Scheir M’s Reading List


the invention of air

Back in the latter part of the 18th century, amateur scientist, professional minister, and middle class Englishman Joseph Priestley made a discovery that should have given him his own rest stop on the road map of scientific progress. In his homegrown, grassroots-financed lab, Priestley discovered that plants produce oxygen.

This one was a biggie, I think. So I’m wondering, why haven’t we heard of this guy Priestley? Sadly, we live in an era where former 90210 heartthrob Jason Priestley garners greater name recognition, even considering his slide from the A-list (if 90210 was even on the A-list) in recent years.

Oh, I should add that Priestley was a friend (or at least a close acquaintance) of American founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. And he was one of the founders of the Unitarian church. And he invented carbonated water.

Unholy moley, that guy got around, didn’t he? I’m about to turn 40, and I can’t remember the last time I discovered a significant natural process, developed a personal relationship with a founder of modern democracy, inspired a heretical branch of Christianity, or got in on the ground floor of a new soft drink craze.

What I do have in common with Priestley is something that Steven Johnson (author of The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, a Priestley biography) describes as essential to innovation in the 18th century. I speak of course, of leisure time. If Priestley was a working man, engulfed daily in the smoke and smog of the Industrial Revolution, rather than a minister available to gather with the members of the Honest Whigs and the Lunar Society to discuss political, religious, and scientific issues of the day, he, as we, might have died not knowing one of the core principles of second grade science. Yup, I’ve got the kind of leisure time necessary to read a bio of Mr. Priestley and to put together this very informative blog post. And you, dear reader, have the leisure time necessary to read it (though some of you probably ought to get back to work!).



My summer reading blitz has begun, and nearly first on the list was Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time. It’s been sitting on my shelf for about 18 months, despite good reviews from the members of my book club. I gave it to my sister-in-law for her birthday, and now that she’s read it, I finally bumped it to the top of my list!

What an amazing story! Back in the 90’s Greg Mortenson, a part-time mountain climber from the US, was rescued by Pakistani villagers after a failed attempt to summit K2. His hasty, gut response to their help and kindness is to promise the village a school building—a near impossibility considering his part-time nurse’s salary, precarious personal finances, and seat-of-the-pants approach to life. Once back in the US, Mortenson makes an unlikely connection with a wealthy benefactor who finances the first school project. Mortenson returns to Pakistan, to enthusiastic communities who are anxious for his help and grateful for his friendship and partnership. He builds that first school, continues working, and, to date, he and his Central Asia Institute have built 78 schools for children (including girls!) in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While the book shows that it does take a special kind of impulsive/borderline irresponsible person to (almost) climb a mountain, start a school with no money, and marry one’s soulmate after knowing her for 6 days (all of which Mortenson did), it also shows, remarkably, that (with the help of God, I think) things can work out to great results! Mortenson’s not a religious person, but his life bears testimony to the “godly wisdom is foolishness to the world” perspective. How anyone with his meager resources could be successful in this enormous endeavor makes no sense…and yet his work continues, in abundance.



“How are you holding up, Chaplain?” McMaster asked me on the helicopter. He said he knew this must be hard on me and that he appreciated my work. I wasn’t about to tell him I didn’t want to leave my office some days and that I was so exhausted, I often couldn’t think straight.

I told him I was doing fine.

–from Roger Benimoff’s memoir, Faith Under Fire

My greatest pleasure in reading is walking vicariously in the shoes, sandals, spurs, skis, sneakers, and even stilettos of people whose lives are nothing at all like my own. In Faith Under Fire: An Army Chaplain’s Memoir, I’ve now walked in the combat boots of Army captain Roger Benimoff, a two-tour Iraq war veteran and PTSD survivor.

