Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- changing and choosing good

Director: J. J. Abrams, 2015 (PG-13)

Ten years after the end of the first trilogy (episodes 1-3) and the "birth" of Darth Vader, a new Star Wars film emerges: The Force Awakens. It has been 38 years since the first Star Wars movie was released and changed Hollywood history.  I remember seeing that film as a boy in England and was thrilled beyond words. Thirty-two years on from the end of original trilogy (Return of the Jedi), this new movie is set 30 years on from that storyline.

I won't reveal any spoilers here. Having just seen it, I knew little going in and that made for some fun surprises. I will say that this film was as good as the first movie. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between the two movies. To say more would be to say too much.

With JJ Abrams at the helm, the franchise has seen a successful reboot (just as he did for Star Trek in 2009). The Force Awakens moves away from the glitter of cgi to the grittiness of reality. The props, the vehicles, the spaceships all feel used, dirty. The characters also feel true to the original.

This film, like the first (episode 4), uses unknown actors. Daisy Ridler in her first American film plays Rey, the female protagonist. A scavenger, she is eking out a barren existence on the desert planet Jakku. John Bodega, best known for his role as Moses in Attack the Block, plays FN-2187, a starship trooper. The film centers on these two characters.

At the start of the film FN-2187 is sent with a platoon of other troopers to a planet in search of something that Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants. Dressed in black and with a Vader-like mask, Ren is the Darth Vader of this trilogy bowing only to the Supreme Ruler. When he orders the platoon to commit mass murder, FN-2187 has qualms of conscience and refuses. He chooses against the First Order, the new evil empire ruling the universe. Only when he escapes is he given a new name, Finn. And when he meets Rey on Jakku a classic Star Wars chemistry develops. Finn is running from the First Order but is not a rebel fighter like he tells her. He wants to hide in the outer orbits. She wants to fight. Eventually, he finds strength to once more do the right thing.

One of the themes of this film is that people get second chances to do the right thing. Finn, though raised to be a First Order warrior, recognizes when acts are evil and chooses to do the right thing. In life, we all face choices of right and wrong. Even if we choose wrong, we still have later opportunities to choose again. Indeed, the ultimate choice is for the kingdom. In doing so, we are born again (Jn. 3:3). We might face this choice and ignore it, but we will get the chance later. We cannot run away from this choice.

Later in the movie, one character faces an enemy and has a tough choice to make, saying: "I'm being torn apart. I want to be free of this pain. I know what I have to do but I don't know if I have the strength to do it." This is so reminiscent of the apostle Paul, himself a person who had transitioned from the Roman empire to the Christian rebels. He said in a biographical letter, "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing" (Rom. 7: 18-19). His internal struggle is universal. We all face this. Only in Jesus can we find victory to subvert sin and do good. It is the choice we face daily.

Some have made much of the fact that the protagonists are respectively female and black. But that is to read too much political correctness into this film. The rebellion is inclusive, not worrying about skin color or gender. This is true of the new rebellion under Jesus. Once more, Paul said: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Underneath we find the same humanity facing the same choices.

This is the Star Wars for a new generation. It's a terrific thrill ride of a film. The force has indeed awakened. And I really don't have a bad feeling about this trilogy.

Copyright ©2015, Martin Baggs

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Turkey Films 2015 -- the real turkeys

With this fifth edition of Turkey Films I felt I needed to go back to literal basics with this Thanksgiving game my family play each year. The rules are unchanged. I put the word “turkey” into a movie title to come up with a turkey film that makes us laugh and gets us into the holiday spirit. But this year these films are real turkey turkeys. They are the films that show up at the very bottom of my list of rated reviewed movies. They are horrible and warrant the moniker of turkey films.

1. The Monument Turkeys
2. He Died with a Turkey in his Hand
3. He was a Quiet Turkey
4. Eraturkey
5. Lonesome Turkey
6. The Turkey Countess
7. The Spiderwick Turkeys
8. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Turkey
9. The Wendell Turkey Story
10. Last Chacnce Turkey

Enjoy this list. What are your turkey turkeys? Go, gobble up a few and list them for your family. Happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy time with your family and friends this holiday and through the Christmas season.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Music Review: "Adore (Christmas Songs of Worship)" -- Chris Tomlin

Four words came to mind at my first two or three listenings to Chris Tomlin’s new Christmas album: slow, acoustic, meditative and melancholy. Many of the 11 songs are new Tomlin originals, mostly arranged and performed simply with acoustic guitar and piano.

