Review: Martin Luther (Christian Biographies for Young Readers)

Posted December 15th, 2016 in Random by Emily Varner

I requested the title Martin Luther for review because I have a 10-year-old homeschooler with whom I planned to share and co-review the book. We both recommend it highly. Upon receiving it, I left the unopened book on the breakfast bar, and before I knew it, the text and images had drawn my daughter halfway through the book. She read the entire thing with interest in a couple sittings (though she probably would have read the whole thing at once if we hadn’t had other priorities for the day), and continued to tell me bits of Luther trivia she had learned from the book for the next few days. This 2016 biography is, apparently, one in a series on key Reformers published by Reformation Heritage Books, and we are eager (“extremely eager,” she says) to read some of the others.

Author Simonetta Carr covers the broader context of Luther’s world in explaining elements such as home life in Germany, schooling, Catholicism in the early 1500’s, and the early Reformation. She highlights important places in Luther’s life, such as the Erfurt monastery, the seminary in Wittenberg, the castle of Fredrick the Wise, and the abandoned monastery where Luther and Katherine von Bora raised their children and welcomed many guests. Photographs of most of these places appear in the book, as do older paintings, sketches, woodcuts, or statues of key players, such as Pope Leo X, Johann Tetzel, Phillip Melanchthon, Fredrick the Wise, Charles V, and even Luther’s daughter Magdalene.

Carr gives details of Luther’s life from childhood to monk to Reformation leader in measured and appropriate amounts. The story flows and makes sense but does not drag as she explains about Luther’s search for spiritual peace and freedom from guilt, his desire to discuss his 95 theses, his many writings, his excommunication, the Diet of Worms, and his fake kidnapping.

The story continues to tell of his time in hiding at Wartburg castle and translation of the New Testament, his return to Wittenberg to help stem the violence Karlstadt approved, his marriage to von Bora and their work among the ill in Wittenberg, and their large family. Carr mentions the many writings of Luther at their appropriate places in the story but does not provide too much detail on them. After covering Luther’s death and burial, she also provides a section with extra facts and trivia about Luther and elements related to his life, such as all the industry Katie supervised in their home, Luther quotes, additional information about key players, and even an explanation of the Luther rose.

Overall, Martin Luther (Christian Biographies for Young Readers) provides an excellent overview of the life of an important historical and church figure. The reading level is probably most appropriate for independent reading at grade level 4-6 (my daughter says 3-6). The book should probably be read aloud to younger children in multiple sittings. The material is divided into seven chapters with clear, memorable titles, each containing about two items of beautiful new artwork per chapter. The chapters also include many images of people, places, maps, or historical artifacts. Carr also does an excellent job of explaining how the gospel was the driving force of Luther’s work, undoubtedly a significant element in the seismic changes brought about during and by the Reformation. Her treatment is faith-affirming and age appropriate for children with at least some religious background. My daughter also noted that another lesson of the book was that the Pope can be wrong, and consequently, that not all “Christian leaders” will be correct. (And as a side note, in the “Did you know?” section at the end, Carr uses strong language to dismiss Luther’s anti-Semitism in his writings as simply  unacceptable. Children deserve to be exposed to the idea that people can be admirable in some respects but not in others.) Young female readers will appreciate Carr’s explanations of how much Luther came to love and depend on his wife Katie, and what a strong woman she was in her own right. My daughter and I give Carr’s Martin Luther five stars!

The Death of a Newsman (or woman)

Posted May 6th, 2015 in Random by Emily Varner

I always find it funny—perhaps ironic is the more appropriate word—when I see and hear news reports relating the death of reporters or other media-related folks. Don’t get me wrong, I realize that people are mourning the death of this person, and I don’t take delight in that. On the other hand, lots of people die every day over whom a relative few people take notice.

