Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (2013)

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Review #

Acclaimed primatologist Frans de Waal presents the argument that human morality predates and exists outside of religion and spirituality. He uses years of research on groups of great apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees as evidence that it is evolution, not religion, that gives humanity their moral center.

I’m having a difficult time trying to define how I feel about this book, partially because I’m not sure how the author felt about writing it. I got the sense that Frans de Waal was trying to capitalize on the increasingly popularity of the anti-religion movement, but didn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

The basis of de Waal’s book relies on two simple questions. First, are animals capable of demonstrating basic morality and altruism? And does our belief in a deity define humanity’s concept of morality, or are humans capable of acting in a moral fashion without the strictures of organized religion? The problem is that both of these questions is that they can easily be answered with a resounding YES. There are thousands of viral videos on YouTube of animals helping one another with no expectation of personal gain, and “unlikely animal friendships” is one of the most popular channels on Instagram. In terms of morality predating religion, toddlers as young as two are capable of demonstrating altruistic and moral behavior. As it is highly unlikely that they have been indoctrinated into believing in a deity at such a young age, it can be determined that morality is trait shared by all of humanity.

Frans de Waal seems to realize that he doesn’t have a lot to say on this issue, and instead bounces wildly from topic to topic, sharing anecdotes and thoughts without really offering any new evidence to back up his statements. The most interesting chapters of this book are the ones that share various observations and studies on animal behavior. No on can look into the eyes of an ape without seeing a bit of ourselves reflected back. Dozens of anecdotes and studies from scientists around the globe have shown that apes are capable of interpreting fairness, social welfare, and empathy. The title The Bonobo and the Atheist is a bit misleading, since the overwhelming bulk of de Waal’s remarks come from the study of chimpanzees. I can only guess than he chose to put bonobos in the title because they are known as the “hippies” of the ape kingdom. They have a matriarchal society that relies heavily on sex as a peace-keeping and bonding tool. But there were very few instances of de Waal ever working directly with bonobos, so I assume that the title choice just felt sexier somehow.

Another distraction was de Waal’s constant need to play art critic. He draws constant references to Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. These references are completely out of place in a book about the morality and social bonds of apes and humans. He uses the painting to draw references to the religion portion of his argument, which is most definitely the thinner side. But these observations fall flat, mainly because I don’t care about art theory in a book about morality. I still can’t figure out exactly what the point was of these numerous interjections, except perhaps that de Waal really enjoys the work of Bosch.

If this review seems a bit all over the place, it’s because that was the overall tone of The Bonobo and the Atheist. Frans de Waal may be a renowned primatologist, but this does not give him any weight to make pronouncements on the need and desire for religion among societies. He spends a fair bit of time disparaging atheists for fighting so furiously against something that they view as imaginary. But de Waal shies away from making any grand declarations on the existence of nonexistence of a higher power. He seems to understand that no one can make that statement, and focuses much more of his time and attention making an argument for the existence of morality in mammalian species.

Overall, this book contained a lot of interesting observations on the animal kingdom. I enjoyed learning more about chimpanzee and bonobo society. But at no time did I ever feel that the author had a strong opinion on the argument he was trying to make. Which made this book feel ultimately like a cynical cash grab. Which if you think about it, is not a terribly moral action.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Bonobo and the Atheist here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

This post is dedicated to Koko the gorilla, who taught us so much about the existence of souls in animals.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Ten Amazing Books to Take on a Camping Trip

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I absolutely love camping. Every year I await the chance to get away from all the noise and crowds of the city and just drive into the middle of nowhere for a week. My husband and I are avid campers who are both from “indoor” families. Growing up, my mother’s idea of camping would have been a night at the Motel 8. I think part of that may have been because we already lived in the country, where open space, fresh air, and solitude were readily available. As much as I adore living in the Toronto area, I feel more at home in the country.

My husband and I generally go camping rather early in the season, around the end of June. This means that the temperatures average in the low twenties (70*F). For comparison, today it was 33* (93*F) in my Midwestern hometown.  There are numerous benefits to camping at the start of summer in Canada. First of all, schools are still in session so we don’t have to deal with hoards of families crowding the area. We’re both teachers, so our vacations generally mean trying to avoid small children as much as possible. Also, the insects haven’t had the chance to truly come out in force. And my remarkably Day-Glo pale skin has a better chance of avoiding a blistering sunburn. There are a myriad of benefits to camping in cool weather.

