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Cover of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and WarningIf you took World History in high school, your experience was probably like mine: the course was miles wide and only about an inch deep. This has everything to do with the amount of material that has to be covered, even over the course of an entire academic year. Therefore, I found Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning an excellent read. As the title indicates, this Timothy Snyder work covers one of the worst times in the history of our world.

This is a hard read because it is information dense. I’ve made a note to myself to go back through this book and take more elaborate notes for review and comparison because there’s just that much. However, it is definitely worth the read because Snyder covers so much that isn’t covered in typical history courses nor in most video programs on the Holocaust. For instance, right from the start Snyder traces the ideology of Hitler and the Nazi party as a whole. Certain key ideas go all the way back to Germany’s former colonization of Africa and some of the actions of Hitler and Germany mirror actions from that previous time. Another example is an exploration of why Poland should have been Germany’s ally and not the Soviet Union. Snyder then covers the events and differences in the beliefs about the state which led to the opposite, with Stalin initially being Hitler’s ally and Germany’s invasion of Poland.
One of the interesting perspectives reinforced in the early part of the book is how much of Germany’s actions (and Hitler’s thinking) was about land. My old American History instructor used to tie most of America’s actions to a pursuit of more land. It was so common a theme (think Manifest Destiny) that she would often exclaim, “Land!” when discussing motivations. For instance, the Louisiana Purchase was about land. Jefferson struggled with it because he couldn’t find anything in the US Constitution which specifically gave the President the authority to make such an acquisition, but the deal was just too good to pass up! And in reality, the colonization of America in general was about land. Hitler saw a need for the expansion of Germany for more farmland and his ideology was completely fine with the idea of seizing that land from the “lesser race” even if that meant their complete extermination. The parallels to America are not accidental because Hitler saw what the USA did to Native American tribes, both through warfare and by forced exile to west of the Mississippi River, as an example of how Germany should act. And in Hitler’s mind, there was Germany (and possibly England and the USA) and there was everyone else. The everyone else had no rights, not even to life, and definitely no ownership over resources if Germans needed/wanted them.
If I have a complaint, it’s found in the Epilogue (titled Conclusion: Our World). There the author tries to link climate change with a recurrence of events leading up to and including the Holocaust because a leader will be able to spin similar ideology as Hitler did. Logically, this doesn’t follow. That a shortage of resources or perceived need might lead to such a dictator is not only plausible but we’ve seen that played out numerous times in history. However, such a leader doesn’t need Global Warming to generate that lack of resources. One only has to look at situations like Burma/Myanmar or North Korea today to see that. Also, if the concern is about food, there’s that general concern as the population of the planet increases. This is a concern regardless if Global Warming forecasts are correct.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, I would. The complaint aside, there’s a wealth of information found in this one source that goes beyond what most folks know about the history of the Holocaust. There’s that old maxim, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” and with something as horrid as the Holocaust, we don’t want to repeat those series of events again. Looking at what led up to the Holocaust allows us to build defenses and warnings for events which might cause us to follow a similar road. Therefore, Snyder’s Black Earth is worth the read.
Note: I received a free review copy of this book.
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Cover for Breaking the Chains of GravityAre you interested in the history of the US space program? Do you know the history of it prior to NASA? That’s what Amy Shira Teitel covers in Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA. It is a fascinating read with a timeline that will likely surprise you if you’re not already familiar with the roots of the famed space program.

Teitel starts off in Germany. Why Germany? The truth of the matter is that much of the successes in the early space program were due to technology based on the German V-2 rockets. Yes, the very same ones the Germans launched against Great Britain in WWII. Not only did we use captured German technology, but many of the leaders in the US space program were former Nazi scientists like Werner Von Braun.

Teitel covers Von Braun’s motivations well as well as several other key participants in Germany’s rocket program. Military use of rocketry was something they were forced into due to the times. And membership in the Nazi party was a requirement for survival in a fascist regime. Therefore, when the war came to an end, the scientists involved and any information on the technology around the V-2, especially spare parts, were high priority acquisitions. That’s effectively what they became as the USA, the USSR, and Great Britain all vied to get at the men and materiel.

Then Teitel delves into the next plodding steps of the US space program: not knowing what to do with the Germans, the test flights with the X-1 aircraft (which was used to break the sound barrier), the conflicting priorities, the infighting between the military services, and the shock when the USSR launched its first two rockets into space. As is pointed out elsewhere, any of these subjects could and have warranted books of themselves, but Teitel delivers a nice summary in a storytelling style that connects the pieces together. She finally ends the narrative with the formation of NASA from so many disparate parts and its first few steps as the center of US space research.