Whoever happens to be the newly deceased media professional, I would be willing to bet that the average person on the street has never heard of this person. Sure, they may have been influential in the careers of our most well-known journalists; sure, they may have had a long enough tenure at a certain media outlet to be a legend there; sure, they may have been such a likable person that the industry is stunned by their young death; sure, perhaps this person was so on top of their game that no industry professional could ignore them. But none of these things really makes the death of that person newsworthy, do you know?

In fact, this kind of coverage seems to me like a desperate grasping by media powers-that-be to legitimate their life of sacrifice for their hard-earned journalistic careers. Perhaps this coverage has less to do with the death of a colleague and more to do with what each writer and reporter hopes others will write and report when his or her time comes. It’s obituary one-upmanship. Woe betide the newsmaker who never makes the news!

As a society, are we haunted by the fear that when we pass into eternity, no one will have anything nice to say about us? That no one will notice? That we will be replaceable in our homes, our jobs, our fields of expertise? And ultimately, are we afraid that as all this comes to pass, our life will then have been meaningless? Pitiful? Fleeting?

There’s an entire sermon here of course, but as I am not a preacher, I’ll leave that to someone else.

And yet as a publicist, I’ve realized that there is at least one other reason that the death of media folks makes the news: It’s really super annoying to get mail addressed to people who have been dead for years. Maybe, just maybe, the message will reach those publicists who have a hard time keeping track of these things!

So as the cynical yet hopeful, philosophizing yet practical publicist that I am, here’s my resolution upon encountering news stories about the deaths of media folks: give myself that little “who really cares” moment before saying a prayer for the deceased’s family and friends; reflect on the brevity of life—and make sure my database is up-to-date.

His Kids Christmas, Volume 1 Review

Posted October 31st, 2014 in Random, Reviews by Emily Varner

His Kids Christmas

Perhaps the most important thing I can say about His Kids Christmas, Volume 1 is that my eight-year-old likes it, sings along with it, and sings the songs from the album when the music isn’t playing. So by that metric alone, I recommend this album for a Christian family’s holiday rotation.

I am picky about music made for kids. I’ve been on the hunt for Christian children?s music like the Maranatha Kids records I listened to as a kid in the 80?s?either hymns, choruses, or Scripture memory songs sung by kids and intended for kids, but sung well, with some harmony and in tune. Most albums I find are overly trendy, of poor musical quality, or just plain annoying. The His Kids sample I heard sounded good and the list of songs suggested the creators had included a few classic Christmas carols. It was enough to make me want to give it a chance.

With the opening song of the album, “Here We Come A-Caroling (Wassail Song),” I was reminded of another childhood favorite, which opened with the same: Disney’s All-Time Favorite Christmas Songs (feat. Larry Groce). The comparison holds up fairly well for the slower, more traditional songs (“O Come, O Come, Emanuel,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Christmas Time is Here”). These are lovely, non-synthesized sounding contributions to this collection, with children and perhaps one or two adults with very lovely voices singing in pleasing union or harmony.

But this is an album for kids who are used to hearing pop music sounds, so there are definitely some jazzy, hip-hop sounding pieces. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is a pop rendition with a very strong beat; my daughter starting doing her Christmas parade jazz choreography to it (but I still prefer the traditional hymn). Our favorite newer tunes are “Light of Christmas” and “No Better Holiday.” The former was already a favorite from Owl City, and the original electronic sound receives a good treatment here. But I’m not a huge fan of the super-synthesized selections in this album. The general consensus at my house is that we could do without “All I Have to Give” and “I Hope This Gets to You,” but everyone is going to have their favorites.

“Jingle Bells” features a slightly off-key tiny kid voice, which we think is adorable. All the same, I applaud the creators for not overdoing that feature by using it in other songs. This is good album for giving kids exposure to well-sung music. I am happy to recommend this album for parents and kids who want to keep the true meaning of Christmas in focus, and who enjoy singing along.

I received a free copy of this album in exchange for my honest, unbiased review.

