Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Heart for Freedom by Chai Ling


 I remember when I was attending the Chicago Conservatory in 1989 (back then it was called the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University). Shanghai Conservatory was a sister school to ours and we had a lot of Chinese music students from there attending Roosevelt. One of the students wrote an article for our school newspaper, The Roosevelt Torch. In it she expounded eloquently on conditions in China, which she asserted were identical to how Americans lived. Same opportunity, safety, freedoms, etc.. I personally knew this student. She was a very nice, intelligent person whom I respected and admired. Her well-written article persuaded me that all was hunky-dory across the world in the most populated country in the world.

Call it irony or coincidence but right after her article was printed, the massacre at Tienanmen Square occurred. I have to say I felt anger toward this student for blatantly lying to us. Surely she knew that China did not have the freedom, human rights or equal opportunity that our country has. She lost complete credibility with me.

It's been many years since the tragic events at Tienanmen Square transpired and I doubt many people in the Western hemisphere think much about it anymore. That's why I think I think A Heart for Freedom by Chai Ling is an important book to read.

I was born at the beginning of China's Cultural Revolution. Like all Chinese children, I was taught to love my country, sacrifice my own needs, and be ready to give up my life for a greater good. We were not allowed to know God.

In 1989, I became a leader of a student hunger strike in Tienanmen Square, a peaceful movement for a better, freer, and more loving China. There I discovered the truth about the government I had been taught to love. In the early morning hours of June 4, I stood with my friends and watched in horror as the tanks rolled in. During the crackdown, thousands were wounded or killed.

I survived. (From the inside front cover) 

In this fascinating account, Ling chronicles her life as the child of Army Doctors, her desire to bring honor and pride to her family through high grades and going to  prestigious Peking University. She describes her shame at getting unexpectedly pregnant in college, undergoing an abortion, and working and striving still harder to prove to her parents that she was worthy of their respect.

As time went on she realized she could not follow in her parents footsteps as ardent believers in the State. She began to see serious flaws in the system. Ling gives a thorough, step by step account of the events that led up to the student protest, how she became one of China's most wanted political criminals and how she escaped and eventually moved to the United States.

One of the things that especially struck me was how hard she and the other students were working toward governmental reform in China yet because they, the students, were just as godless as the government they were protesting, there was no moral paradigm that they could hold on to. Ling vividly and honestly portrays her fellow students and herself as people seeking to work toward good but without an instruction manual.
 Consequently, though they could see the big picture (i.e. government should not be oppressive) they couldn't see their own individual portraits as selfish, sinful humans that made up a part of the larger landscape.

Frankly it was depressing to read about the attempts of these students fighting against an outward system while being blind to the tyrannical inward system of their own self absorbed souls.

After coming to America, Ling graduated from Princeton and became a successful business woman. She was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. She married and had three children. It is interesting to note here that at first she had difficulty in getting a job because many international businesses were afraid  hiring her would damage their relationship with China.

Even though Ling was now successful and free from government oppression she was still enslaved to her feelings of guilt and emptiness. What was if all for? China hadn't changed. She poignantly describes the suffering especially of women, most of whom have undergone at least one abortion due to China's enforced one child per family policy. By this time, Ling herself had had four abortions.

But something else happens that Ling was not expecting. The last chapters of the book bring Chai Ling to the end of a very long journey. She discovers the One who truly sets her free: Jesus Christ. Through fellow Chinese who had become Christians as well as other Christian friends, Chai Ling came to experience full freedom in Jesus Christ, the one who wipes away every tear and took our burden of guilt and shame upon himself when He died on the cross.  She finally understood what they, the Chinese students, were doing wrong at Tienanmen Square. In the last chapter she states:

....The Holy Spirit is working overtime in China. In 1983, when I started at Beida, people had to talk in whispers about secret gatherings in the countryside to worship God. Today, at that same university alone, more than two hundred Bible study groups meet on campus, and an official class on Jesus is offered to seven hundred students.

The Chinese government seems to recognize this spiritual hunger. They even erected a giant statue of Confucius in Tienanmen Square in January 2011. But their efforts to find something to hold the country together will inevitably be undermined by the massive amount of corruption, violence, and crime that results from the people's lack of transformative belief system. (pg. 326)

The final chapters of Ling's story describes work with All Girls Allowed, an organization that she founded. It is dedicated to “restoring life, value, and dignity to girls and mothers and revealing the injustice of China's one-child policy.” (From the inside back cover.)