I enjoyed Breaking the Chains of Gravity greatly and would recommend it to anyone who has a thirst for space, for NASA, and for how science advances in the applied realm. It’s not a quick read. There are a lot of facts, a lot of agencies, and a lot of separate initiatives to keep track of, especially in the last one third of the book. This reflects the historic complexity and, for lack of a better word, mess that represented the US space program prior to NASA. If you happen to be a homeschooling family, this would be an excellent addition to any study of space and the US efforts in that arena.

Note: I received a pre-release copy of the book for review.

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King of TokyoI grew up loving kaiju movies, especially any centered around Godzilla. This includes movies like King Kong. The best types of those movies are when two or more of those enormous creatures battle each other. This concept has spawned many movies and games, whether we’re talking board games or video games. Richard Garfield‘s (the inventor of Magic:  the Gathering) game, King of Tokyo, is another game in the genre, but one that is nicely done and easy to play.

# of Players: 2-6

Ages: 8+

Game Duration: 30 min

King of Tokyo won three Golden Geek awards in 2012: Best Children’s Game, Best Family Game and Best Party Game. The rules are easy to learn and can be explained in about 5-10 minutes. Game play is quick and rotates very quickly between players, so even with five players, no one is left out of the action for long (unless his or her monster is killed). We played it with a group including an 8 year-old, a couple of teenagers, and a couple of adults. All of us had fun, all of us could quickly determine a course of action during our turn, and there was a lot of back-and-forth until the end. All in all, it was a great game that works for adults as well as children.

So other than monsters battling each other, what’s the game about? Like most Japanese kaiju movies, everyone’s headed to Tokyo. And everyone is going to lay waste to Tokyo. This is tracked by your victory points. Get 20 victory points and you win the game. You can also win the game by being the last monster standing. Then, unopposed, you wreak havoc on the hapless city. Win and you’re the King of Tokyo.

The main mechanic revolves around dice. Get three of a kind with respect to the numbers and you earn that number of victory points. More than three? Each additional one adds another victory point. Get a heart? If you’re not in Tokyo at the time, you heal a wound, up to your max health of 10. Get a lightning bolt and capture an energy cube. And if you roll a clawed hand, you make an attack. If you’re outside of Tokyo, you attack the monster(s) in Tokyo. If you’re in Tokyo, you attack everyone outside of it. However, getting matches on roll is hard. Anyone who has played Yahtzee! knows this. Therefore, King of Tokyo works like Triple Yahtzee! in that you get three rolls. You can pull dice out not to re-roll and you can put dice back in. Whatever you have at the end of your three rolls determines what you can do.

If no one is in Tokyo and you roll an attack, you enter Tokyo. Why would you want to do this when you can’t heal? Entering Tokyo automatically earns you 1 victory point. If you can stay in Tokyo until your next turn, you get 2 victory points. Why, then, would you leave Tokyo? While in Tokyo, you can’t heal, at least not from the dice. Therefore, if you get attacked and sustain some damage, you always have the option of leaving Tokyo, provided you’ve not been reduced to zero health and thus killed. Therefore, there’s strategy around getting in and staying in or getting out of Tokyo. Stay in too long and the monsters around you will rip you apart. That happened to one of our players. He took a chance and if he could have survived to his next turn, he likely would have won.

So what’s the energy for? The energy allows you to purchase cards and the cards have different effects, some of which require energy. For instance, the card that won the game for me was Herbivore. It gave me a victory point each round I didn’t attack. By concentrating on matching dice to earn victory points and avoid attacking, I was able to stay out of Tokyo in the later stages of our game. Yet I racked up victory points and maintained the ability to heal any attacks coming from a Tokyo based monster. The cards add significantly to the game because they change strategies greatly and immediately. For instance, the player that took a chance and stayed in had a card that gave him a victory point every time he attacked. Therefore, if he could have survived and pulled off an attack from Tokyo, he would have won the game.

Even though the rules are simple, the situations and the cards can mean some significant strategic thinking, which clearly happened in the game we played. Even my eight year-old was caught up in considering when to stay in and when to leave Tokyo. If I hadn’t have pulled enough victory points to get to twenty my final round, she followed me and could almost potentially get to twenty herself. Therefore, it’s a great game for all ages. The mechanics work well and they keep the game moving. When playing with children, adults can still have a lot of fun. There’s not a ton of pieces so you don’t spend an hour on setup like with some boardgames. You can get set up and going in five minutes, teach the rules in another five, and play a full game in half an hour. It’s the perfect game for a family game night or for a game party. We’ll be playing more of King of Tokyoespecially after adding the expansion, which I’ll cover in a later review.

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This book was an unexpected find. I’ve been visiting the library and checking out Chinese and Japanese recipe books because I’ve started to try and learn to cook more traditional Chinese recipes. Tucked in among those recipe books was Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China by Jen Lin-Liu. It does have Chinese recipes in it, and that’s probably why it was classified among the recipe books, but it’s really much, much more.