The album starts with a new worship song: “He shall reign forevermore.” This is classic Tomlin, a worship anthem that we’ll be singing in church for years to come. But from there the tempo slows down and we get three or four slower songs. “Adore” is almost melancholic. “Midnight Clear (Love Song” takes the traditional carol and imbues it with a new arrangement. I like that Tomlin took the lyric, “It came up on a midnight clear, that glorious song of old” and adds to it with the “melody breaks through the silence” to become “the love song of God.” This has extended that Christmas classic in a powerful way. “Noel,” though, is the weakest song on this album and is not the carol of old.

The middle portion of the album starts with a hymn rather than a Christmas song. “Hymn of Joy” is Beethoven;s “Joyful, joyful we adore thee” and is simply a worship song with a an additional chorus. I am not sure why this shows up here. The next two songs are traditional carols, “Silent Night” and “What Child is This”. The former has a new arrangement and ends with a reading of Isaiah 9, while the latter is powerful in its simplicity.

My favorite song on this album is “It’s Christmas” It begins with a jazzy up-beat rendering of “Away in a Manger” and migrates into pop with the chorus. Adding sax and drums, it ends with “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” This feels like Christmas, with joy and happiness. It  is something to sing about.

The album closes with three new songs by Tomlin: “A King like this,” “Bethlehem” and “A Christmas Alleluia”. The last song brings synthesizer music to the front as it leaves the listener with a meditative mood.

America’s worship leader has given us another Christmas album, once more live. However, I found myself wishing for more upbeat joyful songs like “It’s Christmas” or more traditional carols like “Hark the Herald Angels”, which he recorded on his earlier Christmas Album (“Glory in the Highest”.  I found myself returning to that earlier album, which I enjoyed more. This is not a failure in Tomlin’s resume, just not as good as his earlier albums. It was a little too slow for my yuletide sensitivities.

Disclosure (in accordance with the FTC’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”): Many thanks to Propeller Consulting / Flyby Promotions for providing a free copy of the CD in exchange for this honest review and post.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Book Review: The ESV Men’s Devotional Bible - a new bible aimed at helping men

The ESV Men’s Devotional Bible,  Crossway Books (2015)

I was invited to receive a free copy of this new devotional
bible and it came at the right time. I felt I needed a fresh perspective and God delivered. I have several bibles in my library, but have consistently used a particular one through each decade. My first one was a the NIV Study Bible in hardback, back in 1985. I used that for over a dozen years. In 1997, I receive a leather-bound copy of “The Experiencing God Study Bible” (NIV) as a Christmas gift. I’ve been using this for almost 20 years, and have had to recover it once. Now I am giving this ESV Men’s Devotional Bible a shot.

The purpose behind this new bible is to “strengthen and transform the hearts of men through the power of the Spirit-infused Word of God.” Of course, God’s Word has the power to do this, but this book is aimed specifically at men who are facing a relentless assault from the world, the flesh and the Devil in ways unseen or unheard of before. We are under constant attack and need all the help and tools we can get. To that end, this new bible will be a valued weapon in our arsenal.

I have not read the ESV before. I was introduced to Jesus through an NIV bible and have made this my translation of choice for thirty years. For a spell in seminary, I had to use the NASB, and found it a little more stilted and eventually came back to the NIV. The ESV, like the NASB, is a literal translation, seeking to capture the precise wording rather than a dynamic equivalent like the NIV, that seeks to translate thought-for-thought not word-for-word. It’s a different style. The editors have used the RSV as the starting point and claim their legacy from the KJV and ASV before RSV. From the early readings I have done, this version is a little stiffer than the NIV but perhaps a little easier than the NASB. Any new version takes us out of our comfort zone, but perhaps let’s us hear God’s Word with fresh ears. I am all for this.

