book reviews, faith, history, humor, literature

Book Reviews, June 2015

The June installment of short book reviews has humor, a look at evangelical Christian purity culture, and two more World War II novels, one of which has an appearance by a certain famous detective.

  • Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Mallory Ortberg is an extremely silly book.  Imagine characters like Captain Ahab or Miss Havisham or Hermione Granger or Hamlet with smartphones sending snarky, funny, and/or weird texts to other characters from their respective stories and you have the premise of this book.  The jokes originated on the-toast.net, which Ortberg co-created, though it appears that many are exclusive to the book.  It’s pretty humorous, though I found myself nodding in appreciation to the jokes more than laughing.  I can really only recommend the book to English majors (or other readers of classics), as it is hard to imagine enjoying the book without a familiarity with the characters and plots.  Also, the gag can be a bit repetitive; it’s better one or two at a time, which is why it probably worked so well online.  For a sample, check out texts from Miss HavishamMoby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, or J. Alfred Prufrock.
  • Dark Star by Alan Furst is an immersive historical novel set in Europe in the run up and first days of the Second World War.  The protagonist is André Szara, a journalist working as a foreign correspondent for Pravda on the European continent.  He gets entangled in the world of espionage, and only near the end of the novel is he able to figure out completely the role he has played in the dealings between Russia and Germany in peace and war.  He is a survivor.  Historical novels can fall into a Forrest Gump trap by having characters happen to be at famous historical events, and this one is no different.  Szara is on hand for Kristallnacht and the blitzkrieg of Poland.  In my experience, spy novels also run into trouble when they try to include a romance, which they often do.  And again, this one is no different.  Szara has two different affairs over the course of the novel that seem unrealistic.  The sad thing is that Furst handles the romance better than most, but it’s harder for me to overlook anymore.  I’d recommend this book to someone who likes spy novels because it’s definitely above average for the genre, but it’s probably not a gateway book into the genre for the common reader.
  • Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity by Dianna E. Anderson is an interesting, if frustrating, book about purity culture within evangelical Christianity.  Purity culture includes things like complete abstinence before marriage and all of the behaviors that go along with it like purity pledges, purity rings, and purity balls (i.e. father-daughter proms essentially).  The book argues against purity culture primarily because it shames women and men for any type of sexual encounters before marriage, instead arguing for everyone to research and develop their own sexual ethics.  The book is essentially an advice book, which I found frustrating because I didn’t know that’s what kind of book it was before I read it, so I had some expectations that weren’t met.  But let me first mention the things I liked about the book.  Foremost, I liked how Anderson emphasized consent regarding sexual relationships.  It is one of her guiding sexual ethics that she came back to again and again throughout the book, as well as devoting an entire chapter to the subject.  The chapter on the history of purity culture was fascinating, but brief for my tastes (one of my hopes had been that there would be even more historical analysis).  The book also had a good description of gender as a performance that we enact based on social cues and pressures, with an accompanying and thorough explanation of what transgender means.  I suspect that many in her intended audience would find this part informative and helpful.  Her intended audience seems to be unmarried Christians who are still part of the purity culture.  In many ways the book functions as the anti-I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an advice book on the other end of the spectrum but still within Christian belief.  Aside from historical analysis, I was also expecting more grappling with Bible passages.  Anderson spends a chapter shooting down and problematizing the way that purity culture interprets key passages.  But I was expecting her to put forward more of her own interpretation and theology of sex (part of my expectation was based on the inside flap of the jacket which describes Anderson as a “theologian”).  Her main biblical advice is “do no harm,” or basically follow the Golden Rule to love our neighbors.  This is all well and good, but it’s not a guide that is particularly or exclusively Christian.  I think this book is a good start to the conversation, but not the last word, nor would Anderson herself want that as she hopes her readers will research and figure things out for themselves.
  • The Final Solution by Michael Chabon is a fun detective story, featuring an old man who has retired to the English countryside as a bee-keeper.  The character is never named, but he is clearly meant to be Sherlock Holmes in his dotage.  He no longer has a Watson to chronicle his adventures, so Chabon does not even try to recreate the style of the earlier stories.  Instead, Chabon writes in his own mellifluous, if sometimes flowery, style a mystery that is worthy of the detective.  It takes place during World War II and concerns a murder and a missing parrot.  I don’t want to say much more than that so that others can enjoy the book.  Though I do have to say that I guessed early on the significance of the numbers that the parrot repeats (perhaps not much of an accomplishment, but I still felt pleased with myself).  In my experience, it’s seeing how Sherlock Holmes (or any detective, really) arrives at his conclusions rather than the conclusions themselves that gives the most pleasure.  But in this case, there are some mysteries that the old man cannot suss out.  I would recommend it to any Sherlock Holmes fan.  It’s a fun little novel.
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book reviews, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, May 2015

The May installment of mini book reviews has the two books I referenced in my last post about criminal justice, as well as two very different novels set during World War II, and another book on creation and evolution because I can’t stop reading about the topic.

