Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown: Recipes of Youngstown (2)

Recipes of Youngstown 2The long awaited package of joy appeared in our mailbox on Thursday. Some months ago, we had learned that a new Recipes of Youngstown was in the works. Having been thoroughly delighted by the first volume, we didn’t hesitate for a moment to send in our pre-order. But we did find ourselves wondering whether after 500 recipes covering Youngstown staples from pierogies to pizzelles and chip-chopped ham to halushki, what was left?

Not to worry, the contributors to this cookbook dug up from attics and cookbooks from grandparents a delightful and diverse plethora of new recipes. First the diversity. The last cookbook had a number of those Italian and Eastern European recipes as well as things like Idora fries that we all grew up with. This cookbook reflects a wider diversity of Turkish, Greek, Danish, German, Portuguese and Mexican recipes and more!

Then there is the delightful part. I have always loved good Youngstown wedding soup and there are a couple of recipes, including one by the guiding force behind this enterprise, Bobbi Ennett Allen, with detailed instructions. I think even I could make a decent wedding soup with these! Patty’s Gazpacho looks to die for! I can almost taste “Uncle Tony’s Slow-Roasted Chipotle Pork Roast or Short Ribs”.

Of course one of the reasons for a second cookbook is that there were many good recipes for making those dishes we love, from kolachis to clothespin cookies and lasagna to linguini. And one cool feature of this cookbook was that it preserved some of the Facebook comments that offered tips and variations on these recipes. This cookbook was truly a community effort.

The cookbook is organized similarly to the previous edition with the following sections: In the Beginning (appetizers), Hot and Hearty (soups and stews), Sidelines (salads, sides, and veggies), Raised Right! (breads, rolls, and pizza), Gather ‘Round the Table (meats, casseroles, pasta, sauces, breakfast, and miscellaneous), Lunchbox (sandwiches), Something Old, Something New (cookies, candies and snacks), Youngstown Can! and Does! (canning and preserves), Youngstown Spirits Thrive! (Hooch), and a Sweet Ending (pastries, sweet breads, desserts, fillings and frostings). Is your mouth watering yet?

One of the new additions to this cookbook were the illustrations of David Schwartz and the characters of Aunt Bessie and Uncle Guido. “Aunt Bessie was the one who showed up to care for the family when mom was under the weather….” Uncle Guido…”was the guy who let you have a sip of his beer; the guy who dumped your veggies into the trash along with his…”[from overleaf between pages 118-119]. Schwartz is a 1972 Rayen grad who went on to a great career in animation with Darkwing Duck, the Simpsons, Rugrats, The Flintstones among his credits.

Similar to the last cookbook, the overleafs of the section dividers have fun features from “You Know You’re from Youngstown If” to tributes from principle contributors to their own “Aunt Bessie” to “A Message from Grandma” with all sorts of grandmotherly cooking advice like, “to keep potatoes from budding in the bag, put an apple in with them!”

The proceeds from this cookbook will support another great Youngstown institution, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society and its “Recipes of Youngstown” kitchen in the Tyler History Center in downtown Youngstown. The great ethnic food traditions of Youngstown and the archive of recipes in this cookbook (and its predecessor) are a significant aspect of Youngstown history and culture. The partnership between the contributors (who came together first on Facebook) and the Historical Society are a wonderful opportunity to preserve this important piece of Youngstown history. As we’ve talked about so many times on this blog, no place does food like Youngstown and through these efforts, Youngstown will continue to be a place to get great food.

Have you bought yours yet? If you want to order one, you can get one at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society website.

And if you are in Youngstown today (May 2) make your way to downtown Youngstown for Recipes of Youngstown: A Taste…and a Memory at the Tyler History Center on Federal Street from Noon to 4 pm. There will be a tasting event with over 30 dishes from Recipes of Youngstown with raffles with some incredible prizes including a Kitchenaid mixer and an HDTV. All proceeds go to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

Wish I could be there–but I have the cookbook! Happy eating, all!

This and other Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown posts can be found by clicking “On Youngstown” on the menu bar on any page of the blog.

