Category Archives: ron

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Ron’s #2: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities is easily in my top ten favorite books list, perhaps even in the top 5. I’ve read this each year for the past three years, and each time the story grows richer, the language more beautiful, and Sydney Carton more courageous.

The story is an excellent portrait of the Gospel in several ways, but I hesitate to comment too much as there are some of you who still have this in the pile of “someday reads.” My recommendation is to find a friend and read this together. It’s a challenging novel, but certainly manageable. You will be glad that you did.

If you are interested in my past review of this book, check out one from 2011 and one from 2012.

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Ron’s #1: The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon

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I’m not the kind of guy who would tend to pick up a book on how to be a good neighbor. It’s not that I think that I’m a great neighbor already; it’s just that I don’t care. And this is the problem. Two things led me to read this book: 1. Tim Challies had it as one of his favorite books of 2012, and 2. We were moving into a kid-friendly neighborhood. It was time to make some changes in how we approach those people leaving twenty feet from our living room.

Let me get the minor criticisms out of the way to focus on the strengths. This book is poorly written overall with a lack of any compelling power. The two authors do my least favorite style of writing by putting their names in parentheses after using “I” in the text. This ping-pong method is futile as there was no real difference between these two guys. Even the fact that there are two guys is irrelevant. Also, they focused so much about buiding friendships and hosting block parties, there was no discussion (really, none) on presenting the Gospel or even what the Gospel is. OK, the criticism is over.

This is an important book for me to read at the right time in my life. Over the years, I’ve grown increasingly grouchier about being bothered at home. I viewed our house as a refuge from the world, and I know that it should be to some degree. However, in the four + years we’ve lived in Okinawa, we’ve never invited our neighbors over for a meal or a glass of wine. There seems to be something wrong with that. This book’s main thesis is this: When Jesus said to “Love your neighbor,” He meant, “Love your neighbor.” The book’s strength is this simple truth. We want to spiritualize, allegorizing, and metaphorize our Lord’s words, but we must ask how well we are reaching out and loving the family across the street or next door. I know that we’ve done a poor job of this in the past.

Pathak and Runyon have a simple exercise: sketch a map of your neighborhood and write the names and a few facts about those living close to you. If you are like me, your map is embarrassingly empty. When we moved to the Okinawa “suburbs,” I knew something needed to change.  With children running around like feral animals, and Power Wheels and balls strewn around like a suburban apocalypse, I needed another way to respond. The book helped me to frame how I think about our neighbors. They are not an interference or a bother; rather, they are people made in the image of God. I am part of community not only at work or at church, but also at home. I am my neighbor’s keeper. This rethinking has helped us get to know those around us better, and we’ve enjoyed the interactions. I think that I could fill out that map much better after two months here than I could after four years in our last place.

I’m not ready to have a block party as the authors seem to focus too much on, but I’ve had a great time talking to our new friends around us and hearing their stories, and getting to know their children, the kids that our boys will eventually play with.

Regardless of any of the criticism I have about the book, the main message is useful to us. I see that when Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, he means Terrance; Kevin & Ann; John & Daisy; Sherman & Daisy; Anthony & Sonya; and Clark.

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See more about the book here: http://artofneighboring.com

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Ron’s Best Reads of 2012

I read only 38 books in 2012. Congrats to Mark and John reading the 52.

Of those 38, here are the standout ones that I heartily recommend.

7. Beautiful Boy by David Sheff
An excellent account of a father-son relationships

6. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I love this book more with each yearly reading.

5. Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis
Lewis’s autobiography. Need I say anything more?

4. A Mind for God by James Emery White
A short, powerful overview at development the Christian mind.

3. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
A book that I’ll hope I remember for a long time!

2.  Tinkers by Paul Harding 
A beautifully written novel.

 

1. A Walk Across the Sun by Corbin Addison
A fiction account of the nonfictional modern slave trade. Excellent novel with a clear, powerful message

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Thirteen Ways to Read More in 2013

I did not make 52 books this year, but I’m OK with that.

For the past three years, Mark and I have read and blogged about a book a week here. It’s been one of the best goals that I’ve set out and accomplished. I loved reading so much and talking about those books with others. This year was slightly different. We adopted our second son Josiah in May. When he came, I knew that there was no way for me to continue reading at that pace, but I still wanted to read and blog what I could. I made it to 38 having two young sons, a busy time traveling in the States, and teaching five advanced English courses with lots and lots of essays to grade. With all that, I’m happy with 38.