Let’s move on to the book itself. The copy I got was a hardbound version, although there are leather options as well. This book is almost 1600 pages and is in a comfortable size to handle easily. It’s a black-letter edition, meaning that the words of Jesus are in black like the rest of the text. That is different from my earlier bibles. The text of the Bible is in an 8.5 point serif font, slightly different from the added devotionals which are sans serif. This is just a little smaller than the font in my current bible, making it just a little harder to read for older eyes like mine, but not too difficult that I turn away. The pages are thin, but that is to be expected for such a long book. I would not try highlighting verses with a highlighter as I would expect the ink to be visible from the other side of the page. But underlining with a ballpoint pen should be no problem. I have tended to write notes in my bible margins, but these margins are very tight and do not allow enough room for such notations. That is a pity.

The bible itself comes with three distinct features. First, as a devotional bible, there are the devotionals themselves. Written by a team of over 50 pastors and teachers under the editorial oversight of Dr. Sam Storms, there are 365 one-page devotionals that are gospel-centered and tied to particular scriptures. They are interspersed within the text of the books, with at least one devotional in each Biblical book. They reflect on the text and its contemporary meaning. Their primary intention is to be read in conjunction with the biblical text, and if you start from Genesis and read through to Revelation you’ll not only complete the Bible in a year, you’ll have 365 daily devotions to complement the text. Another way to approach them is to just read the devotional and accompany text, starting in Genesis. This way, they offer a framework for understanding the key theological themes in one year. Another way is to refer to the index of devotions at the back of the book, and select what resonates. I am personally choosing to use this Bible in my current reading program, which is a 1-year New Testament plan, and will read the devotionals as I come to them. I am joining them in progress, in other words.

The second feature are the book introductions. Each one is kept to one-page and focuses on the background, the key theme, and the book and a man’s heart. This is useful information and sets the tone for how it will be relevant for the male reader.

The final feature is the dictionary of key terms in the back. It’s not comprehensive, but at 15 pages it covers several hundred words and phrases that a causal reader might not understand.

My initial impressions on this bible are that it is a reasonable size (not too large to handle, nor too small to read), has good features (not too many that they overwhelm, yet enough that they serve their purpose), and a clear intention, to help men live stronger Christian lives. I am going to enjoy reading a new version and see how God uses this to encourage me in my walk with Jesus.

Disclosure (in accordance with the FTC’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”): Many thanks to Propeller Consulting / Flyby Promotions for providing a free copy of the book in exchange for this honest review and post. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Book Review: Triggers -- simple tools for life-long change

Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts -- Becoming the Person You want to be; Marshall Goldsmith, Crown Business (2015)

What is the most difficult thing for adults to accomplish? According to the author, it is making behavioral change. In his research, he asks the question, “What’s the biggest behavioral change you’ve ever made?” That’s a great question. How would we answer that? Indeed, have we ever made any significant behavioral change as an adult? This engaging book tackles this topic and the business-trendy issue of employee engagement.

When it comes to change, Goldsmith argues we face two problems: ignorance of our own need and ignorance of the power of our environment. He spends the majority of the book on the latter. We can utilize tools such as 360 reviews to address the former.

The value of this book comes in the tools that he provides, mostly in the form of engaging questions which are triggers to combat the hostile environment. As he defines them,”a behavioral trigger is any stimulus that impacts our behavior.” They are not inherently good or bad, they produce a response and that is critical.

Goldsmith suggests that when it comes to engagement we tend to fall into passivity, allowing ourselves to play victim. For example, at work we fill in engagement surveys and expect management to address the lower scores by changing our environment. Instead, Goldsmith urges us to become active, owners of our own engagement. Instead of focusing on what we accomplish each day, which can be thwarted by things outside of our control. Rather, he encourages us to ask ourselves if we did our best. He offers us to tool of daily questions. The primary six he outlines as:

1) Did I do my best to set clear goals?
2) Did I do my best to make progress towards my goals today?
3) Did I do my best to find meaning today?
4) Did I do my best to be happy today?
5) Did I do my best to build positive relationships today?
6) Did I do my best to be fully engaged today?

