All posts by Ryan Middlebrook

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Continuing in a nonfiction frame of mind, my latest read is a remarkable true story of a young Australian’s journey across the Outback alone save for her four camels. Ms. Davidson’s story took place over thirty year ago and this book has been in print since then. Somehow, even though I have read plenty of solo travel stories, I missed out on this one until I saw the trailer for the new movie of the same name. 

The story is not a story of adventure but one of becoming. Initially Robyn rails against the racism and misogyny of 1970’s Australia, but she continually reveals her own hypocrisy in her jaded treatment of others. She pushes everyone away and is unlikeable. Yet what draws the reader forward is her direct honesty and perspective of her situations. Few memoirs I have read have been able to capture such a level of understanding – even in hindsight. She sees her faults and is able to progress past. Not to never repeat them, but with a constant struggle to best her faults. An admirable pursuit and one that says, “Anyone can overcome with effort.” 

Davidson spends years learning the camel trade even though she had no prior experience. She draws together resources and equipment while being flat broke. She allows herself to be followed by National Geographic even though she is a commited loner. These are barriers to be conquered head on. While there is no real peril in the book, even during her walk through the desert, the consistent effort she exerts is a force that makes nature submit to her will. She may say that she submitted to nature’s will. 

The animals are worth a mention. They are the underlying heart of the story. Recalcitrant, imposing, yet reliable and faithful, the four camels are the real muscle and sinew that make the walk possible. They are fascinating – whether because they’re portrayed as human or because of their idiosyncrasies. They make an American glad to have horses yet envious of their imperviousness to wearing down. Diggity, Robyn’s dog, is presented as the heart of the tale, but this rings a little untrue. She may be Robyn’s heart, but she plays a key foil of devotion to Robyn’s exclusion. 

It seems almost not right to reveal much about the aboriginal characters in the story except to say that they possess a humanity that one aches for. 

The film, based on the National Geographic pictures that accompanied the initial article, is a visual delight. Unlike many films, it did not drum up adventures to make it more appealing. It left the story unvarnished. Even if it didn’t capture the essence of Ms. Davidson’s writing, it is beautiful. 

Check out the trailer here: Tracks (trailer)

7.5 out of 10 stars

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson

For Christmas 2013, I received an excellent gift from my brother and sister-in-law – a homemade book club. The club consisted of receiving an audiobook of their choosing about once every other month. This was a great present, not only because I read a lot, but because the books that they sent were not ones that I would typically pick for myself. This helped break me out of a groove (really a rut…or trench…or anyway) of a LOT of Sci-fi. Their selections were all enjoyable and yet for the most part – brief. However, their last selection has made up for the lack of listening hours handsomely.

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson apparently was a textbook that summaries were read out of in one of my brother-in-law’s classes in college. Yes, a textbook. But thankfully, it does not read as a standard dry methodical recitation of times and places. In his 42 hours (much longer than all previous 5 selections together), Mr. Johnson opens up the American country with the lively vantage of a Brit who is enamored with our, at least historically, unparalleled nation. It is a completely engrossing survey. Essentially beginning with the Puritans and working non-stop to the Clinton years, the political, economic, and interpersonal stories of individuals are opened up with a keen insight. Mr. Johnson’s enthusiasm is contagious, and the reader can’t wait to see what happens next.

His heights are his explorations of the Presidents which he basically uses as windows to the soul of America. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln come to life as he connects the cultural dots to the decisions that these men made. His seemingly inexhaustible optimism is set off brilliantly by the surprising vitriol he has for FDR, Kennedy, and Johnson – the men he views as ruining American ideals. In each case, the reader wants to know more about the subjects not less. While maybe not right away, I want to dig deeper into Lincoln, Coolidge, John Phillip Sousa, Eisenhower.

One caveat: there is plenty of editorializing in this book. This makes for some of its strongest sections and its weakest. The author fesses up to his opinions early in the book so the reader isn’t surprised, but sometimes they can be off-putting. It’s clear Mr. Johnson is something like a free market individualist with a social heart. Sometimes he could easily offend conservatives and other times stomp on liberal’s toes – more often the latter. His last hundred pages of commentary after the strict chronology is done were my least enjoyable. However one of its main points, which I can agree with, is that modern Americans are losing (maybe giving up to political correctness) their rights to assert their opinions. He does and with gusto. I can at least applaud his conviction.