Nevertheless, it does have its drawbacks, mainly in that it isn’t exactly bathing suit season yet. This year we are headed to the Bruce Peninsula, near Lake Huron. If you’ve ever wondered how Jack Dawson felt when he went into the waters with the Titanic, take a quick dip in Lake Huron in June. Due to the cooler temperatures, recreational swimming isn’t really an option. Instead, we spend our time kayaking, naming the squirrels that invade our campsite, drinking beer, and reading.

The reading is what has most likely brought you to this post. As I would hate to become one of those horrid cooking blogs which feel the need to bore you with two thousand words of personal nonsense before giving you what you came for, let’s get to the books!

I’ve put together a list of ten books that would be perfect for reading around a campfire or while relaxing in a tent on a rainy day. The first five are all horror novels, because being scared in the woods is fun for everyone. The next five are more family-friendly, in case you don’t want your children waking up at three in the morning because a stick cracked in the darkness and they’re certain it was a beast from the depths of hell.

1) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

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Nine year old Trisha is separated from her family while hiking in the woods of northern New England. Lost for days, dehydrated and scared, Trisha relies on her small radio for solace, tuning into the Boston Red Sox and her hero, pitcher Tom Gordon. But hunger and insects aren’t Trisha’s only problems. Something is stalking the small girl as she wanders through the forest. Something hungry and unnatural.

No list of horror novels is complete without at least one addition from Stephen King . This book is short (for King), atmospheric, and draws on the readers’ fear of the small noises that seem huge when you’re alone in the dark woods.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Keep on the path!

2) The Ritual by Adam Nevill

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A group of four middle-aged men reunite for a hiking trip in the wilds of northern Sweden. When they attempt to take a shortcut through a patch of untouched forest, they find more than they bargained for.

This novel was on my list of favorite books that I read last year. It is a masterpiece of suspense and dread as the four men realize that their formerly fit bodies are beginning to betray them, and they are unable to outrun that which is hunting them.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: If you see a creepy cabin in the middle of the woods, keep walking!

3) The Ruins by Scott Smith

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Hoping to find a lost friend in the jungles of Mexico, four friends stumble upon an ancient ruin and a creeping horror instead. As they become increasingly hungry and panicked, paranoia and hysteria begin to set in.

This novel is also a really great horror film by the same name. It is a creepy combination of psychological and physical horror. What is more dangerous, the jungle or each other?

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Don’t touch unidentified plants! 

4) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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Five short stories centered around the woods and the horrors within, combined with truly disturbing illustrations.

I wrote a review for this graphic novel just a few weeks ago, and I still can’t get it out of my head. The haunting prose and unsettling drawings come together to create a really creepy reading experience.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Curiosity killed the camper!

5) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

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A collection of short folktakes from around the world. This is still a favorite with older and braver children, and continues to send shivers up the spine of many an adult. Make sure you get an edition with the original artwork by Stephen Gammell, as they are an integral part of this reading experience!

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Close your eyes and hope for the best.

 

6) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

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The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and is a bucket-list item for any avid hiker. Bill Bryson is not an avid hiker, yet he and an equally unfit companion set off to complete the AT in the course of one summer. Bryson details the ecology and history of the area as well as his encounters with the local people and wildlife.

Not so long ago, the Appalachian Trail was a relatively unknown area of the United States, favored only by experienced backpackers and campers. From what I hear, it is now overridden by idiot hipsters who think a hiking GPS makes them an expert. This book is a fun expedition through the woods from someone who knows the does not belong there.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: A sense of humor is essential.

7) Hatchet by Gary Paulson

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This ever-popular children’s novella centers on a boy named Brian who finds himself stranded in the wilderness of Northern Canada after his bush-plane crashes. Armed with only a small hatchet, Brian must find a way to survive until he can be rescued.

Hatchet has been a hit with people of all ages for more than thirty years because we as readers identify so strongly with Brian. His early cluelessness and mistakes are the results of a boy growing up away from nature, as so many of us do. This would be a fun novel to read with children.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Never give up.

8) The Call of the Wild by Jack London

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Buck the dog is kidnapped from his easygoing life in Santa Clara and forced into work as a sled dog in the unforgiving winter of the Yukon. Faced with constant danger from the climate, the wildlife, and the cruelty of both his fellow dogs and man, Buck must struggle to survive and reclaim his position as master.

Another book that is very popular with young readers, The Call of the Wild is an enduring story of survival and spirit. Because the main character is a dog, he is easy to root for and we celebrate Buck’s victories as much as we weep for his setbacks.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Be kind to animals.

9) Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Laura Ingalls and her family live in a small wood cabin in the forests of Wisconsin in the mid 18th century. This book describes the struggle and successes of the Ingalls family as they work hard to make a life for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Eternally beloved author Laura Ingalls Wilder as captured the imaginations of generations of children with her Little House books. They are a good reminder of how much the world has changed, and yet how many things remain the same.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Your family is there to love and protect you.

10) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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In the dense forests of medieval Russia, a small village is buried in snow for eight months out of the year. Vasilisa Petrovna grows up wild in the woods, giving offerings to the various sprites and spirits that inhabit the wilderness. When a Catholic priest begins to interfere with village life, Vasilisa must make a choice that will affect her entire future.

I reviewed this novel earlier in the year and I absolutely adored it. A dark fairy tale with religious undertones, The Bear and the Nightingale features a wonderful protagonist who never behaves quite as expected.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: When in doubt, trust your instincts.

Well there you have it, folks! I hope that you enjoy some of these books on your next venture into the forests. Whether you are looking for a scare or for more tame entertainment, you can’t go wrong with a good book! I’ll be on hiatus next week while I am on a camping trip. I hope to return with more recommendations for our readers who love the woods.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

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Review #43

In 2014, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post to try and express her frustration with the way race and racism are discussed in Britain. The post, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, triggered an immediate and intense response from both white and black voices. In her first book, Eddo-Lodge expands upon her initial idea with a series of essays exploring topics such as white dominance, race in feminism, and the link between race and class.

In her preface, Eddo-Lodge explains that she finds it difficult to converse with white people about race because they tend to become either disinterested, defensive, or deflective. Because race is a topic that largely does not affect white people, the author feels that they instead try to turn the conversation around to focus on things from their perspective, and by doing so they shut out the minority viewpoint. On one hand, I completely agree. I have attempted to have conversations about race with my family and friends and the results have been uncomfortable at best or aggressive at worst.

On the other hand, it is generally difficult for humans  to imagine a viewpoint outside of their own. Sympathy and empathy are developed by asking ourselves that age old question, “How would I feel if this happened to me?” By asking that question it seems only natural that one would need to use their own life experiences as a lens through which to view the question. In order to open a dialogue about race and racism in the modern world, we first have to view the world through our own lens and come to an understanding before we can attempt to view the world through the lens of another. If Reni Eddo-Lodge wants to have a conversation about race and racism, this would be a good place to start. But, in this reader’s opinion, she doesn’t want to open a dialogue. She wants to lecture.

Right away, I hear voices in my head saying that I missed the entire point of the book and that I can never understand because I am white. However, I am simply referring to the preface. I actually found the majority of the book to be thought-provoking and insightful. My initial interest was sparked when I found out that it was focused primarily on race in Britain. When it comes to racially charged controversy, so much of the attention is focused on the United States that one tends to forget that it is alive and thriving in other areas as well. In her first essay, “Histories”, Eddo-Lodge points out that while Great Britain greatly benefited financially from the slave trade, they never had to witness the horrors of slavery at their doorstep, due to most of their “assets” being shipped to the Caribbean islands. So while America continues to deal with the aftershocks of slavery and segregation, Britain has allowed itself a certain level of moral superiority that it certainly hasn’t earned. Eddo-Lodge goes on to detail the difficult and violent history of racial minorities and immigrants in England, particularly when it comes to police violence and mob mentality.

The other essay that I particularly enjoyed was entitled “The Feminism Question”. Here, Eddo-Lodge and I agree very closely. Her argument is that the feminist movement is largely made up of white, middle-class women who have more liberty to expound their feminist views both in the workplace and in society at large. I was strongly reminded of the Women’s March last year, wherein thousands of women around the world took the day off of work to march through the streets. I recall reading about women walking in to restaurants and other stores and disparaging the women who had not taken the day off. What I feel that feminism often forgets to take into account is that not everyone has the support structure to just take a day off work. If you are a salaried employee whose children are in daycare, it’s easy enough to take a vacation day. However, if you are an hourly paid worker who is struggling to make ends meet at forty hours a week, it simply isn’t feasible. And since a disproportionate number of these service and hourly waged jobs are occupied by minority race, that they are often left out of the feminist discussion simply by not being invited to the conversation.

The one section of the book that I had serious issues with was the one entitled, “What is White Privilege”. Now do not get me wrong, I have absolutely benefited from white privilege. I accept this fact without condition. My problem is when Reni Eddo-Lodge equates white privilege with racism. At one point she says:

“White privilege is the perverse situation of feeling more comfortable with openly racist, far-right extremists, because at least you know where you stand with them; the boundaries are clear.”

