Sunday, May 31, 2015

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird- James McBride

The Good Lord BirdThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was not a book I would have normally picked up. It made it onto my read list as an obligatory adult fiction novel and because it had been a National Book Award winner (2013). During the prologue I was really skeptical, that lasted less than a minute of listening to the audiobook. Less than 5 minutes into the book I was laughing and hooked. Before I was 20% of the way through the book I was recommending it to friends and family members. The story was thoroughly engaging and dealt with serious issues while remaining funny and light-hearted. Michael Boatman did an amazing job of bringing the characters to life- and this may sound a little racist, but he did a great "stereotypical" Southern black guy and Appalachian abolitionist voice for the two main characters Henry [Henrietta] Shakleford, a liberated slave, and John Brown. The book was obviously fiction, but in addition to entertaining me and doing a good job of highlighting the issues and struggles at the time in regards to slavery. It also spurned in me the desire to learn more about John Brown and the pre-Civil War time because the book was so obviously fiction in regards to John Brown it is hard to know how much is true. Certainly many of the events were, but I doubt many of the conversations were. It just concerns me the number of people who have said that this book enlightened them in their understanding of John Brown. The Good Lord Bird itself, if I remember correctly was a woodpecker [probably the ivory-billed woodpecker], but was an amazing bit of symbolism. I ended up taking a day or two off after the book to simply ponder it, which is very rare for me. I still cannot get it out of my head. I look forward to reading some of James McBride's works, or maybe even re-reading this one.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Book Review: My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs- Brian Switek

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite DinosaursMy Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book kicked off a week where I read five books in about as many days and all of them were great. I first heard about the book a couple of summers ago from Science Friday and tried immediately to find an audio copy. It took a while but I finally found one and was very eager to listen to it. Brian Switek talked about how most kids love dinosaurs, but go through it as a phase and he never really grew out of it. I laughed out loud as he described how his wife has to put up with the science mess in his office and has overflowed into all of the other rooms of their apartment because it reminded me of how my wife has to put up with me. Through the book he described his obsession with and hobby of paleontology and although I love Ohio's Paleozoic fossils it made me want to just go West and hunt dino fossils instead. After than he spent a chapter at a time on topics of specific dinosaur features- noises they made, how they could have mated, feathers, and other current research. It was a thoroughly enjoyable book that I was unable to put down in finished in less than a day.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Book Review: god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything- Christopher Hitchens

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons EverythingGod is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A few years ago my best friend and I were talking about Richard Dawkins and my friend mentioned that he wasn't sure why Dawkins got as much attention as he did. He even complained about The God Delusion and how it could have been so much more, but instead repeated a lot of the same old arguments. I pointed out that I think Dawkins popularity comes from being known in the science field and then making the transition to talking about religion. But just as I've said before that not every Christian should discuss or debate science, so not every scientist should discuss or debate religion. That conversation led to other atheist authors that my friend did recommend. One was Sam Harris and the other was Christopher Hitchens. I read The Moral Landscape at the time and actually found a lot of the arguments pretty compelling. I also, about that same time, finally listened to The GOD Delusion. Hitchens kind of went to the back of my mind. I stumbled across this book while browsing for a non-Christian religion or philosophy book to read this round and only when I checked it out did I remember that my friend had recommended Hitchens to me.

This book didn't impress me. Psychology research says that when you confront someone with facts that go against their beliefs that often times they will resist them and it will only make them believe their beliefs all the more. Even going in aware of this mindset I wasn't moved by much of his arguments. I also cannot say that I, believe my beliefs more, there are some doubts that remain or have risen up fresh, but overall I found the book unconvincing. Yes, many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but Hitchens falls prey to several logical fallacies and to over-generalization.

As a scientist and as an educator one that I try to avoid are absolutes. The subtitle alone "How Religion Poisons Everything" (emphasis added) is understandable because it will help market and sell the book and it is more sensational. I can even understand using it, although somewhat inconsistently, as a slogan or catchphrase within the book (this was especially odd to me, since I know it was published with a different subtitle in the UK, I assume the catchphrase had to change in those editions ). He frequently went after a straw-man argument in these cases, pointing out the worst religious extremism and heresy. There were attempts to refute the "No true (insert religious faith here) would do/believe that", but it was unsatisfactory to me." And he is correct there have been many wrongs, but when generalized to the extreme "everything" he just plain gets it wrong.

Furthermore, he had trouble giving any credit. For example, he pointed to Einstein, who almost certainly was a deist, and to Blaise Pascal, and others and pointed out that they "were the best that could be hoped for" given the beliefs of their time. In other words, he took people who believed in one religious faith or another and discounted their beliefs because they were ahead of their times, but not far enough ahead of their times to truly break-free.

