Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Read: 8 March, 2017

This is a difficult book to review because, of course, it wasn’t written for me. What I get out of it, what I think of it, is fairly beside the point. And there are many other reviews of far far more value than whatever I could say.

As I was reading, I tried to think of this book’s use as a primer for, say, white teenagers. It’s a bit fast paced, with references and allusions coming from every direction. This book was not written to be some white kid’s 101, so the points aren’t argued, the references aren’t explained. The intended audience is passed all that already. But, still, even though a lot would fly over a white kid’s head, there’s a lot there that should stick.

It’s a beautiful, powerful, brutal book. And it is so, so timely.

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Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Read: 10 December, 2016

As I believe I’ve mentioned here before, I listen to audiobooks as I fall asleep to help keep the creeping anxiety at bay. It works wonders! Not only does it mean getting a little extra reading time in at the end of the day, it also means having something to focus on other than my own varied and myriad shortcomings as I try to lose consciousness. Win win!

This book did not work.

I knew I was in trouble as soon as Lawson’s first joke had me laughing at loud. Her voice (the audiobook is narrated by its author) is upbeat, and she tends to begin each chapter with a (rather loud) song.One of these woke my spouse and, after about 20 minutes of the bed shaking because we were both laughing so hard, I realised that this was not going to work as a bedtime book. Instead, it became my doing-the-dishes book.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever laughed so hard while doing the dishes.

Lawson’s reading style is very casual – she sounds like someone rather excitable telling anecdotes at a party. She gets caught up in her stories, occasionally even adding asides that I’m pretty sure aren’t in the text, and she is always careful to put the appropriate emphasis on words like “vagina.”

As much as I enjoyed the book, the narrative style was uneven. The stories of Lawson’s childhood – mostly found in the first half of the book – were great, but then a number of chapters in the second half sounded as though she had just reproduced posts from her blog without much editing. So while the book begins as a memoir, it then becomes a random assortment of vignettes – having a sleepover with friends, a collection of post-it notes left for her husband, that sort of thing. Each of these chapters is a whole unto itself, with a kind of thesis that is explained and resolved by the end, but that doesn’t fit with the larger themes of the book. Most of these chapters were absolutely fine, and I enjoyed them, but they felt out of place. Honestly, they read like filler – like Lawson wrote this book about her family, realised that it was too short, and padded it with blog posts.

Despite this one flaw, I really enjoyed the book. It’s not something that I would read again, but it was funny and entertaining and it made doing the dishes a whole lot of fun.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Read: 5 December, 2016

Immortal Life is a fantastic book about the HeLa cell line – immortal cells that kick started many fields of modern medical science.

But the story goes beyond the clinical, exploring the life of Henrietta herself, her husband, her children, her many descendants. Much of the story focuses on Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her search to learn about the mother she couldn’t remember.

It’s a heartbreakingly human tale of horrific medical abuse, crushing poverty, child abuse, Old Timey medical research ethics. It personalizes what have for so long been thought of as nothing more than a collection of cells in a test tube.

The issues raised about ethical medical research are important ones, and Skloot gives us few easy answers. But they are things that we all should know about and consider.

Even more important is the history of medical abuses towards black patients and those with mental illnesses. So much of the modern medical science we depend on today was developed through horrific experimentation on vulnerable populations. For that alone, this book should be required reading for all teens.

I was aware of most of the issues brought up in the book, but getting to know Deborah and the Lacks family made it all so much more viscerally real.

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Young, Sick, and Invisible by Ania Bula

Read: 15 August, 2016

Full disclosure, Ania is a close friend and I read an early draft of the book back in 2014 (I’m even named in the acknowledgements, albeit with a slight misspelling!), so this is my second read through.

In Young, Sick, and Invisible, Ania tells the story of her illness – from the first aches and pains, though the diagnosis, and on to coping. She talks about dealing with doctors (the good and the bad), navigating school and employment, relationships and sex, family, and even the occasional excursion into “alternative medicine.” She offers helpful tips for other sufferers of chronic illness, and tips for those of us who want to help but don’t quite know where to start.

The writing style sometimes lapses into a laundry list with too little narrative scaffolding. It would have been nice if the book could have focused more on Ania’s experience, rather than her experiences, because that’s where the book is at its most interesting.

Even so, Young, Sick, and Invisible is a good primer on disability issues (including accessibility, ways in which the Canadian medical system needs improving, and how Canada handles long term unemployment for medical reasons), all wrapped around an interesting personal account.

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Zealot by Reza Aslan

This review is a repost from my Bible Blog: CarpeScriptura.com

Read: 3 November, 2013

I posted my review of No god but God a few days ago [the review posted to my Bible Blog is different (in small-ish ways) from the one I posted here] because I feel it’s important to contextualize my discussion of ZealotNo god by God seems to be fairly unanimously considered awesome, with many reviewers saying that they use it as a reference. In fact, I read it after John Green said in a video that it was his recommended primer on Islam.

