Monthly Archives: January 2013

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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Mini-review clearance: Fiction

In a comment on my last post, Thomas of My Porch suggested that I just make a clean slate of it and not worry about reviewing the books I read in 2012 or else it would be a chore. I think he’s probably right and I’ve seen others do the same. So I’m going to take the compromise route I’ve seen others take: in one two fell swoops, I will mini-review the remaining books read in 2012. Here goes:

Fiction

The Shunning by Beverly Lewis

My co-worker was curious about the huge popularity of so-called “bonnet books”, that is, fiction about the Amish. I hadn’t read one either, so three of us from work decided to read this very well-known one. None of us expected it to be good, and it wasn’t. It’s a melodramatic story about a young woman named Katie who discovers a family secret before her wedding to a widowed bishop. The book makes some troubling assertions about why Katie is the way she is. It was definitely “telling” and not showing with its emotional beats (e.g. “But what happened next was more eloquent and heart wrenching than anything she could have said.”) It became a joke with my co-workers how much I was disturbed by a description of one character as having “blueberry eyes” (it just made me think of the creepy button-eyed people from Coraline). Perhaps Lewis improved with her later books as The Shunning was one of her first books for adults. But I am not that interested in the genre to find out. Final word on this book: we liked the movie better.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

This is an atmospheric little novel about two sisters with a scandalous past featuring mysterious deaths in their family, the Blackwood family. It’s funny how Jackson gets you to root for the clearly crazy main character, Merricat. I was like, yeah, don’t let anyone keep you from burying stuff in the yard, Merricat! The truth about the family past can be guessed at early on, but Jackson wisely doesn’t try to pass off that revelation as the story payoff. There’s a real payoff regarding the final relationship between the remaining Blackwoods and the outside world.

Also, I discovered that a band I like wrote a song inspired by this novel and it’s quite good:

Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis

This is a hilarious collection of stories about an orphan (named Patrick) and his eccentric aunt who has weird philosophies of child-rearing. I’m not sure of my favorite story, but perhaps the one where Patrick gets engaged to a snobbish debutante named Gloria Upson who has expensive taste and a bigoted family. The satirical depiction of the Upsons is superb and the climactic dinner table scene is both funny and oddly touching.

Shoot to Thrill (Monkeewrench #5) by P.J. Tracy

I don’t know whether this was just a dud on its own, or if I’m getting tired of this mystery series. The incessant switching of point-of-view among almost all of the characters became annoying. Also, my favorite characters have always been the guest-appearing cop characters – the ones from Wisconsin who were in #1 and #3 and the brand-new sheriff from the fourth book – and they weren’t in this book.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

It was so refreshing to read a book that truly transported me. There had been some great books read in 2012, but few managed to immerse me in their worlds as much as this one. The novel begins with a detailed account of one summer day in the life of bookish and observant Francie Nolan, an 11-year-old girl living in poverty in Brooklyn. Then it zooms back to a portrait of her parents at the time of their meeting and proceeds chronologically from there until Francie is sixteen. The book is a collection of well-chosen vignettes with some stories lingered over more than others. Francie’s experiment with a diary picks up the narrative at one point. In a different passage, Francie imagines a scene of triumph over her English teacher and it’s written in the form of a play.

Smith’s classic novel drew upon the author’s own childhood experience and it shows: Francie Nolan, her family and her community became about as real to me as characters can get. I especially loved Francie’s relationship with her brother Neeley, particularly near the end of the book. I grew very attached to all of them and was sorry for the story to end.

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Looking back at 2012 and contemplating 2013

Greetings to all readers and a happy new year! This is the point where it is natural to reflect on the year past and think about the year ahead.

In June 2012, I moved to a new apartment and for whatever reason, this coincided with a drop in my posts to this blog. I thought the opposite would be true. With my move, my commute was considerably shorter and also, I had no roommates. I had more free time. I thought I would post more but instead I posted less. I was still reading and would even mentally outline reviews in my head, but when it came down to it, I balked at the actual writing of them. It usually takes me several hours to write a review and that began seeming like ‘work’ to do, and not much like fun.

It has crossed my mind to stop blogging, but I still want to give it a go, and the beginning of a new calendar year still is enough sometimes to rejuvenate my interest in dormant projects. I want to change-up how I review books in some way that makes it more likely for me to post frequently, and the only idea so far is quite simple: write shorter reviews. This will be hard. When I was on my middle school newspaper staff, my contributions to the advice column answers were easy to pick out for how much longer they were than the others. I realize that it’s not every bloggers’ goal to write shorter reviews, and I do like reading the long reviews from other blogs, but if you have tips on writing shorter reviews, I’d be glad to hear them.

With that said, there are a number of books I read in 2012 that I never reviewed. I may still try to review some of them, but in case you are curious, here is a list of the unreviewed books I read in 2012: The Dam Committee by Earl Smith, Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne, The Shunning by Beverly Lewis, Ox Travels: Meetings with Remarkable Travel Writers, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum, Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis, Shoot to Thrill by P.J. Tracy, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

Including re-reads, I read about 46 books this year. It’s definitely less books read than the past couple of years, but includes some chunksters.

I read some great books this year, but there are four that especially stand out:

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Tiina Nunnally

– This was definitely a transporting reading experience, thanks to Andersen’s storytelling gifts and Nunnally’s accomplished translation.

Here is Your War by Ernie Pyle

– An account of American troops in North Africa during World War II, written by the legendary war correspondent, Ernie Pyle.

Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne

Several years ago, Newsweek included this book in its list of “50 books for our times.” I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. I know many people – family and friends – for whom belief in the literal interpretation of the biblical creation account is considered essential to Christian faith.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A classic novel that depicts the coming-of-age of Francie Nolan in early 20th century Brooklyn. The poignancy of this story is unforced, and the sense of place is palpable.

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I hope to be catching up on other blogs’ end-of-year lists but feel free to describe your favorite reads from 2012 in the comments or include a link to your post on that subject.

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