Publicity Writing and Copyediting, Considered

Posted January 28th, 2014 in Copyediting, Publicity, Random by Emily Varner

As this website attests, I am primarily a publicist for books in biblical studies and church leadership. But I also copyedit books on occasion, to exercise my copyediting and proofreading skills (not to mention learn a ton). My informal tagline for copyediting is “helping really smart people not sound dumb;” and while it sounds arrogant, I beg to differ. Bar none, the authors I have copyedited have been brilliant, creative, thoughtful, perceptive, and organized. But that doesn’t mean they express themselves in the best words, phrases, sentence construction, or tone. To read through a manuscript I am editing is to become an anonymous student of a master teacher, to ask questions that will enable other students to learn well, and to clear up clutter and confusion that will detract from the message. When authors come back with appreciation for how their nameless copyeditor has channeled their style and thoughts to make their books better, this hard work is all the more worthwhile.

Publicity writing can feel like the opposite challenge; at times, I long to retreat into the safety of using many words to explain an argument, perspective, or approach. Instead, I get a handful of words–a few phrases–that can either push the book and author into a deserved spotlight or hide them in the waterfall of new books and resources, which are constantly pouring out before a seemingly shrinking number of book readers. My tagline for publicity writing could be “trying not to sound woefully ignorant of an author’s complete argument.” If I could express the entire argument in a few sentences, there would really be no need for a book. And especially in (though not limited to) academic circles, PR hype is not my friend. Can something be “the best,” or “comprehensive,” or “groundbreaking”? Perhaps, but I had better be doubly certain of that before I want to claim it.

In publicity copywriting, the author and editor can become a great ally in the process. I don’t have the leisure of reading each manuscript three times, I don’t have the same depth of understanding of the subject matter, and I don’t communicate nearly as much with influencers in the book’s field. Involved authors help nuance the necessary truncation of their material and point publicists in the direction of the most receptive audience for their work.

In these situations I am no longer the faceless entity re-crafting phrases but an actual person with an email address, someone whose job description includes turning into tweetable text something that requires a book. And that thick skin that authors get warned about needing upon the return of their copyedited manuscript transfers to the publicity copywriter–being content not to get it the first time and to need a hand, whose extraordinarily thin wording may require a good deal of finesse before it can go to work for the book and the author.

Comma Clarity (or Lack Thereof)

Posted March 4th, 2013 in Random by Emily Varner

I recently started a new copyediting project, a collection of lectures from a theologian now deceased (which, incidentally, makes querying the author about edits a challenge). I also happen to be watching, and helping where I can, as my first-grader’s reading skills develop. She is doing fine, but her more-developed oral language skills seem to be causing her some problems: the early readers are boring, but she won’t slow down enough on more challenging books so that the words on the page are the words she actually reads. Her attempts to “read” her predetermined meanings bring some of the most fascinating yet maddening moments of my day. It is reader-response to the n-th degree: “No worries if the words aren’t really there; I can make a sentence with similar-sounding words say what I have in mind.”

But the funny thing is, I can see myself doing the same thing as I edit. Last night I was nearly done composing a query (which goes to the compiler/editor, by the way, not the author) when I realized I had read the sentence entirely wrong. Fortunately, I at least had the words right and the problem was one of emphasis and construction, but I had to laugh. Context and style really do take the driver’s seat: our ability to derive meaning out of someone’s written words is severely hindered without these often subtle signals.

In my recent editing work, this has manifested itself in much deliberation over commas. House style for my current project prescribes a less-is-more approach to commas, which runs slightly against the grain for me. But essential commas, of course, have to stay (or, in some cases, be added). Here are some of the words and phrases bringing some additional fascinating yet maddening moments into recent days.

Because . . . (I Said So)
Think about this one for a second.
“Clean up your prose, because I said so.”
“Don’t clean your prose because I said so; do it because you want to learn to be a better writer.”
It seems simple enough in the abstract, but consider how easily this can lead to a situation in which a comma makes the difference between two opposite meanings depending on the rest of the sentence. Whether you see a comma signals how to read and emphasize the phrasing. For example, “The church cannot bring all its resources to bear on present problems, because clergification removed the sense that all members of the believing community are ministers . . .” Now try it without the comma.

