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, comics, history, literature, science

Book Reviews, February 2016

February’s reviews start off with three (!) comic books of varying quality.  I read lots of comics, mostly from the library, but I don’t always review them.  One reason is that because of the serial nature of much of comics storytelling, I don’t want to comment on and/or recommend a volume that is in the middle of a story.  But I’ve decided to try reviewing more of the comics that I read so that anyone interested in the medium can possibly find something new to read.  Or maybe I’ll make something sound so good I’ll convince someone to try their very first comic.  It’s worth a shot.  But it’s not all comics this month.  There’s also a novel by a Nobel prize winning author and science writing from a New Yorker staff writer.

  • Batgirl Volume 1: Batgirl of Burnside, written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and illustrated by Babs Tarr, is a smart, fresh take on an old character.  This volume collects individual comics #35-40 of the series, but it begins a new start for Batgirl with a new creative team and a new outlook for the character.  Batgirl is Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Jim Gordon of the Gotham City Police Department, but she hasn’t always been Batgirl.  She was the original, but after the Joker shot her in the classic Killing Joke storyline, she became a paraplegic and became Oracle, a whiz at computers who provided assistance to other superheroes such as Batman and Black Canary.  Others took up the mantle of Batgirl in the meantime.  When DC Comics relaunched all of their comics a few years ago in an event called New 52, they decided to have Barbara the beneficiary of an experimental surgery that restored her ability to walk, a controversial decision because many found Oracle to be an inspirational hero with a disability.  This latest version of the character is starting over at college in Burnside, a borough of Gotham.  She is still a super genius with computers, which comes in handy against the villains she faces who use social media and celebrity to further their aims.  I appreciated that with this incarnation, the creators revamped her costume into something practical.  All too often, women superheroes have had costumes that were about the male gaze and not about the character herself.  This Barbara wears a leather coat instead of spandex and boots instead of heels in a chic DIY look.  Though not wowed, I enjoyed this new beginning, and I’ll probably read the next installment from the library when it arrives.
  • Magneto Volume 1: Infamous, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Javier Fernandez, is the beginning of a chilling and brilliant anti-hero story.  If you’ve read X-Men comics or seen the films, you know that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor: this collection includes a flashback to the Warsaw ghetto.  He’s determined to prevent another genocide, the extinction of mutants.  This version of Magneto is very much like the one at the beginning of X-Men: First Class.  Instead of killing former Nazis, though, he is working alone to take out threats to mutant-kind.  In the tradition of other anti-heroes, Magneto’s actions repulse the reader, but still his motivations are understandable and ultimately we end up sympathizing with him.  Volume 1 collects the first six issues of the story, and I’m looking forward to continuing.
  • Black Science Volume 1: How to Fall Forever, written by Rick Remender with artists Matteo Scalera and Dean White, is a pulpy sci-fi comic that unfortunately falls into the traps of its forebears.  It’s published by Image Comics, which is home to a host of creator-owned comics series that are inventive and interesting (such as Saga and Wytches). The premise is solid: it’s an adventure story featuring a device that allows travel to alternate timelines within what the story calls the Eververse (basically all of the infinite possible universes).  The cast of characters include the team of inventors who built the device, the two children of the team leader, the financial backer of the project and his partner, and a security guard.  After an accident, the group gets stuck jumping from place to place, unstuck in time, with no apparent way to get back.  I thought it could be fun, and it sometimes is.  But I was extremely bothered by the portrayal of Native Americans in one of the alternate worlds.  In that particular world, the indigenous people of North America are visited by some other group of spacetime travelers and they gain use of the device.  They use it to find superior technology with which they first fight back against white invaders first defensively and then offensively as a sort of inverse Manifest Destiny.  I get that Remender wanted to show the evil of the device.  But it’s an alternate reality so he could have made the Native American tribes superior in the first place without outside help (the device works as a deus ex machina).  Besides this, the portrayal of the tribes is that they are barbaric in spite of their advanced technology.  In their first appearance, they are massacring German soldiers, who appear to be in World War I uniforms and defending trenches.  In their next appearance, an indigenous soldier is vividly scalping an enemy soldier.  The stereotype has been set, and unfortunately the characterization never gets much better even as we get to know one.  The team leader sustains an injury so they need the help of a shaman to heal him, so they kidnap one.  He effectively joins the group.  Why he bothers to help them and go along after they have left his timeline is not made clear.  Nearly every other character has clear backstory and motivation, but his reasoning is mysterious.  Eventually in volume 2 of the series we do discover the backstory of his world that I already described, and we learn that he has a family; in fact, he is a grandfather, but it’s not much to humanize him.  He’s still paper thin as a character; he’s mostly used as someone who has powerful technology to heal and to fight, not as a person.  All in all, it’s an extremely disappointing portrayal of Native Americans.  It could have been interesting and forceful (i.e. a world where Native Americans came out on top has potential as a premise), but the execution was abysmal.  It played into all of the worst tendencies of the pulp tradition from which it came by playing to stereotypes.  If you enjoy swashbuckling fantasy or sci-fi, look elsewhere.  Black Science isn’t worth your time.
  • Sula by Toni Morrison is 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’ve kept this incomplete summary rather vague so as not to give away any particular details for anyone who hates spoilers.  I was pleasantly surprised at how straight forward and easy the narration was to read.  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.  I’d highly recommend this novel.  Now for a little anecdote.  I was reading this at the dentist, and one of the assistants/hygienists asked me what I was reading.  I told her the title and then said that it was by Toni Morrison.  She stared at me blankly.  I was momentarily surprised that she wouldn’t have heard of the Nobel Prize winning author, but then I began to think why would she necessarily know Morrison?  Would she know the names of other famous authors who have won the Nobel like Alice Munro and Saul Bellow?  Why would I assume people outside of my set of friends would know who these people are?  Half of all American adults read four or fewer books in a year.
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert is a sobering look at the effects humans are having on life on this planet.  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.  In chapter after chapter, Kolbert details how species or larger groups have gone extinct or been threatened because of humans.  The megafauna (such as mastodons, mammoths, and sabretooth cats) died out soon after contact with humans, possibly from overhunting.  Large land animals to this day do poorly when in close proximity to humans because they reproduce so slowly and cannot make up for any population losses.  Other chapters deal with the killing off of auks (similar to a penguin) or the Sumatran rhinoceros, which is not yet extinct but barely holding on (in fact, the rhino Suci who is highlighted in book died at the Cincinnati Zoo soon after the book came out).  Still other chapters deal with how humans have made such an impact on different species.  Habitat destruction, especially in diverse environments like rainforests, has led to untold numbers of extinctions of insects and larger animals in the foodchain.  Ocean acidification, caused by global warming, is killing off corals and the many species which rely on coral reefs to survive.  Humans also transplant species around the globe, sometimes unwittingly, which can cause all sorts of unintended consequences.  The book opens with the fungus that is killing off many frogs and other amphibians.  All sorts of invasive species are able to thrive in new environments when they have no natural predators.  They disrupt their new ecosystem, outcompeting and/or killing the native species they encounter.  The final pages offer up the possibilities of all of the mayhem humans have caused: either we will also succumb to the vast disruptions we have wrought to the planet or we will through our ingenuity overcome the looming disaster.  It’s a bleak picture.  Despite how depressing it can be, I still would highly recommend this book.  Kolbert is a fantastic writer (the book won a Pulitzer Prize), and it’s important to think through the implications of human interaction with nature.
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