Mini-review clearance: Nonfiction

Continuing my wrap-up of books read in 2012:

Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne

I grew up believing that (macro) evolution was not true because it didn’t align with a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation account. This was the only valid interpretation according to my parents, my church and most Christians I knew. There was a man who sometimes attended that church who believed evolution was true and I regarded him with astonished curiosity. Later, as an adult, I rejected the idea that evolution and Christianity were incompatible with each other, but felt I needed to learn more before officially changing my own view. I’ve had Coyne’s book on my to-read list for several years and finally got around to reading it last year. Coyne, a scientist whose primary field is evolutionary biology, outlines evolutionary theory in an intelligent but accessible way. He references recent research (the book was published in 2009), and includes fascinating and entertaining examples from the natural world. I especially enjoyed the chapters on the fossil record and vestigial organs / embryonic development.

Coyne’s main stumble is the awkward inclusion of sentences along the lines of, “why would a beneficent creator have done such-and-such this way” (I don’t have the book with me, so forgive the paraphrase). The book’s focus is not theological, so sentences pondering the motives of God just come off as clumsy and distracting. But overall, I really appreciated this book for giving me a good understanding of evolutionary theory. I felt like something just clicked in my brain after reading Coyne’s book and made me look at the world with fresh eyes.

(While reading the book, I sought out writings by Christians who view as evolution is true and found this great article by a biology professor who used to support the Intelligent Design movement.) Obviously I came to this book with issues of faith in mind, but I recommend Why Evolution is True for anyone who wants a refresh on evolutionary theory.

Ox Travels: Meetings With Remarkable Travel Writers – introduced by Michael Palin

If you’ve been reading this blog for while, you may know that I have a penchant for travel writing. When I was in Portland, Oregon last year, I raided the travel section of Powell’s Books, and this was one of the books highlighted by the store. Ox Travels is a collection of 36 travel essays, and proceeds of the book go toward supporting the work of Oxfam. Some of the essays are adapted excerpts from books, especially in the case of well-known travel writers such as Paul Theroux and William Dalrymple. I hadn’t read any of the source books, so the re-use of this material didn’t bother me. As with most books of essays, there were a few weak links, but overall this was a fine collection. There is “The End of the Bolster”, a little romantic tale from Sara Wheeler and “A Cave on the Black Sea” which is a story from an unfinished book by the recently deceased Patrick Leigh Fermor. There is a story which tells of a Brazilian Rastafarian who travels to Benin, the land of his ancestors; another story describes a tense encounter in the diamond fields of Zimbabwe; a street performer works a bit of magic on a desperate crowd waiting for a plane in Freetown, Sierra Leone in “The Beggar King”.

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum

The subtitle of Ghost Hunters pretty much gives the premise for this book, although I would qualify that the book focuses on many researchers and not just William James (brother of author Henry James!). Ghost Hunters chronicles the efforts of these scientists to investigate mediums and others who claimed to bear messages from the dead, whether through sittings, seances or letter-writing. Blum focuses on the scientists’ work of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Unsurprisingly, the scientists are derided by the rest of the scientific community for this line of research. The researchers often found possible psychics to be frauds, but occasionally there was an incident that seemed genuine and not a trick. It was methodical work with few rewards and about halfway through the book, I felt like that could somewhat describe my reading experience as well. I won’t blame Blum, as I think some external factors contributed to my declining interest in the book, but I was really dragging along by the end. That said, one of the aspects I did enjoy about this book was the parade of Victorian movers-and-shakers that had connections to psychical research: there were a lot of familiar names, from authors to philosophers to inventors.

This book was recommended to me by Eva.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi

This is a short memoir by Islamic feminist writer, Fatima Mernissi, about growing up in Fez, Morocco during the 1940′s. As the outside world is shaken by World War II, young Fatima learns about harem life. While her grandfather had many wives, the generation of Fatima’s father tended to be more monogamous. The household Fatima lives in is a harem because the women are not allowed outside, except on escorted visits. Another aspect of harem life is the multi-family dimension: Fatima grows up with cousins and aunts and uncles around. An aunt comes to live there after separating from her husband. Fatima observes how the women around her negotiate this cloistered life. Some abide by it strictly, while others test the boundaries. Fatima also compares this harem life to the harem life experienced on her grandfather’s farm, where the rules are a little more relaxed because it is in the country. I thought Mernissi occasionally laid it on too thick with metaphorical / inspirational passages, but I loved how Mernissi captured the details of this life and the personalities of her family.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who studied abroad in Morocco when she was in college.

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8 Comments

Filed under Non-Fiction

8 responses to “Mini-review clearance: Nonfiction

  1. Eva

    Aww: I’m sorry Ghost Hunters dragged for you. :( I don’t think that my recs were all that good for you, were they? Sorry again!

    I actually have two of Mernissi’s other books out from the library right now!

    • Well, I’ve only tried three from the compendium and I really liked The Woman in White. In my view, the fact that I didn’t love Wicked Lovely and Ghost Hunters casts no aspersions on your recommendation abilities. A few of the books I have most wanted to read from your recommendations (like the Bowen book, and Shooting the Boh) are not at my local branch library, so I just need to reserve them, or figure out interlibrary loan which I haven’t done yet in this particular library system.

      I figured you would probably know about Mernissi – based on Dreams of Trespass, she seems like an author that you might like.

  2. If you’re looking for a Christian perspective on evolution, you might want to check out “The Language of God” by Francis Collins. He was the head of the human genome project and now heads up the NIH. He explains the science really well and talks a lot about how his work as a scientist intersects with his Christian faith. My church book group read it a while back and everyone liked it.

  3. I felt kind of the same as you about Ghost Hunters. It was interesting but had a lot of information in it that I already had in my brain from elsewhere so it just did have that “fresh and exciting” feel that I was looking for. Still, I’m glad I read it.

    • I’m glad I read it too. I was aware of the spiritualism of the time period, but actually didn’t really know about scientists who investigated the seances, etc. that were so popular then.

  4. I thought Ghost Hunters dragged a little bit too. It was interesting, but too much or too slow or something. I think her most recent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, is much better.

    • Good to know – I did read some of her Slate essay about the poisoning of industrial alcohol and thought it was interesting – and apparently that essay was a byproduct of her research for The Poisoner’s Handbook.

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