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.  It started with calls for a return to “law and order” during the tumultuous 1960s, then with Nixon calling for a “war on drugs” that didn’t really come to fruition until Reagan’s administration.  Reagan truly initiated the Drug War early in his time in office by dramatically increasing anti-drug budgets.  Interestingly, at the time he called for a War on Drugs in October of 1982, only 2% of the country thought drugs were the most important issue facing the country.  Things didn’t get better under Clinton in the 1990s.  He enacted many “tough on crime” policies such as 3-strike life sentences for certain crimes.  His administration cut public housing at the same time it was increasing money for corrections.  In Alexander’s telling, no one is blameless for the current predicament of mass incarceration.  After detailing the history, Alexander shows how police have virtually no legal restraints in carrying out the drug war.  Because there are few, if any constraints, the seemingly race neutral drug war ends up targeting and incarcerating people of color disproportionately, especially in light of the fact that whites and people of color use drugs at similar rates.  Even after someone has served a sentence for a drug crime, the system isn’t done with them yet.  Policies that control ex-prisoners make it difficult to truly re-integrate into society, often leading to second class status or, even worse, recidivism.  In order to end mass incarceration as a caste system, it is not enough to point out that drug use is a public health problem and not a criminal one.  Alexander argues that the racial component of mass incarceration has to be confronted head on.  If it is not, then even if mass incarceration is ended, another racialized caste system will emerge just as Jim Crow followed slavery, and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow.  I would highly recommend this book.
  • Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is a critical examination of the American criminal justice system.  And it is vitally important that we look at it.  Benforado details the many, many ways that the criminal justice system does not, in fact, deliver justice.  The structure of the book, from investigation to adjudication to punishment, allows him to show how things can go wrong each step of the way.  Along the way he points out the relevant social science research that helps to explain how these mistakes can be made.  For instance, some innocent people confess to crimes that they didn’t commit in order to make a grueling interrogation stop.  Or they might take a plea deal if they’re led to believe that a trial will not show their innocence.  Astoundingly, over 90 percent of those charged with a crime and offered a plea take it without a trial.  During a trial, it can be hard to determine guilt or innocence when prosecutors withhold evidence or a jury inaccurately rates a witness trustworthy or not.  Or take an eyewitness’s evidence: people’s memories can be notoriously unreliable when looking at a lineup or recalling the circumstances of a crime.  Memories can be easily corrupted or altered or even fabricated without the eyewitness realizing he or she is doing it.  And the impartial judge who oversees the proceedings of a trial may not be as objective as we would like to believe.  Of course everyone has biases, but it’s amazing how something like the time of day can affect someone.  In studies, judges are more lenient earlier in the day, but they are much harsher before lunch or at the end of the day.  How is that fair?  When it comes to punishment, Benforado puts forth the scientific evidence that “it is a desire for retribution—not deterrence or incapacitation—that has the strongest influence” (191).  This type of punishment leads to mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, life without parole, and the death penalty, which don’t work to actually deter crime.  Once in prison, it’s hard not to become “institutionalized” or broken as a person (whether by solitary confinement or the threat of rape and violence), so it’s not surprising that so many prisoners cannot re-integrate into society after serving time.  Benforado offers a smattering of possible reforms big and small that could get us closer to true justice.  One of the best suggestions, I thought, was the virtual courtroom.  It would remove obvious problems like being “swayed by the attractiveness of a witness” (266) or thinking a nervous witness is lying when they are merely nervous at speaking in public (we are not good at detecting whether people are lying or not, though we think we are).  My only real complaint with the book is that it sometimes reads too easily.  Benforado presents historical cases or the social science research so smoothly and convincingly (similarly to Malcolm Gladwell) that I was almost entertained by the story he was telling or the research findings he was presenting, when I really should be outraged.  It’s not that I wasn’t ultimately outraged, but maybe the pill should stick in the throat more rather than go down so easily. Despite that slight, and possibly idiosyncratic, complaint, I would highly recommend this book to everyone.  [Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof from the publisher via a goodreads.com giveaway in the hopes that I would give an honest review of the book.]