With all this going on, I still wanted to carve out time to read not just to meet a self-imposed goal, but because reading is valuable. Books are important, and reading them adds to our quality of living. Many people say, “I’d love to read more, but I can’t because________.” This blank is filled with reasons that are legion. If this is you, let me address a few obstacles to my reading; perhaps this will encourage you to see that they may not be obstacles at all.

1. Stop saying, “I’m a slow reader.” If you think this about yourself, join the club. Just because I’m an English teacher doesn’t mean that I’ve graduated summa cum laude at Evelyn Wood’s Speed Reading class. What I lack in speed I compensate for in tenacity. Commit yourself to finish a book, and spend time doing that. Whether it takes a day or a month, stick with it until the last page. With reading, our speed improves with more books. So, the more you read, the more you’ll be able to read.

2. Limit competing activities. This does not mean eschew meeting with friends or spending time with your wife in order to read (“Sorry, honey, but I can go with you. I already have a date with John Grisham” will not go over well in my house, and I doubt it will in yours either). This means trade watching every episode of House in one evening for some reading time. I found that to read more, I watch far fewer movies than I’ve ever watched. With only three leisure hours a day, I must spend them wisely. We still watch movies and an occasional episode of a show, but I don’t want to lose all my reading time to gorge myself of television.

Perhaps television isn’t your intruder, but video games are. Two words suffice here: Stop it. Nothing is a bigger waste of time than hours spent shooting, jumping, fighting, driving, or Guitar-Heroing. If you tell me that you wish you could read more but waiting in line for the midnight sale of the new Call of Duty game, I have no sympathy for you. Actually, I do because that is a textbook definition of pathetic.

3. Check your Internet usage. For me, the greatest time-sucking black hole in my life is Internet browsing. I’ve written on this before in my past reviews of technology, but it is a constant battle to spend my time more productively than blinding sauntering from link to link,  reading meaningless droll articles on politics, celebrity, or culture. I find that even topics at the top of my interest (theology, technology, and literature) can fritter away meaningful time that I could be reading something of permanence. If you are looking to read more books, set parameters for leisure surfing. Set a timer if you must. We all like breaks from serious work to read the headlines or movie reviews, but let them be breaks, and not where we live exclusively.

4. Set a pattern. What time of day do you best read? Early morning? Late night? Lunch break? Pick a time to spend even 20 minutes with your book. I like the quietness of our house in the morning before work. I have 30 minutes with my coffee to read without distractions. This costs me more time sleeping, but I think the payout is worth it. For you, it may be sacrificing spending your lunch break surfing ESPN or talking with colleagues about the latest workplace gossip. Your sacrifice of either is worth it.

5. Change your Bathroom Reading. This will be a quick one: stop playing Angry Birds or reading Facebook on the toilet. Put a short book in your bathroom instead. You’ll add a few more titles to your yearly totals.

6. Find accountability in your reading. One of the best motivators for me to keep reading is my friendly competition with Mark. He and I push each other to make it to 52, constantly ask about the current books, and read and comment and, at times, insult the other’s picks. Find someone in your life to sharpen you in your reading. Join a book club. Commit to read a set amount of books this upcoming year, and search for a friend to join you. Our church has a monthly theological book group that encourages me to read at least one book per month. Look for one at your church, or start one.

7. Write about your reading. When we started www.my52books.com, we wanted to add the review component to help us to think deeper about the books that we were reading. Knowing that a short review awaits me, I interact with the book differently. Spending the 15-30 minutes writing the review solidifies my thinking about the book, and helps me to remember aspects better. You need not start a blog, but they are free and easy. You can add a Facebook post or merely write it in Word for your own keeping.

8. Bring a book everywhere. Waiting in line at the post office allows me two pages, arriving for an appointment 15 minutes early grants ten pages, and sitting while my car is washed opens time for another five pages. I won’t finish a book in errands, but it gets me closer. As I mentioned before, this beats skipping around an app that balances virtual marbles on my iPhone.

9. Consider a Kindle. Most people who have a Kindle enthusiastically declare that they read more because of it. If the convenience of the device helps you to read more, more power to ya. Get one and read away. I resolved that while I enjoy the ability to get a book quickly, the Kindle is not my preferred method to read. I’m too tempted to play with its features or to search the store for another digital book to download. Also, I like to write in my book margins, and the note-taking on e-readers just isn’t where I want it to be. It may be just what you need.

10. Have variety in your reading list. Don’t feel that you need to read only American classics or Pulitzer Prize winners this year. Mix it up with serious and silly; long and short; important and frivolous. For each The Scarlet Letter, there was a John Grisham. For each Steve Jobs weighing in at 598 pages, there was Note to Self with a slight 134 pages. Having variety adds to the excitement to finish one book and begin the next. I’m not out to impress anyone with my picks (OK, maybe Mark). Look at both the New York Times bestseller list and search for a list of books for college-bound students. Choose from both, and also from those on the Recent Arrivals section of the library. Don’t read anything that you don’t want to.