Really? Would she really prefer to live in a world of active racists rather than a world of people who are trying (and perhaps failing but trying) to understand an outside perspective? The problem is that in Eddo-Lodge’s worldview, she leaves no room for disagreement. Either I accept everything that Eddo-Lodge states or I am somehow complicit in the racist treatment that she has had to endure in her life. There’s no room for conversation here. All white people have benefited from white privilege, there’s no denying that. But I actively disagree with the premise that this makes all white people inherently racist. Which, according to her, makes me a racist? One cannot prove a negative, so how am I meant to convince anyone that I am not a racist? Is it even possible if they already assume that you are?

If Reni Eddo-Lodge wanted to challenge people’s views on race and racism, she definitely succeeded with me. Consider that most of my reviews on this site average around 400 words, and this one is pushing one thousand. While reading this book I found myself constantly pausing and re-reading, going back over her arguments to think about them and how they pertain to the larger conversation of racism in the world. And while I did not agree with everything, this is definitely a book that will continue to stick in my brain for a long time.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race here on Amazon and here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Republican Like Me by Ken Stern (2017)

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Review #38

In the days leading up to and following Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, the former CEO of NPR Ken Stern realizes that his social and professional circles are comprised entirely of liberal progressives. He then proceeds to spend a year immersing himself in “Trump’s America”, attending gun shows and NASCAR events, and speaking with the people who feel that the American dream has left them behind. He wonders if the gap between Democrats and Republicans can’t be solved by a little human empathy and understanding.

I need to begin this review on a personal note. I am a liberal progressive from a family with deeply conservative, evangelical roots. To this day I cannot for the life of me figure out how I ended up on the completely other end of the ideological spectrum from the majority of my relatives. Part of me blames Harry Potter. Or the fact that I was one of the first members of my family to attend university (a liberal arts university at that). Whatever the reason, I can state with utter honesty that the 2016 election was a devastating blow towards my relationship with my family. I felt personally betrayed by their decision to vote for Donald Trump. I felt that they had been brainwashed by Fox News and the NRA, and that they had chosen to side with racism, intolerance, and misogyny. Was I being close minded, unfair, and more than a bit immature? Most definitely. But this knee-jerk offense that people tend to take in reaction to those who have different views from them is part of what author Ken Stern seeks to unravel in his book. I went in with very high hopes of a liberal’s fair and reasoned perspective on rural, white America.

It must be immediately addressed that Stern’s book focuses almost completely on white conservative America. At no point does he acknowledge the white, male privilege that allows him to blend in at a gun show, or to interview people in a depressed mining town. The entire book consists almost entirely of one middle-aged white man talking to other middle-aged white men, which gives an extremely limiting perspective. A young black man asking questions of Trump supporters at a NASCAR race would likely have written a very different book. And possibly a more interesting one.

In Republican Like Me, Stern tackles major “hot button issues” such as gun control, evangelism, climate change, and attitudes towards the media. His research is meticulous and well-cited. I enjoyed his use of statistics to blow holes in both conservative and liberal ideologies. For example, during his chapter on gun control he mentions that the majority of firearm deaths in the United States are committed using handguns, not assault rifles. And the vast majority of firearm homicides are either individual murders or suicides. Stern uses this data to draw the conclusion that the Democrats frenzied screaming for a ban on assault weapons will not significantly lower the percentage of gun deaths in the United States.

It might lower the rate at which (white) gunmen walk into public schools and shoot a bunch of children, but Stern doesn’t talk about that.

He does delve heavily into the economic factors which led people to vote for Trump. If a person from a West Virginia mining town sees Hilary Clinton speaking at an exclusive Manhattan banquet about “shutting down the coal industry”, of course they are not going to view her with favor. Stern does not address Clinton in his book, but I wish he had. I had to bite my cheek and grimace as I checked her name on the ballot in 2016. I imagine that a great deal of conservatives had to do the same thing when they voted for Trump. It was this idea more than anything else which caused me to pause and think.

I’ve been a liberal all my life, and I can say without pause that the Democratic party comes off as arrogant, condescending, patronizing, and sanctimonious. They have ceased to be the party of the working people. And while liberals, myself included, pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we will at least be on the “right side” of history, it doesn’t change the fact that 33 governorships, 51 senate seats, and 237 house seats are held by the GOP. If the Democratic party hopes to succeed, they need to remember that not everyone in the country lives in New York or California. But I digress.

