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, faith, history, literature, personal, science

Book Reviews, January 2015

Here is the first installment of mini book reviews that I promised earlier this year.  I’m planning on writing these reviews for nearly every book I read, first posting them on goodreads.com and then collecting them monthly to post here (so you can eagerly anticipate the next installment on February 28th!).  My goals for this project are twofold.  Most importantly, I want to make sure that I am paying attention and digesting what I read.  I’m hoping that the process of writing these reviews will encourage closer reading and understanding on my part.  The secondary goal is to provide useful book recommendations for anyone who reads my blog (I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the fiction reviews).  Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments.

  • Saving Darwin by Karl W. Giberson is a decent overview of the creation/evolution debate from a theistic evolutionist, if not as in depth as I would sometimes like.  But sometimes it’s good to step back and view many facets of a debate instead of focusing solely on particulars.  While I am in the same camp as Giberson (someone of faith who accepts evolution), I am still learning much about the issue.  So while I’ve enjoyed more thorough treatments of the Scopes trial by Edward Larson or the history of young earth creationism by Ronald Numbers, it was helpful to read a summary of the U.S. court cases since Scopes and an analysis of the “dark companions” of evolution such as social Darwinism and eugenics.  Giberson is well read on all aspects of the debate so I found his end notes especially helpful in preparing a further reading list to delve deeper on some of these issues.  As a Christian, I especially liked the section where he wrestled with intelligent design, admitting that he wished that the argument from design were true.  He cannot accept it theologically though because of what it would say about God when one considers bad designs (human knees that wear out) or seemingly horrific designs (various parasites).  Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone of faith willing to consider evolution and looking for a solid overview of the debate.
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer is an enjoyable Sherlock Holmes adventure, filling in a perceived gap in the canonical works by Arthur Conan Doyle.  I only finished reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories last year (though they were given to me when I was in junior high by my older brother—thanks Alex!), so I was looking for something more now that the BBC’s Sherlock is between seasons as well.  Meyer’s book was a decent “fix” for my itch.  Watson narrates, as he does most of the original stories, and his voice is a credible facsimile.  I never felt taken out of the story because of the narration.  The plot concerns Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (the “seven-per-cent solution” also mentioned in the original stories) and his heretofore unmentioned meeting with Sigmund Freud.  It’s all very clever and well done, but that’s part of what I didn’t love about the book.  It seems that books (or movies) like these—prequels, reboots, or continuations of famous characters or series—often succumb too much to fan service instead of trying to do something new.  By fan service, I mean bringing back beloved elements or tying together every last unexplained detail in the original or having a huge crossover event (world’s most famous detective meets the father of psychoanalysis!).  But maybe it’s the predictability of the original series that makes it beloved in the first place.  So a reasonable facsimile can keep people happy in the meantime.  I was reasonably entertained.
  • Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert E. Webber is a book I needed to read.  Perhaps it would have been even better if I had read it when I first started attending an Episcopal church in grad school.  The book is mostly a story, the first half Webber’s personal story from evangelicalism to the Episcopal church, and the second half the stories of other like-minded evangelical pilgrims on the Canterbury trail, so to speak.  Webber frames his own story as a search for six needs that he found fulfilled in the Anglican tradition: mystery, worship, sacraments, historic identity, ecumenicalism, and a holistic spirituality.  Sometimes I wished he would spend more time on any of these topics, but he was more concerned with telling his story instead of deep analysis of liturgy.  I suppose that means I need to look somewhere else for that kind of book.  I found Webber’s and his co-pilgrim’s stories comforting as they found richness and freedom in the same way as I have in the Episcopal church.  The book is not meant as a critique of the evangelical churches that they left, but merely a way to tell through personal spiritual journeys how not everyone’s needs are met in an evangelical church.  Webber points out the many strengths of evangelicalism and how the two traditions can learn from each other.  I think this is a book that any evangelical who is interested in liturgical worship should read.  Episcopalians should also seek out this book to find out why evangelicals (like me) were attracted to their door. [Please note that there is a newer edition of the book which keeps all of Webber’s text and story, but replaces the original co-pilgrims’ stories with newer examples.  I have not read this new edition, so I cannot say if I prefer it over the original.]
  • The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould is an excellent history of science that argues against biological determinism of intelligence.  His main argument is that intelligence is not a single, innate, heritable, quantifiable entity, able to be ranked.  By going back and looking at the data and methodology of key figures along the way, Gould is able to show where scientists erred.  He shows how easy it was for scientists’ bias to affect how they measured the size of skulls in the 19th century or how IQ tests for U.S. Army recruits in World War I were inadequately administered and the content biased against immigrants and those without formal education.  This history is humbling for science, a warning always to be aware of bias.  However, I had trouble following his arguments against the theory of general intelligence (g) by Spearman and later Burt.  It involves factor analysis, a method of statistics initially invented to analyze mental tests (but used for many other things).  I don’t have any background in statistics, so I couldn’t tell if his critiques hit the mark or not.  But I did understand when he pointed out that the correlations between a set of mental tests could just as easily show the advantages or deficits of environment as a biological IQ.  He also explained how using other statistical methods on the same data, it is possible to see multiple intelligences (as in Gardner) instead of one general intelligence underlying everything.  Gould wrote the book originally in 1981, but revised it after The Bell Curve came out in 1994 so that he could add a few supplementary essays rebutting it.  The Bell Curve made a big splash when it was published, but Gould feels that it was merely rehashing the same biological determinism of intelligence that he had already shown was mistaken.  I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of science or the science of intelligence. [Please note the comment below about the controversy surrounding this book]
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personal, politics

The Needle and the Damage Done

There’s an exchange in Saga, the sci-fi comic by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples (you should read it!), where two characters debate the role of drugs and the merits of their art.  Alana is a new actress in the Circuit, an underground theater troupe whose performances are broadcast to the universe, and Yuma is the set designer and a veteran of the troupe.  The soap opera plots of the Circuit performances are hokey, but Alana has always wanted to be a star in the Circuit.  Yuma is more cynical about their role in the universe, a universe where most inhabited planets are stuck in a protracted war with one another.