11. Alter your nighttime reading. Stop reading your news apps or Facebook before bedtime. Put a quick read on your bedside table to read, even a few pages for sawing logs. Reading your phone in bed is an odd way to begin your sleep, so try knocking out a book over the course of a month.

12. Add some audiobooks into your life. Pick a fiction book on audio at the library, Amazon, or Christianaudio.com. There are many classics on loud lit.org or on iTunes for free. Have one playing instead of sports radio or all music. I certainly love music, but once in awhile, an audiobook is better, especially on those longer drives.

13. Commit to a realistic reading goal right now. This could be a number: 52, 25, or 12. Find something realistic, and tell someone. Or, commit to a few books you’ve always wanted to read but never have, or authors you wished you read in high school. In 2013, I will read through The Brothers Karamazov and Moby Dick as part of my 52. Making this public will help keep me accountable. Commit to something right now, and make it known.

May 2013 be the year that you read more books than you ever have before. Minor changes could yield major accomplishments this year. Good luck, and happy reading in the new year.

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Ron’s #38: Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

 Beautiful Boy is subtitled “A Father’s journey through his son’s addiction.”  I first saw this book for sale in a Starbucks several years ago, and it sounded compelling. I saw it in Entertainment Weekly magazine, and I read about it in a few other places. Our school library had it in a featured section, and I took another look at it last month. The topic hit me more than before now that I have two sons. What if one of them became a drug addict? How would I react? Just reading the jacket blurb made me feel that ache in my heart over losing one of my two boys to a destructive habit, so I decided that it was time to read it.
I’m glad that I did. Sheff is a master at this format, taking the reader through many aspects of addiction, especially in addiction to methamphetamines. He writes the account in present tense, an odd decision as most stories are commonly told in past tense. Shaff’s present tense makes us going along the journal with him. This technique helps the narrative feel more important and uncertain.

The strongest aspect of this story is a father’s love for his son. Shaff’s commitment to helping Nic at great cost to himself is (mostly) admirable. I felt his pain at seeing his son after a binge of meth, I sensed his fear with waiting for a call saying that Nic was dead, and I connected with his hope that this relapse would be the last relapse, even though we know it won’t be. This made me look at my sons differently. What if I’m going to remember this time right now 20 years from now when I wait to hear the doctor tell me whether he’ll survive the overdose. Will I reminisce about this Christmas in 20 years after I attend yet another parent support group for drug addicts? This book helped me to appreciate my boys more than ever before.

Another aspect that I liked about this book is the information on methamphetamines, and the danger they pose. There is no drug as unstable and the results so uncertain as meth, and Shaff offers much in the current treatment for this an other drugs. I’ve not read many or even any books on drug abuse, so this was useful. Along with this point, I see that our culture often makes too many jokes about meth addicts and tweakers. There certainly is nothing funny about this terrible drug, regardless of what Breaking Bad portrays.

I hesitate to criticize the book, as it is an account of a family’s pain, so I’ll only make a few comments about what I sensed as problematic. The first glaring one is the family’s disdain for God in this. God “appeared” in many different ways through the story, and I hoped that Nic or David would reach out and trust his guidance. Rather, there was hostility towards him on Nic’s part, and indifference on David’s. the other area that I saw was Nic’s compete freedom as a child.  As a father, Shaff seemed to have no limitations on David in regard to what he watched or friends he spent time with. Later, Nic acknowledged that some of his problems stemmed from being treated as an adult and never being a child. That’s an interesting statement. I was shocked to hear that as a young boy, fifth grade or so, Nic could recite the opening line to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a movie certainly not intended for boys. Nic needed a father, but Nic got a cool dad who liked cool music and cool movies.

Of course, he didn’t do drugs because he watched a rated R movie, but there is something to be said about exposing our children to the influences of the world, especially too early. And, we would do so much better as parents if we set standards rather than trying to be our children’s buddies. That does not good. At one time in the narrative after Nic has had problems with drugs, he asks David to smoke pot with him, and David agrees. While I appreciate the truthful addition, it should that there is something askew in this relationship.

Tis was a minor annoyance in my enjoyment of the book. I thought it was excellent in many regards, no I’m so glad that I read it. Anne Lamont has a quotation on the cover that sums up my thoughts on it: “This book with save a lot of lives and heal a lot of hearts.” I can see how both aspects of that cold be true.

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