I found myself consistently irritated and annoyed by this book. Stern wastes an opportunity to point out the hypocrisy that thrives on both sides of the aisle. He has a wonderful soapbox from which to describe the extreme discrepancy between the majority of reasonable Americans and the frothing lunatics who have been elected to represent them. Instead, he offers pithy platitude on top of condescending comment. “If we just listened to one another…” “If we just took the time to get to know one another…” “Republicans aren’t all that bad…”

On one hand he is absolutely correct. Republicans demonizing liberals and Democrats bashing conservatives doesn’t help anyone except the lobbyists and the corporations they serve. And it is much easier from a psychological standpoint to cater to our own confirmation bias than it is to logically and rationally consider new ideas. It’s easier to point the finger at the “dumb rednecks” who got duped into voting for Trump because they were to stupid to know any better. Most Republican voters are decent, middle-class people who are just trying to support their families and build a better life in a country that they perceive as falling into chaos. This is not new information, and it is not presented here in a new way.

The problem is that it is very difficult to have a logical and rational conversation regarding these ideas. I will absolutely listen to someone from a small, dying Rust Belt town as they lament that all of the factories are closed and the jobs are gone. I can and have discussed fracking versus solar versus coal as a viable form of energy for the future. But I cannot in good conscience listen and nod as someone lays all the blame for their misfortune on “the Muslim African” who got elected illegally by putting mind-control substances in America’s drinking water. I’ve had those exact words said to me by a former coworker. What does Ken Stern think a person should do in that situation? Am I supposed to say, “Ah, yes that’s a very good point and I respect it”? What about the man from my hometown who thinks that all Muslims should be deported whether or not they are legal American citizens? I would wager ninety-to-one odds that he has never met a Muslim in his life. But am I meant to shake this xenophobe’s hand and strive to find common ground?

I realize there are no easy answers, and this is not a conversation that can be solved with one book, or ten, or a thousand. But at the end of the day, Ken Stern pulls too many punches, wastes too many opportunities, and only acknowledges the “white working class” facet of an extremely convoluted issue. For now I will have to accept that we cannot “just all get along”. I guess I’ll just have to continue avoiding political conversations at family gatherings.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Republican Like Me here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

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Review #33

 

In rural Utah, a nine year old girl and her family are driving back to Idaho on a dark night. The girl’s brother falls asleep at the wheel, loses control of the car, and crashes into a utility pole. All members of the family suffer injuries, including her mother who sustains major head trauma. None of them go to the hospital because of their father’s belief that doctors are evil figures put in place by the Illuminati. They will instead rely on herbal remedies and the power of their Mormon faith to heal their injuries. The girl’s mother suffers significant brain damage and is never the same again.

This event happens early on in Educated, a memoir by a girl who is raised by religiously fanatic family isolated in the mountains of southern Idaho. Tara Westover was seventeen years old before she ever entered a classroom. Her lack of formal education left her vulnerable to the manipulations and abuse of her mentally ill father and elder brother. What follows is an account of the struggle between one person’s desire to fulfill themselves and their duty to their family. It is also about the price that sometimes must be paid to extract oneself from a potentially destructive situation.

Tara Westover’s Educated will inevitably draw comparison to The Glass Castle, the  memoir by Jeannette Walls that I reviewed earlier this year. Both feature young women with highly unconventional childhoods who fight to rise above the circumstances of their birth. Both feature the importance of education and family solidarity. And both deal with the idea of having to sever the bonds of that same family in order to survive.

Compared the The Glass Castle, Educated tells the more bitter story. Some of this may have to do with the immediacy of the events detailed in Westover’s memoir. While Jeannette Walls was writing about her childhood through the tempered and nostalgic lens of decades, the events that Westover is describing bring us to the right up to the present day. Time has not been allowed to heal her suffering and create scars. The pain and grief that is still being felt by Westover is palpable. Because of this, we feel the catharsis present in every page, as if the writer is attempting to draw poison from a wound. While reading The Glass Castle, I found myself chuckling every once in awhile. There is not a single moment of joy present in Educated, and I felt my own bitterness rising as I continued reading.

Your opinion on Educated will be strongly connected to your feelings on homeopathic and alternative medicines. My personal feeling is that the creation of antibiotics and vaccinations are the most important advancements in human history since the printing press. The idea that people are resisting vaccinations and antibiotics is utterly baffling. However, if you are one of those people who believe that the government is holding the cure for cancer hostage in an underground bunker so that they can continue to exploit profits from sick people, you will probably be more likely to sympathize with Tara’s father. If so, make sure to get your tinfoil hat on nice and snug before picking up this memoir.

