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.


  • 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.
parenting, personal, psychology

Resistance is (Almost) Futile

The kids and I had just finished lunch when there was a knock on the door.  I saw a minivan out the window, and I thought it might be a friend.  I opened the door to find a well-dressed man who quickly handed me a spray bottle.  “Here’s a gift for you.”  Then, “Have you heard of the something something two?”  I didn’t understand what he was asking.

“No,” I said.

“Perfect!” and he bolted back to the van, grabbed a large box and came running back to the door.  Before I realized what was going on, he had come inside. As he slipped off his shoes and bounded up the stairs to the living room, he said that he was going to give me a free demo and that I didn’t have to buy anything.  Yeah right, I thought.

This was the point where a savvier person would have told him to leave the house immediately and that there was no way he was selling anything.  But I didn’t realize my critical window was closing by the second.  I was still marveling that a now-stockingfooted stranger had entered my home without bothering to wait for my permission.  As someone whose mother used to have to buy his whole box of fund-raising candy bars because he couldn’t face his neighbors’ gentle refusals, I partly admired his moxie, even as I was appalled by it.

After climbing right over the baby-gate at the top of the stairs, he beheld the filthiness of our home.  A huge pile of laundry lay strewn about.  The couch cushions and pillows were helter skelter, part of a fort or floating rocks in lava or some other grand design the kids had envisioned.  He immediately started putting together his vacuum, a Kirby Sentria II (oh! that’s what he had said at first!) and asked me what kind we had.  I dragged out our crappy Bissell so he could do his side-by-side demonstrations.

Right away he tried to establish commonality by asking where I was from and what my hobbies were.  I could tell it was fake friendliness, but I answered his questions honestly anyway.  When I told him I was from Ohio, he started talking about Columbus because he had been there before.  It didn’t matter that I’ve never lived there.  He wanted to know if I had ever gone to a football game at The Shoe.  I haven’t.  He tried another line of questioning by asking about hobbies.  I told him I didn’t have a lot of free time with three kids to care for.  But I allowed that I do like to read when I get a chance.  He jumped on that.  Told me that he had loved reading Sherlock Holmes stories and The Hobbit (long before the movies, he added), though he didn’t have a lot of time to read anymore.  All I could think was that those seemed like generic books to mention.  Sure, I like Sherlock Holmes and Tolkien’s stories too, but doesn’t everyone?

The kids were skittish.  The 3yo kept hiding behind the curtains, occasionally peeking out and giggling.  The 1yo wanted to be held the whole time, and especially when the vacuum was turned on.  The salesman didn’t let their anti-social behavior stop him.  He said they were cute and great.  I was sure he said those things to anybody’s kids, even if they were hideous and kicking him in the shins.

Once he had the vacuum all put together, he asked me if I wanted clean floors.  I answered that of course I did.  What was I going to say, no, I’d like to live in filth and squalor?  What kind of weirdo would say that?  He proceeded to do a quick demonstration.  He used our Bissell on a section of carpet, going over it 50 times.  He counted each sweep for effect.  I already knew that it wasn’t a very good vacuum.  It picks up the visible fuzz and Cheerios, but I’ve never been impressed by its suction.  Then he used his Kirby over the same stretch of carpet, but instead of using a canister or bag, he inserted these white discs that would show exactly how much dirt the vacuum was picking up.  He stayed down on his hands and knees in order to keep switching out the discs as each quickly accumulated debris.  Then he set them to the side until the dining room floor was covered with 30 or 40 paper discs, each displaying a generous pile of crud against its brilliant white background.  It was obvious which vacuum was better.  But he asked me anyway in order to make me say it out loud.

White vacuum disc with rapidly falling price

[Not the moon.  One of the white discs with the rapidly falling price on it]

After he had tried to get me to like him by showing our similarity and asked me some questions so he could later hold me to my answers, his sales patter focused more on the vacuum itself.  He proceeded to tell my why my Bissell didn’t work well and why his Kirby was superior in every way.  But it wasn’t only my Bissell that was worthless, it was every upright vacuum that could be bought at the store.  They were all terrible in the face of the all-mighty Kirby.  It was unique among vacuums.  I had to admit, I kind of wanted one now.  But he still hadn’t told me how much they were.  We’d get to that soon enough, but first he had to give me more reasons why I had to have one.