I think this is an invaluable book because it brings to light that there are many injustices and violations of human rights going on in our world today. It also shows the hope we have in Jesus Christ which turns every trial to ultimate joy and meaning.  I can't help but compare the outcome of Chai Ling to Ji Li Jiang's in Red Scarf Girl.  (For that book review you can go here) We Americans are insulated to so much of what is happening in other countries.   If you would like more information on All Girls Allowed you can go to Chai Ling's website: www.allgirlsallowed.org.   

I received a free copy of this book from Tyndale Publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reviewing Books for Free

  I came across a wonderfully informative blog called Yaminatoday.com. It is by a young lady who lives in New York City who, by the looks of her blog, is a highly energetic go getter who has wonderful creative powers and knows how to find out what she is looking for. I have found several helpful articles on her site concerning the world of publishing and writing. She has asked me to write an article expounding on my experience as a book reviewer. I feel highly flattered but hardly qualified because I've only been doing this for a few years. But here goes:

A couple of years ago I decided to start a blog simply for the joy of writing articles and posting photos. At first it was a creative outlet to post my thoughts on different subjects, publish photographs I had taken and review books from my own library, which is considerable.

As time went on I began to find my niche as a book reviewer. There are a number of publishing companies that will send you an e book or hard copy of their books in exchange for a review. I currently review books for five different publishing companies. The ones I review for are below. I've posted the links for anyone interested:

They simply require that you post your review on your blog and a commercial website such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble. As you can see I mostly review for Christian publishing companies (with the exception of Dorrance). If you have a specific genre you're interested in, I would suggest getting on Goodreads, writing to Amazon.com and other publishing companies inquiring how to get complimentary copies to review. Search engines are a great resource. Type in “book reviews” or “how to get free books to review” and a lot of different links will come up.

As I produced more and more reviews I began to receive requests from authors to review their books on my blogs. How did I get authors to request reviews? Some, because they liked my posts, wrote and asked me. Others have requests on their sites, in which case, I sent them a note telling them I would be glad to review their book for them.

One great resource is http://bookblogs.ning.com/ . They have many discussion groups and forums where you can hook up with people who would like to promote their book. Darren Rowse has an informative article on how to get publishers to send you copies at  his web site .

Different people review different ways, many good, some not. My own method has refined over time. Instead of retelling the story I try to give a pithy synopsis and then pluck one or two particular aspects of the book that I liked or hit me in some way. As reviewers, we know the main reason authors want us to review their books is to promote their book. With that in mind, I try to be as objective as possible. Unless the book is about something I strongly object to, I do my best to lay out the facts and give the reader a taste of the story in order to allow them to see if it's their cup of tea or not. I've reviewed a number of books that weren't to my liking but I know that other people are satisfied with that type of writing so I try to paint as plain a picture as I can in order to enable a potential buyer to make an informed decision on whether or not they'd like to buy such a book.

I've noticed a lot of people jump on the best seller band wagon-especially if the book is being made into a movie. That is, they only review books that are currently popular. I daresay this is in hopes of increasing traffic to their blog and bumping their link higher up search engines. I personally don't do this because I'm not interested in reading books solely for the purpose of increasing traffic to my blog. I want to read books I actually would benefit from and enjoy reading as well as improve my writing skills. Life is too short to spend it reading books you don't care for. Nevertheless, this may be a good strategy for promoting your blog, I'm not sure. Especially if you're one of a bajillion bloggers posting about the same book.

Having said that, I largely review books I wouldn't normally buy for myself and I think that has affected how I write reviews. You can read some early reviews of mine here and here to see a difference in the review of a book that I bought for myself as opposed to a review that I wrote for a publishing company such as here . If you'd like to see where I lambasted a book given to me by a publishing company you can go here .  You don't have to give a positive review but make sure you well support your assertions if you want credibility otherwise you're just ranting to yourself.

The good side to reviewing for the publishers is that it has expanded my reading repertoire and I have come to appreciate and learn a lot from books I would not have otherwise read.

Well, this has been my personal experience thus far in the blogging world. I haven't been at it very long and I'm still learning a lot. I hope what I have to give benefits others out there. Thanks, Yamina for encouraging me to write this essay.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review for Where Love Once Lived by Sid Frost

Karen, a grade school teacher, is taking her class outside to a book mobile. The book mobile is a new development started by the city to provide library books to people who otherwise cannot access them. The children are excited about getting in the big “library bus” and browsing the different books offered.
Karen, on the other hand, is experiencing painful emotions brought on by sad memories from another bookmobile. Or rather the man who ran the bookmobile. This was the man she was supposed to marry and live happily ever after with. The man who broke her heart.