The Month in Reviews: April 2015

April’s book reviews covered both a significant span of time and geography as well as genre. I reviewed an academic debate on free will from the sixteenth century and a conversation about Christology published last year. There was a decided international flavor to these books, whether it concerned a historical novel of the British campaign in Flanders during World War II, a discussion of immigration, narratives of nonviolent action around the world in the last fifty years, or the last fifty years of African history. I reviewed genres as diverse as Walter Wangerin’s fantasy taking place in a barnyard of animals to Max Planck’s scientific autobiography and essays. I explored both the formation of the inner virtues of faith, hope, and love, and the interesting idea that the complexity and beauty of the world is a profound apologetic for the Christian faith.

As always, the links on this page are to my full reviews. Many of the reviews have links to the book publisher. So, without further ado, here’s the list:

True Paradox8th Champion1. True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of our Complex World by David Skeel. David Skeel argues that far from being a problem for Christians, the complexity of the world is in fact something best explained by the Christian faith.

2. The Eighth Champion of Christendom by Edith Pargeter. A historical novel set at the beginning of World War Two exploring the growing realization of the horror of war that “heroic warriors” face. The plot centers around Jim Bennison, an English soldier and Miriam Lozelle, a Jewish refuge farm holder in Boissy whose husband is away at war.

Jesus without BordersEducating for Shalom3. Educating for Shalom by Nicholas Wolterstorff. This collection of essays and talks written or given over a 30 year period traces Nicholas Wolterstorff’s journey of thinking about Christian higher education, the integration of faith and learning, and his growing concern that education result in the pursuit of justice and shalom.

4. Jesus without Borders ed. by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, K.K. Yeo. Eight theologians from different parts of the world came together for a theological dialogue on Christology, engaging the Chalcedonian definition of Christology and reflecting on the unique perspective they bring on Christology from their part of the world.

ImmigrationPlanck5. Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers by Dale Hanson Bourke. Third in “The Skeptics Guide Series” and like others in the series it provides a concise overview of basic facts about immigration and discusses the challenges of immigration policy in the United States.

6. Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers by Max Planck. This is a re-issue in e-book form of Planck’s Scientific Autobiography and other papers on some of the “big” issues of science including causality, the limits of science and the relationship of science and religion.

Luther Erasmusnonviolent action7. Nonviolent Action by Ron Sider. Ron Sider argues from a number of instances over the past seventy-five years that nonviolent action can work and bring about political change.

8. Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

Christ Shaped CharacterDun Cow9. Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero. Cepero, through personal narrative and formational teaching and practices, traces a path of growing to be more who we truly are as reflections of Christ through the embrace of love, faith and hope.

10. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. This modern animal fable portrays a conflict between the beasts of the Earth and Wyrm of the underworld and his evil surrogates, and the heroism of a rooster, a dog, and the other beasts.

Fate of Africa11. The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith. Meredith, a foreign correspondent who has made a lifelong study of Africa, chronicles the last 50 years of African history from the hopes of independence from colonial rule and promising beginnings through the heartbreaking instances of corruption, economic pillaging, and various slaughters and genocides including that of AIDS.

Best of the Month: This is a tough pick this month, but on the basis of the “I will read it again” test, I have to go with The Book of the Dun Cow. This apparently simple fable has layers of meaning and depths of insight into the struggle of good and evil, and the qualities of character and grace needed to meet that struggle.

Best quote of the Month: I would choose this quote from Max Planck’s essay on science and religion. While I did not agree with all he wrote, I think he gets the balance right here:

“Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!’ “

I so appreciate all of you who read and comment on my reviews! I appreciated the comment I received today on Facebook from one reader: “I like your habit of reading books with view of reviewing for the benefit of community @large (I am a beneficiary of it).. I am trying to make it a discipline .. Thanx 4 da work.. Keep doing Bob…”

One of the delights of blogging and the internet is to find oneself part of a global community. I really do hope these reviews are a benefit, whether in finding your next “good read” or in becoming familiar with writers and writing of whose work it is helpful to know more.

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

How Many Books Do You Review?


My “to be reviewed” pile.

How many books do you review?

That’s a fairly easy question for me to answer. For the last couple of years I’ve reviewed about 120 books a year or about ten a month, or two to three a week. This month, I’ve reviewed eleven. I review books I’ve read and completed, and I review just about anything I read, unless I’ve reviewed it before.

