Review Backlog 5 of 10: Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Robert Kiyosaki)

I am, it must be confessed, somewhat of a self-help fan. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a self-help junkie.) Whether it be a book on memorising things, organising things, or just how to organise a personal budget, I’m all ears and interested.

In fact, many books have been quite influential and even life-changing for me.

But the big problem with the self-help market is that there are many, many books out there that are all fluff and motivation with very little in the way of sound advice. And this is where they start to fall apart. You can motivate all you want, but in my experience, unless you give concrete advice and particular steps to be followed, most people don’t change much in their lives at all.

I approached Rich Dad, Poor Dad with no particular ideas in mind, and was rather intrigued when I started the book. Kiyosaki tells the story of when he was growing up. His real father (the title’s Poor Dad) was a cautious man, who believed that the secret to life was to save your money, work hard, buy a house, etc. etc. Life was all about security.

Meanwhile, his best friend Mike’s father (the Rich Dad of the story) was a rapidly rising millionaire who believed in making money work for you, not getting caught in the rat race, etc.

So the book sets out to teach you what the rich do with money that the poor don’t.

And this is where it completely came unstuck for me.  Apart from a few very broad tips (e.g. work on building assets that can provide an income, etc.), the information about how to build wealth consisted of various anecdote of Robert’s about one-off things that he did (like buying a home for $20,000, selling it for $70,000), but no real advice on how to do these sorts of things in your own life.

I’m sure there will be people who argue that I’m wrong, but seriously if I told you to learn how to read balance sheets, go to lots of courses about making money and build assets, you wouldn’t exactly thank me for giving you life changing advice.  But that’s about all this book has to offer.

I can now understand why pyramid marketing sellers use Robert’s name as a drawcard.  His book basically says you need to be taking risks and getting assets that are going to generate money.  By not spelling out exactly what those assets should be, you’re in a ripe position to be talked into something like Amway.

When you combine that with further rumours floating around the net (and I can’t confirm them as true, but the evidence does seem to be pointing that way) that Rich Dad was just a made-up character, which calls a lot of the content of the book into question, well, then the whole thing becomes even more irritating.  Save your money.

1 1/2 out of 5.

Review Backlog 4 of 10: Seachange Series 1 & 2

This is definitely rather belated, because Rach and I have been watching this on and off over the last year, but it is a show that deserves to be reviewed.

For those of you who never saw it on TV (and I was one of them), SeaChange told the tale of Laura Gibson, a big Melbourne lawyer who manages to suffer a disastrous set of circumstances in the space of 48 hours.  Her marriage and her high-flying career all come crashing down around her ears.

So, realising that for the last 10 years, she’s been too busy to really stop and think about life, Laura takes her two kids, Rupert and Miranda, and heads off to a small seaside town called Pearl Bay to take a job as the local magistrate.  The last time she was there was 10 years ago on holiday, and it was the last time she remembered being really happy and content.

This is really just the scene-setting part of it.  The charm of the series comes from the range of characters that inhabit Pearl Bay.  To list just some of them:

  • Bob Jelly, imperious real estate agent and local mayor.  Bob is nearly always the “bad guy” in every episode, as he seeks to get a bridge built that will turn Pearl Bay into a tourist trap and take away its small-town charm for ever.
  • Meredith, who runs the local pub, and knows everyone in town and never forgets anything.
  • Angus, the court clerk, who goes for a surf every morning before the court starts, and thinks nothing of showing up in his wetsuit to get ready for court.  And, of course, his fiancee:
  • Karen, the police prosecutor.  She and Angus are “on a break” from their relationship, but they’re still engaged and planning the wedding.
  • And, last but by no means least, the one and only Diver Dan (in a star-making role for David Wenham), the ultra-laid-back owner of a little cafe/fishing shop.

The amusing part of this series is just watching Laura’s reactions to these characters.  Overall, the laid-back, bend-the-rules attitude of the town clashes majorly with her stressed, city attitude.

At first glance, the show appears to be a typical Aussie soap opera.  But have a closer look and the writing in the series is absolutely outstanding.  In any given episode, the mood can change from humour to romance to tear-jerking pathos instantly without missing a beat.  On top of that, the acting is so well done, and the characterisations so strong, that a character can appear for just a few seconds in any episode and still act entirely within their character (and often getting a huge laugh out of us at the same time).

Fans of Diver Dan (and there were quite a few of those, let me tell you) were rather disappointed when he left in the second season (I do hope that wasn’t too much of a spoiler for you, but it’s mostly common knowledge) and it almost could have crippled a lesser show.  But, amazingly, once you get used to David Wenham’s absence, the show picks up and becomes just as strong.

This is well worth a look, if for nothing else, an example of what can happen when you let talented writers at a TV show. We haven’t seen the third season yet, but if it’s anything like these two, it won’t be disappointing.

