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Elliptical: The Music of Meshell Ndegeocello

Andre Akinyele and Jon O'Bergh. Book Baby, $19.99 trade paper (170p) ISBN 978-1-6319-2731-7

In this uneven biography, Akinyele explores the career of American funk and soul singer and musician Meshell Ndegeocello, who has been performing for 20 years. According to the author, Ndegeocello has resisted being boxed into commercial concepts. In this examination of her work, Akinyele and O'Bergh dissect Meshell's discography and talk about their experiences of her albums and what her work has meant to them. These two fans are both professional musicians who look at Ndegeocello's work as both the expression of her as an evolving artist and a queer icon. While they do not get the opportunity to interview Ndegeocello themselves, they speculate on her motives and processes based on interviews they have read and their own personal experiences. This personal connection to the music is both the only appealing part of this book and the most difficult part for readers. While some might find the journeys of other fans fascinating, most will simply want more details about the musician herself. The writing structure is a little confusing as it moves between the co-authors. A reader has to be very dedicated to see this through. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Who Made Early Christianity?: The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul

John Gager. Columbia Univ., $30 (208p) ISBN 978-0-231-17404-6

Gager, a professor of religion at Princeton, tackles the long-held belief that the apostle Paul was an anti-Jewish Christian in this scholarly and well-researched volume, part of a series of lectures under the direction of the American Academy of Religion. To support his claim that Paul was, in fact, a loyal Jew whose words have been misconstrued by an anti-Jewish Christian imagination, Gager paints a portrait of the social, religious, and historical milieu in which Paul lived. Beginning with Paul's writings, which until very recently have been viewed as Christianity's go-to text for anti-Jewish thought, Gager asserts that when Paul's letters are read in their appropriate context, a startlingly different image of Paul's agenda emerges. To accomplish this task, Gager presents a host of contemporary historians' opposing views and either validates or deconstructs them piece by piece, always with a strict adherence to facts and historical context. While some might argue with his interpretation of certain passages, Gager provides copious, informative footnotes to back up his points and provide outlets for further inquiry. His clear and thorough journey, taking scripture into account as well as other relevant texts and artifacts—including works by both Jewish and Christian historians—will engage and impress any student of Abrahamic history. (June)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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I Will: Nine Traits of the Outwardly Focused Christian

Thom S. Rainer. B&H, $12.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-4336-8729-7

Statistics on American church membership and attendance are dire, writes Rainer, president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, but don't blame the institutional church or denominations. In this little volume, which enjoins the reader to develop a habit of saying "I will" to church commitment, the working assumption seems to be that church members, left to themselves, treat church like a club that exists to serve them. Instead of focusing on what may be wrong in a congregation, members should assume positive attitudes and resolve to attend church more, share time and finances with the church more generously, and bring friends to church more often. Members should also participate in church groups; Rainer suggests that, if one is not in a group, it's possible that one is an "incredibly lazy and uncommitted Christian." While the basic concept is reasonably sound—people are generally happier when they think less about themselves and more about others—Rainer neither shows the limits of the unconditional "I will" nor addresses alternatives to this affirmation in light of serious church dysfunction or abuse. (July)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Plain Choice: A True Story of Choosing to Live an Amish Life

Sherry Gore. Zondervan, $15.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-310-33558-0

Gore (Me, Myself and Pie), a writer for the Amish newspaper The Budget, follows a conventional story arc in her latest book, depicting herself as a hurt, empty party animal who finds Jesus, redemption, and then a new life. Gore talks about her days of hardship with extra gusto, showing herself to be one of those remarkable people who can weather any number of crises, each of which alone would sink a lesser soul—dysfunctional parents, dropping out of high school, homelessness, two divorces, three children, and a child with a life-threatening illness. After converting to Christianity, Gore adds another twist by joining the Amish. While her energy never flags, Gore's sometimes glib writing style and down-home clichés—"Brother Lester's heart was as big as an ocean," "a sun-kissed Amish community"—can create distance from her pain and redemption. At her strongest, however, Gore conveys the texture of hard realities, be it her marriage to a dangerous man or the challenges of day-to-day life in an Amish community. Gore's penchant for dancing on the edge of the volcano, and her impressive ability to live to tell the tale, will keep the pages turning and leave readers eager for her next memoir. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Through the Eyes of a Lion: Facing Impossible Pain, Finding Incredible Power

Levi Lusko. Thomas Nelson, $15.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-7180-3214-2

Part memoir and part sermon, the first book by evangelical pastor and radio personality Lusko begins with the death of his five-year-old daughter, Lenya, from an asthma attack. In dark moments, he turned to his faith to help handle the pain and anger. Little Lenya's death forces him to ask questions about mortality, and puts his own life and career in perspective: "How do you live out an extraordinary calling while doing ordinary things and living in a world that is all screwed up?" Finding catharsis in the loss, Lusko looks outward to help other grief-stricken Christians. Lusko maintains his hip pastor persona and colloquial style in the face of great loss, describing a career move as "base jumping for God" and a fortunate first church position as a "cush" gig. In the end, he is able to say, "Having my daughter travel to the distant shores of heaven has opened my eyes to things unseen. I will walk with a limp, but I am better for it... It's a gift I desperately want to share with you." This impassioned read conveys palpable pain and honesty, but it's difficult to overcome the exploitative nature of sLusko's overall conceit. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel

Russell Moore . B&H, $24.99 (208p) ISBN 978-1-4336-8617-7

Moore (Adopted for Life), president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, offers a smart, well-argued manifesto for a new kind of Christian cultural activism that he calls engaged alienation. This stance doesn't buy in to secular American culture, and instead upholds the Christian mission to demonstrate distinct beliefs about Jesus. Moore rightly notes the decline of the Bible Belt; the kind of gospel-centered Christianity he advocates will never motivate a Moral Majority, but it will animate a prophetic minority. Moore's criticism of the "traditional family values" formula and the rhetorical excesses it encouraged will startle some religious conservatives. But the values he promotes—human dignity, religious liberty, family stability—are familiar to his audience, and he articulates them with nuanced language. His argument is thoroughly grounded in scriptural references, another reassurance for his religiously conservative readers. Mainline Christian readers will wonder whether this is old wine in new bottles, but Moore may be pointing the way for a new guard, as the Christian Right ages and loses key cultural battles. This important book is sure to provoke interesting discussions among many different kinds of Christians. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The 'Scandal' of Marxism and Other Writings on Politics

Roland Barthes, trans. from the French by Chris Turner. Seagull (Univ. of Chicago, dist.), $21 (112p) ISBN 978-0-85742-239-2

The most striking quality in this volume of newly translated essays by Barthes (1915–1980), written between 1950 and 1977, is their freshness. The scope of the topics covered is also remarkable: "Do Revolutions Follow Laws?," "On Left Criticism," "Master and Slaves," and "Utopia," to name a few. A humane and consistent vision threads through them: Barthes asserts firmly that literature matters ("Let us dare to ask everything of a work of art: not just ideas and morality, but also language"), those in power lie, and killing for the sake of a doctrine is wrong. He writes with a clarity and brevity that strike to the heart of issues still relevant decades after his death: race, propaganda, abuse of power. While he stumbles in his essay on China, the rest of the essays are direct and intelligent, written with a passion too often absent from contemporary prose. The essays' brevity—few run more than two pages—offers an added boon. This collection is strongly recommended: it more than repays the reader's time and effort. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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People Tools for Love and Relationships: The Journey from Me to Us

Alan C. Fox. SelectBooks, $16.95 trade paper (196p) ISBN 978-1-59079-356-5

This breezy and upbeat book from self-help author Fox (the People Tools series) quickly wins the reader's trust when the author admits that he didn't always have it right. He was on his third marriage and wondering why he couldn't find "the right person" when he realized that he might be the problem. What Fox learned afterward is what he shares in this handy guide: "not only how to find the right person, but also to be the right person." In 50 short, easy-to-read chapters, Fox presents one tool at a time, discussing the importance of cuddles (or physical contact in general), the usefulness of a "Get-Out-of-Jail-Practically-Free card," and remembering to say thank you. Each chapter begins with two quotes (chapter 41, for instance, samples Plutarch and Waiting for Godot) that set the tone for the lesson to follow, and Fox liberally uses stories involving himself, family members, or friends to underscore his points. It's clear that Fox is generally an optimist, but he tempers his advice with some realism. While encouraging readers to "weave, don't leave" a relationship, he acknowledges a few pages later that "abandon ship" is occasionally the most prudent decision. Fox leaves readers with the advice that, as difficult as relationships can be, it's important to believe in a happy ending. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Optimistic Environmentalist

David R. Boyd. ECW (Legato Publishers Group, U.S. dist.; Jaguar Book Group, Canadian dist.), $19.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-77041-238-5

While many environmentalists wring their hands in despair, Boyd (The Right to a Healthy Environment), an environmental lawyer, remains optimistic. A lot has changed for the better in recent decades, he writes, including an explosion of affordable, renewable energy sources and the resurgence of endangered species such as the bald eagle and black-footed ferret. Boyd provides examples of companies, cities, and entire countries working to make the world a better place for coming generations. This isn't about teenagers cleaning up a beach; it's about massive industrial changes at the cost of billions of dollars, toughened government regulations, and impressive technological advances. Boyd describes change on a sweeping scale that filters down to touch individual lives. Far from intimidating, his vision is electrifying and inspiring. Boyd's book is a reminder that "saving the world" isn't an obscure ideal or a nefarious liberal agenda. It's necessary, practical, and possible. And he adds that anyone can get in on the action by buying a stylish, recyclable office chair, installing a rooftop solar panel, or eating organic soy. This solidly researched and informative book is also a pleasure to read, especially in a world where bad news often drowns out the good. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Glory Days

Max Lucado. Thomas Nelson, $26.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8499-4849-7

With an inspirational voice, bestselling author and pastor Lucado (God Will Use This for Good) offers insights from the Old Testament book of Joshua on how to embrace what he calls "Promised Land Living." Drawing on the experiences of Joshua and the Israelites as they left behind 40 years of wandering and prepared to enter the promised land of Canaan, Lucado urges readers to believe "the best days are ahead of us." Within this framework, Lucado draws a connection between the experiences of early Israelites—during enslavement under the Egyptian pharaoh and subsequent years wandering the wilderness—and the fear that he says many Christians still live under. He works through the book story by story, including narratives from his own life and the lives of others to illustrate his overarching point, and sprinkling in details about the historical and cultural background of events such as the Israelites' march on Jericho. At times, Lucado's colloquial tone flirts dangerously close with hokey; his dog even provides a spiritual lesson. However, personified pet stories aside, Lucado continues to strike a winning balance between spiritual insights and pastoral inspiration. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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