“What’s the dirtiest part of the house?” he asked next.  I thought for a few seconds and had a flashback to when we moved a few years ago.  Friends from church helped us with the big items, and when we picked up the bed, the dust bunnies were multitudinous and feral.  “Under the bed,” I answered.  He acted stunned and said I was right.  Said only three people had ever gotten the question right (and I believed him and felt good about myself!).  He said the bed is the dirtiest part of the house because of all of the dead skin cells we shed at night.  Never mind that I hadn’t actually said the bed itself, he glossed right over that in order to give me credit.  He walked down the hallway so he could demonstrate the effectiveness of the Kirby on a bed.  I wasn’t about to let him into our bedroom, which was also in disarray.  So I showed him to the boys’ room.  He vacuumed the toddler bed and sure enough, the Kirby sucked out lots of dirt and dead skin cells from the mattress just as predicted.  It was amazing!  And gross!  And I was pretty sure that I was never going to vacuum any of the mattresses in our house whether we had a Kirby or not!

The last part of the demonstration showcased the shampooing feature which involved more accessories and special soap.  I didn’t really care.  We barely manage to vacuum once in a month of Sundays.  We’re never going to shampoo the carpet.

So finally it came time for the big reveal: the price.  I was, of course, surprised that such a fine machine cost north of 2000 dollars.  How did he ever manage to sell one of these things?  But then came the discounts that I knew were coming.  The first was the trade-in.  He offered to take our ineffectual Bissell for an outrageous sum, more than twice what we had paid for it originally.  Then he asked if I knew anyone who owned a Kirby.  When I said no, he scrambled to find me another discount (only later did I find out from my mom that she had owned a Kirby once upon a time, but gave up on it because it was so heavy to lug around).  He finally hit upon the fact that I have family members who have served in the military.  Another $200 off!  Then he found out that we wouldn’t want to finance the purchase but use cash instead.  That garnered a 10% discount on top of the previous discounts.  It was down to $1710.  What a deal!

That’s when he made his first phone call to the “boss.”  I use scare quotes because it was obvious that this was the plan all along.  In fact, I suspected that this boss was actually the driver of the van, which had conveniently driven away and left him stranded at my house. He asked her how many “friends and family” discounts he had left.  After he had his answer, he proceeded to offer me one of his five remaining “friends and family” discounts.  He acted like he was doing me a big favor to the tune of $550 more off the price.  He was on my side.  He wanted me to have clean floors.  It would only cost $1160.  The price had come down just over 50% from where it started.  How could I say no?

Somehow I said no.  Couldn’t do it.  We didn’t have that kind of money.  That’s when he started to lay on the guilt.  He brought up my earlier answers that I wanted a clean floor and that his Kirby was the better machine.  How could I not buy his vacuum knowing what I knew now?  It wasn’t my fault before, but now I had been enlightened.  The Kirby was the only way that I was going to get all that dirt out of the carpet.  How could I let my kids play on a dirty carpet?  I wouldn’t put clean clothes on a dirty carpet, would I?  He kept pressing the issue.  I couldn’t look him in the eye when he laid on the guilt about the dirty floors.  I felt kind of ashamed about all of the dirt his machine had managed to get out of the carpet.

He called his boss/accomplice again.  When she asked why I didn’t want the vacuum, he told her, “He doesn’t have a reason,” after he had swatted down everything I had offered in the negative.  I tried to explain that we don’t do installment plans (which is mostly true) and we didn’t have the money right now.  So he pushed the installment plan anyway.  Then I told him that any extra money we had was going into fixing our basement from the flood damage last year (the one exception to the ban on installment plans was getting the basement waterproofed).

One last call to the boss yielded a final offer of $1000.  How could I still say no?  They were being so reasonable and accommodating.  I still said no.  I couldn’t make financial decisions like this anyway without consulting my wife. But, he said, if your wife knew all the dirt that was in here, wouldn’t she want you to get it all?  Wouldn’t she want clean floors for the kids? I mean, guy to guy, women can be pretty particular about a clean house. Boy, I thought, you do not know my wife.  She doesn’t care much about a clean house.  And she definitely would not want to spend $1000 on a vacuum.  In fact, the nagging thought that she might kill me if I did buy it kept me from being tempted to give in just to make it all stop.

The whole ordeal took over an hour and a half.  He ignored me every time I said the kids were supposed to be taking naps.  As he was packing up, which he did very slowly, drawing it out so I had to say no a few more times, I finally put down the 1yo for his nap an hour later than usual.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the minivan came back to pick up the vacuum and the salesman.  I was exhausted.

On the plus side, a tiny bit of our carpet was clean.

[for more on the principles of persuasion ably demonstrated by my persecutor, check out this video by researchers Cialdini and Martin]