It’s hard to imagine in my suburban existence, where my children’s messy rooms are often my greatest life obstacle, that there is a place in this world where men and women who could be my neighbors are risking all in order to make a simple drive from point a to point b. Never mind the politics of liberation—Americans are in Iraq to fulfill a duty mandated by their superiors, and in doing so, a startling number of them end up sacrificing life, limb, personal security, relational well-being, and whatever sense of peace they had before.

In a straightforward and frank style that leaves little to the imagination, Benimoff (with writer Eve Conant) diaries daily life in Iraq, complete with memorial services, one-on-one counseling duties, post-loss debriefing, and even the grim ramp ceremonies that precede transport of the dead back to the States. As his days in Iraq come to a close, Benimoff longs desperately for home.

When he gets there, though, hypervigilance, unsettledness, and profoundly disconnected feelings (all characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder) emerge, threatening to derail his career and nearly destroying his marriage. He ultimately goes for inpatient treatment of PTSD and finds himself the recipient of the same care and counsel he once delivered.

Benimoff’s portrayal of his journey to Iraq and back was certainly eye-opening. More surprising, though, was how real and genuine it was. From Christian literature (and some real-life experiences), I expect Christian men, and especially military men, to be living in the “perfect wife, perfect life, death is not a setback” mentality. I know that for many people that’s just a façade, but, right or wrong, it’s too prevalent for me to ignore. That’s why it was refreshing to read about Benimoff’s grief, doubts, anxieties, coping failures, relational blocks, and spiritual void.

I’m not glad that he—or anyone—has to go through the dark times. It’s just nice to be reminded that one can be a believer and still feel the pains of this not-so-perfect world.


I’m in the midst of my Spring Break Read-a-thon. If you care to, check out my blog entries for the books I’ve read:

What Was I Thinking: 52 Bad Boyfriend Stories
The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family: A Leadership Fable…about restoring sanity to the most important organization in your life
Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story

I’d recommend them all…really!


Finished The Shack a couple of days ago, and it took me this long to figure out exactly how I want to say this. At first, I thought, how can I dis a book whose cover boasts, “#1 New York Times Bestseller” and “Over 2,000,000 copies in print.” I wondered, how is it that a book that was rejected by every publishing house to which it was submitted has rocketed to phenomenon status? I thought, boy, the “Christian” readership does not have very discerning taste. Spoiler warning, but the “Little Ladykiller?” –the ladybug stickpin, with an increasing number of dots?!?! Give me a break.

Whatever The Shack may be, I found it distractingly contrived, amateurish in tone (as is my own first attempt at a novel), and much, much too tidy. It falls into the trap of so many Christian novels and books, featuring an amazing, long-suffering, well-adjusted saint of a wife who’s just thrilled to give her husband all the time it takes to make the breakthroughs that only he can make, no matter what the impact on the family (luckily for this family, even a world-class tragedy had no significant torpedoing impact–more angst than anything else).

The book’s also got instant friends, sorrow without distance (from God, but not between people), and people making trite jokes at the wrong times. It’s also got lame quotes, cliched chapter titles, and the assumption that all readers are familiar with the obscure, Christian (I guess) songwriters that the main character keeps referencing.

My biggest criticism of the novel is that it was all about telling, and too short on showing. It was listening to a person who talks forever and never takes a breath. There was nothing in it that was left up to my imagination. Everything was right there in front of me. That’s mistake #1 in story-telling. Shame on the author for that.

But I also found the treatment of the theological content wanting. I can appreciate good mystical thinking, but only when it has a strong, proven basis in Biblical truth. I’d have to go point by point, but as I found myself skimming over the blah, blah, blah, I also found myself wondering just where in the Bible the author was getting all this information…and whether in the midst of a lot of true statements, he was including a lot of his own personal ideas.

Not insidious, from a Spiritual perspective, but certainly an example of B-level novel writing. It’s one of those things for which the Christian community should not stand. Our expectations of quality should be higher than this.

