My Battle Against Hitler (review)

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My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third ReichMy Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich by Dietrich von Hildebrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dietrich von Hildebrand, a German professor of philosophy in Munich, watched with dismay as Germany fell under the spell of Hitler and the Third Reich. In 1933, at age 43, he and his wife Gretchen left Germany to live in Vienna.

In exile he founded a weekly magazine (Der Christliche Standestaat—The Christian Corporative State) that, for five years (until the spring of 1938 when Hitler took over Austria and the von Hildebrands had to flee), was dedicated to unmasking the nationalism, militarism, collectivism, and anti-Semitism that combined to make up the ideology of National Socialism espoused and enforced by the Nazi party.

My Battle Against Hitler is Dietrich von Hildebrand’s story. The book is made up of two sections. The first part—von Hildebrand’s memoirs—contains selections from the 5000-page memoir he wrote in 1958 for the benefit of his second wife to help this much younger woman understand his life. This section is organized by year.

The second part is fragments of the essays he published in the Vienna magazine from 1933 to 1938.

The whole thing is stitched together by pieces written by John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby, translators of the memoirs and essays. The book begins with John Henry Crosby’s chapter “The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand.” Throughout the book pieces written by the Crosby’s connect the dots between journal entries and put the essay fragments into context.

Von Hildebrand’s journals are interesting and colorful. They depict him as an inveterate people-watcher who tended to categorize those he met as black or white depending on how they viewed Bolshevism and National Socialism. Any whiff of sympathy to those movements colored his entire opinion of a person.

He was someone who also seemed readily star-struck with those in power that he admired. His account of meeting the Empress and Emperor Otto of Belgium in 1933 is typical of his reaction:

“The Empress made a very strong impression on me. There was something unbelievably elegant and aristocratic about her face, while her presence as a whole seemed to combine both strength and tenderness. She was immensely attractive. … Afterward I was able to meet Emperor Otto, who also made a very great impression on me. He was then still very young, about nineteen or twenty. …I was amazed how well informed he was about all the problems in Austria and how intelligently he spoke about them” – Kindle Location 1927 & 1934.

As a whole, his memoirs introduce us to the philosophers, thinkers, and politicians of the day with whom he rubbed shoulders in Vienna and other parts of Europe. They are infused with his philosophical idealism which is rooted in his Catholic / Christian worldview. And so he saw Bolshevism and National Socialism as players in the age-old drama that was far bigger than what was being enacted on the stage of Europe at that time:

“In reality, there have been only two fronts in the world for the past two thousand years; the front for Christ and the front against Christ. He is the cornerstone which separates all spirits” – Kindle Location 5012.

Though I found many of his essays hard to follow (he was a deep, philosophical thinker, quoting names of contemporaries as handles of philosophical movements with which I’m unfamiliar), his strong convictions and clear thinking is, as a whole, hard to resist. I couldn’t help but contrast his well-thought-out opposition to Nazism to our popular movements which, herd-like, seem to be fueled by little more than trending tweets and social medial ‘LIKE’s. Von Hildebrand would have been aghast.

In our time when dueling worldviews continue, von Hildbrand stands as a shining example of someone who knew his convictions, was a master at communicating them, and stuck by them no matter how popular opinion shifted. This book is a worthwhile read for his defense of the Jews alone. The journal entries and essays where he decries anti-Semitism could help bolster our own resistance to this movement that is again finding a voice on the streets and university campuses around us.

This book is a treasure for those interested in a close view of pre-World War II Vienna, the political atmosphere and movements of the time, and how one Christian thinker analyzed and evaluated the philosophies that underpinned those movements.

I received My Battle Against Hitler as an e-book download from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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NIV First-Century Study Bible (review)

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NIV First-Century Study Bible: Explore Scripture in Its Jewish and Early Christian ContextNIV First-Century Study Bible: Explore Scripture in Its Jewish and Early Christian Context by Kent Dobson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who writes a bit of biblical fiction, the overview description of the NIV First-Century Study Bible drew me in:

“Experience the Bible through Eastern eyes by exploring the cultural, religious and historical background of the Bible. This hardcover study Bible allows you to understand God’s Word in its original cultural context, bringing Scripture to life by providing fresh understanding to familiar passages, beloved stories, and all the Scripture in between.”