That . . . (the World May Know)
“Jesus came that the world may know he is the Christ.” (in order that)
“Jesus came; that the world did not know him was not his fault.” (noun clause)
“Both are sentences that express Jesus’ coming to Earth.” (restrictive relative clause)
These are three valid uses of that, and again, if you’re reading out loud, you need to decide which use it is before the words come out of your mouth or you’ll end up re-reading it. Another lovely can of worms is the use of which. Don’t get me started on that one.

Or . . . (Something Else)
And then there’s the appositional use of or.
“We are not even discussing the use of colons or dashes.” (alternative)
“Em-dashes, or ‘my favorite punctuation marks ever,’ haven’t yet been mentioned.” (“also known as”).
Notice how, in the second example, taking out the commas makes two separate things out of something intended to be identified with one another.

Clarity in punctuation makes a difference–usually between sense and nonsense, but occasionally between dramatic differences in meaning. I offer my thanks to the many professional editors and style gurus helping authors express the things they want to say so that readers encounter minimal obstacles on their way to meaning. I keep learning so much from you in the small contributions I make to that cause. Now back to my commas.

Money Quote from Job by Walton

Posted October 18th, 2012 in Books, Random by Emily Varner

I spent part of my morning redeeming my gym time by reading. (Sorry, fellow gym-mates, but the TV is boring–especially for the next two and a half weeks in a swing state.) Today: Job (NIV Application Commentary) by John H. Walton. I realize reading a biblical commentary on the elliptical machine makes me odd, but who am I trying to kid?

But that’s not the point–here’s the money quote for the day. I believe I even said “Wow” out loud when I read it, and then re-read it:

“Trusting God–which is the same as fearing God–means accepting the fact that God does not need us or anything we possess or accomplish, and acknowledging that he is not lacking in any aspect of his character or nature. The God revealed in the Bible cannot be manipulated or outmaneuvered, and our petty attempts to do so only demonstrate our refusal to accept Scripture’s presentation of God in favor of our own caricatures of him.”

–Job, John H. Walton, p. 334.

Obviously this makes a lot more sense when you’re reading the commentary through, which is why you should read the whole thing.

A No-Email Transaction

Posted October 10th, 2012 in Random by Emily Varner

Recently, I wanted to contact a well-known elder statesman of contextual New Testament scholarship about a review, but discovered that he “doesn’t do” email. Which meant typing and proofing a letter, printing it, addressing and stamping it, waiting for the reply, and sending another letter (or, in this case, two). What a testament to the momentous changes in office work in the past fifteen years that this is a rare occurrence!

I was arranging a review for a publication, and the logistics really were quite comical. Check in with the paper editor about their openness to having so-and-so write a review (email). Send a letter (mail). Wait. Get response (mail) and ask editor a couple questions (email). Receive another letter the next day with a change in the review scope (mail). Order some additional books (email). Check in with review editor (email). Make a determination about what the best way to proceed (need some time to think). Send another letter (mail; two days later than I would like because of Sunday and the holiday). Right now I am waiting for the reply letter so I can email the paper editor with the final word.

At first, it was refreshing to type, print, and sign a real communication! And I felt like I was getting a Christmas card when I received the response. The editor and I both expressed some envy about someone who could continue to function at such a high level without email. (Maybe that’s why–I’m certain this scholar thinks so!) Why don’t I do this more often? This is so real and tangible! But then the complication set in. Oh, it would be so much easier if I could just get an immediate response. Or maybe even call, or IM, or text!

So I guess I’m not going to switch to an all paper system after all. But the experience was a good reminder to me of why personal notes still matter, why “slow” can sometimes be better than “fast.” And why, even though I’m not giving up my email account and Twitter feed, I really do need to unplug for a few hours each day, think, dream, and not “do” email.