See what I meant about the bitterness?

My rating: 4/5

You can find Educated here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)

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Review #32

 

“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”

Most of us have looked up at the night sky at one time or another and asked ourselves about the nature of the universe. What is the relationship between time and space? What fills up the empty spaces of the cosmos? And what is our place in the scheme of it all? Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson boils these burning questions down to their essence, and explains them in a way that the average person is capable of understanding.

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy in the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period on the end of this sentence.”

Together with Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson is on a short and esteemed list of scientists that are easily recognized by most adults. Part of this is because when you see him on television, his enthusiasm is purely and utterly infectious. Tyson never lost that wonder that so many children feel when they first learn of the universe spinning and burning outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. He combines this sense of excitement with an staggering intellect in his most recent book. Every line of Astrophysics is teeming with exhilaration. While reading, I sometimes got a mental image of an energetic five-year old, dragging me around by the hand to show me all of his favorite toys. That is, of course, if the five-year old then rattled off complex mathematical formulas to explain how those toys worked.

As a theoretical physicist, Tyson’s mission in life is to poke at the universe with a stick, trying to see what might pop out to say hello. He manages to sound colloquial even when he’s talking about immensely complicated topics such as dark matter and the theory of relativity. One of my favorite chapters was where Tyson lists half the elements in the periodic table and explains which ones have always been around and which one are more recent discoveries. As someone who barely passed high school chemistry, I was surprised how interesting the subject matter can become when you have a teacher who knows how to break a subject down to its core.

I will not lie to you and say that I understood all of what Neil deGrasse Tyson was trying to communicate. I’m an English teacher. I can rattle off big “literary” sounding words all day, but I struggle to comprehend the language of science. At a mere one hundred and ten pages, this should have been a reasonably quick read. However, I felt myself having to read each paragraph two or even three times to puzzle out the meaning. I think the most important thing that I took away from Astrophysics was a greater sense of wonder and curiosity. I still have no real idea what a quasar is. But I have a better understanding and respect for those who do. Some of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delight in the mysteries of the universe has rubbed off on me. I’m looking forward to the next time I am out in the country, where I can just look up at the night sky and try to puzzle out the magnitude of what I am seeing.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Astrophysics for People in a Hurry here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

P.S. It was while in the midst of this book that I heard about the death of Stephen Hawking. This post, meager and unworthy though it is, is dedicated to his wondrous lifetime of progress and achievement in the world of science.

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (2004)

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Review #25

 

On July 24, 1984 fundamentalist Mormon brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty broke into the home of their sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty. They proceeded to slit the throat of Brenda’s fifteen-month old daughter before beating and murdering Brenda. When the brothers were eventually caught by the police, they claimed that they were following direct orders from God.

Whenever I think of Mormons, or Latter Day Saints (LDS), a strange dichotomy that comes to mind. On one hand, Mormons are the polite, well-dressed young men who occasionally showed up at my doorstep when I was younger. They abstain from almost all vices and raise their children to have a strong sense of family values. One the other hand, Mormons have been on the wrong side of almost every civil rights issue for the past two hundred years. The church elders only accepted that non-whites were capable of going to heaven in 1978. They fought hard against interracial marriage and are still on the forefront against gay rights. Even today, women of the LDS are banned from making any decisions regarding the direction of their church. Modern Mormons present themselves as upstanding and respectable Americans, but the history of Mormonism is bloody and secretive. In his novel. Jon Krakauer explores this duality of pacifism and violence as it pertains to the Lafferty brothers and the murders they committed.

Under the Banner of Heaven bounces back and forth between the early days of Mormonism, their exodus to Utah, and their eventual rise to a mainstream religion. This is juxtaposed with descriptions of the Lafferty family, their excommunication from the LDS, and the events that culminated in a double murder. The story of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s journey is a fascinating and unsettling story of the persecuted becoming the persecutors.

It’s important to note that the Lafferty brothers were members of the FLDS (Fundamental Latter Day Saints). This is the group that has become well-known with TV shows such as Big Love and Sister Wives. Those shows often depict plural marriage as a kooky, almost sitcom-esque situation. The reality of it is much more insidious. Child-marriage, rape, and incest are rampant within the FLDS, with girls as young as twelve years old regularly being married off to men in their seventies. Education is lacking and many members of the FLDS die unnecessarily due to a deep-rooted mistrust of modern medicine.