As a Booklook blogger, I got a reviewer’s copy of the e-book version of this Bible. This is a review of that edition’s Bible study features, not the NIV text.

The list of features is long and impressive. I’ve checked them out and this is what I found:

This Bible’s notes (commentary study notes and translator’s footnotes) and articles do indeed focus on describing and explaining the Middle Eastern location, history, and customs of the Bible’s writers and setting.

Textual articles consist of pieces longer than study notes and supplement each book. They cover a variety topics that go from delving into the history of part of the text (like “The Oral Law”—an article on the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:7), to explaining the customs and ethics of the day (like “Joshua and the Ethics of War”), to telling about recent archeological discoveries that support the biblical record (like “Hezekiah’s Water Tunnels”), and more. These were interesting and informative.

There are word studies. I found these short, skimpy and disappointing in that the Strong’s Concordance number was not included.

Day in the Life articles explain the lifestyle and customs of Bible peoples. Some sample topics are: “Desert Shepherds,” “Slaves,” “Widows.” Because these pieces attempt to describe and explain customs spanning the Bible’s hundreds of years, they are quite general and don’t get into subtle changes that may have occurred over hundreds of years, e.g. between the patriarchs and the time of the exile or the Old and New Testaments.

There are many In-text Charts and Models. These were not all equally accessible on my e-book version. I’m not sure how they would display on different e-readers, but know that on my keyboard Kindle, many of them are too tiny to read. When they’re set up as pure text (e.g. “Ancient Texts Relating to the Old Testament”) they view just fine. However when they’re set up as graphics, text boxes or charts (e.g. “Old Testament Chronology”) the static text size, skewed spacing, and sometimes grayed graphics made them pretty well useless.

Further Study Helps include a Table of Weights and Measures, Endnotes, Bibliography, Topical Index to Articles, Glossary, Concordance, and Zondervan’s Full-Colour Maps (14). As with the charts and models, some of these things were not legible on my e-reader (like the tables and maps). I liked the Glossary, that explains Bible words and concepts, and the linked Concordance, where Scripture references are accessed by clicking on a link.

All in all, this Bible’s study features make it a great choice for anyone interested in learning more about the cultural and social setting of the Bible. For those getting it as an e-book, there is an article in the fore-matter on how to navigate this edition. Though my e-reader was unable to access all the Bible’s features, accessibility and usability no doubt vary with the type of e-reader or tablet.

Even without access to the full menu of features, the NIV First-Century Study Bible e-book version is a wonderful resource—a wealth of information, stored in one light reader, and available at one’s fingertips.

I received the e-book version of the NIV First-Century Study Bible as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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Consider the Sunflowers (review)

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Consider the Sunflowers - Elma SchemenauerTina Janz feels torn between her parents’ wishes that she marry an upstanding (but boring) Mennonite boy and her desire for the man she loves—Frank Warkentin, the son of a Mennonite father and Gypsy mother. But the tug-of-war in Elma Schemenauer’s novel Consider the Sunflowers is more than between just Tina and her parents. For handsome, dashing, funny Frank doesn’t share Tina’s Mennonite faith. She soon discovers he has a violent temper. And his farm is far from town—something that doesn’t suit Tina well at all.

Schemenauer takes us on a literary journey that spans the years from 1940-1947 in the lives of Tina and Frank. The place is Coyote, Saskatchewan—a fictional town near Outlook, populated by a Mennonite and non-Mennonite mix. Frank is attracted to other Mennonite outcasts like Dorrie Harms and hangs out with Scandinavian friends Thor and Leif while Tina feels torn between both worlds.

Schemenauer’s familiarity with the Mennonite lifestyle, ways of thinking, and speech mannerisms is evident throughout the book (she is of Mennonite extraction). Thus from the opening words I felt I was in an authentic world. All the Na yo’s (p. 28), sentences ending in yet (“In Saskatoon yet” – p. 128), already, and nicht (“We should have your wedding on Saturday nicht?” p. 153) rang true for me, as someone who grew up in the same people group.

The story, told through Tina and Frank’s points of view, follows the ups and downs of their relationship all the while exploring many themes: how we’re molded by early experiences, what comprises love, aspects of marriage including the importance of honesty and transparency, how choices we make have consequences, what it’s like to be a Mennonite, what it’s like to be a Mennonite on the fringes, how religion and faith differ, and the overarching importance of forgiveness and trust in God no matter what the fine points of one’s creed might be.

