book reviews, comics, faith, history, humor, literature, nature, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2016

It’s hard to narrow down a year’s worth of reading to a manageable list of the cream of the crop, but I’ll try.  From the books I read in 2016, here are the fifteen books I would most recommend.  First are the top three essential books that I would most enthusiastically recommend to anyone.  The other twelve were also great, and I recommend them heartily, too.  If you want to check out last year’s list, click here.  Like last year, I’m putting them in the order that I read them.  Unlike last year, I’m including longer excerpts from my reviews to give a fuller recommendation.  But if you’d like even more, click on the title of the book for the complete review.  Now to the books!

The Top Three

Evicted (Matthew Desmond)

“an essential book.  Please, please, read it.  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  […]  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.”

Kindred (Octavia Butler)

“a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  […]  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.”

The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)

“an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  […]  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.”

And all the other great ones

Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf)

“It starts with one of the famous lines of literature: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  From there, we follow Clarissa Dalloway (and other characters) through all the preparations for a party that evening at her residence.  […]  The narration floats and glides from character to character, in and out of minds, seamlessly transitioning from one to the next, like a butterfly flitting here and there.  It can be disorienting, but it is also so fluid.  We get to experience life through so many eyes and minds.  It’s exquisite.”

Our List of Solutions (Carrie Oeding)

“a collection of poetry full of longing and insight and barbecues.  One thing I noticed is that this collection works as a cohesive book and not merely a random selection of poems by one author.  Characters and objects and themes recur throughout the book, filling out the neighborhood feel to the proceedings.”

Sula (Toni Morrison)

“a really great novel.  It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town.  In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely.  Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again.  […]  I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books.  I love many difficult literary books.  But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids.  I’m more easily distracted.  So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected.  An impressive achievement.”

The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert)

“There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth.  Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts.  Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing.  Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species.”

This One Summer (Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki)

“a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  […]  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.”

Inspiration and Incarnation (Peter Enns)

“I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  […]  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.”

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

“a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller.  Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried.  It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book.  The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book.”

Does Jesus Really Love Me? (Jeff Chu)

“a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  […]  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.”

Thunder & Lightning (Lauren Redniss)

“an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

Love Medicine (Louise Erdrich)

“a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book.”

The Wordy Shipmates (Sarah Vowell)

“a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  […]  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.”

Julio’s Day (Gilbert Hernandez)

“a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.”

I mentioned in my last set of reviews for 2016 that I don’t plan on doing my monthly roundup of mini book reviews anymore. However, I’ll still do a best books of the year feature of the books I liked and would most recommend. I’m already working on that list. I hope I find as many good ones as this year.

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book reviews, comics, faith, history, nature, parenting, politics, science

Selected Book Reviews, October – December 2016

This batch of book reviews round out last year’s reading.  I got behind in writing them for reasons that I can’t even recall, but it nagged at me that I hadn’t finished them.  These will probably be the last set of book reviews I do in this format.  In the future, I may do a deep dive into a particularly insightful or powerful book.  Or I may do a roundup of a few books on one topic.  I’m not entirely sure yet. But I’m not planning on doing monthly reviews anymore.  However, I think I’ll still make a list of the best books I read in a given year to recommend.  Speaking of which, I’ll put up a year in review of the best books I read in 2016 shortly.

  • Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics by Jonathan Dudley is a careful critique of evangelicalism by someone who grew up in that world.  It reads as a succinct summary of some of my own changes in thinking on these topics.  Dudley’s book can be summarized well with two quotes.  First, his thesis: “Evangelicalism has defined itself by weakly supported boundary markers, which are justified by a flawed understanding of biblical interpretation and maintained by suppressing those who disagree” (24).  The four boundary markers dealt with in the book are abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, and evolution.  Basically the hot button topics in the culture wars.  If one takes the wrong view on any of these issues, one cannot be in the evangelical club anymore.  The second quote concerns the justification from the Bible part of the thesis: “Biases and prior beliefs are not something that get in the way of interpretation, something that must be brushed aside; rather, biases and prior beliefs are behind every interpretation” (108-9).  Everyone approaches the Bible with prior beliefs and biases.  Even the straightforward plain interpretation that we think is objective is certainly a matter of the lens we use when we read.  An easy example from the book is that Christians were not all that concerned when Darwin first published his theory of evolution in 1859.  It wasn’t until decades later that fundamentalists and evangelicals felt that they had to reject evolution and believe in a young earth.  Christians approached the same text with different prior beliefs at different points in time and came to vastly different conclusions.  Besides this major point about interpretation, Dudley also wants to make a point about the Christian use of science.  He notes how Christian pro-lifers claim that science shows that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception (an argument Dudley doesn’t accept).  But when it comes to other matters of science, such as the widespread scientific evidence for evolution or global warming, evangelical Christians often find themselves dismissing science.  Evangelicals only like science when it seemingly agrees with their political beliefs.  Dudley grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home to several evangelical colleges and publishing houses.  He attended Calvin College, then studied religion at seminary, and then began medical school, while finishing this book.  I don’t have the same educational path, but I can relate to his intellectual and faith journey and some of his conclusions.  I would definitely recommend this book.

