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Thunderbolt Kid coverBill Bryson’s new book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is a memoir about growing up as a baby boomer in the very heart of the country – Des Moines, Iowa.

Many Bryson fans – myself included – associate his books with massive undertakings that stretch his physical and emotional limits, often resulting in hilarity and insight.  Previous undertakings include hiking the Appalachian Trail, backpacking across Europe, exploring the Australian outback, road tripping across America, and visiting non-profit groups in Africa.  By contrast, Bryson admits that in Thunderbolt Kid “what follows isn’t terribly eventful.”  The book is essentially a collection of anecdotes and stories organized thematically, that weave together to recollect a  fondly-remembered childhood in the climax of American prosperity.

Bryson has always been known for his wit, and he gets a real chance to showcase it here.  Aside from maybe I’m a Stranger Here Myself, this may be his funniest book to date.  The fact that there is no real narrative never really gets in the way because the reader will likely be spending so much time laughing.  Byson hilariously explores the small town shops he frequented, the monotony of farm living, and, as the title implies, his creation of a superhero alter-ego.

The other thing that always fascinates me about Bryson is the extensive research that he puts into the smallest details.  He will tell you that he loved comic books as a kid, tells a funny story, and then proceeds to back up his claim that comic books were popular with a ridiculous amount of statistics regarding comic books sales, surveys, and studies.  And it’s like this with everything: baseball, nuclear testing during the cold war, farming, and so on.  It adds a slight level of depth and makes it just that much more interesting.

Rating: 4 stars (Out of 5)

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While I was in Sonoma during my honeymoon, I was at Baksheesh and picked up this interesting little book called The Better World Shopping Guide by Ellis Jones.  This book, while pocket-sized, contains a wealth of information on what I would call “responsible shopping,” or the idea that we need to spend our money to buy products from companies that are making the world a better place.  There is a variety of criteria used to rank companies (such as environmental impact, illegal practices, exploitation and mistreatment of workers both at home and abroad, lobbying history, etc.) in 73 categories from Airlines to Wine.   Selected companies in each category are given an A-F grade, along with some reasons why the companies received that grade.  The hope is to trace back to where products come from, and make sure companies are doing business fairly.  Here are some interesting things I’ve found out:

  • Altria (Phillip Morris)  is ranked as one of the worst companies in the world.  Among their crimes: public deception, “global climate change laggard,” spending over $100 million dollars on lobbyists, undermining overseas health standards, involvement in document deletion scandals, and doing shady business deals with less-than-ethical governments, like Burma.  Altria is not a name that was terribly familiar with me, but I recognized some of the rands they own: Kraft, Miller, Libby’s, Post, Nabisco, Marlboro, Cool Whip, Jell-O, Pam, Tombstone, Planters, and Minute Maid.
  • Chocolate is something everyone loves, but it’s becoming apparent that probably 40% of the chocolate on the market is made with child slave labor.  One of the major criminals is Nestle, which is involved in child slavery lawsuits, as well as being accused of aggressive takeovers and family farms, and other human rights lawsuits.
  • General Motors is the number one polluter in the auto industry, the number one opponent of clean air legislation, and one of the top financial donors to lobbyist groups opposing environmental laws.
  • Sweatshops are used to make a large majority of the clothing we wear.  Companies or retailers that get a grade of C include Target, GAP, Mervyn’s, JC Penny’s, and Macy’s; Ds include Fruit of the Loom, Kmart, Guess, Ralph Lauren, Polo, Calvin Klein, LA Gear, TJ Maxx, Kohl’s, and Vanity Fair; Fs include Wal-Mart and Dilliards.
  • Many of our favorite coffee places (Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Peet’s) get favorable ratings (A-B).  Generally, grocery store grounds (Maxwell House, Nestle, etc) do not.
  • General Electric is not only a major polluter, but their also “a major weapon’s producer including landmines”!
  • Wal-Mart is the number 3 worst company on the planet, with numerous discrimination lawsuits and documented exploitation of child labor.

And there are tons of other businesses that are singled out for their social and corporate irresponsibility.  The book also has a website with the same information, as well as links to the human rights, environmental, and animal rights groups that provided the data for his research.