Years ago while Karen and Brian were in college, they became seriously involved. So seriously that Karen knew it was a matter of time before Brian proposed. With every expectation of this pleasant outcome, Karen said goodbye to Brian as he left for a brief visit to his parents in California. Except Brian never came back. Instead, on that visit he met and married another woman. Grief stricken, Karen spent years burying the pain.

Now years later, standing outside another bookmobile Karen finds herself thinking of the years lost that haven't diminished her grief. The grief that carries a secret that no one but Karen knows: that she carried and lost her and Brian's baby.

As Karen relives her past, she comes to the back of the bookmobile and gasps. In front of her is a man, now in his fifties, that she hasn't seen since he deserted her all those years ago. It's Brian.

Brian has been paying for a sin he committed for the last thirty years. Saying good bye to the woman he intended to marry, he left to visit his parents then come back and propose to Karen. What he hadn't planned to do was get seduced by the most popular girl he knew in high school, have a one night stand with her, and get her pregnant. Out of a sense of honor, he married this woman and, without any explanation, never returned to Austin, Texas and his true love.

His daughter now grown, Brian is divorced from a woman he never loved. He has returned to capture the heart of the woman he always had wanted to marry. Except, she has no intention of marrying him. Her anger and bitterness boils up against him and overflows.
On top of everything else, there's another secret that is being kept from Brian by the woman he chose to marry out of his sense of duty.

The story could be best summed up as a maze. Two people are at opposite sides of the maze and are working their way through all the turns and dead ends in hopes of meeting each other in the middle. Except instead of paths and twist and turns, the barriers are misconceptions, mistrust; stories left untold and the need to forgive another person's betrayal and abandonment.

When reading the book, I saw a number of interesting situations arise that made this book relevant to me.

Firstly, as a divorced, single mom. I felt the pain and ignominy Karen suffered from being divorced (she also eventually marries and later divorces a man who is unfaithful to her). Karen summed up the feelings I've suffered from for many years.

Her friend Cathy tells her:

“Alone? Listen, you'll always have me. You have many friends. The whole church loves you.”

“The whole church,” Karen said. “Like at lunch every Sunday? All paired up. They never notice me, the divorcee slash loser slash nobody.”

Boy, do I know what that feels like.

Do these things happen in real life? You bet your sweet bippy they do! And when they happen what do we do about it? How do we respond when the one we've given our hearts to cheats on us? How do we respond when they separate themselves from us for years? What do we do when they want to reenter our lives?
What's the right thing to do?

In the book, Where Love Once Lived, Sid Frost explores these themes and, at least for Karen and Brian, come up with a particular resolution which, on the one hand may not be appropriate for everyone, on the other hand, models a Godly mandate of forgiveness that is applicable to each and every one of us.

In addition to the value of a Godly message that is timely in our broken down world, Mr. Frost writes a good story with interesting characters. I found his book very easy and quick to read because he had me going to the very end.

I received a free copy of “Where Love Once Lived” by the author in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book Review for Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

   Surprised by Oxford is the story of a young Canadian girl who received a full scholarship to attend Oxford University in England. Written in a style imitative of the literature masters (not surprising since her major is Romantic Literature) the author, Carolyn Weber, describes through lots of word painting, her journey from being an angry atheist to a person who comes to understand that she has no earthly lover pursuing her but the very One who chased her all the way down from heaven to bring her to His kingdom.

With broad, impressionistic strokes, Weber describes her childhood. By that I mean that she doesn't prosaically document her family's breakdown and her father's abandonment but rather uses a poetical style that obligates the reader to form conclusions as to why her family was so successful until her father went to jail (she never explains why he went to jail) and why he was so erratic in his participation in their family. Maybe the memory is too painful. What is clear is that after her father left, Carolyn's family was extremely poor and by her own hard work and determination she somehow managed to graduate from high school, go on to earn a Bachelor's degree all the while working with little sleep or food to sustain her.

This chapter of her life comes to an end when she is offered a full ride to one of the most prestigious and oldest institutions in the world. Off she goes half way around the world carrying much more than just a lot of shoes in her baggage. She carries anger, bitterness and more than a little contempt for the male gender as well as God.

The rest of the book describes all the various and diverse people she meets while at Oxford, most of them atheists, like her, but some of them not. This “not” group intrigues her and little by little win her over with their intellect, sound reasoning, joy of life, and unconditional love that flows out from them and pours onto her.
Carolyn has a lot of arguments with these Christians, some fellow students, some professors-all just as intellectual and in love with literature as she is. Carolyn finds herself having more and more arguments with herself, trying to persuade herself that it's all a lot of bunk but having her prejudices “debunked” as the Christians she meets refuse to conform to any stereotypes she tries to apply to them.