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  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power by Ryan North and Erica Henderson is an incredibly fun comic book.  It’s light-hearted and funny.  I find it hard to decide which I like more, the writing or the artwork.  North has fun with Doreen Green and her supporting cast of friends and squirrels, as well as the villains, but he gives them all a lot of heart and personality.  Henderson does a great job balancing cartoony action and characters, but never exploits or sexualizes the characters, a problem all too rampant in comics.  Doreen looks like the college student she is, not an unrealistic supermodel in a swimsuit trying to fight crime.  She’s someone I’d want to be friends with if I had a friend who could talk to squirrels.  She eats nuts and kicks butts.  Even if you think you don’t like superhero comics, you might like this one.  I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson is an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  Through the story of Ida Mae we learn how tenuous was the position of sharecroppers in Mississippi, how hard the work was picking cotton and how little they got paid, if at all.  So much depended on the whims of the white landowners.  After Ida Mae’s husband’s cousin Joe Lee, who lived a few shacks down from them, was falsely accused of stealing turkeys and subsequently half beaten to death, Ida Mae and her family packed up and left for Milwaukee, ending up on the South Side of Chicago before long.  There they face housing discrimination; all the black families moving in are forced into strict geographical boundaries, and any time they try to move into a new neighborhood, the white neighbors first try to fight their arrival, and if that failed then they all moved out.  If you want to know why cities are like they are, this book is illuminating.  Even the world famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson faced housing discrimination when she bought a house in a nice neighborhood.  She received death threats in the middle of the night before she moved in, and after she did, bullets shattered some of her windows.  Police had to keep guard around her house for nearly a year to prevent violence.  No one was immune from discrimination.  Despite the hardships in the North, Ida Mae experienced some measure of true freedom.  She was able to vote for the first time.  The family was eventually able to buy a house, but soon after they did, the whites in the neighborhood took flight.  The two other individuals the book focuses on, Dr. Robert Foster and George Starling, provide more glimpses into life in the Jim Crow South and how they tried to make a better life in L.A. and New York, respectively.  Dr. Foster left a life in rural Louisiana where the highest he could have risen was to a country doctor making house calls to black families with no admitting privileges at the local hospital.  He wanted fame and fortune and a good life.  George Starling picked fruit in the groves of Florida, chafing at the unfair labor practices, before he headed North.  He worked for the railroad on a line that traveled up and down the east coast, so he got to see the changes from North to South for decades.  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.
  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert is a short and excellent primer on climate change (I read it in a day).  The book is based on a series of articles Kolbert wrote for The New Yorker magazine, where she is a staff writer, in order “to convey, as vividly as possible, the reality of global warming” (2).  By traveling to locations across the globe, Kolbert tells how things are changing: glaciers are shrinking, permafrost is melting, oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, animal migrations are shifting towards the warming poles, and plants are earlier than usual.  A small island community in Alaska has to move because of the rising ocean level.  While telling the stories of various changes worldwide, Kolbert also explains the science to a lay audience without getting too technical.  The only downside to this well written little book is that it is already a bit out of date.  It was published in 2006, but since then we have had still warmer years, and the trend continues upward.  Despite that one drawback, I would highly recommend it. [Note: there is a newer revised and expanded edition, so forget what I said.  Read that one instead.]
  • The Everyday Parenting Toolkit by Alan E. Kazdin with Carlo Rotella is a very helpful book for parents.  Kazdin draws on the available social science on children’s behavior and his experience working at the Yale Parenting Center to give useful guidelines for how to change problematic behavior in kids.  The key is the focus on behavior.  Parents, me included, want our kids to be kind and generous, resilient and motivated, and not selfish jerks.  But how do these qualities get cultivated?  It starts with behavior.  Kazdin explains his ABC method, which is backed up by research and with examples of how it works.  He describes his techniques as tools in the toolbox.  They are adaptable depending on the situation; some will be used more than others.  The first thing to think about when considering children’s behavior is the Antecedent of the behavior.  How can parents set up the situation for the behavior they wish to see?  The goal is to make the choice for the child as likely as possible.  Asking in a calm voice one time helps.  Giving a choice also helps.  Children like to have at least a small measure of autonomy.  The next consideration is the Behavior itself.  Sometimes this is clear like when I want my kids to clear their places by putting their dishes into the sink after a meal or brush their teeth before bed.  But often I want them to stop an irritating or dangerous behavior.  It’s not very effective to merely say don’t do that.  What kids need is positive reinforcement for the behavior I do want to see.  In order to make that happen, I have to think of the positive opposite of undesirable behavior.  This isn’t always easy to do, but it’s crucial.  So for example, my 3 year old throws screaming tantrums sometimes.  I can’t change the fact that he gets upset by things, but I do want him to deal with his upset feelings with a different strategy than by screaming.  So I will praise him for any approximation that gets us closer to the desired behavior.  This is called shaping the behavior.  If he never has done the desired behavior, then we can practice a simulation so he can try to do it when he does actually get upset.  The third part is the area of Consequences, which is where a lot of people want to start.  For Kazdin, consequences are positive reinforcement for the desired behavior.  Mostly this means praise from parents that is immediate, effusive, and specific, with some sort of affection added.  Sometimes other methods can help, too, like a point chart, but praise from parents is the best reinforcer.  Kazdin has a lot more to explain and tons of examples (as well as another book for the tough cases of especially defiant children), but this is the outline.  Some of it is definitely counter-intuitive.  But I can see that barking at my children to stop doing something rarely works and it often escalates.  When I’ve been able to implement the Kazdin ABCs I’ve had much more success in changing unwanted behavior.  I’d really recommend this to any and all parents.
  • My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor is a revealing and instructive memoir from one of our Supreme Court Justices.  She details her life with precision and insight up until her appointment as a District Court judge in 1992; the rest of her life and career will presumably have to wait until her retirement.  I was especially interested in finding out more about her life because my kids attend a Spanish immersion elementary school named after her.  There are many interesting details to her early life growing up poor in a housing project in the Bronx.  Her alcoholic father died when she was young, so she and her brother had to assume a lot of responsibility in their household with only their mother to raise them.  Especially humanizing is her diagnosis of type 1 diabetes at age seven that she has had to manage for the rest of her life.  That diagnosis led her to give up dreams of growing up and becoming a detective and instead focus on training to be a lawyer.  She knew from an early age what she wanted to do in life.  One of the overriding themes of her memoir is that of empathy.  In a pivotal passage, Sotomayor explains how she understood the importance of empathy through two events and by reading Lord of the Flies.  In the classic book, a group of boys have to fend for themselves on an island by themselves.  Their survival is precarious, and they must work together in order to make it through.  Sotomayor notices the same precariousness in her own life.  She notices a police officer extorting a street fruit vendor for two bags of fruit.  She also witnesses her own aunt making prank calls to random women, pretending that she was having affairs with their husbands.  Putting it all together, she declares, “I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view” (123).  Her story continues as she details how hard she worked to make it through Princeton and Yale Law School, despite “limits of class and cultural background” (171).  It’s an inspiring book, and she doesn’t refrain from talking about mistakes she has made such as her brief marriage to her high school sweetheart.  This is a memoir I’d recommend reading.
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book reviews, literature, nature, politics

Book Reviews, September 2016

My September book reviews offer three different vantage points of America, from the rich and powerful and their political interests to the recently repatriated reconnecting with the American landscape on the fabled Appalachian Trail to the rural poor Latino figuring out his place in the world.

  • Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer is a good book about an important subject—money in politics—but I couldn’t help feeling depressed as I read it.  Mayer has done the research and followed the money trail.  She meticulously shows how rich men (especially Charles and David Koch, but also many others such as Richard Mellon Scaife) have used their fortunes to fund and influence the political conversation towards their preferred policies.  A lot it comes down to tax avoidance.  Scaife, for instance, and his sister received their large inheritances from their father in the form of two trusts of $50 million apiece.  The money sat in the trusts for 20 years accruing interest.  The interest had to be spent on charitable nonprofits, but after the 20 years were up, the children would get the entire $50 million tax free.  The Koch brothers received a similar arrangement from their parents.  Scaife and the Kochs used the interest from the trusts to fund nonprofits that aligned with their political views.  One way they did this was to give to new, more ideological think tanks in the 1970s.  Before this, research think tanks had been driven by social science research for the general public interest.  The new think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute had a much more ideological bent.  It didn’t stop at think tanks.  Then the Kochs and like minded rich philanthropists started funding programs in higher education in order to compete with the liberal agenda they saw in academia.  Most of these billionaires were in the energy sector, whether oil, coal, or natural gas.  They were most determined to fight any research that conflicted with their bottom line.  Mayer details the political fights of the Obama presidency, showing how the influence of the money and operations of the Kochs and other billionaires has stymied progress.  The total opposition to Obama began as soon as he took office, not in reaction to anything he did, but the very fact that he had won the election.  The Koch brothers’ group Americans for Prosperity and another group FreedomWorks, funded by other billionaires and companies like Philip Morris, helped organize and promote the Tea Party.  It wasn’t a grassroots uprising.  The sea change in thought on climate change was especially profound and evidence of the power of monied interests.  John McCain in 2008 actually ran on a platform of acknowledging climate change and advocating for a cap and trade bill, a relatively conservative solution to curbing green house gases based on free markets.  A year later when Obama supported a cap and trade bill that passed the House, the opposition in the Senate became intense.  It was never even brought up for a vote because it wouldn’t have passed.  By 2012, Mitt Romney had to reverse his previous position of acknowledging human caused climate change in order to be acceptable to the conservative side of the Republican party.  It was no longer acceptable to the big donors who funded the party.  The Koch brothers believe that they are fighting for their libertarian free market principles when they fund attacks on regulations of the fossil fuel industry.  It just so happens that all of the issues that they fight the hardest for and put their money towards would also help them avoid taxes or responsibility when accidents happen.  The amount of money involved is truly astounding, made more so by the recent Supreme Court decision Citizens United which breaks down barriers to pour even more money into politics.  It’s depressing that those with the most money have so much power and influence on our political system and even political opinion.  Mayer focuses her attention on what she calls the “radical right,” but the problem of money in the system goes both ways.  It is especially evident on the right at the moment.  She does point out at various times some of the liberal billionaires who have attempted to use their money in a similar fashion, but it is mostly a reaction to the efforts of the Kochs and their like minded billionaires, and not nearly as well coordinated or funded.  The book is solid research, but I would only recommend it to someone who can stomach it.
  • A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson is a fun travel memoir about friendship and nature.  After spending roughly half his life in Britain, Bryson embarks on a hiking trip with an old friend from his hometown who he hadn’t really kept up with.  Neither of them has much experience with hiking and the wilderness, though Bryson has done a lot of research for the endeavor.  Bryson’s narrative is very funny and compelling as he relates how they eat the same meals over and over, encounter a bear one night, and face the difficulty of carrying everything on their backs mile after mile in spite of being out of shape and overweight when they begin.  I especially liked the parts where Bryson gave the history of the AT and the challenges of nature conservation.  It’s true that Bryson didn’t complete the whole trail.  I don’t hold that against him, though he could have been more up front about his plans. Sixteen years ago, fresh out of college, I joined an experienced friend to hike the John Muir Trail in California (itself a part of the Pacific Crest Trail).  Unfortunately, we had to quit the trail before we had even exited Yosemite National Park because my friend was experiencing knee pain.  Those three days on the trail were one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically.  It took real effort to continue putting one foot in front of the other.  We probably would have hit our stride in a few days, and it would have become easier.  I often wish I had gone back to do the JMT in full.  I would like to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, her account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a comparison and contrast to Bryson’s tale.  Some of the crudity of Bryson’s friend Stephen Katz is presented as “boys will be boys,” which was distracting in parts.  It’s another reason I’d like to read Strayed to get a different hiking experience.  But overall I enjoyed Bryson’s travelogue.