The good news is that in every category (except Gasoline), Jones provides socially responsible options to replace the irresponsible ones.  Among those highlighted: Patagonia, Seventh Generation, Eden Foods, Ben & Jerry’s, Stonyfield Farms, and so on.  The corporations that do get As and Bs are either sustainable or contribute to environmental redevelopment, practice ethical treatment of employees, avoid slavery and exploited labor, don’t do unnecessary tests on animals, provide organic or fair trade products, and overall practice good social responsibility.  Many of the products we buy and use are very responsible, while others are not.

This book has caused me to rethink what I buy, and will probably cause me to adjust my shopping a little bit.  I recommend that everyone interested in making their world a better place pick up this book.  Our money talks, and we should do our best to control what it’s saying.

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The Only Road NorthThe story of Erik Mirandette may be familiar to those of you who have been tracking with Mars Hill for a while.  Erik is a native of Grand Rapids, MI, who decided one day that he wanted to go out and help people.  Several months later he found himself in Morocco helping West African refugees who were abandoned and abused by the government.  After his service there, he decided that he wanted to make an epic journey through Africa, seeing the land and helping people on the way.  The result is The Only Road North: 9,000 Miles of Dirt and Dreams, his memoirs of the fateful dirt bike trip that took him, his younger brother Alex, and his best friends Kris and Mike, from Cate Town in South Africa to Cairo, Egypt .

The book tells an unimaginable story.  The gang manages to come out alive from numerous situations that would kill just about anyone else.  They survive bandit country in Kenya; they pass through militias and armies unharmed; they break down in jungles uninhabited, lion-infested jungles only to be rescued by a traveler going the same direction of them; they narrowly escape elephant and AK47 attacks alike; and they come out unscathed from numerous road accidents (including a head on collision with a van!).  The boys travel through eleven countries, helping out with nonprofits and aid groups every chance they get.  They are living life to the extreme, and every chance where they come out alive seems to be a miracle.  The group is continuously amazed at how God pulls them through every situation, guiding them every step of the way.

All of that changes in Cairo.  A day before they are set to fly home, a suicide bomber sets off a bomb right in the middle of the group.  Alex, Erik’s brother, is killed.  The others barely escape with their lives.

Thus, Erik’s external journey becomes an internal one.  As he moves from hospital to hospital with death glaring over his shoulder, Erik finds himself asking questions that shake the foundation of his faith: Why would God carry us all this way just to let go of us at the last minute?  Is this really part of God’s plan?  Why did it have to be Alex?  These are questions that Erik can’t answer.  None of it makes sense.  He only finds solace in the fact that Alex’s life was well-lived, and that he tried to do what he could to help out the world with the life he was given.

Though not terribly well written, the book shook me.  The story is tragic, to say the least, and it does raise profound questions about God’s plan.  Sure his death may have led many people to Christ, but it’s still never easy to let go of someone you love, especially when they die as senselessly as Alex did, and the pain really comes through in Erik’s story.

Ultimately, the book ends much like the book of Job – no answers are given, but God’s glory is revealed.  Erik recounts their Moroccan refugee ministry and how it is thriving, and how Alex’s life, though short, was used by God to help people.  And he finds comfort in that.

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Surrender or StarveI’ll admit that when I bought Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea, I was a little misled by the title.  Since it was located in the travel section and it has the word travels in the title, I assumed it was a travel book, which it is not.  It is a look at the complex causes and consequences of the infamous famine in the Horn of Africa in the 1980’s.

Now this is a subject that I know nothing about, so I won’t pretend to here.  I know nothing about whether or not Kaplan’s arguments are sound or how biased he is (I get the feeling he’s very biased), but there is one point he repeatedly made that deserves attention – donating money and food to countries like Ethiopia during the famine may not have been the best action.  Kaplan argues that we in America were bombarded with television images of starving Ethiopians, and out of guilt we poured out large amounts of money to send them ridiculous amounts of grain, and that while this is good and well, we took little to no time to look at the politics of the region.  Had we have done so, Kaplan argues, we would have realized that much of the starvation had less to do with drought and more to do with ethnic persecution, price control efforts in a communist country, mass resettlement of peasants, and overall mismanagement of state resources.  Furthermore, more of the money we sent to Ethiopia was used to fight the multiple rebel factions (who were more aligned with American ideals that the Ethiopian government was) and civil wars than to feed hungry people.  Thus, Kaplan suggests that the best thing to do would be to act politically and dismantle the corrupt system instead of sending food to relieve our own guilt.  Kaplan uses this model in neighboring Sudan and Somalia to show that by refusing to get involved politically, we created a void that was filled by the Soviet Union, who in turn helped sustain the oppressive system that is causing the problem.