One of my favorite passages is when she empties both barrels of her “anti-man” venom on a fellow student she only refers to as “TDH” (tall, dark and handsome). TDH is a Christian who has befriended Caro (as her friends refer to her-Italian for “beloved”). He lets her rant until both man hating fangs are empty then he quietly tells her he won't be her whipping post for man hate.

All in all, Weber does a good job of drawing the reader into her experience in England and all its fine old traditions and customs. While her arguments may seem a little served up, I don't care because I think she was trying to puree down all the many conversations she had with her friends and professors into their basic points. So while much of the dialogue can seem a bit contrived the reasons and arguments are very good and pretty much the standard arguments non believers give for rejecting Christianity. Someone in the searching stage who's questioning whether Christianity might actually be true will find this book a highly interesting and relevant source.

Lovers of classic literature will appreciate all the quotes and references that are peppered throughout the book.

I received this book for free from Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for my honest review.

For another review go Parchment Girl and Bookwi.se

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Vengeance Squad by Sidney W. Frost

The Vengeance Squad

   Chris and Sarah sit across from each other at a table in an outlet mall in Round Rock, Texas. Their conversation? Mutual declarations of how happy they are and excited anticipation of their impending wedding, just two weeks away. Well, you and I both know happiness doesn't make a great story only a satisfactory conclusion to a great story. So what happens next?

For a few moments Chris and Sarah have forgotten the rest of the world as they lose themselves in each other's company. This reverie is rudely and abruptly interrupted when a helicopter lands near their table and men dressed in camouflage, masked and armed with machine guns jump out and rob a nearby bank. Fast forward through a whirlwind of mishaps and we find Sarah lying in Chris' arms, dying.

She pulled me closer so I could hear her weakened voice. 'This is God's will. I'll see you again when it's your time. Until then, be happy. Find someone to love you as much as I do...”
“No!"  I screamed. I looked around. “Help us, please.” I relaxed my grip to look into her face once more. She was always beautiful, but I saw something beyond beauty.
“ ….Chris,” Sarah said. “You have to let me go. I love...”
She sank into my arms as her life left her body.

Now that's the impetus for a good story! Chris now embarks on a journey of anger, bitterness and a driving ambition for vengeance. He decides that he is going to hunt down these bank robbers, whoever they are, and kill them. Thus begins an action packed adventure story that rises above the normal fast ride because the author takes the experience to a spiritual level. Our walk with God is what makes any part of life significant.

The Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, was asked how all the suffering in the world can be accounted for. Zacharias' reply: It depends on who's asking.
For the Hindu, whatever happens is Karma; for the Muslim it is God's will, for the atheist everything's just an evolutionary accident. Only in the context of the Christian paradigm can such a question justifiably be asked.

Chris McCowan, the protagonist of The Vengeance Squad, struggles with this question. A church goer all his life, he lashes out in anger against God in typical fashion: he decides God doesn't exist. It was C.S. Lewis that said that most atheists are guilty of circular reasoning. They don't believe God exists and are angry at Him for not existing.

Chris is guilty of this reasoning. If God doesn't exist, Who is the object of his rage? Another point this book made me consider is that one can believe they have relationship with God but when crisis happens in our life-that's the proof of where we really stand. Do we endure to the end, leaning on the power of God? Or do we, like Chris, sink into bitterness and rage?

The book introduces us to a number of interesting characters, all of which show us that even though Chris abandons God, God never abandons him. One of the characters is an ex marine/ ex drug addict/ ex convict named Tex who doesn't let being wheelchair bound limit his opportunities or joy.

With the help of Tex, a mothering librarian who nevertheless has powerful connections, a mysterious and beautiful (of course!) FBI agent (or is she?) and quite a bit of computer know how, Chris and Tex are able to trace and chase the killers, uncovering a much bigger and more dangerous plot in the process.

All in all I found this book a fun read with a lot of action and interesting characters plus the spiritual food for thought I already mentioned. I think the book would make an even better movie.

The Vengeance Squad is Mr. Frost's second book. Himself an ex marine and adjunct computer science professor, Mr. Frost draws on personal experience which gives the book an authentic flavor.

Also, for all of you from Texas, Mr. Frost currently resides in Georgetown and his novel takes place in the Round Rock area. Those of us familiar with Austin will recognize a number of the locations mentioned in the book.

I received a complimentary book from the author in exchange for my honest review.  For more information you can visit Mr. Frost's web site:  http://sidneywfrost.com/index.htm