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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book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read a lot of great books in 2015, and I would recommend many of them to interested readers.  But I thought it might be helpful to narrow it down to a smaller list of titles for a year end wrap up.  So here are the five books I would most recommend to anyone, followed by ten more that were also great (and I feel bad leaving off books I liked by Anne Lamott, Patrick Hicks, Marilynne Robinson, and Brian Turner, among others—it was a good year of reading).  I’ve put them in the order that I read them with a brief quote from my original reviews (and a link to the review if you want to see more).  First, the top five.

Complications (Atul Gawande)

“a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.”

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)

“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.”

Get in Trouble (Kelly Link)

a book so good I reviewed it twice!

“It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.” (blog review)

“It’s this quality of the fantastic, when in the best hands like Link’s, that helps the reader to get out of the ordinary world and see something different, all while shedding light on some part of the ordinary that we often overlook. Plus, it’s fun.” (Rock &Sling review)

Hiroshima (John Hersey)

“And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere.  It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face.  As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons.”

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

“a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.”

And the runners-up

Gulp (Mary Roach)

“the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

“The book is satisfying but not overlong, and still I wished I could spend more time with these delightfully eccentric sisters.  I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes a slightly twisted and dark story.”

God and the Gay Christian (Matthew Vines)

“Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.”

Carver: A Life in Poems (Marilyn Nelson)

“In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.”

Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans)

“a mix of memoir and a meditation on church.  The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together.”

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

“Coates’s writing is an inspiration for me.  He is a writer that I admire for many reasons: love of language, curiosity of self and the world, and deep humility.”

Neurotribes (Steve Silberman)

“a comprehensive and important history of autism […] it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition”

Davita’s Harp (Chaim Potok)

“another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.”

Killing and Dying (Adrian Tomine)

“is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.”

March, Book One (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell)

“This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.”

I hope 2016 brings at least as many good books my way!

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book reviews, faith, medicine, personal, science

Book Reviews, February 2015

My second installment of mini book reviews as I endeavor to read more carefully and share recommendations for other readers.

  • Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande is a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.  As a surgical resident, Gawande has the goods when it comes to interesting cases, and he’s a great teller of those stories.  But it’s not merely stories.  He explores important and compelling ideas like the necessity of doctors practicing on patients and the tangled decision-making in difficult cases.  He owns up to the fact that doctors, even the very best ones, make mistakes.  It’s unavoidable as long as humans are involved.  There are three reasons that medicine is an “imperfect science”: ignorance, ineptitude, and fallibility.  Gawande details advances in surgery (such as gastric bypass) and technology that show how the field is improving in the area of ignorance.  There are some protocols in place to deal with inept doctors, but all too often bad doctors keep practicing until they do lots of harm, and he talks about these current limitations and how to improve.  Lastly, he explores how fallibility is inevitable.  There may be decisions that are never clear because the factors involved are too complex.  Each patient and circumstance is unique.  Almost as a bonus, he also spends time explaining interesting and perplexing phenomena such as pain, nausea, and blushing.  The book was a Finalist for the National Book Award.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone.
  • Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans is a memoir I could relate to.  Though she wrote it while still in her late 20s, she felt compelled to chronicle and share her crisis of faith that led her to doubt much of what she used to believe.  Evolution is the guiding theme of the stories she relates, both because of her changing faith and because she lives in Dayton, TN, home of the infamous Scopes trial (which I’ve written about once or twice, okay at least three times or more).  She even attended Bryan College, named after William Jennings Bryan, the defender of creationism during the trial.  Evans does a nice job summarizing the high points of the trial in one of the chapters.  But the bulk of the book is her telling how she used to be a model evangelical Christian who knew all the right answers for arguing with skeptics until she herself became unsettled by the injustice of what she calls “the cosmic lottery.”  It seemed unfair to her that so many people should be condemned to hell because they had never heard of Jesus, only to die horribly in a typhoon or of AIDS.  She couldn’t accept the answers that she used to.  Her crisis led her to rethink all of her assumptions and to be willing to throw away “false fundamentals,” her term for the beliefs that accrete onto the belief system of much of Christian teaching.  She now believes that faith must adapt and that it is okay to have doubts and to say “I don’t know.”  But she hasn’t lost her faith.  It’s a story that I share in the broad outline, and it was comforting to read how she went through the crisis but retained her trust in Jesus.  I’d recommend this book to anyone who has had similar doubts or a crisis of faith.  [Note that the book, though first published in 2010, has since been rereleased under the title Faith Unraveled.]
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach is the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.  Roach is an excellent science writer, guiding the reader through the digestive system from before the food enters the mouth to the other end of the line.  It all goes down so easily (please excuse me, nearly every blurb for the book includes puns and wordplays nearly as bad), that it can feel almost fluffy at times.  It’s not that Roach doesn’t include the research (the notes in the back show her thoroughness), it’s that she makes it so palatable (again, sorry) with her humorous stories and engrossing tidbits.  I learned about the 19th century man who had a hole in his stomach and how his doctor used him to learn about digestion, about the importance of bacterial composition of the colon, and about the amazing capacity of the colons of prisoners and other smugglers, among other oddities.  Sometimes the book is a bit gross, but nothing made me sick to my stomach.  Anyone who enjoys science or who wants to know more about the digestive system or who simply wants a smart laugh should check it out.
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