Tina’s realization of this comes after a long crisis of faith. Told in Schemenauer’s understated yet picturesque style, it is one of my favorite passages in the book:

“Can you hear me?” she asked.

A coyote howled in the pasture. A gust of wind ruffled Slim’s coat. As it lifted Tina’s hair off her forehead, Jesus seemed to speak to her. Not in words. More like flowers opening in her heart. I love you, he said. Do you believe that?

Her reaction after she senses her brief conversation with Jesus is over is similarly subtle but full of wisdom that resonates with truth:

“…she expected to feel something like holy fireworks in her heart. Instead she felt only a new orderliness, like her thoughts were sorting themselves into new file folders. She crossed the silent kitchen, climbed the stairs, and eased herself into bed” – p. 157.

“Consider the lilies…” Jesus said, as He pointed out the necessity of a simple day-to-day faith in God to counter the fears and anxieties of life. In Consider the Sunflowers Schemenauer draws our attention, through Tina and Frank, to the God who still longs to be trusted with the minutiae of ordinary existence.

The story is supplemented by a Mennonite timeline explaining the origin and migrations of this ethnic and religious minority. Study questions at the end of the book will be helpful for reading clubs and home school study.

Author Elma Schemenauer

Author Elma Schemenauer

Title: Consider the Sunflowers
Author: Elma Schemenauer
Publisher: Borealis Press, November 10, 2014, Paperback 299 pages
ISBN 978-0-88887-575-4,

 

AVAILABLE FROM THE PUBLISHER, Borealis Press – $19.95

Also available online at Chapters Indigo  by about November 15.

E-book coming in 2015.

For more information, please visit http://elmams.wix.com/sflwrs

Secrets and Lies (review)

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Secrets and Lies - Janet SketchleySecrets and Lies: A Redemption’s Edge Novel by Janet Sketchley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Carol Daniels has moved with her 16-year-old son Paul from Calgary to Toronto at the beginning of Secrets and Lies, Janet Sketchley’s second book in the Redemption Edge Series. It wasn’t a move of choice but of necessity, to get away from the terrifying lowlife associates that had begun threatening her in her western home—characters that were seemingly connected to her brother (the convicted killer Harry Silver from Heaven’s Prey – Redemption’s Edge 1).

Her hopes of hiding from the thugs are dashed when disturbing anonymous phone calls start again. Not only is the voice in the calls creepy but the threats are terrifying and the character behind them far too aware of her whereabouts and movements for comfort. His demand is for money that her brother has apparently salted away. The detective on the case suggests Carol will eventually have to get in touch with the brother she despises and has disowned.

Those calls aren’t her only worry. There’s Paul too—a good kid but too much like Skip, his egotistical musician father. At least Paul’s not into drugs—the most loathsome of substances that killed her other son, Keith. And she’s determined to keep him safe from the present danger and from following in the footsteps of his musical father.

When nightmares awaken her or worries about her son or the spooky calls keep her from sleep, she makes mint tea and phones the oldies station to talk to the DJ, Joey. He always has a sympathetic ear and a repertoire of Billy Joel tunes to serenade her out of any mood. It turns out that Joey, in person, is just as nice as on-air—and then she discovers he too is hiding secrets.

Sketchley’s skill at merging the believeable and homey details of a modern single mom’s life with criminal threats and shadowy danger makes her main character relatable and in a situation that seems real and plausible. More than once I found myself gripping my e-reader muttering: Don’t answer the stupid phone … don’t trust him … don’t go with him!

But the story is more than a well-plotted tale of romantic suspense. For in it Sketchley wades through all kinds of waters: a mother’s attempts to control her son, a son’s attempts to find his own way while not hurting his mom, trust: how we earn it and find courage to place it, forgiveness: God’s for us and ours for each other, and more.

In the faith department I appreciated the way Sketchley’s Christian characters don’t have all the answers but wrestle with their beliefs like we all do. Several characters have a strong faith and through them we hear good reasons why God is worth putting our faith in even if it seems He’s let us down in the past.