I generally read for about 90 minutes to two hours in the early mornings and an hour or so most evenings and then catch as catch can. I usually have something in my bag if I have a break between meetings. Sometimes, airports and planes have proven a great place to read. (Up until now I’ve resisted getting a smartphone, and I think this allows me more reading time).

That means I read fairly quickly and one of the things I’m wrestling with honestly as a reviewer is the balance between reading quickly and reflectively. Perhaps the best answer I’ve found so far is that the reflection part comes when I’m not reading, and also when I actually write reviews.

I was curious about how I stack up to other reviewers and found that I’m about in the middle. At one extreme is Nenia Campbell, a Goodreads reviewer. In a 2014 Washington Post article, it was reported that she had reviewed 1557 books on Goodreads in the last 12 months and was their number one reviewer. That’s 30 books a week! And she reads everything from bodice-rippers to Jane Austin to works of philosophy. My 2-3 books a week is positively pedestrian! But then to put it all in perspective, a Pew Research Study shows the average American adult reads 5 books a year.

I found a more realistic spread in a Baseball Book Reviewers Roundtable where reviewers reviewed between 10 and 175 books a year, with most between 30 and 60. In a Times Literary Supplement article, I learned that George Orwell reviewed about 700 books, plays, and films over two decades, about 35 per year. In 1940, he reviewed 135 in 67 review articles. He also wrote an essay on book reviewing, where he speaks of the regular reviewer as anyone writing over 100 reviews a year (I guess I qualify). He gives an unflattering picture of the reviewer’s work:

“Every writer, in any case, is rather that kind of person, but the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash — though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment — but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.”

One of the difference between Orwell’s time and our own is the rise of those who aren’t paid for their reviews, including most of those on blogs or Goodreads. Editors can assign books to read that the reviewer has not choice but to write on. For bloggers, there is more choice but the temptation of the review copy can lead us to read things we otherwise wouldn’t touch. Publishers who send them like prompt reviews as well. There is a temptation to be driven by this so that they will keep sending you books. I’ve had to start saying “no” and learning to be really selective and only request what I really want to read, and only when I’ve finished what i already agreed to review. As it is, I have a stack of eight TBRev (To Be Reviewed) to distinguish from To Be Read.

What it seems to come down to for me is keeping my freedom to read what I love and enjoy what I’m reading. it seems that is the freedom we have when we aren’t making our living by this work but simply sharing and engaging with others about what we think is worthy of reading. And the right number of reviews is simply what one can do without compromising that love and joy and worth and becoming Orwell’s jaded reviewer.

Review: The Fate of Africa

Fate of AfricaThe Fate of Africaby Martin Meredith, New York: PublicAffairs, 2006.

Summary: Meredith, a foreign correspondent who has made a lifelong study of Africa, chronicles the last 50 years of African history from the hopes of independence from colonial rule and promising beginnings through the heartbreaking instances of corruption, economic pillaging, and various slaughters and genocides including that of AIDS.

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi–“Out of Africa always something new.” Pliny the Elder

This epigraph at the beginning of this work is indeed apt. As a young man in the sixties, I learned of the independence from colonial rule achieved by various African states. In the seventies, I read of the brutal regime of Idi Amin. In the 80s, we listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland and its songs speaking of the beauties of Africa and the longings for freedom from apartheid. Our hearts were stirred by the transition from apartheid to black rule under Nelson Mandela in the 1990s. And then there were the heartbreaks of genocide in Rwanda and South Sudan, the brutal and corrupt regime of Robert Mugabe, and the devastation of HIV/AIDS throughout Africa.

While Africa emerges again and again in our news and collective consciousness, I am like many others in understanding relatively little about this huge continent and so I picked up this history to begin to redress that lack. What I found filled out my understanding while chronicling a largely heart-breaking history that left me with many questions.

Meredith begins by summarizing the colonial history and its arbitrary dividing up of Africa into colonial entities, often throwing together tribal groups significantly at odds with each other. Ethiopia alone succeeded in avoiding colonial rule. Western commercial enterprises harvested the wealth of Africa while, in sub-Saharan Africa Christian missions promoted education, health care, as well as the faith.

