, I would urge my 14-year-old to read it; however, there is a darker side ...

Granted, that's the point of a thriller. There has to be conflict, some sort of tension against which the heroes must struggle, but the villains in Relentless are the reason I can't let my teenagers read it. These guys are brutal. Yes, this kind of character has a purpose. It provides the pure evil backdrop against which goodness, nobility, and self-sacrifice can be easily identified.

I think that's what keeps drawing me back to Dean Koontz: the nobility of his good guys. The heroes in Relentless are not much different than you and me (with the exception of the six-year-old genius), but together they overcome overwhelming odds. In the end, they are stronger and more appreciative of one another.

I'm glad I read the book, but I'll be glad for a respite from the gruesome villains. That's the reason I swing back and forth between being a huge Koontz fan to needing a break. There is almost always something noble and redeeming in his books, but you have to struggle through a good bit of darkness to reach it.