These questions focus on how well we tried, not on how well we finished. We control our attitude and our focus. The key is asking the questions consistently and grading ourselves honestly. Goldsmith uses a 1-10 scale and tracks answers on a spreadsheet. Moreover, he suggests having someone else ask you the questions at the end of the day to ensure this happens. This can be done without judgment on the part of the questioner, since he (or she) is not vested in the answers. But an objective helper can also help spot trends and perhaps ask challenging questions related to those trends. Finally, Goldsmith suggests we tailor the questions, adding those that are needed. We must focus on where we need help, where we need to change and make progress, not on areas where we are doing fine.

Another tool he gives us are the hourly questions. A natural extension to the daily questions, these focus on the short game not the long game. Here, we focus on our engagement in he coming hour. If we are entering a meeting that is unpleasant or expected to be boring. If we enter with the knowledge that we will ask ourselves a set of tailored questions at the end, setting ourselves a test in other words, we will be better engaged and likely to leave the hour having learned something.

I tried the hourly questions recently when I went to church. I had been a little disengaged recently and so went in knowing I would ask myself two or three questions about my worship engagement. To my surprise, I found myself happier and more worshipful throughout the service. I did it in a work meeting, too, and found the same result. The beauty here, is that you can set whatever questions make sense for that hour, those that will keep you in the moment. And if you write them well, knowing what your triggers are, you will likely try harder to be able to answer them better. It’s not perfect, but it is better than doing nothing and letting entropy and inertia take over.

Goldsmith gives us three of other useful tools here. The first is a set of four “magic moves.” These comprise the quadrumvirate of apologizing, asking for help, having optimism, and asking active questions. Each of these builds positive goodwill with those around us and makes the environment that much safer and easier. The second is an acronym: AIWATT. This stands for “Am I Willing At This Time to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic?” It blesses us with a simple cost-effective benefit analysis tool to answer the question of if this battle is worth fighting. If it is not, we put the decision behind us and walk away.

Finally, he recounted a Buddhist parable: that of the empty boat. I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to capture the moral: “there’s never anyone in the other boat. We are always screaming at an empty vessel. An empty boat isn’t targeting us. And neither are all the people creating the sour notes in the soundtrack of our day.” I have started using this (when I can overcome my impatience) and found it to help me lead a less stressed life. My driving has become a little more relaxed.

This book came recommended highly by Bob Nelson, the author of “Motivating Today’s Employees.” I have enjoyed his books and trusted his judgment. He was not wrong. This is not a panacea. There are no quick fixes. But the tools have proved effective, even in my limited use. Behavioral change is tough.  But only by sticking it out, with the help of tools like these, will we make long-lasting change. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. You won’t regret it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Predestination -- can we change?