He then chronicles the beginnings of independence first with Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah in 1957, and the high hopes he promoted of Pan-Africanism and African leaders leading independent nations. He then follows independence movements from country to country–Egypt, French-speaking Africa, other English colonies. With variations, the account is one of national institutions set up on Western models that gradually are dominated by single party rule, a strong man, with significant resources channeled into the pockets of corrupt politicians while depleting national economies and increasing international debt.

The book seems to from bad to worse until the final chapters on South Africa. We see the descent into the maelstrom of Somalia and Rwanda and the aftermath of bloody tribal war that led to the fall of Mobutu in Zaire. We read of the rampant spread of AIDS and the often inadequate responses of governmental figures and health officials to this generation-killing epidemic.

Meredith concludes the book with the miracle of South Africa, the ascent of Nelson Mandela, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the succession of Thabo Mbeki, at once skilled in fostering economic transition and yet paranoid of western science in dealing with HIV/AIDS.

The book leaves me with many questions, even though its accessible narrative enlarged my historical understanding. One is how tribal rivalries and national identities can be reconciled, a question at the heart of so many of the tragic conflicts on this continent. Another is, what can be done to develop the rule of law and leadership with integrity? A third question is how can the rest of the world community constructively engage with Africa without promoting new forms of colonialism or dependencies that thwart the indigenous development throughout this continent? As a Christian, I also found myself wondering whether there is a greater role for the church throughout Africa in promoting reconciliation and ethical practice, along the line of Desmond Tutu’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Sadly, there was evidence in the book that the church often divided along lines of tribal rivalries rather than functioning as a reconciling force.

The final thing I found myself curious about is whether there are good indigenous works of African history, rather than those written by westerners, which seem to dominate the book lists in this area? While I found Meredith both helpful and well informed, I still felt I was reading the work of an outside observer and feel the need to complement that with the work of someone writing from within the African context.

Why Publishers Need Libraries



I was over at my neighborhood library yesterday. I had to do some planning for a conference talk and the library can be a good place to get away. And because there were books there, I spent some time browsing, particularly the new books section. I did not borrow any books on this trip, but I got some ideas. And a few of these might end up as book purchases. I also found a free publication with lots of book reviews called BookPage. Among other things, it had reviews of David McCullough’s new book on the Wright Brothers, and a review of H.W. Brands biography of Ronald Reagan–and a back page ad from Penguin Random House.

In short, that is why publishers need libraries, as a recent Publisher’s Weekly article observed. Fewer and fewer people are finding books at a bookstore. In the last five years, the numbers have dropped from just under a third to a mere 17 percent. Furthermore, the best-seller lists, another source of purchasing ideas are dominated by a relatively small number of authors. Think about how many times you see David Baldacci or Bill O’Reilly on one of these lists. It is hard for lesser known works to get much notice unless someone like Oprah or Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates talks about them. In light of all this, libraries may be among the best book show rooms around. While online retailers like Amazon have just about anything on their website, it doesn’t all fit on your computer screen and you may not find a new author unless you are already looking for that author or a book title.

One of the most interesting ideas in the article was that libraries don’t cannibalize book sales. For one thing, they buy books! In addition one third of the people who borrow a book in a given month also buy one. Libraries are also a great way to try out a new author you are not sure you like. Sixty percent of frequent library users buy a book by an author they first read at the library.

Staff picks

Staff picks from Worthington Libraries

Librarians know books and work hard to help their patrons know books. Most libraries these days publicize staff picks and staff book reviews as in the screen shot from the website for our local library. Good booksellers often do the same thing. And it occurs to me that sometimes a recommended book ends up wait-listed. That can turn into a book purchase if it is something the individual wants right away.

The article proposes that publishers work more closely with libraries, particularly in highlighting the work of new authors. Libraries could fall victim to the same forces that are pressing the publishers themselves. Free e-books and the growth in the number of titles are making it harder for libraries to bring in patrons and curate new authors. It is easy to just promote the best-sellers. Yet some of the most dedicated readers use libraries and are looking for new authors to read; and teamwork between libraries and publishers could be a win for both.

Reader question: have you purchased books because you learned about a book, or an author at your library?

Review: The Book of the Dun Cow

Dun CowThe Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. San Francisco, Harper Collins, 2003 (25th Anniversary Edition).

