What Made Them Great: Marie Curie by Mary Montgomery

Read: 29 September, 2017

This is a biography intended for children. First published in 1981 (my edition was published in 1990), the writing and artwork for this book are a little dated, but there isn’t anything too offensive to modern sensibilities.

I quite liked the emphasis on Marie Curie’s hard work, her perseverance. In fact, there was quite a bit there about her character – her generosity, her self-sacrifice for others, her dedication even when things were difficult, etc. For whatever reason, I haven’t been seeing that sort of explicit mention of character models in other biographies I’ve read with my kid. It was particularly good because some of the traits discussed are specifically things that my kid struggles with, so it gave us some nice ‘teachable moments.’

There’s also a section at the end about radiation. While not exactly cutting edge, the information is no more dated than what most high school students would be exposed to.

Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde by Harold Lamb

Read: 6 July, 2017

Another entry from my mother’s biography collection from the 1950s (the first being William the Conqueror).

This, along with the one about Odysseus that I’m sure I’ll be reading eventually, were my childhood favs. As I was reading this book to my son, I was surprised by how many of the stories and pictures were carved into my memory.

That said, it isn’t terribly great. The writing style is a bit clunky, and the scenes themselves aren’t nearly as evocative as they could be. I had hoped to infect my child with some of my enthusiasm for the Mongols, but this book failed to capture his interest (even when I tried to supplement it with a Crash Course History video!).

Still, it’s not a bad primer for interested kids, especially in a market that has so little world history offerings for the early/middle readers.

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The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

Read: 5 July, 2017

In the summer of 1895, thirteen year old Robert Coombes murdered his mother.

I loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which used the murder of a three year old boy as a narrative structure to look at how police and detectives functioned in Victorian society (particularly where the process of investigation of upper class households by lower class detectives ruffled class sensibilities).

The Wicked Boy doesn’t have the same impact. At first, I thought it was looking at the scandal of ‘penny dreadfuls’, then it look at the criminal justice system, then it looks at the treatment of mental illness, and then it veers off entirely to go over Australia’s participation in World War I.

I enjoyed every part of The Wicked Boy, but it didn’t have the same satisfying impact without the broader point. It ended up just being about this one boy, with broader issues only mentioned as interesting asides.

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A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein

Read: 30 June, 2017

As the front cover puts it, this is “the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today.” Phew, talk about a rollercoaster!

There’s a lot in this book to offend. While Bornstein seems to have loved her time as a Scientologist, her criticisms of the Church are biting. She talks casually, even somewhat positively, of her eating disorder and her self-harm, of her smoking and binge drinking. She discusses seeing herself as a “transsexual” rather than a woman, and her disagreement with the idea that trans women belong in women-only spaces. She describes, in a fair bit of detail, her sexual conquests as a man, and her submission in an S&M relationship. There’s something in this book to offend nearly anyone.

But Bornstein’s writing style is so warm, so friendly… it’s hard to stay mad. Even when she’s at her hot messiest, she just seems so vulnerable and trusting that it’s difficult not “agree to disagree”.

Hers is a valuable and thoughtful voice, and I’m glad to have stumbled upon this book.

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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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