It wasn't that I rejected his ideas outright, or that I disagreed with a lot of his examples [because I did agree with many], I just resist the "all" and "everything" extrapolation. I don't buy it and it isn't enough for me. I suppose it was worth listening to his arguements and claims, but they didn't convince me. I was also sad to learn that he has passed away since and so I won't have the chance to let him have another go at it, I am kind of looking forward to letting Sam Harris try again soon with his book Waking Up.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Book Review: Ringworld- Larry Niven

Ringworld (Ringworld Series, #1)Ringworld by Larry Niven
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am always hesitant to pickup new sci-fi and fantasy. Most authors spend so much time creating worlds that they end up getting lost in them and end up writing really long books [or series] that they have trouble ending. So, I was then pleasantly surprised at how short Ringworld was and how concise Larry Niven was in writing Ringworld.

The story was immediately compelling and the world was futuristic. The world was described well enough to get the point across without treating the reader as such an outsider that it was over-explained [or doing the opposite that some books do of not describing it at all and letting the reader figure it out on their own later on]. The plot was immediate and compelling even though it was quite a while before the main characters ended up at the Ringworld and even longer before the (view spoiler)landed on the planet. It then becomes a story about survival in addition to the mystery of this unique planet. Personally, I enjoyed the science in the science fiction much of it was realistic and the sections that are not were at least believable.

On odd thing that I noticed about it was that I had to pay attention a little more than other books and that focus led me to not pick it up a frequently as my enjoyment level should have dictated. None-the-less, it is very easy to understand why it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. I don't know that I am invested in the world enough to read the sequels, but I could see myself re-reading it because it was very good.

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: Speak- Laurie Halse Anderson

SpeakSpeak by Laurie Halse Anderson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In addition to having the goal of reading through as many of the award winning books as possible [Newbery, Printz, National Book, Pulitzer, etc.] I had extra motivation for reading this book. Early in the school year the English teacher at my school assigned this to her freshmen. Shortly thereafter, one of the freshmen [from a conservative family] had her parents withdraw her from school. I was in a meeting, I think National Honor Society [NHS] Advisory Council, when the news came [as the mom was filling out paperwork] and the English teacher and NHS adviser mentioned she felt it was partly her fault because she handled a situation [as it later turned out, over this book] incorrectly. I was told differently by the superintendent, but none-the-less my interest in the book was piqued.

[[spoiler]]I knew the book was about a girl trying to cope with being raped[[/spoiler]]. However, I didn't know a lot else about the book and had trouble getting a hold of a copy of it on audio because it always seemed to be checked out from the library. When it did finally come in I was in the middle of a long book and by the time I finished it had been due back and I had to wait again. In the meantime, my wife picked it up while subbing for that English teacher one day and finished it the next day in less than 24 hours. I did the same. I listened to it in one day after starting and finishing My Beloved Brontosaurus earlier the same day.

The book was good and hard to put down, but I didn't think it was great. It dealt with real-world teen problems from school and social life. I can certainly see the appeal of this book to teens and to making them think about how they would respond to such a situation whether victim, perpetrator, bystander, or friend/outsider. I do wish that the book would have dealt with the plot on a different timeline or delved more into the resolution of the climax. It feels a bit formulaic to have a novel about teens start at the beginning of the school year and finally defeat Voldemort again come to resolution at the end of the school year just in time for summer break. Understand why it won the awards it did and received the recognition it did. Like my wife, I can understand why parents would be concerned about this book, but I cannot see myself sheltering students from such a book [I don't remember a lot of language, but there was one surprising use of f***, and normal public high school talk of sex and drinking without being approving or graphic]. I cannot imagine (at least right now) that I would object to my daughters reading this in high school. I certainly, think earlier than that is probably inappropriate, but it in no way glorifies the evil act and it does not re-victimize the victim unnecessarily [that is, she does it to herself some, but it is not consciously done by outsiders, nor is this treatment condoned]. We cannot, and should not, protect our children and students from everything.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Booke Review: A Song of Ice & Fire- Books 4-5: A Feast for Crows & A Dance with Dragons- George R.R. Martin (read by John Lee & Roy Dotrice resp.)

     I read books 1-3 all in a row and reviewed them together. At the time I started to read A Feast for Crows and made it about 1-2 hours into it before I had to give up and take a break. As I complained them the reader, Roy Dotrice, was pretty hard to listen to. As Season 5 of the TV show loomed I decided, however, this spring that I should pick it up again and read through Book 5. I had the goal of making it through both before the season began on my birthday, but that did not happen [I was about 30% through #5 when Season 5 began]. I am now all caught up with the books and the TV episodes and will review the books here.

     First, I managed to find a copy of A Feast for Crows read by John Lee [according to one webpage, at least three people have read for this book]. Although this upset many fans and I will agree it is hard in a series to switch readers, I personally though that Lee was a better reader and it make book 4 easier to listen to. Unfortunately, Dotrice was back again for book 5, and I had to slow the book down some at times to understand him. I can forgive him his age and understand fans fervor for him, but it does not mean that I enjoyed him any more.