Predestination - Poster

Directors: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, 2014 (R)
“What if I could put him in front of you? The man that ruined your life. If I could guarantee that you'd get away with it, would you kill him?” The film opens with a voice-over and then shifts into a prolog in which a figure is trying to find a bomb and stop it from exploding. The theme seems to be revenge, right? Well, not exactly.
Predestination is a sci-fi, time-travel paradox of a movie that is based on a Robert Heinlein short-story, “All You Zombies.” It’s first act, after the prolog, seems to be long and lifeless, but is crucial to the narrative. Hang in there and the payoff is phenomenal.
The main players are not named here, they are simply referenced by their character. Ethan Hawke’s character is simply known as “The Barkeep.” In reality, he is a time traveling agent, a cop of sorts. He is sent back in time to stop crime before it happens. Sounds a lot like Minority Report, and that’s probably because both films are based on Heinlein stories. But this film is more cerebral and less violent. It takes more thought.
Ethan Hawke once more turns in a superb performance. He often flies beneath the radar. Yet, he has been nominated for Oscars four times for outstanding work. He got Best Supporting Actor nominations for last year’s Boyhood (he lost, but Patricia Arquette won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and for Training Day (he lost, but Denzel Washington won Best Actor). He also was nominated for screenplay honors for Before Midnight and Before Sunset, two of the three movies in Richard Linklater’s fabulous trilogy of films. And, of course, he was in the earlier sci-fi flick, Gattaca.
When we first meet Hawke he has escaped a terrible fire that has burned his body and he is scarred and bares a new visage. As he says looking into the mirror, “I doubt my own mother would recognize me,” a subtle reference to the plot paradox. When his rehabilitation is complete, he is sent on his final mission. But he is plagued by his one failure: to stop the Fizzle Bomber, person who detonated a bomb in New York City in the 70s and killed 11,000 people. 
Back in the 60s, Hawke is working as the Barkeep and meets a person at the bar known only as “The Unmarried Mother”. It is here, in act one, where she tells him an unbelievable story. As he sits and listens to her, the film goes into flashback more to tell her story. When it is done, Barkeep repeats the lines from the opening, and takes her on a time jump back into her past. In doing so, he introduces her to his job and her future.
In the second half of the film, we follow these two characters and slowly the plot narratives weave together until Barkeep faces the Bomber and a tough choice befalls him. And the climax reveals a secret that left me astounded and wanting to see this movie again.
Revenge may have been posited as theme at the start but it is not even primary. We may mull over the question, thinking on those that have wounded or even ruined us. But sometimes harming them damages us. So, revenge can hurt us even when we think it is freeing us. The Bible command us to leave revenge in the hands of a knowing God (Rom. 12:19).
The culture of the film, however, is cynical throughout. As Unmarried Mother points out, “You know, sometimes I think this world deserves the s*** storm that it gets.” And the Barkeep underscores, “It's easier to hate than to love, right? It's easier to destroy something. Kill somebody.” And then she puts her finger on it: “Let's face it. Nobody's innocent. Everybody just uses everybody else to get what they want.” In her ruined eyes, we are all users, not caring about others. Love is a fiction to her.
In a sense, she is right. The apostle Paul painted a savage indictment of humanity in chapter 3 of his epistle to the Romans. “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). But there is love to be found, in the all-knowing and all-loving God. And this love is enough to counteract our cynicism and depravity and bring us freedom.
But can we choose to break free of life’s paths? The movie’s title lays down the second theme: predestination. Are we trapped in a groove, like the records of the past? In the Barkeep’s career, he has tried to stop the Fizzle Bomber without success. Is it predestined that this event will happen? Can it ever be stopped? In our lives, do we have any say in the matter?
One character says to Barkeep, “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” She implies we always have the potential to change ourselves and our future. Later, the Barkeep himself says,”You'll have to make tough choices. You'll influence the past. Can we change our futures?” Here is the crux, the crucial question. He doesn’t answer it.
Predestination is a much debated theme in Christian theology. Can there be free will, free choice for humans, if God is all-knowing. If he is sovereign, as is stated throughout Scripture (2 Sam. 7:22, Psa. 68:20, Acts 4:24), how can we do anything other than his will? But the Bible is also clear that we are held accountable for our choices which implies freedom to choose. We cannot be moral agents if we have no free choice. 
There is tension in this apparent paradox. We can change. We do change. We can impact our futures. We can move closer to God in Jesus and change for the better. We can move away from him and change for the worse. But we are responsible for the choices we make. We are responsible for understanding who we are, where we have come from and to determine where we want to go.
At the end, Barkeep says, “The snake that eats it's own tail, forever and ever. I know where I come from. Where do all you zombies come, from?“ Apart from this reference to the Heinlein story, he has come to grips with his past and present. Have we?
Copyright ©2015, Martin Baggs

Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Review: Beyond Willpower -- beyond my commitment level

Beyond Willpower: From stress to success in 40 days, Alexander Loyd, Harmony Books (2015) 
I really wanted to like “Beyond Willpower”. It got a lot of praise and a lot of hype. And I thought it would be good for me. But I came away disappointed. Maybe it’s me, not willing to put the exercises into practice. Maybe it’s how the book tries to marry Christianity and New Age thought together into one syncretistic whole. It just didn’t resonate entirely well with me.
Much of what author Alexander Loyd says sounds good, from the statistic that 97% of self-help books fail due to the fact that every problem stems from the fear that underlies it. Even his definition of success rings true, “True happiness and success mean living in love internally and externally in the present moment, regardless of your current circumstance.” But he hedges his bets in the definition of love and points to God/other, leaving it to the reader to fill in their personal preference.
He does give three main tools, the energy medicine tool, the reprogramming statements, and the heart screen tool. But they seem quirky to use. Moreover, when I was ready to try the basic diagnostic tool that is apparently on-line, I got to a page that asked me to sign up for free newsletters and access, and none of it materialized. At that point, I gave up.
Maybe this will work for you if you have more persistence than I do. It won’t be a matter of willpower, as Loyd makes it clear throughout that willpower works against the subconscious. It will be dedication and commitment, and I didn’t have that at this present moment. Maybe I will come back to this later. And then again, maybe not.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: Performing Under Pressure -- Short and long-term tools for handling pressure