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  • Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez is a fascinating look at one man’s life and the life of a century in a graphic novel that is exactly 100 pages long.  Julio himself lives to be 100, born in 1900 and dying in 2000.  The story of the century is also there, but the focus is on Julio and his family and friends.  It begins in blackness, and then we see Julio’s open crying mouth; it ends in the same open mouth and blackness when he dies.  The artwork, done in black and white, is somewhat cartoony, but it’s never simplistic.  The approach is spare and clean.  Julio grows up in a poor rural area of the country that is never specified (my guess is California).  He is closeted and complex, not really acknowledging the love of his life, his childhood friend Tommy.  He never marries and lives with his mother.  But the story continues along various paths, tracing the history of his family and community: his evil uncle, his friend Araceli who goes off to nurse soldiers in multiple wars, his sister’s family, including her grandson Julio Juan.  Julio Juan is an interesting contrast to Julio, as he is also gay, but since he came of age in a different era, he can live freely.  There are multiple stories and characters, so sometimes Julio drifts to the background of his own story, but he and his life ground it all.  It’s a rewarding read that I would definitely recommend.  [Read an excerpt here at NPR.]
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book reviews, comics, history, literature, nature, science

Book Reviews, June 2016

June was a good month of reading.  I read four fantastic and varied books.  I’d recommend all of them highly!  Check them out!

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  • Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future by Lauren Redniss is an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.  Redniss does it all: she created her own font for the text.  The prints that accompanied the stories and interviews were made either by copper plate photogravure or photopolymer process.  The art is impressive and draws attention before even reading the words.  It’s hard to categorize a book as beautiful and interesting as this one.  It’s not merely a science book, though it is that, too.  In the chapter on wind, there’s the story of Diana Nyad, an endurance swimmer attempting to swim from Cuba to Florida but needing a period with little wind so the waves wouldn’t be too large.  Interspersed in her story are pages with types of winds or mythology and an interlude on the attempt to introduce wind at Mecca during the hajj when millions of Muslims gather for pilgrimage because the site has been so built up to accommodate all of the visitors and cuts off the natural flow of wind.  It’s a one of a kind book.  I’d highly recommend it.
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler is a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  It’s dangerous for her when she is in 1800s, even though she is herself not a slave, she has no rights that anyone needs to uphold.  Her education and knowledge of history is a two-edged sword: sometimes she can use it to her advantage and other times it makes the whites of the time, and the slaves too, fearful of her.  While it is a science fiction story because of the time travel element, it doesn’t focus on the particulars of how it is happening.  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.  It’s an extremely powerful book and I highly recommend it.