While the mainstream LDS church has widely condemned the actions of Dan and Ron Lafferty, Krakauer makes it clear that their hands are far from clean. Their history of violent actions towards the Native Americans and non-Mormon travelers in Utah are still hotly denied by the LDS Church, who has chosen to hide any documents related to the various massacres and scapegoating that took place in the late nineteenth century. Mormonism is openly acknowledged as the first “American” religion, and it cannot be denied that it carries with it a particularly American brand of religious extremism.

This was my first novel by Jon Krakauer, who is widely acknowledged as one of today’s most powerful journalists. I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for more of his novels, as I found Under the Banner of Heaven to be equal parts entertaining and informative.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston (2017)

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Review #21

 

The jungles of Honduras remain one of the few untouched environments left to us on Earth. Deep within this dark and dangerous rainforest, there is rumored to be a lost city, abandoned by a civilization that has remained undiscovered by modern society. In 2012, a group of scientists, archaeologists, filmmakers, and one journalist ventured into the jungles of Mosquitia in hopes of finding the lost White City.

The Lost City of the Monkey God opens with a very dramatic speech given by one of the team leaders. He details all the dangers that await the researchers as they begin the process of entering the untouched jungles of Honduras. The horrible diseases that are spread by insect bites. The fire ants and the spiders. Jaguars that could be waiting in low tree limbs. And the fer-de-lance, which is a snake I had never heard of and hope never to encounter. At one point, the narrator asks his readers not to Google the results of a fer-de-lance bite. I didn’t listen. I pass the warning on to you. Do not Google the results of a fer-de-lance bite if you hope to keep your lunch down.

After this promising introduction, The Lost City of the Monkey God spends the next one hundred pages slogging through the build-up that eventually brings the narrator into the jungles. The reader is given the history of the region and the legend of the lost city. The thick rainforest and high mountains have been a beacon for explorers for hundreds of years, and numerous expeditions have ventured into the area to search for cities to loot and pillage from the native tribes. The way that this modern team uses highly advanced lidar technology is really impressive, but other than that I was tempted to skim past the numerous descriptions of various failed expeditions.

The second part deals with the modern-day exploration of the region, and is easily the most interesting. The third part of the book deals with the aftermath. The fact that none of the team members escaped the journey without some kind of injury was a bit unsettling. I’ve always wanted to visit the jungles of South and Central America, but I might have to rethink that idea.

I’m going to be very honest and say that I’m having trouble writing this review because this book didn’t really leave much of an impression on me. Despite the scary descriptions of creepy-crawlies and drug cartels, I was never transported into Mosquitia. I never felt as if I were breathing the humid air of a thousand-year old jungle. It felt more like I was reading about it over someone else’s shoulder.

This book might have a very good future in an anthropology or archaeology classroom. It’s just not a book that I would want to curl up on my couch and read with a nice cup of tea.

Note: The city itself is rarely referred to as “The city of the monkey god”. It is more popularly known by locals as “Cuidad Blanca” or “White City”. My guess is that writer Douglas Preston correctly realized that titling his book “The Lost White City” sounded like white-nationalist propaganda.

My rating: 3/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar (2013)

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Review #16

 

In January of 1959, nine experienced Russian hikers lead by twenty-three old Igor Dyatlov began a hiking expedition deep into the Ural Mountains. Weeks later, all nine hikers were found dead under mysterious circumstances, scattered throughout the snow without proper clothing, bearing strange injuries, and with traces of radiation on their clothing. Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, this occurrence has become a popular unsolved mystery. Everything from an avalanche to the KGB to the yeti to UFOs has been suggested to try and figure out what happened to the nine hikers. When documentary maker Donnie Eichar’s imagination is sparked by this story, he delves into the case files, flies to Russia, and even attempts to recreate the Dyatlov group’s journey in order to find a definitive explanation for the incident.

I first learned about the Dyatlov Pass Incident through a 2013 found-footage horror film called Devil’s Pass. The film is actually pretty good if you are a fan of found-footage horror films, and I was immediately intrigued by the unsolved mystery of the Russian hikers. I fell down a Wikipedia hole and tried to learn everything I could about it. I am a junkie for unsolved mysteries, so this was a delightful new find. When I heard about Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain, I immediately put myself on a wait list at my local library for the chance to learn more about this strange occurence.

Eichar’s book reads like a written version of an Unsolved Mysteries episode. He sets roughly half of the chapters in 1959, recreating the last few days of the doomed hikers. He manages to put a human face on the young Russian students, and uses diary entries and photographs to paint a picture of a group of young people who are passionate about nature and enthusiastic about life in general. This easily answers the most obvious question, which is why in the world nine people would go hiking in northern Russia in the middle of winter. Eichar also gives us a broad stroke lesson on the historical context of the time. Stalin has recently died, and while Russia is still under the heavy hand of Communism, the country is slowly healing from the cultural and military wars of the previous decade. These chapters are interspersed with others set in 1959, and told from the perspective of the rescue team workers who are utterly baffled by strange deaths of the nine young hikers.