Performing Under Pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most, Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry, Crown Business (2015)  

All of us face stress and pressure daily. How do we handle these? Do we actually know the difference between the two? Authors Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry have written an outstanding book that not only describes the nature of pressure, but gives us ways to handle it so we can perform under pressure.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part offers an understanding of the nature and science of pressure. This is not only useful as background, it is helpful to delineate stress from pressure. “Pressure moments or situations might feel like stress in our bodies and in our thinking, but they are different because, in a pressure moment, your success or your survival is truly on the line. Stressful moments … do not matter nearly as much as pressure moments to your success or survival.” (p.34)

I found it very helpful to have this clarification. Also, the authors deal with choking. We often refer to an athlete or performer choking, but the authors helped me to understand when a choke is not really a choke at all. Finally, in the opening section, the authors present recent science describing what pressure does to our brains.

The second part of the book offers 22 short-terms solutions to pressure situations. Some short, some longer, these may seem obvious, mere common sense, but there will be several that are new to any ready. And they are worth the price of the book itself. From visualization to breathing, befriending the moment to reframing the opportunity, these will help you face your pressure moment whether it is at work or at home, on the field or on the stage. I took copious notes on these, and plan to use them when I face pressure (or even stress).

The final part of the book outlines a four-fold strategy to long-term coping with pressure. Under the acronym COTE of Armor, the authors encourage us to build Confidence, walk with Optimism, work with Tenacity, and approach life with Enthusiasm. This section is a little long and belabored and not as “user-friendly” as the middle section, but still has nuggets that can be applied instantly.

The book ends with a 4-step approach to maintain your COTE of armor: 1) Affirm your self, 2) Be positive every day, 3) Commit to your best, and 4) Celebrate. This may seem a little pollyanaish, but in context of the book (and especially the final section) makes sense and offers a way to summarize and apply their teachings. I intend to polish my COTE of Armor.

I recommend this book. It is well worth reading. For more information, check out the publisher’s link.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Review: meQuilibrium: Tools to shift thinking patterns, a roadmap to resilience

meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, Jan Bruce, Andrew Shatte, and Adam Perlman, Harmony Books (2015)

These days, who isn’t stressed out or over-extended? Who couldn’t use a way to be cooler, calmer and happier? Resilience is a strength much needed in modern society. And the authors of this new book offer a two week plan to manage stress and build resilience.
I approached this book with a keen desire to be calmer and more resilient. I wanted to banish the burnout I felt slowly pulling me down, like quicksand. And the authors provided some excellent tools to help manage stress.
The book is divided into three parts: a short opening section describing the stress and missing peace. My guess is that if you read this book, you already know this. The closing section is just that: one chapter to help keep the new calmer you going. The meat of the book is in section two: the 14 day reboot. Each chapter is intended to be read for one day, focusing on the new tool and the exercise at the end of each chapter. These chapters are serial, building on each other, since some skills are fundamental to the rest.
The most powerful tool comes in day one: TMZ. To address the 7 powerhouse emotions (anger, anxiety, frustration, sadness, guilt, embarrassment and shame), the authors off the Trap It, Map It, Zap It approach, whereby you sensitize your emotional radar to recognize when you are falling into your pitfall emotion. Once trapped through early detection, you can map it, to connect it to the thought causing the emotion (and hence understand why this incident is causing this), then zap it by challenging the thought. My preponderant emotion is anger and I have used the TMZ approach to be calmer in a number of situations.
Day three offers a tool to unlock problem-solving power. The point is to understand various thinking traps and which ones you are susceptible to. Day four gives tools to be calmer, and the deep breathing techniques are very helpful. Day six suggest ways to navigate around iceberg beliefs.
Some of these tools and techniques are not new, such as the breathing and happy place ideas for calming oneself. But they are packaged holistically together in a presentable fashion. And they are proven to be helpful.
The book started out very strongly, but the chapters on sleep and eating waned a little. But after the iceberg chapter, I felt that book slowed down. Many of the chapters in days 7-14 focus on dealing with icebergs, although in specific situations.
On its own as a read, the book is quick and easy, but not very useful. Only when completing the exercises at the end of each chapter does this book come alive. And these are hard. Not in the sense of technically difficult, but in the requirement to dig deep within, to understand your inner self. Without such self-exploration, the book remains just that. With a commitment to work at each chapter, the book becomes a roadmap to inner growth.
I completed most of the chapter exercises and plan to come back to the ones that were too challenging for me at the time. Even with this, I feel I have become a little less stressed and a little more relaxed. If that’s what you want or need, I’d recommend this book. You’ll find something in it that will work for your life’s situation.