It only took me 2 plus weeks, but I finally finished The Little Prince. What a fantastical, gentle, mystical, reflective story. I’m so glad that I finally got to it. I especially loved the idea of drawing a sheep by drawing a box with air holes, with a sheep inside. So sad, the idea of not having drawn a collar or leash for the sheep–what if he wanders off? Also really liked thinking about the businessman who said he owns the stars, and that they are his property by virtue of his having written down figures about them. How much do we think we own that is absolutely not ours? I am so curious about the author’s life now…seems that he was a most unique and gifted individual.

Seems that there’s a list circulating on Facebook with 100 literary works (or, rather, 99 with at least one piece of chick-lit); word is that the BBC compiled the list and has estimated that the average Joe (or ‘bloke,’ I guess) has only read 6 out of the 100. I won’t tell you my score, but I can tell you that the closest my research is coming to a BBC book list is actually one of nominations for the BBC’s Big Read back in 2003.

In any case, the list I saw on Facebook included a book that my son just picked up at a school function. It is Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince. I can’t wait to dig in to that skinny little thing!

Just finished Khaled Hosseini‘s A Thousand Splendid Suns. Oh, Afghanistan. Even the idea of putting myself in the shoes of an Afghan woman makes me shudder. Loveless marriages, a forty year human rights roller coaster, the threat of war, war itself, confinement to one’s house under the Taliban, confinement to one’s clothing even–who among us could imagine? It is so easy to look at other cultures and see only faces (especially when those faces are under the screen of the burqa), without plumbing the depth of the individual personalities, characters, and human experiences beneath them. This is why fiction is so valuable to me–it allows me to glimpse a life that I, by God’s grace, will never live.

Right now I’m reading My Father’s Paradise, by Ariel Sabar. It’s a multi-generational history of the author’s family, who came to America in the twentieth century by way of Israel and, before that, Kurdish Iraq. It paints a picture of Jewish life that I’ve never seen before–that of a rugged, hill-country culture, whose struggling refugees move into a newly nationalized Zionist melting pot, and serve, somewhat reluctantly, as the sole preserving force for their obscure and almost extinct language, Aramaic. Doesn’t sound at first like a page turner, but I’m having trouble putting it down. I would recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in middle eastern history, the state of Israel, the Aramaic language, or Jewish culture.


  1. Andie said,

    March 24, 2009 at 11:56 am

    The little prince is much better in French! Random, I know.

  2. scheirmad said,

    March 24, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    I believe it.

    On a related note, last year I read (in English) and watched (with English subtitles) “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” the autobiographical story of a French bon vivant who finds himself with locked-in syndrome (mentally all there, but physically completely paralyzed except one eye). I don’t speak or read French, but I believe having heard it in the telling of that story, that it has an inherent beauty and melancholy. Not sure if that’s what you meant by “better” but those are my random thoughts!

    At my advanced mental age I just want to learn how to pronounce “Saint Exupery.’ That, by itself, is beautiful!

  3. Emily said,

    April 12, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    I appreciate your review of The Shack. I, too, felt most of what you did as you read it — although, you articulated it far better than I could! I had great difficulty with the picture of the Father as a black woman, Jesus as a playful boy, and the Holy Spirit as an old Asian woman. It did not set well with my theology. I read it some time ago so I can’t comment on specifics; “too tidy and neat” are certainly my thoughts, also. Thanks, Scheirmad!

    • scheirmad said,

      April 13, 2009 at 7:44 am

      Hey Emily–thanks for chiming in…and thanks for loaning me the book!

      You know, I was uncomfortable with the stereotypical nature of the three persons portrayals. I was comfortable with the Spirit equals Zen equals Asian (of course!). And, considering that it’s 2009, I don’t want anyone giving me an Aunt Jemimah representation of anything. By the same token, a woman in my book club had an African American cook/nanny growing up, so for her the picture was very homey and comforting.

      My impression after talking with some people is that it’s one of those books that works for some people and not others. Too bad, it didn’t work for us.

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