Yet I found many instances where Aslan was fudging. Either he slipped some piece of information in casually that really needed a more detailed treatment, or he’d use linguistic tricks to shift perception. I don’t want to repeat my whole review (you can go read it for yourself), but my point is that many of the complaints I’ve seen of Zealot are not at all unique to that book.

The Infamous Interview

A few months ago, Aslan did an interview with Lauren Green on Fox News. The interview is awful. Not to be too “Leftist,” but it pretty much encapsulates every complaint made of Fox News. It’s almost so extreme as to be a thing of beauty. Really, watch it, if you haven’t already:

Green’s awkwardness is very distracting, but a little fact checking reveals that Aslan doesn’t come out of this interview so well either.

As Matthew J. Franck points out, Aslan misrepresented his qualifications:

Aslan does have four degrees, as Joe Carter has noted: a 1995 B.A. in religion from Santa Clara University, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and wrote his senior thesis on “The Messianic Secret in the Gospel of Mark”; a 1999 Master of Theological Studies from Harvard; a 2002 Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from the University of Iowa; and a 2009 Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

None of these degrees is in history, so Aslan’s repeated claims that he has “a Ph.D. in the history of religions” and that he is “a historian” are false.  Nor is “professor of religions” what he does “for a living.”

More importantly, Larry Hurtado points out that Aslan is a:

PhD in Sociology of Religion, and with his own marketing firm, and with a university connection in creative writing, but no training or demonstrated expertise in ancient Judaism, early Christianity, Roman history, or any of the subjects relevant to the book in question.

Green’s question of his qualifications to write this book was absolutely warranted, she just focused on a completely trivial and irrelevant reason. (Not that, of course, Aslan wouldn’t have the right to write this book or even be taken seriously, but the fact that he misrepresented his qualifications to lend himself additional authority is very concerning.)

This issue is in the book, as well. Within just a couple pages, we get:

…two decades of rigorous academic research into the origins of Christianity… (p. xix-xx)

…two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history… (p. xx)

And then Aslan’s Acknowledgements page begins:

This book is the result of two decades of research into the New Testament and the origins of the Christian movement…

Pro tip: If your Acknowledgements begin by mentioning all of your own hard work, you’re doing it wrong.

I can’t remember ever seeing a purportedly scholarly book dwelling so much on all of the author’s hard work in putting together the research. It’s a distraction, completely irrelevant to the quality of the research, so why even mention it?

As an amateur Bible-enthusiast, I don’t have a lot of tools at my disposal to distinguish between good sources and bad sources. This kind of pontificating on one’s qualifications is a huge red flag.

The Book

Aslan is a fantastic writer. His use of language is extremely effective and he can, as they say, bring his subjects “to life.”

But his writing ability isn’t necessarily a good thing for his readers. As I pointed out in my review of No god but God, he uses subtle linguistic tricks to predispose his readers for/against certain ideas, and he does it so well that I find myself needing to read his books on constant high alert – reading slowly and making sure to note every single word.

It’s exhausting.

While I lack the expertise to judge most of Aslan’s assertions, my suspicions were raised early on when he states that “crucifixion was a punishment that Rome reserved almost exclusively for the crime of sedition” (p.xxviii). Given that a large part of his argument rests on this fact, I felt that it warrants far more than just a throw-away line. And, as it turns out, the use was not nearly so clear-cut.

I found the construction of Aslan’s notes to be worrisome. Facts are stated outright throughout the book, often without attribution. The notes, rather than being proper end notes, just summarize the research Aslan did for each chapter, provide a little more discussion, and recommend further reading. That is not enough. I need to fact check his statements, and the format of the book does not, in most cases, facilitate that.

Even in cases where he uses a contemporary document to bolster his claims, he frequently fails to name the document (which might be Google-able). Instead, the notes simply refer me to journal articles hidden behind paywalls – something that most of his audience will obviously not have access to.

I was also concerned by how easily he shifts back and forth between dismissing the gospel accounts and reading into them to find a nuance that supports his claims, or using them to feed the biographical narrative. Often, there is no attempt to explain why some passages are apparently reliable and others aren’t. Even when there is an attempt at an explanation, it’s only say that obviously the gospel authors changed that bit because they were writing from a post-destruction vantage – circular reasoning at its finest.

But, like I said, I really do lack the expertise to give the content of the book any kind of real rebuttal. Instead, here are some reviews that I think make compelling counter-arguments and, at the very least, offer up food for thought:

Conclusion

Overall, it’s a fun read and I found the depictions of first century Palestine very informative. But without the pre-existing bank of knowledge to sort the wheat from the chaff, I’m very hesitant to absorb any of the information Aslan presents.