     Of course, George R.R. Martin originally intended these two books to go together and chose to split them oddly on his own, and so I will review them together here. It is understandable that many fantasy books are long. That is because so much of the world needs to be setup, which doesn't have to happen in a normal novel when the world is already familiar to the reader because we live in it. After putting this much effort into the world and character development, it is also not surprising that many authors have trouble letting go of their created world and end up letting the series get away from them, spilling into sequel after sequel. For some series this is a good thing and has been done well (personally, I am a huge fan of The Wheel of Time), and others where it has gone very poorly as the series just drags on and ends poorly (I'm thinking specifically of the Left Behind Series which I started, but never finished the final book). A Song of Ice and Fire balances on a knife edge between those two extremes. I am in love with the characters and much of the story and I want to know what happens to them, at the same time I find myself constantly wondering (or even checking) how much I have left until I'm finished with the stupid thing. This duality is weird.

     Furthermore, I don't remember Martin doing this too much in other books [maybe a little in A Storm of Swords], but he has kind of started giving chapters names. From the beginning chapters have simply been titled after the main character from whose perspective they have taken place, but then in these books he's started using nicknames or positions of characters instead of their real names, he is especially guilty of this with Arya's storyline, as she takes on many nicknames as she tries to become one of the faceless. I understand the desire to do this from the author's perspective, but as a reader it is really frustrating to have such a large encompassing work switch how sections are headed partway through the series. If he wanted to title chapters then he should have done so from the beginning, but now I don't care if Theon (view spoiler) the chapter should still be titled "Theon". The storytelling has drug on and to be honest, until Season 5 I had been enjoying the TV show better than the books, it has held pretty true to the books, and has been less wordy about it. However, Season 5 has begun to deviate quite a bit, there are places where I can forgive them of that (view spoiler), but I'll review the TV show elsewhere.

     Suffice it to say, the series is as detailed as ever, I still dislike Dotrice's reading, and I don't think it was necessary to have the books be so long and drug out or the split into two novels take place. I hope the action in the next book that has been hinted at in the books and by Martin in interviews means that Book 6, The Winds of Winter, will be even better than these two were.

PS- I'm not a purist and several people out there have made chronological order versions of books 4 & 5 and if someone is willing to put up with the constant page flipping and book swapping, it might be worth it instead of reading both straight through (I kind of wonder if anyone has done it with Dotrice's versions of the audiobooks too).

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Book Review: The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee- Sarah Silverman

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I stumbled across a copy of this at the library book sale last spring and my wife picked it up and read it shortly thereafter. She couldn't stop laughing and we managed to find a few copies of Sarah's stand-up and enjoyed those together. I had been hoping to listen to a different comedy book when it came up in my cycle, but the one I wanted wasn't available and The Bedwetter was.
I didn't find the book as hilarious as my wife did, although a lot of that may be because I was forced to stifle my laughs. I read the book in less than 24 hours, but most of it was listened to with my daughters nearby, with my wife sleeping next to me in bed, or on a bus with my students. Although I don't agree with all of her political views, I do appreciate her frankness and not-punches-pulled approach. She is right that women, Jews, and blacks among others are unfairly ostracized still and that conservatives pick weird things to get on soapboxes about. Furthermore, like many other comedians/comediennes are unfairly criticized when they mock one group, when really they mock many.
Hopefully soon I can find old episodes of her TV show and watch that, the book certainly piqued my interest there. Overall, it was a good book with a great mix of humor and critique.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Book Review: Red Badge of Courage- Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of CourageThe Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a classic that m wife highly recommended to me. I was not a big fan of it immediately and I was able to pin down why pretty quickly. It is probably a lacking on my part, but I couldn't get around it. Ironically, this is also probably why the book was so popular and impacting when it came out. The story is told from the point of view of the main character, but throughout the book he mostly remains nameless [his name is told in conversation a few times, but overall his name is unused]. Being told in this way probably made it easier for the reader to put themselves into the shoes of the main character and imagine that they were experiencing what he was. This in turn, forces the reader to imagine being faced with the same hard choices and consequences.
The book reminded me a lot of a short Crime and Punishment. The main character does something that he previously viewed as despicable ((view spoiler)) and then wrestles with trying to justify his actions. The difference is that it is much shorter and the main character has a better opportunity to redeem himself.

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Book Review: Walk Two Moons- Sharon Creech

Walk Two MoonsWalk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Out of all the Newbery books I have managed to find on audio, this was one that my wife, a middle school language arts teacher, recommended most highly to me.
The book was good, but I did not love it. Most of that comes from something that is probably my own bias, but I don't like third person limited where the main character knows things, but they are still hidden to the reader. If the main character knows something that they aren't sharing with the audience then the audience is led into this false sense of solving a mystery that isn't really a mystery. In television this happens a lot when you hear everything in the show and then at some critical point something is whispered to the main character which shapes their actions in the closing dramatic scenes, but if you had heard the whispers the closing would have been obvious.
Sharon Creech does a good job with this because the main character is struggling to come to terms with something tragic that has happened in her life, and so is in denial about the reality of the situation and that is why she doesn't think if the things that are kept from us, but it still took away from the book for me.
Also, there was another (view spoiler) in the book that seemed unnecessary to me. I loved the grandparents and how the main character switched between the road trip that she was on with her grandparents and the story she was telling them, which was the main driver of the plot, while they were on the road trip. I certainly understand they the book is a Newbery winner and why my wife liked it so much, but for me it was only alright.

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