Summary: This modern animal fable portrays a conflict between the beasts of the Earth with Wyrm of the underworld and his evil surrogates, and the heroism of a rooster, a dog, and the other beasts.

“Marooooned”. This modern-day animal fable (first published in 1978) begins with this mournful and persisting cry from Mundo Cani Dog who, against the will of Lord of the Coop Chauntecleer, finds refuge with the hens of the coop and an array of other beasts from Ebenezer Rat to Lord Russell the Fox to John Wesley Weasel and the mysterious Dun Cow who appears at crucial turns in the fable. Chauntecleer brings order to this world, crowing the hours summoning the beasts to work and blessing them at night.

Gradually the character of this lordly rooster emerges as he takes on the Rat who is eating the hens’ eggs, and later as he rescues the children of Wee Widow Mouse and finds and rescues the Beautiful Pertolote, a mysterious refugee hen of sorts. Love blooms between these two, and marriage and chicks, even though she refuses to speak of the terror from which she has fled.

What the beasts of the earth do not realize is that they are also the Lord’s keepers, who keep the evil Wyrm from escaping the underworld to reek havoc on the cosmos. But Wyrm finds a vehicle for its evil intent in an old impotent rooster of another brood, Senex, who against nature lays an egg which hatches into the wicked Cockatrice who kills his father and breeds hordes of basilisks, venomous serpents who devastate the land.

In the spring, the horror comes south to the land of Chantecleer, who mobilizes the beasts (including the ants) to meet the horde of basilisks, who crows them to battle, and comes face to face with the Cockatrice and then the deeper evil of Wyrm. The climax of the story involves Chauntecleer, the mysterious Dun Cow, and the surprising Mundo Cani Dog.

The tale explores the question of how a seemingly ordinary figure rises to extraordinary heroism answering a call that seems to come from both within and above.We also see a tale of the conflict of good and evil, in which the beasts, who are in fact the keepers of the earth, must forsake the ordinary loves of daily life for extraordinary peril to preserve the order of the universe. It is a tale that has been told in various forms from early English Beowulf to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The genius of Wangerin is to create a kind of “animal farm” without humans where the animals are characterized by foibles, nobility and self-sacrifice, unlike Orwell’s brutal world.

Despite the fact that this book was a National Book Award winner, I passed it up for many years until one of the students I work with recommended it (thanks Katherine!). This is one of those books I wish I had read sooner, and might well read again because of the depths in this seemingly simple story that need more than one reading to explore. Like the stories of C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, children and youth may enjoy this story as well as adults. Only time will tell but this is one of those books that could become a timeless classic. The only question in our highly urbanized, technological society, is whether children (or adults) will understand a story with roosters, dogs, weasels, and a mysterious dun cow. One can only hope…

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Gardening

Backyard Garden (c)Robert C Trube

Backyard Garden (c)Robert C Trube

With warmer days approaching and spring cleanup done, we’re starting to think about gardening. Gardening was big in our neighborhood on the west side of Youngstown. As a kid, we’d always get yelled at when we cut through a neighbor’s garden or hit a baseball into our back neighbor’s yard.

Cool season crops would already be in–peas, lettuce, spinach, beets, and onions among them. In fact garlic would have been planted by many the previous fall–we had an old neighbor who used to say garlic was like a pregnant lady–he’d always plant it nine months ahead.

Warm weather crops were usually not planted until around Memorial Day when we were growing up. I wonder with warmer temperatures if people are planting earlier these days. You could try to push the season a few weeks and cover things if frost threatened, but the tomatoes and peppers, beans, cucumbers and zucchini really didn’t take off until it got hot anyhow. Some neighbors planted lots of tomatoes, particularly the Roma tomatoes, because they wanted to can them for sauce. There would be bell-peppers for stuffing and hot peppers for spicing things up and banana peppers to cut up into salads.

I’ve always loved the rich, humus-y smell of the soil when you first turned it over in the spring. You knew it was healthy if you saw a lot of worms. There was the excitement of seeing lettuce and other plants come up from seed, the stalks of the onion sets coming up. There was a wonder when bare rows marked out in the garden would suddenly have plants growing up. Of course then you had to put up chicken wire to keep the rabbits from eating it all up.