Serve the People is a walk through Lin-Liu’s experiences in China as she first begins to learn how to cook professionally and then as she apprentices in several places before heading back to where her journey started, Beijing, to open her own cooking school. As you might expect from an autobiographical book, this jewel is filled with her life experiences during this journey including the people she met and developed relationships with. It’s a great book about food, but it’s an even better book which gives an unvarnished view on modernizing China and how the changes impact the folks who live in various regions of that large nation. But what really sets the book apart are the people.

Lin-Liu is able to develop friendships with those who remember what it was like before the Cultural Revolution and who lived through the changes that caused to the country. She’s able to interact with folks who were born after that event and who have known nothing but the communist state. Her friends include those who waitress for what we’d consider an impossibly low wage to folks with an international reputation like Jereme Leung, whom she apprenticed under in Shanghai. And what we see with each friend and acquaintance is a portrait of a real person with highs, lows, aspirations, and fears. Each person imparts a part of themselves on Lin-Liu and her journey shows us how she changes as she meets and comes to know each one.

The book also has several recipes from Jen Lin-Liu herself that I’m looking forward to trying. But even if I never were to attempt a single recipe, I highly recommend this book. It’s an excellent read for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above. While I got a copy at the library, I’m probably going to buy my own in order to read it a couple of times more. There’s a lot of insight in her relationships with each person, and there is wisdom to be gained vicariously as others have lived life and had their share of lumps and successes. Because it’s a book about people and relationships, you can read it quickly and add it to a checklist of completed books, but this one is better read slowly, pondering each interaction Lin-Liu has and how many of them are different from what we expect in the West. Thinking about each one will cause some rethinking of perceptions and expectations of life.

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Every person, whether they believe in God or not, has a purpose on this earth. That’s the message of  For This I Was Born. It’s a book written by the senior pastor of Hillsong Church, Brian Houston, and its purpose is to encourage believers in Jesus Christ that they’ve been created for a purpose. Life isn’t accidental, and our being here isn’t a mistake. Each one of us has a role to play while we are alive. This is an important message, especially for today’s youth. It’s one of the things we teach over and over again in our junior high youth ministry. Regardless of your past, regardless of what someone might have said, in God’s eyes, you exist for a reason. He created each one of us specifically. We are here by His intention. And God doesn’t make mistakes.

That’s the line of argument that Houston takes in this book. He expands it to remind us that there is no greater cause than the cause of Christ. That cause, that desire to serve Christ and glorify Him, if we embrace it, will fuel our every effort. It’ll pick us up out of despair, it’ll keep us charging on when times are tough, and it’ll help us stay focused on what we’re doing for the Kingdom, because we serve the noblest cause of all.

Houston uses Biblical examples to show what happens when God’s people embrace the reason for their creation and this noblest of causes. For instance, Hannah’s desperate prayer led to God delivering Samuel. Because she was dedicated to God first, and dedicated her son to Him, He gave her Samuel. And later Samuel would serve as Israel’s last judge at a time when Israel needed a man of God with such a strong faith in that position.

Brian also goes on to talk about the true meaning from Scripture of what prosperity and blessing are. Prosperity means something akin to “help for the journey” (Brian’s words) when translated literally. It doesn’t mean glittering riches and a fancy car. In other words, we stick by God, and He’s going to stick by us. We need help and if we are faithful, He’s there. That’s the Biblical meaning of prosperity that we’ve taken the wrong way because of how the word’s meaning has changed over time. Blessing is similar. It’s not about being showered with earthly goods. It’s about finding real meaning in things that matter such as our faith and relationship with Christ, the bonds we build with family and friends, and things of that sort.

He doesn’t stop there. He talks about the fact that how ever God has provided us resources, we’re to use not for ourselves, but for God’s purpose. He reminds us that Scripture points out we’re stewards. It’s not ours. It’s His, but we’ve been entrusted with it. Focusing on self is ultimately limiting. It doesn’t get us very far. And if we treat the resources we’ve given in that manner, we’re missing the point. He uses the example of a self-taught musician. Sure, the musician may play great. But could the musician play even better with help from others? Absolutely. And if we’re worried about resources, we shouldn’t be. If God called us to something and there is a need, He will provide. That’s ultimately where our faith kicks in.

Overall this is a great and encouraging book. Brian Houston makes excellent use of Scripture throughout. Rather than using Scripture to try and reinforce his points, he draws his points from the lessons the Scriptures teach. It’s not a very long book at less than 200 pages and it reads easily. Where necessary, Houston will delve into the Greek or Hebrew of a word to get at the true meaning of a passage, but he does so in a very conversational way, not as a theologian. So there are no real difficulties for the layman in these pages. This book serves as a great reminder for what we’re to be about. I would definitely recommend it for any youth or adult whether struggling for the meaning of life or one who is sure of  his or her calling by God.