Like I said before, it wasn’t what I expected, but it made me think nonetheless.

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PreservationistI read about David Maine in this article in Christianity Today, and I immediately ordered two of his books online: The Preservationist, and Fallen. All of Maine’s books retell Old Testament stories; the former tackles the story of Noah, while the latter reinterprets the story of Adam and Eve.

The story alternates between the point of views of all the major characters in the story (whose names come from an obscure translation): Noe and his wife (who has no name because everyone has forgotten it); Sem, and his wife Bera; Cham, and his wife Ilya; and Japheth, and his wife Mirn. The different points of view serve the purpose of getting the story from a complete variety of perspectives, from Noe the faithful, to Cham the bitter, Ilya the skeptical, and so on.

On one hand, the novel is interesting because no one really puts a lot of thought into the details of the story. No one imagines the struggle Noe would be up against trying to rally everyone together to build a large boat, how all the animals were gathered, how the animals we kept from eating one another, how to deal with sexual desires when your on a boat cramped with animals and people, and, perhaps most importantly, what to do with the mass amount of excrement that is produced on a daily basis. These are all elements that the crew has to deal with on a regular basis, and they all go to show that following God’s command wasn’t the easiest thing in the world.

But on a deeper level, the novel really is an interesting story about grace. The flood, as those who are familiar with the story know, was designed to wipe out all mankind except Noe and his family. All of humanity is reduced to a small handful, and some of them do not even deserve saving. Cham, who will later begat the Caananite people, is stubborn in his refusal to fall in line with God’s will, and Japheth is a lazy, horny boy who cares nothing for helping with the boat. Their wives, who come from pagan lands and worshiped pagan gods, openly wonder why it is that they are allowed to live, but everyone in their home lands are drowned and killed. Ilya recognizes that ever thing that’s ever happened in her life has been a chain of events leading her to life on the boat, as if someone had pulled all the strings to make sure she was there. Thus, it is also a story of God’s sovereignty over creation. No one is really sure why God decides to wipe everyone out, and why they were the ones that were destined to live. The book offers no answers either. Once the waters have receded and the family is trying to start a new life, God orders them to split up and is silent for the rest of the book. God’s actions, to Maine, are just in their own right, which is ultimately unknowable to us.

However, the most interesting aspect of the book is the treatment of Noe. The Bible tells us that Noe is a righteous man, and too many versions of this story take that and make Noe into a saint.  But the New Testament tells us that none are righteous, which means that Noe sins just like everyone else.  With this in mind, Maine portrays Noe as a tragic character.  He has an unmatched faith in God, but he his sin is the pride he has in that faith.  When the waters come down from the heavens, Noe is giddy with self righteousness.  He happily watches the people drown, and boats that he was right all along, and that he was good enough to be saved.  Ultimately, Noe is struck ill, and in a sickness-induced dream, God reminds him just how worthless he is, and that he is deserving of death just like everyone else.  Thus, the theme of grace is reinforced again, with Maine reminding us that we should all drown, and it is only by God’s grace that we are saved from the flood.

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New Kenna Album Drops Today

Every real music fan has at least one musician/band/group that they love that is flying under the radar.  For one reason or another, they haven’t hit the big time yet, and when they do, you’ll be there bragging that you were a fan way back in the day.

My undiscovered gem is a musician names Kenna.

Kenna is an Ethiopian-born singer whose music is difficult to put a finger on.  People have used the terms “pop,” “electronica,” “synth pop,” “post rock,” and “hip-hop,” but the truth is he mixes a little bit of all of those genres.  I would say he occupies the no-man’s land between Justin Timberlake and Imogen Heap, with dashes of Postal Service, Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, and Radiohead added in on occasion.