Later, you would set out tomato plants with stakes or cages and watch them take off when it got warm. Then you spotted the first yellow flowers that signaled that there would soon be little tomatoes. Similarly with your peppers, beans and zucchini. By July, you reached that point where everything was lush and growing like crazy and you started getting food.

It seems like, other than the spring crops, zucchini was always first and pretty soon, everyone was either baking zucchini bread or trying to get rid of excess zucchini. You had to do something with zucchini–fry it or bake it up in bread. You also had to keep up with picking it unless you wanted zucchini the size of baseball bats, which usually wasn’t as good for eating.

One of our favorite summer lunches was to toast some bread, slice up a tomato, put a little pepper on it, maybe a slice of cheese, maybe a slice of onion, and enjoy. Simple, fresh and tasty.

I suspect the penchant Youngstowners have for gardening might have come out of the depression and the Victory gardens of World War II. Back in the day, people might have even just saved seed from the year before or started plants from seed under lights in the basement. It was an inexpensive way to supplement the groceries during those lean years when you were trying to make ends meet. What is ironic is that it was probably far healthier than our store-bought food today. The rise of farmers markets and organic food sections or whole stores suggests to me we are trying to get back to that.

But life was simpler then. You worked, and then you came home and planted a garden and tended it. Older neighbors or family passed garden lore down to younger ones. And you had the joy of eating food you’d grown, the rich freshness of something just picked. Or months later, the rich sauces and pickled cucumbers and peppers that made so many dishes just that much better!

What are your garden memories?

This and other Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown can be found by clicking “On Youngstown” on the menu bar on any page of the blog.

Fallen Golden Arches: Lessons for Booksellers

Harlem Micky Dz” by Sam SmithOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

McDonald’s is facing hard times. They’ve closed 350 stores and are closing 350 more. In articles I’ve read, it appears that they are trying to stanch declining sales by experimenting with serving breakfast all day long and adding premium burgers (even after they pulled their pricy Angus burgers) and maybe throwing in kale on the menu? Kale at McDonald’s? Seriously?

Certainly some of the issues are that McDonald’s menu has not been known, with some exceptions, for its’ healthy food options. Yet other competitors with similar menus are not having the same problem–I suspect that the success of Five Guys is part of what is driving the interest in premium burgers.

I am not an insider either in the restaurant industry or in bookselling. I am simply a customer–one of those people that McDonald’s as well as booksellers depend on to survive. And here are some things I’ve observed that I think McDonald’s has to address that are far more fundamental than menu:

1. Consistency. At one time, you could go to any McDonald’s in the country and get a consistent product–one that tasted like your McDonald’s up the street. That is no longer the case–sometimes we’ve had burgers that taste like cardboard, and other times, what we remembered. And it makes you wonder about other aspects of the back operation.

2. Service. A while back we were in line at one restaurant waiting to order…and waiting, while a manager, who was standing between us and the counter, belly-ached to his line people about how he didn’t like his job and couldn’t wait to go home. By contrast, I was in a Panera recently where I overheard a manager interviewing a new hire who effused enthusiasm for his work, his team, and the quality of product and service they sought to bring to the customer. Can you guess where I prefer to eat these days?

3. Atmosphere. A number of McDonalds remodeled with this futuristic Jetsons look. Instead of making it a comfortable place to enjoy a meal, it sent my wife and me the message that “we’d like you to eat your food and scram as quickly as possible.”

The truth is that I look for the same kinds of things in the bookstores I enjoy visiting. One of my favorite places has a consistently good selection of the kinds of books I enjoy reading (and seems to provide this for a broad range of tastes). I’ve always enjoyed stores where the people working there know and love books. Recently, I learned about BookPeople, one of the best indie stores in the country, based in Austin, TX. It’s just fun to follow their blog and see their enthusiasm for books and bookselling. Same goes for my good friend, Byron Borger, at Hearts and Minds Books. The other thing the best stores create is an atmosphere. It doesn’t have to be the same–some are musty and dusty places with books everywhere. Others are well-organized. Others provide comfy chairs to browse, perhaps with a beverage in hand. What all of them say is “we’re glad you came by.”