Yuma: It’s true, the Circuit has only ever existed to pacify an angry and hopeless population.

Alana: Maybe shitty shows like ours, but what about actual good ones?  I got into “Filament City” when I was young, changed the way I think about poverty.

Yuma: And what did you do?  Join a nonprofit organization?  Volunteer at a soup kitchen?  Or did you lock yourself in a tiny room, shut the blinds and mainline every transmission like a junkie?  Some art might have the power to change people, but the Circuit can only ever change the way we feel, and never for very long.

Alana: Yuma, if you really think this business is just narcotizing our audience, why are you still working here?

Yuma: Because I adore drugs.

Science fiction, though set in a galaxy far, far away in some distant age in the future or past, often functions as a critique of the here and now.  These words by the two women seem pointed to our own TV entertainments.  I know I’ve binge-watched shows on DVD or Netflix “like a junkie.”  But it’s the comment about the show “Filament City” that really gets me.  HBO’s The Wire seems analogous with the fictional “Filament City.”  However, The Wire is actually good (as opposed to the Circuit productions) and socially conscious.  And it helped me change my mind on how I think about poverty and especially the Drug War, as I’m sure it has for many other viewers.

I’ve never used illegal drugs.  It’s not that I have incredible self control and just say no; I’ve never even been offered drugs.  I’ve never sought them out, either, though.  So I don’t have a lot of experience with drug users.  But I suppose I thought, when I thought about it at all, that drug users deserved their jail time because they knowingly broke the law.  I tend to be a rule follower, so it was easy to sit in judgment over those who have broken the rules.  I didn’t really think about the fact that drug users need help with their addictions.  It’s not something that a person can usually do by themselves.

So The Wire helped me change my mind on drugs by showing me lives ruined by drugs and the drug trade, from users to dealers to cops to innocent bystanders.  Yuma, in the quote above, seems to think that any sort of change, if it’s real change, would require getting involved in some way, either by volunteering to help drug addicts or becoming an activist.  And sure, those would be great things to do, but they are not things I can undertake at this time.  Does that mean that my mind hasn’t really changed if I don’t become an activist?  I don’t think so.  I think there are other ways to express my change of thinking.  For me, watching The Wire is a catalyst, leading me to want to know more about the criminal justice system (I’m really interested in reading The New Jim Crow) and the lives of those in poverty affected by drugs (I’m also eager to read Random Family).  Now I want to support political candidates who are for changing sentencing guidelines for drug offenders or other prison reforms.  Educating myself and voting behavior are not meaningless changes.

One question that bothers me is why do we lock up drug offenders instead of offering them treatment?  Why is drug addiction considered a criminal matter rather than a health issue?  I recently finished a delightful non-canonical Sherlock Holmes story called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, where Watson helps Holmes kick his cocaine habit.  Sherlock’s cocaine use was mentioned in the original stories, but in this tale, his addiction has gotten out of control.  He is delusional, and the drug is killing him.  As his best friend, Watson naturally cares for him and wants him to be free of the drug.  He hatches a plan to help Sherlock break his addiction.  Throughout the story we empathize with Sherlock, wanting to understand his addiction and eager to see him helped.  But this is not how we treat most drug users in America.

In America, we lock them up.  Nearly half of all inmates in federal prisons are there on drug charges (48.7%, or 97,252 as of Nov. 29, 2014).  Many of the state and local inmates are also there for drug charges.  I could not find exact figures for non-federal inmates, so I looked up the stats for South Dakota, the state where I live.  Twenty three percent of inmates in SD are there on drug charges, and more than half of that 23% were guilty of possession (pdf).  Possession charges make no distinction between personal use and intent to distribute or sell the drug; it merely means the person has illegal drugs.  The total prison population (federal, state, and local) is over 2 million inmates, but it hasn’t always been so large.  Starting in the mid-1970s the prison population has grown more than four-fold.  It used to be less than 500,000 before the Drug War started.

And what has the Drug War accomplished besides filling our prisons to capacity?  The price of drugs has gone down, not up, over time.  The purity of the drugs has also increased over time.  These are evidences that drugs are more available than ever, despite the efforts of the War on Drugs.  There is also the human toll.  The Drug War disproportionately targets black people more than white people.  Whites use drugs at least as much as if not more than blacks over the course of their lifetime, but blacks make up a larger percentage of prison inmates on drug charges.  Black people are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, though their rate of marijuana usage is practically the same as for white people.

I don’t claim to know what to do for those who use drugs.  But incarcerating them for the last 40 years doesn’t seem like the solution.  The War on Drugs is a war on people who need help.  And it’s a war that isn’t working.  Some of you already know this, but it took the art of The Wire and a further adventure of Sherlock Holmes to help me see it, too.

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