The rest of the book takes places in 2012. We follow Eichar as he chases down lead after lead. He manages to track down Yuri Kuntsevich, the president of the Dyatlov Foundation. He flies to Russia and somehow secures an interview with Yuri Yudin, the tenth member of the original Dyatlov team who had to turn back on the first day due to illness and therefore managed to escape the fate of his friends.

Eichar manages to avoid the “conspiracy nut” path that I think could have been very easy to follow. He immediately discredits the idea that the mountain the hikers were found on (Holatchahl) is supposedly cursed by the local native groups and named “The Mountain of the Dead”. He argues that this is a mistranslation, and the mountain is in fact called “Dead Mountain” due to the fact that nothing grows on it. He discounts the theories of aliens and yetis without giving them much thought. Eichar is utterly practical and devoted to legitimate research and citable sources. He devotes a sizable chunk of the book to methodically listing out all of the possible things that could have caused the deaths of the Dyatlov party and systemically ruling them out. Afterwards, he presents his own theory which he believes can finally explain what happened on that February night. Whether or not you choose to believe him is left up to the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed this book because it appealed to the part of me that loves the inexplicable. I would definitely recommend it, but perhaps not on a ski trip.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Dead Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)

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Review #8

 

Jeannette Walls is born to parents Rex and Rose Mary Walls somewhere in the desert in 1960. At the age of three, she is hospitalized for severe burns acquired from boiling water for hot dogs after her mother refused to make her lunch. Before she has had time to heal properly, her father snatches her out of the hospital, claiming that doctors cannot be trusted. Her family flees in the night. It is not the first nor the last time they will do a “skedaddle”.

So begins The Glass Castle, a powerful memoir of a nomadic childhood spent in the type of crushing poverty most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Jeannette is raised as the ultimate “free range” child, whose sporadic education and lack of stability are touted as a wonderful adventure by her parents. Rex Walls is a manipulative alcoholic who steals from his family while at the same time drawing them dreams of a “glass castle” that they will all live in once he’s struck gold. Literally. His plan is to strike gold in the deserts of Arizona. Rose Mary Walls is a monster of selfishness who feels smothered by the needs of motherhood and would rather watch her four children go for days without food than lift a finger from her “artistic ambitions” to help them.

The only thing I can say in support of Jeannette’s parents is that they ensured she was educated. Not in the conventional sense, but all of the Walls children are well read and are taught to think and understand science, history, and mathematics at an advanced level. Rex Walls, for all of his faults, seems to have been an extraordinarily intelligent man. Which begs the question, what’s more dangerous, a dumb drunk or a smart one?

“When the electricity was on, we ate a lot of beans. A big bag of pinto beans cost under a dollar and would feed us for days. They tasted especially good if you added a spoonful of mayonnaise. We also ate a lot of rice mixed with jack mackerel, which Mom said was excellent brain food. Jack mackerel was not as good as tuna, but was better than cat food, which we ate from time to time when things got really tight.”

This book left me drained. By the time I finished the last page and closed its covers, I felt like I had run an emotional marathon from anger to despair to wild hope and back to fury again. You could group this memoir into chapters labeled by the five stages of grief. We begin with a young Jeannette who loves her Daddy more than anything in the world and is his stalwart supporter even after he throws the family cat out of a moving car. We move with her through anger as she lashes out as her parents for their lack of support, to bargaining as she desperately tries to get her father to stop drinking. We then sink into depression when she realizes that her parents love themselves more than they could ever love any of their children. We finally reach acceptance, where Jeannette realizes that she needs to cut ties with her family if she is ever going to have any semblance of a normal life.

I don’t have children, but most of my peers do and I’ve heard countless stories about the amount of sacrifice required to become a parent. It is taken as a matter of course that a parent will have to put their own needs and ambitions on hold to ensure that the tiny humans they have created are well provided for. The Glass Castle is an example of two people who refuse to do that, and instead seem to view their children as small humans who just happen to live with them. It’s also the story of how Jeannette and her siblings refused to succumb to the cycle of poverty. The Glass Castle was equal parts depressing and uplifting. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can The Glass Castle here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2017, it was also attempted into a film starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts.

Happy reading everyone!