All this seems like a no-brainer, whether it comes to selling burgers or books. But what do I know? I’m just a customer.

Review: Christ-Shaped Character

Christ Shaped CharacterChrist-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Cepero, through personal narrative and formational teaching and practices, traces a path of growing to be more who we truly are as reflections of Christ through the embrace of love, faith and hope.

As a teenage follower of Jesus, I often agonized as I considered the high ideals of the Christian faith and the reality of my often-misbegotten attempts to follow Christ. I despaired with how far I fell short, and it was only gradually that I began to understand that, nevertheless, Christ had chosen me to be his and that the formation of my character was something to which he was deeply committed and would work out through the journey of a lifetime.

In this book, Helen Cepero believes that the three great virtues of love, faith, and hope of which Paul speaks provide that path along which we might walk by which Christ forms us both in who we truly are and as reflections of his own character. The table of contents for this book might be helpful for prospective readers to see how Cepero unfolds this:

Part I: Choosing Love
1. Choosing Life—Living as God’s Beloved
2. Compassionate Hospitality—Choosing the Other
3. Forgiving as We Are Forgiven—Loving the Unlovable
Part II: Choosing Faith
4. Following Jesus—Learning the Language of Desire
5. Embracing Vulnerability—Finding Strength in Weakness
6. Living with Integrity—Sustaining a Life of Commitment
Part III: Choosing Hope
7. Paying Attention—Watching for God
8. Seeing Blessing—Living into Possibility
9. Trusting in Christ—Improvising a Life
Appendix 1: Journeying Together Along the Pathway of Love, Faith and Hope
Appendix 2: Bibliography

Each chapter begins with a personal story related to the chapter theme, followed by a “taking a closer look” section in which she invites the reader into a journalling exercise, a prayer practice that relates to the theme, a closing discussion of what it means to chose to embrace this aspect of love, faith, and hope and some prompts for further reflection around listening to our own stories, to the story of scripture, and to the continuing story of love, faith or hope. The book concludes with an appendix giving ideas for group discussion of the book and an extensive bibliography of further readings around love, faith, and hope.

Cepero’s personal stories were what engaged me the most and they reflected her own journey along the path she commends for us. They were not self-indulgent reflections but rather windows onto the choices into which she believes each of us are invited. For example, the chapter on embracing vulnerability describes her own desperate vulnerability when she belatedly brings her desperately ill, weeks-old child to an emergency room, facing her own failure as a mother by surrendering her son to those who might better care for him. She then leads us into seeing how the embrace of our vulnerability is the doorway into knowing the compassion of God for us in our weakness.

In a later chapter, she begins with the story of lying in a hospital bed after one of many surgeries to correct a hip dysplasia. She describes the visit of a pastor who sees her not as physically damaged but as intellectually curious. When others bring her stuffed toys, he brings her books and blesses an intellectual and spiritual curiosity that led into Cepero’s life calling. She uses this to speak of the power of blessing another and embracing that blessing of hope in one’s life.

I am thankful for the unnamed pastor in this story. I had the privilege of working alongside Helen Cepero at a conference for graduate students and faculty in 2002. Her insight and formational pastoral care toward participants in the track we were working in was a gift to us all, a blessing. I came to know her as someone authentically living into the journey she describes and maps for us in the pages of this book. If you’ve struggled, like me, with the disparity between your life and your sense of the Christ-shaped life, I would warmly commend this book.

Bob on Books is Responsive!

If you have visited this site regularly you will notice a new look! I am now using a WordPress theme that is “responsive”. This means that it “responds” to the type of device you are using rather than just working well on a computer screen. I’ve been learning that many of you view posts on your smart phone, or maybe a tablet and that it didn’t render as well on these media. This new theme does. I have also learned that Google is modifying its search algorithms to favor “responsive” pages

I’ve made a few other changes as well. Now, all my post categories appear in the menu bar at the top. Clicking on an item, say “The Month in Reviews”, will take you to all the posts written under this category. You will notice that the font size is larger and easier to read. On all pages, the follow, blogs I follow, copyright, Goodreads and other “widgets” are on the right, a cleaner look. The RSS feed, which not many use, is in the footer area. I will be playing with this over the next days as I work with it, but I hope you like it. Let me know what you think!