Granted my interests usually lie in the quadrivium, but the amount of Americana trivia I’ve been spouting recently reveals that I like the stuff. I probably would have never chosen a thick survey of American history for myself, but I’m glad I read it. A wonderful gift, and one I highly recommend.

9 stars out of 10

A Passion for God: the Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer by Lyle Dorsett

I picked up this book on Tozer thinking that it would be great to have a good biography on such a influential Christian figure of the 20th century. However, what I got was really just a survey on a man whose inner life was hard to probe into. I met Lyle Dorsett at Wheaton and even went to the church where he preached for a while, and while a look into Tozer’s life is laudable, this book just scratched the surface of the inner man.

The issue is plain that Tozer was not outgoing. He dedicated almost all his personal time to seeking out God and knowing Jesus better. The rest of his time was devoted to preaching and teaching others about the Lord he knew so well. This must be the trouble with trying to write about him – he was singularly focussed for the 45 years after his conversion. The book tries to illustrate how this caused issues with his wife and children. But instead of leading to a fuller picture of the man, it seems like the author is just trying to come up with something to say besides “he prayed – a LOT.” Everyone of his friends and family relate that it was hard to be close to him, but his personal sacrifice was worth it when compared against his ministry as a prophetic voice. God had given Tozer a mission to warn the church against worldliness and to call her back to knowledge of Him. There is no doubt that he faithfully fulfilled his calling until his dying day.

The parts of the biography that I enjoyed the most were the outlining of the development of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the denomination Tozer was affiliated with. The stories about A. B. Simpson and the fourfold doctrine of Christ (Christ as Savior, Christ as Sanctifier, Christ as Healer, and Christ as Coming King) were enlightening. Also to see how denominational lines were being drawn in the midwest in the early 1900’s gave the book the depth it couldn’t find in its main subject.

My guess is that while the subject is one worthy of all emulation, there are probably other books that handle his life better. But why read those when Tozer himself left such a formidable body of work? Pick up The Pursuit of God or The Knowledge of the Holy and let A. W. Tozer tell you in his own words where a Christian’s life should lead. It will be worth it.

4 stars out of 10.

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

So, the first book I’ve read (listened) to this year was Reamde, Stephenson’s latest novel. I’ve actually owned this book in hard copy form since it was released a couple of years ago, but let’s face it, a 1000+ page tome can be intimidating. It is Neal Stephenson; if he put out a 700 page book, people would think he’s gotten into short stories. But, no way around it, his books are time investments. Specifically 38 hours and 34 minutes as read by Malcolm Hillgartner. I would like to say this book was like listening to a season of “24” – except obviously even longer.

The novel is a straightforward action plot with kidnappings, Russian gangsters, terrorists, and online role playing games. The story starts with a lot of development of the online game T’Rain and the business of goldfarming (developing in-game characters or attributes to sell for real world money). For as much time as was spent elucidating the reader on how this works, it does not come into the outworking of the plot as critically as one would think. This is the main problem of the book on a whole. As is typical, Stephenson spends a lot of time in description, but there are many fleshed out topics and characters that are just dropped when the plot passes them by. The pace is quick and the tension stays so high that you will wonder if you need to start anti-anxiety medication; but still, when big characters just disappear, you notice.

I was convinced to get going on this book after finishing his previous work Anathem – which was probably the best book I read in 2014. While Reamde may not be his best, his “ok” is much better than many authors’ “good.” The plot has no major surprises save for some fascinating developments. But even when you know what’s going to happen, you’re compelled to keep turning pages. It carries you to some exotic locales that you may want to visit after reading like British Columbia or Xiamen. It’s completely enjoyable, and if you’re a fan of action, intrigue, spies, or hackers, you will love this book. The time put in is like a good long movie…or a good long season of “24.”

7.5 stars out of 10.