The Perks of this Work 2

Posted February 17th, 2012 in Random by Emily Varner

In my last post I explained what it is about working with ideas that suits me. But I also find that there are benefits to working with books and ideas on a part-time, freelance basis.

Perhaps freelancers are underpaid and exploited because they provide all their work hardware, don’t receive healthcare and retirements benefits, and generally just work really hard. In fact, I remember a time when I said that working from home is the worst thing I could ever imagine. People who work out of their homes are never be away from work that needs to be done–they constantly make choices about when laundry and meal preparation are going to fit into getting their paid work done, and most of their friends and family see them as non-working people with time for impromptu lunches or visits.

But I have found that a major perk of always having a few plates spinning is that the mundane tasks of life and the social outlets of parenting allow for the percolation time I need on projects, keeping ideas fresh, and recognizing connections that I hadn’t seen before. It is almost like I take mini-vacations from work each week. Just the other day I had one of those “aha” moments (That’s how I need to do that thing!) while I was driving home from the grocery store.

I also have a brilliant husband who is both energetic when it comes to things technical and genuinely interested in the content and process of the work I am producing. He can tell me what tool I need ftp achieve a certain goal, suggest better ways, and be a sounding board about problems I am having or things that are exciting me. It can be so easy for parents of young children to slide into talking only about the kids, with little else to say after those updates are complete. It suits us two chatty people to have an endless supply of ideas and technical plans to process together in our spare moments.

Working part time reminds me  of attending school part-time while I was working full time. I finished up my M.A. this way, and it made me wish I had gone to school part-time through all my undergraduate and graduate work. My classes seems more interesting, more connected to real life; the work for them was less drudgery and instead a break from the everyday. So also, I find the perks of my part-time work include a sense that what I am doing does relate to the ordinary life of the Christian person and that it is a treat to get to tackle it in regular, solid chunks throughout each week.

The Perks of This Work 1

Posted February 8th, 2012 in Random by Emily Varner

The last few months have been a rather wild ride, as you can tell by the lack of posts since October. I’ve been charging though numerous new personal tasks but also keeping busy publicizing books. But unfortunately I’ve had to turn down some editing gigs, which I really hate doing because the work is so great. It’s like taking a mini-independent study course on some very interesting topic I know comparatively nothing about. Copyediting is a chance to dig deep where I usually only scratch the surface. And often it’s a chance to make someone really smart sound even better than they did at the start. At the end of a copyediting project, I’m “up” (if it only really lasts a few months) on the prominent primary source documents for a particular discipline, the classic works on a defined topic, and the various schools of thought related to that topic. I have an opinion on something I might not have considered before, and I can have a conversation about something new.

But all the aspects of the work I do–even the “scratch the surface” ones–include similar perks. I get to try on the thoughts and ideas of others, see how they sit with me, what other resonances I find with them. In the long run I might not agree wholeheartedly with the position of an author whose book I publicize, but at the same time I don’t take the book on unless I think it makes a valuable contribution to current (or perennial) Christian conversations. That is, the books I work with are worthy of consideration, legitimate contributions to the world of ideas.

And that’s what I mean about the perks. My brain is wired to swim in ideas, to weigh their value, to introduce them to others. It took a while for me to learn that, but I have been a much happier and productive person since figuring it out.

In the next post I’ll turn to the “perks” of taking up this kind of work on a part-time, freelance basis.



We Are Live!

Posted October 27th, 2011 in Random by Emily Varner

Only a couple of months later than we had hoped, the AcademicPS website is finally live! Thanks to Marc at Big Ocean Studios and Rebecca at The Design Room for you professional help conveying what AcademicPS does.

Doug Varner is getting a kick out of checking out who has been visiting and from where using Google Analytics, and of course we’ve figured out so far that mainly is has been us plus someone in Russia who stayed for about half a minute. So if you’re here on purpose, leave a comment to let us know what you think.

Andrew Bronson suggested a couple years ago that a picture of Emily would be a good addition to the AcademicPS cache of informational materials, but she’s still a little squeamish about that. Is there something you’re wanting to see?