5 out of 5.

Review Backlog 3 of 10: House MD – Season 1

Rachel and I are currrently working our way through the Season 2 DVD set, so I’m a little bit late in reviewing Season One.

For those of you who haven’t seen this series, or heard of it, the least you need to know is that Greg House (played by the increasingly outstanding Hugh Laurie) is a doctor of diagnostic medicine at an American hospital. His job, along with his three junior staff, is to work out what’s wrong with the various mysteriously sick people who are admitted to hospital.

In one sense, this show is completely formulaic: each episode begins with someone getting ill under dramatic circumstances (not always a seizure, but that is a favourite). House and his crew try increasingly riskier and more dangerous treatments, always getting the true diagnosis wrong, until there is a twist ending, and House ultimately figures out what is wrong.

The illnesses themselves and the hospital procedures are fascinating viewing, but what ultimately sucks us in is the personality of House himself. He is a man with absolutely no personal skills whatsoever. He is constantly rude, obnoxious and unafraid to say exactly what he’s thinking, no matter who it rubs up the wrong way. In every episode, he irritates and infuriates his fellow staff and patients. But, at the end of the day, he’s a great doctor, so they put up with him.

We’d hate to know this guy in real life, but on screen, it’s irresistible. On top of that, Hugh Laurie, has so inhabited this character that I now find it hard to recognise him when he talks in his real British accent. As the episodes roll by, these characters just become more and more real. I’m not usually a huge fan of television shows (especially medical ones), but this show is really good. 4 1/2 out of 5.

Review Backlog 2 of 10: The Good Opera Guide (Denis Forman)

Well, folks, this is it. If you want a book on opera (and you’re not an opera academic), this is the one. I should preface all comments by saying that in Australia and the UK, this book is called The Good Opera Guide, in the US, it’s called A Night at the Opera, but it’s the same book, regardless of which particular title/cover, etc. that you purchase it under.

Denis is English (unlike Phil from the last review, who is American) and maybe that’s why he can afford to be so irreverent. But he served as Deputy Chairman of the Royal Opera House for 9 years, so he certainly knows his opera.

This book doesn’t necessarily contain much in the way of introductions to the opera – but there are a lot of appendices containing a glossary of terms, composer and singer biographies and anything else useful to help you get into opera.

But the meat and potatoes of this book is Denis’s opera descriptions. Unlike any other book on opera, he divides his descriptions into two sections. The first one talks about the plot, the second section talks about the music and tells you what to listen out for.

The music sections are very good, and Denis is quite enthusiastic and down-to-earth when describing the music. Also, he rates the musical sections from no stars through to ***, so even if you don’t agree with him, you can tell which bits he likes, which is helpful to know what to listen out for.

As far as the plot description goes, however, Denis just as enthusiastically trashes the opera storyline completely as he describes it. For instance, here is his description of the background for Il Trovatore:

“Stand by for the most confused baby-swapping plot in the business. So let’s get that sorted first.

“Count Luna II has a younger brothercalled Garcia. One day when Garcia was a baby an old gypsy woman was found breathing over the cradle. Garcia fell ill. Garcia’s father Count Luna I believed the gypsy had cast a spell on the baby. Disregarding the due processes of law he had her hunted down and burned at the stake. The gypsy’s daughter Azucena understandably mad for revenge seized – as she thought – the wretched baby Garcia and chucked him on the fire. Mistake! It was the wrong baby – her own (and nobody noticed). Thus she was left with Garcia and brought him up as her son under the name of Manrico, our hero, true brother to our villain, Count Luna II. Get it? Then the rest is a pushover.”

And in this vein he continues to rubbish the stories of the most famous operas of all time. All of which they thoroughly deserved.

Opera has always been a collection of the most C-grade stories held together by A-grade music, and I’m all for someone standing up and saying so. You would think that this approach would take all the fun out of music, but Denis is such an opera buff, it only makes it more enjoyable. (In fact, taking the upper-crust mystique out of it just makes it more accessible.) So if you were only going to get one book on opera, this would be the one.

5 out of 5.

Review Backlog 1 of 10: Ticket to the Opera (Phil Goulding)

And now that I am back and quite refreshed from my time away (I think just being back in a lower altitude with more oxygen is a great help . . .), I can finally start work on the backlog of reviews I have been holding off on for a while.

Starting with this book, to get back to the long-lost past of opera posts. This book I picked up in a below-ground bargain bookstore in Brisbane (the bargain bookstores used to litter Brisbane – I’m not sure how prominent they are now). I think it cost me less than $10. I can’t remember now.

Whatever it was worth, it was ridiculously cheap for the pleasure it has given me. Phil is not a musical expert at all, and from the looks of his photo was a septegenarian when he wrote the book. But what he does like is opera.