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Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

Read: 3 June, 2013

Just a Geek is the story of Wil Wheaton – who achieved fame in his youth through his roles in Stand By Me, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the ever popular The Curse – and his journey to embrace his past as TNG‘s Wesley Crusher and avoid becoming a ‘has been.’ It’s a surprisingly interesting memoir of a former child star given the conspicuous lack of drugs and wild parties (though, clearly with some effort, Wheaton is able to conjure up two – you read that correctly, two – visits to Hooters).

I have to admit, I was one of the many (many many many) Wesley Crusher haters. I hated Wheaton again as Sheldon’s nemesis in The Big Bang Theory because he is really very good at playing an evil character. Then I hated him yet again as Fawkes in The Guild for the same reason.

But then he started doing Table Top and, suddenly, I was in love. Just like that. He’s fantastic, just the right level of geeky, funny, approachable… He just seemed like a really cool guy. So I got Just a Geek from the library and decided to get to know Wil a little better.

And I mostly liked what I read. He dwells a bit too long on describing his successes, which I found a little off-putting, and I found him a little petty in some of his descriptions of other people – even though he seems to realize his pettiness, it still comes through in his narration. I also found the narrative thread to be rather weak, perhaps because he was trying to structure the book around his blog posts rather than writing anew. As a result, I didn’t get a strong sense of his ups and downs, and I had trouble really rooting for him at the logical rooting spots.

I did, however, find it interesting and funny, and I’ve since started reading his blog. I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed it if I’d been following his blog all along, but as a noobie to the Wheaton fandom, it was a great crash course.

And now I really want to watch TNG again…

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Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Read: 23 January, 2013

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Angela’s Ashes is a memoir of Francis McCourt’s childhood, first as a young child to Irish parents in America, and then growing into adulthood in Limerick, Ireland. It’s a childhood of extreme poverty, and all of consequences of that.

It’s a brutal book, and it never lets up. Several reviewers have called the book a “laundry list of the terrible things that happen to the McCourt family,” and in many ways that’s pretty accurate. The happiest moments of the novel, when little Frankie forms a connection with two separate girls, end with those girls dying. Yeah, that’s the kind of book this is.

I quite liked the writing style. I know that there are many who found it irritating, but the short sentences gave it that breathlessness that children get when telling a story. For me, this served to reflect the narrator’s youth during the events of the book, and it heightened its impact.

In some ways, given how relentlessly depressing the book is, I kept expecting it to get worse. Every time Frankie was alone with a priest, I thought “oh no, this is where it happens…” But, thankfully, it never does.

One thing that impressed upon me as I was reading was Frankie’s vulnerability and passivity. Even as an adult, when he’s finally making decisions for himself and leaving Ireland, he has very little say in what happens to him. Though bound for New York, the boat captain simply decides to go to Albany instead and he is forced to come along. When they make a stop and a woman decides to have sex with him, he can do little other than lie down and accept her advances. He may enjoy it and be glad it happened, but it’s still something that happens to him.

It was a frustrating read, of course, as so many of the problems stem from the father’s alcoholism, the mother’s complacency, and the lack of knowledge of both. But all the characters – even the father who takes his dole money to the pub while his children starve at home – are treated with such compassion that it’s hard to feel anything other than pity for the whole family.

It’s a wonderful book full of interesting characters and funny moments and sadness… It would have been so easy for McCourt to write with anger, to lay blame with the various individual choices, institutions, and the sexism that cause nearly all of the suffering he describes. But instead, he merely relays his experiences and we are left to draw our own complicated conclusions.

I highly recommend reading Angela’s Ashes. Just remember to keep tissues handy.

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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

Read: 16 March, 2012

The Road Hill House murder shocked Victorian England. The crime itself was brutal, of course, but what really shook the foundation of Victorian assumptions about social class and safety was that the murder took place in an otherwise ordinary middle class household and that the murder was evidently one of its inmates.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher follows the investigation of the murder and its aftermath, focusing on the lives of the Kent family and on Mr. Whicher, the detective, himself.

Summerscale does an amazing job of contextualising the murder and its aftermath. While she does go a little overboard in painting the Road Hill murder as the catalyst for change in Victorian society, she does at least make her argument rather convincing. Her writing style is approachable even for those unfamiliar with the era, and her frequent mentions of books and historical figures added extra fun to the reading for me because it brought back so many of my lessons from when I studied Victorian literature in university.

I highly recommend Mr. Whicher if you have an interest in the Victorian era, issues surrounding the interaction of law enforcement and privacy, or simply enjoy mysteries and want a little more background on real life detectives.

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The Duggars: 20 and Counting! by Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar

Read: 16 January, 2012

My great challenge in writing this review is to critique the book itself, not the faith that motivates it. The two are so intertwined that sometimes it’s impossible to speak of one without speaking of the other. This book is, after all, part of the Duggar ministry.