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If you are a dog lover, you will both love and hate this book. Marley and Me is the tale of John Grogan’s family dog, Marley, and the impact that rambunctious Labrador Retriever had on their family.  If you’ve seen the movie, you still need to read the book. First, like most movie adaptations, the movie cannot contain the amount of sheer mayhem a dog like Marley was able to get into. Second, John Grogan does an excellent job bringing you into his head as he dealt with “the world’s worst dog.” While Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston did a good job expressing the joys and frustrations as owners of such a neurotic dog, the book expresses far more eloquently what John and Jen went through in their life with Marley. In other words, the movie may be good, but it just doesn’t compare to the book.

Marley and Me starts out sweet, with the newlywed couple taking home a brand new puppy. It’s almost like the beginning to a fairy tale. But then, of course, the fairy tale goes way off track, as the true nature of Marley emerges. He is a non-stop blur of fur. He is an unstoppable food thief. He is an obedience school drop out (or more appropriately, they kicked him out). He has no fear, except of thunderstorms, which turns him into an insane wrecking machine. And a lot of times, he has no common sense. But he is loving, and affectionate (in a typical slobbery tongued sort of way), and loyal to a fault. He may be a “dumb dog” but he is an absolutely lovable dumb dog.

The story progresses with the Grogan family adding children to the mix and Marley’s adventures with them included. His gentleness comes through, as does their love, despite the fact that come meal time they must on their guard like security watching over the world’s most dangerous prisoner. As they grow up, so does he. From South Florida to Pennsylvania, Marley is a part of the family. But as is the case with our pets, he grows old before their eyes. The last few chapters are hard, very hard if you’ve ever had to bury a pet. I sympathized with what John Grogan went through because it reminded me a lot of my Belle, a beagle who became a part of our family as my wife and I got married and who left us only a couple of years ago. If you’ve ever watched a beloved companion grow old, you will identify with Marley’s final months with the family. Those last chapters hurt, but the book would be incomplete without them.

This is a great book. I cannot recommend it enough. Even if you’re not a pet lover, you will laugh at the Marmaduke like antics of this crazy dog and his human owners’ best abilities to keep him under control (or more appropriately, fail trying). And you’ll see that what John Grogan wrote about what Marley taught him was evident throughout the whole book. I’ll conclude on that quote, because I think it sums up the book well:

Was it possible for a dog–any dog, but especially a nutty, wildly uncontrollable one like ours-to point humans to the things that really mattered in life? I believe it was. Loyalty. Courage. Devotion. Simplicity. Joy. And the things that did not matter, too. A dog has no use for fancy cars or big homes or designer clothes. Status symbols mean nothing to him. A waterlogged stick will do just fine. A dog judges others not by their color or creed or class but by who they are inside. A dog doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his.

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About a year ago I got interested in studying what happened in Mogadishu back in 1993 and leading up to it. One name that came up repeated was Jeff Struecker. That name stuck with me and when I was doing some more research recently, I saw that he had become a U.S. Army chaplain and had penned a book called The Road to Unafraid.

This book is an autobiographical account of how Struecker faced challenges as a teen, as a Ranger, and how he heard his call to ministry. The bulk of the book is dedicated to that first battle of Mogadishu and he candidly talks about the emotions he was feeling, especially that one many of us don’t like to admit we have: fear. Fear is ever present. I heard it once said that the only ones who don’t feel fear are the foolish. We all have fears, even elite Army Rangers. Struecker’s account of the battle that day is filled with how he faced that emotion of fear, and how he dealt with it. His faith carried him through.

The book also talks about how his childhood was far from perfect. Parents divorced at four, mom with a steady string of marriages and divorces (3 while he lived under her roof), and any lack of real engagement by dad showed that he grew up in a less than ideal situation, but he refused to let that hold him down. Rather, he used it as fuel to drive himself further. It concludes with his call to ministry, the struggle that grew to be especially in the opinion of some of the other soldiers, and some of the challenges his family faced as he followed the call and went to seminary. Struecker and his family were faced with some hard choices, but they made them together, and friends (especially military ones) pulled together to help.

If you’re looking to learn more about Mogadishu, this is a good book for it. Struecker presents a first-person witness to the events of that day and you’ll gain some insight from him that you won’t with other sources. If you’re looking for a book to encourage you in your faith, especially if you are facing tough situations in life or are contemplating a call to ministry, this is an excellent read for both. If you’re looking at how to face fear properly, Struecker gives a blueprint for that, too. It’s embedded in his faith in Jesus Christ. As he points out, the greatest thing we can fear on this earth is death. But for the Christian, death is victory. As Paul wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21, NASB)

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