For more info:

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: The 5 Love Languages for Men -- how to speak clearly to your wife and strengthen your marriage

The 5 Love Languages for Men, Gary Chapman
with Randy Southern, Northfield Publishing (2015)

I remember reading Gary Chapman's original book, The 5 Love Languages, almost two decades ago. That groundbreaking book introduced me to the languages of words of affirmation, quality time, gift giving, acts of service, and physical touch. Now, 20 years later and almost that many books in this series, Chapman has a new book aimed at men in marriage relationships. And it's powerful and well worth the read. The love languages have not changed, but this book focuses on strengthening your marriage by learning your wife's primary love language.

After an introductory chapter, the first half of the book elaborates each of these five languages.  Chapters 7 and 8 are a little weaker, but the book ends on a strong point with two important chapters: one on anger and the last one on apologizing.  I found these especially helpful, as they highlight two of my weaknesses.

The book itself is very short, weighing in at less than 190 pages. When combined with numerous cartoons, it becomes a very quick read. The cartoons themselves are more miss than hit, and could have been omitted (it almost felt like they were added as padding).

Two particularly useful features of the book focus on practical application. The end of the book contains a love language profile for each partner, containing 30 questions to each discover your primary and secondary love languages. And chapters 2 through 6 contain a two-page phrase book for each specific love language giving tips to us hard-headed men on how to speak that love language.  This becomes the phrase book to turn to.

My wife and I took the profile survey at the end. I was reaffirmed in my primary language of acts of service, but discovered that gift giving and words of affirmation are so low that they are almost foreign to me. My wife, on the other hand, speaks acts of service and words of affirmation bilingually. This means I understand and speak one of her languages, but struggle with words of affirmation. Thankfully, the phrase book in that chapter has given me some tips to try.

Chapman points out that we can all learn to speak other languages, just like we can learn a foreign language. But it will be hard work. Yet, if we want to make our marriages the best they can be, we should be willing to put in the effort. After all, we ourselves will reap the benefit with heightened communication and deeper intimacy. Who in a marriage wouldn't want that?

Disclosure (in accordance with the FTC’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”): Many thanks to Propeller Consulting, LLC for providing a free copy of the book in exchange for this honest review and post. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Book Review: Just Mercy -- a compelling indictment of the America's death penalty law

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, Spiegel and Grau (2014)

Just Mercy was featured by many of the Powell’s staff in their best of 2014 book lists. So I added it to my pile of books and moved it to the top. I’m glad I did. It’s a compelling, yet searing indictment of the American justice system.

I had never heard of Bryan Stevenson before. It turns out that he is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University Law School. During law school at Harvard, he spent time in the south working on death row cases and found his life vocation. I’ll let him explain:

“Well, I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty, actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities.”