This is never more clear than the structure of the book. Superficially, it chronicles the history of the Duggar family, from Michelle and Jim Bob’s childhoods until just before the birth of their 18th child. But the stories are told in such a way as to reinforce the thesis of their ministry: In each case, there is a problem or a crisis, the Duggars react by either “listening to God” or listening to their fears, or greed, or ambition, and then things suddenly and serendipitously resolve.

The lesson, of course, is that God can be counted upon to provide. This has the potential to be very dangerous theology, as we see in Prosperity theology, but at least the Duggars impose limitations, such as refusing to borrow money. Even so, this “leave it to God” attitude has a lot of potential for harm when they follow it to the point of making themselves responsible for 18 children. The Duggars have done well for themselves, but many Quiverfull families haven’t, living well below the poverty line and denying their children basic necessities such as health and dental care. To make matters worse, the repetition that God will provide if the family puts sufficient trust in him implicitly sends the message that those families that are not surviving are failing because they are not putting sufficient trust in God, which would mean that they should give up more control and have more children…

I also noticed that the Duggars have tried to fit parts of their story into a Biblical narrative, such as Jim Bob’s references to the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham as analogous to his political campaign. It isn’t bludgeoning, as I’ve seen elsewhere, but they certainly are speaking to their audience.

Further on that point, I noticed a lot of formulaic phrasing. These are phrases included in the narrative, ostensibly in the voice of Jim Bob or Michelle, but that are repeated frequently (either in the book itself or in the wider evangelical community, or both). For example, the words “Children are a blessing from the Lord” is repeated, without variation, multiple times and integrated into multiple different sentences. I’ve noticed the family use these little phrases in the TV show as well, and it’s always felt scripted and rehearsed, making the family seem insincere.

Speaking of the TV show, I feel that I can’t talk about the book without comparing it to the show (of which I’ve only watched the 18 and Counting season, which overlapped nicely with much of the topics discussed in the book). To its credit, this book never felt like just another TV show tie in. Rather, it had real content and was entirely readable even for families that do not have a television and have never seen the show – which I imagine was intentional given the Duggars’ TV viewing philosophy.

I found the differences between the TV show and the book interesting, and it speaks to just how media savvy the Duggars are. The TV show, clearly intended for a broader audience, focuses on the fuzzy family happiness. God is ever present, but more as an underlying principle. The goal, clearly, is to make the show interesting for “lukewarm Christians,” drawing them into the lifestyle with promises of the happy, close-knit family, without scaring them off with too much God-talk. The book, on the other hand, is clearly marketed at the converted, perhaps young couples who already hold Quiverfull values but who are afraid of taking that next big step. I imagine that this book is intended to be passed around in churches, recommended to new couples or given to new parents. As a result, the God-talk is front and centre, with every story coming back to God and to the Biblical underpinnings of Duggar theology. If the TV show is the infomercial, the book is the hard sell.

But given this, I found it interesting that any Biblical passages references were hidden away in the end notes, not displayed in the actual pages either as footnotes or embedded in the text. Given the audience and the fact that the Duggars are clearly not holding back on the God-talk in other ways, I found this detail very interesting.

In closing, I would like to share a recent post written by Libby Anne that was running through my mind as I read: From cog to individual.

The Duggars: 2o and Counting! was a better read than I expected, and it was interesting for me because of my interest in the Quiverfull movement. But the advice is all tied to the ministry, so don’t bother if you are looking for real tips for managing your household! The recipes provided, while interesting and great for bulk cooking, look awful and have very low nutritional value. Much of their advice for making money or being frugal relied on tales of their good luck (err… good “faith,” as Jim Bob prefers to call it), and many of their organizational tips are good but require substantial remodling of the average home to accommodate. In other words, I’d recommend this book for people with an interest in the movement, whether they are thinking of joining it or merely studying it. For anyone else, meh.

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Empress by Shan Sa

Read: 20 July, 2010

Empress Wu tells the reader about her childhood in one of China’s impoverished but still noble clans, growing up a concubine of the emperor, and finally of becoming empress herself. This is the story of a bird locked in a golden cage, of lavish surroundings that fail to mask captivity, of the boredom and murderous competition of a small city of women all fighting to win the gaze of a single man.

The novel’s protagonist, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight), is a fairly complex character who is not always particularly likeable. She is in survival mode; even when she rules as empress, she must contend with assassination attempts and the ever present threat of failing health. This is a novel about a woman whose entire being is tied to the approval of men, and the suddenness with which fortunes can change through factors entirely out of her control.

Sa did an excellent job of painting the picture of a world that is at once rich and beautiful, yet brutal and cruel. I found it to be an interesting and well-written novel. It’s an easy read, although not always a pleasant one. This is a great novel to read if you happen to come across it, though I wouldn’t bother going too far out of your way to get it.

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