And so, in as friendly a manner as possible, he takes you right inside the world of opera, with information on its history, the different styles, etc. etc. But the highlight of the book is what he calls The Collection – a list of the 85 most performed operas by the New York Metropolitan Opera. The New York Met being renowned for their conservatism at opera program, you thus get a list of 85 of the most popular operas of all time. In fact, the top 25 are called The Warhorses, because they’re so famous in the opera world.

This book, which I got shortly after seeing the Madame Butterfly movie I posted about a while back, was great, because it gave me a list of operas to go try next. I must have spent the next two or three years (and a good deal of my disposable income, of which there was a lot more when I was living at home with the parents) tracking down CDs of all 25 (which I might review at some time in the future if I get some time to listen to entire operas) and also going to a few live performances, courtesy of the dirt cheap youth rates provided by the wonderful folks at Opera Queensland.

Goulding is so enthusiastic, and with a sense of humour a little bit like your story-telling old uncle, you’ll be willing to give anything a try (even Wagner). This would almost be the best opera book available for novices, if not for the king of all, which I shall review next . . .

But for this one, 4 1/2 out of 5.

Film Review: Sunshine

Now that Mr Lucas has finally finished making all his Star Wars films, and Firefly and Serenity have come and gone, any space film that comes along is going to be somewhat of an event – and also, it’s going to have to have great strengths of its own to stand in that august company of Really Famous Space Films.

So when I heard (via the last Popcorn Taxi email that came in before I unsubscribed as per my newness block rules) that Danny Boyle, who’d brought us such things as Trainspotting and 28 Days Later was turning his attention to a sci-fi film, I knew that the results would be interesting, to say the least.  (While a bit on the nasty side, 28 Days Later is one of the most innovative horror films to come out recently.)

In addition, the name Sunshine is somewhat of a soft spot for me since the little seen, but very thought-provoking film of the same name by Istvan Szabo, starring Ralph Fiennes, which came out six or seven years ago.  For both films, the happy-sounding title is really just an ironic name for what is to be a much darker affair.

The story (as much as I want to share – but if you want lots of spoilers, feel free to watch the trailer) is set in the year 2057.  The sun is dying out, and earth is in a state of perpetual winter.  Man’s last hope is to send a gigantic bomb the size of Manhattan up into the sun, to attempt to reignite the dying star.

Pushing this truly gigantic bomb is a slender, long spaceship containing eight astronauts and scientists.  The fate of the world really does rest on their shoulders.

The trailer (which I seriously would recommend giving a miss, but you’ve probably already Googled it by now) and marketing material play this up as a bit of sci-fi thriller in the style of Alien, and certainly the film is meant to be a tense ride, and does get more and more thrillerish as the story goes along.

But, really, the strength of the film is in watching what happens when things start to go wrong, and the life and death decisions the crew makes.  We know from the beginning that when you have a spaceship full of people, not everyone’s going to make it, and it’s just a matter of who dies when under what circumstances (forgive me if you didn’t know this was how these type of films worked). However, normally, most of these ensemble films revolve around the concept of survival: the goal is to get as many of the group out alive as possible.

But, in this case, the goal is to set off a bomb in the sun, and so the decisions that are made head in quite different (and ultimately less selfish) directions than you would get in a typical survival ensemble film.

The other great strength of the film is watching people’s reactions in the face of the sun.  The same fascination that makes people like playing with fires comes to the forefront here, in the face of the most massive of conflagrations.  I would highly recommend seeing this on the biggest screen possible to take advantage of a lot of the sun shots, which I found most impressive on the massive screen at Bondi Junction.

Some people may find it a bit cliched, with a lot of nods to the old classics like 2001.  (Oddly enough, though, nobody in the Q & A session with Danny after the film mentioned the film that this story borrows from the most – Disney’s metaphysical sci-fi film, The Black Hole – and I didn’t think of it until after I’d left so I apologise that I didn’t get to ask the question either . . .) However, by treading in these familiar paths (while still having its own unique story about the sun), I think this just makes the film stronger.

Overall, this is a sci-fi winner.  4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen R Covey)

Rachel and I started reading this book together when we first got married, and only just finished it, which gives you an idea of how slowly we work through books, really . . .

However, for my own part, this makes my second time through the book (the first time I read it a lot quicker).

I find it hard, sometimes, as a Christian, to know what to do with self-help books, but at the same time I like reading them.  The problem with them, is that the very notion of “self-help” kind of infers that for every problem in life, man is capable of finding some guaranteed “cure” to lift himself out of it, whether it be being overweight, poor, not having any friends (not to mention not being able to influence anyone), single without a partner, not able to cope with having his cheese moved, procrastinating, not being able to manage time, etc. etc.