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  • The Sandman: Overture, written by Neil Gaiman with art by J.H. Williams III, is a lovely prequel to an essential comics story.  First, let me say, that prequels are tricky and often doomed to fail.  When a story begins in the middle of events, it can be difficult to go back and tell the earlier backstory in a compelling way.  But Gaiman has done it beautifully.  When the original Sandman story began, he is imprisoned by a secret society for 72 years after being weakened by some adventure.  Overture tells the story of that adventure when Morpheus (the embodiment of Dream) travels across the universe in order to save it from destruction that he himself inadvertently caused.  Throughout the story, Gaiman weaves elements and characters from the original story in new and interesting ways that add to the mythos instead of merely explaining origins or anything mundane as that.  I was enjoying the story for the first few issues, happy to be back in the world of Sandman, but I wasn’t astounded either.  But upon finishing it, I can say that Gaiman sticks the landing and elevates the entire story, making it a truly worthy prequel.  Though it takes place chronologically before the main Sandman story, I think it still best to read it afterwards.  This was a deluxe edition, so it included a lot of supplementary material in the back.  Remarkably, I found it pretty illuminating, at least more than I usually do with material like this.  The artist, colorist, and letterer all explain their craft and artistic decision making process in a way that helped me understand better the collaborative process of making a comic.  J.H. Williams III’s artwork in particular is gorgeous and makes the book stunning.  If you like Sandman, definitely check this out.  If you haven’t read the original ten collected volumes of Sandman, get on it!
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book. A few of the stories are told by a third person narrator, but most of them are narrated by the characters themselves, so we get to see how they see events, often the same events from multiple perspectives.  It’s a wonderful way to show the intricate nature of perspective.  One of the voices is Lipsha Morrissey, a young boy taken in by the Kashpaws, possibly his relatives, though the mystery of his ancestry is one that he tries to untangle.  His is a humorous and earnest voice.  He describes another woman who his grandfather had a love affair with: “There was this one time that Lulu Lamartine’s little blue tweety bird, a paraclete, I guess you’d call it, flown up inside her dress and got lost within there” (243).  The unwitting joke is that instead of naming the bird he has used the Greek word  for advocate, usually meaning the Holy Spirit in Christian theology. Earlier in his story, he had described his grandmother’s memory as “like them video games that don’t forget your score.  One reason she remembers so many details about the trouble I gave her in early life is so she can flash back her total when she needs to” (240).  Lipsha is only one of the many fully realized people that we empathize with and come to understand.  Many others love, grieve, connive, cope, and live.  It’s a world of characters that Erdrich returned to for a number of other books, but this is the first.  In fact, it’s her first novel, which is amazing.  It’s such a great book.  I read the 1993 expanded edition, which includes more stories than either the 1984 original or the more recent 2009 revision.  But it’s hard to see how one can go wrong with any version of the book (one of the stories taken out of the 2009 version appears in the backmatter, so it isn’t wholly lost).
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book reviews, comics, history, literature, nature, science

Book Reviews, April 2016

I bought a stack of books at the annual library sale and got started on reading some of them in April.  I couldn’t help rereading an old favorite in the hopes that I would find it just as enthralling again.  (Spoiler alert: I did.)  I also read another funny science book by Mary Roach and a more serious picture book of extinct species.  To round out the month, I read a superhero origin story and a Newbery Honor winning kids’ classic.