This second book in the Redemption ‘s Edge series is gentler than Heaven’s Prey but with moments just as nailbitingly tense. Sketchley’s sense of timing and ability to lull us with sweet ordinariness, only to fling us in the next page into the arms of cold, unscrupulous evil, makes this a must-read for lovers of Christian suspense. Believable, complex characters and a keen eye for telling details make Sketchley’s writing a pleasure to read for anyone. And there are bonus treats. For the music savvy, this book is a sentimental stroll down memory lane. For the reader with the munchies, all those good smells coming from the Sticky Fingers café and Carol’s own kitchen are enough to drive a person to brownies—with mint tea, of course.

A set of discussion questions at the end of the book makes this a perfect choice for book clubs.

Readers who can’t get enough fiction delivered with doses of tension and danger will want to keep an eye on Sketchley’s lengthening list of books. No Safe Place, Redemption’s Edge 3 is due out in 2015.

This excellent read launches TODAY, November 5th, 2014. Check it out.

Spend a sentimental afternoon with this Secrets and Lies oldies playlist.

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The Daughter of Highland Hall (review)

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The Daughter of Highland Hall: A Novel (Edwardian Brides)The Daughter of Highland Hall: A Novel by Carrie Turansky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is April of 1912 and Katherine Ramsey has come to London to do the “season.” Under the sponsorship of her aunt, Lady Louisa Gatewood—her own parents have both died—it is her goal to come out as a debutante, enjoy a flurry of balls, teas, parties, and other social events, in the process find a sufficiently well-heeled man and arrange, to the satisfaction of all, a suitable marriage.

Of course things don’t turn out quite that cut-and-dried in Carrie Turansky’s The Daughter of Highland Hall. Kate’s own guardian, second-cousin Lord William Ramsey is betrothed to a commoner (Julia Fowler) the governess of his children by a previous marriage. Soon Jon Fowler, Julia’s brother and a medical student, complicates things by proving an attractive distraction for Kate. William’s own careless-living brother David gets in the papers, causing society’s tongues to wag.

In the shadow of the scandal, the ever-critical and nagging Aunt Louisa and her young charge find themselves ignored and on the outs. This gives Kate more time to spend with Jon, who gets her involved in volunteering at a London East End hospital and attending lectures sponsored by the Salvation Army. Thus Kate’s eyes are opened to issues far bigger than whether her calendar is full, what dress she should wear, and how to style her hair.

Turansky is good at delving into the minutiae of the English social season, describing the clothes, food, etiquette, and small talk.

I never felt a heart connection to any of the characters, though. They were likeable enough but felt a little wooden and stock to me—the good ones too good and the bad thoroughly bad.

The writing was adequate though did seem to bog down in parts with excessive author description and explanation versus telling action.

However, I felt Turansky did a good job of exploring issues of social class and custom, showing how the rich were preoccupied with superficial concerns while the poor suffered in need and squalor. By bringing the Salvation Army and the London Missionary Society into the plot, she showed how Christian organizations were beginning to tackle social justice issues at home and abroad. She also did a good job of connecting such movements to the wellspring of a personal faith.

This Edwardian tale reminded me of a Jane Austen story of English manners meeting the upstairs / downstairs life of Downton Abbey, but delivered from an outspokenly Christian point of view.

I received The Daughter of Highland Hall as a gift from the publisher Multnomah Books through Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing a review.

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Star rating based on the Goodreads scale:

***** – It was amazing

**** – I really liked it

*** – I liked it

** – It was okay

* – I did not like it

 

Thief of Glory (review)

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Thief of Glory: A NovelThief of Glory: A Novel by Sigmund Brouwer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“There (in a village on the island of Java, Dutch East Indies), a marble game beneath the branches was an event as seemingly inconsequential as a banyan seed taking root in the bark of an unsuspecting tree, but the tendrils of the consequences became a journey that has taken me some threescore and ten years to complete” – Thief of Glory, Kindle Location 137.

These words of the narrator in Sigmund Brouwer’s novel Thief of Glory frame the story of a life. We intuit, through them, that this will be a story with dark elements that will have far-reaching consequences. That intuition is only underlined by these words a little farther on:

“I had no foreshadowing, of course, that the last few steps toward the shade beneath those glossy leaves would eventually send me into the holding cell of a Washington DC police station where, at age eighty-one, I faced the lawyer…” K.L. 168.