I think a lot of these books (because they’re not written by Christians) miss the spiritual side of life: a lot of the reason we keep making friends is because basically we’re sinful.  Gluttony that causes excess weight gain, bad attitudes that cause us to have no friends, wastefulness that causes us to spend more than we should – these are all symptoms of what happens when man tries to do exactly what he likes rather than taking note of what God has planned for mankind. So, at that level, just finding a few “techniques” to fix things up, doesn’t address the root problem of our hearts.

However, that said, with this physical body God has given us, we have the ability to exercise self-discpline and self-control, and change our behaviours and attitudes.  In fact, if we’ve become Christians, we’re called to make major changes to our life, and if we’re serious about them, we need to give serious thought to the nitty-gritty of what that involves.  So, in that sense, there can actually be a lot to be gained from studying some self-help books because the writer (regardless of his faith) may well have grappled and dealt (in detail) with issues that we as Christians need to deal with.  (So, for instance, you don’t necessarily have to be a Christian to write knowledgeably about how to deal with time, but you do need to understand that a non-Christian isn’t going to be approaching the subject with the same starting point or end point that a Christian would.)

Which brings us to The Seven Habits.  As far as I can tell, Stephen Covey is a Mormon, so he does make reference to his faith throughout the book, which gives it an interesting spiritual dimension beyond a normal self-help book (though I wouldn’t call it a “Christian” book).  However, I think there’s a lot of good stuff in here for Christians.

I don’t want to go into details about the seven habits (you can always find a copy of the book somewhere and read them for yourself), but the basic gist of the book is that successful people, rather than just learning “techniques” for fixing problems, actually recognise that the important thing to change is their character and the way they view the world.

Covey argues that our lives need to be centred, not around our job, our spouse, our church, ourselves, our money, etc. but around what he calls “correct principles”.  Herein lies the problem but also the hope.

The problem is that Covey doesn’t spell out what correct principles are.  Obviously, you can tell from other parts of the job that respect for mankind, care for one another, fairness, honesty, etc. are what he considers to be part of these “principles”, but he doesn’t spell out where to get these from.  In fact, he almost hints that they’re “natural laws” and that they should be obvious to everyone.  I think this is a problem because, if you look around at the world, people are all the time disagreeing on basic issues such as respect for other human life, how you treat others, etc. and that’s why we have such a hard time with terrorism, wars and general nastiness everywhere.  So to pin our hopes on some self-evidence “natural” laws is not a great idea, in my book.

So I think ultimately this book, for those who have no set of natural principles is going to give people either licence to make up their own, or it’s going to offer nothing to people who have no principles.

However, for Christians, because we have the goal of building our life around serving Jesus, we can find in the Bible the principles and laws that we should live by.  So, coming as a Christian to this material, and knowing what my basis for living should be, I find Covey’s framework quite helpful for thinking about how we approach life, time and one another.  I would be cautious, though, of finding this book fantastic, however, and not recognising that a lot of this wisdom can be found in the Bible.

The biggest challenge, however, is that this book sets down a really hard set of habits to live up to.  Take the first one, for example, which is proactivity.  By this, Covey means a lot more than just getting things done early without having to wait till the last minute. He means no less than realising that you can choose how you respond to every situation.  So if something bad happens, do you complain or do you accept it?  When things are not to your liking, do you just take it, or do you work to change the situation?  When you come across people you don’t like, do you assume that they have to do all the changing, or do you look at yourself?  Not easy, is it?

So, yeah, I highly recommend this book, with the above cautions.  I think if you do try to make these habits part of your life (bearing in mind that they should rest on a basis of service to the Lord Jesus rather than just some vague “natural law”), then I think you will be a major changing force in the world.

4 1/2 out of 5.

Book Review: Redeeming the Routines – Bringing Theology to Life (Robert Banks)

This is one of those books that has a fascinating premise, but doesn’t seem particularly keen to get anywhere.  Divided up into five chapters, the first three are outstanding, because they ask all the big questions about modern Christianity that have been buzzing around in my head for the last five years:

If the Bible applies to all of life, why do we only hear sermons on about 10% of the things we do?

How do you apply the Bible to all the ordinary things we do, like leisure, sleeping, walking, etc?

Why is there such a gap between Christianity and everyday life?

And in the opening chapters of this book, Robert Banks asks these questions probingly and intelligently, and digs deeper than anyone else I know.

However, after having asked all these questions, he then has no answers for them.  He has some suggestions on how we can look for answers, but these I found a little bit worrying.  He’s a big fan of “home churches”, where people can meet in their home to deal with the issues that concern them in real life.

But my worry is that this approach has a tendency to give people an excuse to turn away from the existing church systems, rather than trying to reform them.  I’m not saying that’s what he’s promoting, but it’s my fear that that’s what this would lead to.

So if you’re looking for a definitive book on Christian worldview or how to develop a theology of life, this is not your book.  But if you need extra convincing that we need a Christian worldview, this is not a bad place to start.  3 out of 5.