  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach is a funny and interesting book on what happens after we die.  Years ago I read and enjoyed her first book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but I hesitated in reading the follow-up on the afterlife because I wasn’t all that interested in the topic, or at least what I had assumed would be her take on it.  I needn’t have worried.  Roach makes almost anything interesting with her lively and humorous writing.  I rediscovered her last year when I read her book on the digestive system, and I then decided that I would happily read any of her books.  I especially liked the early chapter on souls and the hunt for them in the body.  I also learned about the dubious study that supposedly found that the soul weighs 21 grams.  There were many other good bits: the hunt for reincarnated souls, testing the effectiveness of mediums, and the search for ghosts.  One particular story involved a farmer, with the help of his father’s ghost, finding a new will that changed the entire family’s inheritance.  I won’t give away what Roach’s investigation into the matter finds.  Overall it was a very enjoyable read, but I would probably recommend one of Roach’s other books first.
  • The Shadow Hero, written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew, is a fun origin story about a mysterious and short-lived Golden Age superhero named the Green Turtle.  As explained in an afterword, the original Green Turtle only lasted five issues in 1944.  He fought in China against the Japanese, but curiously it wasn’t ever known if he himself was Chinese or not (rumor was that his creator Chu Hing wanted him to be Chinese).  His face was never shown; he was mostly drawn from the back or when he was in profile or was facing the reader, he had his face covered in some way (i.e. with his arm or obscured by another character).  In fact, the publisher had him colored a garish pink, possibly to accentuate his Caucasian skin as a Chinese superhero might not sell.  Another recurring element to those stories was that Green Turtle was always on the verge of telling Burma Boy, his sidekick, his secret origins, but never gets around to it as he is always interrupted.  So in steps Yang, 70 years later, to write an origin for Green Turtle, possibly the first Asian American superhero.  The story takes place in Chinatown in a stand in for the Bay area, where gangs thrive.  Young Hank helps his father tend the grocery store while his mother wishes better things for all of them.  After she is saved by a superhero, she pushes Hank to become a superhero, too, even though he doesn’t have superpowers.  It’s a fun tale about identity and heritage that plays on many of the conventions of the superhero origin.  A brief warning for younger readers: the story includes stereotyped language about Asian Americans to place it into historical context.  It doesn’t condone the language, but rather shows how the stereotypes are wrong.  If you like superhero origin stories, definitely check this one out.
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller.  Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried.  It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book.  The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book.  I think I loved this book because much of the action takes place in libraries as the characters conduct research with old documents and letters.  Much of the story is related in letters, an obvious homage to Bram Stoker’s famous novel.  It’s not a particularly deep novel, and the characters are not fully formed, but for a suspenseful thriller, I can hardly imagine a more successful novel.  I read the book over ten years ago when it first came out and I really liked it then.  I forgot much of the action since then, so I picked it up again hoping to have a similar experience.  Part of me worried it wouldn’t hold up.  I needn’t have fretted.  I loved it all over again.
  • A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals with text by Tim Flannery and illustrations by Peter Schouten is a sobering look at the effects of humanity on the animal kingdom.  The book includes 103 species (mammal, bird, or reptile) that have gone extinct since the year 1500, most of them in the past 150 years.  Peter Schouten’s illustrations are beautiful and naturalistic.  I was reminded of the Audubon calendars we had in our house growing up.  It was rather haunting to see animal after animal that is gone forever.  Some of the species are familiar, even famous for their extinction: the gigantic moas of New Zealand, the Dodo of Mauritius, the Great Auk in the North Atlantic, the Passenger Pigeon of North America, and the Thylacine (aka the Tasmanian Tiger).  I didn’t know about Steller’s Sea Cow, a gigantic relative of dugongs and manatees.  It was the largest mammal (besides whales) to live in modern times, at up to 30 feet long and weighing approximately 10 tons.  They were all hunted until there were none left by 1768.  The text by Tim Flannery, an introduction and commentary on each species to accompany the artwork, is informative on what was known about each species and its demise.  Sometimes a bird would be hunted for food by humans.  Such was the fate of the Rail (a kind of bird) on Wake Island during World War II—during hostilities between the Japanese and American forces, the Japanese soldiers faced starvation and ate the birds to survive.  More often the reason for extinction was the introduction of some other invasive species that disrupted the life cycle.  Black rats might eat the eggs, for example, of some other island bird.  The rats came to shore from aboard the ships that explored the South Pacific and other faraway once diverse habitats.  Sometimes people destroyed the habitat for these animals, usually for agricultural reasons.  Flannery also notes that a few species went extinct when naturalists gathered the last few remaining specimens for natural history museums.  Our knowledge of the species came at the expense of their extinction, a truly bittersweet result.  This book is a good complement to Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, showing example after example of humanity’s devastation of the natural world.
  • The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is another classic of kids’ lit that I managed to miss when I was growing up.  I thought maybe I had read it because I have some vague memory of a book I randomly picked up at the library that had to do with kids and some Egyptian mystery, but then I forgot the title and could never find the book again when I went to look for it.  I don’t think it was the same book, but regardless, The Egypt Game is a good book for elementary age kids to read.  It has a lot to say about friendships, imagination, and figuring out how to deal with disappointment.  The initial main characters are April and Melanie.  April has recently moved in with her grandmother, who herself has recently moved into a new two bedroom apartment so she would have enough room for April and herself.  Melanie lives one floor down from April, and they become friends because of a shared interest in Egyptian history.  They start to imagine that they themselves are living in ancient Egypt with its gods and ceremonies, priests/priestesses and pharaohs.  The game is a secret they play in a fenced storage lot behind a junk shop, but they eventually end up inviting others to join them.  I’m looking forward to the day my kids are old enough to read it so I can talk to them about their own Egypt games.
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