The narrator is Jeremiah Prins, a survivor of the 1940s Japankamps—concentration camps of Dutch colonists in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). He begins his story on a day before the war begins, when he, as a 10-year-old, sneaks away from his mother in the market to play marbles with his friends under that banyan tree. That day two new people are at the game—the beautiful Laura Jansen, who will become the love of his life, and Georgie Smith, the older, bigger son of an American mine manager. Georgie’s threat to Jeremiah’s position of marble champion and rival for Laura’s attention sparks a fight that illustrates, in living color, the characters of the main players we will soon know very well.

The tale of Jeremiah’s personal vendetta against Georgie is set against the background of the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies. A few weeks after the story begins (in the spring of 1942) once-privileged Dutch families are split apart. Jeremiah’s is no exception. Fathers and older sons are taken away—eventually to work in Burma. In the fall of that year, mothers and younger children are rounded up and forced to live in Jappencamps—concentration camps of crowded squalor, carved out of former city blocks, now behind barbed wire fences.

Jeremiah’s Dutch determination, precocious wit, and unusual skill at reading people help him and his family survive. But their well-being is threatened not only by the grim conditions and sadistic camp management but by Elsbeth’s (Jeremiah’s mother) mental instability and, in a matter of weeks, the arrival of Laura, her grandmother, Georgie, and his mother at the camp.

Life in the camp is not pretty. In many ways this is a disturbing story—disturbing not in the cold-fact way Brouwer describes the horrible conditions and incidents, but because humans do such things to and are pushed to such extremes by each other.

The writing in Thief of Glory is brilliant—detailed and delivered in a voice that captures the narrator’s personality, setting, action, and the meaning behind the action. The way Brouwer frames the story with foreshadowing lends the tale the gravitas of a classic tragedy. Like the banyan tree steals the glory of its host tree by strangling the life out of it, so, Brouwer shows us, war and hatred and revenge and misunderstanding steal the glory of human lives.

A set of discussion questions at the end provides the reader with more entry points to the meaning and purpose of the story.

I received Thief of Glory from the publisher (via Blogging for books) for the purpose of writing a review.

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Storm Siren (review)

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Storm Siren (Storm Siren, #1)Storm Siren by Mary Weber

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“ ‘Fourteen circles for fourteen owners.’
I shade my eyes to block the sun’s reflection off the distant mountains currently doused in snow and smoke and flesh-eating birds” – Kindle Location 107.

In this first snippet of the story already we see its bloody DNA. I should have read the online sample and been warned.

Seventeen-year-old Nymia is a Uathuil, a citizen of the land of Faelen in Mary Weber’s paranormal fantasy Storm Siren. Of the Uathuil’s she is a female Elemental who shouldn’t even exist. But she does, having been sold and resold from one slave master to another. At the point the story begins, she’s bought again by the evilly attractive Adora.

Adora puts her in the charge of handsome and mysterious trainer Eogan. Soon Nymia is learning to harness her powerful weather-creating abilities and combine them with Colin’s earth-moving talents. Together they are being prepared as Faelen’s weapons against neighboring Bron’s army and war planes.

As training proceeds, Nymia feels herself being increasingly drawn to Eogan, who can calm her explosive nature with his touch—and does with touches that progress from hand, to waist, to neck, to…

Nymia, for her part, fights any softness within herself or sensed in others with sarcasm, anger, and violence. She is honest, abrupt, vulnerable, and self-loathing but does display infrequent flashes of nobility as distaste for the killing machine she feels she is destined to remain.

The book is written in first person (Nymia’s point-of-view) present tense. The writing is vivid, action-filled, and poetic.

Despite Weber’s intriguing fantasy world, strong characterization, and strong writing, I didn’t like this book. Nymia’s inner life and thoughts seemed overly melodramatic—teenaged angst on caffeine-laced hormones. The fight scenes were complicated and felt almost cartoonish in the way the main characters were able to dodge death in split-second maneuvers. The romantic scenes hovered between lustful and creepy. Halfway through I seriously considered not finishing it. But Thomas Nelson published it, I told myself. Surely it will end up having some redeeming features.

I guess one might call Nymia’s visit to the Valley of Origin such a feature, and Colin’s sacrifice, and the inclusion of words like “redemption” and “atonement” near the end. But I found the meaning of these bits so abstruse, their message so vague and subtle–not to speak of  the little that felt positive being cancelled out by the whiplash ending–the total of the positive really didn’t justify the hours spent in dark negativity and bloody violence. As a result, I don’t recommend this book.

I received Storm Siren as a gift from the publisher, Thomas Nelson, for the purpose of writing a review.

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