His book is a memoir of his journey over three decades, from his beginnings as a naive student through his successes and failures to his position as seasoned but wise executive director. Although many characters are introduced throughout, most remain the focus of a single chapter. Some weave a story throughout. But one remains central to the theme: Walter McMillian, a convicted murderer on death row. However, Walter was nowhere near the scene of the crime, as attested to by dozens of people including some policemen. Yet, the confession of a criminal coerced by the DA resulted in a bizarre, almost unbelievable story that convinced an illegal jury. McMilliam’s interactions with Stevenson may have made him the person he is.

Yet, the book is bigger than this. Weaving tales of 13 year-olds convicted and imprisoned for life without parole alongside poor white mothers who were convicted of killing their babies, despite them being stillborn, Stevenson’s narrative forces us to address the inequalities still in place today. Being born poor and black in some states predisposes them to suspicion. If arrested, such people have little hope of a fair trial.

Although I came to this book a supporter of the death penalty, backing up this belief with biblical justification (Gen. 9:6), Stevenson’s accounting of numerous convicted men and women languishing on death row who were later exonerated and declared innocent after the illegalities and improprieties in their trials were brought to light has made me reconsider. I must confess I am still working through this. As Stevenson says toward the end, “Walter made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”

Although judicial improvements have occurred and personal redemption realized, many indeed due to Stevenson’s efforts, he leaves us realizing that there is still a long way to go.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Labyrinth Wall -- More Maze Runner than Hunger Games

The Labyrinth Wall (Obsidian Series Book 1), Emilyann Girdner, Luminous Words Press (2013)

Until I received an email from the author’s publicist, I had not heard of Emilyann Girdner or The Labyrinth Wall. But the offer of a free book piqued my interest. Reading the book description and several reader reviews heightened my curiosity and I felt compelled to enter this labyrinth.

The first chapter places the reader inside the labyrinth and introduces us to the protagonist, Araina, a teenage girl who’s only been alive two years. She’s a Mahk. This strange land has two types of people: the Creators, who live in the castle in apparent luxury, and led by the villainous Simul, and the Mahks, who live in the labyrinth. Their life is hard. Survival is the goal. Trust is absent. Hope is unknown.

One day Araina is defending her life in a fight with Darith, another Mahk, when they see a strange man emerge from the labyrinth wall. Determined to find out who this man is, especially since he seems to have the power to heal, these two form an unlikely alliance and embark on their quest.

Gardner fills the book with adventure after adventure, with a fast-pace that keeps the reader engaged. From Simul’s castle to the blood caves and onto the pit of snakes, the journey carries Araina into numerous dangers from magical attacks by the labyrinth itself to various creatures, such as saber toothed mutts and cannibals.

Despite the thrills of the quest, there are some problems with the book. Perhaps it is the pace of the plot, but the characters seem superficial. They could have been developed more. Without much history, the Mahks have little back story and we find out scant information about them. Even the villains remain distant, mysterious.

Then there is the suddenness of each episode. Darith disappears from the plot and is all but forgotten. Others emerge unexpectedly. And there seems too little credible connection at times.

Another problem centers on the loose ends and questions remaining at the end. There are so many questions that were popping into my head throughout. Who is Simul? Where did the Mahks come from? Why were they created? What is the labyrinth? Who is the mysterious stranger? Why were the Mahks created with different ages? With each new chapter it seemed new questions emerged. But very few got answered. I understand that this is book 1 of a series but I was hoping for more resolution.

There is little hope in the labyrinth, at least at the beginning. But the theme focuses on this concept, and as the story moves toward climax, we find hope emerge in a small band of characters. And their exposure rubs off on Araina, so that by the end of he book she has become more likable, someone I cared about.

In the book description, it says the book is “perfect for fans of adventure filled and imaginative favorites like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games and the Hobbit”. Having read all the books in these three series (including Lord of the Rings), I entered the book with high expectations. I found it less like the Hunger Games or the Hobbit and much more like The Maze Runner. Simul is no President Snow, at least from what we see in this book. And Araina is no Katniss. The Hunger Games has better character development and a stronger plot. But being comparable with the Maze Runner is no mean feat. This one is worth a read if you’ve finished those other books. And I am hoping for more character development in book 2, and certainly want some answers to my questions.

*I was given an eCopy of this book, from the author, to read in exchange for an honest review.