I discovered him way back in 2001 when I was watching MTV2.  They played a music video for his first single “hell bent,” and it was amazing.  To this day, it is still my favorite music video.  I’ve included it here; please take a moment to watch before continuing:

My God – isn’t that amazing!  I think it perfectly captures the lie of consumerism and materialism, and the sheds truth on the idea that you can buy or create happiness.

But anyway, I fell in love and began searching for the album.  Turns out that it wouldn’t even come out for another two years, and it would be another two years before I could find it for sale in a music store.  But it was worth the wait, because New Sacred Cow lived up to the single.  I highly recommend giving the album a listen.  Other than “hell bent,” I would say that “Freetime,” “Sunday After You,” “Yeneh Ababa” and “War in Me” are some of the better tracks.

So, I was excited to learn that after months and months of delays, his album Make Sure They See My Face came out today.  I snagged it this morning and listened to it on my way to and from work.  Overall, I like it.  I don’t think it’s better than New Sacred Cow, but there’s a lot that I like about it.  It’s got a little more of an edge and some of the songs are a little more energetic.  Some of the standout songs so far are “Out of Control (State of Emotion),” “Say Goodbye to Love,” “Sun Red Sky Blue,” and “Face the Gun.”

Both of the albums are worth checking out.  With the new album out, his “Out of Control” has been in a PSP commercial, and “Say Goodbye to Love” is the featured new video on MTV2 this week, so I just wanted to let everyone know that I was a Kenna fan first 😉

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I just finished Losing Moses on the Freeway: The Ten Commandments in America by Chris Hedges, which is an interesting look and the function of the Ten Commandments in today’s world. Inspired by a ten-part series of plays dealing with the Ten Commandments that he once saw, Hedges uses autobiographical and first-hand accounts along with the stories of others to examine the basic moral principals that govern our lives.

The book isn’t really written towards a Christian audience. Rather, it’s written for everyone, which is part of Hedges’ point about the Ten Commandments – they are universally applicable to everyone regardless of their faith. They aren’t religious orders, but practical things we can do to better ourselves and others. They disrupt love, and turn our focus inward instead of outward. Quoth Hedges:

The commandments bind us together. They work to keep us from revering the false covenants that destroy us. These false covenants have a powerful appeal. They offer a sense of security and empowerment. They tempt us to be God. They tell us the things we want to hear and believe. They appear to make us the center of the universe. They make us feel we belong. But these false covenants, covenants built around exclusive communities of race, gender, class, religion, and nature, inevitably carry within them the denigration of others who we exclude. These false covenants divide us. The covenant offered by the commandments, the covenant of life, is the covenant of love. It is a covenant that recognizes that all of life is sacred and love is the force that makes life together possible.

 

The Commandments guide us towards a society of love, and not a society of selfishness.

The stories focus on how breaking the commandments can tear people apart: the chapter on the second commandment examines a Phish groupie, and how her devotion to the band proved to be an addiction, a failed way to find companionship; “Thou shalt not murder” portrays an Episcopal priest plagued by his actions in the Vietnam War; the chapter about adultery takes a unique spin on the commandment and focuses on the offspring of carnal sin by telling the story of a young kid looking to fill his love void with gangs and crime; and the chapter on coveting deals with Tony Robbins and the greedy lie behind the American Dream. Mixed with these stories are tales of his own life, from going to a religious boarding school, to his abandonment of ordination (even after finishing his Master of Divinity) in order to cover foreign wars as a journalist. He goes out of his way to find stories that truly reflect how breaking the commandments can hurt people and guide people away from a life of love for others.

Now, if you don’t agree with a lot of the politics of Chris Hedges (follow the link to his Wikipedia page at the beginning of this blog to read up), you’ll probably have a hard time swallowing some if his criticisms. Hedges is starkly anti-war, and very critical of U.S. foreign policy and the greed that characterizes American culture, and these views, though not always directly addressed, are evident from cover to cover. But even if you find yourself on the opposite end of the political spectrum from him, he has some very interesting comments to make on the Commandments and how they relate to our world that you can’t ignore.

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