  • The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard by Patrick Hicks is a novel of witness and remembrance.  It’s an unflinching account of the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp told in a documentary style.  I’ll admit that I mistakenly thought it was going to be told more from the point of view of the title character (though the back cover and the blurbs are quite clear about the documentary nature of the story).  A story told from the POV of the Commandant would have been contrary to the spirit of the novel.  Rather, the narrator refers repeatedly to the absences and the missing, to the thousands killed on a daily basis, about which “traditional modes of storytelling fail us” because “the darkness itself is the story.”  It’s powerful.  And haunting.  The fictional camp of Lubizec is modeled on real camps like Treblinka.  In high school I read Jean-Francois Steiner’s account of Treblinka and the revolt by the prisoners there.  Something similar happens in this novel, but the narrator reminds us that this is not an adventure story, it is rebellion against the killings.  And though this is not a character study of the Commandant, it does in its own way try to humanize him by detailing his family life outside of the camp.  He is truly a bifurcated individual, a loving father at home and a cold, unfeeling engineer of murder at the camp.  His two selves seem impossible to reconcile.  Near the end of the novel, he even refers to himself in the third person when trying to explain his actions during the war.  I would highly recommend this book to everyone wanting to understand the Holocaust better.  [Disclosure: I am acquaintances with Patrick Hicks; he teaches literature and writing at the same college where my wife teaches.]
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff is a marvelous adventure story set during World War II during the siege of Leningrad.  The narrator, Lev Beniov (in the conceit of the novel this is the author’s grandfather telling him the story), along with Kolya, a deserter from the Army, must find a dozen eggs for an important Colonel, so that his daughter can have a wedding cake.  The city is surrounded by the German army, and the people are starving during the winter months.  It simultaneously has the quality of a fairy tale where the heroes have to accomplish an impossible task while also being a coming of age story for the 17 year old narrator.  During their search, the two young men encounter the many brutalities of the war, but there is also a lot of humor in the story, especially the way Lev and Kolya interact.  Kolya treats Lev like a younger brother whom he can teach about the ways of the world and women.  Like any quest narrative, it hits the right notes with twists and obstacles to keep our heroes from their objective, while also subverting some of our expectations along the way.  It was a very satisfying read.  As it was primarily a guy book, I would recommend it as that, though noting that anyone could enjoy it.
  • Evolution from Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation, and Convergence by Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett is a useful book on the topic of theistic evolution.  The two authors (one a theologian, the other a scientist) offer a helpful guide to the landscape of Christian approaches to origins.  They critique the young earth creationist and the intelligent design positions, but in the most fair and serious way I’ve ever seen.  They treat those who hold those positions with the utmost respect as fellow Christians (it’s a marked contrast to books I’ve read by Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller).  Curiously, they don’t spend any time with old earth/progressive creationists.  The best part of the book is where they detail the spectrum of beliefs in the theistic evolution camp.  They analyze various thinkers in five areas: (1) deep time, (2) natural selection, (3) common descent, (4) divine action, and (5) theodicy (i.e. an attempt to answer why a good God would allow evil and suffering).  Afterwards, they present their own model that avoids some of the pitfalls they see in the other positions.  For example, most of the other thinkers used some version of the free will defense to answer how God could allow evil.  The problem they see with a free will defense is that it requires God to relinquish interacting with creation, which then makes evolutionary processes random and purposeless.  Most theists would like to avoid that conclusion.  Their approach is novel, by contrast, but it too is rather unsatisfying.  They view creation as both an initial point in time (creatio ex nihilo) as well as an ongoing process (creatio continua) that is not yet complete until it can be redeemed as a “new creation.”  In their reading, the “very good” declaration of Genesis is from the standpoint of the new creation, looking back on the whole history of creation (seems like a stretch).  They admit that they, like Job, don’t know why suffering and death are part of the creation at this time.  So, it’s still a mystery.  Regardless, the book is a handy reference for the various positions within theistic evolution.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the debate on creation and evolution.
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